Kuroki Kazuo (KK): I say I’m from Ebino City in Miyazaki Prefecture, but I was actually born in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture. You see, my father was from Ebino and my mother from Matsuzaka. My father was working as a engineer for a German-owned electrical appliance company in Matsuzaka but the company wasn’t doing very well. He had some connections that landed him a job in Manchuria, so we went over to Manchuria before I entered primary school. The day we arrived in Changchun [the seat of government for Manchukuo, Japan’s Manchurian puppet state in existence from 1932 to 1945, renamed Xinjing, “new capital” by the Japanese], my younger sister was killed. We had moved from our Japanese house to what today we might call a condominium, and my sister wasn’t used to how things worked. When she tried to get a look out the window, it opened on her and she fell to her death. This was a real shock for my parents, and was, I think, a kind of lifelong trauma. My father was transferred to Liaoyang soon after this. We stayed in Liaoyang until my second year in primary school, after which point we returned to Xinjing. So, all told, I ended up attending three different primary schools. After about the sixth grade, my vision began to deteriorate and I couldn’t stand the idea of wearing glasses. I didn’t like having to put them on the classroom. And, not really liking school because I didn’t like having to study, I started playing hooky. I’d leave home in the morning, and, instead of heading for school, I’d head off in the other direction towards the downtown where the movie theaters were—there were eight Japanese movie theaters at that time. Seeing movies all the time and skipping school so much really meant I should have failed, but it was wartime, so they let me graduate. But I was really at the bottom of my class, so I didn’t qualify to go onto middle school. My parents were really worried what to do with me, but in the end, my grandpa and grandma agreed to take me in and make me a soldier. And so I suddenly found myself leaving Manchuria and heading back to Japan
YY: I suspect the films you saw when you were in Manchuria must have had a big influence on you. What kinds of films were they?
KK: Movies like [the samurai period drama series] Kurama Tengu and Muttsuri Umon. And, though I could make neither head nor tails of the plot, the film that most impressed me was Warm Current (“Danryu,” 1939). I was really taken with Yoshimura Kozaburo’s Warm Current. I’m not really quite sure what it was, but something in it seemed so modern and fresh. I was impressed with how very cultural Japan was as a nation. But, besides those films, I remember seeing samurai fighting films, German films like Olympia (1938, dir. Leni Riefenstahl), as well as Composition Class (“Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu,” 1938, dir. Yamamoto Kajiro), Matasaburo of the Winds (“Kaze no Matasaburo,” 1940, dir. Shima Koji) and A Pebble by the Wayside (“Robo no ishi,” 1938, dir. Tasaka Tomotaka) to name but a few.
YY: This was right when Japanese cinema was perhaps at its most interesting.
KK: Yes, perhaps you could say that. Now, after being repatriated back to Japan, the next big hurdle I faced was the local Kagoshima dialect, which I couldn’t understand one bit. I sat for the entrance exam for middle school, but because my scores were so bad, I was one of the three or four kids who were refused admission. So I went to the upper division of a primary school for a year, and that’s where I finally started to get the hang of the Kagoshima way of speaking. One year later, I finally was admitted to middle school, but with the labor mobilizations, military training, and then student mobilization, I hardly did any studying. In my third year, we were mobilized for factory work, and that’s when our plant was air raided by Grumman fighters. About ten of my classmates died in the attack. I think my experiences of colonialism and of the air raids were decisive events in my life. . . .
YY: Were you with your ten classmates when they were killed?
KK: Yes, that’s right. I think the Grummans must have suddenly appeared, and dive-bombed us. Well, for us, the air raid sirens were really a daily event, and my studious friends would just amble over to the air raid shelter in no particular hurry. As you know, I was not the studying kind, and so I was quick to spot the bombs that had been dropped right above our heads swooping down towards us like three crows. Instinctively I threw myself to the ground. Then, it was as if I’d gone to Hell, with the sky raining down sand, wind, and this explosive noise. One of the boys who I’d been walking with had been knocked over by the blast, and when he finally got up, thinking he had survived, his face began to split right down the center in front of my very eyes. Right above his forehead, his head was opening up as if it were a watermelon just smashed open. And there he stood extending his arm up towards the sky as his brains just spewed out the top. I was overcome with terror and shock, and I ran away just leaving him there. One of my friends dragged another of us who had lost his entire leg to the hospital, but some of us were just abandoning the friends with whom we’d been walking. This too was another traumatic moment that has followed me my entire life. In my experience of colonialism and then the language barrier I faced, I had always been some kind of tumbleweed, what [popular Japanese writer] Itsuki Hiroyuki often calls “deracinated.” After all this, I had a nervous breakdown and had to take time off school, and I ended up two more years behind. I kept thinking about what had happened to my ten classmates, I wanted a change of environments by switching schools to a high school in Miyakonojo when I was in my last year. At the school there, it just happened that Yamaguchi Seiji, the Dean of the Arts and Letters Division, was a graduate of Doshisha University’s Philosophy Department and that a good friend of his was still in Kyoto teaching at Doshisha. So he told me to go there. I’d thought I might go to Waseda, but that’s how I found myself going to Doshisha for college. I ended up disappointing both Mr. Yamaguchi as well as Okamoto Seiichi, the professor of politics who had agreed to accept me by turning to Marxism. Let’s just say that I didn’t really think deeply about things or that I was very impressionable, but whichever the case, I became totally absorbed in the student movement. Since I barely attended classes, there was no way I could graduate. Still my professor was willing to trump up a statement saying that he expected me to graduate and to give me an introduction to Toei producer Makino Mitsuo, and I sat the examination for assistant director at Toei’s Kyoto Studio.
(Nippon no Akuryo, 1970)
2. Joining the Film World
YY: Were you hoping for a job in cinema at that time?
