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How I Spent My Summer in Tokyo…

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I know, I know… I’ve been negligent keeping up with my blog here at Monster Pictures. The thing is, this summer has been a crusher of a work season. It seems not a day goes by that I don’t get a call or an email asking me to write this or to join that production. Neil, our boss at Monster Pics, keeps telling me to do short order writing for the blog, but I’ve always been more into the epic entry variety.

Working on films in Japan has been one of the great joys in my life. Although the budgets are pretty miserable, I feel fortunate that life led me down this path. I get to work with lots of interesting and talented people. I’m also lucky in that I’ve been able to establish myself in a number of film related skills. If variety is the way to avoid burnout, then I should be safe until the turn of the next century.

Subtitling remains a favorite gig, and I’ve been busy putting words in the mouths of Japanese actors and actresses. I’ve done my thing on several cool films so far this year, notably “The Complex,” “The Devil’s Path,” “Arukana,” and “The Stuffed Avenger”, which I am currently brushing up.

The Complex“The Complex” is the latest horror film from “Ring” director Hideo Nakata. A fan of Nakata’s work, I was thrilled to get this job as it not only put me back in contact with Nakata, who I hadn’t seen

since stopping by the set of his film “Kaidan” back in 2006, but also satisfied my geek fix when I was able to meet and chat with Atsuko Maeda, the film’s female lead. Atsuko is the former top performer in the Japanese super idol group AKB48, which she left around a year ago.

Japanese idols…

Here’s a dark secret of mine: Back in the late 80s and early 90s I was totally into the Japanese idol scene and amassed quite a sizable CD collection of “artists” such as Akina Nakamori, Chisato Moritaka, Meiko Nakahara, Nae Yuki and the like. However, after moving to Japan, where I OD’d on the scene, I traded in my CDs for much needed yen (although I still have a few lying around for nostalgic consumption). Even with the change of heart it’s still fun to hang out with cute, bubbly idols and shoot the breeze, something I never thought I’d ever do when I was but a fan in the 1980s.

Atsuko Maeda gave up the idol scene to pursue acting and she turns in quite a solid performance in “The Complex”. I still get chills at one particularly neat shot of her screaming wildly while scratching the hell out of some linoleum flooring. In any case, “The Complex” was a big hit in Japan and I hope it finds an audience outside of Japan as well.

Actually, while on the subject of Japanese idol, I still think this late 80s music video of Chisato Moritaka singing “17sai” is one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd0FJdMX2Tw

“The Devil’s Path” is a Nikkatsu film directed by Kazuya Shiraishi and produced by Yoshinori Chiba, the man who did all those cool Sushi Typhoon films a few years back. I spent a day on the set last winter and I have to say – the hospital scene at the end of “Ju-on 2” aside – this was the most scared I’ve ever been on a movie set.

The Devil's PathThe scene had a couple of scumbag yakuza guys in the midst of torturing and killing an old man in order to get his life insurance money. The atmosphere on the set was thick with perverse cruelty and everything about it – from the run down back office room to the bad taste outfits of the yakuza actors – felt real, too real. As the actors laughed it up and forced the poor old geezer to guzzle bottles of 100 proof alcohol, going so far as to taser the top of his head, I was left feeling party to the whole sick thing.

In this way, “The Devil’s Path” is not your typical yakuza film. It treats its gangster leads not as romanticized, misunderstood bad boys on the outskirts of society, but as human scum who pray on the weak and concerned only with satisfying their own base desires. The film opens this month in Japan and I believe is making the film festival run now.

Director Nishimura

Set photography is another favorite gig of mine and I’ve been recovering from an exhausting week of shooting stills on the set of something new coming from director Yoshihiro Nishimura, the mad genius behind films such as “Tokyo Gore Police,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl,” and “Helldriver”.

It’s always good to be on Nishimura’s set. First off, he’s a capable director with an innate sense for film narrative. There’s an adage that goes “it’s as difficult to make a bad film as it is a good film,” so busting your ass for a director you think might not actually know what they’re doing is something to be avoided. And although he looks like the kind of guy who would drop large bricks on kittens just to see them bleed, Nishimura is in fact a pussycat of a man, serious about his craft and always with an eye out for each and every member of his staff.

Ren zombieIs it wrong to admit that I get a total kick out of photographing pretty girls covered in blood and guts? Taking them aside between set-ups, getting them to pose how I like… Fuck it! Why shouldn’t I enjoy doing something as enjoyably absurd as this? Nishimura’s film allowed me to work with a couple of cute actresses and I was finally able to do a private shoot with Luchino Fujisaki.

I can’t mention the title yet but I can say that Nishimura’s new thing revolves around zombies, another interest of mine. While I was too young to see “Night of the Living Dead” in the theater (I was 8 when it came out), I was following it in horror magazines at the time and got the concept of zombies right away. While it’s true the zombie genre has been beaten to death with a lead pipe, it still holds a spot dear and near to me and when it comes to how zombies should look and be photographed I’m pretty much the right man for the job.

Probably the funniest moment on the set was when actress Ren Miyamura started complaining of a backache. Ren was a zombie outfitted with large, fake breasts, (in the story she lures two living men out of their hiding spot due to her anime-like sexy body). During breaks it fell upon me to hold up her fake breasts so as to give her back a rest. At one point I loudly proclaimed, “This is the job for which I was born!” The entire cast broke out laughing.

Bloody AftermathAnd of course, it’s always nice to be in the center of a Nishimura “blood shower”. This is when the staff wheels over a pump and a waist high garbage bucket full of stage blood. From a tube, the contents of the bucket are shot every which way. Most of the staff stands clear of this mess, but for those of us that have to be in close (actors, director, camera operator, sound man, still photographer), we put on raincoats and wrap our equipment in plastic. It’s a sight to see and I enjoy the difficult challenge of getting the bloodiest shots I can without damaging my equipment.

In personal news, my film “New Neighbor” recently played two sold-out shows at Fantasia film festival in Montreal. As much as I wanted to fly out, my schedule wouldn’t permit it. In any case, this was my third film to screen at Fantasia and I’m always happy to have something included on their program.

Next up for my film is a week of screening at Uplink Theater in Shibuya. This will be my first time to have a film I made play any kind of run. Yeah… Cool! More on this in the near future. You can check out the Uplink page for my film here:
http://www.uplink.co.jp/movie/2013/16500

Until next entry…

Norman

About the author: Norman

A displaced New Yorker living in Japan, Norman has been pursuing the deeper meaning of the Japanese eiga gemba (movie set) for the past fifteen years. His behind-the-scenes accounts of Japanese filmsets have appeared in dozens of publications, both domestic and international. Not content with just hanging out on the set, his filmmaker credentials include director, set photographer, script writer, subtitlest, and the occasional turn in front of the camera.

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