Tuesday, February 13, 2007

2007 INDIEFEST—The Evening Class Interview With Kumakiri Kazuyoshi, Director of Seishun kinzoku batto (Green Mind, Metal Bats)


Having now seen two Kumakiri Kazuyoshi films—Antena (2004) and Seishun kinzoku batto (Green Mind, Metal Bats, 2006)—I've bumped Kazuyoshi's breakout shocker Kichiku Dai Enkai (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts, 1997) to the top of my Greencine rental queue. In town for this year's IndieFEST, I arranged to hook up with Kumakiri-san, taking him out for Mayan pozole and cerveza at Mi Lindo Yucatan. I'm indebted to Taro Goto for his indispensible translations.


Kichiku was Kazuyoshi's graduation project at Osaka University of the Arts. It became a big hit in Japan and received the semi Grand Prix at the 20th PIA Film Festival in 1997 and the Grand Prix at Taormina. The film was invited to many international film festivals including Berlin. In 2001, Kazuyoshi followed up with Sora No Ana (Hole in the Sky, 2001) as a scholarship production of the PIA Film Festival. The film was screened at the film festivals of Berlin and Rotterdam, where it gained the Special Mention of the International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI). His third film, Antena, was officially invited in 2003 to the Venice (section Upstream) and Toronto film festivals. Other films include Kihatsusei no onna (The Volatile Woman, 2004) and Tadareta ie zoroku no kibyo yori (The Ravaged House: Zoroku's Disease, 2004).

As IndieFEST programmer Bruce Fletcher synopsizes Green Mind, Metal Bats for the festival program: "[Kazuyoshi's] latest film comes (literally) out of left field: It's a baseball movie. However, with one of the most provocative talents in new Japanese cinema behind the camera, it's not going to be a traditional sports film by any stretch of the imagination.

"From the incredible opening sequence's errant pitch to the head until the inevitable showdown between the former teammates, Green Mind, Metal Bats is more about the effect of the game on three psychologically wounded people, and how baseball can be a force for healing, than in the game itself.

"Nanba is a shunned outcast who doesn't have a girlfriend, any money, or prospects—a turnaround from his glory days in high school when he played on the baseball team. His former teammate Ishioka used to be their ace pitcher; now he's a policeman because of an elbow injury. Then there's baseball fanatic Eiko, a hopeless alcoholic who spends more of her time drunk than sober. The three share an intense love of baseball—and their destinies are forever intertwined."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Green Mind, Metal Bats is having its U.S. premiere at this year's SF IndieFEST but had its world premiere last year at the 35th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). I'm assuming you went? How was it received by its Rotterdam audience?

Kumakiri Kazuyoshi: I couldn't go last year to the premiere because I was shooting my next film.

Guillén: Ah, too bad. Then I guess you don't know how the Rotterdam audience received it; but, I asked because I was wondering if its audience reception differed from its critical reception, which—to date—has been conflicted, though not necessarily negative. Critics don't quite know what to make of Green Mind, Metal Bats. They're somewhat confused by the genre mash-up. When Juan Manuel Freire reported on the film to Greencine from the Barcelona Asian Film Festival, he called it "an enjoyable rarity which shakes surrealist humor, thriller action and sport-film motivational spirit into an impossible mixture." I'm wondering how much of that is your responsibility or your vision? Or if you were more a hired gun to direct Takashi Ujita's adaptation of Tomohiro Koizumi's eponymous manga?

Kazuyoshi: In terms of the genres being mixed, I'm not interested in being pigeon-holed into any particular genre. I'm more interested in seeing something that people haven't seen before so I think Green Minds, Metal Bats is the product of my vision. But it may be true of all of my films that about half of the audience is probably confused by them.

Guillén: I certainly was by Antena, I can tell you that, but I went with it anyways.

Kazuyoshi: Antena's probably the film that does confuse people most.

Guillén: So not being familiar with the original manga of Green Mind, Metal Bats, can you talk about how your film adaptation differs, if at all? I'm aware that with your current feature, which is also based on a manga, there has been some controversy about how much the film adaptation differs from its original source.

Kazuyoshi: Freesia is the new film that just premiered at Rotterdam and in that one certainly the result of the film is very different from the original. With Green Mind, Metal Bats, I felt that I had used quite a bit of artistic license and took a lot of freedom in making the film that I wanted to but—after I saw the completed film—I realized that much of the original taste of the original manga was very much intact in the film. I could say, of course, that the original is a little bit more dry, whereas the film version tends to be more emotional; there's more impact.

Guillén: It's my understanding that you tend to write your own scripts but in the case of Green Mind, Metal Bats, the manga had already been adapted into a script by Takashi Ujita. What prompted you to work with someone else's treatment?