KK: No, not in the least. Well, I did consider it when I was thinking about getting a job, but I assumed that whatever job I took, it wouldn’t last long. At that point, I didn’t even know that movies were made by directors; I thought it was stars like Kataoka Chiezo or Arashi Kanjuro who did. (laughs) And when I went to take the test, all they were offering were assistant director positions. I had this vague idea that, after all, I had liked movies since primary school, so if I could just get a job in the movie industry, perhaps I’d be able to keep it without getting too bored and that I could just go on working somewhere in the rank and file of the industry. And right about then, they had posters up advertising for help. When I asked my professor about it, it turned out that he had gone to Doshisha’s middle school together with Makino. With his letter of recommendation in my hand, I went up to Tokyo. Despite the cold winter weather, there were eight hundred people lined up for what were only four or five jobs. I first thought I hadn’t a hope in hell and might as well go out and enjoy myself on the town. But then I thought if I don’t at least take the exam I came for, how could I possibly face that professor of mine who had put himself on the line by writing that sham letter of my expected graduation.
YY: Was the fact that there were a number of repatriates from Manchuria then working at Toei a factor in your decision?
KK: That wasn’t at all an issue for me. The Toei posters had advertised working opportunities in Kyoto and Tokyo, and I was desperate to get out of Kyoto. I’d been involved in a lot of illegal activities and I’d been in jail in Kyoto, so I thought there was no way I could live there, and went into the whole thing hoping to get placed in Tokyo. Well, with 800 people applying, I really had no hope for anything, but out of the blue came this letter calling me back for an interview. With my Makino Mitsuo connection, I was offered a kind of temporary position as a replacement in the Kyoto Studio. I didn’t want to be in Kyoto even a day longer, so I just kept on going and escaped to Tokyo.
YY: You mean you resigned from Toei?
KK: Well, I was only a substitute. And the whole atmosphere was like some yakuza (mafia) gang. (laughs) It was almost the complete inverse of what I had been doing with the student movement, and it made me want to get out of Kyoto as soon as I could. And so I went up to Tokyo. Daiei director Masumura Yasuzo, a classmate of one of my relatives who had gone to the University of Tokyo, and Takamura Takeji, who had quit his job as a newspaper reporter and had joined Iwanami Productions, were there. So I got in touch with Takamura right away and went over [to Iwanami] to visit him. He was on location at Sakuma Dam as a director of short films.
YY: This is Takamura Takeji of the famous three-part Sakuma Dam (1954-57)?
KK: I had never seen a documentary before, and when (executive) Yoshino Keiji asked me what kind of films I wanted to make, I told him I was interested in making features. Well, he told me that there was no possibility of that, that I had the wrong place, and that they had absolutely nothing to do with feature films. Documentarist Hani Susumu did go on to make feature films with Iwanami, but that was years later. I think somewhere along the way, Yoshino took a liking to me. He told me that feature films would not be possible, but that at least with a camera and film, I could make movies. He told me they were making shorts with an extremely small crew and that while it might seem like a detour at first, it was actually really good work. In actual fact, there was a big market for public relations films at the time and not enough people to make them. No doubt he was looking for young guys like myself willing to do heavy labor, and would hire any piece of brawn regardless of his academic background.
YY: So this is when you made Record of a Mother (“Hitori no haha no kiroku,” 1954, dir. Kyogoku Takahide), Tokyo Gas (1954, dir. Yabe Masao), Fuji Film (1954, dir. Yabe Masao), and All Toshiba (1954, dir. Kagami Yoichi). I heard that you got to work with master editor Ise Chonosuke, and that he was a great influence on you.
KK: Well, it wasn’t until I joined Iwanami that I learned that there were such things as assistant directors and directors and that’s how movies were made. I had encountered a world devoid of stars. Instead, I found myself in a world where the only things we would shoot were work sites and factories; it wasn’t such an easy place for me to be. At that time, people thought that not finding work in a studio meant never making a feature film. Once you were doing shorts, you would be doing them for life and never get near feature filmmaking— that was the kind of assumption there was. We worked in a team of four: the director, the assistant director, the cameraman and the assistant cameraman. As an assistant director, I was responsible for everything from backing on lights to editing, printing and taking care of the crew’s lodging, food and train tickets. I’m sure that’s how I learned the basic structure of filmmaking. At a material level, I could see how to create feature films just by adding in actors, a script, and all manner of other things. In this sense, I had my hands on the camera, the lens, and the film much more than assistant directors who had gone through the studio system, and maybe I can say that I got to understand the structure of film from a much more intimate perspective. Of course, I came to see the importance of camerawork, but I also began to realize that in documentary and in shorts editing was absolutely crucial. At that point, excluding what Hani and Haneda Sumiko did, Ise edited all of our commercial productions.
I wasn’t the best of assistant directors when we were out on a shoot, so I was sent off to be Ise’s assistant editor and to learn the “unglamorous” art of editing. At the time, standard opinion was that Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Suzuki Tatsuo and Kuroki Kazuo would never make a film by themselves. That’s why they wanted to stick us in the editing department. Ise himself was such a charismatic figure though, and I was always amazed to see how he could magically connect random fragments of film into a single form. Through Ise, I learned that while directing, screenplay, and a whole host of other things are important, editing is truly critical.
YY: How did you do your editing? Did you use a Steinbeck like editors do now?
KK: We used a Movieola to splice it all together.
YY: Somewhere I heard that you would cut your film in strips and then splice it by hand. . . .
KK: Well, when we were in a rush, we would. When film got into Ise’s hands it was like it was dancing. He would cut it just right, not too short or too long so you’d end up with too much film on your hands. It was an extremely orthodox style that had no pretensions, and that made it all the better for me. There were no avant-garde cuts, and it followed an extremely orthodox film grammar that was legible to anyone who saw it.
YY: What were power relations like between the editor and the directors. With such a prestigious editor, did the directors have to keep from interfering?
KK: Most of the time, it was almost as if the director didn’t exist. Ise wouldn’t bother thinking about what the director wanted or how to work with him. He was treated like a kind of editing god, and the director couldn’t tell him a thing.
