sexta-feira, 20 de março de 2009

On Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence - Interview with Nagisa Oshima

Q: Why did you get Takeshi involved in the film world?
A: Unlike most directors, I find it frustrating to have to cast only actors. I'm always on the look out for people from a different field. Although I didn't think about Takeshi specifically in that sense, I had a gut feeling that he had natural acting ability, having worked with him in the past on several TV variety shows. In fact, I think it was during one of those shows that I asked him if he fancied acting in a film. He said straight away that he was a bit shy about it, you know the way that he is. I urged him to do it and gave him two pieces of advice. The first was not to settle for a minor role. I told him to go for a big part right from the start. The second was not to appear in a comedy, simply because he was already well known as a comedian. But, at that time, I wasn't planning to ask him to take a part in one of my own films. It was just a general question, to find out whether or not he was interested in acting. Even when I first started to work on Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence - which I had a lot of difficulties in casting - I never dreamed about asking Takeshi to get involved.

Q: Describe the process that led from your initial conversation with Takeshi to you casting him in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence?
A: Oh, it just came to me like a divine revelation!

Q: You cast not only Takeshi, but also Ryuichi Sakamoto. Nowadays, it's fairly common for directors to use other professionals in their films. In fact, many have followed your example. At that time, however, it must have taken real courage to cast both a comedian and a musician. Did you think of them as a sort of combination?
A: Initially, I only looked at Takeshi and his role. After casting him, I decided on Sakamoto without even meeting him. What happened was that I saw his portrait in a photo book called Fifty Representative Figures of Today, or something like that, in which I was also featured. I stared at it for ages, then suddenly, I just knew that I wanted him too. I said to myself, "Ok, that's it!" Then I wrote to him.

Q: Although you got a great cast, wasn't it hard to teach them how to act?
A: I was confident that both would do well, even though neither had any acting experience. In Takeshi's case, I didn't have any difficulties at all. Although he wasn't an actor, he is an etertainer, and so he had a sense of how to perfom.

Q: Among the many impressive scenes in the film, perhaps the most moving is the last scene with Takeshi and Tom Conti.
A:Oh, yes. When we were making the film, there were several scenes in which everyone cried. The morning after we shot the last scene, all the make-up artists appeared on set with their hair shaved off, which is what Takeshi had to do for his role. We were all moved.

Q: During the shoot, did Takeshi show any signs that he would become the film director Takeshi Kitano we know now? Did he bombard you with a list of questions? Did you see any evidence at all of his interest in directing, as opposed to just acting?
A: No, it was quite the opposite. He didn't ask any questions. He simply turned up on set as a person who played the role described in the script. When he stood in front of the camera, he was completly immersed in his role. He wasn't Beat Takeshi anymore. There was no time to spare for any extra conversation, nor was there any need for it. Takeshi's acting was beyond my expectation. It was obvious that he had a very strong presence.

Q: Why is it that you seek out non-professional actors from other fields?
A: I simply don't like established methods. There are six billion people on this planet, but I'm supposed to choose someone after looking through just 20 or 30 actors' portraits. I've felt the same way since the beginning of my film career. And if I do things differently, perhaps I can stretch the horizons of my work. It's something I think about every time I make a film.

Q: Presumably, that's also the case with your latest film, Gohatto?
A: I always want to encounter something new, not just in casting. This time, I set out to make a film which I knew would require a lot of effort after a long break from the business. It was a fresh start for me, so naturally I wanted to find new performers.

Q: So it's the circumstances in which the film is made that dictate what you do?
A: As far as I'm concerned, I simply find my next project, then write a script. It's that script which opens up all the possibilities.

Q: With Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, did you imagine making a film of the story when you first read the original novel, The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post? What's the difference between a book which you want to turn into a film and a book which you just flick through, then forget about?
A: Oh, it's simply intuition, don't you think? Or maybe it's inspiration. In the case of van der Post's novel, it grabbed me the second I started reading it, or even before I started. I found it by chance in a book shop and read the blurb on the dust jacket. It said something like, "The encounter of an English officer and an agressive Japanese warrior in a Japanese POW Camp in Java." After reading only those words, I thought that it might make a hit film.

Q: Even ordinary people sometimes visualise certain scenes when they read a novel. Which particular scene did you visualise when you first read The Seed and the Sower?
A: As you could probably guess, it was the scene right at the end, where Takeshi's character says, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". The whole film works towards that. We shot that scene on an island. It was really hard work, but it's what I remember most about the film. There were loads of people there. One thing I'll never forget was when see David Bowie arrived on the island and said, "Oh, I see we're going to be prisoners of Oshima for the next two months". When he said that, I thought he had grasped the theme of the film itself and the true nature of film-making.

