Jun Ichikawa

interviewed by Mark Schilling

Japan's leading director of TV commercials, with a slew of industry honors to his credit, Jun Ichikawa has, since his 1987 feature debut BU*SU, embarked on a parallel career as a maker of movies that recall, in their intimate scale, understated humanism, elegant compositions and deliberate pace, the work of Yasujiro Ozu. A long-time admirer of the director of Tokyo Monogatari and other masterpieces, Ichikawa underlined this comparison with Tokyo Kyodai, a 1995 film that was a conscious Ozu homage, right down to its simple but evocative title.

But while winning recognition for his work, including screenings at major international festivals, Ichikawa found himself tagged as jimi (plain, unremarkable), especially by a younger generation of Japanese filmgoers. While self-deprecatingly applying this label to himself, Ichikawa has long chafed under it -- one doesn't become the king of the CM in Japan by fading away into the woodwork. Now, however, he is breaking free of it. In a recent interview he describes why and how:

Q: You're known as a big fan of Ozu, but have any films by other Japanese directors impressed you recently?

A: I like the films of (Takeshi) Kitano.  In the past I liked the films of Shinji Somai -- he was the director of Typhoon Club -- but recently I've been really been impressed with Kitano's work.

Q: He's got a highly individual style -- he brings something to each cut that is totally his own.

A: He's very concise -- he doesn't do a lot of explaining, so the audience has to use its imagination.

Q: Even so, he doesn't deliberately make his films hard to understand.

A: He gives the audience various things to think about -- I try to do that in my films as well. So we resemble each other a little in that way. TV dramas, for example, are all explanation -- I really hate that. I don't like overacting, in which everything is spelled out for you. A natural performance, in which you can't tell if the actor is an amateur or a professional, is the best. I like a professional actor who has the feeling of the amateurish in his performance.

Q: But in Tokyo Yakyoku (Tokyo Lullaby) you used two actors -- Kaori Momoi and Kyozo Nagatsuka -- who have strongly individual styles -- perhaps too strong (laughs). Did you find that a problem?

A: Yes, I couldn't quite kill off their individuality (laughs) -- I couldn't quite control it. I had the feeling that they were beating me with their individuality, even thought I was trying to contain it. I don't like a high noise level -- low is better for me. I don't want the actors to get too excited (laughs).

Q: A lot of Japanese movies, especially by younger directors, use such loud music that it's hard to tell what the actors are saying.

A: I don't hate music -- I used quite a lot of it in Tsugumi, but I don't like music that explains too much. Sad music for a sad scene, happy music for a happy scene -- I don't care for that kind of thing.

Q: But while talking about actors, you could also say that you have developed a distinctive style yourself -- rather quiet, restrained, indirect.

A: I've made twelve films and I don't want to keep making them the same way forever. So my latest film, Osaka Monogatari, is very energetic. Before I was too shy to work that way, but this time I'm raising the volume a bit (laughs).  (Japan) is in a recession now, so I want to cheer people up. During the bubble economy days, I liked to make quiet films, but now that the bubble has burst, people have lost their energy, so (it won't do) if my films are low key as well. I want to make films that are more positive and energetic.

Q: Perhaps you are also showing people that, even though you are in your fifties, you still have a lot of energy left (laughs).

A: There are a lot of films I still want to make. Fifty is not old at all. Ozu made Tokyo Monogatari when he was fifty. For a director, fifty is a peak. Another example is Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari -- he made that when he was about fifty. It depends on the director, but many of them do their best work when they are about fifty. The same is also true of foreign directors.  So for the next two or three years I want to do my best with the know-how I have. I want to make one film with Ryoko Hirosue -- an idol talent. I also want to make one more film with Kaori Momoi. I have plans for a lot of films.  After I finish Osaka Monogatari I will make a few commercials, and then make another film.

Q: So your next film will be with Hirosue?

A: I shot a commercial with her for Sakura Bank and from that connection I got an opportunity to make a film (with her).  A lot of the actors I use in my films are acquaintances I made doing commercials.  One is Kyozo Nagatsuka, whom I first met shooting a commercial.  Kaori Momoi is another one.  Not only actors, but a lot of the people involved my films I first met through my commercial work.

Q: Are there any actors out there that you haven't worked with yet, but would like to?

A: One is Kimutaku -- Takuya Kimura [of the pop group SMAP].

Q: Has he appeared in films before?

A: Yes he has, but not a very good one.

Q: It was that soccer movie for Shochiku -- something called Shoot.

