This interview was translated by our kind friend Robert Nishimura. Its main focus is Jissoji's fouth ATG movie, Life of a Court Lady. Since there's so little information about Jissoji in the West this interview stands out as the longest testimony we ever had about the man itself.
Shirai: The first thing I felt was, the script that was written by Shin Ooka was completed as a closet screenplay with completed with writing, lines, and narration, so making that into a film must have required quite a fight.
Jisouji: In other words that was what was interesting, though the result of that fight is another story.
S: Was the idea to do it as you wanted from the time it was decided to make it, or…
J: They just said do what you want to freely. They asked me to not consider basic scenario composition that is used in cinematography in general, and just keep those completely out of our minds.
S: And you just started making it without putting any changes.
J: Composition-wise we put a lot of changes but. But those changes were meant not to make it closer to a cinematic film but to try to fit it better to the closet screenplay itself.
S: In that sense it was really a fight between the screenplay and the presentation then.
J: It was like a challenge that was put forth to us movie makers, and from Shin Ooka’s perspective I’m sure he was interested in seeing what would come out once he had completed the entire thing as a closet drama. At first we received the stage directions and lines separately, and they were complete as independent works. I had never worked on a film like this, and from a personal standpoint it was extremely interesting.
S: You had always worked with Mr. Ishidou and were known for it, but what made you switch and work with Mr. Ooka this time?
J: Mr. Ishidou had prepared four movies for me and then canceled. Mr. Ishidou said that once you do four films one starts to get the other, and I think that is a good point. It’s like a dead end, or more like once one builds up to that point you start to see the harshness, and in order to jump out of that one needs to try a whole different combination, and meet different people.
S: That is Ishidou never the less, and Life of a Court Lady seems to be one film that builds on your experience of doing three with him.
J: I took it on in a way to see whether the colors of Mr. Ooka would come out or the colors of myself would. But I am humble and tend to not put out my color much.
S: It gets pretty tough right after that though...
J: In my third work Poem I continued to make my path narrower, which led to the mountains of Tanbachiku (?). We set off from Mt. Chiku right. And for me that was already a dead end. I had a feeling that I wanted to communicate through a more open world.
S: Please tell me. As a video artist you seem to produce works once or twice every two years. Making a movie through the Art Theater Guild (ATG) must be financially a burden but I feel mentally it is very free. I say this because if you work in the confines of the movie industry it becomes very clear that they are many that are trying to pull strings from a lot of directions. And when you set out into the field of ATG suddenly all of those pulls disappear, and at the same time that becomes a tremendous pressure…
J: In a sense with ATG films it is about where to then place that pull.
S: I agree. With an ATG film one must create it all by ones self. When you are working for a large film firm because you can see all the pulls it is much easier to set ones stance within them.
J: The essence of a pull and trying to understand it is what propels one to present works.
S: That is why it is easier for the works to then present something in particular on the screen. The danger of ATG films is that they immediately start diving into the worlds of abstraction.
J: I always like to try and avoid that. At the same time I feel that the days when ATG films go into abstraction have sort of ended.
S: Why do you not produce films with the five established companies. Is it because you feel it is easier to be yourself in the field of ATG?
J: It is not like that. In another word, this is something I have thought, but I feel movies should be made more by younger people. And I have this desire to keep educating these reserve forces, and in order to absorb such ways of making film are also good. It is also a place that welcomes people who would like to start making movies.
S: I really liked Mujo. In a way I think it is my favorite of your works. I feel that the essence of a Jissouji Teruo film lies within it. In the end we watch a movie and then think about it. Or then we make a movie, and we have repeated this process, but in the end I do think of them in terms of Japan. Many film makers have faced this topic, but what I started to understand is that when put into the context of western type of modern rationalism, local Japanese customs just do not get enough credit or light shined onto them. And from the standpoint of one who makes things, or that of one who critiques them, it feels like Jisouji Teruo was able to express that in Mujo.
J: That is why when one keeps trying to achieve that one ends up in abstraction and in a certain form of dead end. After acknowledging after two or three works that one has ended up in the dead end by questioning and observing honestly this type of nationalism, then this Japanese-ness suddenly starts to just go up in smokes.
S: Making it sound more complicated it is like how the sky is just empty.
J: We end up seeing that there must have been a grander struggle to end up here.
S: Or like when one goes to a shrine, once you go past the main shrine there was nothing behind it, this Buddhist, Japanese-ness seems to exist, it seems very complicated but. Actually the three works prior to Life of a Court Lady appear to be a process of abstracting such ideas. And, I do not know how to put that abstraction but…
J: By setting an individual in a setting and with berserk fury make that one spin in carnal desires. And then do the opposite by developing the one in a more lofty perspective of a home. And by starting them all at a very local place called Mt. Chiku (?), I cultivated this pure culture. But that just ended up in a dead end. And I felt that in myself.
S: It is like you felt the abstraction of the process of creating a film. I am sure once you get passed this one you will find a very dark local culture twirling around. You made your second film in color using only a distorted lens. This most certainly felt like an abstraction of film, and I do still not know exactly why you decided to go with such a complete abstraction. The sex that was in the core of the first movie was, how do I put it, dynamic like that of a gymnast and captured sex in a very dramatic way.
