Interview with Mark Schilling

Mark Schilling is an American journalist and author. He is also a film critic at the Japan Times and Japan correspondent for Variety. I’ve been reading his film reviews for many years. As some of you may be aware, it takes months before anyone outside Japan can watch any of the country’s films. Seeing a 4 out of 5 stars rating for a movie I’m excited about could be a torture but it gives me a certain satisfaction that the waiting is – indeed – worth it. 

Udine FEFF 2017: Mark Schilling with Ogigami Naoko (left) and Sophia Wong Boccio (right), director of the Asian Pop-up Cinema festival in Chicago. 

The PsychoDrama community is excited to be given this opportunity to interview Mr. Schilling! 

“The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture” is celebrating its 20th this year. Two other books you’ve authored and released – “Contemporary Japanese Film” and “The Yakuza Movie Book” – are now over 14 years old while “No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema” was released in 2007. What would you consider the best memories writing them? Will there be a new book in the future?

“Contemporary Japanese Film” came out in 1999. Also, I’ve published several books with the Udine festival organization, the latest being “Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures and Fantasies in Japanese Cinema,” which appeared last year in conjunction with our SF/fantasy retro of the same title. Unfortunately, they’re hard to find, though Italian book sites carry them. 

I suppose some of the best memories are (1) getting the fax or email from the publisher giving me the green light and (2) getting the actual books in the mail. Also, interviewing people like Kurosawa Akira, Itami Juzo, Fukasaku Kinji, Kitano Takeshi, Ishii Teruo, Sugawara Bunta and Aikawa Sho. 

While you mentioned being inspired by a reviewer from your college newspaper, you omitted part of your history when you became a writer and then a movie reviewer for The Japan Times. Could you tell us how someone from Ohio suddenly got transported to the bustling city of Tokyo and was the transition easy for you? How did you cope with the change in culture and language?

I was in LA when I heard that Sony was recruiting teachers for their language schools. I was interested in Japan – I’d become a fan of Kurosawa and Ozu and an on-again-off-again practitioner of zazen – so I applied. They hired me because I’d graduated from the University of Michigan and they used the ‘Michigan method’ (classroom study supplemented by language lab training) in their schools, about which I knew nothing. But it got me on the airplane.

Mark Schilling Interview

An article you’ve written in 2014 entitled “A quarter century of Japanese films in review” is like a history lesson for aspiring movie critics and writers alike. If you were given the chance to do it all over again, would you still want to be a movie critic?

When I started in 1986, movie reviewing was a paying profession. Now, for a lot of folks, it’s more of a non-paying avocation. I honestly don’t know if I’d be as motivated to file every week for 28 years without money coming into the bank. Freelancers – and their families – have to eat! 

Have you ever read the work of other critics? Or are you the kind of person who thinks it’s better to only focus on their own?

I read other critics, but try to avoid them when I know I’m going to write about the same film they’re reviewing at Cannes or Berlin or whatever. Otherwise, their thoughts and turns of phrase might creep into my review. It’s not that I’m tempted to steal so much as my subconscious becomes infected. Better to just stay away. 

I’ve witnessed some particularly ugly arguments between film critics and viewers, but they apply to Western/Hollywood films. Did you ever argue with anyone online in regards to your own reviews? 

Very rarely. One JT commentator complained that my review of “Shin Godzilla” ‘gave away the plot.’ I replied that my ‘plot summary’ covered the first fifteen minutes of the film if that. Godzilla appears in Tokyo Bay – that’s a spoiler? 

How different is the Japanese movie audience compared to their Western counterpart? Do they both belong to extreme opposites?

Japanese audiences tend to be quieter. A comedy that makes a Japanese audience laugh out loud is a rarity. Itami could get them to laugh on the beat, which made me think he was some kind of genius. But even he couldn’t do it every time out.

