Documentarists of Japan, #16: Kuroki Kazuo (2/2)


YY: In 1967, you were approached by a French producer to direct a film. Would you tell us about that?

KK: Silence Has No Wings got its overseas première thanks to Kawakita Kashiko. And one day, a letter written in Franch arrived for me. I couldn’t read it; I can’t understand French, that is, so I asked a friend to read it for me. It turned out that Marc Allégret who had made Lac des dames (1934) and Pierre Braunberger [producer of Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) among others] had seen the film and had been very intrigued by it. And now they were asking me to go to France to make films there. It was something akin to what the Shaw Brothers had proposed earlier, but there I could learn either French or English. I consulted Tayama Rikiya and some other people, and they all advised me against it. I am so easily tricked! (laughs) And I never even answered the letter. Many years later, Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinemathèque in Paris organized a screening of Silence Has No Wings because he had liked it so much. He invited me to the Cinemathèque and gave a lecture on the film—now I really wish we had a record of that somewhere. At the screening, I had to give a little introduction, and I mentioned that after I had made the film, I had received a letter from someone called Braunberger and didn’t know there was such a person around these days. Everyone was flabbergasted, telling me that Pierre Braunberger was the father of the New Wave and that he was behind Godard’s filmmaking. It was a real shock for me. And as so many years had passed, I regretted having missed that opportunity.

YY: But then you returned to the Cinemathèque in 1985 for a retrospective. . . .

KK: Just as the retrospective was happening, Truffaut passed away. And when there was a memorial for Truffaut, my interpreter told me that Braunberger was there in the audience. When we were introduced, he was quick to remember me. “So why didn’t you come that time?” He must have been around eighty, and a few years later he passed away. So I was finally able to meet Braunberger after a few decades! I tend to be fairly shy, so I probably wouldn’t have gone after all; still I couldn’t help feeling that somewhere I’d missed a wonderful opportunity. It was much more of a shame than turning down the Shaw Brothers.

YY: Before joining ATG, you made one more, very important film, A Cuban Lover (“Kyuba no koibito,” 1969). Could you tell us about the completely unexpected proposal you received from Cuba?

KK: We were just able to get ATG to screen Silence Has No Wings, but I wasn’t getting any shorts, and was stuck without any work at all. I had absolutely no income. I’ve lived my whole life practically without income, but then I was penniless and not sure what road to take. Now in Cuba, American films were not permitted, and in their stead, the Cubans would buy Japanese films in bulk. So, along with films from the Zatoichi blind swordsman series, which were especially popular with Cubans, Toho would throw in other, cheaper films when they sold a package. I can only think that Toho must have sold the Cubans Silence Has No Wings, but the film somehow caught the attention of guys at the Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry (ICAIC), who showered it with praise. At that time, the Japan-Cuba Friendship Society was chaired by Yamamoto Makiko and Takenaka Tsutomu. Now Takenaka, I learned later, was a big fan of actress Kaga Mariko, and he adored Silence Has No Wings [in which she appears]. Well, these two approached me to discuss the possibility of a coproduction. They wanted to commission me, but Cuba was a poor country and had not a cent to spare. So I’d have to come up with all the equipment here, and I didn’t have a penny to my name either. Of course, everyone around me was against the idea. But I hadn’t had work since Silence Has No Wings, and I was beginning to get anxious, so I persuaded Tsuchimoto Noriaki to come on board as producer. We started fundraising for the project, and though it was hard to get any money at all, when we had found about a third of the budget, we decided to go ahead with the project even though everything was far from in place. This would lead to a lot of problems later.

YY: You many not have much money for the project, but you had a surprisingly impressive cast lined up. Like Tsugawa Masahiko. . . .

KK: He certainly was a very popular actor at that time. But he really hesitated over shooting a film overseas with a director he didn’t know. But fortunately for me, Suzuki Naoyuki had been the director of Tsugawa’s long-running television drama, and Suzuki was a big fan of Silence Has No Wings. The screenwriter was Shimizu Kunio, and Shimizu was a very close friend of mine from my Iwanami days who had also done the narration for Hokkaido, My Love. Tsugawa agreed to come on board. This was also a rushed project, and I wrote whatever came to my mind for the screenplay. We had to rewrite the whole thing when we got to Cuba. We ended up shooting the film without really looking at the script anyway. The crew consisted of me, an assistant director, Suzuki as cameraman, his assistant and two sound recordists. We got a car and driver from the Cuban studio. We ended up doing a whole feature film with a crew of only six or seven people.

