Are You Having A Laugh? An Interview With Miki Satoshi

Born in 1961 in Kanagawa Prefecture, Miki Satoshi first made his name as a director of hit TV comedy and variety shows. He has also had a thriving career as a stage director, including a long association with the City Boys three-man comedy troupe. He has also helmed the occasional TV drama, including the 2006 hit series Time Limit Detective (Jiko Keisatsu), starring Odagiri Joe, Aso Kumiko and Iwamatsu Ryo. In 2005 Miki made his feature debut with In The Pool, a comedy starring Suzuki Matsuo and Odagiri Joe. He quickly followed up with the comedies Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected (Kame Wa Igai To Hayaku Oyogu, 2005), starring Ueno Juri, Damejin (2006), starring Sato Ryuta and Ichikawa Mikako, and Deathfix (Zukan Ni Nottenai Mushi, 2007), starring Suzuki Matsuo, Kimuchi Rinko and Iseya Yusuke. His most recent film, Adrift In Tokyo (Ten Ten), released last November, has become his biggest box office success.

Adrift In Tokyo (Ten Ten) seems to sum up the themes of your first four films.

Yes, Adrift In Tokyo is probably the culmination of all my previous work - it’s my peak. The problem is, where do I go from here? (laughs)

When Kitano Takeshi made Hana-Bi I had the same thought, though his films were more serious. Do you have any plans to make a serious movie?

None. I get asked that a lot, like Kitano did. People say to me, Why don’t you make a serious film? You can make one. But I don’t think so. The ideas that come to me tend to be on the silly side. Some people say I could make a romantic drama, but I prefer to stay with the silly stuff that I know. If I were to construct a story with more dramatic elements, it wouldn’t feel right.

Adrift In Tokyo has a serious side, though. After all, Fukuhara kills his wife.

The movie opens with a taboo - that is, uxoricide. I tried to separate the journey of the two men from the incident. There are times when people have to deal with major issues in their lives, but they still react to what is immediately in front of them. For instance, even when you are breaking up with your girlfriend, if the waiter spills a glass of water, what goes through your head is, Oh he spilt a glass of water. So it makes me wonder if people are actually focusing on these serious issues all the time. Movie narratives are constructed so serious issues and inner conflicts are continuously present in the characters. But I feel that, in reality, the time people spend pondering these issues or conflicts may be quite short. Even if the character is carrying an emotional burden of killing his wife, if something idiotic appears in front of him, he’ll react to that. At that moment, his feelings are focused on that one idiotic thing.

You’re careful to present the main character as something more than just a criminal.

Right. When I first brought the script to the production company, they were concerned about the dead body, about whether we should show it or not. My thought was that we need to show that, behind the silly events on the screen, there’s another reality, which is the dead body. The first production company I showed the script to took issue with that aspect of the film. They said it would make the movie too unbalanced, that it would damage the multi-layered structure of the story. There’s the guy going to the police to confess, there’s the trio from the supermarket, and they’re all set in motion by this dead body. The film is structured like a comedy skit - one act can cause unintended consequences for total strangers.

Do you write your all of your scripts yourself?

Yes, even when I’m working from a novel or other original source material. I make drastic changes, so I always tell the author of the original, I’m sorry, but I’m going to change your story. I only work with authors who can handle that, not the ones who demand that I not change a single line. Mr Fujita, the author of Adrift In Tokyo has a big heart in that respect. He believes that novels and movies are two distinctly different mediums. He said, I feel as if I’m giving you my daughter - treat her gently.

Does filming a novel adaptation lessen the commercial risk?

There’s always a risk. In The Pool was also an adaptation, but one by an unknown writer. The author of Adrift In Tokyo is relatively unknown as well. I don’t know how much commercial effect being an adaptation had on Adrift In Tokyo.

A lot of Japanese films are based on best-selling novels, comics and games, and TV dramas. Do you think that’s a bad trend?

There are lots of cases where the original best seller is the reason that the movie exists. They try to incorporate a lot of elements from the original so that it won’t be a commercial failure. But that doesn’t mean it will be a good film.

When you made Adrift In Tokyo, did you watch road movies for ideas?

I don’t really watch a lot of movies to sample ideas. I don’t know how many movies I watch compared to hardcore film fans, although I do like watching movies. When I decided to do a road movie I thought about New American Cinema - films like Scarecrow, Easy Rider, and Two - Lane Blacktop. I don’t think that last one was a hit, though it’s really good. In Adrift In Tokyo I wanted to abruptly end the movie with a character saying “Nandayo” (What’s that about?). Japanese films tend to have long epilogues. The story is over but you still get all these things tagged onto the end, even a song. In New American Cinema films like Easy Rider you just get a gunshot - bam! - and that’s the end of the movie. I wanted Adrift In Tokyo to have that kind of conclusion. Takemura says, Nandayo, at Fukuhara crossing the street and suddenly the screen blacks out and that’s the end.

I agree that Adrift In Tokyo had a feel similar to that of New American Cinema.

I’ve always admired that kind of ending, that kind of edge. The audience can imagine what happened after that, what happened to Fukuhara and the dead body. I had qualms about depicting it. I know a certain percentage of the audience felt frustration that there was no depiction (of what happened to the body), but that’s OK. I wanted to create the mood more than imagery, because I had looked up to those movies since I was in middle school, especially Easy Rider. I stupidly fell over a lot on my bike because I messed around with the spokes imitating that movie. It was cool. So the scene at the beginning at Chofu Air Field, when Fukuhara talks about killing his wife, was influenced by the opening of Easy Rider, which takes place at an airfield. That’s how a road movie should begin, with a suitcase at an airfield. So I’ve been influenced in that sense. I wouldn’t call it homage. It’s how I decided to make a road movie set in Tokyo.

It would have been hard to make a road movie with motorcycles in Tokyo…

I actually crossed America, traveling about 2000 kilometer in 1995, on a motorcycle. I left LA, crossed Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell then back to LA and San Francisco. It was about a ten-day trip with a bike tour. I rented a Harley 883. I ride Harleys in Japan as well. I got a feel for places like Route 66. Adrift In Tokyo turned out like that, even though it’s set in Japan. When I was in that desolate landscape, riding my bike, I started humming music from Easy Rider, because I’m an idiot. Born To Be Wild gets you in the mood. Your face is dry because it’s a desert. You know those scarves that cover people’s faces in Westerns? They’re actually practical because the place just wrecks your lips. I had one wrapped around my face when I was on my bike.

It’s more conservative in America now - even Hollywood wants to play it safe. That doesn’t make for interesting comedies.

Roger Corman made a lot of low budget movies for drive-ins and that gave a chance to directors like Steven Spielberg and [Francis Ford] Coppola. A situation like that gives people the opportunity to make edgy stuff. When there’s big money involved it’s harder to think, This is a funny gag, lets do it. There will be the story analyst saying, Yeah, this is understandable, so it’s OK to invest this much money. Gags come from a very personal place. A gag everybody accepts tends not to be funny. The best ones have fifty people laughing and the other fifty not getting it. If you start trying to find gags that are acceptable to seventy or eighty per cent of the audience, the comedy probably won’t be funny.

Mark Schilling