Shinya Tsukamoto, a film artist

Shinya Tsukamoto, more than a director, more than a scriptwriter, more than an actor, more like an artist; with a vast career in filmmaking, as well as acting, Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the most renowned names of the contemporary Japanese cinema. A unique and interesting figure, Tsukamoto maintained throughout his career his status as an independent filmmaker, avoiding to pledge his name to any of the big Nippon film companies, although his own company Keijyu Theatre associated with Third Window Films for digitalizing his earlier works captured on film.

Born on 1st of January 1960, Shinya Tsukamoto discovered his passion for films at the age of 14 when his father brought home a Super 8 camera. The possibilities of translating reality as well as depicting one’s fantasies, believes and inner world through the dynamic filmic medium, fascinated young Tsukamoto who instilled even his early amateur projects with a personal style which later became his trademark. He experienced theatre as well, by starting an independent theatre group, and worked for a television advertising company in the few years when he wasn’t making films.

Working independently, without outer founding, was and still is, for Tsukamoto and his usually limited crew a whole adventure, a difficult but exciting process of getting the best out of little resources. However, this approach of making films has its perks. Freedom; the exhilarating sense of freedom, the possibility of following one’s instincts, and impulses in an uncensored expression of self, is a privilege which Tsukamoto always indulged himself, and actually not only a privilege, but more a creed which moulded his cinematographic works. Working with young and inexperienced volunteers, when the budget did not permit to pay true professionals, reinforced Tsukamoto’s pathos from his earlier days.

Shinya Tsukamoto is definitely what one would call a film auteur. From his debut underground, cyberpunk, sci-fi, horror, cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Tsukamoto worked on every aspect of its films from directing to acting, to editing, to designing the costumes, building the settings and drawing the storyboard, his films are his own in the most denotative sense of the word. Filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto embraced all of these roles which for him are more than intertwined with the same thrills every time. Followed by 2 sequels Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo 3: Bullet Man (2009), Tetsuo, might be the most resonant name from Tsukamoto’s cinematography. Based in an industrialising Tokyo, the director’s first 16mm film, conceived when the underground cyberpunk genre was shyly starting to flourish is an industrial horror, a nightmarish trip of guilt, lust, desperation, alienation, and acceptance. The relation between human and machine has been a topic of interest ever since Fritz Lang brought to the screen his mechanical Maria in the silent Metropolis (1927), but Tsukamoto’s approach of this idea was completely new. He does not create a robot. He does not show in his film an animated silhouette of metal made by some queer scientist, not even by far. Tsukamoto brings metal and human flesh together into an agonising hybrid of warm blood and screws, pulsating organs and hard steel, soft skin and iron, who returns to its primary instincts and urges while turning into the Iron Man. Often linked with David Lynch’s industrial nightmare, Eraserhead (1977), and David Cronenberg’s filmed metamorphose, The Fly (1986), Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s pace is much faster than the one in Eraserhead, which leaves the viewer with a feeling of not catching up with the film. Tsukamoto also avoids the Kafkaesque metamorphose of human into another breathing creature, while still maintaining the absurdity specific to Kafka.

The obsession of industrialisation, the fear of the city dehumanising its residents followed Tsukamoto ever since Tetsuo until his 2004 film Vital. Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, the other 2 Tetsuo, all explore the effects of the urban environment, of the concrete blocks, of the skyscrapers, of the reflecting windows, of the cars, the factories, the computers, the routine of the hours spent in an enclosed office, of the underground train, and cemented alleys on the humanity of the metropolis’s inhabitants, and their romantic relationships. Tsukamoto is a master of alienation and rediscovery through a primordial violence. The city oppresses one’s most human, flesh desires, one’s sexuality, one’s rage, one’s love, and Tsukamoto’s films capture the struggle of being the only breathing organism between cemented walls. The violence in his films does not have a negative connotation, is a cry of desperation, a test of humanity, when the characters harm themselves they do not do it to die, but to feel alive; the proximity of death just makes them feel more alive.

