"For the past couple of years net-savvy fans of Japanese cinema have been amply rewarded with the sort of smart and ever-up-to-date website they deserve: midnighteye.com."
- Chuck Stephens in Film Comment
An interview with authors Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp
by Andrew Cunningham
How did the website Midnight Eye start?
Jasper: I think the seeds were initially sown about 5 years ago. I was working in computing at the time, and I had just moved over to Amsterdam from London for a new job. My two main passions in life are travelling and watching movies that no one has ever heard of, so Midnight Eye for me developed as a consolidation of these two things.
At the time my job was barely engaging my interests, so I spent a lot of my working hours writing up the films I'd seen. I was also hatching a plan at the time to pack up my bags and leave Holland to head to Japan, which was somewhere I'd always wanted to go, so a lot of the films I was watching were Japanese.
One day, I was surfing around for information about a film I'd just seen, and happened to stumble across Tom's former site. Seeing that the guys behind the website only lived right down the road in Rotterdam, I sent an email asking if they were interested in any of my writing, and I got a reply from a guy named Tom Mes. Tom also had a passion for Japanese cinema, so things sort of snowballed from there.
Ironically, the film I was actually researching for at the time was Joe D'Amato's Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, so our initial communication had nothing to do with Japanese film at all!
Tom: That other site I was doing at the time wasn't going anywhere, because everyone who was working on it was too busy with other things. I'd had an interest in Japanese film for years, but it was seeing a giant retrospective of recent Japanese films at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early 2000 that triggered the idea to do a website on the subject. By chance around the same time I received Jasper's email, and after a while of us talking about cinema I found out he too was really interested in Japanese film. So I told him about my plans for a new site, and here we are.
Why the name Midnight Eye?
Tom: It was the result of an evening's brainstorming with my brother Martin and our friend Joep Vermaat. The 'Eye' part obviously refers to watching films, but beyond this there is no particular meaning or intention behind the name. It also has nothing to do with the anime Goku: Midnight Eye.
Jasper: I wasn't party to the name choosing process, and initially I wasn't so taken with it. I didn't see what it had to do with Japanese film. But now it's really grown on me. It's catchy and easy to remember, and conjures up all these intriguing images in your mind. It's far more memorable than calling the site something prosaic like japanfilm.com.
Tom: In retrospect, I'm happy we chose a name that didn't explicitly refer to Japanese film. We wanted to write about the films that weren't already being written about it, and having a name that doesn't invoke established preconceptions of Japanese cinema suited that attitude very well.
Why Japanese film as opposed to say, Korean film?
Jasper: I love all types of cinema, so sometimes I get a bit frustrated that we are only covering Japanese movies! Anyway, the initial attraction with Japanese film for me is I like the aesthetic, especially of the films from the 60s and 70s. The use of colour and composition seemed very different to me at the time, especially when compared with for example, British cinema, which I enjoy for very different reasons.
Its funny to think that when we were initially planning this website, it was still fairly early in the days of DVD and there wasn't very much out there, on video either. Lots of people were writing about Hong Kong movies, and European cult stuff, but I was surprised at how little there was on the web about Japanese films. Things have certainly changed a lot since then.
But what initially struck me is that here you have an industry which has been producing hundreds of films a year for over 100 years, and yet look at the tiny amount available with subtitles. And more than this, when I looked at the writing that had already been done on the subject, I saw the same titles and directors coming up again and again, so this piqued my curiosity as to what else might be out there that people weren't talking about.
And again writing about Japanese film is also very challenging because you need to look closely at the social or historical context in which the movies are made. Japan has had a very different history over the past century than Britain, for example. This sort of research I find really interesting.
As for Korean film, I think it's one of the most exciting industries in the world at the moment, but it's been a very sudden rise. It's amazing to think that hardly anyone in the West had even seen a Korean movie before 2000, and now there are more released in London this year than Japanese!
