Gakuryu Ishii (石井 岳 龍) is a Japanese director also known under the pseudonym of Sōgo Ishii and known for his hyperkinetic artistic style that has influenced cyberpunk and industrial aesthetics.
What were your biggest influences when you started your career? What was the cultural atmosphere of Hakata in Kyushu at the beginning of your career?
I grew up in an old town in Hakata. The culture was unique. Those were chaotic times: wild nature; people with Latin-like character; a lot of domestic factories and noise; local customs, religions and diverse festivals; ethnic issues, the continuous alteration of landscapes because of high economic growth; radio broadcasts from the US military base; anti-war movement, riots, and crimes. But I think it was a wonderland for kids. The unique universe, which used to be a melting pot, was gradually dismantled, homogenized, and tamed by the modernization and rationalization of society. My gang resorted to violence and riding motorcycles to let out their stress and discontent. The ambitious big brothers became addicted to music.
I was frustrated. I wanted to express myself. I tried music, painting, poetry, and manga, but none of them worked out. I lacked the talent for them. There were a lot of movie theaters showing B-movies in the town, so I watched tons of movies since I was little. When I was in my third year of high school, Japan’s 8mm equipment greatly advanced, and that innovation gave me hope that maybe I could use it to film movies. Then I started to watch movies more consciously to learn expression techniques. I kept watching movies by Kinji Fukasaku, Sam Peckinpah, Kubrick and Aldrich, and also New American Cinema over and over again. I had almost no chance to watch art movies. Movies directed by directors like Koji Wakamatsu and Bertolucci were in porn movie theaters where high school students weren’t allowed, but I was sneaking in and watching them.
How did the collaboration with local bands start? Are you still in contact with the members of The Rockers, The Roosters, Son House, and The Stalin?
BURST CITY was a street rocker movie, so I contacted the bands that I was close to and musicians I loved, one after another. I offered Kō Machida the role of the crazy brother who can’t speak. He was still a teenager at that time and I didn’t know him personally, but he accepted the offer. While he continued his band activity, now he’s become a leading novelist in the field of Japan’s pure literature, and my latest movie “Punk Samurai, Slash Down” is based on his book.
Unfortunately, Michiro Endo, who was the main character of The Stalin and was still active, passed away last year. The members that appeared in BURST CITY have passed away one after another, including the bassist who was my best friend.
Now only the drummer is alive. I still stay in touch with him. Other band members from Fukuoka are still active even though their styles have changed. They are from my hometown so I like them and I care about them, but I don’t get to meet them in person so often.
How did you decide to become an experimental director?
I didn’t consider myself as an experimental director. I grew up taking in rock music, movies, and pop culture from the late 1960 and early 1970 as nutrition. So, it was natural to me that expression would be surreal, innovative, aggressive, and pop, reflecting the times.
Your early productions were made on extremely tight budgets, yet Crazy Thunder Road caught the attention of Toei who released it in theaters. Did you have any hesitation when Toei contacted you?
My family was poor and I went to university on scholarship and a part-time job. So from my first work, a 20-minute-long 8mm movie, I showed my movies in a theater or a hall. The entrance fee I get would be used for the next film. I couldn’t even cover my living expenses without the audience, let alone the cost for the next film.
So I seized every chance to screen my movies. Toei bought “Crazy Thunder Road”, so I thought I might not have to work part-time for debt or living expenses anymore. I didn’t hesitate at all.
When you were making City Burst and Crazy Thunder Road were you aware that your cinema would end up influencing the cyberpunk and industrial aesthetic?
What I love about movies is that, like music and other art genres that I love, they are a universal language that can be powerfully evocative and inspirational. The explosion of British punk rock and diverse new wave music, and the cyberpunk movement of Sci-Fi blew my mind beyond the difference of genres of expression. Sci-Fi, rock, movies, poetry, and surrealistic pop art, which were all part of my life since I was a kid, got all together as a story, something aesthetic, and that was amazing.
One of the characteristics of your style is fast motion. How did you develop and refine this technique? What was the starting point for experimenting with new cinematographic techniques?
From what I learned from watching and imitating, I was just experimenting. The 8mm movie I suddenly started making on my own, had poor quality image and sound, so I couldn’t depend on it. All I knew was the technique to make fast montage the core of visual impact. I believed that was the spirit that synced with the early punk rock and its tempo from my generation. The weapon was my passion, not skills or technology.
