by Ed McCarry
Shinji Somai (1948-2001) was a film director in the twilight years of movie studios in Japan. As an apprentice at Nikkatsu in the mid-1970s—a “small business” compared to its Golden Age heyday—and later when he went independent with a group of directors orbiting around Kazuhiko Hasegawa, Somai thought hard about how to give the limping cinema a shot in the arm. First, he needed to get his actors’ heart rates up. They needed to move: to move for the sake of movement. “Do something unnatural,” he would tell them. “Do anything but stand and deliver your lines.” So they climbed around and toppled over; they contorted their bodies in strange shapes; they screamed and danced and ran as far as they could. And Somai’s camera needed to move, too, to keep up with them. And he needed to keep it rolling to give the performers license to keep going, to never stop. Such is the eminently material origin of his famous long take method.
In other words, Somai’s style grew out of an intense communion with the physical world, first cradling a certain energy from people and their environment, then devising a way to document it, but also a way to provoke it along, to keep the flame of life fanned by the camera. And although these scenes were extensively rehearsed, there is a unique volatility to Somai’s long takes: the actors teeter out on a limb as if in a highwire act; the camera lurches through space like it’s ready to fall off its mount. There’s often a palpable feeling of danger—it’s cinema on a knife’s edge. Each of these shots is a predicament, and we’re rapt to see how the actors and the crew untangle themselves from it.
The films are a kind of circus spectacle, but Somai could never be accused of being fancy: his images are too direct and too undecorated. While the camera often gets high in the air or very low to the ground, Somai’s shots inhabit the no-frills spirit of Howard Hawks, when he said: “Just shoot it like you’re looking at it, you know, from your eyes.” In fact, the position of the camera was often the last decision to be made on set, only after all this movement had been worked out. Then the crew was tasked with finding a way to look at it, thinking on their toes. Somai’s aim was to create situations on set where accidents would take place, and he would welcome these contingencies into the shot. The result: films which are forever threatening to come undone. And it’s in these cracks that we see life emerge with such unbridled force. What’s reawakened is the natural wildness of the cinema, everything that the conventional film tries to suppress: like the plain miracle of seeing something transpire in space; the physical consequence of an action, a gesture; the sheer plasticity of the soundtrack; or the fact that a performer has a heart, and it’s beating beneath their chest. Somai brought the cinema to its breaking point to find this pulse again.
Of course, Somai’s films are also the films of his dedicated crew, the Somai-gumi. This is true of all films, but it should be emphasized in his case. What we see on screen in Somai’s work—what we feel hovering around it—is the product of a certain kind of working environment, one based on collectivity and improvisation. He would describe his films as “the fruit of the dreams and efforts” of his whole crew. Somai wanted everyone on set absorbed in the problem of each shot, proposing ideas that would be fielded and tested out, and the shape of the film was liable to be reworked on the basis of these experiments.
The crew could spend days absorbed like this, focusing on one shot until it became something like a monster of their own making. It’s like Cézanne, who would get lost in “sensations” on his canvases: a stroke or two of paint he would spend a day laboring over, then re-doing the next day. He’d lose sight of the picture as a totality. Likewise, the thread of the story in Somai’s films will get buried in these long takes, in the singularity of the situation taking place in front of us, this great physical effort that can never be reproduced. And because Somai’s films are put together this way, by stacking one irreducible block of time and space onto the next, the illusion of seamless continuity—the fiction—is always broken. Instead, we feel Somai, the actors, the whole crew hypnotized by the labor immediately before them, risking life and limb, and blind to everything else. Somai’s films make us aware again of the cinema’s inseparable relationship to the earth: what it means to move through it, to be wrapped up in it, toiling and inventing with the camera.
Among the indispensable members of this collective was Koji Enokido, Somai’s longtime assistant director and lifelong friend, and an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. Since Somai’s premature death in 2001, Enokido has been one of the principle historians and interpreters of Somai’s work. One of his latest efforts was the supervision of a new 4k restoration of Typhoon Club, the “crystallizing” film of Somai’s oeuvre, per critic Shigehiko Hasumi. Enokido knows there’s a lot to learn from Somai’s way of doing things. The world is at stake, perhaps. I thank Enokido for his stories, his ideas, and his generosity. At about halfway through our interview, the allotted time had well expired, but Enokido was determined to continue: “It’s one of my life’s missions to spread the word of Somai.”