YY: So finally you got to direct your first film. This was the public relations film, Electric Rolling Stock of Toshiba (“Toshiba sharyo,” 1958). How did your first film come about?
KK: Well, it wasn’t so much a debut film as a film that didn’t have a director. Until The Seawall (“Kaiheki,” 1959), I was still operating at the assistant director level. They let me do the film as assistant director so that Iwanami could make the client’s deadline. Usually Ise would do the editing, but I was my contrary old self, and I decided that I didn’t want Ise editing my film. It wasn’t that I wanted to assert the rights of the director, but that I didn’t want Ise to be involved in the film itself. I am terribly indebted to this extraordinary teacher of mine, but I went ahead and edited it myself. And, in the long run, Electric Rolling Stock of Toshiba fell far short of what Ise would have done.
YY: And, then we get to The Seawall, your famous docu-mentary about a steam power plant.
KK: Well I don’t know if it’s famous, but this film is another of the ones I made as an assistant director. Kuwano Shigeru, the eminent documentarist who began his career before the war, wrote the screenplay. In those days, we had to do four or five long-term projects all at once in order to make ends meet. And since this one took a full three years, it was a real pain to do. Iwanami was wondering who they could get who was willing to get stuck with filming a factory for three years. So, they decided to ask the young, contract guys, and their gaze stopped on me. Basically, I functioned as the on-site director for the film, and I had a cameraman and support staff to take with me. Suzuki Tatsuo was the assistant, and Kato Kazuzo, the cameraman. Kato had been the cameraman on the Sakuma Dam series and, after I had run away from the second installment out of complete boredom, he was the one who came to Kyoto to find me and bring me back. He was the guy who had consoled me at the time by saying “You’ve got to struggle if you want to ever make feature films.” So we said “Are we going to do it?”, and we did it.
(Matsuri no Junbi, 1975)
3. Encounters with Resnais and Godard
YY: Right around this time, you were influenced by Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), right?
KK: These two films were crucial films for me. At that time, Okamoto Kihachi and Nakahira Ko were bringing something quite new to Japanese cinema, but Breathless and Hiroshima, mon amour were the decisive films. After seeing them, the thing that struck me most was that there was hope for me to make feature films after all. I had been thinking that I was destined to live my life producing worthless shorts and PR films, but when I saw what Godard had done, I had the revelation that anyone can make a film.
YY: This was right around the 1960 demonstrations against renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Somewhere I heard that you were also marching at the Diet.
KK: With my helmet and rubber boots on, I’d get into the camera-truck, but instead of heading off to the film site, I’d drive down to the Diet. (laugh) But watching Resnais was an even bigger shock for me. To put it as Matsumoto Toshio might, films are not merely an external reality, they also portray an internal reality. Once I saw Godard and Resnais, I thought “Now I’m ready to quit Iwanami and start preparing for my own feature films.”
YY: Right after this, you make a musical, right? The Seas Are Full of Sheep in Love (“Koi no hitsuji ga umi ippai,” 1961). You got overseas support after making this film.
KK: I had just left Iwanami, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I made the English-language Japan on Ten Dollars a Day (“Nihon 10-doru ryoko,” 1962) on a request from Matsukawa Yasuo. It was a sort of musical about a crazy young American girl who travels from Tokyo to the Tokaido region. I also made The Seas are Full of Sheep in Love—Terayama Shuji came up with the title for that one. Both films got theatrical releases.
I don’t know where he saw them, I think it must have been Hong Kong or somewhere like that, but this old guy from Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers called me from his hotel saying he needed to see me as soon as possible. I went over to meet him, and he proposed that I go to Hong Kong for three years to make musicals. This little old man promised they would guarantee a steady income and it would give me a chance to learn English. The whole thing seemed quite suspicious to me, and my friends told me I’d better be careful. Later, I would get two more chances, and I refused them all. I did hear afterwards that there were some Japanese directors who went including Inoue Umeji.
YY: Then you worked on a film that Ogawa Shinsuke always used to talk about, what I think was a fairly unusual PR film entitled Hokkaido, My Love (“Waga ai Hokkaido,” 1962).
KK: Our commission was to film Hokkaido over the space of a year to show the bright future of Hokkaido and Hokkaido Denryoku, an electrical utility, in a positive and upbeat light. Since I’d already been exposed to the work of Godard and Resnais, making some paean to the future potential of Hokkaido’s factories or its tourist destinations across four seasons seemed an onerous task. We decided to do the film along the lines of a theatrical feature film. A recent college graduate has just found a new job and, when traveling, he falls madly in love with a woman working at a boot factory in Otaru, Hokkaido. It is an unrequited love, but we could use his character to sing Hokkaido’s praises. These were fairly insubstantial lines, and in the long run, we never got to the topic of Hokkaido’s wilderness or its open land or the spirit of its people. Shimizu Kunio’s narration was good, and with Shimizu Kazuhiko on camera and AD Higashi Yoichi and Ogawa around, it was fun being on location. We imitated Resnais and had an extended shot of the naked couple holding each other at the mansion of a herring industry king. When we showed the rushes, some of the executives became upset and we were forced to make cuts all over the film. And so what became Hokkaido, My Love is actually the little bit left that we could scrape together into a film. (laugh) That film is what should have been cut!
(Tobenai Chinmoku, 1966)
4. The Maraton Runner Incident and Silence has no Wings
YY: While you were at Iwanami, you made seven films, and then as a freelance filmmaker, you made twenty-eight, many of which caused sensations when they were released. For example, Record of a Marathon Runner (“Aru marason ranna no kiroku,” 1964). When you read film magazines at the time, you can see it caused quite a lot of controversy.