A: Yes, it wasn't very good, but he reminds me of Yujiro Ishihara. I haven't made a film with a male star before so I'd like to try it.  Another one is Takeshi Kaneshiro. I would like to use him in a macho-ish youth movie, with a different, more energetic approach than in my previous films.  So there are various kinds of films that I want to do -- not just the same thing again and again. I would like to wait until I get a bit older before I become like Ozu and make the same kind of film every time (laughs).  When Ozu was young, he made films in various genres. I'm not young any more, but even so, I'd like to do something different. I can make quiet films anytime I like, but now I want to shoot a number of more powerful movies. After releasing Tokyo Yakyoku I made a film called Tadon to Chikuwa that will be released at New Year's.  It stars Koji Yakusho and Hiroyuki Sanada. You might be surprised when you see it, but it's really violent -- it's the first time I've ever made that kind of violent film.  I've been thinking about groups like the Aum Shinrikyo and how Japanese are becoming stranger. That led me to make this movie, which quite different from anything I've done before. It's so grotesque that it might shock you, but at the end the two main characters become energized, so it's not a depressing movie.

Q: So you might say that it's more imaginative than some of your other films?

A: Not imaginative so much as philosophical. Or surrealistic -- blood spurts out, but it's green and blue. It's fantastic violence.  Like I said, that's coming out this New Year's -- a bit too late, I think.  Now I'm another film called Osaka Monogatari set in Osaka. The heroine is a girl I discovered while filming in one of my TV commercials. She's from Osaka herself and is only 15. The story is about entertainers in Osaka. You know Yoshimoto [the talent agency that specializes in manzai comedy]? It's about a pair of manzai comedians, but they're poor, not popular. They're the parents of the girl. So it's a story of a poor family in Osaka. I wanted to do a more violent film, but instead I ended up making another one of my favorites -- a family film (laughs).

Q: Are there are plans to screen both films abroad?

A: Yes, the producer is working on it. My film's aren't exactly big hits in Japan (laughs) so it would be nice if foreign audiences liked them. I'd like to make a film that becomes a hit abroad. Maybe Osaka Monogatari will be the one.

Q: Did winning the Best Director's prize at Montreal for Tokyo Yakyoku give you the confidence that you can be accepted by foreign audiences?

A: Yes, it's a festival with a long history, but still I would feel better if I could win something at Cannes, Venice or Berlin.  Also it would be good to have more foreign distributors who supported Japanese films. It seems that all the attention is being focused on (Takeshi) Kitano, but it would be better if other Japanese directors could also get their film shown abroad.  I'd also like to see more Japanese producers become active abroad.  Now just about the only ones are Kazuyoshi Okuyama and (Kaz) Kuzui. It would be better if there were a lot more.

Right now the only thing I can do is make the best films I can.  If I think too much about having hits or winning prizes, I can't concentrate on making the best possible films.

I like films by directors like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Eric Rohmer, that take place in a rich but circumscribed world. They may take place within a small place, but they are saying some big things.  The films of Yasujiro Ozu were also like that -- they may have been small in scale, but they made audiences think of larger philosophical issues.  On the other hand, you have some very large-scale movies that say very little.

Q: Do you have a favorite film?

A: On the whole, I think I like European films the best, especially those by British or French directors. My favorite, though, is probably Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows).  It's an old film, but no matter how many times I see it, I never get tired of it.

Ozu is another favorite. Today kids may have TV games and the world around may seem to be different, but really nothing has changed. The feelings between parents and children, between brothers and sister, between husbands and wives are still the same. The essence of human beings remains the same. That's why Ozu's films never become dated.

The young people in Shibuya may look different, but young people have always disdained the ways of the generation before them and looked for something new. When you look around Japan as a whole, however, you still find a lot of Ozuesque families and people. Even walking around Tokyo, you can still find quiet traditional houses, shrines and temples. When you look up from those quiet old places you may see high-rise buildings, but at least they still exist. One place like that is Ikebukuro, where you have a mix of modern technology and old neighborhoods.

That is kind of place I filmed in Tokyo Kyodai. The father and mother of the family and the brother and sister are still living together in imitation of their parents, almost like a married couple, in an old house. I think a brother and sister like that must exist somewhere in Tokyo.  Tokyo Yakyoku is the same way -- I have the feeling that people really exist. There may be fewer of them that there were before, but they are still around. I don't want to ignore or forget them.  I think its sad that to think that Japanese have changed and that old-fashioned type of people have all disappeared. I'm always searching for old types of places and people and when I find them, it makes me happy.  When you watch television or read the newspapers you know that something strange has happened to Japanese, but I don't think people have to pay money to see that kind of thing in a theater.  In Tadon and Chikuwa I may be saying that Japanese have become strange, but in Osaka Monogatari I'm again saying that we shouldn't give up on today's Japanese -- they still have good qualities.

Q: I suppose that's same message of the Tora-san series, which also seems to be set in an older Japan, but you give it a different spin.

A: Just like the Tora-san series, not much seems to be going on in the foreground of my characters' lives, but in the background they are changing. For example, the younger sister in Tokyo Kyodai leaves home. On the surface she seems to be an old-fashioned Japanese girl, but really she very much a modern gyaru ["gal" -- Janglish slang for liberated young women] -- there is something different about her.  Her neighborhood may have the same look and atmosphere as the Tora-san films, but there are different things going on in the background.

