Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Japan

Tetsuya Nakashima Interview: “There was a rumour that I had actually gone bonkers”

We chat to the director of Kamikaze Girls and Confessions about his latest movie The World Of Kanako

On what felt like the wettest Monday afternoon on record, ever, I sat down with one of the most arresting directors currently working in Japan today, Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko, Confessions). We discussed The World Of Kanako (his latest film, currently screening at the London Film Festival), it’s rapid-fire delivery and the importance of leading man, Koji Yakusho.

I sip coffee and listen attentively to his long responses, while my translator, Sayaka, chuckles during many of them. I found Mr Nakashima genial and very forthcoming. “Ask me anything.” are his welcoming first words to me.

World Of Kanako has shades of Terry Gilliam, Taxi Driver (especially the last act) and Kinji Fukasaku about it, what films and film makers did you draw upon for the film?
I wasn’t really thinking about anything to do with Terry Gilliam or Taxi Driver when I was making the movie.

The scene towards the end of the movie, where Fujishima also shoots someone’s fingers off, reminded me of the final act of Taxi Driver.
Maybe unconsciously I have been then, because I do like Terry Gilliam and Martin Scorsese as well, so maybe yes, unconsciously.

(Nakashima pauses)

As you know the film swaps regularly between the present day and three years ago. When I’m concentrating on the three years ago [time period] it’s kind of like the Japan of now; with the younger people, how they talk, how they act and how they react and everything. When we’re talking about Fujishima (Koji Yakusho), the protagonist, he’s kind of like an old fashioned guy, still living like he did in his ‘old fashioned’ day, this is much like, for instance, Taxi Driver – like you said – but as well as that – I’m not sure if you know much about Kinji Fukasaku?

A little, I am familiar with some of Fukasaku’s earlier films.
Well those people coming from Toei*, and what they called B movies, were influences that were put into the movie (Fujishima behaves very much like a character from a classic 60 yakuza flick). And what I intended to do was to create two different movies [contemporary Japan & old-school B movie] in one; to make one violent, with lots of splatter, bloody movie in the end. That’s how I conceived my movie.

I can’t imagine any of your films in book form, they’re perfect as films, what are the difficulties of translating a novel into a film?
Well [with Kanako] it took me quite a while. The hardest thing when I was writing was to composite the scenes of three years ago and the present, when I was writing the script this took me the longest.

I can see where your question is coming from, saying you can’t imagine the film as a book, this is because I love editing. Of all the procedures that I do, what I like most is I like editing. When we start the editing, after we have finished shooting, this is the time that I can do many things by myself. What I normally do is to shoot the film ‘constructively’, then ‘deconstruct’ all the rushes and everything, and then mix and match them together to make the movie; which I really love. When we start originally with a script the end result can be quite different. I work together and get heavily involved with the editor, I’m always asking the editor what to do and [explaining] what I want to see.

WORLD_OF_KANANO_girl_looking_up

This makes sense. Many films have sequences of montage within them, however you seem to make yours entirely from montages; you bombard your viewers with images, colours and music. World Of Kanako takes this to an extreme, especially when you factor in the frequent jumps in time, what were you trying to achieve by adopting this frenetic and intense style?
The reason I chose to use montage sequences is that it was probably the best way to express the protagonist’s mood. As you know Fujishima is a bit of a mad person, he’s very violent and really fierce. He’s really restless and he’s started to use drugs. That tension and mood that Fujishima carries I can reflect that using this method. I intentionally didn’t use lots of long shots [either] because when you use close ups so many times it’s really unsettling. So when you’re watching as a viewer you can’t settle and feel relaxed, I wanted to keep that tension.

It’s very effective, it took me half an hour to get my bearings.
Because of the style of my movie some people starting thinking, there was a rumour, that this Nakashima director has actually gone bonkers, that he’s gone mad and crazy!

Like any great artist should.
Well, I’m glad you said that!

“Because of the style of my movie some people starting thinking, there was a rumour, that this Nakashima director has actually gone bonkers, that he’s gone mad and crazy!”

How important is humour to you, which is present no matter how brutal or bleak your narratives get?
Well, my guess is that Fujishima is a very very violent guy, as I’ve already said. At the same time I think he’s a really lonely guy as well, the loneliness shows that he finds it really hard to communicate with people and the only communication he’s capable of is through either violence or rape or punching, those kind of things – it’s a little bit comical to see. Communicating with people through violence is tragedy. Also it’s comedy. I have to have the two qualities.

If I’m showing the emotion of a sad character you need to have some sort of humour. If you’re just seeing someone is really really really sad, so tragic and full of despair and you can’t find any humour in that tragedy, you can’t empathise with them. Humour is part of the reality of humanity. I get great satisfaction achieving this mood in my films.

