The Japanese director talks about hypocrisy in his nation's society and the future of its film industry.
Since his debut in 1992, Heartless, Takahashi Gen has become a pivotal figure within the independent Asian film scene. Living between Hong Kong and Tokyo, he established his own production company, Gran Café Pictures in 2004 where he writes, directs and produces his own films.
Like his contemporary Takashi Miike, Gen is a free spirit, however, he keeps his feet on the ground. The result is that he brings genre films one step forward by introducing his personal experiences. The result is a portrait of Japanese society and its slums, the leftovers that people ignore and don’t want to look straight in the eyes.
Gen was at the ICA with his film Confessions of a Dog recently and spoke to LWLies about the origins of this project, his personal social interests and the uncertain future of the Japanese cinema.
LWLies: Confessions of a Dog is a fictional story with a plot based in real events. How did you combine these two elements?
Gen: I’ve just caricatured reality. Almost everything is a true story, not fiction. For example I used real names. In Japan it is possible to use civil servants’ real names. The police kindly do these sorts of things, which were perfect material for the story. I just lined them up.
The film portrays the relations between the police forces and the yakuza. How did you get to know the nature of this power exchange?
No misunderstandings, I was never a member of the yakuza. I had friends who were members and that’s why I know so much about it. The main problem is the language because it is very difficult to express in English the nature of these relationships. Some people would say hooligans, punks, or simply mafia. But it’s not the same as the mafia. It’s not a matter of justice; it's a matter of money. The common pattern is that, the yakuza would start a new business. They’ll grow it, and when it gets big enough, the police would make new laws to acquire and control it. For example, originally, Japanese-Koreans set up the pachinko industry although; of course the yakuza were also involved.
Then, the industry grew and some big corporations emerged. At this stage, the police started making anti gambling laws. So pachinko business had to get new licenses, and retired police went there to work. Another example would be wanted lists. Usually these lists are needed because criminals are missing. But, in Japan, even when the police know the location, they’ll put the delinquent in that list before capturing him. The reason is that when someone who is arrested is previously on that list the police gets more budgets. To sum up the relation between the yakuza and the police I will say that the yakuza don't need the police but the police needs the yakuza.
Actually Miike is from the same generation as me. We worked for the same production company. I don't know Takeshi directly but of course I am aware of his work. They portrayed characters who are bad cops and that's something that has always been done in Japanese cinema. But there was no link to reality, so what I tried to do here is to link the situation to daily life.
So, is this film a genre film about bad cops or a social film about the corruption within Japanese police?
I’ve done films in various different genres: love stories, horrors, thrillers… But what I try to do are films about things I know in the same way as Martin Scorsese based his films in his daily surroundings: gangs and Little Italy. The result in my case is that it might come out like this, as a social comment or sometimes like a love story; but always with a real base underground. I would not want to and I wouldn't be able to make The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
Portraying reality can inspire change. Do you think change is possible in Japanese society?
I think that it is completely impossible that this film will inspire any kind of change within the police, the society or people’s actions. Although the corruption within Japanese police has been widely reported in different independent media, there is a lack of public reaction. Japanese believe what is reported in mainstream media, which at the same time are controlled by the police itself. Everyone knows, but they ignore it.
But how about the international image of Japan which this film creates? Do you think that the police are conscious of this?
I don't think they are aware of it. And even if they were, I don't think they would care because it’s not like the Japanese people is going to take action or demonstrate so, nothing is going to change at the end of the day.
Speaking about the cast, haw did you manage to get Shun Sugata involved? How did you work with him towards the development of the central character?
He is my friend, maybe not friends exactly, but we have known each other for 10 years. I knew that I wanted him to play that role even before I started writing. I wrote the script with him in mind. Of course he is a really good actor but I wrote in the way that everything would come across in the best way possible. So I wrote the script and then we had quite a long rehearsal period of about three months and gradually changed part of it. For example, Nomura, the actor playing the Japanese-Korean detective, originally was playing the journalist. It wasn't going that well so we tried him in his final role to see the effect. He wasn't very happy about it but we tried it and it worked much better.
How about the combination of your self-taught formation and your training at Toei studio.
My grandfather was one of the film directors film directors who established Toei animation studio. He is really well-known within Japanese animation and is considered a master by Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve got his DNA and definitely he is my biggest influence. When I was 19, I went to Toei because my grandfather was there but I knew nothing about filming really. I didn't go there to study. It was more for the experience. I tend to work like that. I haven’t been in a film school. I just came out of high school, and went straight there to experience what it was like.
Apparently, the film has been banned in Japan…
It has been released in Japan and it has been in various cinemas for about two years now. That's just the production company. The company that invested in this film went bankrupt. I was quite lucky because I didn't put any of my own money into this film but I’ve got all the copyright.
Most Japanese independent filmmakers only have success outside Japan. How do you feel about this? How do you see the future of Japanese cinema?
I don't think myself as part of the Japanese film industry. Of course I have to deal with them because I screen my films at Japanese cinemas but I’m not part of it. Just like the police, the film industry in Japan is completely set in stone. Unless Japan goes to war again and gets invaded by America or China, nothing is going to change. Everything is just going to carry on as it is. Corporations don't think about the continuation of the Japanese film industry; about how to appeal to the next generation. They don't create any kind of awards ceremony such as the Oscars or something similar. They are just company men. They only think about how to do business right now not about how to continue in the future. So it might die off rather than change. In many of the developed countries there is a national support for the film industry but Japan doesn't have that.
It seems that you are interested in the interaction between underground social structures and the greater superstructure of society. What are you trying to do with this dialogue? Do you have any future ideas or projects related to this matter?
I am currently working on a film about the situation of courts in Japan and I have an idea in mind about Chinese secret societies. Like the masons in Europe, it was a political organisation that started during the Ching dynasty, and has its origin from the resistance movement. They tried to raise money for the cause but the only means they had were illegal.
I am very interested in the connection between the two sides of society. I think they are two sides of the same coin. They exist everywhere, in the USA, in the UK; for example with all the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana. It always existed, this balance. For example, when the students demonstrated in Japan [Anpo, 1960] the police employed the yakuza to suppress them, but when they were finished the yakuza became unnecessary. Definitely, I am really interested in these relations.
Confessions of a Dog is released on DVD March 14 by Third Window Films.