TOKYO TRIBE: Director Sion Sono Interview at “L’Étrange Festival 2014”
Interviewer: Fabien Mauro
Translator: Miyako Slocombe
Special Thanks to Sion Sono, Xavier Fayet and Diane Malherbe (L’Étrange Festival), Frédéric Ambroisine
L’Étrange Festival Official Website: etrangefestival.com/2014 (English)
Sion Sono has become one of the most internationally acclaimed directors from Japan today, with award-winning works that include LOVE EXPOSURE (愛のむきだし, Ai no Mukidashi, 2009), GUILTY OF ROMANCE (冷たい熱帯魚, Koi no Tsumi, 2011), COLD FISH (冷たい熱帯魚, Tsumetai Nettaigyo, 2011), HIMIZU (ヒミズ, 2012), THE LAND OF HOPE (希望の国, Kibou no Kuni, 2012), and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (地獄でなぜ悪い, Jigoku de Naze Warui, 2013).
His latest film, TOKYO TRIBE (トウキョウ トライブ, Tokyo Toraibu), made its European Premiere on September 8th at the 20th edition of L’Étrange Festival at Le Forum des Images in Paris. Following the screening, Sion Sono spoke with interviewer Fabien Mauro to reveal some secrets behind the making of his new cinematic achievement, discuss aspects of his previous films and tease some new projects to come…
Fabien Mauro: Could you talk about the development of TOKYO TRIBE and how you came to the idea to make it as a musical?
Sion Sono: The process went step-by-step. Of course, this is a movie so I would need actors. But it’s a film about street life. I thought it would be more interesting to bring out people from the streets rather than professional actors. So, I looked for rappers in the streets. They I decided that if I was going to have rappers in the film, it would be better to make them sing. If they were supposed to sing, then it would be a better challenge to do a musical film.
Fabien Mauro: Why did you choose Hip-Hop rather than something more commercial, like J-Pop for instance?
Sion Sono: [laughs] If I were offered a J-Pop project, I would have turned it down.
Fabien Mauro: How did you manage to create a visual identity for each district from the film?
Sion Sono: In Japan, there are rap companies in each district. I brought this idea and we created a visual identity for each Tokyo district [Saga, Bukuro, Musashino] shown in the movie.
Fabien Mauro: The gorgeous sets are essential to this story. Could you talk about your collaboration with production designer Yuji Hayashida [CASSHERN, CROWS ZERO]?
Sion Sono: Yuji Hayashida worked with Sogo Ishii on the sets of BURST CITY. I’m a big fan of his work. He’s almost like a magician. With a tiny budget, he gives the illusion the sets were very expensive to build. I also asked the participation of the students of a gathering of artists called “Chim-Pom”. Those students helped us to build this city. In the movie, the real Tokyo is almost never seen. I also discovered some factories we decorated with neon lights and graffiti. That’s how we created Tokyo as seen in the movie. The student group from “Chim-Pom” is known as “Tensai High School” [Geniuses High School].
Fabien Mauro: Is there any points in common between the Punk culture you’re from and the Hip-Hop culture?
Sion Sono: As you know, the Punk movement was born in Great Britain and Hip-Hop appeared in the United States. Both came from a desire of rebellion. That’s why they could meet. It explains why Hip-Hop was easier for me to comprehend. There was this similarity. It’s true that I’ve listened Rock and Punk since I was a child. Hip-hop is not rooted in my blood and guts as Rock and Punk are. But I feel a great sympathy towards this music.
Fabien Mauro: Riki Takeuchi is memorable as boss Buppa. Are you the one who picked him for the part?
Sion Sono: Actually, I asked Riki Takeuchi to act in ALL ESPER DAYO, a TV series I directed. I asked him to come and we talked together. People from Nikkatsu were present. During the conversation, we thought he could be great to play the part of Buppa. But if I hadn’t met him for ALL ESPER DAYO, he would have never been in TOKYO TRIBE. Now I remember he helped to produce THE LAND OF HOPE. Could you imagine that with a face like his?! But he’s a very human person and he helped to produce that film.
Fabien Mauro: Mika Kano, from the Kano Sisters, plays Buppa’s wife.
Sion Sono: Yes, I chose her. This lady has a very special position in Japan. She’s a human being but she seems to come from another world. She seems to come from Hell or the land of the dead! [laughs] She one of those people who spend tons of money…. we don’t know how those people get so much money. Maybe from the Devil ! [laughs] But when you speak with her, she’s truly like common people. We went to a Lady Gaga concert together! [laughs] She’s a fan of my films. She was very happy to play that part.
