Roman-Porno to Desu Noto - The Odyssey of Shusuke Kaneko

You can kill anyone by writing down his or her name in the death notebook. That’s the premise of Death Note, a popular manga with a worldwide cult of rabid fans and a high rank in the U.S. market. The recent movie adaptations (Desu Noto and Desu Noto 2) broke box office records in Japan. Both films premiered in the U.S. at Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival in July. The Brooklyn Rail’s David Wilentz met with director Shusuke Kaneko, a seasoned veteran of the Japanese film industry, and spoke to him about Death Note, roman-porno (‘romantic porn’: Nikkatsu Studios brand of soft-core films), art films, kaiju (rubber monster movies such as Godzilla and the like), Nietzsche and the state of the industry today.

David Wilentz (Rail): On top of the weighty moral question of murder, the Death Note manga and films feature police surveillance, media as public morality, empowered sons and helpless fathers, doppelgangers, and more. Did you find these aspects of the story to have genuine metaphoric resonance or did you see them as typical manga tropes?

Shusuke Kaneko: The original comic book itself had a lot of influence of – it reflected issues that surround contemporary Japanese society so I don’t think it’s as metaphoric as much as something that’s really going on. There’s a big contradiction of the law system in Japan and based on that the Japanese people are frustrated everyday and those kinds of things are pretty much reflected in the comic book. I totally agree with that and had my own frustrations and had a chance to reflect that in my films.

Rail: So purely social commentary, not metaphoric at all?

Kaneko: It’s not exactly a metaphor; it’s more or less direct expression so it is a reflection – social commentary of the manga writer.

Rail: Death Note 1 shows (the villain of the manga series and films) Light reading Nietzsche – in German no less – I don’t recall that being in the manga, did you add that?

Kaneko: Yes. I wanted to highlight the transition between the absolute good and the evil. Nietzsche is famous for killing the dualism, casting a doubt on the dualism which had been very prominent up to his era and nothing is simple as black and white or good or evil so that scene is symbolic because I wanted to show how Light transcended himself from good to evil. In the manga he’s not as clear a character but in the film I wanted to make sure that with the Death Note he transcends himself from good to evil.

Rail: Light makes a willful, conscious decision?

Kaneko: Even though the murder itself is evil, for Light it is good, so from the outside it looks bad but from the other side it’s completely justified and good. I wanted to clarify the complications of determining precisely what’s good and evil and that’s where the Nietzsche comes in.

Rail: When you began your film career the Japanese film industry was in a slump – your first job was at Nikkatasu, when they were still exclusively producing roman-porno. Later you left Nikkatsu and made art house films such as Summer Vacation 1999 (1999 Nen no natsu yasumi). Then you went onto your childhood love of kaiju with an update of Gamera (the popular flying turtle kaiju from Daiei Studios). Now the Death Note films, enormous hits, were filmed at the Nikkatsu sound stages – you’ve come home so to speak. Could you talk about the broad arc that the Japanese film industry has gone through during your career?

Kaneko: First of all I’d like to explain about the role of Nikkatsu in the production of Death Note. When I joined Nikkatsu in those roman-porno years, they were producing and distributing as well. Contemporary Nikkatsu would produce as a second production company but don’t have any distribution rights. The experience I had at Nikkatsu in the early stage was pretty good because I learned all the skills a director needs to make a film in a really chop-chop way. When I made Summer Vacation 1999, it was called an ‘art film.’ I was trying to make something entertaining but at the same time I wanted to show off what I was capable of doing by making an ‘art film’. Coming back, the whole circle being back at Nikkatsu, of course I feel a little nostalgic, being back at the old nest.

Rail: How do you feel about the Japanese film industry now? It seems like it’s been resurrected.

Kaneko: Perhaps the reason why it looks like the Japanese film industry is picking up again is because a lot of the younger generation no longer consider Japanese film as trash. They would go, pay money and enjoy Japanese films and commercial-wise there are a lot of successful Japanese films domestically. On the other hand however, I feel a little concerned that a growing number of the younger generation is losing interest in foreign film as well as culture. Maybe they’re annoyed by having to read subtitles, I don’t know. Traditionally or conventionally, Japanese culture has always been absorbing foreign culture and developing its own way and that kind of trend is diminishing based on my observations. It’s great that people like Japanese film but at the same time I’m a bit worried about this trend of disinterest in foreign films and culture. When I was younger, people were kind of snobbish saying ‘we’re not going to watch Japanese films’ but now they don’t care about the foreign stuff. It’s quite a contrast.

