By Mark Schilling and Mamiko Kawamoto
Seijun Suzuki was just about to leave for Cannes when we interviewed him at the offices
of Nippon Herald, who is co-distributing "Princess Raccoon." He was using an oxygen
tank -- he has been ailing of late -- but was still his usual self, quick with a quip and
honest to a fault.
Mark Schillling: Were you influenced at all by the "Princess Raccoon" films of Keigo
Kimura -- or did you try to do something different?
Seijun Suzuki: Those "Princess Raccoon" films of Kimura's exist, of course. It may be
strange to call mine a remake, but if those films didn't exist, mine would have never
gotten off the ground.
I said I wanted to shoot ("Princess Raccoon") about twenty years ago, but you should
think about a movie from the moment you decide to do it, not before. It's stupid to be
mulling it over for twenty years. When you realize that it's not going to happen, you
should forget about it. If you get lucky and someone says "let's do it" -- that's when you
should start thinking.
Mamiko Kawamoto: Why couldn't you make the film when you first wanted to?
SS: There wasn't enough money. After I made "Kageroza" (Mirage Theater, 1981), I
talked with the producer about what we should do next. We discussed making "Princess
Raccoon." We even had a screenplay and were ready to go, but we weren't able to find
enough money to make it the way we wanted. Computer graphics were ridiculously
expensive back then -- so we gave up.
MS: I heard you were only able to get the film underway after Zhang Ziyi came on board.
SS: That's right. That's the way Japanese films are now -- if you don't have a star,
nothing happens. She liked my films so she agreed to appear. I'm thankful for that.
MS: She speaks Chinese in the film and her lover (Joe Odagiri) speaks Japanese. The
film seem to be saying that love is something you express with, not words, but feelings.
SS: That's right -- it's a love expressed through emotion only. They know they love each
other through their feelings for each other, not words. They know from the facial
expressions and so on.. The fact that they don't understand each other's language adds a
nice flavor to the film -- the flavor of miso. (laughs)
MK: The songs are an important element. How was Zhang Ziyi's singing of the Japanese
SS: That was a problem. (laughs) At first I wondered what I could do. She was singing by
rote memorization, without understanding the meaning. There was no way she could
really get into the feeling of the lyrics. But with practice she ended up being pretty good. I
was relieved. (laughs)
MS: You use various genres of music, even rap. It's like a history of Japanese pop music.
SS: It's a hodgepodge isn't it? (laughs) I suppose you could call it a history of Japanese
pop music. That's the contribution of the composer.
MK: The story is not just a romance with happy ending. The princess has to fight for a
forbidden love -- that is, love with a human being. How did you come up with that
SS: It the Snow Princess (Yuki Hime) story. The basic idea is that of love blooming after
the lovers die. Both the man and the woman are dead. Then they come back to life and
kiss for the first time. That's a bit different from the love stories we've had till now,
wouldn't you say?
MS: You told me before that your job as a director is to make everyone feel relaxed and
positive. Was that true on the shoot of "Princess Raccoon" as well?
SS: The director's job is to create a good atmosphere. I think it's his role to liven up the
atmosphere, so that the shooting goes smoothly.
MS: Given that it's a musical, did you have a lot of rehearsals?
SS: No, none. Miss Zhang was on a tight schedule. She had to practice before she came to
the set. After she arrived on the set we got right down to business -- one take.
MK: You didn't shoot any retakes?
SS: Hardly any. If you fail, you fail -- that's all right. It's enough if you capture the
actor's charisma on the screen. It's doesn't matter that much if their singing is good or
bad. As long as you capture what they have to offer, they can be as bad as they want.
Fortunately, those two turned out to passable singers.
MS: You had at least one great singer -- Hibari Misora. How did you happen to use her --
or rather her digitalized image?
SS: I wanted to cast the most beautiful woman in Japan for that role, but she couldn't fit
us into her schedule. I was getting desperate when my producer had the idea of using
Misora. She's the number one Japanese singer, so I didn't have any objections. Actually, I
didn't think that her office would say OK, but the producer won out. He was the one with
MK: Didn't you have to spend a lot of extra money on the CG scenes with Misora?
SS: We could only use six CG cuts in "Pistol Opera" (2001). When I asked why, I was
told that it was a matter of money. But the producer I have now told me I could use as
many (CG cuts) as I wanted (in "Princess Raccoon"). CG has gotten a lot cheaper. That's
why we were able to make the film.
MK: The scene of the two lovers in the irises really impressed me. Was that done with
CG? Also, how did you communicate the sort of image you wanted to the actors?
SS: It was all CG -- that's the only way we could have done it. That was a tough scene to
do. It's raining and in the background is a Japanese-style painting -- that's what I told the
actors. But they had no idea how the background was going to be used. Even I didn't
know, when I was actually shooting, exactly how it would look on the screen. That's what
bothers me about CG.
MS: You tried various things in this film for the first time -- how happy were you with
SS: I thought it turned out pretty well. It's not really all that different (from my previous
films). I don't think I shot it any differently -- I just shot it the way I always do.
MS: What sort of musicals or film music do you like yourself?
SS: I like films where one of my favorite actresses is singing, someone like Mieko
MK: I like the sort of charming, sexy, voluptuous women who appear in your films, but
Zhang Ziyi's Raccoon Princess is more of a cute, cheerful, energetic type.
SS: No matter how much you tell a director to bring out an actress's sex appeal, if she
doesn't have it to begin with, it's impossible. Back in the old days, they'd say that Isuzu
Yamada just had to stand (in front of a camera) to look sexy. It had nothing to do with the
way she walked. Young actresses now don't have that sort of sex appeal, I'm sorry to say.
MS: I'm sure that when fans heard you were making a period drama, a lot of them were
expecting sword-fighting scenes -- but you didn't give them any. (laughs)
SS: I had to disappoint them. (laughs) Sword-fighting (in Japanese films) is like buyo
(Japanese dance) -- it's a kind of dance. Dancing and sword-fighting are the same.
MK: You're going to be 82 soon -- we'd like to congratulate you on your birthday.
SS: What's to congratulate? Look at me -- I'm a mess. (laughs)