Roaming comfortably above the realm of underground cinema, Director Go Shibata’s films are easier to contrast than compare. His eclectic use of music fits the ever-changing camera work and subject matter of his movies. One of his newer creations is a two hour long exploration of an area in Kyoto called Horikawa Nakatachiuri where true absurdity intersects with the normal absurdity of modern society. Helpfully titled Doman Seman for us non Japanese speakers, Horikawa Nakatachiuri isn’t as much a dramatic shift in the oeuvre of Shibata as it may appear at first glance. Rather, it is Shibata’s style and technique cranked past the point of feedback for the world to see.
Tell me a little bit about the screenwriting process for Doman Seman. You wrote it with Ushirohiko Matsunaga, a frequent collaborator. Did it differ compared to the writing process on your other films?
He and I have been writing and creating plots together for 10 films now, about five years before filming Doman Seman. This time, Doman Seman was an unexpected project. All of a sudden the producer told me that he wanted me to shoot something. “Is there an interesting story recently?” He asked. Well, I got the chance and thought about what I wanted to shoot as I was talking to Matsunaga.
At that time, I had just moved to Horikawa Nakatachiuri and I didn’t know how to read the kanji for it at an intersection. I mentioned this to Matsunaga. One day, Matsunaga came up with a story about the intersection. We talked about it, and the story progressed. And then it grew and grew, sometimes getting off track — characters increasing to 30 or 40 people then decreasing to 10 and eventually getting back to the initial three. This kind of trail and error was repeated again and again — seven, eight times. Finally, the story got settled.
For me, Matsunaga was originally my advisor for films. I still feel this way toward him. I trust him a lot. He tends to love to let the story grow without a predetermined ending. He has too much playful imagination. Instead, I have to like . . . . Well, even if I arrange what he writes, the story grows again and becomes a different story. Enjoying this process while I try to control him — I think that is my part.
It is rumored that the film was edited after its initial showing in the U.S. Is this true? What did you feel needed to be changed and why?
Yes. The original version for TOKYO FILMeX was good from my point of view as a director. But when I think of it from a personal point of view . . . it was really mirrored from images in my mind, almost like through channeling. The film mirrored exactly the images that came into my mind daily. Matsunaga is a person that likes to grow a story, but I’m not. I like for the editing to be more dream-like — no border between reality and fiction — like channeling images. So, from that angle, I preferred the FILMeX version. However, audiences won’t understand it in that form.
Actually, movie followers tell me that they don’t understand the film at all. People who don’t really care about music and movies said “It’s very much Shibata’s film — it’s a total mess, but it still displays Shibata’s imagination.” I got those opposite reviews. I didn’t know which opinion was right. So, I reverted back to my initial stance as director for the film to complete it properly. I think the film improved because the project itself was so big. We wanted to get as much content in as possible. I felt that I shouldn't just make a film that looks nice. On the other hand, it was kind of risky if I made a messy one. That might hurt my future. I tried to stay positive and just did it.
Doman Seman ... Where true absurdity intersects with the normal absurdity of modern society
How long was the original?
Actually, it was 123 minutes. The same. It could roughly be divided into two halves. I figured out there were many unnecessary parts in the first half and cut them out. I wanted to keep the more important scenes that occur in the last half. So, I just changed the rhythm a bit. The total length is the same for some reason. (laughs)
Kyoto seems to be a special place to many. What is your impression of it?
Kyoto is very easy to shoot films in. Probably Kyoto is the origin for shooting films in Japan. People there are very tolerant about shooting. Most of the time our shooting is guerrilla style. There is a special terminology for this in Kyoto — teppou (literally : gun) . Kyoto, especially the Uzumasa area, is like Hollywood in Japan. There have been film studios there since the early days — theaters also. This area is the central place that made the entire film industry. But that kind of atmosphere was practically gone in the ‘60s. When TV came out, many filmmakers moved to that world. Of course, movie studios are still there though. Recently, they started working together with some universities.
Uzumasa is more to the west. Horikawa Nakatachiuri is a bit more like a sightseeing place. Still, regular people live there. An ordinary shopping mall downtown is still there.
The Terada character is a very complex and interesting person in the film. He also has one of the best lines in the film. He states that he prefers the god that feeds off people, not the god that feeds people. TV media seems to be a god that feeds people, yet we see with Terada that the media feeds off him. Really, they create a fictional character of him he does not recognize. How do you see this character?
If there was a god that eats food given to it and a god that feeds off people. . . . If I say which one I prefer, I would say I like the god that only eats food that it is given. Generally the god that feeds off people — well in this case, god is just an analogy, though. The one who eats only the food it is given generally parallels a child.
The Terada character — in Japan and probably in America too — is about juvenile crime. In Japan and in America too there are these types of juvenile criminals and when something bothers them they create their own sense of justice to justify their activities. Terada is not this way. His belief in justice is too great. He is too earnest, too sensitive. His anger toward society bursts and he is on a mission. He’s no longer a human being. Basically, it’s Asura from Buddhism kind of thinking. He became an ogre. Terada is kind of this poor person being manipulated by others. He is a victim.
The use of technology and communication is a motif in your films: the reel to reel recording in NN-891102, the video recordings in Late Bloomer, and the internet in Doman Seman. Filmmakers in the 90s, like Hisayasu Satou for example, saw technology as this way to avoid human contact — an imposing force that will rob us of our privacy. However, in your films, technology seems to be a way to hyper-focus on a subject. Do you see it this way? What part does technology play in your films?