Shinji Somai’s Typhoon Club will screen in a new 4K restoration starting September 8th at IFC Center at IFC Center in New York before expanding around the country. The release will be accompanied by special screenings of Somai’s P.P. Rider on September 6th and 7th.
The following interview was conducted on August 7th, 2023, in Japanese and English, with live interpretation by Monika Uchiyama. Special thanks to Junko Hirai and the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Ed McCarry: How did your relationship with Somai begin?
Koji Enokido: My first meeting with Somai was in 1976, in the summer. We both were working on Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s debut film, The Youth Killer (1976). Somai was a second assistant director on that film, and I was working on the production side, and we became friends. And when Somai was about to shoot Tonda Couple, his debut in 1980, he asked me to work on the film, but unfortunately I had different plans and wasn’t able to join him. But then from Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981) to Typhoon Club and Love Hotel (both 1985), I worked as his assistant director. These were all very difficult projects. After that period I continued to work closely with him, making suggestions and consulting on his films.
Somai emerged in the declining years of the film industry in Japan. He learned his trade at Nikkatsu, where films at this time were being made quickly and on the cheap, mostly roman porno films. I wonder if the chaos of this time was an advantage for someone with Somai’s temperament, who wanted to dismantle certain things and rebuild them.
The life of a director during this period was quite peculiar, and very different from the typical salaryman. You drank every night; you spent all day on set. It was a very active lifestyle. When Somai joined Nikkatsu, he joined on a contract as an assistant director and started working in television, then he also worked on roman porno films. You’re correct in saying that the Japanese film industry was indeed in a chaotic state, and I think Somai’s kind of strange personality, and the other directors who shared that strange disposition—they were quite popular and getting attention at that time. I think this was the influence of the lifestyle on Somai. When Typhoon Club premiered internationally, there were a lot of moments when he was answering to foreign journalists and his answers were treated as very strange. But I think from his perspective he was actually giving quite serious answers (laughs).
Somai begins directing his own films with Tonda Couple. Before this film, I wonder if he ever talked with you about the kinds of films he would like to make and how he would like to make them. I think this first film is unmistakably a Somai film; the feeling is already there. Was his method something he discovered on set? Or had he thought about it already?
He actually talked about this at a public speaking engagement at a university, so it’s kind of on the record. He said that at Nikkatsu during his apprentice years, many of the films—for instance, the roman porno films—were about passionate relationships between men and women. And he said that these were the kinds of films that he wanted to continue making. So when he was going to make Tonda Couple, he said to me jokingly, “Can you believe that my debut film is going to be an adaptation of a manga?” But despite it being an adaptation, and that the people appearing in the film were children, I still think he was able to establish these stories that are about men and women. He was still able to create that drama he was intending, which has to do with passion. I think that a lot of people across the board were very surprised at what he was able to do in adapting this kid’s story, turning it into a very modern and adult film. And I would say it surprised his producer, Kei Ijichi, too.
I believe you’ve said that Somai’s way of working wasn’t fully solidified until his second film, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. And I think it’s important for people to understand how Somai’s sets were organized, what made them different. Somai moved to Tokyo in the late 1960s, the years of the student movements. Shin Togashi, another assistant director, has suggested that the spirit of the movement was carried through to the way Somai structured his sets. He gave scant or ambiguous direction. He wanted everyone—the crew, the performers, the truck driver—to be thinking and coming up with solutions. Somai’s films were really community films, is that right?
He really wanted to gather all the strength of all the crew and cast and focus it on the film. And so he put the cast and crew through a lot of strenuous things, like using extended takes for a single scene, etc., which requires a lot from the actors in terms of their body and emotions. He was thinking a lot about how to utilize the staff, their skills, their opinions, in the best way to focus all that energy into the filmmaking process. About the student movements in the 60s, Somai himself would not have said it had any influence on how he directed his films, but of course he was involved in these movements and that influence could have made its way in there, though I don’t think he recognized it. One thing that he would always say on set, and that I have carried with me for a long time and have taken to heart, is: “Everyone needs to run towards the screen.” He would often ask, “What do you want to do?” with an emphasis on you. He would say, “It’s not about me.” And so the way I would describe Somai’s films is: it’s all for the screen. It’s all about what the audience has to see, about what exactly is on the screen. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I think that ethos really shaped his filmmaking. Of course, with directors on set, everyone has this respect for them, but because Somai put everyone through such demanding acts, it was really about his ability to gather up everyone’s strength in working towards this one singular thing.
