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Yoshihiko Matsui: The return of the underground king

by Mark Schilling

Born in 1956, Yoshihiko Matsui worked with indie icon Sogo Ishii on his early films, including the seminal 1980 biker pic “Kuruizaki Thunder Road (Crazy Thunder Road).”

In 1979, Matsui made his debut film, “Rusty Can (Sabita Akikan)” about a gay-love triangle, with Ishii serving as cinematographer. His second film, the 1981 “Pig-Chicken Suicide (Tonkei Shinju),” was another love story, this time about a Korean boy and girl, with admixtures of animal butchery, sexual deviance and madness. Experimental theater and film maestro Shuji Terayama, a longtime Matsui associate, screened it at his theater, where it acquired a cult following.

Then in 1988, Matsui released “Noisy Requiem (Tsuito no Zawameki),” a film five years in the making, about a serial killer (Kazuhiro Sano) who wanders about Osaka’s Shinsekai homeless district killing birds and women and removing the organs of the latter to deposit in his “lover” — a shop window mannequin. The film set a house record at the Nakano Musashino Hall theater in Tokyo, but roused a storm of controversy. Matsui did not make another film for two decades, for reasons he prefers not to discuss.

On March 1, his latest film, “Doko ni Iku no? (Where are we Going?),” a love story about Akira (Shuji Kashiwabara), a gay man, and Anzu (as herself), a “new half” (transsexual), will open at Shibuya’s Eurospace theater.

Matsui recently spoke with The Japan Times by phone from his home in Kyoto.

What attracted you to the theme of “Doko ni Iku no?”

In a way, it’s a continuation of my three previous films, which were all stories about forbidden love — love between outcast humans, between humans and animals, and even between a man and a mannequin. The new film is another love story, whose two lovers face discrimination. Japan hasn’t changed so much — there is still a lot of discrimination against gays, against “new halfs.” I wanted to examine that.

Did you spend a lot of time on the script?

I started writing the script in September of 2006 and finished in November — about two months.

The film seems to unfold in a timeless place — it’s a bit hard to tell if it’s 1988 or 2008.

It was shot in Tokyo. I live in Kyoto, but my staff all live in Tokyo, so I went there to accommodate them (laughs).

We had a very low budget, only ¥10 million, so there was no way I could afford to bring them to Kyoto.

I used to know Tokyo pretty well, but I hadn’t been back in 10 years and the city had changed quite a bit in the meantime. But the film itself is set in the present day.

The character of Akira seems to be the core of the film.

Yes, he was the beginning of everything. I wanted to make a film about a youth who is discriminated against for being gay, and who falls in love, but his type of love is considered abnormal by society. But it’s an ordinary film, really. (laughs)

You show not just the prejudice the lovers face, but the anger they feel.

Yes, anger is a big theme. The hero is angry because he is being sexually harassed by his boss. but can’t escape. His anger — and what he does with it — are entirely natural.

The boss sees Akira as, not a person, but only an object of lust.

There are a lot of people like that, aren’t there? The boss can think of nothing but sex. Other people can think of nothing but money. It’s the same thing. The hero has been raised in that sort of environment, so of course he can’t trust people.

Kazuhiro Sano, who plays the detective Fukuda, has been with you from the beginning.

Yes, he starred in my last film. We’ve known each other a long time. Having him on the set made things go a lot easier. He helped me explain the role of Akira to (Shuji) Kashiwabara. When Sano talked to him, he got it right away.

Where does the title come from?

It comes from the title of a famous painting by (Paul) Gauguin — “Where are we going?” He painted it in Tahiti (in 1897), after he had returned from Paris and was living with a native woman. The title was a question he was facing in his own life. I thought it was perfect for my film.