Kazuyoshi: Takashi Ujita is actually a screenwriter that I work with quite a bit on all my films and with Green Mind, Metal Bats, we started at a very early stage rewriting the treatment together.

Guillén: Juan Manuel Freire, who I quoted earlier, likewise found Green Mind, Metal Bats to be a confounding "dramedy" that plays with conceptions of what is heroic and what is criminal and that it's infused with your directorial obsession with exploitive violence. Your violence is disturbingly comic. Can you speak some about that?


Kazuyoshi: There is a good amount of depiction of violence in my films; but, with the film I made before this—Antena—I had the sense that there was something a little bit too serious and heavy-handed about the approach to violence. I wanted to take a lighter approach to filmmaking and that was the result you see in Green Mind, Metal Bats. In regards to the heroes and criminals in my films, I believe that a hero in my vision is somebody who does what is right regardless of what society believes. In regards to criminals, I'm often drawn more to the villains in films rather than the typical heroes. I tend to be more drawn towards the villain who might have been lonely. I tend to side with them. The extreme version of that is what you see in Green Mind, Metal Bats.

Guillén: In this week's Nichi Bei Times Ben Hamamoto praised your directorial balance. He said that even though Green Mind, Metal Bats is "a bleak portrait of aging urban degenerates", it is "also an outrageous comedy. Somehow, its zaniness never undercuts the 'realness' of the characters and the bleakness never undercuts the comedy." Elsewhere the film has been described as "gentle" even in the face of its exploitive violence. Hamamoto, again, says that the film causes you to root for these losers and to like them; a guilty pleasure. You offend and you fascinate. Can you speak some about how you achieve this balance or why you seek to balance these seemingly oppositional energies in your themes and your characters?

Kazuyoshi: I'm happy to hear those comments. What drew me to this material to begin with is that the characters are hopeless people and yet I wanted to treat them with a lot of love. That was the challenge that I took on.

Guillén: Some years back in your interview with Tom Mes for Midnight Eye, he noted that your earlier film Kichiku had drawn comparisons to the early work of Kôji Wakamatsu and Mes wondered if you felt a kinship to Wakamatsu. You replied that—though you weren't particularly fascinated with his films—you liked their underground feel. Kôji Wakamatsu has now ended up acting in Green Mind, Metal Bats as the alleged son of Babe Ruth; one might say the spirit of Babe Ruth. What was your thought behind casting him in your film? Were you striving for an underground aesthetic?


Kazuyoshi: It's a long story, but basically when I was a college student I had already been a fan of Wakamatsu's films. When there was a retrospective of his films at a nearby theater, I went to go see them. I went up to him afterward and told him how much I admired his films and he said, "Fine, let's go drinking together." So we went drinking. Towards the end of it, when we were saying good-bye, he basically shook my hand and said, "Good luck, kid." Several years later when I finished Hole in the Sky, my second feature, he took a look at the film and apparently enjoyed it. He invited me to be on the radio show he was doing at that time. He talked about the film quite a bit and he told me, "You look like a director now. Your face looks like a director's now." I really enjoyed hearing that so I wanted to bring a part of that into this film. When you see the scene where Nanba is practicing his swing, and the Babe Ruth character played by Wakamatsu comes along and says, "Your swing is looking good now"—that's our personal interaction coming into the film.

Guillén: Whenever Wakamatsu speaks as the Babe Ruth spirit in Green Mind, Metal Bats, the subtitles are rendered in an American drawl. I'm not a sophisticated enough linguist to know if this is also being rendered in Japanese in some way for Japanese audiences to pick up on. Is it?

Kazuyoshi: Wakamatsu is actually from the northeast region of Japan and they have a heavy thick dialect there. It wasn't until the day before we actually printed the screenplay to go into shooting that we locked in Wakamatsu as the Babe Ruth character. So I had to basically go in very quickly and rewrite all the lines to be more in Wakamatsu's dialect.

Guillén: But why was his speech translated into American slang? [At this juncture my translator Taro Goto admitted that he wrote the subtitles for Green Mind, Metal Bats so he responded directly to my query.]

Taro Goto: Wakamatsu is speaking with such a thick dialect that in the U.S. or in the English language, the closest thing I could find was a slightly Southern drawl. I tried not to make it too Southern but again just a touch of it so that there is the sense that he's from somewhere other than this city. There's an element that he's coming from somewhere else. It's a little more rural.

Guillén: Your choice intrigues me because, I guess, it does distinguish him as being more rural, which in effect is saying American. Which leads, I guess, to my true question for Kazuyoshi: what is the role of this American sport of baseball in Japanese sensibility? What's the weight of its fantasy for Japanese people? And what are you trying to say by showing how it has damaged the emotional lives of these three young Japanese individuals—Nanba, Ishioka, and Eiko?

