“I think making comedy is facing humanity, how can I explain this…”
To celebrate the screening of Louder!: Can’t Hear What You’re Singin’, Wimp at this year’s Fantasia film fest, we decided to interview one of the most skillful comedy directors of contemporary Japanese cinema. Satoshi Miki skillfully sketches his work-method, his ideas about comedy, and many other things for us. A serious read for those who want to know more about Satoshi Miki.
Psycho-cinematography: Maybe you told this story already many times, but can you tell us a bit about your trajectory and how you became a director?
Satoshi Miki: At first I was a writer for TV programs, like comedy shows and variety shows. After, I was writing the skits for a comedy unit called City boys, which was kind of similar to Monty Python, for about 10 years. Then I continued working on TV programs and TV dramas.
Around 2000, « production boom » took place in Japanese film industry. I had been writing scripts before in the 90’s too, but my projects hardly got approved. During the production bubble during the 00’s, there were many small-scale independent film projects. I also made my first film at that period, and the second film one year later. After that, I directed a TV drama Jikou keisatsu starring Joe Odagiri as the principal character. It became considerably popular and it made me continue to make films.
This is my brief career history. I started making films when I was getting 40 years old, which I consider relatively late.
P-C: You’re serious about comedy: Can you explain your philosophy of comedy to our readers?
S.M.: Well, I’m not making comedy with such a thing like a clear philosophy. But I think we need some kind of seriousness when we make comedies. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s adventures in wonderland, wrote somewhere: “some kind of collapsed seriousness creates humour” or something like that. And I agree with it (General-note 1). When we make a comedy, basically we make it very seriously. Even though sometimes it seems like if it was made carelessly and casually because it’s presented intentionally in that way. Most comedians in TV shows and comedy actors are very earnest.
When we make films impulsively, it might be funny at first. But audiences get tired of it eventually. It happens that we try to film the funny mood on the spot, but often we don’t understand what was so funny later. So we need to elaborate the structure and the timing of dialogues. I basically do rehearsal for all the scenes before filming to decide about the details of acting. I almost never improvise. I think I can say it’s my philosophy, or perhaps I should say it’s my method.
P-C: How did that thinking influence your latest movie, “Louder!: Can’t Hear What You’re Singin’, Wimp!”?
S.M: I’m often asked by Japanese media « which parts were improvised? ». (Like I said in before), basically nothing is improvised. Of course, sometimes I decide to use something that accidentally happened. But usually I’m (very) faithful to the scenario to structure the acting and adjust the timing of the dialogues, nuance, tone, … etc.
P-C: What is the power of comedy in your opinion?
S.M: Comedy often tends to be taken frivolous (or superficial). But there are many fabulous comedies made in Japan after World War 2 when the whole country faced a tragic situation. Yuzo Kawashima and Kenji Mizoguchi made non-sense movies, and Yasujiro Ozu had a good sense for comedy too. Those directors who saw awful things during the war found their way out by making great comedies. I think making comedy is facing humanity, how can I explain this…
I like the Coen Brothers and David Lynch; their sense of comedy is very interesting even in non-comedy films. Akira Kurosawa also had an interesting comedy sense. We can hear some pretty vicious things in Yasujiro ozu’s films too. Kenji Mizoguchi was also making very unkind jokes. Artistic films, human dramas facing troubles and problems, and films with strong messages tend to be more valued than comedies, but I like movies with some kind of sense of comedy, even in non-comedies. Emir Kusturica is a highly appreciated director, and he has a good comedy sense as well. I think the root is similar for both comedy and non-comedy, even if the ways of presentation are different. The both approach the fundamentals of (the) human (being).
P-C: Which actors, directors, … etc. influenced your style of comedy?
S.M.: (What concerns) recent international directors, I think the Coen brothers and David Lynch directly influenced me. Also, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman. Altman makes really great comedies. Woody Allen has a very interesting way of presentation the (narrative’s) ‘lay-out’. For both films and dramas, the position and the distance in relationships are very important factors. Woody Allen’s films are interesting in that respect.
I don’t really like comedies that only rely on the ability of comedians. I like comedies with dependable dialogues and scripts, calculated images and precise positioning. I think that Monty Python, in essence, used to work in that way too.
P-C: What are the differences between adapting a novel, like for It’s me, It’s me and your current movie, for which you wrote the script entirely by yourself – like most of your other narratives?