This era of cinematographic creation had yet an end, and that end started with A Snake of June (2002), a project which haunted the director even before the first Tetsuo, and was marked by Vital (2004). Industrial elements specific to Tsukamoto can still be found in A Snake of June, but these are in contrast with natural and organic elements (rain, plants, snails) which enhance the whole sexual feeling of the film. A Snake of June was meant to be an erotic film, and while the erotic sense is conveyed even through the blue tint of the images, the film is also a piece on self-discovery, on self-acceptance through the embrace of the flesh, and the consciousness of death. Vital is also a route of death, love, eroticism, pain where the natural, the organic element is the human body itself as a counterpoint of the whole universe. Tetsuo 3 is a reminiscence of his previous era. Made for an American public, the film which was initially asked by Quentin Tarantino, aimed for a bigger public, and is his first English film.

Tsukamoto eventually changed to digital film, change which had a certain influence on his style. Kotoko (2012) is at a first sight nothing like his previous films. The subject is so utterly different, a psychologically disturbed woman’s struggle with her statute of being a mother might trick the viewer, but the violence as a proof of life, the contrasts, the cracks in the narrative, the nightmarish visions are all there. It is visually different, sound wise as well, but it revives the idea of dance and music as the perfect state of the human, first expressed in Vital, and it has the same acute intensity of any other Tsukamoto films. Maybe even more, as this film is of a special importance for the director due to his relationship with Cocco, the Japanese singer who played and shaped the main character.

His last film, Fires on the Plain (2014), also holds a particular meaning to Shinya Tsukamoto. Being an adaptation of the book with same title by Shohei Ooka (1951), Tsukamoto was deeply impressed by the tragic war novel, and pursuit his own research in regards to the Second World War, by talking with war veterans and traveling to the Philippines jungle to see with his own eyes the sites were the action of the book was taking place. It is a tragic, violent, grotesque story of war. Set in the wild and heavenly natural background of the Philippines, the film follows its protagonist descending into despair and madness, running from an unseen enemy and resorting to inhumanly deeds for survival. It might not be a beautiful film, but it is true and touching, like most of Tsukamoto’s films. War is not beautiful, it destroys with no purpose the very thing which makes humans humans, it strips people of their hopes, of their smiles, of their beauty turning them into cruel beasts. Tsukamoto wanted to represent the war, the alienation, the anxiety, the fear, the fury, and rage, the despair and the way the experience of war does not disappear when the event itself ends but haunts its protagonists forever like a suffocating shadow of memories, and he succeeded majestically. The film came at a certain point in Japan when the perception of war was changing, a moment which Shinya Tsukamoto felt was vital for the existence of his film.

Tsukamoto acted in the main role of Fires on the Plain, more out of financial necessity, but his career as an actor is also well known, especially after the last film in which he starred, Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). Scorsese being one of his favourite directors, among Akira Kurosawa, Ridley Scott, Shohei Inamura, Tsukamoto put his soul into his role, giving an exquisite performance, as he does in his own films, where the intensity of his characters pierces the screen.

After this short incursion in what is an impressive career of an artist, I can only end by stating that Shinya Tsukamoto’s films are not just cinematographic images unwinding on a screen, but experiences. With their bizarre imagery, the stop-motion frames, the expressionist and surreal touch, the vague narrative, the power of the actors’ performances, the contrasts between calm and violent, organic and artificial, the masterful soundtracks, Tsukamoto’s films are pieces of art, made not only to be watched but to be felt and remembered, not a storyline, but an emotion.

East Winds Film Festival after the curtain’s fall

East Winds Film Festival has been a long journey, sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth, but as all journeys, it had to come to an end. It has been a great opportunity for me to be a part of a film festival, as the film world is where I want to work in the future.