Fabien Mauro: Even though TOKYO TRIBE is a commercial project, you keep the musical flow from the beginning to the end, which is a very ambitious idea. How did you impose this rhythm?
Sion Sono: I remember I went into many conflicts with Chiba-san [producer Yoshinori Chiba]. Very often, I threatened him with quitting. But another director would have run a long time ago.
Fabien Mauro: There is a thing in common between LOVE EXPOSURE and TOKYO TRIBE: the underwear of young ladies. Commercial necessity?
Sion Sono: There is no commercial necessity about that in any movie. On the contrary. In mainstream Japanese movies, when high school girls in uniform are fighting, everything is done to hide their panties.
Fabien Mauro: With WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? and TOKYO TRIBE, you seem to lean towards a much lighter type of cinema. Could you talk about this evolution?
Sion Sono: Yes, I am in this mood right now. I am interested in venturing into lighter subjects but it will evolve towards new challenges and forms. I’m already starting to lose my interest for this kind of movie.
Fabien Mauro: HIMIZU and THE LAND OF HOPE were two dark and committed visions of post-Fukushima Japan. TOKYO TRIBE is still about the future, but with a lighter tone. Nevertheless, we can feel some social stakes still remain…
Sion Sono: My goal was not to do an heavy movie, like THE LAND OF HOPE was. I wanted to do a lighter movie. But some stakes appeared on an subconscious level. About TOKYO TRIBE, I won’t talk about it. I think it’s better to watch it with a light heart and let the message rise to your conscious mind.
Fabien Mauro: Since SUICIDE CLUB, you’ve drawn up the image of a Japanese youth without any model or reference. Could you talk about this?
Sion Sono: This is exactly what can be found in my movies. Nowadays, I have the feeling the young ones don’t know what they are supposed to do or where they have to go. Before, youngsters rebelled against the authority of their parents. Today, they are the loyal slaves of the older ones.
Fabien Mauro: Adults, especially those from COLD FISH or GUILTY OF ROMANCE, seem alienated. Is it necessary to do extreme actions nowadays to become stronger?
Sion Sono: I’m not the one who alienates them. Those kinds of people are truly alienated by society. When I’m watching the news on TV, I think this is alienating.
Fabien Mauro: You’ve portrayed events inspired by news stories [SUICIDE CLUB, COLD FISH, LOVE EXPOSURE] and their consequences. How do Japanese viewers react to the not-so-glorious “backstage look” of their country?
Sion Sono: Once again, I think the news you see everyday in the media are far more uncomfortable than my films. For instance, when you witness the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all the slaughter, I feel far more ill-at-ease than in front of my movies.
Fabien Mauro: As westerners, we are fascinated by the christian imagery you displayed, especially in COLD FISH and LOVE EXPOSURE.
Sion Sono: Between Christ and Christianity, I draw a very marked line. When I deal with Christianity and its believers, I symbolize all those who bullied and attacked me during my childhood, from my parents to my teachers. Those people imposed their morals on me to the point of absurdity. That’s why I represent Christianity this way.
On the other hand, Christ has a complete different significance to me as an individual. I’m especially revolted that all those believers who impose their point of view without understanding what Christ is truly about. But I have no antipathy towards Christ.
Fabien Mauro: It’s quite fascinating to see the Holy Virgin and the famous FEMALE CONVICT 701: SCORPION sharing the same shot in LOVE EXPOSURE.
Sion Sono: If I used the image of FEMALE CONVICT 701: SCORPION, it was not to pay tribute to this character. I wanted to emphasize the fact this young boy was very effeminate. He is also a virgin. His sexuality is very hazy.
Fabien Mauro: Another thing about LOVE EXPOSURE. Was it easy to produce a four-hour movie in 2008? Could it be possible to do the same today?
Sion Sono: You know, length is not the problem in Japan. Sion Sono’s films are. It’s the same thing for years.
Fabien Mauro: You said you just completed a kaiju eiga. The genre is becoming fashionable again. What could you tell us about this new film?
Sion Sono: I wasn’t very clear about the general topic of this film. It’s more a fantasy film than a kaiju movie actually. This film is truly the arrival point of everything I made so far. I can’t wait for you to see it next year!
Fabien Mauro: It’s funny because two of your recurring actors, Miki Mizuno and Mitsuru Fukikoshi both appeared in GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION, back in 1996.
Sion Sono: Oh, I haven’t seen this one! I saw the older Godzilla and Gamera movies. But it’s less and less good with time. It’s like watching a James Bond movie without Sean Connery.
For more information on TOKYO TRIBE, please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan: