Nowadays, I think it is rare for people to make firm decisions about movies, for example, that it has to be shot with film, or that it must be seen at a movie theater. However, even though the movie theater admission restrictions were relaxed this September, the semi-forced quarantine keeps entertainment on home PCs and televisions. With Internet video streaming services, you have the choice of watching whatever you want, a movie, or even a comedy show; as a result, I tend to choose the latter, and so, when talking with someone, I often end up asking: “What even is a movie, at this point?”. In a conversation with director Shō Miyake, I digressed about the fact that even when watching a movie on a video streaming service, I will just end up watching some bits, constantly skipping through the video as if I was watching porn. I have always paid special attention to movies: I would go to the cinema whenever I’d get a day off, and get excited to buy a recently released DVD of a film I’d like to rewatch; despite that, recently I’ve been lazy and undisciplined about it. At least though, the fact that Shō Miyake understood my comparison with watching porn and replied with a kind “that will happen,” made me feel good about myself.
The myth about the origin of film is divided in two: some claim it to be the 35mm film (the de facto standard) standardized by Thomas Edison in the USA, while others would point at the screenings and shows in the basement of the Grand Cafe by the Lumiere brothers in France. However, since the digitalization of the film industry, all of this has been left behind, and it is not part of what defines a movie anymore. Even in cars, motors are replacing engines, steering wheels are becoming obsolete, and paper maps are unnecessary; no matter what they are, tools and media are bound to change with a hundred years of history and technological advancement. So, what essentially makes a movie “art”?
If I had to go back to the basics of filmmaking, I’d strongly say that structure and montage (editing) are what make movies art. Underpinning the technique of montage is the linguistic theory developed by Ferdinand de Saussure in the latter half of the 19th century. I will avoid elaborating on it, but roughly speaking, Saussure established that language is, based on certain grammatical rules, a connection of words that were not originally related. Applying this concept to modern film, I realized that researching and thinking about everything that comprises a movie, not only the general story, the overwhelming spectacle, deep emotions and amazement, but also the shots and their composition, the dialogue, soundtrack and sound effects, their connection to each other (like words in a language) and the intention behind such connection, is what makes movies fun, and it should be discussed with others. Therefore, watching a movie in a theater, where you cannot rewind or skip it, is as luxurious and precious as a full-course meal.
Speaking of Shō Miyake’s most recent works, Netflix’s original series JU-ON: Origins (2020) is worthy of mention. However, if you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you watch the Shō Miyake-directed music video for Gen Hoshino’s song Oriai / Halfway, which the artist created while trying to make music on a computer for the first time during the quarantine.
This sweet and sour song explores the painful condition of not being able to meet with your loved one, as time inexorably passes. At first glance, the man and the woman in the song seem to be answering each other, like everything is happening at the same time, while also seeming like it actually isn’t. In other words, by diligently creating a separation between his and her time, space, story, and putting them all together, the author is expressing a sense of meta-isolation. In response to how simple and discrete this music video is in comparison to Gen Hoshino’s previous ones, Shō Miyake said: “Up until now, I was thinking about movies and music videos as two different things. Music’s the protagonist, so I didn’t feel the need to just stick a movie to it, or rather, I liked to make music video-ish music videos. This time though, after listening to the song and its production background, I half-intuitively shot it as if it were a new movie.” I didn’t ask more about what he said, but I felt that this was his way of nonchalantly showing his loyalty towards “the essence of what makes movies art” as a film director. I somehow feel that Miyake has taken such an attitude towards filmmaking from the very beginning of his career, without being obvious about it. The music video for Oriai / Halfway is his newest and straightforward example of that.
I’m a little hesitant to quote Jean-Luc Godard and pretentiously conclude that Miyake’s attitude is historically correct, but unfortunately, I can’t think of any other example.
“What kind of films are Godard’s films? It is the kind of films that re-question Hollywood films’ conventions, the kind of movies that are ‘economically, aesthetically,’ ideologically and narratively non-Hollywood. For example, at the beginning of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, the narrator introduces to the audience the character of the housewife, who is also a prostitute, while at the same time explaining who the actress who plays her is. By doing that, the film then begins two tell the story on two contradictory levels: one being the ‘fictional’ level of the movie (the story of a housewife who is also a prostitute), and the other being the ‘real’ level which makes the former one possible (the ‘story’ of the actress doing her job). . . . (Godard’s films) deny any visual illusion or narrative pleasure offered by the Hollywood film empire. . . . (To Hollywood’s films, Godard’s films are) like brothers, comrades and friends.”
Eiga no Ronri – Atarashii Eiga no Tame ni (Film Logic – For a New Film History)
2005, Misuzu Shobō, Ltd.
Written by Mikirō Katō
Godard argued that films were nothing more than a combination of sound and video, and to emphasize that, he created several works that dismantled conventional structures, thus becoming a unique and revolutionary individual. If I recklessly said that Miyake’s work is the same as Godard’s, countless cinephiles will probably get angry at me, but it’s exactly because Miyake values montage so much that whether he is making dramas, horror movies, or documentaries about rappers, they all share Miyake’s typical traits as a director; they all become Miyake’s movies. Furthermore, Miyake’s movies are universally well-structured and detailed, with pure storytelling and a sense of charm that draws the viewer in, different from Godard’s and others’ films which tend to be labeled as “experimental.” I feel that their most important feature though is the coordination between every carefully composed cut. Consequently, what is hidden remains concealed and hard to grasp. In addition, Miyake cites Apollo 13 and Jurassic Park as films that left an impression on him, commenting quite indifferently on how he would like to direct such amazing films, but it’s probably not his real intention; no, I suppose he respects such movies, but he most likely won’t make one of those.
What I’ve written above is born from my anguished thoughts after the interview, which actually started with a simple question (which I also originally sent by email) that came from my shallow misunderstanding: “Just exactly ten years after your feature-length debut movie Yakutatazu (2010), you started working with a huge platform such as Netflix and even directed the music video of a major artist; hasn’t your situation significantly changed?” To which Miyake, at the beginning of the interview, replied with a laugh and said: “First of all, I wanted to correct you there.”
Films have the power to liberate you from this rubble-like present
-I don’t want you to be mad at me, but could I speak frankly?
Shō Miyake: Of course.
-No matter how many times I watched, I couldn’t find JU-ON scary at all. I’m not used to the horror genre in the first place, so it might just be my own way of seeing it, but I think that most horror content has specific gimmicks to scare and surprise its viewers. I have the impression that, from the beginning, you have always tried to capture the kind of beauty that can be found in realism, carefully shaping it and adapting it to different themes; this approach is also at the foundations of JU-ON. So, no matter how much splatter was in it, I thought it was beautiful, and felt kind of lonely, too. That’s why I asked by email if your situation had changed, but when I thought about it properly, I realized that your essence hasn’t actually changed at all.
Miyake: As you said, I would love to say that nothing has changed, but I don’t know about that; first of all, you asked me by email if my situation had changed after ten years, but ten years ago I didn’t imagine I would be shooting JU-ON a decade later, so I guess my situation has changed. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it, and I don’t think it’d be worth the effort. I feel like recently, I’ve had one of those moments when I thought it’d be better to start thinking about short-term and long-term life plans, but… hmm.
As for my essence, I wanted to do something different for each movie, so I’d like to say that my situation is changing, but at the end of the day, they’re all kind of similar too, so maybe it’s something that I can’t tell by myself. So far, I’ve been doing this job by thinking about what to do with each and every single work, and I’ve got my hands full with that. That’s the best part.
-You just told me that you’d like to say that your situation is changing, but I also think that we live in a society where it’s hard to genuinely confront each work without changing your essence. Perhaps it’s been said over and over, as but the media has become widely diverse, and values and trends are rapidly changing, I feel like we have to adapt to that, no matter the field.
Miyake: I understand that feeling of emptiness: no one even remembers what was in the news the day before. That can’t be helped. However, things that many people are seriously sad or angry about, or things that are meaningless unless you take the time to think about them, in a moment, they’re washed away without a trace and disappear every day; sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by that, and it really sucks.
However, since I make movies, I think it’s impossible for me to get on the consuming speed of social media in the first place, so that might be the only thing that’s saving me. Preparatives for movies take time, they’re kind of slow, so they can’t possibly follow every new trend. However, on the positive side, you can think of them as something on a different time dimension: it’s like they’re digging a way out of the present. Even if I shot the footage today, I’ll only be able to announce it next year, and even if I do so, not everyone will see it at the same time, maybe in 50, or even a hundred years. I think that movies and photographs, or reproduction art, in general, are a small opposing force to the everyday crumpling rubble-like present. It might be contradictory, but movies can also bear the responsibility of pointing out that rubble-like present through their splendid stories, and make you face the reality of it.
In any case, I feel that there is no point in paying attention to “only” today, for movies and everything else too. Of course, we can’t ignore the current trends in order to stay alive as human beings, and I wouldn’t want to become an ignorant middle-aged man either, but whether to adapt to the current trends or not hasn’t much to do with the essence of movies. By watching an 80 years old movie, or reading a poetry book from a hundred years ago, you can fly to a completely different time dimension, at least once a day. That way you won’t be drowning in the small waves of today. People talk about what’s the newest thing, even when it’s already been done in a 50 years old movie; considering such historical trends, I’d like to change what people think of as the “newest.”
Well, movies are also a business, so it’s impossible to completely ignore trends. Personally, I like to follow latest, flashy works too, while on the other hand, I also admire works that decisively turn their back on their generation; there’s a public expectation for movies to be able to carry those two visions at the same time, and I’d love for that to be the case too, but filmmaking isn’t about neither of them: it’s in between, and it’s slow and steady work. And I think that’s good. If you don’t accept that, you can’t make movies. No matter how much you hurry to shoot something that follows the trends, you’ll still miss your chances to shoot it. Oh, I just remembered; ten years ago, it used to happen a lot, and it sucked! When I was making a behind-the-scenes for a commercial, I didn’t have time to shoot everything, and I would just go home and cry out of frustration. I think I’ve become much less sensitive now, or maybe my attitude has changed in the first place.
Shots that felt like they came out naturally, but they actually didn’t
Miyake: At the same time, the best part of making movies is that you can shoot fresh moments and people. There is a real thrill in dealing with alive people, actors.
-How do you discern what’s fresh from what’s not?
Miyake: It’s a body reaction for me, so it’s hard to verbalize… First of all, I never bring a full-fledged role at an audition; I’m not searching for someone who completely fits the character I made. At first, I only make half of the role in my head, and I can only see what the other half will be when I meet with the right person; that’s when I discern what’s interesting or fresh, I guess. It’s like judging what’s OK and what’s not: I don’t have a perfect OK already in my head, and I’m not searching for something that fits that. I prepare half of it in my head and wait, but I won’t know how it’s going to be until I start shooting. If I knew in advance, it wouldn’t be fresh.
-It may another personal assumption of mine, but I think that instead of putting the actors under your complete control, you confront them and think about how to make them fit. If I may borrow your words, I think that instead of making a complete picture in your head, you wait for it to become complete or to get crooked. I feel that you especially focus on the actors’ behavior and facial expressions.
Miyake: I’m glad that you have that assumption of me, but I think that all directors are actually like that. I don’t know anything about when the studio system was functional, or about the animation industry, but nowadays, most movies are shot in the corners of cities with some sort of compromise, so I’m giving up on thinking that it’s possible to control them completely. If you poorly make a complete picture in your head, it’ll clash with reality, and your plans will collapse. While you’re getting depressed because of that, the shooting location closes; I experienced that when I was a student. On the other hand, I learned how fun it is to work with living human beings. Every day is different because we’re alive.
-I wasn’t at the shootings, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel that many of your films just come out naturally, overflowing. Among them, THE COCKPIT (2014) is the most prominent.
Miyake: It’s because the actors are already naturally overflowing with talent.
-But, for example, there is a scene where OMSB and BIM are talking while scribbling on a shoebox: that scene works without knowing the rest of the movie, but without it, it wouldn’t be THE COCKPIT. I wonder if your most notable characteristic would be your ability to combine what’s coming out naturally, overflowing, instead of just wiping it off.
Miyake: I like to see that kind of overflow. It’s almost like I’m not doing anything, but maybe I’m actually in charge of preparing a container big enough to capture and hold what’s overflowing. However, in the case of feature films, there are times where a scene has already been discussed over, even though it looks like it came out naturally at first glance. Take for example the club scene from And Your Bird Can Sing (2018): the three characters seem to be enjoying the music freely, and well, I’m aiming for that kind of impression, so I don’t have to necessarily say this, but from where they are standing when the scene starts, to where they move to, and when they move, how distant is everyone from each other; everything is already decided, to some extent. The air was good that day, so we didn’t have to talk too much about it though. On top of that, there is the actors’ performance, which relies on their individual power. Whether they stop the ball with the left or right foot, I can’t possibly decide such things. What I can do here is to prepare an environment that makes it easy for them to perform. After that, I shoot it in such a way that their performance stands out, connect the right parts, and conceal the initial guidelines. That’s become I wanted to make a movie that is about the performance.
Soccer, for example, looks like chaos from outside, and the focus is usually on the star player, but in substance, there are pre-decided guidelines for how the players should move, which are directed by the coach. Of course, the best part of soccer is when a player’s individual power explodes, but that’s not how you win. However, in the case of elementary school students or amateur soccer, such direction does not work, each player moving as they desire, thus becoming chaos. If you apply this logic to films, there is no right answer since there is no win or loss, so anything goes, but as soccer has in and out of the field, in movies, there is an in front and behind of the camera; therefore, as in soccer, you have to assume that there are parts that you can direct in advance, such as rules and strategies, and parts that are left to the individual actor, so you have to think about where the borderline between those two is. That depends on the players and the theme. Not just with movies, but with any collaborated effort, there is a way to draw that line.
