Original Copy: An Interview with Daisuke Miyazaki

How Miyazaki's low-budget films—location-rich, politically engaged, and inflected with pop music—reflect modern Japan.
A.E. Hunt

Daisuke Miyazaki in New York City, July 2023. Photo courtesy of the author.

Near the end of Daisuke Miyazaki’s Yamato (California) (2016), an aspiring rapper with stage fright finally raps unfettered. As she wanders through a meadow, an unmotivated movie light cuts through the natural daylight, illuminating her face in her overdue moment of release.

Near the end of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth (2019), a travel reporter with fantasies of singing finally does so unfettered. As she wanders through a meadow, an unmotivated movie light cuts through the natural daylight, illuminating her face in her overdue moment of release. 

Miyazaki’s mid-2010s work undoubtedly influenced Kurosawa’s film. Both Yamato (California) and To the Ends of the Earth were shot by the same cinematographer, veteran Akiko Ashizawa. Miyazaki had also worked with Kurosawa once before, as an assistant director on Tokyo Sonata (2008), and the two remained in touch. There are precise structural and aesthetic similarities between the filmmakers’ approaches, as well. Two-thirds of the way into To the Ends of the Earth, there’s a different echo of another Miyazaki film, 2017’s Tourism: both films are tightly crafted to seem meandering, but in twin sequences set in bustling markets, they suddenly tease thriller stakes. 

In sampling these elements, Kurosawa at least employs them toward somewhat different ends and finds some original expression. Clear of commercial gloss—the cakey foundation texture that can result from big cameras, big lights, and overall big studio infrastructure—Miyazaki’s original copies feel rawer, like there’s less concealer getting between the lens and the final image. Similarly, his undoctored dialogue is more free to lapse into the quirky gaps of logic and incalculable detours of regular conversation, allowing his strange sense of humor (with which I identify closely) to arise when you least expect it. Early in Tourism, Nina (Nina Endo) announces she’s eating hummus, which her roommates have never tasted. In a several-minute-long scene, the three guess its origin before Googling it and further debating the geopolitics of the food: “Lebanon and Israel have intensified the conflict over the origin of hummus,” Nina reads aloud from her phone, and then sighs and muses, “Hummus is a trouble.” All this, only for her to confess she lied—she was eating peanut butter all along.

For Miyazaki, everything is a copy anyways; he’s fine with it, so long as you can find your voice in the facsimile. While he was in New York in July to premiere his film Plastic (2023) at Japan Cuts and show Tourism and Yamato (California) at the Brooklyn microcinema Spectacle, I interviewed him in his hotel lobby beside poorly lit reproductions of paintings by Gustav Klimt. “It’s perfect,” he said afterward of the interview setting, given what we had just discussed about appropriation and copying in music and film. That said, Miyazaki’s work feels distinct from the Japanese films that typically succeed overseas. It is harder to “tag” aesthetically; content-wise, is more location-specific and location-rich; and is, somehow at the same time, more political and more pop. While his work is critical of capitalism and the West, it is not dogmatically so, or it’s not merely “anti” anything before it is pro its own unadulterated expression. In this way, too, it refuses to cater to the film festival demand for marketable absolutes.

Compared to Miyazaki’s films, Kurosawa’s can feel weather-sealed from contexts outside of cinema. (In this brief interview I did with Kurosawa, he addresses the apolitical nature of his World War II spy drama Wife of a Spy [2020].) This tendency is reflected in how frequently he uses rear-projection for driving scenes and obscures window views with curtains and blasts of movie lights (ever drawing our eyes back into his interiors), which can be the result of, as Miyazaki notes in our talk, TV studios being the primary sponsor of Japanese cinema—a lot of commercial work is shot on soundstages, and is thus further removed physically from the outside world than an independent film running amok in real locations.

There are still restrictions, of course, like not being able to shoot toward the US air base in Yamato, his hometown, or on streets owned by the Yakuza. But then, Miyazaki is butting up more directly against the political landscape of a place rather than a play-pretend industry, and perhaps even those restrictions are more reflective of a world that audiences can recognize. Unbound by Japan’s commercial industry regulations and still-popular fetish for static frames, Miyazaki’s camera feels light on its feet. He gets closer to local music scenes, whether it be Yamato’s hip-hop, Singapore’s experimental art rock, or, in Videophobia (2019), Osaka’s Bass music. The omnibus film Made in Yamato (2021) is proof that Miyazaki is part of a larger community of filmmakers who are working in this way: on the ground in Tokyo’s surrounding prefectures and with budgets in the thousands and tens of thousands. 

