Tokyo FILMeX 2014 - Tsukamoto Shinya Talks FIRES ON THE PLAIN

Writer; London/Tokyo (@seven_cinemas)
Tokyo FILMeX 2014 - Tsukamoto Shinya Talks FIRES ON THE PLAIN
Director Tsukamoto Shinya garnered a cult following in 1989 following the release of his cyberpunk classic, Tetsuo the Iron Man. The filmmaker has subsequently released two sequels to his breakthrough hit while expressing considerable talent in a range of genres, earning acclaim for the likes of Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet and A Snake of June. Not limiting himself to directing Tsukamoto frequently stars in his own work, as well as appearing in films from some of Japan's leading contemporary artists, including roles in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer and Takashi Shimizu's Marebito.

Fires On The Plain is the latest film from the director, a grueling look at the final desperate days of the soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army stationed in the Philippines during the Second World War. Based on the award winning anti-war novel from survivor Ooka Shohei, the project is the fruit of a long held ambition for Tsukamoto, though Ichikawa Kon adapted the book for the screen back in 1959. Tsukamoto stars in the film as private Tamura who acts as our guide through the nightmare. The film opened last weeks Tokyo FILMeX Film Festival and the director appeared on stage with fellow cast members, veteran Lily Franky, newcomer Mori Yusaka and composer Ishikawa Cyu to answer questions.

Q. I think this film's a turning point in Tsukamoto's career, it's a masterpiece and one I really wanted to screen as the opening film. I'd like to begin by asking Mr. Tsukamoto about the process of making the film, I understand you've been working on it since ten years ago so if you could talk about that.

Tsukamoto Shinya (TS): I first read the source novel, Fires on the Plain, by Ooka Shohei when I was in high school. It was quite a shock to me when I read it, I felt like I was actually on the battlefield, as I was reading it so it stuck in my head all that time. I didn't instantly think I want to make a film of it, it never really crossed my mind until I was in my 30's and I thought the time was right then.

When I set out to make the film initially, although most of my films have been self-funded I thought this would require a large production and large budget so I was hoping someone would come on board to help me. That didn't really eventuate and time went on. Then about ten years ago, obviously the source novel is full of information so I wanted to expand my knowledge by interviewing war veterans, Japanese soldiers that had actually been in the Philippines. About ten years ago many of them were approaching or over the age of 80, so I had to do it, it was then or never. So, I asked them about their experiences and I wanted to make it full scale adaptation of the novel in that sense, but as I said earlier that never really eventuated and those ten years passed by.

So I started out with no funding and the only way I could make this film was if I suddenly got rich but that never happened. I felt like I really needed to make it now or never. Another thing that spurred me on was the fact the people that I interviewed, the former soldiers had now reached the age of 90 or over 90 and their memories of the war, their feelings towards the war of absolute disgust and rejection of what they went through was part of the reason why Japan never went to war again, those people and their memories were helping to prevent that. As they got older and their voices got less strong and on the other hand, people who want to go to war have become more vocal and greater in number and I felt that if I didn't make the film now I'd never get another chance.

Q. I read the source novel before watching the film, and of course compared to the book there are many scenes of people eating human flesh, I had the feeling of people from an advanced country going to a less advanced country and exploiting them, in a dog eat dog kind of situation. I wondered if peace would actually be possible. In times of peace is it 'real' peace? I was filled with despair because of that. Also, the last scene, if my interpretation is correct, the way he was eating rice it was almost like he was eating human flesh again, the way he was eating it, I felt it was quite shocking. I wonder do you have those social and political commentaries in your mind when you're making the film, do you actually think peace is possible? Were you trying to comment on culture and the possibility of peace between people?

(note: this question was extremely long and rambling, all credit due to Mr. Tsukamoto for handling it well and giving a very interesting answer and to Mr. Don Brown for his valiant work as translator!)

TS: Eh? Err... When I was making the film I wasn't really scratching my nose and thinking logically about the world, it was more an instinctive way of depicting how I felt at the time, my sensibilities so I wasn't thinking so much about capitalism and all those other political factors you mentioned, at least not at the front of my mind. I've been through hard times myself but I don't particularly feel that much despair about the situation in the world today, concerned of course, but not despair. This film is really about that impending nature of war, that war is just around the corner, what would happen in the present day if there was a war? There's been many films made in Japan on World War 2 to date, but most of them deal with Japan as victims, rather than actual perpetrators of the war. Bomb victims and things like that, and it's very important to depict those things as well but I wanted to depict it from the view of the person doing the killing, causing harm, in ordinary situations where people are forced to kill each other. So of course in my head with all the research I had done there were many situations in my mind, even worse than those that are in the film. For instance the scene were the Filipino woman was shot, seems worse than that, but what I ended up making is the film I felt I should make.

I've traveled to many film festivals around the world and everyone is very friendly, I don't feel despair because of that because when I feel that when I meet people those connections are made and we're friends, so if we're not in that horrible war type situation then those horrible things might happen.

I make a lot of strange films but within myself I feel rather positive about what I'm trying to depict so the film today is maybe not so positive but it's how I feel personally.