I understand that Somai was often melancholy after his films wrapped, because this community he’d built up—where a good deal of fun and concentration was involved—it all had to be dispersed. Is this true?
When you finish a film it’s true that everyone goes their separate ways. He was always saying that filmmaking is possible because we all work together, and so of course it was always sad for him when these fifty or so people, who have all come together to make a film, who have spent every day working together—when they all have to go their separate ways, it was very much a devastating experience for him. I myself was kept very close. Even in between films, whether it was going to see a movie or having a meal, he was always inviting me to be by his side. I would say that after each film, he would go into periods of heavy drinking to distract himself from the sadness of the community not being together.
Let’s talk about who he is gathering in this community. He recruited many former studio technicians for his crew, people such as Hideo Kumagai, his longtime lighting technician. Somai set out to do reckless things in his films—as you say, to run headlong at the screen—but he did it all with very serious people who knew what they were doing.
Somai worked with a lot of people during his assistant director years at Nikkatsu. Of course, when he made his films, there were times when he worked with producers who made requests for a certain cinematographer or various staff that he should hire, but who he really wanted on his sets were people who could read the script and form their own opinions about it. He didn’t want a yes-man; he wanted someone who had very strong ideas. Again, “What do you want to do for the screen?” His trusted staff were always those who were really opinionated, who read the script and thought about what they wanted to do, and who also thought about how to express that on the screen.
Somai would sometimes spend a whole day rehearsing a shot before shooting. And these are often very complex, acrobatic shots. But they’re rough, and I get the sense that Somai was not someone who thought in terms of pictures and compositions. As you say, the crew had this high degree of freedom to make decisions. At what point was the placement and movement of the camera decided, and who made the decision? Did Somai rehearse the action for the camera?
As far as how he directed his actors, he was really thinking about how he wanted them to use their bodies. And I think for him, to have the actors think about or be conscious of the camera too much was really pointless. With children especially, it was all about moving around, because it would be quite stiff for them to just stand and deliver their lines. Children express themselves through their bodies, and so the actor should do so as well. I think that method of one scene-one cut, these long takes, was really established in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. It was his thought process that if you don’t cut, the actors simply have to continue acting. If someone were to just stand there and say the lines, Somai would get really angry and say: “Do something with your body. Something unnatural.” Of course, if you don’t stop the camera, the actors need to keep acting, and so the crew has to chase them. I think that’s what gave birth to the long takes: wanting a kind of action from the actors, not wanting them to take into consideration where the cameras were, and the staff simply having to move along with them. I think the basis for that was even apparent in Tonda Couple, his first film. He was really trying to establish that kind of freedom for actors. Unfortunately, that also makes for the films to be quite long to accommodate these long takes (laughs). But to go back to your question, I think he thought it was meaningless for actors to be too aware of the camera, and that’s what gave birth to his style.
How often would he look through the viewfinder?
Never in his life did he look through the camera (laughs). He never directed the cameraman on how to frame a shot, or what objective the lens should be, nothing like that. The cameraman’s job was to film the action and film the actors, and they were trusted to find a solution.
You talk about Somai getting the actors to do something, and one of the ways he forces them to move is that he introduces something into the environment of the shot—an obstacle (the concrete bridges in the dockyard in Love Hotel), an activity (throwing a ball around in P.P. Rider), a natural phenomenon (catching a real tuna in The Catch). The actors are made to deal with something that takes time and is uncontrollable to a degree. Somai was a director who gave up control in many ways, as you’ve said, and these obstacles are another way of doing that: something that can’t happen the same way twice. And the shot becomes a kind of documentation, of looking at what’s been set up and watching how it falls down. In the process, I think he catches these small wonders with his camera. Somai wanted to surprise the actors and the viewer—and did he want to surprise himself?
I wouldn’t say he was trying to surprise himself, but he was really thinking about trying to overwhelm the actor’s capacity in some way, or their ability to act. He was never a person who was content with 100% of someone’s ability. He needed to go up, to transcend that 100%—whether it’s getting to 101% or trying to reach 120%. So with the many takes that we would shoot of these long scenes, Somai would be most inclined to go for the most interesting take. Of course, we would do a lot of tests, and let’s say among the tests we were able to reach about 100% as far as his satisfaction, we would then keep shooting until it transcends that point. This being one of his goals, I think those types of shots often took the shape of one where an accident happened, or something unexpected occurred that he found the most interesting. That’s something that I really noticed being near him all the time.
