By Mark Schilling
Japan coordinator Kimiko Ishii and I met Akio Jissoji and his manager at the Imagica studio in Gotanda, Tokyo on April 6. He'd had a spell of illness and looked peaked, but was ready to talk -- especially about one of his favorite authors, Edogawa Rampo. Jissoji has already made three films based this writer of mysteries dipped in the erotic, the decadent and the macabre -- and would like to make one more.
Q: What attracted you to the work of Edogawa Rampo?
A: I like him as a writer. I especially like his world -- he wrote about a Tokyo and a Japan that I was aware of as a boy, but no longer exist. There were more people then who had the leisure to pursue an art or interest -- I mean,. there were still plenty of poor people -- but there were also others whose father was a diplomat or whatever and so had the means to play, while thinking their own thoughts, making their own art.
I like things that don't have a purpose. I don't like films whose purpose is to move people or give them strength. All of my own films are just the opposite -- they don't have any purpose. (laughs)
Q: You can find examples of those types in "Watcher In the Attic."
A: Yes, they're all from the upper classes.
Q: But Kyusaku Shimada's Akechi stands out from the rest. Shimada has appeared in several of your films. Did you think of him first when you were casting the role?
A: Well, he starred in "Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis" (Teito Monogatari) as the villain. I liked him (in that role). He seemed like the type who could walk in the shadows of society, so I cast him as Akechi. I thought he did a good job.
Q: Hiroshi Mikami is another stand-out as the hero -- but in quite a different way.
A: I thought he was the type who could be a homosexual. There's something ambiguous about him. When he peeps at women, it's a kind of amusement, a kind of game. It's not just a sexual obsession.
Q: Also when he decides to kill the dentist, it's a kind of experiment. He doesn't really hate him.
Q: He doesn't hate him at all. It's like play for him.
A: On the other hand the hero of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" kills out of a resentment against God. That sort of resentment doesn't motivate the hero of "Watcher."
Q: No, God has nothing to do with it. Edogawa Rampo took his name from Edgar Allen Poe, but his writings were quite different from Poe's. He doesn't acknowledge the existence of God. Instead he's more interested in the criminal nature of man -- not crime as defined by religion but by the society around the individual.
Q: There was a film by Noboru Tanaka based on the same story -- but totally different from yours. Were you thinking of that film at all when you made yours?
A: No, not at all. I'm not one to refer to other films. That goes for all films, not just ones based on Edogawa Rampo's work. I don't see very many. I have ones I like -- but none very recent. Instead of going to movie theaters, I prefer to go to art museums.
Q: Was there any connection between "Watcher" and "Murder on D Street"?
A: Yes, there was -- in fact, I still want to make a film based on Edogawa Rampo. "Murder" is based on two stories by Rampo His stories are so short that if you don't link two together you can't make a feature-length film. When Noboru Tanaka made "Watcher" he added a story of Rampo's called "The Human Chair." There have been a lot like that.
Q: Your two Rampo films are several years apart, but stylistically they're very similar. Of course, the same director made both. (laughs)
A: That was because I didn't have any money. I had to compensate (for the lack of money) -- I've often had to do that on my films. "Ubume" (Ubume no Natsu) was the same -- I didn't much money. Or for the "The Hell of Mirrors" (Kagami Jigoku) in "Rampo Noir," for that matter. But I believe it's better not to have money -- you can make better films that way.
Q: When you were asked to film a segment for "Rampo Noir" did you have any thing to say about the other directors involved?
A: No, nothing-- I just filmed (my segment). I was the one who first wrote the scenario for that film, though. Originally I was going make one film, but when we took it around to film companies, we couldn't get any of them to make it. Then a producer came along with the idea of making four short films, not one. But I didn't know the other directors -- I had never met them. I had never even seen their films.
Q: Was Tadanobu Asano easy to work with?
A: Yes, he was -- he's an accomplished actor. But he's not the kind who develops his role through discussions with the director -- he does that on his own. Shimada was more the other way.
Q: Are there any Rampo stories that you'd like to film?
Yes, there is. I'd like to film one of his longer works -- "The Bronze Golem" (Seido no Majin). I've written the script and found a producer but for some reason I can't get it made. (laughs) It's an interesting story so I can't understand why. But I just can't get the money together.
I'd like to shoot it in the Czech Republic. They have a certain kind of doll there that appears in the story.
Q: Maybe we can get the word out when you go to Udine. (laughs)
A: Yes, that would be good. (laughs).
(Producer Masanobu Suzuki): He's been to Italy several times to make commercials.
Q: Are you a fan of Italian films?
A: I've seen a few -- Fellini and Antonioni and Pasolini, but I was raised on French films. When I was young I saw all the French films I could from the 1930s through the 1950s. They were quite different from Rampo, though. (laughs)
Q: You've made all sort of films in your career -- ATG (Art Theater Guild), "Ultraman."
A: I've heard that there are quite a few "Ultraman" fans in Italy. One came all the way from Milano to see me. (laughs)
Q: I'm sure there are a lot more in Italy. (laughs) But is there a similar thread running through all those films for you?
A: Yes, there is. They're all made about the same way really. That goes for the films and the TV programs.
Have you heard of a writer named Kyoka Izumi? He lived about the same time as Rampo and his stories are somewhat similar, but more supernatural. I'd like to make something based on his work as well.
Rampo didn't write so much about ghosts and that sort of supernatural phenomena. He was more interested in the strangeness of human beings. The fear that could strike in the real world. How reality could suddenly look unreal --how a human being could suddenly look like a monster. So there is that sort of link between him and Kyoka. Also, they were both interested in old things.
Kyoka's stories have been made into plays -- you couldn't do that with Rampo's. Kyoka is broader that way.
Rampo's work reflects a certain time, when Japan was militarizing. Japan had won the war (with Russia) and was feeling its own strength. Rampo also reflects a new type of civilization. Japanese culture had been imported from China -- Chinese classics, Chinese writing and so on. In Rampo's day that traditional culture collapsed. That's reflected in his work -- traditional culture giving way to a mixture of Japanese and Western culture..
You can see that mixing in his pen name, in the content of his work. The various people who appear (in his stories) are products of the collapse of the old culture and the birth of the new. He was a child of that era himself -- that why he could write about it the way he did.
Young people today think of that era as being totally dark -- but that's wrong. The Middle Ages also have a dark image, but people then still felt happiness as well as sadness. Japan may have been a militarized country (in Rampo's day) -- but that time wasn't dark all the way through -- it gave birth to new things as well.
The misconception comes from the educational system the GHQ brought to Japan (in the post war period). It painted prewar Japan in dark shades only. That was wrong.
Q: But Rampo remains popular even today.
A: Yes he is popular -- but then his stories contain a lot of eroticism.
Q: For some reason, though, his work hasn't been translated -- there's only one collection of stories in English that I'm aware of.
A: I've thought about that -- about why Rampo isn't translated more. Let me ask you -- do you have a writer like him (in the West)?
Q: Well -- none I can think of.
A: There are none. Some resemble him in part -- but that's all. Yes, I'd like to see (more of his work) translated. It might be interesting. One problem is that his mysteries are a bit cold. They are very logical -- you solve them as you would a puzzle. But it's hard for me to express myself logically that way -- I haven't been educated to do it. I tend to be more ambiguous. Even so I'd like to try to make a long Rampo film -- "The Bronze Golem." I've already written the script.
Q: We'll do our best to promote it at Udine. (laughs)