Minoru Kawasaki Interview - "I want to be silly for the rest of my life!"

As Minoru Kawasaki told me, "Ideas for films are like cheese or wine. You have to let them age," I was on the edge of my seat awaiting each of his answers as we explored his life and films in an interview that I did with him back at Nippon Connection 2007. From him talking about an upcoming project with Takeshi Kitano to his first short film about monster tofu to his appreciation of UltraSeven and also a super baseball cat I think you will find a filmmaker bouncing with life, vibrant commentary and comedy at every turn. His latest film, "Rug Cop" is really one that has to be seen to be believed. The film features a lovelorn cop that uses a toupee as a damn near flying guillotine type weapon to take out baddies and really that is all you need to know about the film before seeing it (as it features many twists and surprises along with another Kawasaki hilarious sing a long). Austin, Texas audiences can catch "Rug Cop" at the upcoming Fantastic Fest 2007 film festival (screening info). I was first introduced into Kawasaki cinema only just last year at the 39th Sitges Film Festival where I saw "Executive Koala" twice. I remember walking in and thinking how in the world can this filmmaker turn the simple device of a man in a koala suit into an engaging feature length comedy. On paper it seems like one joke that your already know the punchline for and yet when you see the film the comedy, gags, social commentary, homages and overall entertaining nature never let up. It really is one of the most rocking comedies to come out this decade and it's just bound to get a cult following someday.

A huge thanks to Chiho Mori at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas for helping me transcribe this interview and get all the various references right. She really has one of the most diverse and charming film festivals I've ever attended and it keeps getting better every year.

An interview (with some noted flying guillotine sound effects) and a gallery (featuring pictures of Kawasaki at Nippon Connection and for the panel that one of the Midnight Eye contributers hosted for him) for the film follows.

As noted in my previous Shinya Tsukamoto interview - The Nippon Connection film festival has it all - diverse Japanese film programming, friendly staff, sushi bar, robot dances, saki lounge, karaoke lounge (where people butchered Depeche Mode songs) and more! If you like Japanese cinema mark your calendar now to be in Frankfurt, Germany next year for Nippon Connection 2008.

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BLAKE: I'M CURIOUS ON YOUR ORIGINS AND WHERE YOU GREW UP.

KAWASAKI: I was born in Shibuya, Tokyo. My parents had a restaurant that specialized in globefish cuisines. I was an only child growing up up in the Japanese sub culture of the 1960’s.

BLAKE: AND YOUR UNIVERSITY DAYS?

KAWASAKI: I went to Meiji University. When I was 18 I made my first 8mm short film about a piece of tofu that fell into the river and then grew into a Gojira like monster. It starts to attack the city. Then eventually, the monster ends up at Korakuen Baseball Field with two other monsters that were transformed from green onion and meat. At the end, a plane flies above the baseball field dumping sugar and soy sauce over them, which turns them into a big pot of Sukiyaki (Sukiyaki is a popular Japanese hot pot dish made with meat, tofu and green onion as main ingredients).

UPDATE: Thanks to Don at Ryuganji for this tip. Over on Kawasaki's official homepage there is a still from this short (view here).

BLAKE: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPOSURE TO CINEMA?

KAWASAKI: In 1965 I watched a movie by Ishirô Honda called "Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira." The movie played along with Disney's "101 Dalmatians" as a double feature. [The first film] was very scary, [it had] people being eaten by monsters. The other movie [however] was like a happy-go-lucky (humming) kinda movie. [They were] two totally different movies. I was 5 years old and that was my first experience with movies.

BLAKE: WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET THE FILMMAKING BUG?

KAWASAKI: When I shot my first 8mm film, I just did it because I thought that was fun. In my generation, "Ultraman" and "Gojira" were very popular, and I wanted to make those movies. But the people who were initially involved in the production were no longer there, so I thought it would be a waste of time for me to go work for them. Then I decided to make them on my own. I mean like "Star Wars," the first one was so great, but as they went on to make more (with the prequels) it became less and less interesting, you know?

BLAKE: WHAT FILMMAKERS HAD THE MOST IMPACT ON YOU?

KAWASAKI: Akio Jissoji was my mentor. Unfortunately he passed away recently, but he was a great master. [Another is the] comedy filmmaker, Kengo Furusawa who directed the "Crazy Cats" movies, and Ishirô Honda along with Eiji Tsuburaya. [I would say] these are the 3 directors (Jissoji, Furusawa and Honda) that I was [most] greatly influenced by.

BLAKE: OUTSIDE OF CINEMA WHERE YOU DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION FOR YOUR COMEDY?

KAWASAKI: Professional baseball and wrestling are great deal to me. Actually, I’m going to be working with Takeshi Kitano soon. He is more of a comedian than a director in Japan. I do have his comedic influence, too.

BLAKE: ANY MORE DETAILS ON THE KITANO PROJECT?

KAWASAKI: In my next movie, Takeshi will explode into becoming a “Majin” (gigantic God like creature) and smashes bad guys - if I were to simply put it. It's confirmed that he will play the character, but I’m still exploring some ideas.

BLAKE: WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS LIKE WHEN DEVELOPING SCRIPT AND FILM IDEAS?

KAWASAKI: [I get ideas] While I drink beer and by talking to people and exchanging some ideas. I then I sleep on those ideas and then when I wake up the next morning, sometimes I find those ideas [are] not so funny (laughs). But I do keep those ideas. It’s not like we get to work on those ideas right away, you know? Ideas for films are like cheese or wine. You have to let them age.

BLAKE: HOW MUCH OF WHAT YOU SHOOT IS PLANNED VERSUS IMPROVISED? FOR EXAMPLE IN "EXECUTIVE KOALA" IT SEEMS THE JOKE POKING FUN AT THE KOALA PAWS WOULD SEEM TO BE SOMETHING DISCOVERED ON SET WITH THE COSTUME AND PROPS IN PLACE.

KAWASAKI: Everything that happens in the movie is scripted, 100 percent. I pretty much follow my script. In "Executive Koala," I was thinking about how to betray people’s expectations as I was working on the script. I try to break common senses of filmmaking.

BLAKE: WHEN I WAS AT THE SITGES FILM FESTIVAL LAST YEAR I SAW "EXECUTIVE KOALA" TWICE. THE OPENING SING ALONG BROUGHT DOWN THE HOUSE BOTH TIMES WITH EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE SINGING LIKE IT WAS THE HAPPIEST MOMENT IN THEIR LIFE. IT WAS AMAZING. IN "RUG COP" YOU ALSO HAVE A SING ALONG SONG IN IT AND I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR DECISION TO INCLUDE THIS TYPE OF ELEMENT INTO YOUR FILMS.

KAWASAKI: I'm very happy that happened with Koala there. I based that part of the movie on an old Japanese monster movie called "Kaiju Daifunsen: Daigorou vs. Goriasu." A part of the movie is kinda faintly and kiddish with nursery rhyme like songs. It’s supposed to be a scary monster movie but the film starts out like a Disney movie.

BLAKE: I CAN CERTAINLY SAY MANY FILMS HAVE TRIED IN RECENT MEMORY TO INCLUDE SING ALONG SONGS AND YOUR FILMS ARE THE ONLY ONES I'VE SEEN AUDIENCES ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN!

KAWASAKI: (Laughs) Yes just like the "Rocky Horror Picture Show!" How did you like my sing along in the middle of "Rug Cop?"

BLAKE: I THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT. TOO OFTEN WHEN FILMS DO THIS, THE LYRICS ARE WAY TOO HEAVY HANDED AND DETACHED. IN "RUG COP" THE ACCOMPANYING LYRICS WERE SPOT ON - THEY POKE FUN AT THE MAIN CHARACTER AND WINK AT THE AUDIENCE TO LET THEM KNOW THAT "HEY IT'S OK TO HAVE FUN AND ENJOY THIS MOVIE!"

KAWASAKI: (Laughs)

BLAKE: IN "RUG COP" I WAS CURIOUS WHAT MADE YOU FINALLY DECIDE TO USE THE DARK VADAR “RED” LIGHTSABER FOR THE CHARACTER OF BIG WILLIE? I KNOW LAST NIGHT WHEN IT SCREENED YOU MENTIONED YOU WENT THROUGH SEVERAL CHOICES BEFORE DECIDING.

