Shinya Tsukamoto interview

By Mark Schilling

Although his on-screen characters range from the demonic to the neurotic, in person
Shinya Tsukamoto is the picture of gentle-spirited, well-mannered sanity. One can
imagine him as the ideal maitre d' for an exclusive club, able to soothe even the most
savage millionaire into an approximation of civility. And yet the smiling smoothness, if
not a pose, is a way of distancing himself from the shocks of the world, including the
clumsy questions of journalists.

Q: "Vital" is a love stort -- one that deals extensively with human dissection. That's
something I hadn't seen before in a film. (laughs)

A: That's right -- it's a kind of first. (laughs)

Q: What surprised me more than anything I suppose, is what you might call the religious
aspect. The students are taught to treat the cadavers with a religious respect. The teacher
even has them perform a kind of funeral service at the end of the course.

A: I'm not religious at all, but on the surface it may seem the film is talking about the
world after death. I don't want it to be seen that way, though. There is a girl called Ryoko
who dies in the film. She and her lover play at strangling each other -- she doesn't seem
to care very much whether she lives or dies. Then she is in a car crash and suddenly she
experiences death -- she understands what death really is and how important life is.

Before she dies for she returns to consciousness for about five hours. During that time
communicates a strong message to those around her that she wants the lover to dissect her
in anatomy class.

Then she finally arrives on Hiroshi's dissecting table. At the beginning (of the course)
he's trying to regain his memory, while dissecting her body, but in the second half he
starts to remember things that really aren't in his memory. The images that aren't in his
memory come from the feeling that Ryoko was communicating to Hiroshi, the feeling she
had at the moment of impact that she was going to die -- and wanted to live. That's the
story -- the thoughts she was able to convey to Hiroshi before she died. For me the film is
about communication between living people -- not what happens after death.

Q: She was trying to leave him with good memories.  

A: That's right -- that's why she wanted him to dissect her. Some people wouldn't have
remembered while dissecting her, wouldn't have accepted those images that she was
trying to convey, but Hiroshi accepted them.

Basically we're living in a kind of virtual reality in Tokyo -- there's nothing real about it.
It's like being in a dream, like in the film "The Matrix." At the beginning of the film both
Hiroshi and Ryoko are in the world of dreams.

At first they are strangling each other and don't understand the important difference
between life and death. Then, suddenly, they're in a traffic accident -- their bodies receive
a blow.

To lack a sense of reality means to be in a dream world. And when you're in a dream, you
don't feel pain when you're pinched. A traffic accident is really painful, isn't it? (laughs)
It's the real thing -- it's not a dream. You get a real taste of reality. You're afraid that you
might die.You know that this body you call "mine" is a thing of nature.

In Tokyo there nothing natural around you. You start to forget that this body of yours is
something natural. Then you realize that this natural thing is going to die. So while
dissecting  this natural object called the body in the midst of the city, Hiroshi started to
look deeper into it -- until he found these images of being connected to nature.

Q: Have you ever been in a traffic accident yourself?

A: No, I've never been in a traffic accident. I'm the kind of person who's living in a
dream. (laughs)

Q: I have -- I wasn't badly injured or anything, but I did feel that time had stopped, like
you show in the film. (laughs) You got the feeling right. (laughs)

A: Is that so? People who have been in traffic accidents feel that way, don't they -- that
they lose contact with time.  

Q: Exactly. Was that part of your research for the film?

A: I studied anatomy quite a bit. I took an anatomy class for second-year university
students and watch them actually dissect. I did that for about two months.

Human beings are all going to die. I wanted to know what that actually means. What they
show on television is usually an autopsy to determine the cause of death. It's more
revolting (than what I show). In my film, the cadavers have been dead for three years
preserved in formalin. All the blood has disappeared, but their organs are still intact.
When you cut them no blood comes out -- so it's not that disgusting. Of course, it not
exactly pleasant, but it not that revolting either.

Q: When Hiroshi is dissecting the cadaver he starts to realize that it's his girlfriend. Then
he sees her face and knows that it's her. He becomes obsessed -- he seems to be on the
edge of insanity.

A: He's one step away. He's wrapped up (in his work), but to those around him he looks
to be insane. He's working hard, remembering their love -- but when you look at him he
seems to be a bit mad. He doesn't want other people to touch her -- because the love he
felt for her is reviving. It's gradually coming back -- so he wants to be the only one to
touch her.

Q: How did you convey that to Tadanobu Asano? Did you speak to him about it directly?

A: It was his talent. I didn't direct him very much.

Q: So he somehow understood what you wanted....

A: If I thought he didn't I would say so, but that didn't happen very often. He got nearly
everything right. Asano has a way of hitting the target, no matter what he does.

Q: That sort of situation -- of a character trying to remember a lost loved one -- is popular
now. You see it in the work of Hirokazu Kore'eda, even in a film like "Yomigaeri"

A: Yes, the theme of what consciousness is. It's a bit strange, isn't it? No matter how
much you dissect, you never find out where consciousness is. You can search here and
there with a scientific mind, but just looking at the body, you don't know where
consciousness is. (Hiroshi) has these wonderful memories of Ryoko, but he can't see
them with the naked eye. But they definitely exist somewhere.           

