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Japanese Director Shinya Tsukamoto on ‘Silence,’ Martin Scorsese, His Own Film Creed

Filmmaker reveals his profound admiration for Scorsese

Shinya Tsukamoto
Courtesy of Matin Dale

MARRAKECH, Morocco — 56-year old Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto has directed several landmark films in the fantastic film genre, including the “Tetsuo” trilogy: “Bullet Ballet,” “A Snake of June,” and “Kotoko.”

He has also starred in many of his own films and those of his close friends and colleagues. A lifetime admirer of Martin Scorsese – ever since he saw “Taxi Driver” while still at school – Tsukamoto says that Scorsese influenced both his filmmaking style, in terms of the way that he has shot certain scenes, such as those involving boxing or handling weapons, and also his interest in flawed anti-heroes – inspired first and foremost by De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle.

Therefore when he learned that Scorsese was planning to shoot “Silence” about Jesuits and native Christians in 17th century Japan, he contacted the casting director, thus paving the way to a meeting between the two directors and the casting of Tsukamoto in a key role.

Attending the 16th Marrakech Film Festival for a career tribute, Tsukamoto talked about his admiration for Scorsese, and some of the key driving forces of his own cinematic vision.

“Bullet Ballet” screened in the Marrakech fest’s country tribute to Japanese cinema in 2014, but Tsukamoto was unable to attend.

In this year’s edition, the tribute was made by French-Dutch director, Jan Kounen who explained that the Japanese helmer has had a key influence on his work, stating that he is the “kind of filmmaker that I admire in terms of his radicality and wildness. He offers a dazzling sensorial experience, one of the few directors in the world able to achieve this. He’s not so obsessed with narrative, but more with the pure poetic power of cinema. He delivers a stream of cognitive shocks, both emotional and mental.”

Kounen suggested that Tsukamoto has a painter’s talent, which is especially evident in films such as “Tokyo Fist” which he says includes shots that could have been painted by Francis Bacon.

The Japanese director also reveals French New Wave influences, especially in his films set in Tokyo, Kounen suggested, adding that he reminds him even more of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” in terms of the power that cities can have over people, reminiscent of the way that Lynch showed the invisible powers at work in LA.

“His films show how spirit is felt through the body and can deform and transform it,” he added.

Kounen emphasized that Tsukamoto’s more recent films explore the inner madness of his characters that outflows onto the screen, in the spirit of William Blake’s maxim: “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Thing to the stage, Tsukamoto began by mentioning his recent role in “Silence.”

He also talked about his own motivations stating “I’m interested in cult entertainment, in expanded entertainment.” He revealed that between the age of 20 and 40 he was primarily interested in exploring the link between cities and men and the relationship between society and humanity, but that his work changed in around 2002 when he directed “A Snake of June”. “I suddenly realized that cities are just like boats floating in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “I became more interested in the power of nature, the beauty of nature, in how nature can influence human behavior and above all to what extent men can achieve works that are at the same level as the beauty of nature. I know we can do better, but often we don’t. Man doesn’t learn from the past and continually goes down the wrong paths.”

Speaking to Variety after the ceremony, Tsukamoto said he saw no distinction between working as a director or an actor, and that as an actor he normally only plays in his own films or people close to him. But he is aware that working on “Silence” is likely to expand his world-wide recognition, which he hadn’t realized beforehand.

He emphasized that Scorsese is the director that he most admires amongst all living directors, but recognizes the importance of other key influences such as the late Japanese helmer, Akira Kurosawa. “My admiration for Martin Scorsese started when I saw “Taxi Driver” as a young man, still in school. Thanks to this film, I realized that film is a magnificent art. We can see and rediscover new things. I have seen almost all Scorsese’s films and I continue to be amazed. I’m astonished by his capacity to produce great films. He pushes forward the boundaries and potential of cinema. He doesn’t have a fixed idea of what a film can be and instead explores infinite possibilities.

In relation to “Taxi Driver,” he says that he was particularly influenced by De Niro’s portrayal of an anti-hero, full of defects, which subsequently influenced the characters he has included in his own films, often anti-heroes whom he portrays as an actor.

“It is difficult for me to empathize with a classic hero figure. It’s easier to feel closer to someone who has highly undesirable traits. When the audience sees someone like that, it’s easier to feel joyous, to feel good about yourself.”

He stated that he has always been attracted to people who hide in the shadows, both in psychological  terms and also in terms of the filmic image.

Several of his films feature a stalker as a main character. “In a certain manner, the director is a bit like a voyeur,” explains Tsukamoto. “But the reason why I include stalkers in my films is that they force someone who at first seems to be an everyday person to reveal unexpected dimensions of their personality. My character arises from the shadows to reveal the shadows inside another character. In the beginning the main character struggles and tries to avoid the path he is being sent down. But the stalker awakes another side to his personality and pushes him towards being someone else. It’s fascinating to see something that is hidden inside someone.”

Tsukamoto added that although he views his own personality as being fairly joyful and upbeat, “through my work I can explore this darker area of the soul. We are all obliged to strike a mental equilibrium. I achieve this through my films.”

The key turning point in his career in his early forties was when he became a father for the first of time, Tsukamoto said. “Until then my films were primarily about me and my environment, the individual against the environment. But once you become a father you realize that nature is very present around us. It makes you think more about the body and the influence of nature. It opened my spirit and my curiosity to see beyond.”

Talking specifically about his experience during Scorsese’s “Silence,” he said that the film has religion as a backdrop, but works at multiple levels. “It’s a way of showing that violence has always existed and will continue to exist. Silence is exercised in order to destroy our principles and beliefs.”

Tsukamoto said that the themes explored in Scorsese’s epic are linked to his own recent films that explore how violence can destroy certain desires and the link between the desires of love and violence.

Of working with the American director, he says that “Scorsese truly respects his actors. He’s very welcoming and supportive. After each shot he says excellent when he’s happy with the shot. I learned a lot from him. I’m not always so supportive in my own films. I’ll show greater care with actors in the future.”

In terms of his next projects, Tusukamoto said that he is working on several ideas, but will only shoot his next picture when he finds an equilibrium between his own ideas and a topic that has something to say given the state of the world.