How did you get in touch with Einsturzende Neubauten?
In February 1985, I was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival for “The Crazy Family” and it was my first overseas trip. Blixa came to see the film, liked it, and greeted me after the screening. He told me Einsturzende Neubauten was going to Japan for a concert soon, and he directly asked me if I could create a video with them. Everything started from there. Of course, I was a fan of them, but I never expected Blixa or any other member to be there and like my movie.
I was exhilarated and I said yes straight away.
How did Crazy Family come into being?
BURST CITY has destroyed my life, my relationship with fellow filmmakers, and my creative style. The purpose was purely to make a great explosive movie that was real and cool to me. Even though the movie was under the production and distribution of a major company Toei, the clue mostly consisted of amateur staff and it was almost like filming an indie movie. So we had overnight shootings day after day, things got off the rails many times, we ran out of production costs … The filming itself burst. I failed to finish the work by the deadline, so the editing and sounding were incomplete when it was released.
I lost everything and had to start over from zero. Kazuhiko Hasegawa, a young director who represented Japan at that time, saved me. It was him, whom I had respect for, that invited me to a professional directors’ group company, in which he was the central person. He is the producer of “The Crazy Family” and I directed the movie with this company. I had already had the idea of creating a destructive family comedy movie with my buddy from my hometown, Yoshinori Kobayashi. For the first time, I asked professional staff for all the technical parts, and I spent a lot of time writing the script.
After the making of Shuffle, inspired by a comic by Katsuhiro Otomo, have you ever thought of collaborating in the production of a feature film together?
I have talked about it a few times. He actually wrote the scenario for a live-action feature film. The concept was great, and it was a cool, edgy, and original, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen in the end. Our idea was beyond the Japanese cinema.
How did Japan’s frenetic urban development in the 1980s and 1990s influence your cinema? What role does alienation play in modern Japanese society?
This is not an easy question to answer, so let’s not discuss the social background here. As a personal problem, what I wanted to film after “The Crazy Family” in 1984 were mostly extreme cyberpunk movies, but not even one movie was made happen over the decade when Japan was in a bubble economy. The only way I could make the next movie was to find a new theme by destroying the old me.
How has the Japanese film industry changed over the years?
The spread of video devices and digital technologies since around 1984, and above all, the collaborative production incorporating risk hedging by the production committee in the 21st century and the marketing-oriented film production fundamentally changed Japanese movies, in my opinion. But still, ambitious filmmakers are trying to seek in their own way to explore diverse and important themes of modern society. However, the financial support for such attempts is getting worse year by year.
If things continue to be this way, it would be even harder for the staff and people involved to make a living. COVID-19 made the situation even worse.
What was the inspiration behind Isn’t Anyone Alive?
It’s based on a wonderful play by Shiro Maeda. The work reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s works, and I decided to create something out of the play after reading it once. The entertaining films he made in Mexico were my goals for a while.
Why did you decide to change your name?
It doesn’t have any special meaning, but like Bob Dylan, I have a strong desire to continue self-destruction as I engage in creative activity. Also, traditionally Japanese creators have the habit of changing names at turning points. I respect Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese ukiyo-e painter, and I wanted to get some power from his paintings too.
What music do you listen to nowadays? Is there any artist you would like to collaborate with?
I choose and listen to music that helps me concentrate on the work or plans in front of me. I listen to various genres. Music is a very important part of my life and my creation. To name some foreign musicians, it would be great if I could work with people like Jon Hassell and Valentin Silvestrov.
What’s your next project?
From the end of this January, I started filming an avant-garde feature film with my university companions and students as all the actors and staff. It’s a completely unsponsored and freewheeling movie, but we had to stop filming due to the COVID-19 situation. We still don’t know when we can resume. There are many other scripts and plots ready. In today’s Japanese cinema industry, it’s almost like a miracle to produce ambitious films that cost quite a bit. I would like to ask for support from overseas producers, production companies, funds, cultural support, distributors, to make it a reality. To the people concerned with film production, please contact me if you are interested.
Photos courtesy of Gakuryū Ishii
Matteo Damiani is an Italian photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. During his stay in China, he paid attention to social issues apparently of secondary importance, but which influenced heavily the Chinese domestic policies over the years.