Q: I know you interviewed several doctors for the film. What was their opinion? Was
there any kind of consensus?

A: Doctors may have various views, but, answering as physicians, no of them would tell
me where the soul existed. They would say that's not a place where medicine can go. So I
think they have different opinions, but I really don't know.

I saw actual dissections, from start to finish -- how the muscles move, everything. At the
end they even cut the eyeball in half so you can see what's inside. There's a lens inside,
like something on a camera. I saw everything I could, in detail, everything -- it was
amazing. I still don't know where the soul is, where the consciousness is -- but that's all
right. I just don't know.

Q: This is your eighth film and most of them deal, in one way or another, with the human

A: That's right. Human anatomy is a big topic with me -- I wanted to depict the subject of
anatomy as thoroughly as I possibly could. All of (my films) have started from the body.
If I had to choose between the heart and body, I'd go for the body!

That essentially true of this film as well. The heart and body exist together -- but I can't
say the heart is more important. The body is also important. I may have changed a bit,
though -- now I feel that both are equally important. I don't favor one over the other.

In my previous films I was saying that this body of ours is not a dream in the concrete
city, that it really exists. I was stressing the feeling you get in boxing, of being hit. When
you get hit the pain is not a dream -- you know you're alive! I was into violence, into
people who are looking for proof that they were alive in the city by experiencing suffering
and pain.

Now though, I'm gradually turning my attention to what lies beyond the body, to nature
itself. I'm no longer restricting myself to the city -- I'm shifting to natural things. It may
have something to do with my age. I don't want to be alone in the city, suffering -- more
and more I feel like getting out into the great outdoors.

Q: I had that feeling from the scenes in Okinawa. It not quite a foreign country, but not
quite Japan either. Is that why you chose it?

A: I wanted a Japanese-looking nature, something familar -- and Okinawa fit that
description the best. I liked Okinawa anyway. I don't travel a lot -- I just make movies,
but about six years ago I took a tour around Okinawa on a 50 cc bike -- it was incredibly
beautiful. So I had that image in my head.

Q: In the film it looks so beautful that I wondered if such a place could actually exist...

A: Places like that hardly exist any more. The beach was filled with trash -- so I had my
staff and local volunteers clean it up -- then I filmed it looking beautiful. But in reality
there was trash everywhere. (laughs)

Q: After this film, it hard to imagine how you could take this theme of the body any
further. (laughs) It looks as though you've reached your limit.         

A: I feel as though as I've passed through this tunnel called the body into nature. It's been
a big step for me. In the near future I want to make a film about experiencing the great
outdoors, but I haven't actually experienced it myself yet, so I can't write a film. Instead
I'd like to make films on the theme of the city, the body and nature, like the latest one.
Almost into nature -- but not quite all the way. After I make those, I want to live in nature
myself -- juut bury myself in it.

Q: That would quite a depature from your first films.

A: That's right -- my first ones were horror films.

Q: If you had made "Vital" a bit differently, it might have been a horror film as well.

A: That's right. The story is typical for what we call an "obake eiga" (ghost movie) in
Japan. The plot is about this guy who love this woman in the world of the dead and he
gets closer to that world in the course of the film.

That sort of story can be found in the traditional obake eiga. So one false step and
("Vital") would have been a horror movie.

Q: I was talking with Ms. Kiyo Jo from Gold View, your foreign sales company. I told
her that given the popularity of Japanese horror abroad now, you could make a big hit in
Hollywood, but she said "He would never go."

A: It not that I don't want to go -- I've even thinking of making my next film with

I've had a lot of discussions with people in Hollywood, but nothing has worked out. If I
could make it myself, the way I've been doing, and Americans see it and like it, then I'd
like to do it. Horror movies are hot now, so I'd like to try making one.

Q: You have a project of your own?

A: That's right.

Q: What about a remake of "Vital"? It got a traditional aspect, as you said, but it's also
got a lot of originality. (laughs)

A:  That would be tough -- but it would be nice if someone did it. I'd like to do it myself.
I'd like to direct it, even if I have to go abroad.

Q: That's what Takashi Shimizu did with "Juon" -- remake it himself as "The Grudge."

A: A lot of people came to see it.

Q: Getting back to "Vital" -- you cast two actress who were newcomers....

A: That's right, newcomers. This one here (pointing to a picture of Kiki, in the program)
is a model -- I saw her face in a magazine. I thought she had exactly the right aura for the
film. At that time I hadn't seen her act, but I cast her anyway. This one here (pointiing to
a picture of Nami Tsukamoto, in the program) is a ballet dancer. The condition for the
character that she be able to dance. She could dance and had the right quality for the film,
so I cast her as well.

Q: They seem to resemble each other -- they're both newcomers, but they're alike in other
ways as well.