While East Winds Film Festival may not be Torino International Film Festival or the Cannes, it was the perfect start for me. I understand now, that one can only walk down the red carpet after one has already gone through the lions’ pit and swamps, metaphorically speaking, but the gratification is amplified by all the obstacles and problems one had to surpass. So when one, I, finally walked down the red carpet one feels like a true champion, looking over his triumph, but work, and nerves, stress and pressure are far from over. After enjoying a few seconds of glory in the flashes of the cameras,  every staff member has to run back to his/her “arms”, because even when everything is in its place, the week of the festival is the actual challenge.

I could discuss how film festivals are what keeps cinephilia alive in an era of films at a click distance, enable meetings between film lovers and film artist… or between star lovers and their idols, about how the last category seems to be taking over the film festivals, thus putting the famous actors in the spotlight and leaving the films in the corner, or how both categories are essential for the life of a film festival; about how a film festival transforms cities in touristic areas, helps the development of certain regions by being major cultural events, or raise employability, at least for a certain period. There could be a whole discussion around the fact that, while film festivals, are or should be about films, they promote and help to establish stars which are mainly actors, in some cases directors, thus reinforcing the false idea of films belonging to certain actors or front faces. Cinematography might just be one of the most complex arts but is also a collective art in which some names might be more resonant than others, but everyone from the director to the cameraman, from actor to set and costume designer, from the soundtrack composer/s to the editing team are playing a very specific and, why not, equally important role in the making of a film, but in many cases, due to the media and film festivals, actors or directors are crowned as the most important figure in a film. Even so, in the end, film festival are about films and the way they were made to be experienced, in the dark of a cinema hall, not on the tiny screen of a computer or even worse a cell phone screen (about which, by the way, David Lynch has a pretty vehement opinion). As an on-point example, there is the latest debate from Cannes 2017 about Netflix and films which are only streamed online, and which in the opinion of Pedro Almodovar, the jury president of this year, should not be admitted in a film festival. The whole argument led to a change in the festival’s rules.

And as every festival out there, no matter it’s scale, what East Winds Film Festival tries and succeeds to do is to present films on a grand screen, to bring popular Asian cinema to a European public, to the heart of the United Kingdom. I take myself as an example, being a film lover, and I still knew close to nothing about Asian cinema, except a few major films which broke the borders and the renowned film master Akira Kurosawa. I do not dare to say everyone is as ignorant as I am, but I did encounter, at least from my friends, mixed reactions; the one which surprised me the most was: “Asian cinema? But that is such a niche”. Is it? When only the Chinese population is over a billion, or is it just us being a bit narrow-minded? With such a multicultural audience as Coventry offers, thanks to Coventry University, the festival has a propitious development environment. While still a growing event, what makes East Winds Film Festival unique is the fact that it is run by students, but it is not a student festival, with a 7 years tradition and 5 editions its development is astonishing when considered that besides the director and co-director, the people running the festival don’t have much experience with film festivals. Doing, the festival is more than a film showcase or a display of stars, but an educational mechanism, which trains students to become professionals. I remember now an interview with Shinya Tsukamoto, who also works mostly with (inexperienced) volunteers, because of monetary concerns, but also because he is interested in the ideas of fresh and “taintless” minds could bring to the table, and of course the enthusiasm and passion of volunteers, and I believe that the involvement of student works pretty much the same way for East Winds Film Festival.

This year was our (Communication, Culture and Media MA students) to shoulder East Winds Film Festival 2017. From my own experience, I can only say it is an incredible opportunity, not only to be a part of the “behind the scenes” group, and to see what makes a festival tick, and actually make it tick, but also to be confronted with different issues of teamwork and their not so pleasant outcomes. I found out, which was not much of a surprise, that the concept that sums up all the efforts behind an even of such amplitude is “teamwork”, because no matter how much an individual strives, if the rest of the team does not share the same passion and dedication, efforts are in vain. For my team, that being Communications, it was slightly easier, as we had to deal with written pieces, which were, pretty much, individual tasks, but when only 2 or 3 (at the best) in a team of 8 accomplish their tasks on time and of a good enough quality to be made public, those few “good workers” end up doing all the work, especially when other teams are counting on each other.

