Tsuchiya questions what it means to be human

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

I first met Yutaka Tsuchiya in 1999 when I interviewed him on the release of “Atarashii Kamisama (The New God),” his documentary centering on a rightist punk band and its charismatic lead singer, Karin Amamiya. Despite his left-leaning politics, Tsuchiya was anything but the rigid ideologue; in fact, the movie was a record of his growing infatuation with the neo-nationalistic Amamiya — and they ended up marrying after its release.

Tsuchiya’s investigation of cultural and social alienation continued with “Peep ‘TV’ Show” (2004), a documentary-flavored drama about an Internet voyeur’s encounter with a Goth girl that obsesses him in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The film screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and elsewhere abroad, but got only a limited release in Japan.

His latest feature, “Thallium Shojo no Dokusatsu Nikki (GFP Bunny),” shares thematic similarities with his previous films, such as its teenage heroine’s intense engagement with online media, but their political concerns have given way to a focus on recent advances in biological sciences that are changing the definition of what it means to be human.

The film itself, however, had a long genesis, as Tsuchiya explained to me at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district, still looking the intellectual hipster with his broad-brimmed hat and dark-framed glasses, if minus any hipper-than-thou pretension. “The real-life incident that inspired the film (a 16-year-old girl’s near-fatal poisoning of her own mother) occurred in 2005,” he said. “Back then I felt that it was a deeply meaningful and interesting incident, but I didn’t think of making it into a movie.”

Nearly five years ago he decided to shoot a film based on it, but in the interim the kind of biology and genetics his heroine studies so diligently “have changed greatly,” he adds. “I’m not trying to depict the latest technological advances, though.”

Instead his aim was to make a film that would still hold up years after its release. “(The film) looks a bit beyond the present,” he says. “There are some things in it that will be understood a little better in five or even 10 years time, so people may want to see it more five years from now.”

At the same time, the film addresses issues — such as the heroine’s bullying at school and her mother’s fear of growing older — that Tsuchiya describes as “truly universal,” though the ways of dealing with them are changing — and not always for the better. “It used to be thought that deepening wrinkles indicated a wealth of experience as a person, but now there is technology that fulfills, even by a little, the human desire to remain beautiful,” he says, “But this also raises questions of how to use and pay for the technology, so in that sense it has increased our anxiety.”

In contrast to the middle-aged mother, who strives desperately to stop her physical decline by any means necessary (an effort thwarted by her daughter’s attempts to poison her in the name of “research”), Tsuchiya posits the character of Takahashi, who actively “resets” her own body with piercings and other modifications. “She and others like her don’t want to be pushed into one given format for their bodies,” he explains. “They are trying to liberate themselves.”

Tsuchiya also features an interview with real-life Hiroshima University professor Masayuki Sumida, who has bred see-through frogs that allow researchers to view their internal organs without dissecting them, as well as the work of artist Iori Tomita, who has created what he calls “New World glowing specimens” from fish and other creatures as a fluorescent celebration of life, though his subjects must die in order to glow. “There are glowing images throughout the film,” Tsuchiya says. “The bicycle (on which the heroine and Takahashi ride at the film’s conclusion) glows as well. It’s all tied together.”

Tsuchiya has combined not only images but also genres (fiction/nonfiction) and media (online/offline). “In some senses what you’re seeing is a conventional film, but I’m also mixing the sort of information that you can get if you click here and there on the Internet yourself. Since it’s now possible to expand and go deeper in that way, I thought it would be interesting to (use that mix) to talk in more depth about various things, beyond what you usually would in one film.”

“GFP Bunny” also shows the dark side of technology, as symbolized by the deadly thallium that the heroine drips into her sleeping mother’s mouth, but at the end, Tsuchiya emphasizes, the film holds out the possibility that technology’s bright, liberating side will prevail. “We had the nuclear disaster in 2011 so there’s now a tendency to say that technology is bad,” he says. “I don’t agree with that, though. I think that if we use technology correctly, we can make rapid progress. The problem is whether or not we can control it. So we shouldn’t use technology that human beings can’t control.”

Internet communications, a technology that some fear is slipping beyond individual control, still strikes Tsuchiya as a force for good, even if the communicators never meet. “That sort of Internet-only communication can enrich our lives, definitely,” he says.

He admits, though, that at 46 he is reaching his own limit in terms of technological progress. “I may come to hate it,” he says. At the same time, he can’t imagine a better theme for his work. “I’ll keep making films about the relationship between technology and humanity,” he says. “But recently I’ve become interested in how people who aren’t young, who are approaching death, think about a world in which they are living with advanced technology. People of my generation, in other words.”

  • Star Gould

    Another cult / cyberpunk follower who got tied to the field, I guess….

    Some of the snippets kinda freaks me out,

    but overall what he’s trying to convey as theme interests me.

    Technology should be used and developed for the betterment of humankind, but it’s not like we as plain ‘creators’ or ‘movie/filmmakers’ are able to let the phrase “change the world” come right into the doorstep of everybody’s reality. So I agree with Tsuchiya-san’s point with that. :(