Ahead of an August retrospective of his work at Spectacle, Miyazaki talked with me about location-shooting restrictions, festival “tags,” orientalism in contemporary Japanese cinema, and how music and moving images, as well as a devotion to understanding them, can transcend barriers.

Yamato (California) (Daisuke Miyazaki, 2016).

NOTEBOOK: When we were walking around Brooklyn last night, you remarked that one could film around the streets without worrying about the mafia. In Japan, on the other hand, you still have to worry about the yakuza. 

DAISUKE MIYAZAKI: There are a lot of reasons but… The center of many famous cities is still kind of ruled by the yakuza. If you’re using it, you have to get permission from them. Sometimes the kind of film commission is enough. But most of the interesting parts [of the cities] are owned by the yakuza, so you need connections to shoot.

NOTEBOOK: So you need their permission in addition to a permit?

MIYAZAKI: A shooting permit you can sometimes forget about. Yakuza you can’t forget about. But I think they’re getting weaker and weaker over the years, so it’s getting more free in that regard. 

NOTEBOOK: Is that an issue when you’re shooting in your hometown, Yamato?

MIYAZAKI: In my hometown, there are streets owned by them, on which the film commission recommends us not to shoot. I helped my friends shoot there once but we couldn’t shoot much. That kind of thing still happens even in Yamato, so Tokyo and Osaka are full of streets like that.

NOTEBOOK: Are there filming restrictions around the US air base in Yamato?

MIYAZAKI: It’s very serious: the base in my town. During the shooting of Yamato (California), the military police stopped us, because they’re going around the base and checking out what’s going on every three minutes or so. First they called the Japanese army—which they say does not exist so they call it the “Self-Defense Force,” because “we shouldn’t have an army”—then they call the local police, who can come outside of [the base to face the crew]. Inside of the fence are the Self-Defense Force and US MP. 

That kind of strange situation happened all the time while shooting. As you can see in the movie, they come as soon as you go by the fence with the camera. On the fence, it says something like, “We can arrest you for no reason—or under the law of the US Navy, not Japanese laws.” So I don’t know what really happens when you continue shooting. But that [extraterritoriality] beyond Japanese rule is still ongoing. For Yamato, during the Trump era, they said they were going to move to Yamaguchi; most of the US Navy moved to Yamaguichi, and now it’s not as noisy as it was. I’d say it’s 80 percent less. But still, when there’s news between, let’s say, China or North Korea, they fly in.

Ospreys, those kinds of helicopter-planes, are crashing all the time. That’s been a big issue in Okinawa. So they fly into Yamato, but they never show it on the news because there’ll be panic and a demonstration around the base. On paper, they say they already left Yamato and are in Yamaguchi, but they still come here when they want.

NOTEBOOK: Is it like in the Philippines where US soldiers can’t be tried in national courts? 

MIYAZAKI: It’s the same. Fortunately in Yamato, that kind of thing hardly happens. Most of them happen in Okinawa because they have very young marines who are training to be aggressive—because they’re like the first players to jump into the war. It’s sad; I hear most of them are from the South, like Atlanta and South Carolina, et cetera. 

NOTEBOOK: At the Tourism Q&A at Spectacle, you mentioned most of the buildings that you filmed in Singapore are already gone today. Is that true of the civil war monument that stands out from the malls and markets that the two main characters visit?

MIYAZAKI: It’s still there, but no one goes there. People don’t know what the monument means. I didn’t even understand what it was, but I went up close and researched the history—and found there was a connection between it and the Japanese army. Something that will be forgotten after filming is something I’m interested in.

NOTEBOOK: In that shot of the monument, the image suddenly darkens, turns black and white, and the sound of gunshots from the past takes over. It’s the only scene that takes us out of the present moment and reveals the film’s political attitude.

MIYAZAKI: Usually I dance around capitalism or consumerism, but I do have a certain amount of respect and opinions about what really happened under that land historically and politically. I tried to include that in the movie, not in a very obvious way. In Tourism, Nina is talking about how she helps her friend’s father’s festival shop or something. Behind her is a [military] base. But the thing she is sewing and padding is a bulletproof jacket for the Japanese army. You can’t tell that easily, but I like to hide those things inside of the movie—inside of this pop. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you need locations locked in before you finish a script?