YY: And the beautiful actress? Was she from Cuba?

KK: Yeah. We visited a tobacco factory on the island, and she had been chosen as Miss Tobacco or something like that. . . so we asked her. She was a complete amateur, and couldn’t handle her lines at all. They were added in later by a well-known actress.

YY: When it was screened, it was shown at local auditoriums, but it never made it to the theaters?

KK: Director Morikawa Tokihisa’s film had created an excellent national distribution network.

YY: You’re referring to his Live Your Own Way (“Wakamonotachi,” 1967)?

KK: That’s right. We tried distributing the film along the same route that Live Your Own Way had set up. We faced a lot of opposition from the Communists because of the Marathon Runner Incident. And even though Cuba is one of the most communist countries around, there was resentment that I had bypassed the Communist Party to work directly with the Cubans. Now, I had a bad reputation with both the right and the left. But finally, one or two places in Tokyo agreed to screen it. It was really wretched having to screen in those conditions, and we lost money almost everywhere. Yomiuri Hall agreed to screen the film, and I can remember being surrounded by radical student women. They spat on me, and I can still feel their spit landing on my face as they screamed at me, “You traitor director! How could you take that anti-revolutionary kid to Cuba? How could you make him a hero? You idiot!” It was a pitiful feeling. (laugh) The left really deplored me, saying that my main character had “sold out Guevara” and that I was “counter-revolutionary.” Later, when I was sinking in my debts and being harassed by loan sharks and the yakuza, I thought this whole scenario would make a perfect yakuza film. That became Evil Spirits of Japan.

YY: This begins ATG’s Golden Age. After doing Evil Spirits of Japan, you went on to do The Assassination of Ryoma and Warming up for the Festival. What made it possible for you to do so many films with ATG?

KK: Well, since I had nowhere else to make films, I ended up submitting proposals to ATG. I think Nakajima Masayuki, the producer who brought director Oshima Nagisa into the world, had had his eye on me since Silence Has No Wings, but in any case, he was very welcoming of my proposal for Evil Spirits of Japan. A friend of his, the comic artist Fukuchi Hosuke, agreed to provide the capital. At that time, it cost about eight million yen, but that was halved, and since Fukuchi would be providing four million, that meant the project could go ahead. Just as we set the project up, Fukuchi came to me saying that he was being pressured to pay back debts and that as the defendant in a number of court cases he didn’t know how much he was going to have to be paying back each month. In this kind of a situation, he didn’t want to stay in Tokyo and suggested that we move our shooting to somewhere outside the city. Since this was at a point when Toei’s yakuza films were drawing large crowds, we had decided on a yakuza film. The same thing might also be said about The Assassination of Ryoma, but in this film, we decided to take one more look at problems faced by the Japanese Communist Party up to its Sixth National Conference in 1955, roughly following the outline that Takahashi Kazumi’s screenplay provided.

YY: The period during which you made this film was by all means an exciting one.

KK: You’re right. All those feuding factions made it seem like it was blood that was raining on the rooftops of the Shinjuku bars.


YY: Returning to our earlier discussion of ATG, if ATG refers to the Art Theater Guild, exactly what kind of a guild was it?

KK: I’m actually not so sure myself, but it was sponsored by Kawakita Kashiko, and she was very aggressive in getting our work overseas screenings. And I think it may also have been one plan to counter Toho’s financial crisis. With the strength of the television market, Toho’s capital base was in bad shape and both its planning and operations were suffering. Amidst that kind of situation, directors like Teshigahara Hiroshi and Hani Susumu were able to stir things up a bit. So it started as a strategy to counter Toho’s financial crisis by having new films be made by younger directors.

YY: At first, ATG was simply distributing foreign films like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s The Devil and the Nun (1961) and Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). I think that actually producing films came later.

KK: I think it was an excellent idea to give directors who had been excluded from the studio system a chance to use their own abilities and their own power to create films on a low budget. ATG would provide half the capital and the director the other half, and the rights would be split equally. While for directors like Oshima and Hani this was not the case, for most of us unknown directors hoping to make a feature film, ATG was a kind of gateway to success. Of course, only proposals that had cleared the selection committee would be funded, but once you had passed that stage, ATG would not interfere at all with the contents of your film.

