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A twisted path to true love

Director Kichitaro Negishi talks about his take on an Osamu Dazai tale

by Mark Schilling

Born in Tokyo in 1950, Kichitaro Negishi got his start in the film industry making soft-porn movies for the Nikkatsu studio. He directed his first film, “Orion no Satsui yori: Joji no Hoteishiki” (“From Orion’s Testimony: Formula for Murder”) in 1978 and in 1981 made his straight-feature debut with “Enrai” (“Distant Thunder”), a drama for the Art Theater Guild that won many prizes, including a Mainichi Blue Ribbon Best Director award.

In 1982, Negishi left Nikkatsu to join Directors’ Company, a short-lived production collective of up-and-coming young directors. Then, over the next two decades, Negishi made both commercial and indie projects, as well as paying the bills with TV commercials, concert videos and other nonfilm work.

After filming the 1998 yakuza drama “Kizuna,” Negishi took a six-year break from feature directing, but since his return has been hitting new career heights.

“Yuki ni Negau Koto” (“What the Snow Brings,” 2005), a drama set in the world of banei (horse-racing using sleds), was awarded four prizes at the 2005 Tokyo International Film Festival, including the Tokyo Grand Prix. The dramady “Sidecar ni Inu” (“Dog in a Sidecar,” 2007) won a shelf of Best Actress trophies for star Yoko Takeuchi. His most recent film, “Villon no Tsuma” (“Villon’s Wife”), a drama about a troubled marriage, based on a story by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948), was awarded the Best Director prize at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival.

In all three of your recent films — “Villon no Tsuma,” “Sidecar ni Inu,” and “Yuki ni Negau Koto” — you show women supporting men who are weak or difficult or in other ways hard to live with. These women struck me as being better and stronger people — the guys aren’t worthy of them. Is this something you believe yourself? I believe it myself (laughs). Women are generally better and stronger than men. I didn’t exactly choose that as a theme, but looking at those films, I have to admit they resemble each other that way. I’ve done various types of films, but my fundamental feelings influence my choice of material.

What attracted you to this material? About 10 years ago, I was approached about making a film based on Dazai’s “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”). So I asked a scriptwriter, Yuzo Tanaka, to join me in working on a story and script. We didn’t end up making the film, though. With “Villon no Tsuma,” it was Mr. Tanaka who approached me. “Ningen Shikkaku” reflected Dazai’s life from his point of view. But adding a woman’s point of view — that is, having two mysterious characters, a married couple, collide with each other struck me as more interesting. Also, through that interesting situation, the woman discovers something — I thought that would be an appealing story.

The woman has various kinds of energy and thoughts churning away inside. The man wants to die, but at the same time, he has this strange vitality. He’s a person of extremes. So you have these two people with complex inner lives butting heads with each other. I thought that collision would give birth to a new type of drama. But explaining all that is a hassle. (Laughs)

The lead actors in “Villon no Tsuma,” Takako Matsu and Tadanobu Asano, have had quite different careers and images. Did you have anything to do with their casting? Matsu was decided before I came on board. I hadn’t often made films where the casting was decided ahead of time like that. But when I talked with Matsu I realized she was exactly right for the role. She struck me as being down-to-earth — a woman-of-the-people type. Asano, though, was my choice.

Asano has often played dark roles, so he’s right for the part in that way. But his character, the writer Otani, is not just a bad guy — he truly regrets what he’s done. That’s the way he has to be for a woman like Matsu to keep loving him. He is not just a screw-up. He is also thinking about other people, about his family, while fighting temptation.

When you screened the film (at the Montreal World Film Festival), did anyone ask you why Matsu’s character stayed with this guy? No, not at all. I was expecting it, but no one asked me that sort of thing. Instead, they said that they understood her approach to life. She’s not just supporting this messed-up guy, but finding her own way to live. Having done that, she can look at her relationship with Otani in a more objective way and she decides to start over again with him. She’s just not asking herself “Why am I with this guy?,” but sympathizing with what he’s going through.

The performances of Matsu and Asano are quite precise and detailed. Did you have them rehearse? Of course. Before the sets were built I had them read together. Then once the sets were ready I had them rehearse there. Then we shot the film pretty much in order. I wasn’t trying to make a documentary, but I wanted their relationship to develop naturally. They go through various crises and, in the process, truly become husband and wife.

Asano was able to express the various things going on inside his character, Otani — the extremes of emotion he was feeling — in the same scene. He may look like a no-good who takes nothing seriously, but at the same time he’s thinking about death.

His character reflects a broader mood of confusion and despair in that postwar period. A lot of men felt lost because the prewar values they had grown up with were swept away after the war and they had nothing to replace them with. But not Dazai himself — he was pretty much the same person prewar and postwar. He was dealing with his own personal issues all the way through. Also, he had doubts about those values even prewar, and doubts about what replaced them postwar. So there was a kind of consistency. He judged these things as an individual, looking at what was going on at the time.

The younger audience today doesn’t know the background of that period. Was that a concern for you? I didn’t want to directly educate the audience about the period. If they understood it indirectly — or even if they didn’t understand, I didn’t think it was such a problem. At that time people were busy just living. They weren’t thinking about the meaning of their being in this world and this society. But Dazai was self-conscious by nature — he was always thinking about it. That sort of personality fits well with the present period, now that everyone is trying to answer the question “What am I here for?” In other words, people have become more like Dazai — that is, they’ve become more self-conscious. So reading Dazai or encountering his work in this film has meaning for them.