Time was, of course, against us, but the worst enemy of the festival was, at times, ourselves, and our lack of professionalism. The fact that the festival was embedded in a module was both an advantage because, besides the evident outcome of an event, we were juggling with our grades, and a drawback when not everyone was as passionate and as involved, and when grades seemed more important than the actual event. But then, a successful festival was to be rewarded with some good grades anyway, and with the joy of having accomplished something more than just a high number. This approach, as if it were a “school thing”, could be seen even in the number of mobile phones lights in the cinema hall during films.

All in all, East Winds Film Festival did run smoothly, or at least it looked like it did from the outside. With a history of 4 previous editions and a short break, it was more than the usual challenge of standing up to the previous years’ standards. It was about the reinventing and relaunching a festival that seemed dead for the last 2 years and the revival had to outshine the previous editions. If it did, I could not exactly say, as I had not been present to the previous editions. There is also a place for improvement, for more, and better, and this is how it should be. There are always things which went wrong when they should have gone well, there are always mistakes that could have been avoided with little more effort or attention, but on the other hand, there are always things that went perfect, that were exactly on time, and to the highest possible standards, but that could have also gone terribly wrong. Most important, as I have learnt after hearing this more than a few times and experienced it on my own skin, is that: “if (and I may add when) you fail, fail fast” (Thamu Dube, 2017) and get back on your horses because the world does not stop for you to lick your wounds.

Cinephilia, Stars, and Film Festivals, Liz Czach

Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema”

  • Sontag’s lament for cinephilia’s death specifi cally mourns the passing of the conditions necessary for the cinephiliac experience, particularly the demise of the movie theate
  • It is the darkened theater that is the privileged site of the cinephiliac encounter between screen and spectator.
  • Adrian Martin has similarly pointed out, “immersion in the fi lm itself ” is a precondition for the cinephiliac experience

Continue reading “Cinephilia, Stars, and Film Festivals, Liz Czach”

EWFF: climax!!

15-21 May, East Winds Films Festival was back to Coventry, and Birmingham this year.

It has been the busiest week of this year so far, enthusiasm, nerves, fatigue, and films lost and lost of Asian films, and I have been there from the first film to the last. Horrors, comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers from the far East all in need of reviews.

Communications tasks for the week were:

  • 500 words film reviews (positive and professional), for every film until the next morning
  • short interviews with the audience members

I wrote 5 reviews, one each day for Sword Master, Bliss, School Tales, Kitarajanipon, Village Of No Return. For 3 of them, I had already written the synopsises, but this did not necessarily make my job easier, and with all the fatigue which piled up during the week, I struggled a bit to maintain the same high standard for each and every review, and I am not that sure I entirely succeeded. As everyone, I had my personal preferences, and I admit I resonated more with some films than with others, which made insist on writing the review for Bliss. But, because I had attended every film, I ended up being somewhat the backup writer, for the films which no one was writing about.

I tried to maintain a positive and complimentary tone, but rereading my work, at least from my point of view, my personal preferences and affinities clearly transpire from my writing style. Also, having to write reviews daily, made me realise that I have the tendency to use some of the same phrases or constructions, even when discussing different films, which otherwise would not have been visible. So, I tried, as much as possible, to avoid that, and to make my reviews similar in style, but different in actual content, or better said in the choice of words.

EWFF: week 10-11

And the ball started rolling.

There were meetings with every group, and I can just smell the pressure and fervency of everyone trying to get the last bits and pieces in place. If I was complaining about the lack o briefs in the last journal entry… oh, the saying, “be careful what you wish, it might come true”, served me well. We had our share of tasks, 15 pieces to be specific in no more than 3 days while working on lots of different other things.

Communications had to write the synopsis for every film in the programme. With 8 members and 15 films, one could have thought that it would be a piece of cake. Nothing more false than that, the ideal idea that everyone could write 2 synopsises was just that, an idea.

I wrote 5 film synopsises. I started by choosing films I thought I could adapt my writing to like Grace and Bliss, both thrillers with a concept that appealed to me. I also chose the romantic comedy One Day, not to dive too deep into the realm of torture, blood and psychological games, but ended with 2 more films on my plate: School Tales and Kitaranijipon. I started by watching the trailers which were easy to find, but I struggled to find other information in English for some of them. I read a few reviews from other festivals as in the case of Bliss, amateur reviews from IMDB and other sites regarding cinema, and when and where I could find, viewers’ comments, impressions and discussions to see how the films were received by the public and which would be the main points I would have to touch on my short texts to make these films appealing to the public. I tried to avoid concentrating too much on the storylines, not to reveal too much of the plot and give any unwanted spoilers, but mostly because I did not see the films in advance so I did not want to make any kind of mistake. I chose to go for the atmosphere and what these films try to express in term of experiences more than stories so that my short texts would stir the readers’ interest without giving away the plotline.

EWFF: week 6-9

Paris, study leave and back again. I have been waiting for new tasks since the minute I have set foot on British ground again after the Paris trip, it was not for long though as I have left for Romania in the next 3 days. We were promised (threatened with) new tasks for the festival, and as I have not written anything in a while, it seemed like the perfect occasion to work on some articles during the study leave, but new deadlines and briefs were late to appear.

I am back in Coventry now, the festival is knocking at the door and the enthusiasm amplifies. I did a bit of reading about international film festivals, watched a few more Asian films as: Vital (Shinya Tsukamoto), In the Mood For Love (Kar Wai Long), Dolls (Takeshi Kitano) to get used with the Asian cinema and reread my previous articles to remember the tone, just in case some new article are awaiting me around the corner, but with no actual tasks there was nothing more for me to do, so I consider this post somewhat pointless.

With the festival so close, it starts to feel less and less like a hypothetical plan and more and more like an actual event on the verge of happening. I am excited and a bit nervous that the ball will start rolling soon and we will have to run to catch up. With a few other deadlines, unrelated to East Winds, on my mind, I am afraid of the work I will need to do !fast! for the festival and of which I do not know yet. But then, there are always enough sleepless nights to get something done minutes before the deadline, and this is how I always worked. I only start ticking when the bomb starts ticking.

EWFF: week 5

The week before our study trip to Paris. The excitement and fervour grow, but not in the festival’s favour. With all the tasks done for Communications, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and “bond” with my new team. I had previously spoken to the manager of the Social Media team, and she added me to their Wechat group.

Last Thursday before Paris, we had a meeting because Social Media had a plan, and I wanted to be part of it. The group seems to be communicating very well, and are prompt for their meetings. With all the behind the scenes filming and preparing, and with all teams already in their places and with a plan (hopefully), it seemed a great idea to give our Facebook followers a glimpse of what we are doing in the form of  a short 1-2 minute video of different group members presenting their team and their work… and of course promoting the festival. We started with a member of the Creatives. We struggled a bit to find the perfect place to film it, stopped more than a few students to pass, filmed it a couple of times, but finally succeeded. With everyone so busy with deadlines and packing, it was pretty hard to find available members, and as I am a part of Communications as well, I used this advantage (if more work could be called an advantage) to do the mini-interview as a representant o Communication.

Social Media’s manager is now to get the approval from the head of Social Media, East Winds co-director, Andreea Dascalu, and then release the videos on the world wide web, well actually here:

During the next week, we are planning to film the presentation videos with the rest of the teams and to have them done before the study leave.

We watched the first film, a horror from Thailand, but it’s still a secret so shh… We (as in Communications we)will probably have to review it at some point and I am looking forward to that.

EWFF: week 4

Tasks for the week:

  • press release about the partnership between East Winds Film Festival and The Mocking Bird Cinema
  • interview with the cinema’s manager.