Your films always manage to convey very real emotion and drama. Memories of Matsuko still moves me to tears, and I care deeply for both protagonists in Kamikaze Girls, despite the over the top visuals and the crazy loudness of it all. How hard is it to pull off such a delicate balancing act?
It’s very hard to explain in words. (I brace myself for another long-winded answer…) My tendency is; when you want to express something, something you really want to show in the film, I try and make it a little bit ‘down’, compared to say a trifle joke, which I would make really over the top to make people laugh. If I want to express something truly I kind of sedate it, the feeling to it, that leaves the audience to feel how they want to feel. So those little emotions I want to show, or that I want to depict in my movies, the audience needs to find out what I wanted to say by themselves. I give them some leeway about this, audiences aren’t stupid they are quite clever people, they can suss out what I wanted to show without [me] showing them too much, or by being over the top.

I feel that the actors are key to my movies; my motto is ‘no compromise’ on the choosing of the actors, so the casting is a very very important thing. You said you like Kamikaze Girls and Memories Of Matsuko, it’s because the actors are spot on. I didn’t compromise and luckily I always got the cast I wanted, well, so far so good!

You have a very distinguished cast of actors for World Of Kanako, there were quite a few character actors I recognised, could you talk through your casting decisions for the film and Koji Yakusho in particular.
I started by showing him [Koji Yakusho] the script and I wasn’t expecting him to say ‘I like the role’ and that he would want to be in my movie because he’s a world class leading actor and of course in Japan he is so well known. It’s kind of a risky role to take, it’s not a likeable character and it’s not a character that’s going to make him famous, it’s probably more a demotion, so I was really not expecting him to say yes but he did. Another thing; if it wasn’t for him, in the main role, I couldn’t have cast all the actors I wanted.

WORLD_OF_KANAKO_still_father_in_snow

He was very good. He’s very versatile – he’s always great whoever he plays.
Well he’s an exceptional actor as you say, his range is broadening all the time. What he has that other actors haven’t; obviously this main role is really vicious and he [Fujishima] is hopelessly violent and everything and he’s really mad and crazy but at the same time he has a silliness and comical quality as well. There’s only one actor in Japan that has both that comical quality and fierceness in one: him.

He’s like Toshio Mifune in that respect.
(Nakashima beams and is clearly chuffed by my comparison) I’m going to tell him what you said, I think he’d that like that!

 From J-pop to classical music to punk, your films offer a selection of music that seems scattershot yet consistent at the same time. How much importance do you put on choosing soundtracks and could you discuss a few of the choices you made for World Of Kanako?
I wanted a mish-mash of everything, I wanted a mix of old pop and new pop and everything, the music choice was inconsistent. This was a reaction to Confessions (Nakashima’s most recent film to be released in the UK), where the music was quite calm and nice, the movie was sort of ‘proper’ (I chuckle at his self-depreciating choice of word) so I wanted to go completely opposite. I wasn’t really thinking about how the audience thinks or how do they perceive my movie, I just wanted to make the movie how I liked it. Yes, it’s probably a reaction to my last one, this time the choice was more mish-mash, more erratic.

Your characters always seem to go through absolute hell – do they not deserve a happy ending once in while?
Do you think that it was an unhappy ending then? Because it really doesn’t matter if the audience sees a happy ending or an unhappy one or tragedy. As a film maker I wasn’t really thinking that it [World Of Kanako’s] was a tragic ending, I was just leaving it up to the audience to decide whether it was a bad ending or good ending, I didn’t think it was a really tragic ending myself.

It’s almost as if the film is Fujishima’s back story and the ending is where his story really starts, we’re waiting to see how he feels about what has happened. (Spoilers ahead!)
I’m glad that you read it that way. Another way to see the ending is that Fujishima just digs for Kanako for the rest of his life. You might find this is the happy ending, that maybe he is happy or maybe it’s just an endless eternal hell for the rest of his life. I think the viewers will decide which way they go.

The World Of Kanako screened at the 58th London Film Festival 2014.

Thanks (again) to Sayaka Smith for her friendly translation services, and Adam Torel at Third Window who were originally to release World Of Kanako, but it has now been picked up by another UK distributor. At this point we have no further details of the UK release.

* Toei. One of Japan’s most famous film & TV production companies, known, since the 1950’s, for their pulpy and action-packed output.

About the author

Anthony GatesAnthony Gates Anthony Gates
Currently teaches film and dabbles a little with film making. He grew up on horror movies but soon fell in love with Asian cinema as well. Likes anything loud, trashy or just plain daft. Favourite genres remain horror and science fiction but loves a good comedy or though-provoking drama too... More »
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2 thoughts on “Tetsuya Nakashima Interview: “There was a rumour that I had actually gone bonkers”

  1. Dear Mr. Gates,
    I would love to arrange a screening of Confessions in Torrance, California where this is a large Japanese-American community. Do you have contact information for Tetsuya Nakashima or anyone who could approve a single screening? I run the South Bay Film Society (you can get information about my screenings on my web page at https://www.southbayfilmsociety.com/

  2. Pingback: The World of Kanako: Messy, Stress-Inducing, and Unflinching – Save me from this weeb hell

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