QUESTION: To study cinema, you entered the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico. Did it bring anything to your work as a filmmaker?
MASUMURA YASUZO: I had the chance to see a lot of films, starting with the first Lumiéres, which gave me a certain taste for cinema, and the desire to do it too. But, back in Japan, I found myself in a rather unfavorable situation. At the time, cinema was not yet considered a profession. It was a "fool's job". Very few chose to become filmmakers. It was my chance!
QUESTION: What generation do you think you belong to?
MASUMURA: I believe I belong the generation of the "end of the war ", because I was mobilized for only the last three or four months of the war.
QUESTION: Do you know other artists of your generation?
MASUMURA: The writer Endo Shusaku, for example. Mishima Yukio is the same as age as me, we were in the same faculty at the University of Tokyo. But I don't feel like I belong to the same generation as him. I understand very well why he was trying to defend the Emperor or the right... but still, I mean we had nothing in common at the start. We found each other suddenly in the middle of the war. This violence, this incredible pressure looked to us like human nature. And we really didn't know how to do it, how to save humanity... we couldn't start from democracy, nor from communism or imperialism. We really had nothing to start with. So I had no confidence in my country, I could only believe in myself, and still I was skeptical, imprecise...
QUESTION: Is there a conflict in between your nationality and the European civilization that you have known during your studies in Italy?
MASUMURA: Want it or not, Europe is there. The problem is to decide if we adhere to it or if we resist it... from the point of view of the history of human evolution, is it better to go through the "European state" or not? Me, I think we have to take this path at all costs, but perhaps most Japanese believe that it's not worth it, because the Japanese temperament doesn't accept the rational. I believe in the rational, in a complex level, but they don't agree with me. There is a group of people, like Imamura, who find in the irrational the strength and a way of living; and there is another group of people like Oshima, who want to believe in a violently progressive rationality. I do not believe in either.
So I come back to this spirit of the "end of the war" generation: who can understand? Even my colleagues don't understand me. But, after all, I end up thinking that I don't care. Therefore, why am I expressing myself? This is a question that bothers me. If somewhere, somebody understood a little what I want to show, after all, that would be enough for me... I may be a little twisted...
In European thought, there is, I believe, two things: rationalism and individualism. Neither suit the Japanese temperament. The Japanese are perhaps more fanciful, they really laugh at the idea of "individual" or "reason". They believe that this cannot give rise to drama or aesthetic emotion. Personally, I am convinced that it is absolutely essential to go beyond this aspect of European thought, even if we fail later. Either way, Japanese people essentially do not believe in the individual. When a Japanese person portrays a Japanese, he generally believes that it is by painting him a Japanese devoid of individuality that it will be the most accurate. It's perhaps the fairest or at least the easiest. But there are people, like me, who think differently. Mizoguchi did not believe in individualism at all among the Japanese, and stood outside the notion of rationality. Even Ichikawa Kon, who apparently does intellectual films that appeal to reason, is, in reality, neither intellectual nor rational. His work is only supported by a certain aesthetic sensation. And can we be satisfied with that?
QUESTION: But couldn't we also say of your heroines that they are constantly trying to overcome their essentially Japanese weakness, as they try to assert themselves?
MASUMURA: We often talk about the assertion of the self in the woman. That's very beautiful, but in my opinion, in the whole world, there are no more cheeky women that the Japanese. There is no country in which women are capable of being as presumptuous and without complexes.
The self of the Japanese woman has been affirmed for a long time. It is not a modern problem. The problem is to know how to express this, to know if we should express ourselves in a rather Asian way, or on the contrary, on a radical way, bypassing the stage of "European" modernism. Imamura is looking for purely Japanese spiritual and physical roots, like the etnographer Yanagida Kunio. As for Oshima, he seems to have skipped this "Japanese" stage to try a radical logic and go beyond the problem of individualism or rationalism. I can't, like Imamura, to go back; or, like Oshima, to deny the current stage. This is a turning point that everyone avoids, but me, I want to try to take it...
