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Sunday, Dec. 25, 2005



Creators, not hacks

OUTLAW MASTERS OF JAPANESE FILM by Chris Desjardins. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005, 262 pp., $19.95 (paper).
IRON MAN: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, by Tom Mes. FAB Press, 2005. 237 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Foreign critics used to worship at the altars of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi -- Olympian auteurs who stood aloof from the directorial masses churning out product on studio conveyor belts.

News photo
Director Shinya Tsukamoto, subject of Tom Mes' book "Iron Man," in Tokyo Promoting his 2004 movie "Vital".

True, even these masters made what might be called genre films -- what is Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" if not a John Ford Western recast as a jidai geki (period drama)? But as the critics pointed out, they had a freedom to be their own artistic selves that the genre specialists, slaves to formula, did not.

Critical fashions have since changed. Now those same specialists are praised abroad for personal styles and experimentations that were once thought not to exist. One of the celebrators is Chris D. (nee Desjardins), a punk rocker turned programmer for the Los Angeles Cinematheque, where he and his colleagues presented, starting in 1997, a series called Japanese Outlaw Masters, showcasing directors who made yakuza, horror and other films in once lightly regarded genres.

Among the "outlaws" were Kinji Fukasaku, Junya Sato, Kihachi Okamoto, Masahiro Shinoda, Seijun Suzuki, Teruo Ishii, Koji Wakamatsu, Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, as well as Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba and Meiko Kaji, genre film stars who have since become cult figures in the West.

Chris D.'s "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" is a collection of 14 profiles and interviews with these filmmakers, together with filmographies and brief essays on studios and female yakuza stars. It is valuable not only as an information source on Japanese genre films but also for its insights into the personalities and views of creators who are anything but beaten-down hacks.

Instead, as Chris D. and his collaborators show in interview after revealing interview, they are mostly strong personalities with quick minds and sharp opinions, who made their individual marks in a tough grind. Readers, however, may want to skip the many short plot summaries that give away the ending -- an annoying tick in an otherwise excellent book by a knowledgeable and truly obsessed fan.

One omission from Chris D.'s book happens to be the subject of Tom Mes' lavishly illustrated, exhaustively researched "Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto." The omission is puzzling in that Tsukamoto, who burst onto the international scene with the brilliantly deranged "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" in 1989, has long been the definitive outsider, with few industry ties. The omission is understandable, though, if one considers, as Mes does in his survey of Tsukamoto's entire filmography (early 8-mm shorts included), the difficulty in pegging Tsukamoto as a genre filmmaker.

His work, fed from deep obsessions with violence and eros, is too personal and individual to fall into the usual genre categories, although Tsukamoto admits to being influenced by genre cinema -- from the "Alien" series to Japanese kaiju (monster) films.

Mes, who also wrote a book-length study of another Japanese "outlaw," Takashi Miike, argues persuasively that Tsukamoto is important as "a pioneer in advocating the nation's contemporary cinema abroad." His bleak urban landscapes that are breeding grounds for insanity, and his tormented everymen who transform into metallic monsters or rage-crazed fighters, marked him as utterly different in outlook and approach from a previous generation of humanistic auteurs. He was also an avatar for a new generation of media-saturated Japanese filmmakers, for whom distinctions of "high" and "low" culture had ceased to have meaning.

Mes supports his claims with not only close analyses of the films, but interviews with Tsukamoto's colleagues and Tsukamoto himself. The portrait that emerges is of an artist who, in his younger years, could be a demon on the set and off, raging at underlings who were laboring on his low-budget productions as little more than volunteers. By the end of the shoot of "Tetsuo," only 20 of the original staff of 60 remained. (Tsukamoto, I should add, has since mellowed.)

This sort of detail brings "Iron Man" to vivid life and helps makes it a model study of its kind. If anything, Mes focuses too intensely on Tsukamoto's directorial persona, while referring only tangentially to his frequent appearances as an actor in other directors' films -- experiences that no doubt impacted his own work.

Mes gives the impression that, at the time of his breakthrough with "Tetsuo," Tsukamoto was almost alone as a new creative force in a dying industry. Yet he was one of several independent spirits breaking fresh ground in the 1980s, including Juzo Itami, Sogo Ishii, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Shinji Somai and Nobuhiko Obayashi. That none of these filmmakers, with the partial exception of Itami, became as well known as Tsukamoto abroad is due to many factors, including the Japanese industry's then indifference to the international market.

That said, Mes' book is a must-have for anyone interested in not just Tsukamoto but also the new wave of Japanese cinema he did so much to launch.

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