BY TOM MES
Kankuro Kudo is the current golden boy of Japanese film. Scriptwriter, actor and, since Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, also director, Kudo moves from the stage to the tube to the big screen and back again with baffling ease. His name has been attached to hits like Go!, Ping Pong, Zebraman and the TV series Ikebukuro West Gate Park and he has hardly been out of the media these past few years. In between all of this, Kudo also finds the time to play guitar in Group Tamashii, a bizarre of fusion of punk band and comedy act.
Midnight Eye met up with this affable jack-of-all-trades at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
The characters of Yaji and Kita have been around for a long time. What made you decide to come back to them?
That's true, they have appeared in various guises over the years. But the stuff with all the drugs was done for the first time in the manga. Even in the Edo period, though, when Yaji and Kita first appeared as characters in a novel, the homosexual aspect was already there. That was the dynamic between them form the start. What I tried to do was take all the best elements of their earlier versions. I wanted to mix that with Midnight Cowboy, the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. I wanted to have that feel of American new cinema from the 70s in it too.
Hence the presence of the bike from Easy Rider.
Is that a period in cinema you particularly like?
I've loved Midnight Cowboy for a long time, and also stuff like Vanishing Point. It's more buddy movies, films about two men travelling together, road movies, that I find really interesting. In Japan around the same time there were a lot of these kinds of films too, like Kon Ichikawa's The Wanderers [Matatabi, 1973].
There was another revisionist look at an old character recently, with Takeshi Kitano's take on Zatoichi. Is there any relation between what he did and what you tried to do with Yaji and Kita?
I love all of Kitano's films. When he was a TV comedian he had a huge influence, especially on kids of my generation. I grew up watching him on television. Film-wise it's a different matter. His films are definitely more quiet than what I do and the images we come up with are completely different too. I'm very influenced by his way of thinking, but as far as the images we make are concerned, it's very different. I experienced working on one of his films, because I was an actor in Kids Return. Being on the set was a strange experience for me, because it almost felt like I was in a documentary: Kitano would never tell me what to do. All of a sudden he would just say "Start the scene!" It didn't seem like he wanted me to act, but more that he wanted to capture my real reaction, my surprise. It was a very interesting experience for me, to be directed that way. I do admire his work and his way of thinking, but his films and my films are very different.
I can imagine that his style of directing wouldn't work on Yaji and Kita.
(Laughs) Yeah. Maybe only Getting Any? is a little bit close to Yaji and Kita, but then, that is a very atypical Kitano film. When I was a teenager I wanted to be one of his disciples and join Takeshi's Army. I sent them lots of postcards and sometimes they actually called me in to the office. I wasn't the only one in my generation doing that, we all grew up watching him on TV. I'm happy that his films get so much praise around the world, but they should receive the same appreciation in Japan, which isn't always the case. It's the same for Takashi Miike, especially in the beginning he was only appreciated abroad and not in Japan. Shinya Tsukamoto is a similar case. A while ago I went to the cinema to see Vital, but there were only a handful of people there. How is that possible for such a good film? All these directors deserve a lot more praise in Japan than they are getting.
I want to go back to comedy again. Especially in the films you've written there seems to be a method or a style in which seriousness can suddenly turn completely on its head and become comical. Is this something you always set out to do?
Partly it's conscious. I started out writing for the stage and in my case that meant very small theaters. When you're performing in a small place like that, the audience is right in front of you and you feel all the more clearly that you need to keep them entertained. You need to keep going and keep up the pace for two hours. I think that's still in my scripts today, that need to keep the audience entertained. The value of the story on the one hand and that of the comedy on the other are just about equal to me. I try to keep the balance. I like to confuse the audience too: they're laughing one moment and then the next they suddenly need to get serious, and the other way around. I like to keep them on their toes and not give them any chance to get bored.
Still, there are films that you've written that tend much more toward drama, GO! being a prime example. The same thing goes for Iden & Tity. Do you look at these films as being apart in some sense? Are they less personal perhaps?