Rail:: Do you think that, in film at least, culture has been so absorbed that it’s hard to distinguish between what is Japanese and what is foreign?

Kaneko: I agree, yet the younger generation is now constantly surrounded by something domestic. Although it has a brand and is originally from another country it’s more like their own stuff and they’re content with what they have and therefore, in a way, not eager to seek out something new. They’re very conformist.

Rail: What was the budget difference between Death Note 1 & 2?

Kaneko: I don’t know much about the budget. With the PR line and the publicity they did it sounded like we had plenty of money but actually on set it was really tight, especially with the CG technology – I think a big chunk of money went to that.

Rail: I understand that 1 & 2 were filmed back to back, with only two months between them. With Part 2 did you have more artistic freedom if not a bigger budget?

Kaneko: The first one was more like trial and error because I had to get the feeling and start the ball rolling. With the second part, especially the cast, they were really into their characters from the very beginning so it wasn’t much of an effort on my part as it became more fun to direct them.

Rail: So by the time you got to Part 2 the atmosphere was a little more fun and freewheeling?

Kaneko: Correct. Atmosphere wise it was freer and I felt more creative. However, when I had to work on the script of Part 2 it was much harder because the first movie was an intro so you had to close with a climax that would bring them back for the sequel, so directingwise it wasn’t that hard but scriptwise it was really tough.

Rail: Was it challenging because you had to compromise with the original manga and risk upsetting the hardcore fans? What was the most challenging aspect?

Kaneko: The only condition we had to adhere to was not to change the rules of the death note. However on the other hand I had the flexibility of changing the story so the hardest part of the second movie was that you just laid everything out in the first movie. How do you make it all come together and wrap it up in one conclusive story? It felt like my head was going to explode.

Rail:: Is Godzilla the ultimate kaiju for you?

Kaneko: He’s the standard kaiju because he was the first. I don’t know about ultimate.

Rail: Do you have a favorite or a dream kaiju?

Kaneko: Not exactly. Godzilla was there already. When I was a child there was a big production company called Tsuburaya Productions who really ignited the whole kaiju explosion. There were so many kaiju out there. It was like a ‘kaiju big bang’ and I was fascinated by the whole phenomenon, not just Godzilla, but also the whole legion of kaiju that Tsuburaya unleashed.

Rail: Did you project some of that kaiju feeling into the shinigami (death god) Ryuk in Death Note?

Kaneko: Sure!

Rail: One of my favorite kaiju movies – though not really a kaiju per se – is Matango (Attck of the Mushroom People).

Kaneko: It was a mysterious kaiju and it was a good movie but I didn’t really like the design of the monsters. Design-wise my favorites are Red King and Baltan Seijin (two of Ultraman’s many nemeses).

Rail: Whose name would you write down (in the death note)?

Kaneko: It’s a truly dangerous question. It’s really hard to say it. Japan has a concept called koto dama which means that words themselves have a spirit. So I’d rather not say it, it’s kind of scary. It’s not that I’m afraid of criticism or stuff like that, it’s more like the spirit of the word itself has it’s own significance or its own will. There’s a superstition in Japan, for example, if you say your gonna fail this exam or fail the university entrance exam once you say it it really happens. So I’m kind of afraid to just announce it.

Rail: So you didn’t keep a list during production?

Kaneko: Not really. A couple of things that were creepy and stressful during production: I had this asthma that wouldn’t go away so I was suffering from that. At the same time the creepiest part of shooting was when Light was actually writing down the name. I was focusing on his hand; it’s only writing but at the same time it means he’s killing someone, it kind of symbolizes the death of another person. So for me it was a stressful procedure just to shoot that particular scene.

Rail: I know you must be very busy and in demand right now but if you were free to work on your dream project what would that be?

Kaneko: Gamera vs. Godzilla. It would be difficult to have a co-production between the two companies Toho (Godzilla) and Daiei (Gamera).

Rail: Who would win?

Kaneko: Although Gamera represents justice and Godzilla evil, I’m rooting for Godzilla. Because it’s evil.

Contributor

David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.

ADVERTISEMENTS