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One of Japan's most respected directors steps away from horror and into Japan's long tradition of family melodrama with his latest picture, Tokyo Sonata. Kiyoshi Kurosawa sits down with APA to discuss the film, his definitions of horror and melodrama, and his hopes for a brighter future.
Two of the most internationally recognized Japanese films released in 2008 dealt with today's economic realities in an unsettlingly timely manner. The first, the widely lauded and Oscar-winning Departures, concerns the upheaval and new employment of a fired cellist. The second, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, also concerns unemployment: the firing of a fairly high-ranking salaryman. But the job search here is rendered far more problematic -- in a plot twist reminiscent of Laurent Cantet's Time Out, the ex-company drone refuses to tell his family he's been laid off as he continues to head to "work" every day despite their suspicions.
Viewers and critics have responded favorably to Kurosawa's portrayal of a disintegrating family and society -- the film might be Kurosawa's most recognized film to date, rivaling Departures for best film of the year on Japanese film top-10 lists, and winning countless festival awards, from its first -- the jury prize at Cannes last year -- to its most recent wins for Best Picture and Screenplay at the Asian Film Awards which took place last week.
Tokyo Sonata marks a "departure" of sorts for Kurosawa as well, since the world of the typically sanitized family drama follows completely different conventions than the psychological horror films and yakuza films he's preoccupied himself with this last decade. Genre filmmaking is often seen as below "serious art," so it's no coincidence that Kurosawa has finally achieved domestic critical success by announcing his move away from horror, despite the fact that festivals and critics abroad have argued for his innovation and importance for years now.
Kurosawa is no stranger to the "people gap" between generations -- License to Live and Bright Future, two of his most nuanced and moving films, deal with just such subjects -- but the director, an avid consumer of film history and self-proclaimed megafan of Ozu, is conscious of the Japanese history of "family drama" productions. Strangely enough, Kurosawa found his story from the script of a foreigner: one Max Mannix, an Australian who wrote the screenplay nearly 20 years ago with Tokyo as his muse (Kurosawa and scribe Sachiko Tanaka tweaked the script additionally to fit in more plot and character alterations).
The resulting film of this hybrid of sensibilities has led to a variety of critical interpretations: some call it biting social satire, others call it psychological drama, others yet still call it political allegory, and some think it's the scariest thing Kurosawa's ever made. But while the film could reasonably fit all of these descriptions, there's still Kurosawa's distinct visual and narrative style, which is singular, distinct, and his alone. There's a lot of thought that goes into his decisions behind the camera and, thankfully, in our interview with him Kurosawa gives some of the most thoughtful answers of any director working in Japan today, even when we're feverishly attempting to pick his brain and nail down his many machinations.
Interview with Kiyoshi Kurosawa
March 10, 2009
Los Angeles, California
Interview by Bryan Hartzheim
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Interview conducted in Japanese, with English translations by Bryan Hartzheim
Asia Pacific Arts: How did you first get interested in the project, considering it was written about 20 years ago?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Well, the original script was written by an Australian named Max Mannix who had lived some years in Japan and based the script off of his experiences. The contents of the story were very straightforward and easy to understand, so I thought what was written wasn't specific to any time period in particular. The themes are timeless and common, so I thought I could similarly make a movie that wasn't bound to any time period.
APA: This was your first film with Kagawa Teruyuki since Serpent's Path. What was it like working with him after the long hiatus?
KK: It was a lot of fun. We worked on that piece about ten years ago, and since then both he and I have had many different experiences in our careers. Mr. Kagawa is a very popular actor in Japan right now capable of playing many different roles, and it was intriguing to work on this film with him in a role very different and in a situation completely different from ten years ago. But, from time to time I could still sense his narrow and sharp personality that persists from ten years ago, and I to be able to simultaneously see both his youth and the reliable actor he is today was very interesting.
APA: The film's actors have been lauded for their performances, especially Kyon Kyon. What is your approach to directing actors? Does your approach diverge according to the age of the actor?
