ND/NF Interview: Yohei Suzuki
Despite the disapproval of 67 percent of his countrymen, in July 2014 Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted longstanding constraints on Japan’s military forces. Afraid of the consequences, mainstream news media and cultural outlets have implemented a strategy of self-censorship against criticism of the Japanese government. When a man set himself on fire in protest against Abe’s government last June, mainstream media pretended they didn’t notice. Comedy duo Bakusho Mondai was banned from joking about politicians by the NHK, the national public broadcast organization, on the 2015 edition of its popular New Year’s show. Further discouraging opposition is the Special Secrecy Law of 2013, which protects state secrets and carries the threat of imprisonment.
This frankly alarming state of affairs has been ripe for acerbic satire, and 30-year-old independent director Yohei Suzuki stepped up to the challenge with his brilliant 2014 debut feature, Ow (Japanese title: Maru). When Tetsuo, a jobless man living with his parents, finds a spherical object hovering in the corner of his room, he freezes like a statue. His girlfriend, his recently unemployed father, and city policemen are also rendered immobile upon setting their eyes on the enigma. The spell eventually wears off, but all are left in a state of lethargy. While nobody else seems to care, young reporter Deguchi risks his sanity to investigate, a more or less fruitless enquiry to which the film dedicates its latter half.
Still relatively unknown in his country, Suzuki’s first feature after 10 years of making shorts is a genuinely bold statement all too rare in contemporary Japanese cinema. Recalling Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging, Ow is an eccentric comedy that is absurdist in tone, deadpan in delivery, and biting in its social commentary. FILM COMMENT spoke with Suzuki via Skype as he prepared for his first trip to the United States to introduce the U.S. premiere of Ow in New Directors / New Films on March 24 and 25.
The paralysis your characters go through in Ow is a provocative metaphor of the inertia of contemporary Japan. To what extent did you conceive the film as a commentary on the current state of your country?
When a formidable event occurs in front of their eyes, most people respond by staring in blank amazement. In March 2011, Japan faced such an incident with the Great East Japan Earthquake. In response, society reacted with widespread self-censorship and self-regulation. Certain TV advertisements and the theatrical release of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter were canceled for fear of insensitivity. This is Japan. When faced with something truly overwhelming, Japan will censor itself to the point of debilitation. In fear of being trapped in a vicious cycle, Japan chooses to suffocate itself with a noose of its own making.
But I didn’t want to just flat-out criticize this response. Although the characters in my film are physically numb, many thoughts are circulating in their minds at an incredible speed. They just can’t translate their thoughts into action. It’s a paradoxical situation. Still, I wanted to encourage the characters into action, and I don’t disapprove of their response. I believe people should be able to express themselves in whatever form that expression takes.
Your movies often have a non-human character that seemingly controls the fates of its human characters. The entire drama of your short film, Mono mono mono mononoke (11), is based on an invisible presence that is only described by one of the characters. Another early short of yours, Killed in the Air (06), similarly engages with invisibility, as the air and tension between the various characters are the focus of the film.
Ow certainly has a relationship with my short films in which the air represents something that is concretely present but is not visible. Although I don’t dwell much on its appearance, I’ve thought about what the spherical object represents. I wanted it to come to the foreground and the people to operate around it. I guess I’m not as interested in people.
While the drama unfolds, members of the Suzuki family pass away, fall critically ill and lose their sanity. Despite all of this, it seems their relationship gets ever stronger.
The slow but sure destruction of the family is something I did for the sake of comedy. Despite their situation, the family keeps moving onwards. I’m sure it’d be easier for them to fall into despair. No matter what obstacles they face, they try to remain hopeful. Although the only choice they have is to live on, it’s very strange to observe their lives from the outside. I wanted the film to have this awkward feeling.
Still, they end up arguing and getting in each other’s way, adding to the suffocation and immobility of the story. This feeling is enhanced by the family’s house at which most of the action is staged. Was the house the primary location from the outset?
Actually, the original script of the film covered a broader spectrum of activities further beyond the house. For many reasons, we re-wrote the script to make it mostly a chamber drama. As it’s a low-budget film, we didn’t have much choice. The house itself was offered for rent at a very low price, which was great, but unfortunately it was right in the middle of the Nishinari-district in Osaka. The area is considered the slums of Japan, and it has been used as a setting for the underworld, like in the Nikkatsu Roman Porno film Confidential: Sexula Market. It’s where many yakuza gangs have their offices, and we heard they aggressively oversee the area. We originally wanted to do more outdoor shoots but, out of fear, ended up shooting mostly indoors. I had to be cautious. It’s a very strange place. We saw many people on the streets who were actually in a state of paralysis, just like the characters in my film! They were just staring blankly into thin air. Before we had any time to rethink our decision, we found ourselves in the epicenter of crime and oddity in Japan.
Although you describe it as a decision made out of necessity, I feel the setting corresponds with the themes of the film. There’s also the amusing paradox of having a spherical object that seems to be a planet, which implies a cosmic dimension, floating around in the corner of a room.
At some point in the film, the protagonist Tetsuo murmurs the words waku waku wakusei, which is an onomatopoetic wordplay in Japanese that could translate to “planetary fun fun fun.” A planet suddenly appears in the periphery of the main character’s field of vision. Halfway through the film, the reporter realizes that the orb is moving. In my mind, the object goes into an orbit based on an unexplained gravitational pull, which also ends up drawing the “circle” [maru] of the title. I wanted everything in the film to operate on a circular basis. Although the orb is an abstract presence, I wanted to take it to the limits of representation. I wanted it to remain conceptual and abstract. As it’s on an orbit, it’ll probably return one day, which might call for a sequel.
Was there ever a point when you considered not showing the object at all?