KK: Well, what can I say? After shooting Matsukawa’s Japan on Ten Dollars a Day, I was asked by Kato to join him at Tokyo Cinema. Kato, of course, was the cameraman I met during Sakuma Dam, and he had since moved over to Tokyo Cinema, which was interested in recruiting me. Okada Sozo was the president, and there were lots of influential guys from the short film scene like Iwasaki Akira, Kobayashi Yonesaku and Yoshimi Yutaka around. Apart from Okada, they were all Communist Party members as were nearly all the union members. That was where The Seawall first got some recognition, and then I was asked to make a film on Toyo Rayon and its various enterprises.
YY: And that film was The Solar Thread (“Taiyo no ito,” 1963)?
KK: The Solar Thread as well as another film that documented the production process and the products of the factories. These went smoothly, and we were able to finish them. I think Tokyo Cinema was fairly relieved. Then, to celebrate the anniversary of Fuji Film and to get Fuji-brand film into wide circulation during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was asked to do a story honoring the Games. The requirement was that I had to include all 40-some events. I had never been good at sports, so naturally I wasn’t keen on making this film. And as I was mulling it over, it struck me that I could somehow manage it if it were about that simple action of putting one foot in front of another: marathon running. I had once been really inspired by Dazai Osamu’s story “Run, Melos!”, so I thought to myself I’d simply do my own version of “Run, Melos!”. But my suggestion of limiting the film to marathon running was bitterly opposed. When I suggested to the company that they find someone more suitable for the job, the sponsors changed their tune saying it would be alright after all if I was willing to focus on a particular marathon runner. But when it came to marathon runners, I only knew [Japanese marathonner] Tsuburaya Kokichi, but he was that dark, brooding type I don’t like very much. So I decided to go to Haneda Airport to see the team returning from an overseas tour. I was a big fan of the actor Ichikawa Raizo, and one of the guys on the team was the spitting image of Raizo. It was a purely subjective thing, but I thought to myself here’s a guy I could focus on. He was good-looking and had style. That’s how I decided to do a film about Kimihara Kenji. We narrowed the scope of the film to just his story and began filming. As luck would have it, about the third day into filming, Kimihara suffered a foot injury that looked like it was going to keep him from running for quite a while. The chairman of Tokyo Cinema was quite happy with this turn of events and issued an order for us to stop filming, at the same time as the company cut off our film supply and lodging subsidies. They ordered me to go back to shooting a whole series of sports events. I convened the crew to discuss what we would do, and the response was to stick to our guns. We would stay in Kita-kyushu City and keep on filming. Assistant director Izumida Masahiro sent letters and telegrams and called their colleagues working on PR films and on Iwanami projects all across the country asking them to snag film for us. And sure enough, more and more film kept arriving from all over the country. Actually, it was all 35 mm color Eastman Kodak film.
YY: You used Eastman Kodak on a PR film you were making for Fuji Film!
KK: That’s right. We shot it on Eastman. Even Fuji Film asked us to go ahead using the Eastman film. They knew the quality of their own film stock better than anyone. We kept shooting, and miraculously Kimihara Kenji made a comeback. At this point, the company simply backed down, and started sending us film and our location expenses again. But things hadn’t gotten any better. When I showed Tokyo Cinema the rushes for this film I had been calling Seinen (“Youth”), they realized that I was not planning to use narration but on-screen titles instead. Tokyo Cinema became insistent that narration be added, a new title chosen and a new director be assigned to the film. When I was working with Kyogoku Takahide, I had come up with the title for my Record of a Mother. Playing on that title, the company renamed this film Record of a Marathon Runner. They were the ones who wanted a new title. As a compromise solution, Tokyo Cinema agreed that the narration could be kept to an absolute minimum and I agreed to put a Fuji Film advertisement of less than a minute at the start of the film. When we started laying the soundtrack, the production section chief became violent. I forget what belt he had reached in judo, but when we were working on the soundtrack, he would stand right behind me and would start kicking the wall. (laughs) If the narration were reduced even by the slightest amount, he became enraged. I operated in these conditions for thirty or forty hours, under his surveillance, and barely getting a wink of sleep. If I did anything that was slightly different, he would stop me working and call the company chiefs for consultation. At that time, I was thinking I’d never get another short film assignment again. When we finally finished the dubbing, it was early in the morning, and I walked out of the studio to see my friends from the Ao No Kai [young documentarists group at Iwanami Productions] standing there applauding me. That was encouraging, but on the other hand, I’ll never be able to change that title, which is the reason that, even to this day, you won’t find any of the crew listed in the credits.
YY: Now I see. After this point, you start moving closer and closer towards feature films.
KK: It is ironic, but soon after that, Nikkatsu selected the film for national distribution. And there were meetings held about what had happened as well as a book published on the “Marathon Runner Incident.” It became something of a political issue at the time. I was also summoned by the Communist Party and called “counter-revolutionary.” According to them, Tokyo Cinema was a company that produced revolutionary PR films all as a means to amass capital for the revolution. In the midst of that, according to their reasoning, I was taking counter-revolutionary actions. In other words, it was my revolutionary duty to make a film just as Fuji Film had told me, a film that would cover many different sports, a film that would surely please its sponsors. According to the Party, my arbitrary, individual way of making a film wasn’t allowing that. My response was that this was an intrusion into my work, when I wasn’t even a member of the Party, and that it was a violation of freedom of speech. I had been involved in Party activities earlier, so I didn’t mind his kind of thing at all. With that, the Party refused to budge from their position. I tried appealing directly to the union, but the general decision turned out no different than that of the leadership.
