In 2000, Sakaki Hideo made his mark on Japanese cinema by costarring as the ruthless yakuza in the seminal zombie actioner, VERSUS. Since then, Sakaki has worked steadily in both features and television. He comes to the New York Asian Film Festival with his latest directorial effort, KIYAMACHI DARUMA, the wild story of a quadruple amputee yakuza chief. Sakaki chatted with me about his filmmaking origins and future.
The Lady Miz Diva: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing several of your colleagues from your earliest days in films, including Sakaguchi Tak, Yamaguchi Yudai and Kitamura Ryuhei. Please tell us about your beginnings and your interactions with them?
Hideo Sakaki: So, I came to Tokyo as an actor and my debut role was actually a starring role, but it was very rare for me to have that chance. There aren’t that many opportunities to continue doing that. So, I worked many jobs part time and I got very tired and I was very jealous of people that were doing better than m, but then a friend of mine told me that if you’re so jealous and so aspirational, then you should write your own screenplay. That’s how I came to write my own screenplay and produce an independent film when I was around 26 or 27, and I got into Japanese indie movie festivals.
A lot of other directors like Kitamura Ryuhei, and other action actors who worked with me in VERSUS, also had their films in the same festival, and among us Kitamura was the one who won the Grand Prix. Afterwards, he asked me to star in his next film as an actor, so that’s how I got involved with projects such as VERSUS. I think being an actor was sort of a way for me to maintain my ambition and continue, but it all connected back to becoming a director, finally. So in that sense, I think being an actor was the starting point.
So as a result, VERSUS became very successful, and it was considered a very interesting film, and it caught the attention of my Japanese agency’s president, who asked me in as an actor. So, it’s really ironic; it’s because I shot this independent film on my own that I became an actor, and I was able to sustain myself as an actor, in that sense. Even as I worked as an actor, I continued to make independent films, so it’s really the starting point for me.
I’m 46 now, so I get a lot of actor and director friends who don’t know where to go, and I always tell them to go for it, because it’s really the small encounters that changes your fate. And you really have to create your own fate and act on your own. It was because my friend, Kataoka Reiko, who is an actress, told me in her very strong Kyushu dialect, “If you are so jealous of other people, you should just go ahead and make your own film.” It was because of her encouragement that I was able to make my first film. And without the team that worked on VERSUS, I wouldn’t be here, so it’s really the small intricate encounters that really sustained me, so I think that God is in the details.
LMD: You’re here to screen KIYAMACHI DARUMA. How do you expect the New York audience to react to the film?
SH: I expect 80% of them to boo me. The first 20 minutes of the film is quite shocking, and I might say that it might be in the poorest taste, but I really needed that 20 minutes, because it really grounds you in the world of Katsura, the main character, and it really shows his background. After you go through that 20 minutes, you will really see that at the heart of this film is the story of two men. I expect there to be very sensitive viewers who have really good taste and I hope it will go through to their hearts.
LMD: Please talk about the performance of Endo Kenichi, who plays the quadruple amputee, Katsura.
SH: So, of course, we researched with a lot of amputees, because we really needed to show respect towards what their daily lives were like. But at the same time, it’s also a fiction work and it’s also a drama, so in that sense it’s up to the actor and director to collaborate and take it from there. I couldn’t think of anybody else besides Mr. Endo Kenichi for this role. We had worked together, we had costarred, and when I talked to him about the role and pitched in the idea, he eventually he told me that he loved it and wouldn’t want me to give it to anybody else. He was really devoted to it. Of course I gave him a little direction on the set to start him off, but he’s such an amazing and accomplished actor, he brought so much to the table that I guess you call it a collaboration, but at the heart of it all was his amazing physicality and power as an actor.
But I will say there were three times when the set completely stopped because we were in - not a fight - but a heated discussion between what I wanted to express and what he wanted to do.
He’s a monstrous actor in that sense; if he doesn’t see the logic of it, if he doesn’t understand it, he won’t do it at all. As a shooting goes on, I think the actors become closer to the character both physically and emotionally, so their sensitivity to the character is very important, so I want to respect their intuition and I think that is because I am also an actor.
LMD: You mentioned that the first 20 minutes might be in bad taste; how do you judge what is going too far, what is too shocking?
SH: I think that limit is affected by the environment that you grew up in, the way of life that you’ve led so far. I think biologically, you know the sense of the point when it crosses over into too much. I think I think that’s how I live, by intuition, both as a director and as an actor. So, it might be overstating it, but I think it’s more than intuition, maybe a sixth sense almost? If it doesn’t trigger my sixth sense, I will do it.
I came to New York City for the first time in 2000, so 16 years ago, and I felt by intuition that I will shoot a movie in New York, and I still feel that way. I think the time is coming. I’m writing a screenplay with a New York-based writer. The project is called Chaser. The screenwriter and I are at the point when we are just exchanging emails about various scenes that we have in mind, but one image that I do have in mind is one that takes place in Central Park. Do you know that small pond where everybody has the toy boats? I think I have an image of a toy boat going by and for some reason there’s an Asian man that throws a rock.
LMD: You mentioned the fortuitousness of meeting people in your work and making connections. You have not stopped working since VERSUS in 2000. Is making those connections part of what motivates you to work as much as you do?
SH: I think it’s a luxurious problem that I have, that I have to balance making films and being also an actor. I started my film production company 10 years ago, so it is always a balancing act between having to produce things and maintaining my career as an actor and what gets priority. I think it’s my fate right now to focus on directing.
LMD: I think that VERSUS is one of the films that along with movies like RINGU, JU-ON, BATTLE ROYALE and ICHI THE KILLER, really brought international attention to modern Japanese cinema. Do you get a sense of that when you come to America, that you are part of a revolution in Japanese film?
SH: No! It all goes back to the power of Kitamura-san and Yamaguchi-san, but at the same time, I’m confident that it took all of us to make a film. If any one of us were lacking, we wouldn’t have made the film. So in that sense, I think VERSUS could’ve only been made in that moment with those members.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.