MIYAZAKI: Location and music are very important. If I can’t imagine any music for a story, I don’t think I can shoot it. Since Japanese films don’t have much budget, I have to work hard on locations to make the film interesting. Kiyoshi Kurosawa said, “Tokyo is so boring; you have to find a new way to film inside of it, or shoot outside of it.” 

Another director I admire said, “Locations are free. If you don’t have money, look for a good location.” There’s something spiritual about how I choose locations. Maybe it’s because of what had been there before, or maybe I feel the place will disappear after a while. 

NOTEBOOK: Because the film was financed by the Singapore Art Science Museum, were you basically able to shoot wherever you wanted?

MIYAZAKI: The shopping mall that we filmed with an iPhone was run by the government, so it was OK for us to shoot in there, and that hardly happens. Same thing with the museum. We were able to shoot in many places we wouldn’t be able to officially. Usually I’m against the big system, government, or the strong people—but this time the strong people were supporting us doing something against capitalism and the controlling governments. 

Tourism (Daisuke Miyazaki, 2018).

NOTEBOOK: So Tourism is an odd mixture of hidden-camera guerilla shooting and government-sanctioned shooting. Between Yamato and Tourism, there’s a throughline with the characters saying malls look identical between their respective home countries.

MIYAZAKI: That’s what I found. 7-Eleven was the start of my thinking about that. Kevin Smith already did it with convenience stores in Clerks. But for me, the mall is like a window to the world, connected with everywhere. It’s boring and has all the same shops, but we go to malls all the time. Especially Japanese go all the time, but we don’t do anything there, just eat a bit of ice cream and leave. It’s now like a communication center for us. It’s very sad, but it’s the reality. 

Japanese shopping malls started in a city next to Yamato. They’re all over Japan now. But the reason they started is because the US military wanted them. They wanted a lifestyle like the USA, so they asked the Japanese government to make a mall close to the base. Again, a political thing is the cause of this landscape.

NOTEBOOK: Considering the repeal of the Paramount Consent Decree, are US studios block booking American movies in Japanese theaters again?

MIYAZAKI: These last 20 years, the number of American movies shown in Japan decreased by like 50 percent. Before we only had Hollywood or US movies, but now probably only like three or four a month maximum play in a Cineplex. And now with the strikes, many [local] theaters are predicting that the number of US movies shown in Japan will be the lowest in history. US influence is getting less and less.

NOTEBOOK: What did you observe of how capitalist means of production shaped Japanese cinema while working on commercial projects as an assistant director? 

MIYAZAKI: In Japan, we don’t have enough money, which means we don’t have enough [time in the] schedule—even for big films. Let’s say the largest major film made in Japan is 10 percent of the budget of The Northman [$70 to $90 million]. [Laughs.] It’s tiny tiny.

What you have to do is shoot as quickly as possible; you have to decide what you want to do before you’re on set. So there’s no time for thinking or doing something fun that you come up with on set. Schedule-wise, the language you use, the system, the grouping, the communication—everything is about how quick and fast we can do the film. All the actors are crazy busy with commercials and TV jobs. They’ll shoot for an hour and leave and come back for another hour. The main sponsor for big movies is the TV station, so it’s like a combo: if you star in this movie, you can also be in this TV drama and this commercial [from the same sponsor]. It’s really crazy; it’s not a place where you can concentrate and create. 

I did learn from small commercial productions how to make a schedule and realize lots of things using very few days and budget. Most of my films have a maximum of ten shooting days. Videophobia was like nine days. Tourism was like five days.

NOTEBOOK: I want to go back to that shot of the civil war monument that takes us out of the present. You also have a shot like that in Yamato (California). What’s going on there?

MIYAZAKI: I went close to Fukushima to film because it was a few years after the earthquake. Fukushima’s nuclear plant and the base in my city are connected. It’s not too much to say they were both built by the US. We actually don’t need nuclear plants, and we don’t want them, but we have to keep them because the US says we can make nuclear weapons in like a week whenever whatever East Asian country invades—is what they're thinking. Instead of them keeping a nuclear bomb [here], they want us to keep the potential to make a nuclear bomb for when a country is invading. 

Fukushima was not directly connected with my movie, but in my mind, everything is connected under the influence of the US. So I went to Fukushima with my assistant director and shot that scene. The tsunami happened just before we went, so it hadn’t recovered much, and it was really sad. 

When we rented a car, they asked us for our phone numbers. They called all of us like every hour; I didn’t understand why. But I understood later that it was because a lot of people were committing suicide in that area right after the earthquake—because no one could find them or they would be considered dead by the tsunami or earthquake. So the rental car people were scared that we might commit suicide. [Laughs.] 

