Japan Cuts 2019 Interview: Cut Above Winner Tsukamoto Shinya Talks KILLING and TETSUO: THE IRON MAN

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Japan Cuts 2019 Interview: Cut Above Winner Tsukamoto Shinya Talks KILLING and TETSUO: THE IRON MAN
From his beginnings as a 14-year-old with a Super 8 camera, to his latest film, KILLING; a twist on the classic samurai movie, Tsukamoto Shinya has always blazed his own cinematic path.  
Receiving Japan Cuts 2019 Cut Above award for his influence on Japanese cinema, and for his dedication to originality, Director Tsukamoto chatted exclusively with LMD about his iconic cyberpunk opus, TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and how to keep motivated as a filmmaker.
The Lady Miz Diva:  What was the inspiration behind KILLING?  I believe this is your first time making a historical piece?
Tsukamoto Shinya:  As a director, I knew that one day I would love to make a jidaigeki, or period film.  The first time I was really influenced was when in middle school and I saw Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi (The Wanderers); it’s about a group of people who are almost like a yakuza.  They are sort of like a pathetic kind of jidaigeki that happens.  Then, of course, later on, I watched Kurosawa’s films, such as Seven Samurai, Sanjuro, Yojimbo, films like that, that I’m sure everybody knows.  Then, perhaps another film series that people know, the Zatoichi series.  
What I find that all of them have in common is that they pursue realism, in a certain way.  So, I’ve been very much influenced by these films, and I have this background being influenced by them, but then at the same time, I have this fear towards where society is today.  So, when these two feelings really fit together, I was ready to make this film.
LMD:  After that explanation, I wonder whether your main character, the young samurai, Tsuzuki, is an allegory, or perhaps your message to young people today?
TS:  Tsuzuki, I think, in his mind, he thinks that it is his duty to serve the country; especially as a samurai.  But Tsuzuki is also somebody who can capture reality, and has the imagination to be able to foresee what happens if you pull the sword:  And so, I find that to be truthful in a way; he’s able to see reality.  But a character like this within a jidaigeki film is actually unusual.  
For example, I think my role in the film, Sawamura, is seen as a normal kind of character within a jidaigeki film.  The thing is, me, personally, I have the same perspective as Tsuzuki’s character, and so, what I wanted to have was a jidaigeki hero against the hero -- which presents my own actual personal perspective -- and to have them set against each other, and see what happens.
LMD:  Are both characters perhaps a bit of two sides of yourself?
TS:  So, I don’t find the jidaigeki hero to be anything like myself.  I actually played something that I don’t have any attachment with.  I find the jidaigeki hero to be representative of today’s politics; that is Sawamura’s character.
LMD:  What was Yu Aoi’s character {Yu} meant to represent?  She is the person Tsuzuki loves, and she is worried about him leaving and dying somewhere, yet she is part of his problem, and puts him in danger when she demands he get revenge for her.
TS:  The character, Yu; one way to think about her is that she is sort of an in-between person, but also in my mind, she is representative of a regular person.  Just a regular citizen, in the sense that if your lover decides to go fight, then she doesn’t like that.  When she see scary people around, she’s fearful.  What her family is killed, she wants revenge.  So, the way she reacts changes by the situation she’s put in.  
To me, that is representative of a normal person, or how a normal person might react.  And so, there’s this huge frightening scene toward the end, and we all wonder why she has to go through all these things, and I want people to feel that fear. 
LMD:  We were discussing Tsuzuki’s frame of mind.  As we see, he becomes physically ill when it’s time for him to leave to fight.  However, even in his relationship with Yu, he is hesitant: This is the first time I’ve seen a film where a samurai masturbates, yet it seems like a fearful act, because he does this instead of actually approaching Yu, who would do anything for him. 
Was he always operating from a place of fear, and are we to believe by the film’s end, he’s conquered this fear?