He was trying to awaken something mysterious in people when they reach this “beyond 100%.” I feel Somai was someone who was very interested in people, but not at all in a psychological sense: he was interested in pre-lingual things, like movement, physicality. You say he would tell the actors to do something unnatural. When he says this, was he ever thinking about the motivation of that action? Or is it a kind of pure performance?
One thing that Somai hated was pre-established emotional expression—you know, the way actors learn how to express certain emotions. As actors spend time training, there are certain reactions and modes of expression that become ingrained in them. Somai’s first step was to reject that kind of thing. As long as the actor continued to express in a pre-set way, he would continue to repeat tests until he got the desired reaction from them. He wanted something new; he wanted the actors to throw out what they knew previously, to find something unique about their own reactions. And through that I think he was able to draw out natural or, like you say, mysterious and unique expressions from these actors. And children have less of these reactions ingrained in them and are more easily able to throw out preconceived things, and are able to act out things through their body. Somai was able to create spaces that encouraged that kind of movement of the body, these new types of expressions. He never wanted the actors to revert to a pattern of acting that was too deliberate.
This reminds me of something that Somai would say: “Movies lie.” I want to ask about that idea, because I think what his films are doing is bringing that lie to the forefront. He’s showing us the artifice—these gestures are artificial, the way the camera moves is artificial, the whole set up is artificial—and in showing the lie, he’s bringing out the reality again.
It’s a difficult thing to explain, but I think that when you watch a Somai film, whether it’s the dialogue or how the actors use their bodies, I wouldn’t say that it’s naturalistic. I’d say that some of it is actually quite unnatural. But as you said, filmmaking is a fiction, it’s a kind of lie: people are playing strangers and there’s all this artifice involved, and when you’re watching a film that’s one thing that you have to accept. So I think that, although there is a lot of subtlety in the movement and the delivery of the dialogue, Somai was very fine with things feeling unnatural. What he was concerned with, as far as truthfulness was concerned, was emotion. He was always interested in how to capture real emotion—and he believed that in capturing real emotion, that is where drama is located. I think about his use of long takes as a method of trying to get that real emotion, or truthfulness. Yes, for Somai it becomes a kind of documentation of how the actors are moving their bodies and delivering their lines, but the emotion that he is tapping into is very much real. And I think about Somai’s method and how it differs from other examples in cinema of long takes, like Hitchcock, who used long takes as a kind of vehicle to try to warp time. I don’t think Somai was interested in anything like that. It was really not about trying to make time pass in a certain way, but really about trying to capture the actor’s bodies and the reality of the emotion.
Relatedly, I know Somai was very interested in theater. At one point he said that he preferred the theater over the cinema. You could say his films belong to a tradition of “filmed theater,” along with, say, Jean Renoir or Jacques Rivette maybe. And there’s often a feeling of pure street theater in his films. Can you talk about this interest?
As a student and during his time as an assistant director, and even into the time when he was making his own films, Somai did see a lot of theater. I was invited to go often and went to the theater with him many times. Thinking about the time he grew up in the 60s and 70s, Japanese theater then was distancing itself from a kind of “method” style into something more free. So to think about Somai coming up in that period where this was the culture around theater, it makes sense that he enjoyed going to see it and that this influence bled into his filmmaking. In fact, with a lot of his early films, there were people who said, as you say, that it’s like street theater being translated into film. And that has everything to do with what I described earlier about how he was trying to capture the actors, the movement of their bodies, and that being very similar to a “theatrical” style.
I’d like to talk about P.P. Rider, his third film. I think it’s something like a miracle. It seems to me that Somai wanted to test the limits of his way of working, and to answer the question, “At what point does a film break?” It’s a film that seems to be falling apart. When you began working on it, did you know that you were about to embark on a radical work? Did Somai himself know?