I really don’t care what kind of technology it is. Now we have Twitter and Facebook. I find communication and music more interesting. A technological interface doesn’t make sense. It’s even a negative to me. I prefer to talk to people in person. Communication is the biggest action one goes through — a trial and error process until one dies. With that same thinking, films can move beyond borders of communication.
When you use technology as a communication tool, everybody gets nervous in the first place, but everyone sees the results. People always think it has some nefarious purpose, but it’s a waste to think that way, I think.
Late Bloomer is the story of Sumida-san, a severely handicapped man, and his downward spiral into hell.
There is a scene of secret filming in Late Bloomer, too, isn’t there?
Yeah, she is shooting video secretly, but that’s kinda cute. Just curiosity. That scene shows that she doesn’t give a shit what others think and just does what she wants. It’s just like a kid, not meaning any harm. You can forgive her when she hasn’t harmed anyone, you know?
The 5 year old boy in NN-891102 is the same. He just plays round with the reel to reel recording machine and accidentally records the noise of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. It’s like . . . he felt the recording was something bad that he shouldn’t have done as a child. You can forgive him because he’s being a kid. If someone did it intentionally, knowing so many people died, it’s with evil intent.
The two guys that follow people that just got out of jail and write and upload about them on their blog are also like junior high school students. To them, those guys are untouchable. So they feel more curiosity or respect toward them. They just can’t hide it. It’s cute, right? I want to make a space for those people who are not good but kind of forgivable.
In the West you are always linked with Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and Nobuhiro Yamashita. Do you like being linked with them? Do you feel your films are similar?
They are my friends, and also the same age, but we are not alike. Those two guys are not alike, either. I don’t care. At first, when I was young, I didn’t like it. I am me. Friends are friends. Now, I feel like we are all pals that try to do our best. They will never retire. Never. Neither will I.
Kumakiri, Yamashita — I can see similarities in their movies, but I always think of you as different.
You are right. It’s different. They often call me to ask my advice about music. They say “Do you know this band? Do you know any good ones?” before their new movie starts or before editing time. I always help them in that way. I know more about music.
This is your third film shot in digital. Has your approach to shooting in digital changed since Late Bloomer?
Ah. . . I’ve been thinking about lots of things regarding this.
Movies are something that we show on the big screen, and now we can shoot them by digital camera. I feel as if it’s a reverse phenomenon. I felt movies were getting more compact in ‘90s.
Movies are still polarized into two different styles — big budget ones, and I try not to say low budget movies or independent movies. Well, there are two different worlds — the world that has big connections to big companies and the world that collects money on the road to make films. Right? Those two worlds could be considered as equal movie worlds. We take advantage of it. Filmmakers in the major system have a hard time with shooting movies by digital camera. Small crews like us start up faster and move faster.
Movies would progress more if small companies used digital cameras. I think stories in general movies would progress more, you know? It’s been only 120 years since movies were invented. It’s like someday movies that have stories beyond dramaturgy will come up. Now we have the concept that movies should be similar. Those traditional concepts might fade away, and the next generation of movies that we have never imagined could appear. Probably, people would reject it because they don’t understand at all, or just ignore them in the first place. I strongly believe that those new movies will be accepted eventually. That’s my recent thinking.
New tools like blogs and Twitter — you express yourself by using text messages, right? It is a small expression of you. David Lynch, Gaspar Noe and others have started to progress with these tools already. Their products disrupt traditional ideas regarding cinematic form. It’s more like a blog, more like Twitter. Certainly, picture images will still be grouped together, but the concept of a movie will change in the future. I think so.
Much like Doman Seman, NN-891102 manages to find some type of beauty in all the madness. Both films end rather upbeat.
Very little is written in English about your first film NN-891102. It’s not even listed in the Internet Movie Database. It was a final project while you were attending university, right?
The soundtrack and the ambient sounds in the movie are very striking. Was it all done in post production?
Oh . . . the opposite. We started the music first. Abstract hip hop was the fashion at that time in ‘97 and ‘98. The Hip-hop style tracks were easy. You just make the loop and then add in the synthesizer. Shooting on film costs a lot, so I thought making the music part would be much easier and faster.
As for the script, I came up with the image of the film while listening to the music. The film was 108 minutes at first. I cut a lot to get to 75 minutes. Everything was developed simultaneously.
Who did the music for the film?
A guy, Noiru Nakanishi, and the pianist is Mariko Hashizume. I knew their music. Their band is called Article 9, from Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution.
How long did it take to complete the film?
Two and a half years.
Much like Doman Seman, NN-891102 manages to find some type of beauty in all the madness. Both films end rather upbeat. Do you see them this way?
Yeah. I’ve often been told by my friends that my films are quite different from myself. I’m not the type of person that gets too serious. I yearn to explore the darker side of things. It’s not in me. I want to get closer. So, to experiment with this, testing my courage, I keep making these kinds of films.
NN-891102 was made over 10 years ago. What is your impression of it now?
I like it. I love it.
What do small film festivals like this mean to you?Theater size doesn’t matter. A small theater is cool because I can talk to the audience in person after the movies. I can listen to their impression at that specific moment in time. Like last year I could listen to the audiences’ impressions of the film, and this year I can listen as well. I can observe the viewer’s point of view and how it changes over time. It’s the same movie, but times are changing. Sometimes when my film is shown in a huge theater, someone starts protesting against me. (laughs) That’s not what I want. I only want conversation.