A: That's right, they are a bit alike. They both had to be types that Hiroshi would be
attracted to.

This one (pointing to Tsukamoto) is living in his memory, so this one (pointing to Kiki) is
incredibly jealous of her. (laughs) So in that sense, there's a love triangle, but for him
both are his type.

Q: That's true but one (Kiki) is darker, the other (Tsukamoto) lighter.

A: That's right. This one (Tsukamoto) was dark at first. Then she was in a traffic accident
and wanted Hiroshi to remember her in a certain way. In life, though, she was almost all
dark. It's only in Hiroshi's imagination that she has a lighter, brighter side. In her life with
Hiroshi she was about the same kind of character as this one (Kiki).

Q: With newcomers you have a certain naturalness...

A: Yes, I liked the naturralness. Well, professional actors would have been all right as
well, but I couldn't find any with the image I wanted. I looked hard with a certain image
in mind and I finally found these two.

Q: I suppose you didn't have any trouble casting Asano.

A: That's right, he was the first.

Q: He was the only one you considered?

A: From the script stage, from the time I was writing the plot, I had to have Asano.

Q: Or the movie wouldn't have worked?

A: That's about it.

Q: In general he a bit removed from the real world. And not just him -- the actors who
plays his parents, Ryoko's parents -- there's something about them that's not quite
average. (laughs) It looks as though you had the cast you wanted -- but what was the
hardest part of  the film for you?

A: There wasn't anything that was particularly hard -- but the dissections scenes were the
most trouble. We used the actual dissection procdures, the same steps. It was hard to
blend all that well with the story, to figure out which steps would be the most dramatic. I
made this very detailed plan. Also, there were a lot of people in just those scenes. Then I
had a great actor like Mr. (Ittoku) Kishibe coming as well, so the shooting schedule was
extremely tight. I shot those dissection scenes in the very short period of time. That was

Q: You didn't use real cadavers -- but ones made of plastic?

A:  Not exactly. I had a special make-up people made the cadavers, but there was a
exhibition of real cadavers that had been preserved with this plastic material to show the
mysteries of the human body.

Q: So you wanted that kind of realism.       

A: I had the special make-up people examine real cadavers -- not just use their

Q: Hiroshi was interested in anatomical drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci -- that Da Vinci
influence also seemed to be important.

A: Yes, that was the intention. Da Vinci drew all sorts of designs -- of the way birds use
their wings, of machinery, but he also became interested in the way the human body was
designed. He actually dissected cadavers himself and made these wonderful drawings of
what he saw. You might say that he was after the design of the entire world. He wanted to
know the world so he thought he could see the design of the body's interior -- the smallest
design -- he would also be able to draw the  biggest design -- that of the universe.

Q: Is that why Hiroshi also draws? His sketches are so detailed, so well drawn...

A: He is good, isn't he?

Q: He's good, great, really. Is that the sort of thing students actually draw in anatomy

A: They do draw -- but not that well. Their drawing are a lot simpler -- all they want to do
is understand the structure. But Hiroshi is curious the way Da Vinci was curious. He's
really absorbed in what he's drawing. He draws until the paper is black.

Q: He's a detailed as Da Vinci. (laughs)

A: Yes, the Da Vince spirit! (laughs)

Q: When he opened up (the cadaver) I surprised at what I saw. I really have to see the
film again. (laughs) 

To change the subject a bit -- I've been watching your films from the beginning. I also
teach Japanese film at Temple Univesity here in Tokyo. Last spring I showed my class
"Tetsuo" and I was really surprised by the strong impact it had, even though it's fifteen
years old. Some students loved it, some hated it -- but none were indifferent to it. Do you
ever feel that you're competing with the impact of your early films -- that you have to
keep trying to surpass them?

A: Not really -- I'm just trying to do the best I can with every film I make. I'm happy that
I could make films with an impact from the start, though. The way you start is really
important. But because I made such strange films at the very beginning it took some time
before I could talk with Japanese movie people. They all hated me in the beginning.
(laughs) Who is this guy? -- that was the attitude. Then I made "Tokyo Fist" and these
other films. They were violent all right, but people started to think that maybe they
weren't just violent. But it took some time before people came around.

If I had made really great films from the beginning, if I had made films that everyone
liked and thought were wonderful, then if I had made strange films later they would have
supported me. Instead they hated me from the beginning, so even though I tried hard to
make good films after that, hardly anyone supported me.

Q: It must have been tough for you at first, but now there are other people like Takashi
Miike making wild films so you're not alone any more. (laughs) Also, you're very much
in demand as a actor... You're one of the leaders of the film business.

A: No, not all. (laughs)

Q:  But as for being disliked -- the opposite is true abroad. A big retrospective of your
films toured Italy last year -- they love you over there. And not just Italy but all over
Europe, especially. Do you ever wonder about the gap between the way you're received
there and the way you're received here?

A: I really don't know the reason. I don't know why they like my films so much abroad. I
don't why they dislike them so much in Japan. (laughs) All I can do is make them the best
I can.