Weepy melodramas, though, often have local audiences rummaging for their tissues. Generally, if you can make a Japanese audience cry, you’ve got a hit. That’s why nearly every romantic drama made here has a sad/down/bittersweet ending.  

Adding to the previous question: What do you think is the biggest issue currently facing film critics, especially when it comes to the Japanese movie industry?

The biggest issue for Japanese critics is the pressure not to be critical. In general, the bigger the media, the harder it is to find hard-hitting reviews. On television, even on the cable channels, critiques of films, as opposed to ‘introductions,’ are scarce. (I would say ‘non-existent,’ but I can’t say I watch everything out there.)

Based on our collective observation, a lot of the movie and drama fans who first fell in love with Japanese works have now migrated to the Korean or even the Chinese side. The fact they’re attracting more attention from foreigners through their (Kpop) marketing might be a reason for that. All the while it seems Japanese production committees don’t care about the West too much. Do you think that will ever change?

At Udine FEFF, we screen the few ‘production committee’ films that we think will connect with our audience, but we’re also looking for films toward the indie end of the spectrum that have a unique voice and vision. One of those films, Ogigami Naoko’s “Close Knit,” won two of our three audience awards this year. Last year another, Okita Shuichi’s “The Mohican Comes Home,” pulled off a similar feat. So it’s hard to say that the Udine audience, at least, is ‘drifting away’ from Japanese films. Out of the 600 or so Japanese films released annually, we manage to find several every year that can stand up to the Korean, Chinese and other Asian competition!

In Asia as a whole, however, it’s true that Japanese films often struggle. The big Japanese media companies are aware of this, as well as the need to break out of their ‘bubble’ since the Japanese domestic market is stagnating, with little to no hope of future revival. A pan-Asian hit like “Your Name” has shown them a way forward, but it remains to be seen whether they can truly internationalize, similar to the Koreans and Chinese.    

Looking at future prospects, will the local audience be enough to generate the revenues these committees and companies need?

Not really, for the reason mentioned above. The Japanese population is shrinking and young people – the core audience – are finding other ways to amuse themselves. The near-term prospect is for more stagnation. Beyond that, who can say? 

You’ve mentioned two particular Japanese filmmakers before, Nakashima Tetsuya and Tsutsumi Yukihiko, but how would you describe their films? 

They are both commercial filmmakers, but Nakashima has a distinct style and vision. “The World of Kanako” was a disappointment, but I’m hoping for a comeback. Tsutsumi is mostly a director-for-hire, but he also makes the occasional personal film, such as the 2012 homeless drama “My House,” more interesting than his usual output.
What do you feel are their chances of becoming as much of a ‘celebrated’ individual as Miike, Koreeda, or Kitano Takeshi have in the international film festival circuit? Do you think they have the chance or will someone else (perhaps a female director) do it?

More than Nakashima and Tsutsumi, who have been around for decades, I’m looking for directors like Fukada Koji (“Harmonium”) and Nishikawa Miwa (“The Long Excuse”) to move up to the front ranks of Japanese directors internationally. It’s tougher now than when Kitano, Miike, and the rest were coming up in the 1990s. Quality directors are emerging from places that, not long ago, barely had film industries. But Fukada, whose film “Sayonara” was recently released in France, seem the closest to a breakthrough. 

We are very curious about Japanese actors you have come to admire through the years, can you tell us some of them? What made them such good actors?

Among the younger actors, Matsuyama Kenichi, Matsuda Ryuhei, Suda Masaki, Ikematsu Sosuke. Also, Kase Ryo and Odagiri Joe, though they are no longer ‘younger.’ Among the younger actresses, Ando Sakura, Nikaido Fumi, Aoi Yu, Mitsushima Hikari, and Kuroki Haru. 

If I start listing the older ones, I’ll be here all night, but Asano Tadanobu is a standout among the standouts, who always makes an impact in even formula roles. Another outstanding veteran, if somewhat new to me since she’s worked mainly in the theater, is Tsutsui Mariko, who was amazing in “Harmonium.” There are also many great supporting actors now working, such as Furutachi Kanji, Denden, and Shibukawa Kiyohiko. And I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Aso Kumiko. 

