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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006


Director Yanagimachi explores the human condition

Mitsuo Yanagimachi is enjoying a moment in the sun after nearly a decade in the twilight: His new film "Camus Nante Shiranai (Who's Camus Anyway?)" was screened in the Director's Fortnight section at Cannes, picked up for distribution in the United States and showered with rave reviews from everywhere.

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Director Mitsuo Yanagimachi

Yanagimachi, however, is not quite ready to play the smoothly affable comeback kid: In an interview at the Ginza office of his distributor, he was more inclined to engage than spin, with a quick smile, ready wit and an open manner verging on the bluff, but also with flashes of a tougher, pricklier side. If I were his student (he taught film at Waseda for three years), I'd come to class prepared, both to avoid his wrath and keep up with his restless, probing mind.

None of the main characters are quite what they seem. They're are all playing roles. At the same time there is a balance between them.

That's something I got from Truffaut, the balance between characters' various sides. There's a balance between strength and weakness, sadness and joy. People are like that in real life. One example is Adele. I wanted to show her good, giving side as well as her other, less attractive side. She's a character with breadth -- she's more than one thing.

The opening scene plays a double role as well. It's not just a piece of virtuoso camerawork but something more.

I wanted to show the relationships between the main characters in an interesting way. That comes from Kenji Mizoguchi, among others.

Did it take you a long time to work out those relationships?

I worked them out in a diagram, then I wrote the script. The whole process, from start to finish, took about 10 years. It became very complicated (laughs).

I used the settings [in the classroom building] to underline those relationships. I used the stairs a lot, as well as the lounge, the studio, the staff room and so on. Each setting has a role to play in tying together all these relationships.

You refer to various films, beginning with Francois Truffaut's "The Story of Adele H" and Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice." Were they your influences when you wrote the script?

My first influence was Hollywood. I owe a lot to the films of William Wyler. Also Robert Altman's "The Player." He's a hard director to imitate. He's made some great films -- he's really talented.

I taught at a university for three years -- that's when I got the idea. I thought it would be interesting to make a film together with students.

The actors you cast really look and act like students. One exception is Meisa Kuroki, who stands out from the others. There's something mysterious about her -- she acts quite mature, but she's the youngest of the cast.

Kuroki was 16 when she made the film. I thought I would have to give up on her because she was so young. She's beautiful but she doesn't look 16 -- or Japanese for that matter. She's of Okinawan and Panamanian background.

Actually when casting college students it's usually better to get actors who are 25 or 26. They can still remember what it's like to be that age, but they have some perspective on it as well. They can give a good performance that way.

Everyone is going to say, of course, that the character of Professor Nakajo is modeled on you.

I took a bit of a chance with that one. When I was drawing the character diagram, I included one old guy. At first I wasn't going to make him like Nakajo, but then I thought I could use a film director in the story. I didn't want to make him anything like me, though.

I thought I would film on the Waseda campus, where I had taught, but the negotiations didn't go well, so I had to give up that idea. Then we decided to shoot at Rikkyo University. The campus is quite Western -- something like you would find in Boston, with all the bricks.

It's got a borderless feeling. You're not quite sure if you're in Japan or not. There's that feeling in the story as well.

It's a story about making a student movie, so it goes back and forth between fiction and reality. There are Adele and Aschenbach -- characters who are a mix of the fictional and the real. The murders [in the student film] mix fiction and reality as well.

My aim, frankly, is to confuse the audience, keep it off balance. Toward the end the tone changes -- you're no longer sure if you're just watching a scene [in a student film] or actual murders. There's a surface reality and a deeper reality. Again, the mix of reality and fiction.

The students in the film are livelier than the ones I used to see in the classroom. But maybe that was just me (laughs).

Well, they're working together toward a common goal. It's like a festival for them, so of course they're going to be lively.

Also, it's not true that college students today just sit there like sticks. They jabber away when they get the chance (laughs).

Their choice of subject matter for the film -- "The Stranger" -- is rather unusual, however.

There's no way they would have known "The Stranger." On the other hand, if Nakajo had let them choose their own subject, the film wouldn't have been interesting for him, so he had them do Camus.

In the same way, the film didn't strike me as a typical seishun eiga (youth film), even though it's about young people.

I wanted to make it more universal. I wanted both adults and young people to see and enjoy it.

It's also more realistic about the way young people interact than the typical seishun eiga, which is often just the director's fantasy.

My three years of teaching experience was important. Without that the film would have been totally different.

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