Q. I'd like to ask about the film Blind Beast Vs. Killer Dwarf where both Mr. Franky and Mr. Tsukamoto appeared in the cast.

TS: The reason why I wanted actors like Lily Franky and Nakamura Tatsuya to appear in the movie with me is that it's a very small scale movie, very low budget so I wanted people that I liked, people that I could spend a lot of time together with. Of course, the setups for each scene took a long time so I wanted to talk with them about trivial things like cockroaches and the things that rabbits do and that sort of thing.

Lily Franky (LF): It was an honor for me to appear on the movie, fifteen years ago when I was cast in Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf with Tsukamoto that was a time when I hadn't had a lot of experience acting in films. I had to spend a lot of time with Mr. Tsukamoto on set and if he wasn't a particularly nice guy it would have had a very different effect on my career in terms of continuing in film.

I received an email from the director at 2am in the morning last night from Nakamura Tatsuya that just said that just said 'world peace'. It wasn't a commercial film because of the controversial subject matter but after watching it I felt very refreshed because making films like this really requires a great deal of strength. In the source novel at the beginning there's a description of how Japan was in the Philippines towards the end of the war, and the tide of war was turning against japan. But, of course there's no such explanation in the film, it's more about way of life of the people actually in that situation the spirit of war and peace that's really conveyed by Tsukamoto's imagination, things like evil and that kind of thing. I sensed a real nobility in the way he does things so at the same time as being refreshed after watching the film, it made me think a lot.

Q. Mr. Yusaku what was it like on set working with the director and these cast members?

Mori Yusuku: Of course being on set with actors like Tsukamoto and Lily Franky was very stimulating for me, for someone with no prior experience working in films it was rather a struggle. I just tried to remember my lines and do my best. When I first met Tsukamoto it was in the audition for the role, of course he has a very kind and gentle way about him and when I looked into his eyes it was not what I was expecting and I grew very fond of him.

TS: I saw many young actors for the role that Mori played. What I was looking for was someone very natural with no ingrained acting quirks, a natural approach to acting. I started by asking him to grab a rifle and do some of the actions of the character, and so from then on I knew that he fitted the role. Other actors in the cast, Mr. Frankie it was more for his... he's very expressive as an actor, in recent years he's been becoming more expressive as an actor. Nakamura I've been working with since Bullet Ballet but he is there for his presence, he has a real strong presence as an actor. I really wanted for Mr. Mori's role someone who was like a natural waterfall over rocks with no kind of artificial feeling to him at all.

Q. What did you have in mind when making the music for the film, did you use other war films as a reference. Before the film started you said you wanted us to listen very closely to the sound of the music so I did I listened very closely to the music of the film and I wanted to know what was in your head?

Ishikawa Chu: In terms of making the music for this film of course images came first, as they do with most films, and this was obviously a film about war so I tried to tackle that very large theme but also the setting of the film in the Philippines it being very hot and sticky, I wanted to express that through my music so I used non-western instruments as much as possible and tried to get into the heads of the people in the film as much as possible which I found very difficult to do, I think I was successful in the end but it was not an easy process.

Q. I read the source novel before I watched the film and of course it puts across the ghastliness of the war, the things that he is expressing it's very extreme and it comes across very palpably, but of course when you have a novel you spend a lot of time reading it, a film you only have a certain amount of time to express certain things. I thought it would become quite extreme the things that are happening in it and that proved to be true. Also when I read the novel I came to understand that Private Tamura was referring to something called 'God' I was wondering what Mr. Tsukamoto's interpretation of that was.

TS: I dealt with this novel for a long time and of course over this time I digested the contents through my own imagination, of course there were things I didn't understand, even up to the time of writing the script, even the title Fires On the Plain, I didn't understand but that lack of understanding, the not knowing drove me, made me want to make a film of it even more, the feeling of not knowing.

In terms of the question of the meaning of God that Tamura refers to there's the religious God and that is quite a strong element in the novel, there's a strong question element, of course private Tamura is an atheist, but when he was a child he was heavily influenced by Christianity so that adds a whole new level to the meaning of the scenes whether to eat human meat or not. That whole element of eating Christ's flesh in Christianity.
There's a scene where he goes to eat but stops himself with his own hand and things like that but, I felt that the more you're in that sort of situation where you see people dying and people already dead and you have nothing to eat and you're going to die if you don't eat them whether it's right to eat or not becomes more and more vague.

I don't believe in God myself and I felt that covering that whole religious issue in the film would be to difficult to do and would probably limit the audience of the film, I was hoping to make a much more accessible film in that sense. I always had a sense of the mystery of God, the Existence of god is a mystery and I've always been interested in that myself but it's that interest that drives me rather than any kind of belief.

Q: What are the plans for release?

TS: In terms of the release of this, it was screened in Venice earlier this year and there will be a rather long gap before its released in Japan. The film will be released next year on July 25th at Eurospace in Shibuya and at the same time probably at other theaters around Japan, I hope to open it on July 25th and then up until War Remembrance day in August. I hope to generate some discussion about the film itself and also about the very real chances that we could be going to war ourselves in the current climate.
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