We finally got the chance to interview my own personal hero, the unstoppable Shinya Tsukamoto. It couldn't have been done without the fantastic help and support by UK distributor Third Window Films (ThirdWindowFilms.com). They helped us get this interview. With their releases of the two first "Tetsuo" films, and the upcoming releases of "Tokyo Fist" (Nov 25th) and "Bullet Ballet" (Dec 30th), they're helping Tsukamoto's classics get a great touch-up both for DVD and blu-ray. There would have been hundreds of questions if I could have kept going, but I respect the man too much to steal that much of his time. Hope you enjoy this interview, and keep in mind that there are bound to be a few mistakes in translation as it was done by Shinya Tsukamoto in Japanese, but I'd say this is a pretty good interview still!
First of all, thank you so much for doing this interview, it's an honor. It couldn't be done without the people at Third Window Films. They have recently put out "Kotoko" and the first two "Tetsuo" movies. How has it been going back and restoring your old films?
I am so glad to have had this great opportunity to restore "Tokyo Fist", "Bullet Ballet" and "Tetsuo I & II" in digital format thanks to Third Window Films. Kaijyu Theatre and I had always wanted to digitize my old pictures. So Kaijyu Theatre partially financed and realised this project with Third Window Film’s support. It enabled my old movies to get a new life and exist longer. I appreciate it a lot.
Why do you think "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" has became such a cult hit, and how does it feel when a movie that you made so early in your career reaches a new audience still in 2013?
During the shooting of "Tetsuo: The Iron Man", I had never been imagining this young audience. So it was a big surprise for me, too. I can’t understand the reason even now. Nonetheless, in this film, I passionately put all my thoughts and feelings of that time. That’s why it continues attracting an audience, I suppose. And when we can make a film as freely as we want, it becomes very unique. I am glad also that there are always people who like these unique films.
It's been nearly 25 years since "Tetsuo". What was it that originally made you want to make movies?
When I was a teenager, I made seven 8mm films. After some theatrical experiences, I wanted to shoot a film at 22, just before my graduation. But I couldn’t and started to work for a television advertising company. I chose this job because I always intended to make films again. I continued theatrical activities but had no chance to shoot since the last 8mm that I made at 19. So it was seven years later that I finally directed a new 8mm film: "The Phantom of Regular Size" at 26 years old and "The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy" at 27.
"Tetsuo" was shot also when I was 27 years old. Since it was my first 16mm film to screen in cinemas, I was very excited. In my teenage years, I preferred orthodox genre concentrated on stories. Nevertheless, to my surprise, "Tetsuo" was completely different from my latter ones. TV advertising always required me to appeal to all kinds of people. It gave me a desire to make a film which can’t please a lot of people but deeply anchor a few people. So "Tetsuo" didn’t need to be liked by everyone. It is very unique for me, too. At that time, the horror genre was popular and I loved it. Therefore, I mixed my chaotic feelings and sci-fi horror to get a few fans to reach "Tetsuo". I put not only sci-fi elements but also cyberpunk ones. Cyberpunk was still about to be born at the time so I formed just what I personally thought. It means that "Tetsuo" is one of the earliest Japanese cyberpunk movies. I perceived notably fusion of human being and technologies, not like a robot made of several different pieces but a hybrid organically melted. I also conceived the images that are futuristic and familiar at the same time. I call them "familiar future". I turned these feelings in "Tetsuo".
Many filmmakers seem to lose their raw passion after a few movies, but you seem to have a constant flow of inspiration and creativity. What inspires you in your work?
First impulse – how can I be excited and enjoy making - is very important for me when I shoot films. Sometimes, I want to do the same things and to make them better. But I’m always more eager to find "fun toys" – something interesting that I am not confident about but want to make at all costs – than something that I have already done and am confident about. It may be too much to say this but when I find a toy to enjoy at the risk of my life and make it into a film, this one becomes the strongest film. That’s also one of the reasons why I often work with novices or volunteers who are on the phase of first impluse. I love to find something together with these young people who still know nothing.
How do you feel about working with smaller budgets? What are some good and bad things about that?
It is a great advantage to be free and have the authority to decide everything. It’s always the investor who has the final say. Taking on producer and director enables me to say ok about what I want to do. There isn’t much money but it doesn’t mean that we can't do anything. Even if we lack money, we can do many things by using our brains and ideas. My films need not only “acting” but also making many things. But taking enough time with these volunteer staffs, I can repeat trial and error until I’m satisfied. I pay the volunteers who have already worked and grown up with me. I consider them as professionals. There is no one who continues the voluntary work a second time. So, on the one hand, when I got money, I can give payment to the former volunteers. It makes me happy to work with them again. On the other hand, when I have no money, I have to ask new volunteers. But it still gives me occasions to grow other future staffs or workers in cinema.
Your production company is called "Kaijyu Theatre", and you have said that "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is your kaiju movie. Can we ever expect an actual kaiju movie from you, more in the style of the classics?
I’ll surely shoot a Kaiju-eiga in the future. I have already some ideas for that. But “Kaijyu Theatre”, the name of our company, is spelt not like “Monster” but “Sea Monster”. So please be careful.
In your well-received Kotoko, you worked with singer Cocco. The movie was a very personal movie for her. How did the movie come about, and how was it to work with Cocco?
For a long time, I had been strongly interested in the world of the singer-songwriter Cocco. The world of her lyrics, the world of her songs and also in her singing style. I always wanted to get closer to her worlds and make a film close to them one day with herself in the main role. This desire got bigger notably in 2004 when I met her to ask for the ending song of "Vital". While I became more eager, I finally got the opportunity of "Kotoko" seven years later.
At first, I had no intention to play in the film because I thought it was presumptuous to appear with Cocco in the same screen. But it was a very small crew and I felt that she also preferred to shoot just with a few of her familiar people. By having the director, myself, playing with her, I tried to make her feel more comfortable. Although it was always presumptuous, I was thinking of nothing but doing my best. At the same time, it is an honor to me.
You have acted in a number of your own movies, and also in other people's movies. How do you decide which roles to take, and does it feel rewarding artistically in the same way as directing does?
I accept offers from directors that pleases me. When I like and trust a director, I’m glad to get into his world and become one of the habitants of his world. So the type of role doesn’t matter to me.
Working as an actor or a director, there’s no difference to me. Both of them are parts of a film. Acting, photographing, writing a scenario, shooting, editing, directing... all the elements are equally important and what I equally like. They all are the fun, thrilling and important elements to form a film.
The film industry has in the last couple of years moved from film to digital. What is your opinion on this?
I love film. When I was making 8mm films a long time ago, I was very fascinated by the transition from 8mm to 16mm and then to 35mm. I started to use the beautiful tone of 35mm at the television advertising company. I tasted the particular tone of 16mm for the first time when I shot "Tetsuo". 8mm is very small but on the screen it projects a very unique tone as if we make the light penetrate coloured candies, I really love it. Personally, I am strongly passionate about film. As many other directors, I was repulsed by the transition to digital which rendered images very “video”. Digital got improved and can capture more and more beautiful images. On the one hand, I still think film is different and I always love it. On the other hand, I think digital will not only get a more beautiful quality but also adapt itself to express the colours that we want. So it’s sad to say that but we are at the definitive transition from film to digital. In spite of my big love for film, the precious utility of digital helps a lot small studios like us.
Looking at technology and the current state of cinema, what do you think the future holds for movies and filmmaking? What is the next step?
Like I said for the last question, digital technologies enable us to do many things. We can make a film not only with a rich expressivity but also with a small budget. For young people, it’s much easier to start filmmaking than before. It means that more talented directors can have opportunities to shoot. I think it’s a good thing.
But after all, I prefer tricky and imperceptible uses of CG to excessive and obvious uses. I like analogical ideas or expressions which make possible what is impossible. I think the filmmakers’ sense will always be the most important thing even if technologies have made tremendous progress.
What is your next project?
I’m not sure whether I can announce it now or not but I will finally shoot a film that I have wanted to elaborate with all cares for a long time. I intended to make it when I got a higher position and bigger budget. But today in Japan, there are less sponsors for this type of film. On top of that, I have a sense of crisis: if I don’t make this film now, Japan or the world might have something terrible happen. I will form a film from this sense. Its details will have to wait a little bit more.
Our last question is one that I am sure every fan has been asking you: will we see another installment in the "Tetsuo" series?
Every time someone asked me about "Tetsuo III", called "Tetsuo America", like “When?”, I always answered “as soon as possible” because I really wanted to shoot it soon. But in the end, it took too much time to realize "Tetsuo II" and I won’t talk too early about future projects any more. Still, I would like to make an animated film full of my personal feelings like "Tetsuo I" with a small crew. "Tetsuo" is always my “fun toy”. I plan to experience other first impulses or a new storytelling method for me like animation, for example.
Again, a million thanks to Shinya Tsukamoto for agreeing to this interview with us, and just as many thanks to the fine people at Third Window Films for their amazing help.