Yokohama born Miyazaki Daisuke posseses a pensive quality not readily evident in his relaxed gaze and mild-mannered smile. Make no mistake, however, inside burns a well stoked fire for incisively entertaining stories.
A graduate of Waseda University, Miyazake attended a 2004 film school administered by New York University in Japan. The resulting thesis short, The 10th Room, garnered the program’s grand prize, certainly no fluke for the Political Science and Economics major. From there, he was a production design assistant on Leo Carax’s Merde and an assistant director for Kurosawa Kiyoshi. He made a few more shorts before teaming with Tokyo Sonata cinematographer, Ashizawa Akiko, in 2010 for his first feature-length movie, End of the Night. The stylish hitman tale feels like something out of cinema’s heyday of the 70s and 80s. Though its noir-ish tone, wry humor, and topicality seem outwardly “foreign,” its soul is distinctively Japanese and perhaps a completely original type of noir. Moreover, it is a wonderful showcase of the kind of savvy low-budget filmmaking that would have made Roger Corman smile. On its long festival run, Miyazaki earned praise as one of 7 Japanese Independent Film Directors To Watch and when released in Japan, End of the Night achieved unprecedented box-office figures for a self-distributed movie.
The attention, however, couldn’t prevent the wordly director from travelling across Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe for a year to connect with new people and perspectives. The journey was capped by an invitation to the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival’s Talent Campus where a Japanese had not participated in four years. The friendships he made there led to 5 to 9, a joint-Asian project, his first as producer, comprising of artful vignettes of human interaction occurring from dusk to dawn across Asia. But it is in his latest feature, Yamato (California), that his creativity and educational background smartly converge. The revealing, music-themed drama unabashedly exploits the issue of American military bases in Japan in dealing with questions of identity, and is perhaps his most personal work.
In a local industry often typified by purely art-house drama or “extreme” genre fare, Miyazaki is a rare breed. With one foot firmly planted at home and the other striding the world, he’s looking to marry domestic relevance with international appeal through a fiercely indie temperment.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2013. Revisions have been made with the director’s supervision)
Were there any films in particular that made you want to make movies?
Gaspar Noé’s short film Carne. Since I had a natural-born love of movies, I occasionally wrote fiction, but it was when I had finished watching a copy of Carne I rented from my local rental shop–which was burned to the ground by an arsonist–that I suddenly felt I wanted to make movies myself.
Are you interested in a particular genre or perhaps a particular type of film?
I have a slight hang up about not having a genre I can say I “specialize” in. I like everything so is that like being a “playboy?” From experimental movies to political documentaries; from Hollywood B-action movies to independent comedies as well as HBO dramas, anime, music videos, commercials, video installations, virtual reality, and silver halide photographs; I try to enjoy anything visually interesting. If I had to profess a preference, I do habitually watch contemporary American comedies. After all, doesn’t life somehow seem more fun after watching one?
What was your reason for attending the NYU summer school in Japan?
At the time the Japanese independent film world was divided into two major types: Pia (Pia Film Festival) movies and cinephile movies. Because I sensed there were somehow inadequacies in both, I had been wondering if there weren’t alternative routes as an outsider. That’s when I happened upon the NYU advertisement and applied.
Your thesis film The 10th Room won the Grand Prix at the KUT Film Festival held by NYU in Japan, did that seem surreal to you?
Yes it did. I had never experienced strangers favorably responding to a movie I had made so it felt peculiar. Because I was young then, the only thing I had was the self-confidence that my movie was the most engaging.
You were an assistant director for Kurosawa Kiyoshi on Tokyo Sonata, how did you gain that position?
A friend from film school told me about it. Without any plans for the following month let alone life, I immediately agreed and went to an interview at Nikkatsu studio.
What was the experience like?
First of all, seeing up close for about a month how a major film destined for the cinema multiplex is made was an extraordinary experience. I was in the presence of Japan’s top level people in every department: direction, cinematography, lighting, etc. doing their job each day; nothing could ever top that learning opportunity. Naturally I was overwhelmed on every front, but like a player on Japan’s national soccer team making a debut appearance in a World Cup, merely attaining that aspiration is not at all meant to be the end. I feverishly tried to learn where I specifically differed from Japan’s top-class filmmakers and take that [knowledge] away with me–although, all I could actually do was try and keep up with them each day.
That’s because “Noir” has taken off globally in addition to America, France, and South Korea, but Japanese cinema and the circumstances besieging it are slightly different.
When did you come up for idea for End of the Night?
I think it was late summer of 2009. I was unable to sleep and as I lay awake until the faint light of dawn, it suddenly flashed into my mind. In a scant ten or so minutes, I had written down the whole story. Up until that point, I was intending to shoot a romantic comedy performed on stage in Shibuya.
How did you work with the cinematographer to design the shots and style of the movie?
