Although his onscreen characters usually range from the demonic to the neurotic, in person Shinya Tsukamoto is the picture of gentle-spirited, well-mannered sanity. One can imagine him as the ideal maitre d’ for an exclusive club, able to soothe even the most savage millionaire.

“Vital” is a love story — but one that deals extensively with human dissection. That’s something I hadn’t seen before in a film. (laughs)

That’s right — it’s a kind of first. (laughs)

I was surprised by the religious aspect. The students even perform a kind of funeral service for the cadavers at the end of the course.

I’m not religious at all, but it may seem the film is talking about the world after death. I don’t want it to be seen that way, though. A girl called Ryoko dies in the film. She and her lover Hiroshi play at strangling each other — she doesn’t seem to care very much whether she lives or dies. Then she’s in a car crash and she understands what death is and how important life is.

We’re living in a kind of virtual reality in Tokyo — it’s like being in a dream. At the beginning of the film both Hiroshi and Ryoko are in the world of dreams.

When you’re in a dream, you don’t feel pain when you’re pinched. But a traffic accident is painful, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s the real thing — it’s not a dream. You’re afraid you might die. You know that this body of yours is a thing of nature.

Have you ever been in a traffic accident?

No — I’m living in a dream too. (laughs)

I have — I wasn’t badly injured, but I did feel that time had stopped, as you show in the film. (laughs) You got that right. (laughs)

People who have been in traffic accidents feel that way, don’t they — they lose contact with time.

Most of your films deal, in one way or another, with the human body.

That’s right. I’ve changed a bit, though — I used to favor the body more, but now I feel both the heart and body are equally important.

In my previous films I was saying that this body of ours is not a dream in the concrete jungle — it really exists. I wanted to show the feeling when you get hit in boxing. That pain is not a dream — you know you’re alive!

Now, though, I’m looking beyond the body, to nature itself. I’m no longer restricting myself to the city. It may be my age. I don’t want to be alone in the city, suffering — I feel like getting out into nature.

I want to make a film about experiencing nature, but I haven’t actually experienced it myself yet, so I can’t write a script. Instead I’d first like to make films on the theme of the city, the body and nature, like the latest one. Almost into nature — but not quite.

“Vital” could have easily been a horror film.

That’s right. It’s got a typical obake eiga [ghost movie] story. It’s about a guy who loves a woman in the world of the dead and gets closer to that world in the course of the film.

Given the popularity of Japanese horror abroad now, you could probably make a big hit in Hollywood.

I’ve had discussions with people in Hollywood, but nothing has worked out. If I could make something my way and Americans like it, then I’d like to do it. Horror movies are hot now, so I’d like to try one.

What about a remake of “Vital?”

That would be tough — but it would be nice if someone did it. I’d like to do it myself, even if I had to go abroad.

Do you ever feel that you’re competing with the impact of your early films?

Not really — I’m just trying to do the best I can with every film I make. I’m happy that my early films had an impact — but they were so strange that Japanese movie people wouldn’t talk to me. They all hated me in the beginning. (laughs) “Who is this guy?” That was the attitude. It took some time before people came around.

If I had started out making films that everyone liked, then made strange films, they would have supported me. Instead they hated me from the beginning, so even though I tried hard to make good films after that, hardly anyone supported me.

The opposite is true abroad. They love you in Europe. Do you ever wonder about that gap?

I really don’t know the reason. I don’t know why they like my films so much abroad. I don’t know why they dislike them so much in Japan. (laughs) All I can do is make them the best I can.

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