Kazuyoshi: First of all, in the original comic, in the manga, the character is not Babe Ruth at all. He's actually a famous Japanese baseball player who was a well-known alcoholic. It felt too provincial for me to use that in a film that's supposed to go out to an international audience so I decided to use someone more universally recognizable and that was Babe Ruth.

I myself actually played baseball through middle school. In Japan it's not so much baseball itself that has a lot of weight, it's high school baseball. High school baseball in Japan is very big. Almost every kid aims for being a high school baseball player in national tournament. There are many people like the Ishioka character in the film who basically reached their life peak when they were shining in the high school baseball national tournament world. Then everything else is downhill. I felt a lot of sympathy for that type of character.

Guillén: So that high school baseball becomes a symbol of lost youth or the golden days of youth?

Kazuyoshi: In today's Japan it may be soccer that's gaining more popularity, but in my generation it was baseball.

Guillén: Ben Hamamoto relayed an interesting claim of Wakamatsu's that he "sent his teenage daughter to live with guerillas in Beirut after she came back from study abroad in America with 'absurdly self-centered notions of individuality'." I found that hilariously intriguing about Wakamatsu. What was it like to work with him?

Kazuyoshi: [Chuckling.] I haven't heard that story. Filmmakers understand what has to occur on the set because they're the ones who have to direct actors. Wakamatsu understood what I had to accomplish on the set. He allowed me to be self-centered and I had no problems getting him to do what I wanted him to do. For example, in the scene towards the end of the film where you see the Babe Ruth character in his briefs watching the city on fire, that's a tough thing to ask someone like Wakamatsu to do but he had no problems with that.

Wakamatsu is known for being a great low-budget guerrilla-style filmmaker. He has a reputation for being able to get more than 20 shots in a single hour. I tend to work slower. I take my time with my shots. There were a few moments during the shooting where the sun would be going down, we would be losing light, and Wakamatsu would be the one panicking more than me.

Guillén: What does the "green mind" portion of the film's title refer to?

Kazuyoshi: The initial translation was supposed to be just simply Youth and Metal Bats. That's the direct literal translation from the Japanese title. But "Green Mind" is supposed to refer to something about the bittersweet pangs of youth. I happen to be a big fan of a Japanese group called Dinosaur Junior. They had an album called "Green Mind." The original comic book author was also a big fan of Dinosaur Junior and he had suggested "Green Mind." There's something about green youthfulness in the mind that seemed to work together and we decided to use it.

Guillén: Passivity and aggression play into your films a lot and you've gained a reputation for keenly chronicling relational obsessions. Eiko's alcoholic aggression is distasteful but fascinating. Are you trying to say something about Japanese women? Because it's not a role I would associate with Japanese women. What's Eiko about?

Kazuyoshi: Rather than saying something about Japanese women generally, it's simply my personal taste. I love women that are violent and cute.

Guillén: I loved the scene where Nanba told her he didn't have any more money and she said, "No problem" and went outside and beat up the girl on the bicycle and stole her money. It was terrible but funny.

Kazuyoshi: That's my ideal woman.


Guillén: So let's shift briefly to Freesia, if we may, which just had its world premiere at Rotterdam. Although my Twitch teammate Ardvark was not so enamored with Freesia, Mark Schilling's review in yesterday's Japan Times was fairly enthusiastic. So, again, we'll have to rely on Bruce Fletcher to bring the film to us so San Franciscans can decide for themselves. This is another film based on manga, this time Jiro Matsumoto's Furîjia. Initial reports are that fans of the manga are upset with your treatment because you've strayed so far from the story. Some have wondered why you even bothered to get the license. Any thoughts?

Kazuyoshi: Basically, the producer asked me to do this. I hadn't heard about this project before. When I took a look at it, I found that the Furîjia series wasn't complete yet. It's still an ongoing manga series. There were many episodes that fascinated me but there wasn't a complete plot so I felt it was an opportunity to improvise.

Guillén: Your films are dystopian and dispassionate. Do you think it's important as a filmmaker to disappoint anticipations? Or to subvert an audience's attachment to expected outcomes? It can be frustrating but is also mesmerizing.

Kazuyoshi: Thank you. You're pretty much right on. Many people have noted similar things about my films. There is this conventional expectation that a character has to somehow grow in the course of a film and I never really fully bought into that. I often see many people who gain quite a bit of experience and yet never really amount to anything or never learn something from it. Those are the people I respond to. In Green Mind, Metal Bats specifically, the two characters at the very end, after the film is over they'll probably get arrested, that's what I think. But though the film doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, I didn't want to show that part of it. I wanted to show them at their brightest moment.

Cross-published at Twitch.

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