KAWASAKI: I entertained different ideas on how to make it like a weapon. Then I thought maybe it should [just] light up like a light saber.

BLAKE: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR CHOICE TO HAVE A TOUPEE BE A DEADLY WEAPON? THEY WAY IT’S USED IN THE FILM REMINDED ME VERY MUCH OF THE FLYING GUILLOITINE USED IN SHAW BROTHERS MOVIES (INSERT FLYING GUILLOTINE SOUND EFFECT HERE. WE BOTH PERFORM SPINNING NOISES AND IMPROVISE WITH OUR HANDS AND A FAKE TOUPEE TO MAKE SURE WE BOTH UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER)

KAWASAKI: We actually talked about using the guillotine. But then I thought about UltraSeven. He has a mohawk like horn that comes off from his head as his ultimate weapon. He is the most popular Ultramen in Japan. So, when in crisis, he goes bald (because he uses his weapon) even though he is a super-cool hero. We (Japanese) think that’s funny.

BLAKE: ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I’VE LIKED ABOUT YOUR FILMS THAT I’VE SEEN IS THAT NOT ONLY DO THAT WORK AS BOTH ENTERTAINING AND COMEDIC, THEY ALSO EACH FEEL VERY MUCH LIKE A PERSONAL FILM. THERE IS SOME GREAT SOCIAL COMMENTARY IN THE FILMS AND THROUGHOUT EACH FILM THERE SEEMS TO BE A RECURRING THEME OF PEOPLE BEING ABLE TO ACCEPT THE DIFFERENCES IN OTHERS.

KAWASAKI: Characters in some of my movies like "Rug Cop" and "Calamari Wrestler" lack something. But they overcome them and become strong. I like the fact that those characters don’t come out and say “I’ll rescue you,” but they “do” it.

BLAKE: YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE SCENES OF "RUG COP?"

KAWASAKI: I love the wig as a weapon training sequence by the river. I also like the proposal scene where his girlfriend drops the ring and when he goes to pick it up he loses his wig.

BLAKE: ANY SCENES OF NOTE THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE FINAL CUT?

KAWASAKI: You see everything that we filmed in the movie. We can’t afford to shoot anything that won’t make the final cut.

BLAKE: OH OK AND ANY SPECIAL FEATURES THEN THAT MIGHT BE ON THE "RUG COP" DVD?

KAWASAKI: We have a "making of" on it but that's it.

BLAKE: WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM YOUR NEXT MOVIE WITH THE CRUSTRACEAN GOAL KEEPER ("Kani Goalkeeper")?

KAWASAKI: It’s finished. If we put subtitles, then we can show it here. Maybe at next year’s festival [it will be shown].

BLAKE: CAN WE EXPECT ANOTHER GREAT COMEDY?

KAWASAKI: It’s very good. I can only make comedies. I would never be good at romantic movies where people cry and are sentimental.

BLAKE: MAYBE SOMEDAY (LAUGH)???

KAWASAKI: I don’t know about that. But it’s very hard for a comedian to be silly all the time. A comedian can’t be a comedian forever. Once they become famous, they tend to become more serious like going into politics. I want to be silly for the rest of my life.

BLAKE: DREAM PROJECT – If you had unlimited budget and shooting schedule what film would you make?

KAWASAKI: I want to make a movie about a cat joining a professional baseball team in Japan. The idea is....now that Ichiro and Matsui have gone to the major leagues, Japanese baseball teams are hurting. There is a Japanese proverb saying “Even a cat’s hand will do (explanation: you are so busy/you really need help that you will even use cat’s hand if you could).” So, in the movie, a cat will come rescue the team.

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And thus the interview wound to an end as he encouraged me to see his film "The World Sinks Except Japan" and then we talked very briefly about Teruo Ishii's "The Horrors of Malformed Men" (note he is also featured on the new DVD for this film in an interview by Outcast Cinema). Once I mentioned the firework/body part scene he instantly knew what film I was talking about. Isn't it amazing that sometimes you can talk to someone and neither of you speak each others language but you can still effectively talk about your favorite films or scenes from and instantly know what the other is talking about? I suppose that is one of those bonds all of us lovers of cinema share.