Related to actors, are there any particular newcomers/fresh faces you find promising?

She’s not exactly a ‘fresh face,’ but Ito Sairi, the star of Uchida Eiji’s new black comedy “Love and Other Cults,” was a discovery for me; she plays a character who begins the film as a teenage ‘cult goddess’ and ends it as a porn star – and completely inhabits all of her various personas. 

You’ve watched and reviewed so many Japanese films through the years. It’s not a surprise our PsychoDrama community has gotten curious to know which movie(s) have been able to capture your heart. What was it that endeared you to it? 

I have so many, so maybe I’d better plug one that’s been overlooked. Ichikawa Jun is best known for “Tony Takitani,” but for me, his masterpiece is “Dying At a Hospital” (1993). It follows five cancer patients to the end of their lives, always from the middle distance, interspersed with documentary footage of ordinary people doing ordinary things – hunting for clams at the seaside, watching a baseball game, dancing at a Bon festival. This approach – no close-ups, no melodrama – may seem detached at first, but becomes cumulatively more powerful as the juxtapositions between the dying and the living continue – and you see so clearly what the former, including a 40-year-old salaryman saying good-bye to his wife and young children for the last time, will be missing. I sat next to Ichikawa when we screened this film at Udine FEFF in 2004 and couldn’t hold back the sobs. Neither could the rest of the audience, who gave him a standing ovation with tear-streaked faces. One of my favorite Udine memories…     

Throughout your career, you must have had a few instances where it was harder than usual to get your opinion across. Do you remember any specific movie you found incredibly hard to review?

I struggle the most with the raves since it’s so tempting to pile on the superlatives – and sound like an idiot. The pans come a lot easier….

Mark Schilling interview

You are quite active in the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) held in Udine for many years. Please tell us how it all began. If you’re to pick some of the best memories or milestones, what would that be?

Udine contacted me about recommendations for Japanese films. This was for their second edition. I sent them a list – and they sent me a plane ticket. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, but I wondered what I had done to deserve a free trip to Italy. Since then the Japanese film section – and the workload – has grown quite a bit. 

A milestone for me was the section I programmed on Ishii Teruo for the 2003 edition. Ishii’s work had rarely been screened abroad (though his “torture” films were available on VHS), so we were the first European (and as far as I know, foreign) festival to devote an entire section – six films – to him. One of the highlights was “Horrors of Malformed Men,” a film that had never been released on VHS or shown on TV in Japan because of its “controversial” content. Ishii was present for the Udine screening – and was extremely gratified when the film received a thunderous standing ovation.

Another milestone was a 16-film section I curated on the Nikkatsu Action genre for the 2005 Udine FEFF, again a foreign festival first. A selection of these films later toured North America, with two in particular, “A Colt Is My Passport” and “The Warped Ones,” getting rave reviews from the critics. These and other Nikkatsu Action films were later released on DVD by Criterion. 

I have others – but this is enough for now!      

For aspiring film critics and journalist, what would be your advice to them if they want to be known as one? 

Given that the world of film criticism and journalism has changed so much since I started out, I can’t say ‘do as I did.’ But whatever success I’ve had for anything I’ve done has come from doing it differently from anyone else. When I started reviewing, hardly anyone around me, Japanese or foreign, liked new Japanese films, but I specialized in them. The same people thought Japanese pop culture was crap, so I wrote a book about it. The critical consensus was that Suzuki Seijun was the only worthwhile Nikkatsu Action director; I programmed a section for Udine about the films of his colleagues, leaving out Suzuki’s entirely. I don’t consider myself exceptional. In fact, I know that if I went with the crowd, instead of leading it, I’d get lost in it. So I go my own way, for better or worse!


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