Q: Why do you think that musicians - for example, Bowie and Sakamoto - are so good at acting?
A: To do their job, musicians use their bodies as instruments. They regard their bodies as instruments. In short, I think that they are able to play certain tunes through their bodies.

Q: So are there certain similarities between entertainers and musicians? Or do they have a different way of expressing themselves?
A: I think they are similar. Entertainers also express some sort of tune by using their bodies. It may not be music, but I think they express melodies or rhythms.

Q: After Takeshi was highly praised for his performance in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, he played the serial rapist and murderer Kiyoshi Okubo. Now, he has a reputation as an actor of some ability. Judging by his film history, he seems to seek the dark side of life, which is very different from how we see him in his comic performances. Did you spot that side of his nature even when he was a comedian?
A: Yes, I did. That's one of the reasons I advised him to play a villain. I could see that he had a dark side to him even when he was playing a comic role. That was the main reason I cast him for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. I could sense that he had something different about him, something which ordinary people can't express.

Q: About Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the English actor Jeremy Irons said, "I was asked to play the role which Tom Conti later took. I rejected it because the screenplay contained a strong sign of homosexuality. But the film was wonderful, and I deeply regret that I turned it down, "Do experienced actors like him often make such misreadings?
A: Well, I can only suppose that he didn't know who the director was. I'm joking, of course. But seriously, had he been Japanese, he would have known what kind of director I am. It would have been hard for a foreigner to understand. David Bowie, however, had seen some of my previous films and was able to say that his favorite was Death by Hanging (Koshikei, 1968). But I think that is odd for a foreigner. And Bowie is odd.

Q: How did you contact David Bowie? Did you ask Jeremy Thomas for help?
A: I just contacted him on my own. I said, "Please do it!". Jeremy Thomas wasn't involved at all. I can't remember what Bowie was doing at the time. He may have been appearing in a commercial for a Japanese liquor, or something like that. So I suppose I asked one of the crew for a contact for his agent. Then I just wrote him a letter.

Q: Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the positive attitude of actresses such as Nicole Kidman, who directly contacted the film director she wanted to work with. Do you see yourself as a pioneer of this?
A: I don't always act so speedily, but in Bowie's case I had to. If I hadn't done it, it wouldn't have happened. So I wrote to him myself, and he took up my offer. He said straight away that he wanted me to come to see him, so at least I knew that he was interested. That said, it must have been easy for him to say, "Okay, come and see me". It was harder for me even to buy a plane ticket.

Q: So you flew to see him. Did you get positive feedback right from the start?
A: Yes, although I think that creating something is like climbing up a ladder, step by step.

Q: After Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence got great reviews, Takeshi embarked on a carrer as a film director with Violent Cop (Sono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki, 1989). Did he ask you to see that film?
A: No, he didn't. But of course I saw it. And I thought that he had the natural sense of a director rather than simply the ability. He had his own natural sense. I thought that there is a sort of film in the world which only he could make.

Q: You mean that Takeshi is the type of person who instinctively knows what he wants to film?
A: I think so. Or I could say that he has something which he wants to express phusically.

Q: Takeshi went on to make several films. They were critically acclaimed, but they weren't very popular with the general public in Japan. How do you evaluate his films in terms of his natural ability and his progress as a director?
A: That's a difficult question. I don't know if he had made any progress or not. I've never even thought about which of his films is my favourite. I like them all. I suppose his talent might match mine. So even if I sometimes think that he has made a mistake, I still see him working in his own style, which includes those mistakes.

Q: Have you thought about asking him to act in your next film, Gohatto?
A: I already have. He has agreed to play the role of the Samurai hero, Toshizo Hijikata. He fitted me into his schedule.

Q: That's a wonderful surprise! Takeshi playing a Hijikata sounds so sexy. It's something no-one would think of. When did you first come up with the idea?
A: I had it in my mind from the beginning when I was writting the screenplay. Takeshi said that his schedule was tight, but it was the same situation with Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. For that film, I put together the schedule on my own, after an absence of some ten years.

Q: Can you imagine how he will play Hijikata?
A: I imagine it will be his own interpretation, put it that way.

Q: Takeshi has lost a lot of weight since Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. He also had a terrible accident. He has acquired quite a threatening presence these days, don't you think?
A: The hardest parts to cast in this film were the roles of Hijikata and Isami Kondo. The problem was that both those characters are "leaders of men". And actors are not like this. They are "lone wolves". Takeshi, however, does fit into that mould. That's why his participation is essential.

