For Yamamoto, Life Is by the Reel (Interview with Yamamoto Masashi)

Yamamoto Masashi, the director of Junk Food and such internationally acclaimed films as Carnival in the Night (“Yami no kanibary,” 1982) and Robinson’s Garden (“Robinson no niwa,” 1987), is still a student at the age of 42. And it is not just because he is currently studying in New York under a Japanese Government Overseas Study Program for Artists. For him, the movies themselves are a learning experience.

“I don’t have a set idea before starting a film,” he confessed, “because it inevitably changes during filming.” Yamamoto elaborated that, during the making of What’s Up Connection (“Tenamonya konekushon,” 1990), that was shot partially in Hong Kong, he indeed found that in the process of making a film, of encountering different people, his point of view has changed.

In this sense, he terms filmmaking a process of “studying the emotions.” Shooting a movie for him is not a case of realizing a preconceived theme in celluloid, but rather of “learning the content of the film for the first time by shooting it,” he explained.

Yamamoto does shoot mostly from a script, changing it only a little when the situation demands it. “What is most important is the preparation before that,” he said. Due to his frequent casting of amateurs and people playing themselves, Yamamoto puts much effort into preproduction, into getting to know these people and their way of seeing things before starting to film. He said the script thus undergoes many rewrites before he brings it on to the set.

It is these two factors–use of amateurs and preproduction research–that contribute most to the sense of reality that permeates Yamamoto’s movies. He has no pretense of giving us the Truth, however. “Films are lies,” he stressed, “But my images are lies that contain a lot of reality.” Truth lies in the details, he argued, and it is those details–the skin tone, the small gestures, the use of words–that only real people acting themselves can provide.

Much of the impact of Yamamoto’s work, of course, lies in its choice of subject matter. While the majority of Japanese film, he feels, is about the middle class–“salary men going ballroom dancing,” he quipped, in a biting reference to Shall We Dance? (“Shall we dansu?,” 1995)–“I want to stand on the side of those who have been marginalized by society, in part because I feel I’m one of them.”

Atlanta Boogie (“Atoranta bugi,” 1996), for instance, centered around a mock track meet between the “normal” and “good” citizens of Yokohama and those they want to expel from the neighborhood: the illegal foreign workers, the deadbeats, the juvenile delinquents, the elderly, etc. Because this was a comedy, the latter, of course, win in the end.

Yamamoto confesses that while he likes to do comedy, “I also want to spit a bit of venom.” Atlanta was financed by a large entertainment corporation which frowned on his desire to present the seedier aspects of the Yokohama cityscape. The low-budget Junk Food, funded by three friends of the director, is then, in his words, “a sketch of what I couldn’t do in a comedy like Atlanta.” It was his opportunity to return to his roots and the same milieu he presented in Carnival in the Night.

The part in Junk Food featuring the junkie OL in “normal society” was Yamamoto’s chance to point his poison camera at the Tokyo Bay world of trendy dramas. The third and longest section, showing the denizens of the night, allowed him to depict the gritty human reality the corporate world of chrome and glass tries to hide.

Though a student of the world, Yamamoto refuses to preach. “I don’t have a philosophy,” he said. During his stay in New York, he would like to build up plans to do an “Asian movie” there. “It’s not going to be about somebody struggling or working to succeed in America, but rather about somebody who doesn’t struggle at all.”

Yamamoto’s view of the world is more casual than serious, something that is reflected in his approach to filmmaking. A director who graduated from 8mm to 35mm production, he still longs for the day he can just casually pick up a camera and go out shooting with a few acquaintances.

The realm of big feature production is different, something he bitterly learned when trying to make the film Kumagusu about the eccentric Japanese biologist Minakata Kumagusu. Filming started in 1990 but was soon halted midway due to lack of funds. Feeling he has to finish the project, Yamamoto is still trying to collect the necessary money.

A truly independent filmmaker, Yamamoto has spent his time in the United States booking theaters to show Junk Food and wandering through Harlem and the East Village looking for stories to film. He also contemplates one day making a movie in Pakistan.

Queried about the danger of filming another culture from a prejudiced point of view, Yamamoto retorted, “I’m not that stupid.” He thoroughly researches his subject because “I can’t film until the image comes to me.” That is the true spirit of a student of film–or, one could say, of a student through film.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 16 April 1998, p. 9.

Copyright 1998: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow