JapanVisitor.com recently spoke with photographer and filmmaker John Foster. His film “Kyoto Nocturnes, Part 1: Elegant Slaughter” will be playing at the upcoming Kansai International Film Festival. The film is, in the words of KyotoNoir, about a "psychotic yakuza boss [that] hires an alluring American hit woman to end a gang war in the geisha district of Japan’s ancient capital."
Can we begin with a bit about you?
I’m from New York and I originally came to Japan in 1991 on the JET program. I was back in the US in ’92-’93. I came back to Japan in 1993 and was here for four years. I saved money to pursue my interest in film. Back in the US, I took part in the International Film and TV Workshops program. These programs are short, intense, hands-on sessions with working professionals. By 1998, I was in pre-production for a short film.
Let’s move on to your film that will be screened at the Kansai International Film Festival. First, how in the world did you make Kyoto Nocturnes?!
Well, I was a volunteer for the Fukuoka Asian Film Festival during an earlier stay in Japan, and had stayed in touch with the couple that run and organize the festival. When I was trying to make contacts for Kyoto Nocturnes, I called them. They gave me a name; that person led to more contacts—and so on.
What about the crew and staff?
It was an all-Japanese crew. This had advantages but also created some issues as well. My rule of thumb is that you should do things in: 1) the most efficient way possible, 2) the cheapest way possible, and 3) the most creative way possible.
On occasion, this caused problems with some of the staff that insisted that we had to do things the “Japanese way.”
What about financing?
The film was self-financed.
How about the actors? How did you get them to appear in an independent film directed by a foreigner? Keishu Tsumagata (Boss Watanabe) and Manabu Inoue (Uchida)?
In terms of getting actors—professional actors—we had a good script and we told them we would only shoot for 4-5 days as opposed to 20-25. This succeeded in creating interest. Also, the story itself is interesting.
We contacted their respective agents, and they both agreed to come in to audition. I wanted an older, established actor for the role of the Boss. Tsumagata was semi-retired after a career in samurai films and “The Professional Killers” television series. He was great to work with though I had to try to tone down his expressions a bit. He has a wonderful face but the look I wanted was low-key, less stylized than the standard Japanese yakuza film.
Inoue is an actor and teacher of acting in Osaka, and his physical appearance was perfect for the role (for reasons that cannot be divulged before seeing the film).
The hitwoman Rakendra Moore? 3rd runner-up in the 1994 Miss Black Teenage Crown?
For the main female role, there was one excellent Japanese woman who auditioned. However, Rakendra had such a great presence that I went with her. The Japanese woman was quite small, and the idea of her getting physical with the Boss just wouldn’t have worked.
Why did you tell the story using the yakuza genre?
Yakuza films have both a kabuki feel along with the element of horror, which I personally like.
The lighting in the restaurant is very dramatic.
The location was Chao Chao Gyoza, a restaurant near Minami-za [Kyoto’s main kabuki theater], and for the most part we didn’t do anything. We used lighting to enhance the colors of the restaurant, but the colors you see in the film are basically like those in the restaurant.
What locations did you use? Did you have trouble getting permits?
In addition to the restaurant scenes, we filmed Rakendra at Yasaka Shrine at the beginning of the film. The three bodyguards are standing on a wide street in front of the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery in Fushimi. For this location, we approached the company—which had never given permission to anyone to film there before—and were able to meet with the President. He finally allowed us to film there, which may or may not have had something to do with a perceived sake boom in the US.
For the Gion locations, we had to go around to the local neighborhood associations.
Amazingly, Kyoto has no film commission. This means no one is promoting film in the city and opening doors for prospective filmmakers. You have to do the legwork yourself, and it’s a case-by-case, hit or miss atmosphere.
There is a scene with human testicles in gyoza [dumplings]. What is the story behind this?
A few years ago I was out having dinner with a now former girlfriend. She ordered something, and when I asked her what it was she giggled and translated it as “fish balls.” Later, I realized that, no, fish do not have balls. The scene was born from that mistranslation (joke?).
The violence is relatively mild compared to many yakuza films. Why?
The movie is violent but I didn’t want it to be an exploitation film, I didn't want blood squirting all over the screen. There is violence but, I hope, it is elegant violence. There are take-offs from Hong Kong films—flying daggers, etc.
Were there language issues? Related to the script? Working with staff?
I wrote the script in English, which came to 9 pages. Then the script was translated into Japanese, which with notations ran to 23 pages. Then we had to have it touched up into Kansai dialect.
No one on the staff could speak perfect English, so yes at times there were problems. I ended up using translators.
Also, on a deeper level, in Japan there is no real independent cinema as it exists in other countries. In the US, there are Hollywood feature films, and then many, many types of professional film that do not fit into that category. Independent film in the US is quite varied. Here in Japan, there are professional films and then, basically, there are amateur films. Which meant that a lot of the staff was not professional.
I tried to convey to the staff that though we may not have a lot of money or sponsorship or a big-name actor, this is a professional project.
Are you working on a Part II?
No. The level of stress and time involved in doing a short film here in Japan was very high. I am currently working on photography full time now. I have two books out and am putting my energy into another book.
After two years, I hope to return to the US when the book I am working on is complete—and then do a film back there.
Buy John Foster's One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko
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Thursday, August 02, 2007