This year, the fifth Nippon Honor Award will be presented to the multi-talented cult legend, Shinya Tsukamoto.
Born in Tokyo in 1960, Tsukamoto grew up with a Super 8 “attached to his hand,” already making films when he was just a teenager, with Akira Kurosawa being one of his first great influences. Though he temporarily left filmmaking behind when he went to university and worked in advertising, it wasn’t too long before he decided to found his own theater company and, soon after, returned to making films.
Throughout his career, Tsukamoto has functioned as a master-of-all-trades. In addition to acting, he often personally oversees nearly every aspect of many of his films’ productions- directing, editing, cinematography, production design, sets, costumes, props- you name it, he’s done it. This deep personal involvement in his projects, something that has not wavered even after a decades-long career, gives Tsukamoto a stronger claim to being a true “auteur” than most living filmmakers.
Hectic, grimy, in-your-face aesthetic
He demonstrated early-on his penchant for turning a deeply critical eye towards human society, especially regarding its relationship with technology and our penchant for violence, with his first major film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Released in 1989 despite a “hellish” production and eventually spawning two sequals, Tetsuo: The Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2010), the film utilizes a dizzying combination of rapid-fire editing, stop-motion animation, and handheld cinematography to portray a world slowly falling into madness through a combination of the characters’ cruelty, apathy, ignorance, and inability to understand the strange technological transformations happening around them. The low-budget nature of the production and the painstakingly handcrafted nature of the bizarre metal costumes add to the film’s wholly unique aesthetic. What is especially remarkable, and a testament to the steadiness of Tsukamoto’s vision with these films, is how this hectic, grimy, in-your-face aesthetic does not soften in the slightest over the subsequent two films in the trilogy, even though his budget and level of equipment clearly grew with each one. Despite the two decades between them, there is no mistaking The Bullet Man as anything other than a work by the same, strange mind that birthed The Iron Man.
Tsukamoto continued to delve into the darker sides of human nature with films like Tokyo Fist (1995) and Bullet Ballet (1998). Tsukamoto once said that he often feels that people in Japanese society, particularly those living in urban areas like Tokyo, have forgotten the importance of tackling important questions of life and death, which in turn has made him want to explore these issues via his films. In Tokyo Fist, he was inspired by his own brother’s experiences as a boxer to use the world of professional fighting as a lense through which to examine society. In the film, the unremarkable lives of a salaryman and his fiance are upended when an old classmate of theirs, now a boxer, enters the picture, leading both of them down sad, violent paths. Bullet Ballet, conversely, deals with topics related to loneliness and alienation, as a man is driven to revenge after his girlfriend’s suicide, soon finding himself deeply involved with local gangs and drug lords.
Tsukamoto has resisted being attached to specific labels
While his own directed works, most of which he acts in as well, are what he’s best known for, Tsukamoto has also had a number of notable acting roles in films from other directors. These projects range from those by contemporary Japanese filmmakers like Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer) and Suzuki Matsuo (Welcome to the Quiet Room), to major blockbuster works like Shin Godzilla, to international prestige projects like Martin Scorcese’s latest film, Silence.
Throughout his long and incredibly varied career, Tsukamoto has resisted being attached to specific labels like “actor” or “director” as a catch-all expression of his career; his love of every single aspect of the moviemaking process is so thorough, he maintains he could never pick just one aspect as his “favorite.” As far as he’s concerned, Tsukamoto is just a filmmaker, plain and simple.
His insistence- some might say obsession- over controlling every part of a production has also led him down a truly independent path most other filmmakers would likely never dare tread. The results, though, speak for themselves- with very few exceptions, his films have all been independently financed and produced, and yet despite never having the backing of a major studio, with all the PR and added marketing heft that brings with it, his films are regularly screened and acclaimed at festivals around the world.
Seeking out provocative ways to push the boundaries of film
The simple fact of this constant freedom from the restraints that often come with big-time producers pulling the strings has only enhanced Tsukamoto’s ability to maintain a clear vision and style throughout his films, something that in turn strengthens his influence and status within the international film circuit. Tsukamoto is considered one of the first great influencers of the subgenre of Japanese, live-action cyberpunk, which came of age in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as the Cold War was ending and people around the world were beginning to really grapple with how modern technology was changing society.
It’s now been three whole decades since The Iron Man burst onto the cinematic scene, but Tsukamoto has by no means slowed down, nor lost his penchant for seeking out provocative ways to push the boundaries of film. After the third Tetsuo film was finished, he then turned to making a longtime passion project of his a reality, adapting the Japanese novel Fires on the Plain about the horrors experienced by a young Japanese soldier at the end of World War II. Made at the time Japanese politics and society under Shinzo Abe was just starting to turn in a more aggressive, warlike direction, he explicitly sought to use the film as a rebuke to those who seemed to forget, either willingly or passively, the true terrors of war and the importance of peace.
This year, in addition to presenting him with the Nippon Honor Award for the remarkable career he’s already led, Nippon Connection will also screen Tsukamoto’s newest work, Killing, his first film since completing Fires on the Plain (which itself was screened at Nippon Connection a whole two months before its Japanese release). There will also be a special screening of Tokyo Fist, as well as of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the one that started it all.
Films and Events with Shinya TSUKAMOTO at 19th Nippon Connection Film Festival:
Tokyo Fist, 東京フィスト
Japan 1989, 67 min. FSK 16
Friday, 31 May, 18:00, Deutsches Filmmuseum
Filmtalk with Shinya TSUKAMOTO:
Sunday, 2 June, 14:30, Mousonturm Studio 1
Duration: 1 hour
Filmtalk in English, Free Admission