I didn’t get any work after that. I had nothing to do all day, so I spent my time in Shinjuku, drinking up a huge bill and hanging around in coffee shops. Producer Matsukawa Yasuo grew really worried for me. The independently-produced Woman in the Dunes (“Suna no onna,” 1964, dir. Teshigahara Hiroshi) had been quite a hit for its Toho distributors, and facing a financial crisis, Toho decided to ask Matsukawa to do a second feaure film. They thought it might work to have someone new make a feature film. This was the starting point for what would later become Silence Has No Wings. You see Matsukawa couldn’t stand dramatic features, no matter whether they were happy or tragic. He called me over one day and asked me if I could work on a project, and in his hands was the screenplay for a short film called “The Lonesome Butterfly” (“Hitori bocchi no chocho”). I asked him if he was going to turn this into a feature-length film, and he responded that he didn’t want to but that maybe I would. Toho had a subsidiary called Nichiei Shinsha with a producer by the name of Horiba Shinsei. Matsukawa recommended me to do the film in his place. This was an incredible piece of luck for me, like pennies from heaven! Matsukawa is a strange bird, saying that he never wanted to make a feature film and wasting that chance on me. I still feel terribly indebted to him. So, I took that “lonely butterfly” and filled it out, and with a little padding and stuffing, I teased it into what is now Silence Has No Wings. I took the title from a line in one of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems.
YY: So you didn’t have ATG in mind when you made the film?
KK: That’s right. It was going to get a national release through Toho. We had the opening day all lined up, and the posters and fliers had been distributed to all the theaters. Then, right before it was to open, all the top brass at Toho screened the film, and suddenly everything was tabled. They said it was a lunatic film, that it wasn’t even a film at all. And the entire nationwide opening for the film was cancelled, the posters taken down, and a different film was rushed into release.
YY: They were probably shocked at seeing something that didn’t look at all like the feature films they were used to. Could you describe where you got the idea to make the interventions that you did, in other words, to bring in such new elements?
KK: Godard’s and Resnais’ influence on me hadn’t dissipated. I wanted to make films where the non-existent really does exist—I’m sounding like [experimental filmmaker] Matsumoto Toshio here—and that’s why I focused the film on the butterfly. From one fanatic ideology centered around the Emperor to another one centered around MacArthur, that idea of our conversion to postwar democracy was represented through the butterfly. And I wanted to invest in it all the bitterness of the Showa Era (1927-1989) where a difference of a few years could mean the difference between wartime and postwar. It is about a Japan that one day will surely alter the Peace Article of its Constitution, a Japan that will again become one of small number of military states to wage war once more. The cinematic version of this prediction was Silence Has No Wings.
(Nippon no Akuryo, 1970)
5. Overseas Collaborations
YY: In 1967, you were approached by a French producer to direct a film. Would you tell us about that?
KK: Silence Has No Wings got its overseas première thanks to Kawakita Kashiko. And one day, a letter written in Franch arrived for me. I couldn’t read it; I can’t understand French, that is, so I asked a friend to read it for me. It turned out that Marc Allégret who had made Lac des dames (1934) and Pierre Braunberger [producer of Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) among others] had seen the film and had been very intrigued by it. And now they were asking me to go to France to make films there. It was something akin to what the Shaw Brothers had proposed earlier, but there I could learn either French or English. I consulted Tayama Rikiya and some other people, and they all advised me against it. I am so easily tricked! (laughs) And I never even answered the letter. Many years later, Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinemathèque in Paris organized a screening of Silence Has No Wings because he had liked it so much. He invited me to the Cinemathèque and gave a lecture on the film—now I really wish we had a record of that somewhere. At the screening, I had to give a little introduction, and I mentioned that after I had made the film, I had received a letter from someone called Braunberger and didn’t know there was such a person around these days. Everyone was flabbergasted, telling me that Pierre Braunberger was the father of the New Wave and that he was behind Godard’s filmmaking. It was a real shock for me. And as so many years had passed, I regretted having missed that opportunity.
YY: But then you returned to the Cinemathèque in 1985 for a retrospective. . . .
KK: Just as the retrospective was happening, Truffaut passed away. And when there was a memorial for Truffaut, my interpreter told me that Braunberger was there in the audience. When we were introduced, he was quick to remember me. “So why didn’t you come that time?” He must have been around eighty, and a few years later he passed away. So I was finally able to meet Braunberger after a few decades! I tend to be fairly shy, so I probably wouldn’t have gone after all; still I couldn’t help feeling that somewhere I’d missed a wonderful opportunity. It was much more of a shame than turning down the Shaw Brothers.
YY: Before joining ATG, you made one more, very important film, A Cuban Lover (“Kyuba no koibito,” 1969). Could you tell us about the completely unexpected proposal you received from Cuba?
KK: We were just able to get ATG to screen Silence Has No Wings, but I wasn’t getting any shorts, and was stuck without any work at all. I had absolutely no income. I’ve lived my whole life practically without income, but then I was penniless and not sure what road to take. Now in Cuba, American films were not permitted, and in their stead, the Cubans would buy Japanese films in bulk. So, along with films from the Zatoichi blind swordsman series, which were especially popular with Cubans, Toho would throw in other, cheaper films when they sold a package. I can only think that Toho must have sold the Cubans Silence Has No Wings, but the film somehow caught the attention of guys at the Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry (ICAIC), who showered it with praise. At that time, the Japan-Cuba Friendship Society was chaired by Yamamoto Makiko and Takenaka Tsutomu. Now Takenaka, I learned later, was a big fan of actress Kaga Mariko, and he adored Silence Has No Wings [in which she appears]. Well, these two approached me to discuss the possibility of a coproduction. They wanted to commission me, but Cuba was a poor country and had not a cent to spare. So I’d have to come up with all the equipment here, and I didn’t have a penny to my name either. Of course, everyone around me was against the idea. But I hadn’t had work since Silence Has No Wings, and I was beginning to get anxious, so I persuaded Tsuchimoto Noriaki to come on board as producer. We started fundraising for the project, and though it was hard to get any money at all, when we had found about a third of the budget, we decided to go ahead with the project even though everything was far from in place. This would lead to a lot of problems later.
YY: You many not have much money for the project, but you had a surprisingly impressive cast lined up. Like Tsugawa Masahiko. . . .
KK: He certainly was a very popular actor at that time. But he really hesitated over shooting a film overseas with a director he didn’t know. But fortunately for me, Suzuki Naoyuki had been the director of Tsugawa’s long-running television drama, and Suzuki was a big fan of Silence Has No Wings. The screenwriter was Shimizu Kunio, and Shimizu was a very close friend of mine from my Iwanami days who had also done the narration for Hokkaido, My Love. Tsugawa agreed to come on board. This was also a rushed project, and I wrote whatever came to my mind for the screenplay. We had to rewrite the whole thing when we got to Cuba. We ended up shooting the film without really looking at the script anyway. The crew consisted of me, an assistant director, Suzuki as cameraman, his assistant and two sound recordists. We got a car and driver from the Cuban studio. We ended up doing a whole feature film with a crew of only six or seven people.
YY: And the beautiful actress? Was she from Cuba?
KK: Yeah. We visited a tobacco factory on the island, and she had been chosen as Miss Tobacco or something like that. . . so we asked her. She was a complete amateur, and couldn’t handle her lines at all. They were added in later by a well-known actress.
YY: When it was screened, it was shown at local auditoriums, but it never made it to the theaters?
KK: Director Morikawa Tokihisa’s film had created an excellent national distribution network.
YY: You’re referring to his Live Your Own Way (“Wakamonotachi,” 1967)?
KK: That’s right. We tried distributing the film along the same route that Live Your Own Way had set up. We faced a lot of opposition from the Communists because of the Marathon Runner Incident. And even though Cuba is one of the most communist countries around, there was resentment that I had bypassed the Communist Party to work directly with the Cubans. Now, I had a bad reputation with both the right and the left. But finally, one or two places in Tokyo agreed to screen it. It was really wretched having to screen in those conditions, and we lost money almost everywhere. Yomiuri Hall agreed to screen the film, and I can remember being surrounded by radical student women. They spat on me, and I can still feel their spit landing on my face as they screamed at me, “You traitor director! How could you take that anti-revolutionary kid to Cuba? How could you make him a hero? You idiot!” It was a pitiful feeling. (laugh) The left really deplored me, saying that my main character had “sold out Guevara” and that I was “counter-revolutionary.” Later, when I was sinking in my debts and being harassed by loan sharks and the yakuza, I thought this whole scenario would make a perfect yakuza film. That became Evil Spirits of Japan.
YY: This begins ATG’s Golden Age. After doing Evil Spirits of Japan, you went on to do The Assassination of Ryoma and Warming up for the Festival. What made it possible for you to do so many films with ATG?
KK: Well, since I had nowhere else to make films, I ended up submitting proposals to ATG. I think Nakajima Masayuki, the producer who brought director Oshima Nagisa into the world, had had his eye on me since Silence Has No Wings, but in any case, he was very welcoming of my proposal for Evil Spirits of Japan. A friend of his, the comic artist Fukuchi Hosuke, agreed to provide the capital. At that time, it cost about eight million yen, but that was halved, and since Fukuchi would be providing four million, that meant the project could go ahead. Just as we set the project up, Fukuchi came to me saying that he was being pressured to pay back debts and that as the defendant in a number of court cases he didn’t know how much he was going to have to be paying back each month. In this kind of a situation, he didn’t want to stay in Tokyo and suggested that we move our shooting to somewhere outside the city. Since this was at a point when Toei’s yakuza films were drawing large crowds, we had decided on a yakuza film. The same thing might also be said about The Assassination of Ryoma, but in this film, we decided to take one more look at problems faced by the Japanese Communist Party up to its Sixth National Conference in 1955, roughly following the outline that Takahashi Kazumi’s screenplay provided.
YY: The period during which you made this film was by all means an exciting one.
KK: You’re right. All those feuding factions made it seem like it was blood that was raining on the rooftops of the Shinjuku bars.
(Ryoma Ansatsu, 1974)
6. Making films at ATG
YY: Returning to our earlier discussion of ATG, if ATG refers to the Art Theater Guild, exactly what kind of a guild was it?
KK: I’m actually not so sure myself, but it was sponsored by Kawakita Kashiko, and she was very aggressive in getting our work overseas screenings. And I think it may also have been one plan to counter Toho’s financial crisis. With the strength of the television market, Toho’s capital base was in bad shape and both its planning and operations were suffering. Amidst that kind of situation, directors like Teshigahara Hiroshi and Hani Susumu were able to stir things up a bit. So it started as a strategy to counter Toho’s financial crisis by having new films be made by younger directors.
YY: At first, ATG was simply distributing foreign films like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s The Devil and the Nun (1961) and Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). I think that actually producing films came later.
KK: I think it was an excellent idea to give directors who had been excluded from the studio system a chance to use their own abilities and their own power to create films on a low budget. ATG would provide half the capital and the director the other half, and the rights would be split equally. While for directors like Oshima and Hani this was not the case, for most of us unknown directors hoping to make a feature film, ATG was a kind of gateway to success. Of course, only proposals that had cleared the selection committee would be funded, but once you had passed that stage, ATG would not interfere at all with the contents of your film.
YY: I heard a story about the filming of The Assassination of Ryoma. Famous cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Ugetsu, Yojinbo, the Zatoichi series) once said that lead actor Harada Yoshio (Ryoma) came rushing into the shoot begging for food, that there wasn’t any budget for food. What were conditions like on the shoot?
KK: Well, it was the same for Evil Spirits of Japan. Kuroki Productions had folded by then, so I had to produce it myself. I started a company called Eiga Dojinsha, as the organization administering my half of the capital outlay. But, of course, in the final picture, we had no money whatsoever.
YY: Around the time, I heard it cost ten million yen for that film.