I don't think that the scripts for Go! and Iden & Tity are in some way not like me. I wrote them and they are my work. But it's true that in these two cases I didn't feel the urge to add so much comedy. Yaji and Kita was my first film as a director and, who knows, maybe it will be my last. So I tried to put in as much of the stuff I like as I possibly could. I tried to stretch it as much as possible. I like both approaches though, the comic and the dramatic. It's just that for Yaji and Kita the outrageous approach was better suited to these characters' thoughts and their view of the world.
But neither GO! nor Iden & Tity are about your own world or your own experiences. One is about the Korean minority, the other about the 1980s music scene. Does that make it easier for you to keep a more constant tone in your writing?
It's a little bit more complex than that. In the case of Iden & Tity, for example, the director Tomorowo Taguchi really loves that period and he's crazy about Bob Dylan. When I began writing I put in a lot of comedy, but he told me not to. The same for GO!, mister Kaneshiro, the writer of the original novel, told me to take out all the comedy (laughs). It's fun to be surrounded by such very different types of people, though. I enjoy seeing how they react and how they approach these subject. That influence me and makes me shift the tone of my writing. Of course, in the case of Yaji and Kita there was no one to hold me back! (laughs) So I could do what I want and create exactly the kind of world that I like. It's funny, Taguchi is a big fan of Bob Dylan and so is Jun Miura, who wrote the manga Iden & Tity. So when I wrote about Dylan, they would tell me: "Bob Dylan would never do this!" (laughs). "Don't make fun of Bob Dylan!" The guy who wrote the Yaji and Kita manga didn't have that, so he just let me do what I wanted.
I'd like to continue a bit about Iden & Tity, because it's my favourite of the films you've written. Bob Dylan aside, is the early 80s music scene something that interests you? I know you're in a band yourself.
Yes. I wasn't in a band yet at that time, but there were a lot of bands I liked during that Band Boom period. A lot of older guys at my university were in bands and some of them appeared in the Ikaten TV show. A few of them made a debut album, other failed. So I watched this whole scene from close by. When we made the film we had real trouble casting the lead character Nakajima, because there aren't any people like that around anymore. All of us working on the film, Taguchi, Miura, myself, the actors, we were all in love with that music scene, so we made it hard on ourselves. But that's also the reason why the film worked so well.
Yeah, that was really clear from the film. I'm a big fan of some bands from the period as well, like The Roosters and The Stalin, and the sincerity of the film I really liked.
You like The Roosters and The Stalin? You must love Sogo Ishii's Burst City, then?
I love it. It's one of my favourite Japanese films of all time.
It wasn't liked much by the general public, but that film has a lot of hardcore fans. There have been rumours flying around about a possible remake of Burst City, but it must be difficult to make something like it today. This is a very different age. I can't imagine fans of today's bands really getting into fights with each other.
It'll never work. I don't think you can find even a single person today who still has that spirit. Even Sogo Ishii himself has changed.
Yeah, you're probably right.
Back to GO!, that film seems to have been a real breakthrough for yourself, as a writer and as a "celebrity". You've hardly been out of the media since then. Do you feel that way about the film too?
Yes, that script got so much praise that it became a lot easier for me to get other scriptwriting jobs. The film has a serious subject that I didn't know much about, I really wasn't very familiar with the zainichi issue. But the producers told me that they wanted me to write it anyway. One of my contributions to the film is that the main character is fond of rakugo, which is a very traditional Japanese art form. There are almost no kids left today who are interested in tradition, they're all focused on America and the West, so I thought it would be interesting to have a zainichi who is fascinated by rakugo. I also add a lot about the issue of nationality, but when I handed in my first draft, they told me it would have made a three-hour film. So I had to cut quite a bit out.
Rakugo and Mariah Carey, interesting combination.
(Laughs) Yes! Thank you.
You don't seem to be very active as an actor anymore these days. Are you simply too busy writing and directing?
Actually, I appeared in three films after finishing Yaji and Kita. And right now I'm in the middle of another film in which I play a ninja. I do notice that after directing Yaji and Kita, I pay a lot more attention to the director's methods while I'm working as an actor. I notice that different directors have very different ways of dealing with their actors. And that is making me reconsider my own approach for the next time I direct another film. I look at them with different eyes than in the past.
And how is the chance looking of you directing another film?
There's supposed to be another chance, but right now I'm just too busy writing scripts and acting. Once that's done with, I really need to start thinking seriously about what I want to do next as a director.