[Working Titles: “Japanese Are Surprisingly Fast Speakers” / “Instant Answers”]
Japan must be proud to have such comedy film makers as Satoshi Miki. His much loved films contain a sweetness, crudeness and quaintness all rolled in to one. Ever one to try new things, whether that be new takes on well known novels, techniques with both the film work itself and with his actors, he still remains a grounded soul and this shows in his movies. His latest film to be released on DVD in the UK, “Adrift In Tokyo” garnered quite a few awards. It’s also fair to say that Mr Miki’s perfect filmic partner is a one Fuse Eri. With her perfect delivery of humour and wonderful facial expressions, it’s clear to see why Fuse Eri is often chosen to appear in this director’s films.
In our interview we talk at length about some of Satoshi Miki’s films, his influences, Fuse Eri’s acting and even touch on the Japanese & American film industry. If that weren’t enough, we experience what I believe to be the London Premiere of Fuse Eri’s would-be patented ‘triple-take’.
So, over to Award-winning director, Mr Satoshi Miki and Award-winning expressionist, Miss Fuse Eri.
MM: [to Satoshi] You began your career as a writer for some now legendary Japanese TV shows. You then went on to stage directing and finally into TV drama & films. Do you miss stage directing or was it just a step up?
SM: I don’t look back so probably not. What I’ve done is done so I don’t normally look back.
MM: “Instant Swamp” opens with a great collection of clips and a montage. I thought it was like a half spoof commercial and half montage. Can you tell us a bit about that opening?
SM: I think the technique I’ve used is one used in 80’s promotional [music] videos. When the singer is singing and something goes along with it. That was the idea. There may be some sort of fake commercial essence to it as well.
MM: [to Fuse] You have worked with Satoshi Miki on all of his films and even the TV dramas. What is it you like about working with him?
[Satoshi makes a joke to indicate that perhaps he should leave the room]
FE: He’s very, very serious and very, very conscientious I should say. Yes, he’s very, very, very, very strict and conscientious. Almost stupidly so.
MM: [to Satoshi] From seeing “Instant Swamp”, “Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers” and even “Adrift in Tokyo”, you seem to have a love for falling fruit and also the colour green. Am I correct in assuming that?
SM: The reason in “Turtles…” for using the apple is because, for the beginning of the movie or in fact the beginning of the story, I wanted to set it around the Adam & Eve story, hence it’s role. In “Adrift In Tokyo”, when the fruit comes down and hits the person’s clothes, that’s because I actually experienced it. That’s why i used it. Also, my movies consist of fridges, baths and fruits. They’re the three things I’m always using. It’s something I really like and that’s why I’m using it. The green sort of leads to a Turtle and because the apple was green and green’s opposite colour is red, I do have some sort of story going on with “Turtles…” “Tenten” [Adrift In Tokyo] was actually not green. I was sort of focusing on yellow. You probably haven’t seen “The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopaedia”, but that was red. So I do have some colour theme before the shooting. Before the shooting I decide which colours I’m going to base the filming on. But I’m so glad you actually noticed that aspect.
MM: [to Fuse] In all films, and not just Mr Miki’s ones, do you generally prefer more outlandish characters to straight comedy ones?
FE: In terms of Mr Miki’s movies I’m always doing something a little bit different from a normal role… But outside Mr Miki’s movies I do teachers, I do nuns… So, I do ordinary roles as well. So, in Japan when I’m working as an actor I do do straight roles as well.
MM: [to Satoshi] Speaking of the colour green before, the main girl in each film – [Kumiko Aso, in “Instant Swamp” and Juri Ueno in “Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers”] are wearing almost identical green clothing in early scenes. Why is this?
[Mini Mini promises to eventually move away from the ‘green’ questions – Laughter is shared]
SM: It’s my taste probably. It’s my taste that it’s based on when we dress the character and I’m always talking thoroughly with my stylist, so the stylist knows what I really want. And then I need to think about the central characters’ images as well & then will come up with the idea of the clothing. This is something that I really, really need to be perfect and I focus on it, and not something I overlook. In “Adrift In Tokyo”, [the two main characters] are wearing the same clothes throughout anyway… They don’t change that much, do they? I’m always thinking that costumes must reflect the actors acting skills and you really need to make them feel like they’re in the role. So this is so important for me.
FE: He [Satoshi Miki] takes long, so long and he’s probably the longest with the time spent for styling, really. He’s renowned!
SM: It may not look that way but I am.
MM: How did you first meet? Was it through casting sessions, or something else?
SM: Thirty years ago I was working on stage, like you said earlier and we sort of started doing on stage Monty Python type stuff. That was thirty years ago. I think I was an assistant director in that stage & that was the first time we met. It’s a long story.
[laughs all around]
MM: On to “Adrift In Tokyo”. Firstly, It’s a great film…
SM: Thank you very much.
MM: Why did you decide to adapt a book rather than write your own screenplay? Did you fall in love with the story when reading it?
SM: I’m sure you wouldn’t know because you haven’t read the novel, but I thought that this was a really, really good set up… saying that the two people go for a walk in Tokyo. That was the plot and I thought that was really, really interesting. That was the interesting bit. Then, I actually went to see the author and he was saying “I feel like I’m sending my daughter to get married to somebody, so please look after my novel” But I didn’t really look after her. I just changed everything and stared at everything. You know the supermarket scene in which she [Fuse Eri’s character] was working? The 3 people? That is nothing to do with the novel… It’s not even a tiny bit coming from the book. That was entirely my creation.
[Mini Mini mentions reading about certain scenes which feature, including one featuring the deceased wife]
SM: It’s only two scenes where the corpse is there, but that’s it. That was the intention. Yes.
MM: [to Fuse] In Japan or even elsewhere in the world, which of your films is the most well known and why?
FE: Do you know “Hana and Alice”? That’s another movie… Aoi Yu was in it… that might be it. Or it might be “Jiko keisatsu [Time Limit Investigator]”… You know the TV series?
MM: Is that the one Adam [Torel] mentioned? (Referring to this duo’s recent Film Showcase at HyperJapan)
FE: Yes. Odagiri Joe starred in it… yeah that was it… yeah maybe that was the one. Very famous…
SM: It’s a cult TV programme… Or Takeshi Kitano’s movie, “Boiling Point”… OR… “Achilles and the Tortoise”, that’s another Takeshi movie… it might be that one, because of Kitano Takeshi’s name.
MM: Going back to the writer of “Adrift In Tokyo”, Yoshinaga Fujita – Did he like the finished product?
SM: We did invite him for the first screening. He’s quite a cool person so all he did was just grin a little bit. That is it.
[A girl in the room interjects to say she spoke with Yoshinaga Fujita and he said the he really liked it as a movie, and that it was quite different from the novel]
SM: He’s a very shy character so he told somebody [referring to what the girl just said] and never told me directly. Maybe he was the dad of the girl he’s sending to get married.
MM: Something else I’ve noticed from the 3 [Third Window] films is that you seem to have a fascination with smells. For example, in “Adrift In Tokyo” it was the hair and then with “Instant Swamp” it’s the breath and even something else. Can you explain the reason?
(Amongst discussion I hear Fuse Eri use the Japanese for “Ain’t Nuthin'”)
SM: I think it’s easy to pick up or use those smells because, say for instance, you or a couple are talking about their break-up and then if some funny smell starts coming towards you your attention goes to that smell… doesn’t it? That’s the comedy essence of it. That’s why it’s an easy thing to pick. So, serious circumstances can be turned around by just smelling something funny. Also, Eri is so good at acting when talking about smells and having a really funny smell around. She’s really good at acting at expressing that.
MM: Eri, you seem to swap from Film to TV drama quite regularly. Do you think this is important in your career?
FE: I’ve taken any job that’s been offered. That’s why. It just happens like that. Is that a really bad answer?
[Laughter, and much more throughout all these answers for this question]
MM: No, it’s not a bad answer. That’s good… you’re an actress so you take…
FE: I don’t have anything more. There isn’t anything I intentionally do. I have no policy in my life.
MM: As well as obviously liking a script, is it to also to keep your name everywhere? For example, in the cinema, the public eye & the film industry?
FE: [a firm] “No!” [but much laughter again, including from Satoshi] It’s nothing to do with wanting to keep my name in the industry. That’s not it. It’s just because I take all the jobs I’m offered.
MM: The film features flashbacks and fantasy sequences like other films of yours, but in this one did you use new techniques, which you perhaps hadn’t used in previous pictures?
SM: Maybe this is a new choice, that I used the flashbacks and maybe this is because of the script. Also, like you say, I did use some sort of thing like fantasy to accompany scenes where we’re just walking in Tokyo city. But, the new thing I tried was – and I don’t know if you noticed or not – when those two people are talking and going for a walk the scene & the location suddenly changes, but the two actors keep talking about the same subject. Obviously, it wouldn’t happen like that [in real life] because it’s probably two hours or so from this station to that station, or wherever. But actually when you see it you don’t notice. Have you noticed?
[Translator Sayaka admits she didn’t notice this]
MM: No. I think I just see a new scene, a new road, or I didn’t even think about it.
SM: Yes. But… They are actually talking about exactly the same thing from just seconds before. That was a new trial of mine. There is one scene where they are talking about Tonkatsu, those Japanese pork and rice kind of things and saying ‘what would you eat on your death row meal?’ It should be as they’re coming out of the shop but it’s actually in a subtle or minor way that it’s suddenly the next scene.
MM: I may have subconsciously noticed it but not…
SM: That was my intention… I didn’t want you to notice either and not many people did anyway.
MM: Oh, good.
SM: What I did then was this… Because the actors have to remember that same kind of atmosphere from when they’re talking in one place and then move to the other place, the other location, you have to have the same sort of tempo and same kind of atmosphere from that previous scene. We had to track back and show them the last roll for them to remember the scene and then we would roll again. So, that was taking the time.
MM: There are many observations in “Adrift In Tokyo”. Are they ones you, yourself have noticed over the years? For example, purses held by female office workers; men scratching their private parts…
SM: That was purely my observations. I can’t say it came from Mr Yoshinaga Fujita. He’s a novelist. I really can’t see it coming from him.