Not really. I always wanted the object to be round. In my mind, I had the scene where Tetsuo and his girlfriend Yuriko first encounter the orb since the beginning of this project. Tetsuo points, the film cuts, and the shot that follows depicts a floating orb. The particular edit was important for me. I didn’t want the spherical object to be seen in the same shot. In my mind, cinema is about bringing together things that don’t have any business being together. I guess it’s pertains to the basic principles of the montage theory. How can I build something entirely new by bring A and B together? I think a directorial voice can be found in the ways in which a director brings together A and B that ostensibly have nothing to do with one another.
It’s not just the editing—the idea can also refer to the application of genre. I think of Ow as a family drama but it’s also a science-fiction film. I wanted to bring together two genres that didn’t have anything to do with each other.
Was Tetsuo always the main character for you? I didn’t feel any one character was the protagonist. Tetsuo is in an inactive state from very early on in the film.
Personally, I feel Tetsuo is the protagonist. I didn’t want the film to be an ensemble piece, but I did want to shift Tetsuo’s centrality to allow other characters to take center stage. In a sense, I wanted the story to be about the battle between Deguchi, the reporter, and Tetsuo. The final scene [of a fight] is a reference to the final battle in Scanners by David Cronenberg. Although it’s completely serious for the two characters, we can’t help but laugh watching them as outsiders to the action. Saying that, the last scene was only conceived the day before the actual shooting.
What other filmmakers came to mind during the making of this film?
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? by Werner Herzog was on my mind. A character played by Michael Shannon barricades himself inside a house and takes a flamingo hostage. I wanted my film to have a similar sense of absurdity. I also stage a hostage situation in which its treatment in the outside world contrasts with what is going on inside.
Your film had support from the Cineastes Organization Osaka (CO2), which is one of the key supporters of independent cinema in Japan. Can you describe how they support independent films?
CO2 annually support three projects based on original scripts. A jury makes a selection and the three chosen projects are awarded with 600,000 Japanese yen (approximately $5,000). It’s the only place in Japan that has such an initiative. They gave me a grant based on an early draft of my script and introduced me to Yukiko Koyama, with whom I wrote the final script. She’s one of the instructors in the filmmaking workshops that CO2 organize. CO2 is also associated with the Osaka Asian Film Festival, which is where the three completed projects eventually have their world premiere.
We often assume Tokyo to be the center of independent cinema in Japan and overlook other sites of activity beyond the capital city. Can you describe independent filmmaking outside of Tokyo?
Osaka has the strongest scene outside of Tokyo. It might just be my personal impression of Osaka, but it’s cutting-edge compared to what gets produced in Tokyo. It’s a place famous for its noise music; for example, the band Boredoms came out of Osaka.
Personally, I don’t think the Japanese independent film scene is based in Tokyo any longer. Saudade [Katsuya Tomita, 2011], which had some overseas festival exposure, was set in Kofu city, Yamanashi prefecture, which is west of Tokyo. It seems people are moving out of Tokyo to the countryside to make independent films. This is also my strategy. Mito City, Ibaraki prefecture, where I live, has lately given birth to many independent films. The film Playback [Sho Miyake, 2012], which had its world premiere at Locarno Film Festival, was also shot in Mito, as was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film Touching the Skin of Eeriness . It seems Mito is the place where independent films are being made. Just like the Nouvelle Vague was born out of Paris and No Wave films came out of New York, I feel a new independent cinema is emerging from Mito and it’s the place to be.
Will your next film be shot in Mito?
Yeah. Mito is a historically intriguing place. During the Meiji Restoration period of the 1860s, Mito was a major player in politics. As the Perry Expedition came towards Japan, people discussed whether or not Japan should remain closed from outside influence. Scholars in Mito advocated a radical right-wing political philosophy, sonnō jōi, which literally translates to “revere the emperor, expel the foreigners.” It was a type of extremism. In their critique of the Tokugawa shogunate, these scholars were the first to suggest the emperor was the heart of Japan, an idea that was based on the principles of the Shinto religion. While Japan became despotic in the 20th century, the emperor became a symbol and the root of all of this was in Mito.
My next film draws some influence from Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 film A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song, which traces the history of civil protest in Japan. The activist students in the film sing the folk song “Yosahoi-bushi,” which was a protest song that was sung in the Meiji period at speeches made by activists of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. Precisely one hundred years after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Zenkyoto (All-Japan Federation of Students) movement emerged in 1968. In the 1960s, Japanese citizens were divided on the concern of whether to accept protection from the United States, with the Anpo U.S.–Japan Security Treaty set to be re-signed in 1970. In the 1860s, people debated whether or not to allow foreign influence after Japan had been a closed country for centuries. With the Abe administration shifting Japan further towards the right, we’re currently facing a similar situation. I want my next film to express that what we are experiencing now already has a precedent in the past.
As well as its political significance, the film will be set in Mito because of a certain location. One of the three biggest garden parks in Japan, Kairaku-en, is located in Mito. Inside the park, there is a cave where apparently there is a growth of luminescent moss. For me, the notion of a luminescent moss in the dark evokes the feeling of science fiction. The film will be based on a character who walks into the cave and travels through different periods in Japanese history.
I’m also making another film in Mito, which is more for entertainment. Mito is known to be the birthplace of natto [fermented soybeans]. The film is a zombie film. The birthplace of rotten soybeans becomes the birthplace of rotten people. The Mito citizens try to revitalize the appeal of their rural city with the zombies and it turns into a tourist hotspot. The Japanese film industry is so insular and uninterested in appealing to oversea audiences. I think this is a problem. My hope is for this film to reach beyond Japanese audiences—for the sake of the survival of Japanese cinema. I want to dream bigger than the Japanese film industry.
Translated by Julian Ross