When we were preparing the film, Somai was very confused about how to put together this story. The story itself is quite simple: instead of following a single protagonist, it’s very much an ensemble narrative. But this structure was difficult to make sense of in a way that would translate to film. So I don’t think that Somai had anticipated what kind of film it would end up being. And of course working with kids—as I mentioned earlier about his method of trying to get them to move, to use their bodies in order to tap into a certain emotion, the cameras having to chase them—these scenes end up getting very long because of how the kids move and how they act. Each scene became at least double the length of what we had anticipated while writing the script. So when we had put together all the rushes, it was well over a four-hour film. But the contract that Somai had with Toho was a two-film contract, and each film had to be under two hours. So we were tasked with cutting down the film, and of course the editor had a problem: to shorten a Somai film means cutting out entire scenes! And trying to cut down each individual scene made it very confusing. It was like, why are these kids in this place all of a sudden? Why is this person feeling this thing? The story started to become very disjointed. The emotions are still there because of Somai’s method, but the story was just not something that could be related to an audience. So we were like, what should we do? And Somai said: “Add intertitles. Add text.” And so a writer was hired to help write these intertitles. But Somai was unhappy with how these turned out initially because they were too didactic. He was like, “Make them funnier.” So the writer had to be sequestered for a week to come up with these intertitles that would be funny and convey enough meaning without being too explanatory. They didn’t need to go into detail; they needed to be funny and interesting more than anything else. And when we were finally finishing the film, Somai was constantly saying, “I don’t think we can show this to people.” And asking me, “Enokido, please burn this film.” And I was like, “We can’t burn the film. We spent so much money doing this, and hired forty or fifty people who put their lives at stake in order to make this film.” But he kept saying, “Just burn it. We can’t show this to anyone.” And of course Somai was someone who put his all into the filmmaking and that’s really why it got so long, and why it became so expensive to make, but I don’t think he had anticipated it would turn into what it turned out to be.
Interesting. I believe Somai said P.P. Rider was the first film he was truly happy with. Did he harbor a secret love for this film he wanted to burn?
Just to clarify: P.P Rider was an independent film. It was made with Kei Ijichi’s production company, Kitty Films, and distribution was handled by Toho. I would say this was the first film that Somai had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, and so from that feeling of freedom and being able to shape the film as he wished, I can understand why this film would be his favorite. It became an almost anarchistic film, and that’s because he had free rein to do what he wanted. I do want to share one episode from when we went to go see the film during its release, the day it came out. We went to the theater and Mamoru Oshii’s animation Urusei Yatsura was also screening on a double bill with P.P. Rider. And we noticed that when the Oshii film was playing, the lobby was deserted, there were no kids: they were all inside watching the film. But later while P.P. Rider was playing, the lobby was full of children. Somai said to me, “Oh, we’ve failed.” And later on he was drinking and very disappointed about it all. You know, Sailor Suit was quite a hit and was popular, but I think with the release of P.P. Rider and noticing all the kids playing in the lobby, not watching the film, Somai felt like he was unable to make anything at all relatable to children. At the same time, this was a film that he had complete freedom in making, so it would make sense that he loved it.
There’s a strange thing that happens in P.P. Rider, and it’s something you see to some degree in many of Somai’s films: as the film goes on, we see a real change in the actors, like the filming experience has accumulated in them, in a physical sense. They’ve gone through a gauntlet; they’ve stuck their necks out; they’ve given it all. They do dangerous things in this film, and the level of commitment is astounding. You say that Somai started the film without any idea of how it would take shape. Was the film shot in order? I know it was shot over one summer before the kids returned to school. And I think we feel the weight of the summer.
Because it’s a road movie we did shoot more or less chronologically as far as the locations go, from Kansai to Yokohama, and back again. Once we got to the locations, the scenes there may have been shot a little out of order simply due to scheduling. But following the route of the locations where the characters go in the script, it was shot in order. And I don’t think this is something that is often done.
The long take on the canal, where we see the actors chase each other—perhaps everything one needs to understand about Somai is in this shot. I’m wondering how this shot was prepared.
The scene in Nagoya, right?
Yes, on the canal with the logs.
When they’re jumping…
…and falling. Everyone’s falling down.
