Born in Tokyo in 1918, Takeo Kimura debuted as an art director in 1945. In the six decades since, he has worked on more than 230 films. His most famous association is with Seijun Suzuki during his 1960s peak at the Nikkatsu studio, when he made 1966’s “Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter)” and the next year’s “Koroshi no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)” — films that outraged studio executives with their wildly surreal visual flights but have since become cult classics.
In 2004, Kimura launched a new career as a director, shooting four short films that led to the production of “Yume no Mani Mani (Something Like a Dream),” his first feature film, in 2008.
In person, Kimura flows with a fast, never-ending stream of quips and anecdotes. But he is also passionate about the themes of his new film, particularly the still vivid pain of a war now six decades in the past.
Why does the hero, professor Kiya, feel guilty about surviving the war when so many of his contemporaries died?
For Kiya, surviving the war is a kind of shame. A lot of survivors felt that way — that it was shameful to have come back alive. Back then soldiers accepted the fact that they weren’t coming back. That’s the spirit of the samurai. They also believed that going off to war was the same as going off to die. Young people today don’t understand that. They listen to their parents’ stories and go to war museums, but they don’t absorb anything.
You’ve made more than 200 films as an art director, but this is your first feature as a director. Was this a chance for you to express yourself in a way that you hadn’t been able to before?
I learned various methods of expression (making all those films), but I wasn’t always able to use them freely. So in this one, I was able to express exactly what I wanted. I especially didn’t want to imitate Suzuki, but we both shoot scenes that don’t make sense. (laughs)
Expression and explanation (in films) are different. When you’re explaining, you’re saying this happened, then this happened. It’s a very simple-minded way of telling a story. With the right (visual) expression, you can do it all in one or two images. You can add depths that aren’t apparent in one viewing.
You’ve worked over and over with several directors, such as Suzuki, Kazuo Kuroki and Kaizo Hayashi. Is that because you share the same vision?
With me, its the script, there’s something in it the director wants to express. It’s not just explanation, there’s something symbolic in it that stimulates the imagination. That’s what attracts me.
Your relationship with Suzuki is the most famous.
It just turned out that way (laughs).
Suzuki told me that you were a real idea man on the set.
He was the idea man, always coming up with this wild stuff. (Laughs) I just helped him realize his ideas.
He was hard working, wasn’t he? Staying up late getting ready for the next day’s shoot.
He would drink sake every night and go to bed around eight. Then he would wake up around midnight and work until three. He would be working on continuity (i.e., planning the next day’s shooting) when no one was around.
Were you worried that Suzuki might be going too far?
I thought that, yes. “Tokyo Drifter” was going to end with Tetsuya Watari (the gangster hero) hanging on a big dead tree. That was a bit too avant-garde, though. Instead, we reshot (the scene) in a corner of the Nikkatsu studio. We ended it with him just looking, not hanging. But what happened to the original scene? That’s a lost masterpiece. (Laughs)
Suzuki told me that when the studio executives saw that film, they were angry, but because it was already completed, they had to release it.
We were a bit worried whether that film could be released. But worse was yet to come. “Branded to Kill” was released, but the fans didn’t come to see it.
Young people today, at least the ones living in big cities, have a greater understanding of films. Back then there were a lot of fans whose understanding was rather shallow. It’s better now.
You took some chances with “Yume no Mani Mani” as well.
It’s an ordinary drama, but I added some funny business here and there. Stuff that was not really serious, like a ballerina suddenly appearing out of nowhere.
I was able to do that fairly easily because I had shot four shorts. I was able to pull together things that I hadn’t pulled together before. That gave me confidence.
I did some strange things (in those films). Some people got it, though. They came up to shake my hand, the ones who got it. That surprised me a bit.
If I had started right away with (the feature), I couldn’t have come as far as I have. For me those four shorts were like preparatory drawings (for a painting).
I’m preparing to make another film. We’ll shoot it in Kyoto in August. I’m also the producer. I’m making it with students at an arts college where I teach.