KK: I don't approach individual actors differently according to their experience, whether they're veteran actors or fresh faces. For example, I directed Inowaki Kai, who was the little brother character and was twelve at the time, the same as I would any other adult actor, and I expected the same high level of acting from him as from everyone else. And it's to his credit that he responded with his superb performance. Man or woman, I don't direct actors any differently.
APA: You say you want to leave horror behind, but many technical and narrative elements from your horror films are present here. Is your approach to directing traditional horror films different from a "family drama" like Tokyo Sonata?
KK: Of course for horror films, I know the purpose is to scare the audience, so I'm always thinking of different ways for my horror films to be scary. This time, I didn't think there was any reason for people to feel scared watching the film. But what's not different between this film and my horror films is that I'm always trying to show how the elements limited to what we see on the screen are being influenced by forces outside of the screen. Those are the sorts of things I want to express -- the wind blowing, or a shadow intruding, or the light shining -- these are all different kinds of expressions, and I don't think these were used in Tokyo Sonata any differently from my horror films. This is possibly because I again didn't want to show just what we see, but the influence of what we don't see, and maybe the feeling that resulted, uncannily, was something a little frightening.
APA: So did you make Tokyo Sonata in a similar way to your non-horror films like License to Live or Bright Future, though you could argue that Bright Future was a monster movie?
KK: I don't totally understand the difference in the films myself, but I would probably categorize Tokyo Sonata among the films you mentioned rather than my horror films.
APA: What would you say then is the line that divides a horror film from a non-horror film?
KK: As I said, I think a horror film is designed to make the audience continually feel scared, to get scared at the thought of what might come next in the film, but to also enjoy knowing that's what you're going into it for, as opposed to the other movies I've made where you don't know what you'll feel going in. I think that's the only difference.
Watching Tokyo Sonata, you don't know what you're going to feel by the end of the film, and your reaction is completely individual. Some have told me the movie is scary, other have told me they thought certain scenes were funny, and others have told me they thought it was quite tragic. They all interpreted the film differently. But when you watch a horror movie, you're thinking from the beginning, "It's scary, it's scary, it's scary," and you're always anticipating something scarier coming next. The scary element is essential and I don't think people watch these films very differently.
APA: Tokyo Sonata deals specifically with the disintegration of a Japanese nuclear family. Did you look at and form any opinions of shomingeki films when making Tokyo Sonata? I thought you were including references to Ozu in some way through Ryuhei Sasaki constantly messing with a teacup when he was upset. Am I reading too much into this?
KK: Probably you are. I actually love the films of Ozu Yasujiro and you could probably call me an Ozu maniac. I think I've been influenced a great deal by Ozu, so I conversely try not to think of his films when I'm making my own. I didn't want anyone to think I'm imitating Ozu, so I tried my best to distance myself from his style while making Tokyo Sonata. Still, I probably couldn't help parts of the film from being naturally influenced by Ozu anyway.
But if we're talking about the legacy of Japanese family drama that I was conscious of during production, I think we can talk about the many scenes where the family eats together. I don't know how it is in America, but in Japanese family dramas there are always a number of scenes where the family eats together, and in these meals are moments of transition: a fight breaks out, or everyone will laugh, or two people will make up, or characters will discuss some conflict, or maybe no one will say anything and everyone will eat silently. There are many such family meal scenes in Tokyo Sonata and I was very conscious of all of them.
APA: There have been a number of American films made recently on domestic suburbia. Was there any influence from contemporary foreign melodramas on dysfunctional families?
KK: Yes, there were. I don't know how much you can call it an American film, but about two or three years ago I saw David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. It was right around the time I began developing Tokyo Sonata and I was so impressed by the film that Tokyo Sonata was also likely influenced by it a great deal. It's a very violent film, but it's also quite simply a family drama about a household that is in danger of breaking apart. A History of Violence likely had some strong impressions on Tokyo Sonata.
