Masahiro Kobayashi is a legendary writer and director in the Japanese independent cinema scene. He has made a number of films that won international prizes at the most esteemed festivals such as Cannes. His most well-known film is probably the amazing social drama ‘Bashing’. We discussed his latest film ‘Japan’s Tragedy’, working with Tatsuya Nakadai, and Kobayashi’s general career and style.
First of all, could you shortly describe your latest film; ‘Japan’s Tragedy’?
Kobayashi: It is based on an incident in Adachi, Tokyo in 2010. A man who was receiving a pension passed away but his children kept this hidden and continued to collect this money for three years. I had a script but then rewrote it after the 3/11 disaster. The story is about a man who has resigned to starve himself to death and intends for his son to live off his pension. By telling this story I also wanted to depict how the Japanese people have been driven into a corner after the catastrophe.
This is the second film you have made after 3/11, again involving it in the plot. Is it important to you that films deal with the disaster, and did the disaster affect you personally?
Kobayashi: Well, while making a film in Japan nowadays it is kind of impossible to ignore the disaster, and whether or not you focus on it directly, you definitely have to be aware of it. I was not personally struck by the disaster but I do have a house in the area. The house is still standing but people in the environment have been hit hard, they have lost hope and it is hard for me to go there. I am still struggling with how exactly to deal with the issue.
I have seen quite a few of your films now and you seem to always demand a whole lot from both your actors and audience with long drawn out scenes. Aren’t these scenes difficult to shoot?
Kobayashi: As far as shooting them goes, I think I would have a lot more difficulty applying an “MTV-style” of editing a lot of short takes. Because I produce my own films I can get away with shooting such scenes, that might be harder to do when an external producer is involved.
Did Kazuki Kitamura, playing the son, have a hard time shooting? He had a few pretty intense scenes.
Kobayashi: After he finished doing some TV work, it seems he actually used that very studio for a whole week to prepare for this film. It is true that my films demand a lot from actors. They are not so much based on dialogue –as in, as long as you know your lines it’s okay– but they ask actors to really get into the skin of the character and bring them to life.
This film marks the second time you have worked with Tatsuya Nakadai. What is it like working with a living legend like him? Are you close friends?
Kobayashi: Nakadai is of course a huge star. When working with him it feels a lot more like making a film for him instead of for myself. Making ‘Haru’s Journey’ took about three years from start to finish. Thus, afterwards, I was actually reluctant to commit another three years of my life to him. There were a lot of other projects I could be doing for myself in that time. But after Haru’s Journey he told me he really wanted to make another film with me. So what I figured I’d do was send him a script of which I would be sure that he actually would not accept. But my plan failed because he called me the next day and said he wanted to do it. It isn’t like we are huge friends, we don’t meet each other in regular life. But he is an actor who is able to portray exactly what I want to see, so in that sense we sort of share a lot.
Do you have a personal opinion about your characters’ actions? The son was a really complicated character who made some dubious decisions.
Kobayashi: When you are writing a scenario by yourself it is unavoidable that you put aspects of yourself into some characters. There is a lot of my younger self in Kitamura’s character. The dialogue between the father and son in a way could also reflect some of my personal inner dialogues.
Nakadai-san character never really communicates, he often seems to be ignoring his son, does he not care about his son’s feelings?
Kobayashi: It is of course the story of a truly determined man. He left the hospital sooner than the doctors would have liked, that step was already a conscious step towards death in a way. So regardless of what his son or anyone else says, he will not stray from his path. This is structurally similar to Nakadai’s classic film ‘Harakiri’, and ‘Haru’s Journey’ was actually also highly influenced by another of his classic films: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’.
You have been directing films for over 15 years now, and writing them even longer, how would you say your creative process has evolved over time?
Kobayashi: I am not sure if I can really refer to it as evolution or development. It does not feel as if I have reached the end of a certain stage from where I can look back. But if I have to point any development out it would be that initially I always made films with some sort of example in the back of my mind, something that would somehow reassure me that it would work out. It was not until my last two films, ‘Women on the Edge’ and ‘Japan’s Tragedy’, that I completely let go of that notion. Therefore I am somewhat more unsure and anxious about how my newest films are received.
Furthermore, I have always kind of struggled with films that are overly cinematic. I prefer films which include more non-cinematic segments, leaning more towards pure realism. In that sense I guess you could say I have become a bit more experimental. This might be why lately my films have been drawing a somewhat smaller crowd. I would like for the public to follow me along in this process, however, because at this point it would be difficult for me to take a step back.
Haru’s Journey however felt kind of like an exception to the rule though, that film felt a lot more accessible than most of your films, would you agree?
Kobayashi: Well, right before making Haru’s Journey I had watched all of Akira Kurosawa’s films again, and a lot of Mikio Naruse. I think that it could be that when making that film I let go of foreign influences, and for the first time tried to make an actually Japanese film.
Lastly, can I ask what projects you are currently working on?
Kobayashi: I recently shot a short film named ‘Strangers When We Met’ for the Jeonju Digital Project as part of an omnibus. At the moment I have a script ready for a film named ‘Ai no gotoku’, and I am trying to get that realized soon. ‘Japan’s Tragedy’ will not go into circulation in Japan until next august so I kind of want to await the reactions I get before I decide what further to work on.