-I heard that for Wild Tour (2018), you were pretty strict with the direction.
Miyake: I tried to be a bit more rigid for Wild Tour. It’s because we did a lot of rehearsals, and we would watch the recorded material together on the spot. I wasn’t leaving it up to the actors, and there weren’t any sneak shots of improvised scenes. No, there were some parts I left up to the actors, but I would tell them in advance and explain why. They weren’t professional actors, and I didn’t want them to be anxious in front of the camera, so I decided to create an environment where they knew what they were doing. That way, I thought their individual power, or rather, their wild charm would definitely come out. The actors are also part of the creative team like me, so if you leave them alone, some will diligently play soccer with me, while others will start playing baseball because they don’t want to play soccer.
-What do you do when that happens? Do you let them play baseball?
Miyake: Sometimes it’s more fun to play baseball, so I get on with it. As I said earlier, unlike sports, there’s no win or loss, or rather, it’s a world where we all search for a definition of win or loss on our own, and it’s good even if you end up making up a completely new sport. If it’s fun, I’m ok with it.
I guess I’m still a fifth-year university student
-How did you end up shooting THE COCKPIT?
Miyake: The Aichi Arts Center is producing it, and they’ve been working on releasing a film every year since 1993; they asked me to participate, and that’s how I ended up shooting the movie. The theme was the “body,” and I didn’t really understand it at the time: I was just wondering, “Aren’t we just filming bodies, whatever we’re filming?” (bitter laugh). I realized there were many beat making videos on the internet, which I’ve always loved to watch, so I vaguely had this thought of watching that on a big screen; I thought it must feel so good. I also wanted to work with people that I liked, so I was planning for that and was lucky enough to get actors with unique bodies, such as OMSB. On top of that, I found out that, instead of using PCs, they made beats with MPCs, with their bodies: as a result, or half by chance, I was able to respond to the theme head-on; it also made me realize that the “body” is a meaningful theme.
-As you said, I think hip hop is made with your body; to put it extremely, hip hop beats are all about the mood.
Miyake: That’s true. I agree.
-I think it’s rude to beatmakers to say that making rhythm patterns for rap is all about the mood, but it fundamentally is. There may be nuances to make a beat sound in a specific way, but there aren’t so many concrete rules. That’s why in the movie, OMSB asks BIM, “What do you think about when you’re making beats?” Which he answers “Nothing.” There is probably no right answer, apart from that one.
Miyake: Yes. I guess that after all, THE COCKPIT is very important to me.
-Would you define it your turning point?
Miyake: I would, but I’d say that for each and every one of my movies. When I finish shooting a movie, I feel like I got one year older; I guess it sounds like I’m talking about experience points. It’s more like being reborn: every thought you have before are destroyed and changed. It really feels like I’ve done something, and gotten older. It doesn’t only happen with feature films, but also with music videos or writing.
The feeling of getting old is clear when you’re a student, you’re aware of it; after getting out of school, though, it becomes really hard to understand. What are our turning points, other than marriage, childbirth, and the death of a parent? If you work in an office, maybe a promotion or changing your workplace could be your turning points, but if you’re a freelancer, you’ll always be like a fifth-year university student. In my case, the turning point is finishing a movie. It’s also because I edit them myself, so I can review and criticize what I’ve done over a long period of time, and it’ll probably make me feel like I got older.
-Have you always been following this process of self-review?
Miyake: Hmm… I can’t remember when I started. I’ve always loved making things since I was a child. The undersurface of my parents’ dining table used to be my graffiti space; I would get under the table, look up and draw forever. At the end of the day, I think I’m the kind of person who’s satisfied with creating stuff for myself. However, now it’s my job, and I’m not doing it alone, and since film history is an actual thing, I need to review and criticize my work.
Going back to our first conversation, aside from my life, I think it’s interesting to think about how the world has changed, and if it’s going to change or not from now on. I guess I’m trying to keep my self interested in that by making and watching movies. It’s hard to tell, but that’s what I’m doing, more or less. Ten years ago, I used the energy to stay up all night and all of that, but my guard was down to some extent, while now I’m more in the mood of working diligently. I often say to do things step by step; it’s like properly composing each and every shot of a movie. I’m the kind of guy who crams overnight before a test, so it’s really a bother for me (laughs).