For example, living in the middle of Tokyo, I will never believe that we can find a certain harmony in our society. No. There is no harmony, nor familiar morality. That only existed at the end of the Edo era, in a perfectly codified petit-bourgoise society. In Japan nowadays, this harmony and rhythm or life don't exist anymore. I can't understand the work of Ozu as it is based on the minds and feelings of the people of the late Edo era and the Meiji era. Likewise, Mizoguchi's films are portraits of Japanese women of the same era.
QUESTION: In that case, what Japanese woman are you portraying, in your films?
MASUMURA: I am not portraying women specifically. But ultimately, it is the woman who is the most human, right? Men only live for women, dragging their burden like a horse drags his cart, all for eventually dying of a heart attack. Men are anti-human, while women act arbitrarily everywhere, say anything, and therefore are extremely human. That means that taking women as objects we can most easily express humanity. Men are beings completely deprived from freedom. It's probably because they don't give birth. Men have to think of Honor, of Truth. But ultimately, men are animals that only lives for women. This is why it is extremely uninteresting to paint the portrait of men. He becomes a "hero" if he is not a failure. The most virile men are not interesting. You only need to read Tanizaki: all his heroes are weak, cowardly, ugly... A great virile man is not human, and that's because he lives for others, for society. Men are so chained by the rules of society that one cannot express the human through them. Therefore, to express the human, there is only the woman. It is not to express the woman that I choose the woman... I am not a specialist in women like Mizoguchi.
QUESTION: What is eroticism for you?
MASUMURA: It is the most human. When a human undresses "in a human way", it becomes inevitably erotic. This eroticism can refer either to Freud, or to Yanagi, or be more complex. But in my opinion, the erotic is first of all very human, because the man is partly an animal. So for me, eroticism, even if it is very "daring", is part of a healthy spirit. The eroticism I imagine is the inherent quality of the female creature. Unlike the man, who is only a shadow, the woman is a being that really exists, an extremely free being - that's eroticism as I see it.
QUESTION: Can cinema be an effective mean for expressing eroticism?
MASUMURA: I don't think so. I think cinema is only secondary as an artistic medium. But I hope that cinema offers other possibilities. This is why I still keep making movies. But anyway, from a purely artistic point of view, cinema is not perfect. Cinema will never reach the artistic purity that others arts have; arts like painting, sculpture or music.
QUESTION: Your films are becoming more and more "aesthetic", excessive, grotesque up to a certain point...
MASUMURA: Yes, that's because you can't trust the image. It is often said that a film like Red Angel is full of grotesque images, but I never search for the grotesque. However, I try to play as little as possible with the technique, which undoubtedly ends up giving an impression of "aesthetic-grotesque". I don't follow the cult of the image. I think that a film must have a construction, a frame, an evolution; in short, its own structure. I don't care about beauty, aesthetics... I will never understand that.
QUESTION: The amount of blood in your films increases more and more...
MASUMURA: It's because blood has a very intimate connection with sex. I believe there is a mystical connection between blood and the female sex. Of course, blood when dealing with the female sex is a very dangerous trap: one would get lost in a bizarre universe, in a domain where it's forbidden to think. I think you should never refrain from thinking... aestheticism is almost the forbidding of thought... Therefore I had a lot of trouble shooting Manji, from Tanizaki; while in Love for an Idiot (based on Naomi by Tanizaki), there is a certain opposition between "Japanese" and "European" (and, surprisingly, in Tanizaki who is European is the woman: the man represents something very Japanese that succumbs to the woman), in Manji, this schema collapsed, one enters a more Asian climate. This is where the blood flows magically.
QUESTION: What do you think of Wakao Ayako, who is the protagonist of most of your films?
MASUMURA: She is a very selfish and calculating woman. At one point, she was full of vitality; I believe I knew how to use her selfishness and her vitality. She is not a pure woman, and she knows it. This vile side of women, she knew how to exploit it in a positive way, but not anymore. It's probably because she started to put on airs of a "star", and I am sad that she has rejected her true nature. Another thing: thirty is the critical age for a Japanese woman. Wakao Ayako, she has also lost her vitality, that's normal. But she's like a car that has lost her engine but it's still moving. Once this spontaneous force is lost, she is finished, because it has no engine and she has no other way to restart. Midori Mako, on the other hand, is a woman who never stops restarting! It's a pretty surprising woman, but not authentic yet.
I also find Kishida Kyoko very interesting, she seems to have a lot of possibilities. There are only one or two films in which she is the protagonist, and I cannot judge well, but I think that she can very well be a protagonist. I like another actress as well, Mizutani Yoshie, but we don't see her in movies anymore...
I repeat, women cannot express the human if they lack vitality; if they are content to be the shadow of men. There are two kinds of actresses: those who understand by the words, and those who don't understand at all by the words. Wakao Ayako belongs to the latter genre and even if she understands the words, it doesn't work. I have the impression that she is currently in the greatest difficulties. Maybe she'll get better at forty.
QUESTION: Your films are all based on [pre-existing] stories. Do you believe that a story is essential to cinema?
MASUMURA: Some people believe more in the image, others believe in the story. I believe in the story. Because the image is not absolute, you cannot express everything with the image. It's impossible. The picture is too ambiguous. I don’t think you can tell a story perfectly with the image alone.
The image itself is never absolute. It doesn't say anything by herself.
QUESTION: How do you conceive the cinematographic adaptation of a novel?
MASUMURA: I think it’s completely impossible. The literary qualities are too different from those of cinema. There is a universe that exists only through words and that cannot be expressed through images. It's because the image is too superficial that we resort to editing.
Using editing, meaning making a construction with shots, we could even transform a sad face into a cheerful face. The image is so insufficient, so ambiguous. I don't believe in the image, but in the photo. An image makes me think in a lot of things. The virtue of the image indeed consists in making our imagination work without limit. The downside is that the image itself is not able to say anything. Being able to suggest without limits is the equivalent of being able to say nothing: the image cannot define anything or anyone.
QUESTION: You don't believe in the efficiency of a technique like the close-up, for example?
MASUMURA: I never use the close-up. I hate it. Why focus on the face of an actor or actress? I would agree to make a close-up if it's the authentic face of a peasant, for example. But the face of an actor or actress is not something to show in close-up! Acting has no interest, because it's ultimately a lie and it will only achieve a certain "resemblance". This can exert a certain influence, a certain pressure on the spectators and help to make others understand what we mean. But the close-up, everyone knows it's wrong. I would be ashamed to use it. In fact, you can't find a single close-up in my movies. Mizoguchi never used the close-up, either. He did not believe in the truth of the close-up. He wanted to express an idea or a feeling by a general movement, which was very close to the essential technique of Kabuki or Bunraku. The mise-en-scene of Mizoguchi was essentially expressionist. The characters move, suffer, endlessly torture themselves, and suddenly, stop forever. The camera moves all the time -it's a permanent tracking shot- and then suddenly stops, no longer moving. This is the expressionism of Mizoguchi. It was not through acting that Mizoguchi told a story. Ichikawa, on the other hand, uses a lot of close-ups, but only to create a shock. He does not believe in the actors or the image. Most Japanese filmmakers are essentially realistic, therefore more or less expressionist. The only exception is Ozu. It’s, so to speak, the rhythm of succession of shots, in waves, that drives Ozu’s films. It is through rhythm that Ozu tells a story. A shot means nothing to him. Mizoguchi and Imamura build a drama in overall shots, using a deep expressionism; while Oshima fakes and mystifies by means of radical images and terrifying dialogues. In conclusion, I mean that cinema is not an all-powerful mean of expression, but on the contrary, ineffective and powerless.
QUESTION: Don't you believe anymore in the expressive possibilities of color?
MASUMURA: Some say that color has the same power as sound; but I don't believe it. Even if the image is completely red, even if all the sets and costumers are carefully colored, this doesn't express nothing extra. At some point, we tried to kill the color on purpose to get another effect, a more delicate shade. But I think it's a useless effort. You have to know how to fully use all colors. To use "daring" colors, you have to build a "daring" situation or a "daring" stage set; like in, for example, a musical. We cannot go beyond a certain realism in color. The development of color depends, I believe, on the evolution of cinema itself. The more we create abnormal, extraordinary characters, the more the the mise-en-scene will change and the more the use of colors will evolve.