I like the Tora-san films, especially the early ones -- the first ten or so. In the beginning of the series, Tora-san might really have existed. That was in the Showa thirties and forties (1955 to 1975), when types like him were still around, but now they don't exist anymore.

Q: Also, the sentimentalism of the Tora-san series is absent in your films. In Tokiwaso no Seishun, for example, there is a feeling of loneliness that you would never find in a Tora-san film.

A: That film is about how a group of friends go their separate ways. Friends can't always stay together -- a time for saying good-by must come. You might call it a youth movie [seishun eiga], but it also about a film about growing up, and I feel that growing up is a lonely thing to do.  Growing up is a good thing, but the more people become adults, the lonelier they get.  Growing up means saying good-by, it means losing something.

Q: Mono no aware (the pathos that comes from an awareness of time passage) is often decribed as distinctly Japanese, but I think that in some ways it's a universal emotion.

A: That feeling is in Ozu's films -- and I think that it's something everyone from every country can understand. A good film can be understood everywhere. The look of his films may be very Japanese and he may be telling stories about Japanese families, but family and siblings are universal -- they don't vary much from country to country. His film may be called very Japanese, but when people from other countries see them, they have no trouble understanding them.  I like the films of Ozu, but I also like the relationship of the couple in (Takeshi) Kitano's Hana-Bi.

Q: Some viewers overseas, though, found that couple a bit strange because they hardly ever spoke with each other (laughs). In your films, as in Ozu's, the theme of the family is very important, but whereas Ozu usually depicted ordinary middle-class families, in your films they rarely make an appearance.

A: That's true now that you mention it. I guess I'll have to make that kind of film then (laughs).  Various kinds of families appeared in Byoin de Shinu to iu Koto (Dying At a Hospital).  There were even homeless.  It contained all the different family patterns you find in Japan.  So perhaps the closest I've come to an Ozu movie is Byoin de Shinu to Iu Koto. When I was making that film, that's when I thinking the most about Ozu.  There was also Tokyo Kyodai, which was an Ozu homage, but in that film I was more concerned with getting Ozu into the camera angles and scenery.  But Byoin was closer in spirit to an Ozu film.

Q: In some ways, though, that was your most experimental film, in the way you introduced montage into the narrative and the way you kept the camera of the foot of the patients' beds, never moving in for a close-up.

A: I didn't want to do the close-ups of doctor's faces or suffering patients that you usually find in hospital films. Instead I wanted images that would be similar to a picture painted from a middle distance.  Death is an equalizer. It comes to everyone, whether they are rich or poor. All the six patients in that six bed ward (in Byonin) were main characters. I didn't want to focus on one at the expense of the others. I wanted to view them all equally. That's why I kept the camera in one place.  The camera itself has no emotion -- it is simply a neutral observer. I didn't want any camera moves because I wanted to maintain that neutrality.

Q: The camera didn't move in the hospital scenes, but in the montage scenes it was highly expressive.

A: (The montage scenes) were a kind of documentary showing the joy of life. They were like an album of photographs that tells a family history as you thumb through them. I wanted to convey both the joy of life and the reality of death in that film.

Q: There was also a montage of black-and-white photographs in Tokiwaso no Seishun (Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment).

A: (Taking those kind of photographs) is my hobby. I feel a deep nostalgia for the Japan of my childhood, the Showa thirties (1955-1965) -- or the 1950s.  Tokiwaso was set in the Tokyo of my childhood.

Also, I often use montage sequences in my commercials. I like to edit and the editing techniques I use in commercial films end up in my films.  But in my films I can do things I can't do in my commercials. For example, I could never show the hospital scenes in Byoin in a commercial.  I used montages in commercials I did for an insurance company and for NTT.  I did a lot of cutting for those.

Q: I suppose this a question you always get , but I have to ask it. How does your film work relate to your commercial work?

A: Films are a poor medium, commercials, a rich one.  Takeshi works as a TV talent and I make TV commercials (so that we can make films).  Even if a film doesn't make any money, I don't feel so bad about it.  Another difference is that commercials are short -- only 15 or 30 seconds long. When I do nothing but commercials for any length of time, I start to feel that I want to do something longer.  When I make a film I can stretch out more and I feel refreshed.

Jun Ichikawa filmography

1987 BU*SU (BU-SU)

1988 The Story of a Company (Kaisha Monogatari)

1989 No Life King (No Life King)

1990 Tsugumi (Tsugumi)

1991 Goaisatsu (Goaisatsu)

1993 Dying At a Hospital (Byoin de Shinu to Iu Koto)

1993 Kitto Kuru sa (Part 1 of Kinchan no Cinema Jack)

1993 Crepe (Crepe)

1996 Tokiwaso no Seishun" (Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment)

1997 Tokyo Yakyoku (Tokyo Lullaby)

1998 Tadon to Chikuwa (Tadon to Chikuwa)

1999 Osaka Monogatari (The Osaka Story)


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