APA: The film is eerily prescient in its depiction of the economic meltdown the world is currently experiencing – your images of unemployed in the park is similar to what's going on in Tokyo today. What are your thoughts on these images?
KK: I had no intent of predicting the current economic situation. We finished making the film about a year ago, and Japan was already not in too good a shape financially, but I had no idea that the world would be experiencing the kind of situation it's experiencing today. I had intended to depict Japan as it was about a year ago, and Japan is probably much worst today. So I had no intention of commenting on the future.
My interest was less in the actual fact of unemployment and more in the idea that a person could keep this a secret and hide this from his family. This kind of strange and psychologically complex situation the father landed himself in is what I was really interested in.
APA: Most of your films are set in or around Tokyo. Is there a reason for this?
KK: The first simple reason is that I don't have the budget to shoot outside of Tokyo. I also write my scripts keeping in mind that it doesn't matter where I shoot. Since the location isn't important, I just shoot my films in the closest place possible, which for me is Tokyo. I don't put in any geographical conditions, like that it has to be in the country, or this has to be in a foreign city. So Tokyo becomes very convenient.
But that was the case for all of my films up to now. This time, my film had "Tokyo" in the title, and that made me consider how I would need to portray Tokyo as a city, as a place, in the film. So the atmosphere of the city of Tokyo comes out much stronger in Tokyo Sonata than any of my previous films.
APA: How do you think the Tokyo this time is different from the Tokyo portrayed in your other films?
KK: I've typically shot my films in unseen areas of Tokyo. Like the inside of a crumbling factory, or by the sea (though there are portions of Tokyo Sonata that are shot at the sea). Even if my films were located in Tokyo, it was a Tokyo that most people don't really get to see. This time, I wanted to make sure that there was no mistaking this for any city but Tokyo, so I shot in places that I had typically avoided because I didn't want to make it apparent that Tokyo was the location for the film.
APA: The film is about a dysfunctional family but ends on a note of hope. Is this something you yourself feel for the family and society, and if so, where does this hope lie?
KK: It's true that I wanted to end on a gentle note of hope, and it's probably because I personally felt that way. I think the hope portrayed in the film lies with young people. I don't have children of my own, but since a few years ago I've been teaching film to university students. By speaking and working alongside them, I know that they're young and they want to make youthful films, but their thoughts are not naïve. I really understood that they're mindful of an ideal future which they'd like to realize someday as well. That's my hope, but that doesn't necessarily coincide with what I've always hoped for. What I think is ideal is probably not the same for the younger generation. What I hope for is different from what they hope for, but rather than saying they have no hope or dreams, I realized they have their own hopes and dreams. And I think that feeling is connected to the final ray of hope we see in Tokyo Sonata.
APA: In the final scenes, we see the elder son come home and say he wants to do "something for Japan," which might be interpreted as a patriotic sentiment.
KK: No, actually my intent was the exact opposite. I don't think there's any need for a patriotism that means you must do something for Japan. But you should do something for yourself, and something you believe in. This can be something for film, or for your family, or for your lover, but it should be for something or someone you believe in. To do something solely for your country I think is absolutely unnecessary. But if you're working for some purpose or some person, or for yourself, and if you believe in this, I think this would transcend the concept of a nation and have an influence on the world as a whole.
APA: Tokyo Sonata is a family drama but contains many elements from different genres. What other genres would you feel you'd like to try out?
KK: To tell you the truth, I haven't really decided yet. But I'd really like to work in a genre that I haven't before, and attempt certain themes and stories that I haven't before. So I'd like to do something totally different from a horror film or family drama.
APA: Do you have any projects in the mill?
KK: I have a number of stories I'm working on right now, though I'm not sure if they'll be realized. I can't say too much at this point, but one of the stories I'm working on is set in the past, about a hundred years ago. It's a historical piece that takes place a little before the world we live in today.
APA: Is it a period piece?
KK: Well, it's only a hundred years, so it's just after the feudal period. It's a little more contemporary than a period piece.
Date Posted: 4/3/2009