NOTEBOOK: What did it feel like to show Yamato (California) in the US?

MIYAZAKI: All of my films are like that, but it’s not about anger or revenge or “Fuck US!” or something like that. Obviously we are affected, supported, and helped by a lot of US influences culturally, politically… The point of my filmmaking is probably—there’s this conflict situation, but what can we do next? How do we step out to consider those influences positively? My films are not politically correct, anti-something, anti-capitalist, or whatever. It’s all about how we are ripped apart but our lives still go on, and what should we do now? 

Screening in the US was a really good and big thing for me. I want the US people to see what’s going on in a city deeply influenced by America that they probably never heard of, and which hasn’t changed for 70 years. Maybe a few people will go study what’s been going on with the US in East Asia. I hope things get better and better. In Okinawa, I showed the film and lots of young people came. The reaction was good, but they told me that what’s going on in Okinawa is quite different from Yamato. In Okinawa, as I said, they’re very aggressive, and young soldiers commit a lot of violence. In Yamato, the soldiers are kind of quiet and a little more mature—so they don’t do those stupid crimes. But the situation is similar: there is this base there throughout their life that they cannot do anything about. 

Most people in Japan would probably say they prefer the US government to the Chinese government. The same in Okinawa. They are angry about Tokyo people and mainlanders forgetting them, but at the same time, they do realize that it’s because of the US that they can have a peaceful life instead of being controlled by the Communist Party. It’s very difficult, but it’s not simply, Get out, US! And come in, China! We want to be independent, but have to look at reality at the same time.

NOTEBOOK: I missed the Yamato screening. What was the reaction?

MIYAZAKI: Half of the audience left before the Q&A. They were probably like, What is this?, or, This isn’t rap music! Or something. In Japan, rock and roll came in the ’50s or ’60s. Then in the ’90s, people started to call Japanese rock, J-Rock. We had literature even before the US, but some people call modern Japanese literature J-Literature. And rap now is called J-Rap. Some influences from the US and Europe turned into a Japanese way. We struggle, because it starts as copying. We’re pretty good at copying. Many people think we have to be original, but I think everything in the world is pretty much a copy.

My professor friend showed Yamato at Harvard, and he said some of the African American students felt it was like stealing their culture, and said that they wouldn’t accept Japanese rapping. I was kind of sad hearing that; it was in the newspaper in Japan, that topic. My friend wrote that he was shocked by the response and that we had no intention to harm and invade any cultural thing. But that form came into Japan, and we are trying to figure out our way of expressing ourselves through it—we are saved by the art of hip-hop or rap, but the originator said, it’s stealing our culture. That’s sad.

I felt that kind of reaction yesterday. It’s OK, I understand that stance. We still have to find our original copy. The original in the copy is what we’re seeking in the rap form. I wanted to do that in Yamato. I never thought that my film would be shown in a grad school at Harvard. But I really like these kinds of conflicts and mixed-up things in my films. I believe in that kind of world instead of, “From here to here it’s your world, from here to here it’s my world,” which [is an ideology] festivals have to use to put tags on movies. The world is more complicated, plastic, and mixed and chaotic—and I want to show that in my movies.

I refer to this rapper Lil B in Yamato (California), and he saw the movie and liked it. We text each other quite often to this day. 

Plastic (Daisuke Miyazaki, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: In Tourism, the music of the Singaporean band at the end connects a Japanese tourist and a local who cannot understand each other verbally. In Yamato (California), Sakura is inspired by American hip-hop to rebel against the powers that be, despite one of those powers being the US air base that lingers in her hometown. In Plastic, music’s ability to make connections between vast lengths of space and time is centered in a story about lovers who drift apart and are reunited by their shared musical taste. 

MIYAZAKI: Music is my hope to go beyond words. Referring to Plastic, maybe English or US people will say this is a cheap rip-off of David Bowie. But there are a lot of people from my generation who were educated by Western culture—it informed our life. 

Rock and roll is a kind of big scene, but Japanese rock has been ignored internationally. Recently—let’s say Pitchfork, or whatever big Western media—decided to write about Japanese rock [bands] and rate them 7.8 or whatever. So some of them got big even in the US. The producer of Plastic is a really famous producer in Japan; he’s hot on Pitchfork. He produces Shintaro Sakamoto, and he also does Boris, who has made soundtracks for Jim Jarmusch. What drives him is all of those ideals about US culture. So he listens to US rock, German krautrock more than anybody in Japan, and created this original sound. He’s the guy behind the Plastic soundtrack, so I don’t think any Americans or Europeans can say this is totally fake, or whatever—because he knows American music more than most American artists. 