We spent an entire day rehearsing this scene. During that first day, one of the actors, Michiko Kawai, happened to fall, and Somai thought, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” That’s when the falling action started to be incorporated into the scene. And of course the rehearsal didn’t start out as just a rehearsal. We had prepared to film and we were intending to do so, but the rehearsal day had to be cut short because Kawai, who was the first to fall, ended up sustaining an injury and couldn’t continue on that day. As far as direction from Somai, there was no instruction for the actors and how they should move. The only direction he gave was that Masahiro Kuwana and Ryo Kinomoto (the two yakuza) were supposed to take Debunaga (Yoshikazu Suzuki) and run away. So all Somai said was, “I need you all to run away with him.” So we rehearsed up to the chase, and thought about how they would run away, but all the actions in between were things that Somai observed from watching the actors improvise in rehearsal, and which were then incorporated into the shot the next day. On the second day, thinking about how to shoot the scene—which was something that wasn’t discussed on the day of rehearsal—Kumagai, the lighting technician, suggested we use a boat as a way to film the scene in one movement. And I think in the end we were able to do a full 180-degree pan to cover the action. Of course, on that first day with the injury, we were worried about whether we’d be able to film at all, but on the second day we were able to do it. No one anticipated that the scene would turn into what it did. We were prepared for the falling from the day of rehearsal, but everything else was completely new, just whatever we were able to capture. I think that’s why the scene is filled with so many happenings and accidents. That’s what makes it so interesting.
And did you shoot just one take on the second day?
The day before the rehearsal we had already shot a scene of Kawai and Hideko Hara jumping off the bridge. So we were actually quite prepared for all this falling on the day of rehearsing the log scene. But in that scene where they jump from the bridge, we were really worried about the distance of the fall and whether we could make it happen. In fact, Hara kept asking, “Am I really supposed to jump as well?” But she ended up committing to it and taking the jump after Kawai.
I think you’d agree, P.P. Rider is maybe Somai’s most reckless and free film. Whereas Typhoon Club is different. It’s a film where he applied these methods—which tend to be unwieldy, destructive—to an almost classical construction. It has a very tight atmosphere. Where did this concentration come from?
I think it has a lot to do with the story itself, the fact that the narrative takes place in a closed space. The kids are trapped in this school, and so that really contrasts with the freedom of a road movie like P.P. Rider. And I think the sense of being closed-off is conveyed through the emotions and the acting of the kids as well. When we were preparing the film, someone commented that it felt very much like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. There is this question in the film, “Why don’t the kids leave the school?” And there’s really only one character that does make it outside, Rihe (Yuki Kudo), who goes to Tokyo. It’s an ensemble film, so there is no main protagonist; it’s really about a group of people waiting for a natural phenomenon to pass, and the emotions that come from this pressure cooker situation. It’s about the way an environment affects people’s emotions, and the way those emotions are expressed. The impression that you get from the film, it has everything to do with this concentrated space, something that is airtight, which creates a sense of control.
That said, I believe the original script was entirely confined to the school, but Somai needed to get some air. The scene with the kids in the rain, when they sing and dance, this was his own invention?
Yes, that was a situation he made up. There were a number of changes that veered from the script. There was a scene that was supposed to happen in a classroom, but we ended up moving it to the gymnasium. And after the gym scene, Somai decided to gather up the kids and film this scene outside as the eye of the storm arrives. It was something Somai decided to do on the spot. With Somai’s style, these long takes, it was common for him to deviate from the script. For instance, two or even three scenes might end up becoming one take. He would freely make the script his own.
The production of the film was planned to coincide with typhoon season, but not an inch of rain fell during the shooting, so every drop of water in the film is artificial. But Somai makes no secret of this lie. I don’t think we’re ever made to believe it’s genuine rain. There are even shots where we see the water trucks. He’s showing us that it’s artificial, but the energy and freedom that the actors are experiencing in this fake rain is real. And the great effort to transport and shoot this water is real, and we feel that too. Somai’s not illustrating a story: he’s summoning its spirit out of the world, making it real.
Rain is a recurring motif in Somai’s films. There are often characters in his films who are in sunlight one moment and who get caught in sudden rain the next. I think he had an interest in natural phenomena as something that combats the fiction and the filmmaking. Of course, in Typhoon Club, it’s a way for this natural force—fictionalized—to elicit a certain reaction out of the actors. He was very interested in how to fictionalize nature. For instance, in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985), obviously it’s supposed to be a winter story, but Somai filmed it in the summer. He would do this kind of thing to lean into the fiction. I think Typhoon Club was a story that was very important to him because it was about how people react when faced with a natural phenomena, a typhoon—the excitement one feels, the actions that are elicited from it. Of course, now with climate change, a typhoon can be a disastrous thing, but at that time it was something that could be exciting as a kid. We’ve talked about the difference between Typhoon Club and P.P. Rider, and while they’re both ensemble films, I think the focus lies in different places. With P.P. Rider, the focus is on the people; in Typhoon, the focus is nature. We filmed Typhoon Club in Nagano, and you’re right, there was absolutely no rain. All the rain is man-made with hoses and fans.
