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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

Not a whodunit but a whydunit


Coming last in a daylong round of media interviews, I was expecting my 40 minutes with Shinji Aoyama to be strained, as in "I'm so tired I can hardly stand." Instead, he came into the meeting room at Toho with a smile and a brisk manner, as in "I'm just getting warmed up." While he was obviously there to talk up his new film, he was also the director-as-film-buff, who lit up when names of his favorites were mentioned, including Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Tai Kato. Speaking about his own work, though, he was less the enthusiast than the sharp-as-tacks analyst, able to sum up, in a few lucid phrases, exactly what he was about and why.

News photo
Director Shinji Aoyama

How does "Lakeside Murder Case" fit with the rest of your work? It seems to be something of a departure.

My films are often about how families and other communities are built and fall apart. How one incident can break a community apart. This film is about such a community. It's also about how strangers relate to each other.

I haven't read the novel that "Lakeside Murder Mystery" was adapted from, but the story is along the lines of an Agatha Christie mystery, in which all the action unfolds in one enclosed space, among a small group of people. Was that part of the appeal for you?

For me the mystery element came first, but there were other elements as well. Another interviewer told me he didn't know which genre the film belongs to. That was my intention -- it's like a horror movie in some ways. There are various elements in it.

There's a black humor that's almost British, like something Hitchcock might have come up with.

British people might think it funny. There's a Hitchcock film called "The Trouble With Harry" about an inconvenient corpse -- if it's found there'll be trouble, so it has to be hidden.

Your approach seems to be more distanced, though, more eye-of-God.

I don't see it that way, as God watching over the characters. Instead I seem them as being in the midst of nature. And nature also between them, dividing them. They're close to nature, they're close to beauty, but a murder is committed among them -- that's what's interesting about the film for me.

Your casting of Koji Yakusho is interesting as well. He's got a warm, Tom Hanks quality that's at odds with everything around him.

That's what I paid the most attention to when I was writing the script. An ordinary guy like Koji Yakusho stands out, but he's also being absorbed into the group. There's an American sci-fi film called "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" -- it's as though he's having his body snatched.

At the same time, I didn't want to make a 100 percent horror movie -- I stopped just a bit short.

What drew you to the mystery genre specifically?

In a mystery, the criminal and the dialogue are important. On the other hand, a film is not interesting when you explain everything with words, so I tried to get away from that. If you can create drama from points of view -- from who is looking at whom -- and from the conversations [between the characters], the film becomes more interesting. That was the challenge I had, to create that drama. It's a story about ordinary people. At first they don't understand anything -- then they find out little by little. There's no professional detective. Everyone is an amateur. It's an all-amateur mystery.

They all seem like good people -- but they behave as if they're living in the Warring States ( sengoku jidai ) period, when any sort of savagery went.

That's Japanese society. The wildness in the [film's] children is like a state of savagery -- not at all like a supposedly advanced civilization. The savagery of human beings hasn't changed at all -- that's the truth. People wear masks, but at heart they're still wild.

The one who best expresses that may be Akira Emoto, as the doctor.

The doctor is a real gentleman -- but being a gentleman for him is like wearing a suit. In reality, he'll do anything. He's a symbol of this society.

As you said, that's a major point of the film -- that seemingly ordinary people can do that sort of thing. But the position of Etsushi Toyokawa's teacher is more ambiguous.

He's between the children and the adults. He's calmly watching what the adults are doing, but he's also seeing what the children are doing. He knows that the children do what they do as a result of the adults' actions. He's standing between the two groups.

I know that you do both television and films. If you had made this story as a TV drama, would you have shot it any differently?

Because it was a film, I could shoot it the way I wanted. Because it was a film, I could do this sort of story and think about this sort of problem seriously.

There seems to be a trend now for indies directors from the '90s, including you, Hirokazu Koreeda and Takeshi Kitano and even Takashi Miike to make bigger, more commercial films. I suppose that's a natural process.

Well, these are interesting directors, so there are producers now who will up their budgets and help them make films that people will come to see.

Your producer on this film and other past works was Takenori Sento. He's known for thinking about the foreign market. What about this film?

I thought of it as being for the domestic market. There's a lot of dialogue, so you end up with a lot of subtitles. For people who only understand English, there are a lot of words to process. The characters speak fast.

Also, you can't easily cut the dialogue because it's a mystery.

That's right -- you have to explain things.

Are you still thinking of making a film that might be shown at Cannes, Venice or Berlin?

Yes, but I don't really care which. If the producer can say, "This is going to Cannes or Berlin or Venice," it's easier to raise money for the budget. Once the money is raised, then I have to make a film we can submit somewhere.

Now, though, I want to make a film we can take to Cannes. Cannes is interesting -- something wild always happens when I go there. I enjoy that.

You've tried a variety of genres -- is there anything left?

I'd like to try a melodrama. Then a period drama. Not a samurai film, but something that takes place in the recent past, during World War II or the Meiji Era.

I've talked to several directors recently who said the same thing -- they want to make a period drama.

We can think about how we're living now by looking at the past.

That was the approach of Tai Kato -- to comment on present-day society by looking at what was happening in the Meiji Era.

I love Kato's films -- they've been a big influence on me.



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