TS:  So, that’s a really interesting question.  That is something I should really be thinking about.  But regarding Tsuzuki, I think he only really becomes aware of his fear when killing becomes a reality.  I think he probably knew that he was always scared, but I don’t think he felt that from the very beginning.  At the very beginning, he thought that he could be a proud samurai, but then when it finally becomes time to go, he realises that fear within him.
Regarding the distance between Tsuzuki and Yu; perhaps this is a silly way to explain it, but I wanted their relationship to sort of represent today’s youth.  I want to show them as sort of a little bit immature, not quite having realised a full romance, head on; yet they are within this situation where they are talking about fighting, and so that causes a distance between the two.  So, I wanted to give a tragic feeling through that romance.
Regarding the masturbation scene; this scene doesn’t come from somewhere logical within the film, however, it comes from this confused dilemma, and many feelings coming together in terms of Tsuzuki’s feelings toward Yu, but also the idea that he has to deal with death:  He must kill, yet he is still living.  So, this life-and-death feeling, as well as his love towards Yu; all of these things are coming together and causing this dilemma.  This masturbation scene sort of expresses all those feelings.
LMD:  We know you don’t shy away from shocking your audiences, but how did you judge the film’s violence?  When was it okay to place a murder offscreen, or to show intestines falling out?
TS:  As I explained earlier, how Yu sort of represents to me a regular person’s perspective, and also, for example, I want to see it as it could also be the audience’s perspective, as well.  So, I was hoping that Yu and the audience would have sort of the same sightlines.  
In terms of Sawamura’s character, I think if this film were to be a film that really beautifies this idea of sword fighting, then Sawamura, at the very beginning, when he’s fighting, you would see him slash someone very beautifully, but instead, you just see him do a small cut.  For me, to do a small cut, meant I wanted people to experience the idea of pain in the sense that could be imaginable.  So, it’s like cutting your hand on a slicer, or with a knife, accidentally.  I wanted people to feel real pain through that action, and to think, ‘Oh, this is what a cut actually means.’  
So, after that, there is a period of time where there’s not much violence that happens, and at that point, I don’t think Yu, who also represents the audience, quite understands what violence really means.  But then I have the violence really build up to the point where perhaps Yu can no longer tell Tsuzuki to go for violence.
LMD:  Years ago, I watched TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It got a tremendous, raucous reception.  Last month was TETSUO: THE IRON MAN’s 30th birthday, and I understand that you recently struck a deal with Nikkatsu to handle international sales of nine of your older films.  
Did you have any idea when you worked on those movies that they would still be sought after by audiences today?
TS:  I don’t know if people really are talking about my films, but all said, I think the more work I have been making -- and it’s not many -- but I’m finding more people who seem to like my films, and that does make me happy.
Regarding Tetsuo, I didn’t think at the time that people would love it.  I certainly didn’t want people to hate the film, but I wasn’t trying to have a lot of people like it, either.  When I was a teenager and making films, I really wanted everybody to love my films.  However, I went to commercial filmmaking, and learnt how frustrating it is to have too many restrictions put on myself.  So, when was going to make Tetsuo, I wanted to make a unique film that may not be loved by everybody, but can be loved by the select few who really liked it.  I didn’t want it to be a film that would just be liked by some, but extremely loved by a select few; that’s what I wanted to make.  That was how I made Tetsuo.  
From then on, I decided that I’m only going to continue to make films that way.
LMD:  Your films are so original, and have such a creative, infectious energy, which is inspiring.  What words of advice would you say to young filmmakers who look at the work of Tsukamoto Shinya, and say, “I want to make films that way.”
TS:  I’ve just been doing what I like to be doing; so I almost feel not worthy to be giving advice; but if I were to give advice, I would say to make movies that you, yourself, want to see.  And because there are times when it just becomes very hard to continue making, it’s important to be able to keep a strong motivation, and that is by making a film that you want to see.  
I would also say, don’t continuously think about it, just go ahead and start doing it.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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AwardsCut Above AwardInterviewJapan CutsJapan Cuts 2019Japanese CinemaKillingNikkatsuTetsuoTetsuo The Iron ManTsukamoto Shinya

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