I guess for him, rock was like an anonymous letter that came from the US or UK, and this guy kept studying the message in the Far East and sent it back to the US or Europe. That was my image for the Plastic movie as well. That kind of strong emotion and devotion to life can easily overcome those histories, borders, and identity politics.  So the music for Plastic was a challenge. Many people won’t understand the lyrics if they don’t watch it without subtitles, but they can still probably understand that it’s really groovy and cool. 

Tourism’s last scene with the Singapore band, The Are—they first made the ending song in Mandarin, but I asked them to get rid of the Mandarin and make it humming, because I wanted it to be universal rather than limiting. Hitchcock said to first write the script without writing the dialogue: action, action, action. I followed his word, so you can watch my movies without sound and still understand it, hopefully. Moving images and music are the only two ways we can still communicate without words. 

NOTEBOOK: Last night you talked about how many Japanese filmmakers who are staples of the festival circuit end up making orientalist work.

MIYAZAKI: I do admire how they devoted their lives to the Japanese film industry. But at the same time, Koreeda-san or Kawase-san or whoever—I really like their early works. Koreeda-san did a film, I Wish (2011), which just follows these kids traveling around Japan. It’s my favorite film of his. In those films, which are very ignorant and pure and uncritical, unlike festival-friendly movies; I really feel the real him as an artist. Kawase-san’s the same, when she was just creating what she wanted to when she was young, I admired those works a lot. 

It’s not only Japanese directors; most Asian directors, when they become a little bit famous on the festival circuit, start tagging their works—whatever minority tag, poverty tag, or LGTBQ tag [is trending]—and you can easily tell they’re not so interested in these topics. Sion Sono made a film about Fukushima, and then he said, “I have to keep filming Fukushima every year after that.” But he never shot anything about Fukushima after that, because the film failed. Probably he wanted it to win a Palme d’Or or whatever, but it didn’t. They used Fukushima as a tag.

Filmmaking is about my life and relationships and my hopes against the world. Film takes a lot of money, [strained] relationships, and physical stress—it shortens your life for sure. It’s high-risk, so it has to be direct from yourself. Why should I play a tag game for fame while taking this kind of risk? I think I’d be wasting the people around me if I were to start making those fake—or in the hip-hop world I think it’s wack—wack movies. Selling out is OK, but wack I can’t stand. It would be like lying to my friends who have been supporting me. My friends or my great senior Koreeda-san, I know they have to keep on doing that to film with a similar amount of money and keep their name every year. But for me it’s too much of a game, a part of this big capitalism game. There are a lot of great movies shot for a few thousand dollars, very real and true to the artist. It might be DIY and it might not go to any festivals, but they don’t care about that. I know directors doing films all around Japan who just shut up and do their thing. I prefer that kind of work.

I do sometimes watch festival movies to know what kind of tag is popular now; it’s like the Twitter timeline—”hashtag something” is hot. I do understand you have to do this sometimes if you want to spread your films more. If tagging comes first, and the director or artist loses what they really want to do, or they keep on doing what a distributor or film festival wants them to do, it’s not worth it. That kind of filmmaking wastes you. I was away from all those things during COVID, and I was doing what I really wanted to do. I could express myself and challenge things without worrying what people would think. 

What we cannot tag or explain in words is what we should film. Something you can tag can be easily described in words. A Sundance movie trailer—people riding in a car half naked, opening the window with the wind flying, with whatever Fleet Foxes kind of alternative music playing behind it—some Frank Ocean kind-of-R&B music playing—why do you want to make that kind of a mold if you’re an artist and you can only live once?

I used to do screenings at a theater, which I curated and invited out of festival circuit directors. Usually I introduce local directors from all over Japan with Tokyo directors. We had an introduction and a teach-in thing. I want an alternative to what's going on with this arthouse world. The world should be more mixed-up, and full of choices and possibilities.

Anyhow, I don’t know what will happen to me in five years.

NOTEBOOK: You’ll be directing the Barbie sequel.

MIYAZAKI: [Laughs.] Really? Actually, that would be great because my goal is to do big American movies! But in Japan, people still consider me an independent director who shows his films outside of Japan. People consider me more international than domestic, which is the strange part.

NOTEBOOK: How do you sell out without making something wack?  

MIYAZAKI: I know that selling out without being wack is what the Americans are good at.

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