I understand ropes were also used to pull the trees, to simulate wind. I believe you were among the rope-pullers. And local kids were recruited to help?
I was actually positioned close to the camera for those shots. We needed five or six people helping us on each tree in order to shake them, and those people included children from a nearby theater club. It was necessary for me to be near the camera to coordinate which trees needed to shake and when based on where the camera was pointing. Of course, the sound needed to be recorded separately because of all the noise from the hose creating the rain, the fans creating the wind, and all the ropes pulling the trees. You really couldn’t take any sound during the take, so it was recorded either before or after the image was shot. But this allowed me to yell out instructions to the trees while standing near the camera. I would use a transceiver and say, “Group one, shake! Group two, shake! etc.” We’d do the same for the people handling the hoses and the fans as well.
Speaking of sound, I’d like to talk about the music. I think Somai said he always wanted to make a proper musical. In Typhoon Club, there’s a tune that the kids start singing in the eye of the storm, “Meet me at the bridge tomorrow…,” and Yuki Kudo—who’s far away in Tokyo—she also picks up the song as she wanders the streets in the rain. And the strange phantoms she encounters, they play the tune on their ocarinas. It reminds me of Lubitsch: this rhythm that reaches through the film, the actors across time and space carrying the film’s pulse. Again, it’s pure performance, and far from natural.
I don’t think Somai initially intended for a single song to become the pulse of the film. But while shooting the scene in the rain, in the eye of the storm, the children began singing this song spontaneously. And the lyrics refer to “tomorrow” and “what if…” So I think Somai thought it would be apt for Kudo to start singing it as well, and the naked ocarina players too. The film was going to end on the day after the storm, so it felt like a fitting song to incorporate throughout the film. But as far as it being something calculated, that was not really how he worked. Somai is reacting to certain moments and scenes, and I think the lyrics of this song were thought to carry some of the meaning of the film. It’s all about these kids’ desires and anticipations, these emotions that well up due to this natural phenomena, and how they might sync up. The song becomes a vehicle for this kind of syncing up of emotion. It certainly wasn’t something that was in the script. But because the kids were so used to Somai asking them to keep moving, to do something, this was kind of an ordinary occurrence on set: the kids just found something to do; they sang. So one of the girls started singing and Somai noted it, and later asked Kudo, “Do you know this song? Think you could sing it?” It was a way to pivot the emotion of her character; the song was a way to uplift her mood. And the ocarina players were made to play the melody to remind her of the song. It was as if Somai was creating these checkpoints in the film.
Somai was someone who had a distrust for words. He said words emptied things out, and that films should be seen above all else. But looking at his films inspires thinking, and the thought inspires action: a generation of filmmakers in Japan saw Somai’s work and decided to make films. I think—and I think you agree—his films get at something like the crux of cinema. You’ve said that film history is divided in two: before Somai and after Somai. What did Somai change?
What’s important about Somai’s films, the basis of his films, is real emotions. Typhoon Club is an interesting example because it’s a film that is surrounded by fiction: the typhoon is a fiction; the wind is fictional; the rain is fictional. But the emotions are real. There’s all this artifice that shrouds the environment, but it’s really about people resonating with one another within that artifice. I think Somai leaned into the fiction to access what is real. And Typhoon Club is really all about the artifice. It demonstrates a lot of trust on Somai’s part, in that he was asking the actors, trusting them, to access the reality of their feelings, to express it with their bodies. To speak on the “before and after” of Somai, what differentiates his filmmaking is a rejection of an established way of doing things: all film is a kind of fiction, but through various techniques of editing, acting, etc., the conventional film creates its illusion, its drama. Somai destroyed all of that. He said to the actors: your emotions today—right now, in this environment—that’s what’s important, and this is what needs to come through to the screen. In this current age with computers and all this technology creating an ever more fictional world, what we can learn from Somai is: Yes, the world of film is built with lies, but what’s being captured by the camera is truth, it is reality. That’s what I want people to take away from watching his films.
Somai makes us believe again, in reality.
Ed McCarry is a critic and film distributor in Brooklyn, NY.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider tipping the interpreter (PayPal: email@example.com) and/or supporting Ultra Dogme on Patreon, Ko-fi, or Substack, so that we may continue publishing writing about film + music with love + care.