We watched dozens of movies as reference together with lighting director Shigenori Miki and then went to scout locations at which time basic guidelines for the scenes were created. On location, we proceeded to mutually contribute comments or opinions.
Were there challenges finding backers for a film of this kind? If you had twice the budget of End of Night what kind of movie would you like to make?
If someone were to take that scenario around without having any accomplishments under their belt, it might have been extremely difficult. That’s because “Noir” has taken off globally in addition to America, France, and South Korea, but Japanese cinema and the circumstances besieging it are slightly different. With a proven track record, the project might somehow come together under low-budget art movie confines. In truth, I’d prefer to shoot a noir as a mid-budget movie–a budget level which ought to be an asset for Japanese cinema–that would dramatically boost the overall quality, and bolster the story’s world. The idea I have in mind is a semi-sequel to End of the Night set in post-disaster stricken Tohoku about the clandestine maneuvers of a Robin Hood-type robber-child.
At twice the budget of End of the Night, what I can do is this: there’s a rapper couple in the Northern Kanto region in whom I’ve taken a very keen interest these days and I want to shoot this “criminal-couple-on-the-run” kind of tale. I think I can offer something far and away more intense than the duo of Joker & Harlequin.
If there happens to be somone in Japan or abroad who would be okay with investing even a little of the budget, I’d be very happy to hear from you.
You’ve stated that you intended to create a J-Film Noir with End of the Night, could you further explain your vision of this genre? What can make it identifiable as Japanese Film Noir?
At its outset, film noir was a genre which intensely projected the psychological-economic damage America sustained due to World War 2. Stated plainly, they were low budget [works] with both gloomy subject matter and imagery. In Japan, a similarly inexpensive, dark genre was once “J-Horror,” but the domestic industry’s budget cutbacks have deepened over the past 10 years to the degree even the production of a [J-Horror] at a fulfilling level is impossible. When I thought about what might come next under such conditions, I realized that The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, and other movies thought to have embraced the impacts of the Iraq War and the Subprime Loan Crisis were global hits; “noir” was becoming a global sensation. So, I borrowed the “noir” label and affixed it to Japan’s so-called “Lost Decade” in addition to the social anxiety in evidence since 1995 and resulting from the [March 11th] earthquake, then wondered how it would sound if I tried calling it “J-Noir.” I thought in terms of style and budget it was certainly possible. That was the genesis.
At the time I had essentially reached the end of my rope, so I went with the thought there had to be some new way for me to continue persuing film.
Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if it’s J-Horror, French New Wave, or the fringe Tarantino movies of Dimension [Films], when a movie from some country becomes a global sensation, its genre invariably succeeds over a broad age group. In that sense, if socially murky, stylish movies using low budgets to their advantage poured out of Japan at the same time the “J-Noir” label is propagated, it might just grow into a large-scale movement. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.
What were you aiming to accomplish by participating at the Berlin Film Festival’s Berlinale Talent Campus? Did any new relationships or connections develop from going?
At the time I had essentially reached the end of my rope, so I went with the thought there had to be some new way for me to continue pursuing film. It unexpectedly resulted in making many friends and connections. My classmates lent their concern for the state of my production and at the festival, it seemed as if classmates were everywhere I went. The friends [I made] from Asia, in particular, have become quite close and led to us creating a short movie omnibus.
What led to the birth of your latest movie, Yamato (California)? Is there a specific message or theme you wish for it to convey?
Due to life complications and the Great East Japan Earthquake, I was thinking this would probably be the last movie I would make. So it occured to me that I wanted to shoot at least once a movie dealing with my own hometown as well as the hip-hop music I’m so fond of. This was the basic inception. From there, as the various thoughts I had grew more far-reaching, I realized that having been raised in America briefly, my own identity was being split in two just as Japan’s identity, too, has also been divided through modernization and the loss of the war. That led to the completion of the scenario. I think the resulting movie has something that can be shown by, and heard from, a colonized and subjugated people (Japanese) appropriating American dance music with roots in oppressive slavery
To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 character message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?
Have things become a little better than five years before?
Excerpted from a full interview to be published in curated eBooks which will be offered for sale sometime in the near future. Please bookmark the Indievisual blog, Backstory, for news when the eBooks are available for purchase.
(This article has been edited since its publication to correct the misspelling of Leo Carax’s Merde.)
2016 – Yamato (California)
2015 – 5 to 9 (director of Japan episode)
2011 – End of the Night
2007 – The Modern Pirate and the Girl
2006 – MARIA! MARIA!
2005 – Love Will Tear Us Apart
2004 – 10th Room
As Screenwriter or Producer
2016 – PING PANG (dir.: Tanaka Yoichi)
2016 – Dark Side of the Light (dir.: Sakamaki Ryota)
2014 – The Revenge Channel (dir.: Kikkawa Hisatake)
2013 – Drag You to Hell (dir.: Kikkawa Hisatake)
2010 – In a Lonely Planet (dir.: Tsutsui Takefumi)