YY: I heard a story about the filming of The Assassination of Ryoma. Famous cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Ugetsu, Yojinbo, the Zatoichi series) once said that lead actor Harada Yoshio (Ryoma) came rushing into the shoot begging for food, that there wasn’t any budget for food. What were conditions like on the shoot?

KK: Well, it was the same for Evil Spirits of Japan. Kuroki Productions had folded by then, so I had to produce it myself. I started a company called Eiga Dojinsha, as the organization administering my half of the capital outlay. But, of course, in the final picture, we had no money whatsoever.

YY: Around the time, I heard it cost ten million yen for that film.

KK: So the problem was how to trick my way into raising the five million I was supposed to provide. I gathered together all the bar proprietesses from Shinjuku’s Golden-gai District, and made them contribute 20,000 or 30,000 yen each. I made Kuroda Seitaro and Tomita Mikio (pen name Natsu Fumihiko) producers, and the two of them took charge of getting funding. This allowed us to start filming, but we still had no money to buy film, no money for food, for train tickets. We would run out of film on location and couldn’t reload the camera. All we could do is wait for someone to go into Tokyo, buy some, and bring it back. And we had no lunches to provide, so during the lunch break Harada Yoshio and Matsuda Yusaku would cook rice in the sink, put curry on it, and we’d all crouch by the side of the road and eat our instant curry rice. (laughs) But this was a poorly balanced meal, and after we had finished the final shot, only the cameraman, scriptwriter, and I would stay up. Everyone else would fall asleep right away. (laughs)

YY: As a historical drama, this film feels like a fairly modern historical drama. Does this have anything to do with the tight budget?

KK: Sure, the budget is a factor there, but also, remember no one involved had ever worked on a historical drama before. I tried to remember the ones I had seen years and years earlier in Manchuria like the Kurama Tengu series, Tsubanari ronin (1939, dir. Arai Ryohei) and Chushingura (1938, dir. Makino Masahiro). We didn’t even know on which side to wear a sword. (laughs) The film staff from Kyoto were torn between hiding their laughter and their real concerns about what the hell we were doing. I think this must have been the reason that Miyagawa decided to join us on location. Then seeing our emaciated staff, and thinking that Ryoma at least needed some boosting up, he brought Harada food and supplies. I guess the whole thing looked a lot like a student film that had grown some whiskers! Never having done a historical drama before, we were like fish out of water. (laughs) Finding that old storehouse was really our lucky break. It was a three-hundred year-old warehouse for soy sauce in Soshigaya Okura that was just about to be torn down. As soon as we found the old buildings, we thought that it would be perfect. We got permission from the owner, and we extended a phone line from the property room and used it as the staff room, and we used the warehouse that was part of the soy distillery for the set. We did our shooting inside the storehouse, and then when we needed a Kyoto street scene, we would just step outside and shoot there. Filming through one of the windows you got the real impression of a street in a temple district. The Assassination of Ryoma was all about fudging our Tokyo scenes and our Kyoto scenes from this one spot.

YY: After that, you went on to do Warming up for the Festival. The screenplay is screenwriter Nakajima Takehiro’s, and it’s largely autobiographical, right?

KK: I met with Nakajima Takehiro, and since he was also submitting the same material to Fujita Toshiya, the three of us met. Nakajima mediated between the two of us, saying that he wanted to go with whoever was better positioned to actually go through with the project. Fujita and I began to discuss the issues, and when we started analyzing whether Nikkatsu or ATG was better prepared to start work soon, it became apparent that ATG could do it sooner. . . Fujita is quite a reasonable fellow, and conceding that I’d realize the project quickly, he agreed to hand it over to me. I asked Otsuka Kano (The Insect Woman), who hadn’t been able to help us with A Cuban Lover, to be the producer and work on fundraising, and a friend of his was able to put up half the budget. And so, Warming up for the Festival became a reality. The title of the film comes from the title of one of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti.

YY: Then, after a few years working in television, you made Nuclear War.

KK: There is a book called Genshiryoku senso (“Nuclear War”), written by Tahara Soichiro, a friend of mine from my Iwanami days. The book is quite different from the film, but I had been interested in the atomic bomb and in nuclear power. The proposal was criticized as being uninteresting and I had a hard time getting it through. I suspect it was accepted more on the strength of Warming up for the Festival and The Assassination of Ryoma. I got funding for the film, this time from an advertising agency run by a friend of Harada Yoshio that was willing to front half our expenses. This time too, we filmed outside Tokyo.