Q: When did you first notice Takeshi's talent for directing?
A: When he became popular as part of the double act The Two Beats. He was unusual.

Q: What did you think of Violent Cop? Did you feel that something was missing from that film?
A: In Violent Cop, you could see Takeshi's strenghts so clearly. As his career as a director has developed, his work has become deeper and more meaningful. The longer he goes on, the deeper his films become. He has been at it for ten years now, during which time he had the accident and coped with a lot of problems. I think those experiences helped to give his films depth. His early films were more direct, as mine were too. That's only natural. Depth only comes through experiencing - experience of shooting several films and of life itself. It's a combination of both. Also, every director learns a lot from the crew and actors they work with.

Q: When you look back on Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, what's the first thing that springs to mind?
A: The people I met. When I made In The Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida, 1976) I got used to associating with non-japanese. So when I was shooting Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Max Mon Amour, I wasn't particularly conscious of the crew as a whole or of the foreign locations. What I really remember was meeting people on an individual basis. That said, I was aware that, having worked abroad so much, I was keen to return to Japan for my next project.

Q: Even if you do return to Japan, European audiences will still be keen to see your next film.
A: I do love being abroad. When I collapsed in London a few years ago, I remember thinking that if I was to die now, it would have been quite cool!

Q: Takeshi has said that foreign journalists are very knowledgeable . Have you ever been surprised by questions you've been asked by journalists from France or Britain or wherever?
A: Oh, I'm continuosly surprised. Because I was something of a pioneer, I had to take on the responsibility for questions about Japan itself. I was considered to be the only person who represented both contemporary Japan and the world as a whole. I knew that was why I was always asked so many questions. I had to give my opinion on so many issues. That was a real experience for me, and it taught me a lot.

Q: Considering the language barrier, you must have been impressed that critics observed your films so carefully.
A: Absolutely, I was very impressed. For example, someone said to me once, "In your films, there is always glaring sun. But in Sing a Song a Sex (Nihon Shunka ko, 1967), it changed to the black and white rising sun flag, fluttering in the wind. What does that symbolise? Does it indicate a change in Japan?" I managed to get round the question, but I'll never forget the face of the person who asked it. Also, I was often asked what my aim was in making films. I always wanted to answer, "That's none of your business. Leave me alone." Instead, I'd just say, "In order to understand myself." Once somebody replied, "You don't need to make 35mm wide-screen films to understand yourself. You only need a black and white 16mm film for that!"You know what I replied? "I use colour 35mm wide-screen in order to understand myself and because I'm such a splendid director!"

Q: Nobody would mind if a film made specifically for the Japanese market was released only in Japan. But it's good publicity if a film gets a worldwide release, so many are thrown together by TV companies targeting foreign film festivals. What do you think when you see that hapenning?
A: I think, "Let's them just get on with it." Maybe they'll learn something from it. They will find out what it's all about eventually. If they don't see anything wrong in what they're doing, that's their problem.

Q: What are your favorite recent films?
A: I liked Hana-bi (1997) a lot. Also Inu Hashiru (Dog Race, 1998) by Yoichi Sai and Moe-no-Suzaku (1997) by Naomi Kawase. As for foreing films, I like the work of Abbas Kiarostamis, who I met once, and the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov.

Q: What do films mean to you?
A: I knew that I was the sort of person who wanted to express something, so it was a happy accident that I fell into films.

Q: And we are a lot happier as a result.
A: I hope so. Audiences get the enjoyment. Filmmakers have to deal with all the difficulties.

Q: Takeshi once said, "I hate those films kids who have been carrying a camera since the day they were born and making some sort of movie with it". Have you ever felt like that?
A: Takeshi also said, "I want to experience a lot of things and reflects them in a film which swings like a pendulum." I don't have the same ability that he has to do both films and comedy equally well. In fact, I joined the film industry in order to eat. But I share the same sentiment in that I don't want to be seen as an idiot who can only make films. I always think about whether or not my life is going in the right direction. In short, I'm an arrogant person! I wanted to do something better with my life than what I was born to.

Q: Films often are the driving force of your life, rather than a means of self-affirmation?
A: Yes. I always think, "This is no joke". I observe people. I suppose that I have more of a curiosity about human beings than an average person. As I get older, I have become more aware that I have a spirit of perversity. I know that I should cast ordinary, clean-cut actors in my films, but I can't.

Q: Any final comments?
A: Making Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, I had many happy experiences and some difficulties. Now I truly enjoy being able to talk about Takeshi and the film itself. Honestly.

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