P.S. none of the tasks was my direct responsibility, so my week went smoothly

This year, for the first time, East Winds Film Festival is expanding to Birmingham, so of course, we had to be there when the first film was screen under our name.

Akira, at the Mocking Bird Cinema, on 22th of March! And now that the partnership has been officially announced, other films under East Winds name will follow during the festival.

I must admit, which probably comes as no surprise, that I’m not the biggest fan of animes either, so I took Akira as an experience, Oddly enough I enjoyed it, not to mention that it remain in my memory for a few days after the screening. Being still under the spell of Shinya Tsukamoto’s films, I couldn’t help to ask myself if there is any relation whatsoever between the character Tetsuo from Akira, whose arm, lost in a fight, is reconstructed from metal bits and pieces and the “Tetsuo” in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It is only a few years difference between them, the films coming later, and I could guess that Akira had quite an impact after its release. But I we will never know… at least not without asking Shinya Tsukamoto himself, which would probably prove to be quite difficult to achieve.

Regarding the Social Media team, I just continued to follow and like all the posts which went out on different social media platforms.

EWFF: week 3

After the thrills and sparks of the last week, this one went calmly and undisturbed by deadlines or tasks, making this post seem almost pointless.

I had nothing to write, not that I complain, but I was starting to find “my rhythm” and now I’ll have to do it all over again. I had time to get used with the Social Media platforms, how they work, the calendar, with the tone and style of the posts, in this short break from Communications, which was more than welcome, as I already have a slow start in the new team. I had time to watch a few more Asian films, mostly for pleasure… but for research purposes as well (or so I like to say). Except for Akira Kurosawa, I had almost no knowledge about Asian cinema, but now that I am a part of an Asian film festival, this has to change, and it has to change fast.

Another thing going on, was the Magazine Show, for which all the teams have to contribute. We have been confronted with a few issues regarding the magazine show, but things seemed to go well until Friday. Due to some health problems, our manager could not do the interview for the magazine show… so, unfortunately, I had to step in. I would pretty much do anything to avoid cameras, public speaking, and speaking in front of a camera… but as I was already there and the interview had to be done… I talked about what we have been doing so far, the articles we have written, about the team members and our duties, I laughed a bit, felt awkward for a few minutes and it was done. I guess it could have been worse.

Proof here:

 – not exactly the best photo in my portfolio, but we all have those days

EWFF: week 2

After the changes last week, a meeting with our new members was necessary. We already had a google doc for everyone in the team to follow and see the briefs and deadlines, but with no new briefs, we didn’t have much to discuss in our meeting.

I offered to do one of the briefs left uncovered after the member migration and soon regretted it, because of the extremely busy week awaiting us, but hey, there are always enough nights in 3 days to write an article, right? So, I managed to write the article on the  Thai GDH film company, on the last night. I have never been interested in Thai cinema, mostly because I never had any contact with it, so when I started writing I did feel I was stepping on a shaking ground. Based on the research done by Sherry and some of my own research on the newly formed company, the article was written in time for our editor to polish it (and add all the commas I always miss no matter the language I write in) and send it before the deadline.

With this came a new big change. Remember when I was thinking of changing ships? Well, be careful what you wish, it might just come true… I was asked to join the Social Media team and work closely with the festival’s co-director, a fellow Romanian. I hesitated… I hesitated a lot. I was just not sure that writing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts could be my thing, I was actually pretty sure it wasn’t, and I wanted to keep writing articles, film reviews, film synopsises, and other things which I could only do by being a part of Communications. But I accepted in the end and joined the Social Media, without leaving the Communication team. Double work, double pressure, double trouble and double gratification.

I attended a manager meeting on Thursday, and a had a new team meeting on Friday to set up roles for each member.

Also, after presenting each of our teams in front of all the students on the MA, there were a few student interested in joining our team so Communications is waiting forward to that.