MM: Do you feel that Japanese comedy gets the international recognition it really deserves?
FE: Maybe not yet. We need to do a little bit more so that it’s known or prevails outside of Japan.
MM: I agree. Im always amazed when I see some of the films. So much so that I just want to tell friends or family.
SM: I’m really, really happy that you’re actually recommending people. So, asking you a question back… When you’re recommending people what do you say or how do you do this?
MM: Well, I try not to give away the scenes anyway but I tend to say that a film’s really funny or sometimes something is well shot, plus good ideas as well as the comedy is very straight. Not like Hollywood comedy where its very ‘In Your Face’. I think alot of the Japanese comedies are very subtle, and sometimes it’s just the facial expressions of the actors or actresses… Not just Mr Miki’s films but Japanese comedies in general.
SM: I think that this because of my influence from Monthy Python. I said this upstairs as well [in the Third Window Films film showcase]… When I watched Monty Python for the first time, that was my impression… That they’re not doing anything funny, but there’s definitely something subtly funny. American comedy, like you said is really ‘in your face’ and like “YOU MUST LAUGH!”
MM adds a bit about some American films having many writers on them.
SM: Yeah. That’s why sometimes American comedy is not real comedy. It’s just ‘a movie’.
[The interview how now been over 33 minutes in length but was given the privilege of ‘extra-time’]
MM: (looking at notes, joking) I probably haven’t got any more questions now…
[Laughter sounds, and I like to think not at my expense… but perhaps at my the latter mini mini pun. A display of English comedy perhaps, which wouldn’t be that out of place in a Japanese film]
MM: Which, out of the three films in the [Third Window] box-set did you enjoy making the most? And how did that compare to which of those three you enjoy watching, or would recommend the most?
FE: I do like “Turtles…” That’s because I’m a spy, so I really liked that role. Story wise, I like them all… But...
SM: Shall I go out [of the room] again?
FE: I like “Instant Swamp”… so that’s a different answer.
MM: Yes. that’s a completely different answer.
MM: Fuse Eri has been in all your films and TV dramas. Do you write a part with her in mind, or is the decision made afterwards?
SM: When I’m writing I don’t have anyone in particular – including Miss Fuse – in mind. But what I normally do is this… I do the screenwriting and when the writing is done & we do the casting, that will include Miss Fuse. Then, when we’ve completed casting I sometimes change bits & pieces to adjust the script. So… the first draft has nobody in mind but when the casting has been done and the cast decided I rewrite a few pieces, suited to the actors. What she’s really, really good at is acting the double take. So, I normally put her in the situation where she has to do the double take in the action. So that may be s an example of what may be suited to her. She can do a triple take too.
MM: Does that work?
Fuse Eri demonstrates the double, then the triple!
[Everyone laughs, including a certain individual in the room]
Fuse, Satoshi & Sayaka react to that individual. It transpires that this triple take has finally made that person laugh, something they’re not known for doing!
MM: You could probably do four as well and it would still work…
[many laughs but the notion not taken forward]
MM: Just an observation by me, but I don’t know if noticed but the films in the [Satoshi Miki] box-set by Third Window Films contain three titles which are all, in some way connected with Water? I mean, we have ‘Adrift’, ‘Swamp’, and ‘Turtles’… or even ‘Swimmers’?
SM: Maybe it’s just an unconscious thing or something I don’t notice, but I was brought up in Yokohama. Yokohama is the area which has been dominated by the American army. There is an American army base there and it’s been there since the Vietnam war started. After the war they abolished everything. What they did was this… They actually took out all the buildings and everything which was owned by the Americans & made it into some sort of land or swamp there. That all happened before my eyes, so maybe something is there subliminally and perhaps why I like lakes & stuff like that.
MM: Lastly, but still on the subject of water, early on in “Instant Swamp” a Water Sprite and Kappa are mentioned. It’s ironic because there is the film “Onno no Kappa” (Underwater Love: A Pink Musical), also released here by Third Window Films. Have you seen that film?
SM: That was a coincidence about the Kappa, but actually, personally I know the director [Shinji Imoaka] because both films were judged for the Directors Guild Of Japan. So, we do know each other… but actually my film was the year 2008 and “Onno no Kappa” was 2011, I think. Yes… Maybe this was just a coincidence but I did know of “Onno no Kappa”.
FE: Also, the characters were completely different… Have you seen “Onno no Kappa”?
MM: Actually, I interviewed the producer [Stephan Holl] and the musicians, Stereo Total… I thought it was good. Obviously it’s a ‘pink’ film… the humour was more silly than Mr Miki’s films… But, yes I thought it was good.
SM: Maybe we have got something connecting each other. Perhaps he was watching the same thing before his eyes as well… the American army base being demolished and creating the water… You never know. There’s also a very funny thing,.. When you’re seeing the lake and the swamp & you make it into the buidings you see a huge Koi coming up from the front. Maybe it’s connected to the Kappa in that kind of way.
MM: Thank you Mr Miki and thanks Miss Fuse.