KK: So the problem was how to trick my way into raising the five million I was supposed to provide. I gathered together all the bar proprietesses from Shinjuku’s Golden-gai District, and made them contribute 20,000 or 30,000 yen each. I made Kuroda Seitaro and Tomita Mikio (pen name Natsu Fumihiko) producers, and the two of them took charge of getting funding. This allowed us to start filming, but we still had no money to buy film, no money for food, for train tickets. We would run out of film on location and couldn’t reload the camera. All we could do is wait for someone to go into Tokyo, buy some, and bring it back. And we had no lunches to provide, so during the lunch break Harada Yoshio and Matsuda Yusaku would cook rice in the sink, put curry on it, and we’d all crouch by the side of the road and eat our instant curry rice. (laughs) But this was a poorly balanced meal, and after we had finished the final shot, only the cameraman, scriptwriter, and I would stay up. Everyone else would fall asleep right away. (laughs)
YY: As a historical drama, this film feels like a fairly modern historical drama. Does this have anything to do with the tight budget?
KK: Sure, the budget is a factor there, but also, remember no one involved had ever worked on a historical drama before. I tried to remember the ones I had seen years and years earlier in Manchuria like the Kurama Tengu series, Tsubanari ronin (1939, dir. Arai Ryohei) and Chushingura (1938, dir. Makino Masahiro). We didn’t even know on which side to wear a sword. (laughs) The film staff from Kyoto were torn between hiding their laughter and their real concerns about what the hell we were doing. I think this must have been the reason that Miyagawa decided to join us on location. Then seeing our emaciated staff, and thinking that Ryoma at least needed some boosting up, he brought Harada food and supplies. I guess the whole thing looked a lot like a student film that had grown some whiskers! Never having done a historical drama before, we were like fish out of water. (laughs) Finding that old storehouse was really our lucky break. It was a three-hundred year-old warehouse for soy sauce in Soshigaya Okura that was just about to be torn down. As soon as we found the old buildings, we thought that it would be perfect. We got permission from the owner, and we extended a phone line from the property room and used it as the staff room, and we used the warehouse that was part of the soy distillery for the set. We did our shooting inside the storehouse, and then when we needed a Kyoto street scene, we would just step outside and shoot there. Filming through one of the windows you got the real impression of a street in a temple district. The Assassination of Ryoma was all about fudging our Tokyo scenes and our Kyoto scenes from this one spot.
YY: After that, you went on to do Warming up for the Festival. The screenplay is screenwriter Nakajima Takehiro’s, and it’s largely autobiographical, right?
KK: I met with Nakajima Takehiro, and since he was also submitting the same material to Fujita Toshiya, the three of us met. Nakajima mediated between the two of us, saying that he wanted to go with whoever was better positioned to actually go through with the project. Fujita and I began to discuss the issues, and when we started analyzing whether Nikkatsu or ATG was better prepared to start work soon, it became apparent that ATG could do it sooner. . . Fujita is quite a reasonable fellow, and conceding that I’d realize the project quickly, he agreed to hand it over to me. I asked Otsuka Kano (The Insect Woman), who hadn’t been able to help us with A Cuban Lover, to be the producer and work on fundraising, and a friend of his was able to put up half the budget. And so, Warming up for the Festival became a reality. The title of the film comes from the title of one of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti.
YY: Then, after a few years working in television, you made Nuclear War.
KK: There is a book called Genshiryoku senso (“Nuclear War”), written by Tahara Soichiro, a friend of mine from my Iwanami days. The book is quite different from the film, but I had been interested in the atomic bomb and in nuclear power. The proposal was criticized as being uninteresting and I had a hard time getting it through. I suspect it was accepted more on the strength of Warming up for the Festival and The Assassination of Ryoma. I got funding for the film, this time from an advertising agency run by a friend of Harada Yoshio that was willing to front half our expenses. This time too, we filmed outside Tokyo.
(Nippon no Akuryo, 1970)
7. From ATG to TOHO Studios
YY: Your next film is Until Twilight (“Yugure made,” 1980). In one fell swoop, you move from ATG to the much bigger-scale of Toho. What was behind this transition?
KK: Fukuchi Hosuke, a sponsor and producer of Evil Spirits of Japan, was a very close friend of Yoshiyuki Junnosuke, the author of the original story. Since Until Twilight had become a bestseller, Fukuchi thought it would be an excellent opportunity for some poor filmmaker to get a little money, to get rich even, so he made a direct bid for the screen rights. But when he told me to do it, I read the novel and found it difficult and hard to follow. I felt a little cornered, but I couldn’t really say no. I thought Shimizu, my screenwriter for A Cuban Lover, would be able to handle it, and I asked him to get involved, but he had to drop out in the middle of the project. I wanted to cancel the project, but just as I was thinking about doing so, producer Kadokawa Haruki contacted me. Kadokawa Films would provide the production costs, and I could recreate the project the way I wanted. I thought it was a great proposal, and for better or worse, I asked Otsuka. Otsuka was outraged and refused the offer, “You’re asking me to make a film with Kadokawa, the same Kadokawa who has corrupted Japanese cinema?” I was truly disappointed at his reaction. We would have had three times more production money and had the chance to rewrite the screenplay. It felt like once again I was involved in one of those projects where I was hemmed in on all sides.
YY: TOMORROW (“TOMORROW/Ashita,” 1988) won you very good reviews. That was screened at Iwanami Hall, wasn’t it? A story of the atomic bomb. . . .
KK: While I was involved in a Polish coproduction for television, I met a survivor of the atomic bomb. It was a kind of shock for me, in a way quite different than my experiences with atomic energy. At the time, I was acquainted with Inoue Mitsuharu from a bar where the Ao No Kai used to hold our meetings, and I had my eye on his novel Ashita (“Tomorrow”). He agreed to my proposal, and TOMORROW was the result. This young producer by the name of Nabeshima Hisao (Sonatine), whom I knew from my work with Mifune Productions, had started his own production company, and when I showed him the proposal, he became really excited. This was during the last hurrah of Japan’s economic bubble period, so we were able to find the money we needed.
YY: Then we have Roningai (1990). This is a remake of director Makino Masahiro’s famous 1928 film of the same title.
