“Auteur” is not the first word that leaps to mind to describe Yukihiko Tsutsumi. In a directing career that began with a segment of the 1988 comedy anthology “Bakayaro! I’m Plenty Mad,” the prolific Tsutsumi has made films in a variety of genres — mystery/thriller (“Spec: The Movie”), dystopian fantasy (“20th Century Boys”), black comedy (“2LDK”) and medical drama (“Memories of Tomorrow”). He has also worked in everything from stage productions to TV and music videos.
For much of his career, however, Tsutsumi has been a director for hire, making commercial projects with a characteristic visual flair and narrative propulsion, if not much in the way of personal style or concerns. When his films have screened at foreign festivals, fans have typically been attracted more by the franchise (the “20th Century Boys” trilogy), or subject matter (giant robots) than the director. Hence, though a veteran hit maker in Japan, he is little known abroad.
This may not change with his latest film, “My House,” whose producers are still searching for an international festival premiere after being turned down by Berlin and Cannes. And yet this black-and-white drama about homeless folks in Nagoya, based on the nonfiction work of architect and writer Kyohei Sakaguchi, marks a radical change for Tsutsumi. Or rather, as he tells The Japan Times in a Shibuya cafe, a return to his indie roots.
“I made films like this when I was starting out,” he says, looking very much the auteur in a dark suit and rimless glasses. “One was “Homeless,” (a film about the homeless in New York), which starred Yoko Ono.”
“My House,” however, began from Tsutsumi’s encounter with Sakaguchi’s study of “homeless architecture,” as reported in a 2007 issue of Aera magazine. “I was captivated when I read his book ‘Tokyo 0-en Housu 0-en Seikatsu’ (‘Tokyo 0 Yen House, 0 Yen Life’),” Tsutsumi says. “He was writing about homeless people living on the Sumida River, particularly a Mr. Suzuki (the model for the hero in “My House”). First of all was the home he had built for himself. It was a special house, made so it could be torn down and set up again in a different place. A lot of thought had gone into its construction. That’s one thing that surprised me.
“Another was how hard he worked,” Tsutsumi continues. “He lived by collecting empty cans, but his way of doing it was different from other homeless people. He would go to a neighborhood and ask the residents if he could collect their empty cans in return for cleaning the front of their houses. He was really smart. That way he could earn tens of thousands of yen a month.”
Using Suzuki and his lifestyle as an inspiration, Tsutsumi wrote a story that frequent collaborator Norihiko Tsukuda turned into a script. Then, with the backing of producer Yasuyuki Jin from Tsutsumi’s own Office Crescendo production company, Tsutsumi assembled a cast — headed by folk singer Takao Ito — and shot the film in 11 days in March 2011 in Nagoya. (Tsutsumi, Ito and Tsukuda, who also plays one of the hero’s homeless pals, are all Nagoya natives, as are many other cast and staff members.)
“My House,” however, is about more than the hero’s cleverness as a zero-budget home-builder and his industriousness as an empty can scrounger: It also examines problems that even “elite” homeless like Suzuki (called “Suzumoto” in the film) face. Suzuki, Tsutsumi notes, “was always being harassed by the city officials and the police. He was subjected to violence. But he kept on despite everything.”
The film examines these unpleasant realities in a semi-documentary style minus soundtrack music, though the gorgeous black-and-white photography lifts the action out of the everyday and universalizes it. “I decided to go with black-and-white early on,” Tsutsumi says. “Everyone was against it (laughs). If I had used color I would have been playing into images people already have of the homeless — they’re dirty, they stink and so on. I didn’t want that. I thought I could avoid it by using black-and-white. The same went for Suzuki’s house. In color it might have looked shabby, but not in black-and-white.”
Takao Ito, a bearded, long-haired folk singer with no film-acting experience, plays Suzumoto with an understated naturalism that Tsutsumi says reflects Ito’s own personality and background. “He’s been performing (as a folk singer) since about 1970 — more than 40 years,” Tsutsumi explains. “He’s very persistent, but also gentle-spirited. He’s really like the person the character is based on.”
To present a stark contrast to Suzumoto’s rather freeform existence, which he shares with his loyal, if spacey, lover Sumi (Eri Ishida) and two pals in a Nagoya park encampment, Tsutsumi has created a dysfunctional middle-class family that adheres rigidly to social norms. The mother (Tae Kimura) cleans the house from morning to night and seldom leaves it, while her only son Shota (Sada Murata) is a junior high math prodigy who studies incessantly for a future that will surely be brilliant — if he doesn’t crack first.
As Shota downs one can of cola after another, starting in the morning, his mother gingerly discards the empties and Suzuki stolidly collects them. This brings him into contact with Shota and his family, to his eventual regret.
“There was a real-life model for Shota,” Tsutsumi says. “He could study, but he was also dangerous. Japanese children today can be dangerous, it doesn’t matter whether they are good students or not. There’s something scary about them. There are a number of violent incidents like the ones in the film every year. … The pressure (Shota) is under to succeed has warped him spiritually.”
The housewife, who has many similarly twisted sisters in contemporary Japanese family dramas, is also not a figment of a scriptwriter’s imagination. “She’s based on me,” Tsutsumi says with a laugh. “I’m also nuts about cleanliness. I’m — how do you say it in English? — ‘obsessive?’ “
Not only these characters, but many Japanese lack confidence, Tsutsumi claims.
“They’re anxious — they don’t know what they should be doing,” he explains. “Also, no matter what they do, they can’t feel secure. Even if they have a house, they fear a tsunami may destroy it. That sense of unease affects both the homeless and ordinary people. But some of the homeless I met had confidence, even though they had nothing. That made me interested in telling their story.”
Tsutsumi’s own immediate future is secure enough. He has another film, “Eitorenja” (tentatively titled “Eight Ranger” in English) set for release in July and two more penciled in for next year. He also plans to direct stage plays, which has long been another passion. At the same time, he wants to make more personal projects like “My House.” “This film is my own truth, coming from inside, about how I view the world,” he says. “Films like “20th Century Boys” and “Spec” are commercial films. They’re for earning a living, made for the sake of the company and my family. But I’m getting tired of that! (laughs).
“I’m 57 now. So from here on, I want to make the films I really want to make. Films in which I can comment about society in my own way.”
“My House” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
“Bakayaro! Watashi, Okottemasu (Bakayaro! I’m Plenty Mad).” : In this four-part black comedy anthology about contemporary aggravations, the heroes shout the title epithet when they’ve had enough.
“Torikku Gekijoban (Trick)” : Mediums gather in a remote village to rid it of troublesome demons in a wacky contest. One is the heroine (Yukie Nakama), a bumbling magician with no supernatural powers whatsoever.
“2LDK” : Two actresses (Eiko Koike and Maho Nonami) duel it out when they discover they have both auditioned for the same role in this full-throttle black comedy.
“Ashita no Kioku (Memories of Tomorrow)” : A successful ad executive (Ken Watanabe) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s in this terrifyingly realistic medical drama.
“20-Seiki Shonen (20th Century Boys)” [2008-2009]: In this epic SF/fantasy trilogy, based on a popular manga, childhood friends reunite as adults to stop a cult leader bent on realizing the prophecies of disaster one of them made as a boy.
“Gekijoiban Spec Ten (Spec: The Movie)” : Two brainy cops track criminals with extraordinary powers in this mystery/thriller.