Interview: Miki Satoshi – Inventive Director Of Adrift In Tokyo & Instant Swamp
“It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m always open minded!” Miki Satoshi
The inventive director of comedy films, Miki Satoshi, is making much headway in the West of late thanks in part to Third Window Films releasing DVD’s of his films, which include Adrift In Tokyo, Instant Swamp, and Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, available separately or collectively as a box set. His films can best be described as stories of ordinary people having extraordinary experiences, and where mundane life becomes bizarre.
With the recent release of Adrift In Tokyo and the Miki Satoshi Collection, Mr. Satoshi and regular actress Eri Fuse visited the UK during February and March  to attend the London event Hyper Japan 2012 Spring and the East Winds Film Festival in Coventry as part of the special guests line-up.
On Sunday 26th February at Hyper Japan, DJ was given the opportunity to interview Mr. Satoshi and Ms. Fuse face-to-face. Although they sat together during the private session, both Mr. Satoshi and Ms. Fuse’s were asked alternate questions.
It is, therefore, a great honour to present to you our interview with Miki Satoshi . Enjoy!
Interviewer: Spencer Lloyd Peet (Administrator)
Do you believe one film can have the ability to change lives?
I think that’s not for me to decide. When I’m making a movie I’m not thinking I’m going to change somebody’s life.
What film has influenced you more than any other?
Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. But that is just what I’m thinking now; it may change in the future. But right now it’s Mulholland Drive.
You are a big fan of Monty Python. How much of an influence was the show on the scene in Instant Swamp where a dragon emerges from a marsh?
Maybe a part of it. The area in which I was brought up is Yokohama which was occupied by the Americans during the Vietnam War. After the war, all the Americans had gone back to their country and left us with big swamps and lakes. So we took the land back and started to build upon it. I think that the strong link between my upbringing and memories and the works of Terry Gilliam. Actually, I wrote and commented on about Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when it was released in Japan.
You often use mature actors and get them to do rather energetic physical things. For instance: The hairdresser in Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmer breaks out into a dance. And the watch repairer in Adrift In Tokyo unleashes his martial arts skills upon the two main characters. Is there a particular reason for doing this, are you trying to show, through these rather outlandish sequences, that senior citizens in Japan are very active and agile as appose to the assumption that globally, the elderly are weak and feeble?
Yes, those scenes were so deliberate. The mature actors in my films have been acting for so many years and have their theme of acting and character types which many people recognise them for. So what I wanted to do was to take out everything that they have got and I wanted them to approach their roles as if they were a new actor. So that means they have to work harder at that role; I want them to act in a way that they haven’t acted before and to give them a challenge, really.
Was the old martial arts watch repairer in Adrift In Tokyo based on someone you know or had known personally?
No, there was no such person. I know Japan can seem a really strange country, but I don’t think that’s ever happened in real life.
In your films, we get to see some wonderful sites of Japan. Is it your intention to show the beauty of the country?
My perception of Japan is probably different to that of Western people, so I chose not to use any sort of “conventional” photogenic places – I use very local places. But to me, that is the “real” Japan. So in that context I probably do deliberately want to show the real Japan, but not in a conventional sense.
How different do you think your films would have been had you been given the budget of a blockbuster?
Basically, I don’t think I would do things differently if I had a bigger budget; a bigger budget means a bigger mouth. There are so many people attached to the budget. But the people who have invested in me don’t know what comedy gag is good for the audience; they don’t know anything about it.
So the studio doesn’t have any influence on the way your films are made?
No. If somebody tries to influence me because they’ve got the money, I think it would be really difficult for me to make a comedy movie.
Now that you now that your films are being appreciated outside Japan, do you think about this when you’re working on an idea?
I was worried when I first released one of my movies outside Japan; I was really worried nobody would laugh. But I realised there were a few points in the films that were internationally funny. That’s a really funny thing. For the Japanese, a particular funny scene may mean nothing to them. But I took my films to Italy and some parts which the Japanese people would not laugh at, the Italians would. So for me, that was a new discovery.
In your opinion, then, what is the main difference between a Western audience and a Japanese audience when they go and see one of your films?
I think it’s a cultural difference. The Japanese people want to know the reason why I made a particular movie. They want to take a ‘what’s the meaning of life’ out of the movie. They can’t just go and see the movie and enjoy it, that’s not enough for Japanese people. For the Western people, if they like the movie, they like the movie, you know. They don’t necessary need to know or need to find the reason for something to take back from the movie. So maybe the Japanese people are very, very conscientious people so that’s why they want to study it more. I think they feel a little unease that you go to see a movie and you laugh and I laugh and that’s it; they would feel really guilty about it; especially young Japanese men. They really need to find something meaningful within a film. But for the women… they can sometimes get away with it.
What kind of a director would you say you are? Are you someone who is demanding of his cast and crew, or are you open-minded and willing to listen to the ideas of others involved in your films?
Yes, I do demand quite a lot.
Many filmmakers, no matter how good a film is, are never completely satisfied with the end result and will always look at the completed film with a critical eye, saying that they should have done this differently or that better… Are you one of those filmmakers or do you make sure what ends up on the screen is exactly what you aimed for?
I am never satisfied with my movies. It’s so difficult to have the perfect shot. Even talking about one scene; the camera work is fine, the actor and actress are fine, and all the shots are fine, and this is a perfect situation… you won’t get that probably.
Is that why you continue to make films, because you’re trying to make the perfect one?
That’s right. They’ll be a lack of motivation if you achieve something perfect and you don’t have any purpose for making a movie. Obviously I am trying to make close to perfect product after I’ve done everything and show it to the audience, but I think it’ll never be perfect.
Do you live by a particular philosophy?
I think the first thing I am always thinking of is to be liberal on everything, so it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m always open minded. And be impartial, as in if you want to speak to somebody above [God?], or you want to speak to someone below [The devil?], you still want to have a fight or a go with them. I would have a fight with this and that but it doesn’t matter, I would do it exactly the same. That’s the essence of the comedy, I think.
Thank you very much, Mr. Satoshi.
Special thanks to interpreter Sayaka Smith.