Still breathing, still laughing
Seijun Suzuki was just about to leave for Cannes when we interviewed him at the offices of Nippon Herald, which is codistributing “Princess Raccoon.” He was using an oxygen tank — he has been ailing of late — but was still his usual self, quick with a quip and honest to a fault.
Mark Schilling: Were you influenced at all by the “Princess Raccoon” films of Keigo Kimura?
Seijun Suzuki: Those “Princess Raccoon” films of Kimura’s exist, of course. It may be strange to call mine a remake, but if those films didn’t exist, mine would have never gotten off the ground.
I said I wanted to shoot [“Princess Raccoon”] about 20 years ago, but you should think about a movie from the moment you decide to do it, not before. It’s stupid to be mulling it over for 20 years.
Mamiko Kawamoto: Why couldn’t you make the film when you first wanted to?
There wasn’t enough money. After I made “Kageroza [Mirage Theater (1981)],” I talked with the producer about what we should do next. We discussed making “Princess Raccoon.” We even had a screenplay and were ready to go, but we weren’t able to find enough money.
MS: I heard you were only able to get the greenlight after Zhang Ziyi came on board.
That’s right. That’s the way Japanese films are now — if you don’t have a star, nothing happens.
MS: She speaks Chinese in the film and her lover [Joe Odagiri] speaks Japanese. The film seems to be saying that love is something you express with, not words, but feelings.
That’s right . . . the fact that they don’t understand each other’s language adds a nice flavor to the film — the flavor of miso (laughs).
MK: The songs are an important element. How was Zhang Ziyi’s singing of the Japanese lyrics?
That was a problem (laughs). At first I wondered what I could do. She was singing by rote memorization, without understanding the meaning. There was no way she could really get the feeling of the lyrics. But with practice she ended up being pretty good. I was relieved (laughs).
MK: The story is not just a romance with a happy ending. The princess has to fight for a forbidden love — that is, love with a human being. How did you come up with that particular story?
It’s the Snow Princess [Yuki Hime] story. The basic idea is that of love blooming after the lovers die. Both the man and the woman are dead. Then they come back to life and kiss for the first time. That’s a bit different from the love stories we’ve had till now, wouldn’t you say?
MS: You told me before that your job as a director is to make everyone feel relaxed and positive. Was that true on the shoot of “Princess Raccoon” as well?
The director’s job is to create a good atmosphere. I think it’s his role to liven up the atmosphere, so that the shooting goes smoothly.
MS: How did you happen to use the singer Hibari Misora, — or rather her digitalized image?
I wanted to cast the most beautiful woman in Japan for that role, but she couldn’t fit us into her schedule. I was getting desperate when my producer had the idea of using Misora. She’s the No. 1 Japanese singer, so I didn’t have any objections. Actually, I didn’t think that her office would say OK, but the producer won them over.
MK: The scene of the two lovers in the irises really impressed me. Was that done with CG? Also, how did you communicate the sort of image you wanted to the actors?
It was all CG — that’s the only way we could have done it. That was a tough scene to do.
MS: I’m sure that when fans heard you were making a period drama, a lot of them were expecting sword-fighting.
I had to disappoint them (laughs).
MK: You’re going to be 82 soon — we’d like to congratulate you on your birthday.
What’s to congratulate? Look at me — I’m a mess (laughs).