Ichikawa Jun interview for the 2004 Udine Far East Film Festival catalog

Q: What is your new film, "Tony Takitani," about?

A: Some people mistake the main character for Tony Tani -- a comedian who was
popular several decades ago. The film has nothing to do with him -- it based on a story by
Haruki Murakami called "Tony Takitani." Before the war there were Japanese jazzmen
working in Shanghai. One of those jazzmen -- the father of the hero -- returns to Japan
after the war. He and his wife have a son and he names him "Tony." He was a jazzman
and liked American things,  so he gives his son an American-sounding name -- but there
are no Japanese with that name, are there?

That makes life hard for the boy. The opening narration explains all that. It's a seishun
eiga (youth movie) about a boy with this unusual name. He becomes isolated -- a kind of
hikkikomori (recluse). He has a lonely youth, all because of that name. There's a sort of
love story -- but a lot of people die too. (laughs) He becomes more and more alone.

The film is based on a work of literature, so it's more complex, more philosophical than
the usual seishun eiga. The set is like something in a stage play. In fact, we built a stage
outside and just changed the decorations for the different scenes, as in a play. It's like
"Dogville," the new film by the director of "Dancer In the Dark," Lars Von Trier.

The cuts are quite long. Instead of cutting from one room to another, the camera passes by
the walls connecting the rooms. In other  words, the camera keeps moving back and forth
between the rooms, over and over.

Q: What are your feelings about "Busu" now, nearly two decades after you made it?

A: Well, it was my first film. At the time I was making TV commercials and having one
hit after another. A TV producer approached me about making a film that would be like
one of my commercials. When I shot it, though, it turned out to be pretty depressing.
(laughs). The producer wanted something light and entertaining, but I took the whole
thing seriously.  

I was raised in Kagurazaka (Tokyo), where "Busu" was shot -- it was a geisha section
back then. So going back there to make the film was nostalgic for me. I was about 37. I'd
been making these 15- and 30-second commercials, so I wondered if I could really shoot
a two-hour movie. I was worried that I was getting in over my head. (laughs)

But "Busu" ended up being voted one of the ten best Japanese films of the year by the
Kinema Junpo magazine (critics poll), so that gave me confidence.

Q: Did you have any points of reference for the film? Any specific directors or films that
you were thinking of?

A: Well, I was a movie buff. One of my favorites was Truffaut's "Les Quatre Cents
Coups" (The Four Hundred Blows). I  liked Kenji Mizoguchi's "Gion Shimai" (Sisters of
the Gion) and his other films about geisha. I was also a big fan of Naruse. I saw a lot of
old Japanese movies growing up -- they had a big impact on me.

I didn't know if I would be able to make a second film so I wanted to put everything I
could into the first one. Fortunately, (Busu) was a success, so I've been able to make
films at a fairly constant rate ever since.

Q: You really thought it might be a one-time experience?

A: Yes, I was afraid I'd never get another chance. I realized how difficult filmmaking is --
how hard it is to raise money and so on -- so I wanted to pack in as much as I could. The
essence of all those old Japanese movies that I loved so much.

A lot of people have told me they like that film, that it affected them strongly. Debut
films often have that sort of power. They tend to be good.    

Q: It's a film about teenagers, but the ending isn't typical for a film of that type,
especially one from Hollywood.

A: I was young in the 1960s, when there were student protests against the Vietnam War
and so on. Young people were trying to start a revolution, blow things up. So a violent
ending appealed to me visually. (laughs) I thinking of my own generation when I was
making the film -- a happy ending didn't seem right to me. I wasn't a very happy teenager
myself. (laughs) The heroine expressed some of what I was feeling at the time.

Q: But I felt sorry for her -- you were rather cruel towards her in the end. (laughs)

A: I would have been embarrassed to end with a big triumph -- to make her happy.
(laugh) That part reflects my own youth -- I would have been embarrassed to have all
those people applauding me. (laughs)  

Q: "Dying In a Hospital" has a more universal feeling to it, as though you're not looking
back on your own life so much as making a statement about life in general.

A: It was based on a bestseller by a doctor. Also at that time there had been several films
set in hospitals -- it was something of a hot topic. So I was sent the book -- it was about
people dying of cancer in a hospital. It was depressing and painful reading. (laughs) But
my wife told me she thought it would make an interesting film.

Death is a great equalizer -- it's something that comes to everyone. I'm going to die,
you're going to die, everyone is going to die. When it comes to death, everyone is the
same. So I thought the movie about death shouldn't have one hero -- everyone should be
the hero. 

That's why I put the camera back and never moved in for close-ups. I also filmed a lot of
scenic shots outdoors. That was the movie, basically -- the hospital shots and the scenic
shots. Actually, all the shots, even the ones in the hospital, have a scenic quality -- they're
trying to show the whole picture, not individuals.

Q: The outdoor shots provide a dramatic contrast with the main action.

A: They're of healthy people, leading active lives, but all of them will die someday. I
wanted to show how precious a healthy life is -- it won't last forever.

Q: There's seems to be a Buddhist message in there somewhere, though that may not be
what you intended. (laughs)

A: Well, it was a difficult book to film -- but I'm not religious really. (laughs) The
message, I suppose, is that when it comes to death we're all the same, rich or poor. That
may give the impression the film is looking at everyone with the eyes of God. (laughs) I'll
be interested to see how a foreign audience reacts to it.

Q: You made several films after "Dying At a Hospital" that had a lot of people comparing
you to Ozu, such as "Tokyo Siblings" (Tokyo Kyodai, 1995) and "Tokyo Lullaby"
(Tokyo Yakyoku, 1997). Then you made "Tadon and Chikuwa" (Tadon to Chikuwa,
1998), which was a complete change of pace.