Tom: For me as well, Japanese films are only a portion of the stuff I watch and I have a very wide interest in cinema as a whole. But like Jasper says, it was the films that inspired the website. It wasn't like we had a website and only then did we decide which types of films to write about. I was seeing all these films coming from Japan that had real attitude and energy, but that were also clearly made by intelligent directors who thought about what they were doing. It was, and still is, a hugely exciting experience watching those and I wanted to express that excitement.
Has "Midnight Eye" become a brand name?
Jasper: I don't know. I hope so. Certainly we've got to the stage now where the name is getting quoted in magazines and on DVD covers. I think if you are interested in Japanese cinema or world cinema in general, and you use the internet, you'll certainly know the name. There are a lot of people who are interested in film who don't use the internet to get information however, so these are the type of people we want to reach out to with the book.
Tom: The book also has plenty to offer those who do use the internet, though. It's really a very different thing from the website Midnight Eye.
Why modern Japanese cinema? Do you feel there has been undue focus on classic cinema at the expense of modern filmmakers?
Jasper: In some ways, perhaps classical cinema is often focused on because it conveniently packages things up in a self-contained box, with stories located in another place and another time, so it is easy to present it as an exotic alien world but one underpinned by its own set of easy to understand rules and codes (even though I would argue that there is nothing particularly alien about Ozu, for example). But I think that this type of Japanese cinema is more held in reverence than genuinely popular, especially by the new younger generation of viewers, and it's definitely time to move on and look at what is happening now.
I think Ozu and Kurosawa, and Japanese film in general, wouldn't have been so popular if it hadn't been for the pioneering work of Donald Richie in pushing these films overseas - writing about them and explaining their background context in a readable and intelligent way. Mark Schilling is the only person who has really done that with more contemporary film in terms of writing books aimed at the general reader. Both these writers have lived in Japan for a long time and know the culture very well.
But there was a definite gap to be plugged in terms of covering recent cinema for overseas audiences, so this was always the goal behind Midnight Eye.
Tom: I wouldn't use the word 'undue', because those earlier directors certainly deserved all the praise they received. But inevitably you get an exclusive cluster of filmmakers forming and since most writers start from what has already been written on a subject in their own language, you get a repetition of the same names, while others who are just as worthy are, unintentionally, ignored. That's not just a matter of past versus present, because a lot of great directors from the past were also left out of the picture.
One of the things that make modern Japanese film so exciting to write about is the fact that it speaks to an entirely different audience from those earlier films, one that has been forming since the early 90s when films like Tetsuo, Akira and Sonatine started doing the rounds of overseas festivals. It was a new generation of filmmakers talking to a new generation of viewers. In the fifteen years since then, not much has been written for that audience and about those films, so it's been somewhat overdue.
How do you balance big name creators and films with lesser-known personal favourites?
Jasper: Obviously we each have our favourite directors, and there were also ones that neither of us really were too enthusiastic about, who inevitably suffered because of this. I think we have a good balance however. But it's such a large industry that trying to cover everyone who was anyone over the past 10 or 20 years was always going to be impossible. What the book does do, however, is highlight crucial trends that were relevant at the turn of the 21st century, and also serve to give a good indication of where Japanese cinema might be heading in the immediate future.
Tom: All the major names are included in the book, but we had the freedom to occasionally come up with surprising choices. It's good to include unexpected choices and odd outsiders in a book of this kind, because it opens up the entire argument and gives a much wider view of the industry. There are filmmakers who maybe aren't so well known outside Japan, but who are held in high regard at home. The established cannon of names in the West is not necessarily a good representation of what's going on in Japan itself.
How did you research the book?
Jasper: Luckily I was out here in Japan, so the videos were easily available, and there were always a lot of interesting people to talk to about the films. I learnt a lot just through talking to fans, academics or those in the industry. There's lots of stuff written on the subject in Japanese, of course, so I picked up a lot either wading through trying to translate it myself, or asking friends. And of course, the directors themselves were all very helpful. The researching and writing was done in conjunction with the website, over about 5 years in total though.
