Filmart: Revisiting Japan's Punk Auteurs

The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo still - H 2016

The Hong Kong International Film Fest’s Hachimiri Madness sidebar shines a spotlight on the indie rebels whose do-it-yourself ethos transformed Japanese cinema.

A showcase of early 8mm works from some of Japan’s most highly regarded auteurs freshly digitalized to 2K and with new English subtitles, is being screened in Hong Kong under the banner "Hachimiri Madness — Japanese Indies from the Punk Years."

Shot between 1977 and 1990, consisting of both full-length features and shorts, the 11 films portray the punk ethos that influenced the young directors and is still evident in many of their later productions. The raw feel of much the filmmaking is matched by the format — “hachimiri” is Japanese for 8mm — as these punk directors were discovering their creative voices.

The oldest film in the series is the Isolation of 1/880000 (also known as Solitude of One Divided by 880,000), made in 1977 by Sogo Ishii, often hailed as the godfather of Japanese punk filmmaking. Made by Ishii while a second-year film student at Tokyo’s Nihon University College of Art, the alma mater of numerous Japanese directors, it portrays a frustrated young man ostensibly studying for university entrance exams.

"It was shot mostly in the room where I lived in Tokyo. I had no money and used all different kinds of film to shoot. It was a Frankenstein. The film I could afford didn’t record sound, so it had no soundtrack,” the director, who now goes by the name Gakuryu Ishii, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Hiring out venues to screen the film himself, Ishii would use different music depending on the occasion, ranging from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme to British punk band The Pop Group.

“I felt I had something to say to the world, though I never imagined it would be screened around the world,” added Ishii, who hasn’t yet seen the digitalized version.

In an unprecedented move in Japan’s conservative mainstream film industry, Ishii’s graduation film Crazy Thunder Road was picked up for theatrical distribution by major studio Toei. Among those in envious awe of the instant success of the young director was Shinya Tsukamoto, a first-year art student at the same university.

Tsukamoto would go on to become a director himself, and his cyberpunk cult favorite The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (1988) will be screened alongside Ishii’s film. The film was based on a stage production Tsukamoto had created with fellow students and would be the last film he shot on 8mm.

“Looking back at it now, it’s kind of cute, and in terms of the filmmaking techniques too. It had a lot of energy and love in it, though” said Tsukamoto, whose Fires on the Plain competed at Venice in 2014.

The DIY ethos developed during the 8mm days carried on through his career, according to Tsukamoto, who says his approach to making his own films his own way hasn’t changed. For the Tetsuo (The Iron Man) trilogy, which cemented his worldwide cult following, Tsukamoto wrote, produced, directed, edited and appeared in the productions.

"8mm was like a child of 35mm, but I’m so fond of that format," Tsukamoto says.

The only director to have two films in the program is Sion Sono, with I am Sion Sono!! (1980) and A Man’s Flower Road (1986).

Festival circuit favorite Sono rarely watches his old films and says he’s embarrassed at the thought of others watching them now.

"I’m happy they’ve been chosen for the program, but I’m also in both of them, and was very young, so that’s embarrassing too," Sono says.

The iconoclastic helmer recalls his use of handheld cameras was considered "crazy" by his fellow film students, due to shaky footage they produced.

"At that time, nobody was using handhelds," he says. “Now it’s the norm. There have been films with a documentary touch, like The Blair Witch Project, and everyone is using them in Hollywood. But at the time, they thought I was mad."