YY: Your next film is Until Twilight (“Yugure made,” 1980). In one fell swoop, you move from ATG to the much bigger-scale of Toho. What was behind this transition?

KK: Fukuchi Hosuke, a sponsor and producer of Evil Spirits of Japan, was a very close friend of Yoshiyuki Junnosuke, the author of the original story. Since Until Twilight had become a bestseller, Fukuchi thought it would be an excellent opportunity for some poor filmmaker to get a little money, to get rich even, so he made a direct bid for the screen rights. But when he told me to do it, I read the novel and found it difficult and hard to follow. I felt a little cornered, but I couldn’t really say no. I thought Shimizu, my screenwriter for A Cuban Lover, would be able to handle it, and I asked him to get involved, but he had to drop out in the middle of the project. I wanted to cancel the project, but just as I was thinking about doing so, producer Kadokawa Haruki contacted me. Kadokawa Films would provide the production costs, and I could recreate the project the way I wanted. I thought it was a great proposal, and for better or worse, I asked Otsuka. Otsuka was outraged and refused the offer, “You’re asking me to make a film with Kadokawa, the same Kadokawa who has corrupted Japanese cinema?” I was truly disappointed at his reaction. We would have had three times more production money and had the chance to rewrite the screenplay. It felt like once again I was involved in one of those projects where I was hemmed in on all sides.

YY: TOMORROW (“TOMORROW/Ashita,” 1988) won you very good reviews. That was screened at Iwanami Hall, wasn’t it? A story of the atomic bomb. . . .

KK: While I was involved in a Polish coproduction for television, I met a survivor of the atomic bomb. It was a kind of shock for me, in a way quite different than my experiences with atomic energy. At the time, I was acquainted with Inoue Mitsuharu from a bar where the Ao No Kai used to hold our meetings, and I had my eye on his novel Ashita (“Tomorrow”). He agreed to my proposal, and TOMORROW was the result. This young producer by the name of Nabeshima Hisao (Sonatine), whom I knew from my work with Mifune Productions, had started his own production company, and when I showed him the proposal, he became really excited. This was during the last hurrah of Japan’s economic bubble period, so we were able to find the money we needed.

YY: Then we have Roningai (1990). This is a remake of director Makino Masahiro’s famous 1928 film of the same title.

KK: Nabeshima was so pleased with what we had done with TOMORROW that he came back to me with a proposal for Roningai. From the get-go, Kasahara Kazuo was slotted as screenwriter. Of course, Makino had been a mentor to Kasahara. Now, I was thinking that Roningai would be a hard job to do; you know, it had been a top-ranking film. I took a look at what I could of the old film, since only fragments had survived. If it still existed in its entirety, I don’t think I would have wanted to take on the project. By this time Makino was doing poorly, and when I went to talk to him about the project, he told me he was in no shape to do a remake and that I should go ahead with it. Makino said he had seen my films and that he had really liked Record of a Marathon Runner. Makino told me, “If it were the director of that film, he could do Roningai.” I wasn’t quite sure who Makino was talking about! (laughs) I could understand, say, his praising Silence Has No Wings, but to suggest that my directing Marathon Runner was what made me qualified!? Makino Masahiro was kind of strange in that way. Thanks to the work of producer Makino Mitsuo, his brother, Toei took it on as a replacement film, and both Nagato Hiroyuki and Tsugawa Masahiko of Toei were Makino’s nephews. It seemed like my fate was somehow tied to the Makino clan. Anyway, I set to work on the project. By the time we had finished filming, not a line of the original script was left, and my relation with Kasahara was on the rocks. I’m sorry to say that to this day I think he is still not very happy with me. By the time we had finished with it, it had become an entirely different film.

YY: Cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Floating Weeds) was operating second camera, but why Miyagawa here?

KK: Miyagawa was really interested in the project, and he stopped by to see us on his way back from the hospital. He was especially close to Harada Yoshio. And as we all talked, everyone kept pressing him, saying “Can’t we ask you to do some of the filming for us? Isn’t there a place that you’d be willing to shoot for us?” Finally, once when he was feeling a little bit better and since we were right on his way home from the hospital, I casually asked him to do the last section. My cameraman, Takaiwa Jin, was the brother of the president of Toei, and he also was extremely welcoming of Miyagawa. So in the long run, Miyagawa agreed to do it, and it turned out to be great fun. Makino Masahiro came to see the set on the last day, and you know that Miyagawa and Makino were classmates in primary school. And we took a great group shot of all of us, a hundred or more, grouped around these two. Now I look back at that time with fondness, and I remember all the fun we had.