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Additional Special Thanks to Don over at Ryuganji for all the linkage support and to David over at Cinema Strikes Back for turning me on to Kawasaki in the first place.

For 2006 I had three favorite comedies, which in order are: 1. "Adam's Apples", 2. "Executive Koala" and 3. "Borat."

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Related Twitch Coverage:
Nippon Connection: Minoru Kawasaki's THE RUG COP (ZURA DEKA)
Minoru Kawasaki's THE RUG COP (ZURA DEKA), w/ Fuyuki Moto, Ryôji Kanô, Ijirî Okada, Tora Uganda,
Fantasia: Minoru Kawasaki's EXECUTIVE KOALA (KOARA KACHÔ), w/ Hironobu Nomura, Elli-Rose, Ho Lee
Update: Trailer for Minoru Kawasaki's EXECUTIVE KOALA (KOARA KACHÔ), w/ Hironobu Nomura, Elli-Rose,
Update on Minoru Kawasaki's EXECUTIVE KOALA (KOARA KACHÔ), w/ Hironobu Nomura, Elli-Rose, Ho Lee, E
Official website for Minoru Kawasaki's EXECUTIVE KOALA (KOARA KACHÔ), w/ Hironobu Nomura, Elli-Rose
Trailer for Minoru Kawasaki's KANI GOALKEEPER (KANI GÔRUKÎPÂ), w/ Mikisuke Haruyama, Saaya, Sayak
Minoru Kawasaki's KANI GOALKEEPER (KANI GÔRUKÎPÂ), w/ Mikisuke Haruyama, Saaya, Sayaka Tashiro, N
Posted by

DVD Review: Minoru Kawasaki's 'The World Sinks Except Japan'
Minoru Kawasaki's The World Sinks Except Japan Available Now on English Subbed DVD!
DVD: Minoru Kawasaki's THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (NIHON IGAI ZENBU CHINBOTSU)
TIFFCOM 2006: Minoru Kawasaki's THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (NIHON IGAI ZENBU CHINBOTSU)
Trailer for Minoru Kawasaki's NIHON IGAI ZENBU CHINBOTSU, w/ Kenji Kohashi, Shûji Kashiwabara, Masa
Update on Minoru Kawasaki's NIHON IGAI ZENBU CHINBOTSU, w/ Kenji Kohashi, Shûji Kashiwabara, Masato
Minoru Kawasaki's NIHON IGAI ZENBU CHINBOTSU, w/ Kenji Kohashi, Shûji Kashiwabara, Masatoshi Matsuo

Around the Internet:
  • J Hurtado

    That is great. I'm glad I got to meet you at AFFD, if only briefly. The World Sinks Except Japan is sort of middling, and I was a bit disappointed, I do own it, though, and I will continue to blindly buy any DVD of any Minoru Kawasaki film as long as subs are present. Calamari Wrestler was truly a revelation for me. The Beat/Minoru connection sounds like a blast as well. I wish I could make it to Austin to see Rug Cop. Speaking of a rug training session, one of my favorite shots in Calamari Wrestler was the treadmill shot. That had me rolling! It is funny because in the "making-of" on the disc, that shot was an afterthought and they didn't think of it until they got on set, and it is the funniest shot in the movie!

  • Great interview. I appreciate the explanation of cultural terms as well -- laughter and learning, what could be better?

  • Blake

    Thanks John and Executive Koala is a cult phenomena just waiting to explode.

    Kawasaki + Kitano is going to be something special. I can't wait to see what film they brew up.

  • John D. Moore

    Thanks for the awesome interview. I have a strong feeling that this guy may very well be one of my heroes but just hasn't had the opportunity to prove it to me yet. CALIMARI WRESTLER was a revelation. There are certain heinous acts I would consider performing to see a release of EXECUTIVE KOALA with English subtitles. Do you hear that, powers-that-be?

    The fact that Kawasaki is going to be directing Kitano fills me with glee.

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