|You went to high school at the Nihon University Tsurugaoka High School and were in the drama club there. It is a famous school for drama in Japan. Can you tell us what plays you did there?
Due to the influence of our teacher, we did mostly plays by Beckett, Pinter, Minoru Betsuyaku and Kunio Shimizu. We also did a Kobo Abe play. So, I couldn’t understand the plays at all (laughs). But the book by Betsuyaku that our teacher told us to read was so humorous that it made me burst out laughing as I read. When I use the word kudaranai (stupid, nonsense, ridiculous), it is usually with a positive meaning, and as I read Betsuyaku’s book I remember thinking, “How could someone his age think about such ridiculous things.” But when I actually saw his plays performed, they were staged with the dark mood of theater of the absurd and the ridiculous absurdity was lost. I felt that it would have been better to do a more straightforward presentation of the absurdities and misunderstandings and mishaps that could bring out the nonsensical humor in it as well.
In the production of Betsuyaku’s Byoki (Sick) you directed in 1994 you cast the well-known radio DJ Katsuya Kobayashi in the role of middle-aged office worker who is needled by a strange nurse in a nonsense comedy style staging what seemed to completely overturn the entire history of interpretations of Betsuyaku’s play. From what I hear, it appears that you already had that type of theater in mind when you were in high school. But, despite having done theater in high school, you went to a vocational college for film after graduation.
Since I had gone to a Nihon University affiliated high school, I had intended to go on to Nihon University. But when the time came to take the entrance exam, I was sick in the hospital. Just after that I heard an advertisement on late-night radio with Shoichi Ozawa saying, “If you failed to get into college, come to the Yokohama Academy of Broadcasting and Film,” and I said to myself, “OK. I’ll go.” (Laughs) The president of the academy was the film director Shohei Imamura. The pamphlet I sent for had the words, “You’ll probably never make a living in movies, so get a woman to support you.” It turned out to be a pretty unique school. That let me know from the start that the world of film was no ordinary world.
In the Japanese movie world there were veteran directors with a good sense of comedy like Kihachi Okamoto, but were there any directors that influenced you particularly?
Kihachi Okamoto did, and so did some of the works of Yuzo Kawashima, Ko Nakahira and Kon Ichikawa. There were some works that I thought were really cool. I also went to places like the Film Center. Among the things I liked were Yuzo Kawashima’s Kashima Ari (We have Vacancies) and Bakumatsu taiyoden (Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate) which ends at a cemetery. I thought the kind of artist who didn’t try to show the dark side of life as tragedy but dryness was cool.
Still, you didn’t go into filmmaking.
The movie was a system that the more you knew, the more negative you became. Japan’s movie industry back in those days was still the kind of world where you worked for years as a director’s assistant and if you were lucky you might be able to direct your first movie after ten years or so. Even then you would probably be told to direct something you weren’t interested in at all, and if it didn’t sell, that was the end of your career as a director. I had experiences where my seniors would tell me that the subjects I was interested in were weird, or that I had to have a clearer thematic concept, and those experiences made me disillusioned with the movie world.
On the other hand, it was also a time when bright young directors like Sogo Ishii with his film Burst City, and Makoto Tezuka with his 8mm film MOMENT were drawing attention, and the PIA Film Festival had just begun as a platform for independent filmmakers to win recognition. However, even with these new developments, the chances for success were still few, and it also happened to be the time “indies” (independent) bands were becoming the trend.
Did you play an instrument at that time?
I didn’t. Even though my father was playing acoustic bass, it seemed like a lot of noise when I watched them perform. At that time in Japan, the use of synthesizers and techno-pop using computer-generated sound had just begun, and representative of that trend were YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra) and the punkish-techno group P-MODEL, as well as the group Plastics formed by graphic designers and stylists and the band Hikashu with Koichi Makigami (who used to be an actor of rock musical company Mr. Slim Company) as its lead singer. There had been the punk movement and afterwards came the New Wave and Techno booms that carried on the punk spirit with new technology. Among these there were some people from art school who created “instruments that they can’t play” as their expressive medium, which I found quite stimulating. I began to think about doing punk music myself, and gradually my inclination drifted away from movies. All you needed to start a band was to bring together four or five people. Then, once we started performing the response was unexpectedly good and we soon had a following of strange fans. So, we kept performing as a band without really thinking about the future.
In that band, Uchoten, you not only sang vocals but also started a recording label that led the “indies” scene and managed to make a mainstream debut. Wasn’t your father rather pleased to see you active as a musician?
He was a shy and reticent type, so he never said that to me directly, but after he passed away I heard from one of his friends that he had said things like, “My son may have even more talent than me.” I was 27 when he died, but he had been sick for about three years before that and we had been told that he only had two or three years to live. So his death didn’t come unexpectedly.
While you were caring for your father in the hospital in 1988 you wrote Good Morning Colorful Mary – Another Morning of Light Fatal Wounds. That work seemed to be an important turning point in your career as a playwright. It is nonsense comedy dramatizing a breakout from a hospital played out simultaneously with a story about an old man suffering from dementia. I found it a very moving work that deals with the theme of death but dealt with in a way that the depth of its sadness also creates an equally proportion of opportunities for laughter in the context of a series of normally impossible events. I believe that was the first play you wrote about experiences from your personal life, and I don’t know of any works you wrote in that way since.
At the time, that was probably the only subject I could have written about.
After Good Morning Colorful Mary there were some definite changes inside me. I don’t really like American healthy, non-sarcastic comedy. I like British self-deprecating humor. And I feel that at that time I became able to think about why that is so by connecting it to the life I was living.
The deeper you analyze self-deprecating humor the more you realize that life isn’t all fun and happiness, but we still live on. You accept the fact that since you have been born you might as well live and do things. I think that’s what it is. By writing that play in that style, it provided me with an opportunity to face myself in that respect.