J: That was still when I was into the physiological dimension of thing.
J: That was still when I was into the physiological dimension of thing.
S: I see. But that is what is really important. Once you escape the physiological dimension one ends up in the abstraction of patterns.
J: Mandala was created with my complete over confidence in the filming of abstractions, and like how I used a wide lens throughout, it had many flaws.
S: I just feel if one could feel a movie through a normal lens like that, I just think how much more Mujo could have been developed.
J: Oh yes. Once it was finished I felt the same thing.
S: In Poem it seemed like the theme of your first work was then used in reverse. You have definitely walked a very interesting path. Mujo was filmed with a standard black and white. Mandala in color with vista vision. And then Poem in black and white with cinema scope, and this time you did it with color and cinema scope. What was the meaning behind this?
J: This happened because I wanted to go through each of them, as I was raised watching TV on a very small screen and wanted to see how things came out on the big movie screens. I would eventually also want to work with 70mm. In that way I have a tendency to try to create spectacles.
S: I feel that film critics have a tendency of overseeing the type of film, whether it be in black and white, vista vision, or color, when critiquing a movie. I think it is very important in a critique if it was in standard, color, or cinema scope.
J: There was a young director called Hara Maskou (?) who had said the same thing. As in why do critiques come out while they ignore the type of film the artist decided to use. I was inspired by that. Like it made sense. As in when we watch a film or talk about a film we ignore that aspect all together.
S: I think that is not right. I think because critiques are made without a base in sensibility they immediately devolve into an analysis of patterns and end up as a reverse irradiation. That includes myself too…
J: And for me there is an aspect of wanting to cherish the physiological aspects in my works. I have a feeling that the essence of why people start to like movies is in that area.
S: When we think of movies directors like Pasolini become important. I have a strong feeling that Pasolini has accomplished the same thing Jissou Teruo had done with Mujo over in the far lands of Italy. I mean he values the material aspects of things. Like the texture of the desert… Pasolini’s movies have made an impact in the film industry in Japan, but what is sad is rather than incorporating the details of his works that he had built up they have been analyzed, and the analysis has been taken into the films. By doing that they are not inheriting anything, let alone able to compete.
J: I think that is because in Japan when we receive such works we take them as abstractions.
S: That has been the case with Japan as they have taken western culture as an abstraction for a long time. For example with films neo realism had started in Italy. That happened because of the chaos of their financial system right. But when it got imported to Japan they just felt like “Ah the times are now neo realism. Lets dirty up the sets, let’s use outlines for the actors make up, let’s use light so it appears that there is none” and like that they just interpret and use it. Instead of just taking stuff as is, our directors ought to understand the details and try to fix the problems from the start, and by doing so they would also reach the same points.
J: In other words though the Japanese have received such things and have taken them on to create their own style through it, with the good and the bad, giving it their own taste.
S: One third into Life of a Court Lady Shijo becomes a nun and starts her travels right. Until then there were a lot of dark scenes with close ups and excessively long distance shots. But after that point it starts to become more orthodox in style like traveling was in a way a different world with a sense of uncertainty, and I was surprised how directly I could feel that.
J: The reason I chose the middle ages was so that I could try the dead end of this struggle that people had during times when borders and limitations to life were different, and sound-wise to incorporate that interaction they had with East Asia, and how freely things came in, and with the filming I wanted to show that kind of sense of gradually going outward.
S: I was thinking while I was watching, but this unknown entity called the Lord, a character who was in a world that could be as much this modern times, this indoor lifestyle, was filmed using a lot of darkness, with excessive close ups, making them appear excessively big, with the perspective like something was in the way, and then when she leaves the perspective starts to gradually change, and I felt there was meaning to that.
J: That was planned from the beginning. I had already wanted to show that the rhythm and physiological differences of the outside world was different.
S: And the depiction of the sex scenes is so subtle yet well done.
S: Where did you get the actress Janet Yata from?
J: I am most certain that the women of the Heian period were not dainty per se. I mean just imagine how much more the women of those days carried themselves around mountains. I mean even though she was born in a palace she ends up a traveling nun. I have a feeling she must have had a sturdy body. Like she must have been healthy. Also she had birthed many children too right. And at the same time she was in love and had sex. I wanted to have those basics down.
S: And then she has 3 children all with different men depending on who has the most power right?
J: I thought it was important to be able to tell such things more from the looks than what was being said. There may be some people who will feel it being odd but.
S: I like it. The darkness during her time with the Lord and the pattern gets changed the moment she ends up showing her breasts, it becomes a very interesting detail. Today was a lot of fun. It reminds me of the times we had discussions at the bar when we were in the Waseda Universities Movie Club.
J: That was when I was making my second and third films, and I think I would not had been able to have such a frank talk at the time. In that way I feel like I am reaching a point where I can actually get past myself.
S: Regardless you have concluded a theme together with Mr. Ishidou and now, leaping out and expanding, by even going to the middle ages, I can safely say some new buds are starting to sprout.