YY: Actor Katsu Shintaro (the Zatoichi series), who also is no longer with us, was the lead, right? He was well known for doing things all his own way, but did you have any problems with him?

KK: For some reason, Katsu and I got along very well. I have no bad memories from our working together. He wasn’t as bad as people make out. He was passionate about betting on horses and cycle-races, and sometimes we would have to stop filming on the set for him to hear the horse cross the finish line and to get the winners’ results. (laughs) It was interesting being on Katsu and Harada’s “jazz session” of a set.

YY: This film took a long time to be distributed, didn’t it? We waited and waited for it make the movie theaters.

KK: Well, Katsu’s drug incident (laughs) kept the film on ice for half a year. Still, it got a theatrical release. It was far better than what had happened with A Cuban Lover. The things I suffered for that film!

YY: The next film you make is ten years later, Pickpocket (“Suri”) in 2000.

KK: During the latter half of my work on that film, I was having such problems with my stomach. It wouldn’t stop bleeding, but I still went ahead with laying down the soundtrack, and when I’d finished I was told that I needed to be admitted to the hospital on an emergency basis or else I’d end up dead in ten months. I was in the hospital for about ten months. And my health didn’t get better for three or four more years. I lost my strength entirely, and it still hasn’t come back. I guess you reap what you sow. Just deserts for my years of heavy drinking and eating, I guess.

YY: Bresson has a famous film also entitled Pickpocket (1959). Is there a relation to that piece?

KK: No, there’s no relation. I do get pickpocketed every time I visit Paris. I always feel like I am getting “pick-plumped” or “hit-picked.” I’ve wanted to do a film about director Yamanaka Sadao [director of many swordsman dramas] for over fifteen years. But it has been really hard getting the money for the project. I thought I should do a little warmup project. Anyone is like this, but if you haven’t filmed in a while you get rusty. And I felt a little panicked, and thinking about what would be good to shoot, decided on a crime film. But because I don’t like killing people, I thought I’d better do one on pickpocketing. At first, I was planning to do a sendup of pickpocketing, but as I was researching the topic, I became so impressed by these pickpockets. I would get on the train with the idea of pickpocketing someone, but I couldn’t even manage a grope. I realized that pickpocketing requires a tremendous amount of courage, bravery, and decisiveness. And then to stop yourself from thinking that you did something wrong, you start drinking or something, and then you switch back, you get your courage back and you go out the next day looking for someone else to pickpocket. I thought pickpocketers were “terribly mundane revolutionaries.” That’s the kind of feeling I put into Pickpocket.


YY: And you jumped straight into your next project. It’s called KIRISHIMA 1945, right?

KK: I really have been wanting to make a film about Yamanaka Sadao, but I couldn’t get the money. So I took the idea to producer Sento Takenori (J MOVIE WARS, The Ring). And he told me that Yamanaka Sadao would be fine, but wasn’t there something else I wanted to do? And it just came to me on the spot. I thought I wanted to make an autobiographical film about my experiences of colonialism and of the air raids. And Sento said, “Kuroki, let’s go with that!” It was decided in a rush in March of last year. I came up with a screenplay, and we went into production in August, and should be finished by the end of the year. The film is a companion piece to TOMORROW as well as to Silence Has No Wings. And a butterfly is again part of the theme, but this time we have a butterfly that is only found in China. We’re filming in southern Kyushu, with a young boy in the lead role.

YY: You’ve been dreaming of shooting a film on Yamanaka Sadao. I really hope you will do that one day. What are the prospects for that?

KK: Well, I’ll be working on two or three other projects that have come my way, so I’m planning to do Yamanaka the year after next. I’ll find a way to do it.

—Translated by Jonathan Hall


Yasui Yasuo

Founder of Planet Bibliothèque de Cinéma, which collects films and cinema materials. Has coordinated the Japanese filmmaker retrospective at YIDFF since the first festival in 1989. Coordinator of the Kamei Fumio Retrospective at YIDFF 2001.