S.M.: Even though I found the original (story of It’s me, It’s me) interesting – I respect the original author – (the story) always becomes different after adding my own comedy essence. Of course, I feel freer when I make my own original story. In It’s me, it’s me, the principal character multiplies. Of course, that concept comes from the original author. This time, the idea of the vocal cords doping comes entirely from me. In that sense, I had more fun because (it had more) flexibility. However, it takes more time to make the structure and the rhythm of the story when I write the original myself.
P.C.: Did you discuss with the original author for “It’s me, it’s me “?
S.M.: Not really, I just greeted at the beginning. I always respect the original and try not to forget that I’m making this film because I found the original’s taste and concept interesting, but that doesn’t mean that I can always remain faithful to the original image. When I met the original author for the first time, I needed a consensus for the changes and for adding other elements in my adaptation. I would not be able to make a film (that was based on a story of) an original author, if I’m was asked not to change nuances.
P-C: I’m just curious. Can you tell us more about your writing process in general? What comes first, an idea or an image? And how does you proceed from that until you have a finished script?
S.M.: This time, the theme was rock music. First, I had the idea for the last scene where the girl sings from Tsushima to Pusan. Then I thought about what’s funny about rock music. I wrote it down at random and ended up with a list of various elements. You might not understand, but when I make this random list, I eventually see a line. It’s the line of the story, and how the mood should be connected, … etc. When I see this line, including the images, I start rearranging the order of these elements to make a structure. And that’s how I start making a story.
P-C: You usually make the story in this way – not only for this film?
S.M.: Yes. For example in Adrift in Tokyo, two men keep on walking in Tokyo. I wrote down what would happen during the walk randomly, because I would be blocked if I try to make a sequential order from the beginning. When I start seeing the line in it, I classify all the elements, order them, and make the structure. I make the draft in that way, and then write the final script with all the elements like the dialogues, images of each scenes, key visuals, … etc.
I think we can make more interesting script when we dig into our unconscious. Our conscious is limited. I prefer to work in that way. Some scenario writers have the outline and the theme from the beginning, but I don’t really work in that way.
P.C: Probably your former work as a broadcast writer influenced your way of making structure also?
S.M.: Yes, probably I value structure because of my TV experience. The basic writing method in US is to find the theme at first, then find the elements, do the research, make an outline and then start writing. Outline processor is a very popular software in America to make the structure of the text. Making structure before starting to write is the occidental way. Japanese writers often start writing their ideas and the feeling from the beginning. But I find the structure very important.
P-C.: How did the narrative of “Louder!: Can’t Hear What You’re Singin’, Wimp!” in particular came into existence?
S.M.: At first, I had two elements. A girl who has a weak voice and a top star that has an artificial loud voice. And at the end the girl sings from Tsushima to Pusan. Then I thought of the voice cords doping. That was the beginning of making this story. Then, I thought about where Fuka, the girl, lives, and that perhaps her relatives should be characters with rock spirit, … etc. Actually, there is an inside story. Everyone thinks that Uncle Zappa is named after Frank Zappa, but actually the name comes from the word Ozappa. [Ozappa is Japanese for « rough » «unsubtle »]
P-C: In your oeuvre, “Adrift in Tokyo”, “It’s me, It’s me” are the latest movies based on a novel. Can you explain your choice to adapt these novels?
S.M.: Of course. The producers bring it to me. I’m not really a type who chooses originals myself. When I read Adrift in Tokyo, it reminded me of my father who loved going to walk. When I was little, he took me to so many places in Tokyo and Yokohama for walking. So I thought I could make a film about walking.
Just before It’s me, It’s me, I made a drama called Atami no sousakan, which was a little like Twin Peaks (if you consider) its creepiness. One producer who watched that drama brought me the original of It’s me, It’s me and proposed me to make a dark comedy of it. I found the image of me, played by Kazuya Kamenashi, that continued to multiply interesting. And I empathized with the spirit of the original, so decided to do it.
P-C: Are there any new projects on the horizon? If so, can you give our readers a small teaser?
S.M: There is nothing specific for now. I think it depends on the result of « Louder! …
P-C: Thanks for your time.
General-note 1: We were unable to confirm if Lewis Carroll truly said/wrote this.