A: I got the idea for that one around the time of the sarin subway poisonings (by the Aum
Shinrikyo cult) and the Kobe earthquake. There seemed to be something abnormal about
Japanese society then -- I wanted to put that feeling into a film. I'd been making all these
pretty, gentle-spirited films and I wanted a change. (laughs) I had the feeling I was
imitating myself.

After that one, I went on to make "Osaka Story" (Osaka Monogatari, 1999) and "Tokyo
Marigold" (2001) -- films that were different from the ones I had been making before and
a bit different from each other. Then I made "Ryoma's Wife, Her Husband and Her Lover
(Ryoma no Tsuma, to Sono Otto to Aijin, 2002), but that one was a failure. (laughs) The
scriptwriter, Koki Mitani, and I got along well enough, but the film was something of a
mess. (laughs) He probably should have directed it himself.  Our sensibilities didn't mesh
very well.

Q: But Kyoka Suzuki won several prizes for her performance (as Ryoma's wife). You
have a talent for bringing out the best in actresses, even idols like Yasuko Tomita (Busu)
and Rena Tanaka (Tokyo Marigold). They showed a side that hadn't been apparent in
their other work.

A:  (Actors) read the script and come up with a certain interpretation, but it's not really
theirs -- they've gotten it from somewhere else. I tell them to forget whatever they've
picked up. (laughs)

Their first take is usually off somehow. They think they're giving a great performance --
but I don't like what they think is great. Maybe on another film they've been praised for
it, but I don't like it. They're trying hard, but it's only when they stop trying that I get the
expression I want. Sometimes I have to keep telling them to stop, until I get an expression
that's natural. That's what my shoots are like -- telling people to "stop it, stop it." (laughs)

With young actresses especially, when they think they great, they're usually wrong.
(laughs) On "Busu" Yasuko Tomita became neurotic -- I was too hard on her. (laughs)
"Busu" means ugly but her character wasn't ugly physically -- her heart was ugly. That's
what I wanted her to show.

Q: The character Rena Tanaka plays in "Tokyo Marigold" is also lonely, but she's more
aggressive in her pursuit of love.

A: I had the feeling that Tanaka herself had had a lot of experience with love. I wanted
her to unlock those memories. More than try to act a certain role, I wanted her to open up
that part of herself.

Q: So "Tokyo Marigold" wasn't like "Busu," where you were drawing on your own

A: When I made (Busu) I was still in my thirties -- I could still remember my youth. But
by the time I made "Tokyo Marigold" I was in my late forties -- I was a bit more of an
adult. (laughs).

Most people like festivals, but now I'm more interested in what happens after the festival
is over, to the ones who are left behind, like the characters in "Ryoma."

Q: Unfortunately, we can only screen four of your films: "Busu," "Dying In a Hospital,"
"Tadon and Chikuwa" and "Tokyo Marigold."

A: Well, that's a good variety.

Q: Are there any others that you would like us to screen?

A: I like "Tokyo Siblings" (Tokyo Kyodai), but it's a quiet film. "Tadon and Chikuwa" is
probably better -- people are going to be surprised when they see that one. (laughs)      

Q: When I saw "Tokyo Siblings," I first thought the brother and sisters were living in a
time warp -- they're like characters from an Ozu film, but I realized that they weren't as
out of place as they seemed. The Japanese haven't changed that much basically -- there
are continuities from generation to generation.

A: Maybe, but there's something strange about the Japanese family now. That's really
gone off the rails. (laughs) So in my films I want to make sure people don't forget the old
ways -- otherwise they'll disappear forever.

Q: Japanese society seems to have become conservative lately, at least politically.

A: There are no social protest movements like in the old days. It's a bit sad. I don't really
understand what young people are thinking now. My youth was totally different than what
I'm seeing today. Young people are withdrawing into themselves.

Q: The hikkikomori (recluse) phenomenon.

A: The heroine in "Busu" is something of a hikkikomori, though. The process of how she
breaks out of her shell is the theme of the film.

Q: Changing the subject a bit -- you came into the film industry through the TV
commercial field, but it seems today that more younger directors enter the industry from
TV dramas. The director of the "Bayside Shakedown" films is one example, the director
of "Kisarazu Cat's Eye" is another. In fact, the films themselves were developed from TV

A: When I came in there were several writers making movies. Ryu Murakami was one of
the better-known -- but they didn't last long.

Beat Takeshi, on the other had, made the jump successfully -- he was a TV comedian.
Peoples from all sorts of fields are becoming directors now.

Q: But there does seem to be a difference between the directors who got their start
making TV dramas and ones, like yourself, who were working in other fields. The TV
drama directors tend to make films that look like TV dramas.

A: With TV commercials, I'm trying to make what are really little movies, to pack as
much as I can into 15 or 30 seconds. I enjoy doing that because I'm a movie buff.

But people who have been raised watching TV end up making movies that are like TV
commercials and dramas. It's the reverse from me.

After making 15-second TV commercials, I'm so happy to shoot something longer. With
movies there are no time limits. Making films is how I relieve my stress. (laughs)

Q: But films have to succeed at the box office, don't they?

A: That's scary. Also, with TV commercials, my name never appears -- there's no
"directed by Jun Ichikawa."  With films, though, my name does appear -- that's scary too.
(laughs) Well, I've never had any big hits. (laughs) The videos of my films tend to be
long sellers, though. What I need is someone like (Mayayuki) Mori, who runs Office
Kitano, someone who can push my films commercially. Maybe you can help me, Mark.

Q: I'd be honored. (laughs) Thank you very much for you time.