QUESTION: Does this possibility of the evolution of cinema seems to go in the same direction as Japanese social reality?
MASUMURA: I do not know. But let's assume that Japanese society remains stable, despite student movements, etc; even then people will ask for something different from the movies. Cinema will evolve, it will change a lot. Until now, the public has been content to see it as a reflection of everyday reality. But in the future, for the cinema to be able to be commercially exploited, we will have to find really crazy, really extraordinary subjects. It may be the end of cinema, but without a doubt, it will be also its most fruitful moment. Television has already reached a rather extraordinary stage. It is normal that the public does not bother to go to see the same things they can find on television. When you think about the future of Japanese cinema, it now seems like you have to do something extravagant. "Underground" cinema may be a warning sign, but it is not an authentic sign. Truly extraordinary films must be born, shocking films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari which brought German expressionism after the First World War. Why do people go less and less to the cinema? This is because the cinema no longer gives real "shows". The big American show is already old-fashioned. We must now find, or rather return, to the true "show" in the literal sense. In Japanese cinema today, there is nothing left. At one point, having an artificial set was more important than a natural set. Nowadays, it's the opposite! Reality is more luxurious than a set! No company has enough money to make an extraordinary, supernatural set, while our real society has become five times richer than before. Today’s cinema can no longer give the public a “show”. To get out of its difficulties, cinema obviously has a way: shooting small intimate films that bring us a little joy. But it's a cinema to see in a small room, with friends. This kind of film will surely not attract the general public. From now on, I am convinced, there will be a great show which will be the mixture of all advertising films. In any case, the advertising cinema is now the biggest spectacle. I imagine that I could do something by making a mixture of advertising cinema and fiction cinema. Ads in TV are the only revolution in cinema; we can have fun making plans of even three images. Maybe something new will come out of it.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought of leaving Daiei to become independent? Don't you feel like a prisoner, deprived of freedom?
MASUMURA: Assuming that I would leave the company to become independent, I'm sure it would be exactly the same. I have the impression that I will never be satisfied, here or elsewhere. In fact, it’s not a big deal. I never thought of dominating or establishing my own world. I do not care. I always let myself be carried away by the situation and, within the limits that it imposes on me, I search the way to do whatever I want. It may be a logic a little bit bizarre. Anyway, I don't have very healthy ideas.
QUESTION: Therefore you don't want to assert yourself ...
MASUMURA: I don't care about asserting myself. I never worried about it. That's an existentialist problem: the reason for being, or how humans should be, etc... a problem that I really don't understand. Life is ambiguity... Nothing to do.
QUESTION: Are there any projects that you have proposed to the company?
MASUMURA: None of my own projects have been accepted by the company, so far. Obviously, among the projects that the company gives me, there are some that are quite good... But for example, my project The Sea and the Poison, based on a novel by Endo will never happen, it will never be accepted even by other producers.
QUESTION: So what is your motivation, your conscience as a filmmaker? Will you always be content to shoot films that the company will impose on you?
MASUMURA: It’s not like that. This is a question of capacity, of energy. I accept almost all the projects imposed by the company, but it's not that I shoot films without will.
QUESTION: But what is cinematic creation for you?
MASUMURA: It's putting all the energy you have into each work - that's all I can say. I think it is depending on the energy that we put in it, if the film will be good or will be successful with the public. I believe this. If the energy given to a film is weak, the film too will be weak and, it won't work commercially. I cannot believe in the psychoanalytic universe of Imamura, nor in the radicalism of Oshima. In fact, I don't have a method. My films are nothing methodically. But of course, I have some ideas of what man is, what cinema is. You wouldn't understand.
Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma 224. Translation my own. The original interview was done in Tokyo in 1969, by Aoi Ichiro, Shirai Yoshio and Yamada Koichi. The translation from Japanese to French was done by Yamada Koichi and Jane Cobbi.