Tom: You have to get the information where you can, essentially. Even if there is still a relative lack of information in English, there's a lot of information in other languages. In Japanese, as Jasper points out, but also in French or German for instance. French writers in particular have been doing some solid writing on the subject of contemporary Japanese film for quite a few years.
How did you divide writing duties?
Tom: The division in the final text is pretty much 50/50. We tried as much as possible to both have our say about each particular director we included. For example if Jasper handled the main text about a director's career, then I would contribute several reviews. We tried to avoid making the chapters too narrow in their view of the director's work. Occasionally it was unavoidable that one of us wrote the bulk of a single chapter, or even all of it, but we sent everything back and forth for comments and complaints.
Jasper: We basically brainstormed a pile of directors and films we wanted to cover, and then carved them up among us. Every week we would send each other what we had written, which was a great motivation. We sort of fuelled each other with our own energy.
What are your goals with this book?
Jasper: People outside of Japan have their own ideas of what the country is like, and they want to watch films that conform to this image. So they are either interested in that classical, historic image of Japan, or in the sexy, sleek, violent image of modern Japan you see in a lot of the movies released abroad now.
There's a huge amount of stuff between the two poles that gets ignored, but I think it's mainly because casual viewers don't have the familiarity or frame of reference to feel comfortable watching these films without feeling they are missing something. They assume that Japanese culture is exotic, traditional, whatever, and therefore completely different from their own, because this is what they have become accustomed to by watching these films.
So even when a movie like the Ring comes out, you read all this misinformed stuff trying to explain it away in terms of Japanese family structures, cultural patterns, indigenous religion or even TV-viewing habits, when really its just a straightforward ghost story with a neat gimmick. Japan is really not such an alien culture, despite what you read in the press.
Recently we've had films like Lost in Translation, and The Last Samurai, and Japan is beginning to enter the public consciousness again. But I think it's more important for the Japanese to be able to represent themselves and their own history and to show this to the world. I'd say that about any culture. I tend to avoid movies such as The King and I, or all those ghastly movies such as Il Postino or Chocolat, that try and make Europe look like some quaint utopia. They say more about the country making the film than the country itself.
So for me the key idea for this book was to introduce these films and get people talking about them, to show the connections between the films, and show how they reflect what is going on in Japan today.
Tom: And, just as importantly, to show that these films don't exist in a cultural vacuum. So many of today's Japanese filmmakers were heavily influenced by American, European or other Asian films. Cinema really is borderless, and Japan is no exception.
What do you see as the future of Japanese cinema?
Tom: To be honest, I'd prefer for it to keep surprising us, rather than for me to make bold predictions about where it's heading. Whenever you think things are clearly going in a certain direction, something entirely different pops up and runs off in the opposite direction. In the history of Japanese film, this has happened during the best of times and the worst of times. It has shown a remarkable ability to rejuvenate itself, and there have always been young filmmakers coming up to challenge those that preceded them. I'm as curious as the next guy to see where things will go from here.
Jasper: People often say things like "Japanese cinema is dead" - I think it has happened all throughout the history of Japanese film. There are 120 million people in Japan, and obviously not everyone wants to watch films with subtitles all the time, so the domestic market is big enough to sustain its own output. Whether these films will always be interesting to foreign audiences is another matter.
My own experience is that things tend to come in waves, and that out of every year you'll always get around 10 films that are interesting in some way. Also how quickly trends come and go. Five years ago we could say that the dominant strains of Japanese cinema were horror movies, the new generation of yakuza movie-makers such as Miike, and the arthouse films produced by Takenori Sento that were very popular on the international circuit. Now we seem to have a lot of glossy budget manga adaptations or films inspired by this pop-cultural world, like Ryuhei Kitamura's work, or films like Devilman or Casshern, developments I am personally not too keen on myself, but again, I think it's only a trend. On the other hand, the cheap use of DV technology has meant that a lot of younger directors are making highly personal films that reflect what their own world is like. Anime, of course, is big this year, but last year there wasn't so much coming out in the theatres from this genre.
But anyway, even if a year goes by with nothing that really fills you with enthusiasm, there's literally thousands of works from the past to keep you busy
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