KK: Nabeshima was so pleased with what we had done with TOMORROW that he came back to me with a proposal for Roningai. From the get-go, Kasahara Kazuo was slotted as screenwriter. Of course, Makino had been a mentor to Kasahara. Now, I was thinking that Roningai would be a hard job to do; you know, it had been a top-ranking film. I took a look at what I could of the old film, since only fragments had survived. If it still existed in its entirety, I don’t think I would have wanted to take on the project. By this time Makino was doing poorly, and when I went to talk to him about the project, he told me he was in no shape to do a remake and that I should go ahead with it. Makino said he had seen my films and that he had really liked Record of a Marathon Runner. Makino told me, “If it were the director of that film, he could do Roningai.” I wasn’t quite sure who Makino was talking about! (laughs) I could understand, say, his praising Silence Has No Wings, but to suggest that my directing Marathon Runner was what made me qualified!? Makino Masahiro was kind of strange in that way. Thanks to the work of producer Makino Mitsuo, his brother, Toei took it on as a replacement film, and both Nagato Hiroyuki and Tsugawa Masahiko of Toei were Makino’s nephews. It seemed like my fate was somehow tied to the Makino clan. Anyway, I set to work on the project. By the time we had finished filming, not a line of the original script was left, and my relation with Kasahara was on the rocks. I’m sorry to say that to this day I think he is still not very happy with me. By the time we had finished with it, it had become an entirely different film.
YY: Cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Floating Weeds) was operating second camera, but why Miyagawa here?
KK: Miyagawa was really interested in the project, and he stopped by to see us on his way back from the hospital. He was especially close to Harada Yoshio. And as we all talked, everyone kept pressing him, saying “Can’t we ask you to do some of the filming for us? Isn’t there a place that you’d be willing to shoot for us?” Finally, once when he was feeling a little bit better and since we were right on his way home from the hospital, I casually asked him to do the last section. My cameraman, Takaiwa Jin, was the brother of the president of Toei, and he also was extremely welcoming of Miyagawa. So in the long run, Miyagawa agreed to do it, and it turned out to be great fun. Makino Masahiro came to see the set on the last day, and you know that Miyagawa and Makino were classmates in primary school. And we took a great group shot of all of us, a hundred or more, grouped around these two. Now I look back at that time with fondness, and I remember all the fun we had.
YY: Actor Katsu Shintaro (the Zatoichi series), who also is no longer with us, was the lead, right? He was well known for doing things all his own way, but did you have any problems with him?
KK: For some reason, Katsu and I got along very well. I have no bad memories from our working together. He wasn’t as bad as people make out. He was passionate about betting on horses and cycle-races, and sometimes we would have to stop filming on the set for him to hear the horse cross the finish line and to get the winners’ results. (laughs) It was interesting being on Katsu and Harada’s “jazz session” of a set.
YY: This film took a long time to be distributed, didn’t it? We waited and waited for it make the movie theaters.
KK: Well, Katsu’s drug incident (laughs) kept the film on ice for half a year. Still, it got a theatrical release. It was far better than what had happened with A Cuban Lover. The things I suffered for that film!
YY: The next film you make is ten years later, Pickpocket (“Suri”) in 2000.
KK: During the latter half of my work on that film, I was having such problems with my stomach. It wouldn’t stop bleeding, but I still went ahead with laying down the soundtrack, and when I’d finished I was told that I needed to be admitted to the hospital on an emergency basis or else I’d end up dead in ten months. I was in the hospital for about ten months. And my health didn’t get better for three or four more years. I lost my strength entirely, and it still hasn’t come back. I guess you reap what you sow. Just deserts for my years of heavy drinking and eating, I guess.
YY: Bresson has a famous film also entitled Pickpocket (1959). Is there a relation to that piece?
KK: No, there’s no relation. I do get pickpocketed every time I visit Paris. I always feel like I am getting “pick-plumped” or “hit-picked.” I’ve wanted to do a film about director Yamanaka Sadao [director of many swordsman dramas] for over fifteen years. But it has been really hard getting the money for the project. I thought I should do a little warmup project. Anyone is like this, but if you haven’t filmed in a while you get rusty. And I felt a little panicked, and thinking about what would be good to shoot, decided on a crime film. But because I don’t like killing people, I thought I’d better do one on pickpocketing. At first, I was planning to do a sendup of pickpocketing, but as I was researching the topic, I became so impressed by these pickpockets. I would get on the train with the idea of pickpocketing someone, but I couldn’t even manage a grope. I realized that pickpocketing requires a tremendous amount of courage, bravery, and decisiveness. And then to stop yourself from thinking that you did something wrong, you start drinking or something, and then you switch back, you get your courage back and you go out the next day looking for someone else to pickpocket. I thought pickpocketers were “terribly mundane revolutionaries.” That’s the kind of feeling I put into Pickpocket.
(Utsukushii natsu Kirishima, 2002)
8. Kuroki's new Project
YY: And you jumped straight into your next project. It’s called KIRISHIMA 1945, right?
KK: I really have been wanting to make a film about Yamanaka Sadao, but I couldn’t get the money. So I took the idea to producer Sento Takenori (J MOVIE WARS, The Ring). And he told me that Yamanaka Sadao would be fine, but wasn’t there something else I wanted to do? And it just came to me on the spot. I thought I wanted to make an autobiographical film about my experiences of colonialism and of the air raids. And Sento said, “Kuroki, let’s go with that!” It was decided in a rush in March of last year. I came up with a screenplay, and we went into production in August, and should be finished by the end of the year. The film is a companion piece to TOMORROW as well as to Silence Has No Wings. And a butterfly is again part of the theme, but this time we have a butterfly that is only found in China. We’re filming in southern Kyushu, with a young boy in the lead role.
YY: You’ve been dreaming of shooting a film on Yamanaka Sadao. I really hope you will do that one day. What are the prospects for that?
KK: Well, I’ll be working on two or three other projects that have come my way, so I’m planning to do Yamanaka the year after next. I’ll find a way to do it.