Capturing a World in a Crystal Ball: A Conversation with Kei Fujiwara

A rare interview with film and theater director Kei Fujiwara about her work with Shinya Tsukamoto and her cult directorial debut, "Organ."
Amber Noé
Above: Tetsuo: the Iron Man
Kei Fujiwara’s name is hardly recognizable to most fans of Japanese cinema despite her crucial role in director Shinya Tsukamoto’s early cult classics. As Tsukamoto’s “right hand” woman in the 1980s, Fujiwara became closely involved in his underground theater troupe, Kaijyu Theater, and contributed to the productions of the experimental and DIY films The Phantom of Regular Size (1986), The Adventures of Denchu Kozo (1987), and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). Her credits include actress, cinematographer, prop artist, makeup artist, and set-designer (her apartment was used as a primary set). She also engineered Tetsuo’s iconic phallic drill.
Born in Kumamoto in 1957, Fujiwara moved to Tokyo in her early twenties and discovered theater troupe director Jūrō Kara, who became her mentor. After a decade, she created her own troupe called Organ Vital, which underwent a series of evolutions but remains her life work. Her new project this year is Ibunkitan, a form of micro-nomadic theater, whose kanji characters mean “strange-listen-machine-story.” A private person now living in the reclusive mountains of Nagano, Fujiwara rarely gives interviews, but seemed excited to talk about her rarely discussed directorial debut, Organ (1996).
An avant-garde exploration of violence, pain and pleasure with an operatic amount of coagulated blood and extrasomatic body horror, Organ follows two detectives after they break into an organ harvester’s warehouse and collide with yakuza gangsters, a drugged doctor, and his eye-patch wearing sister Yoko, played by Fujiwara herself, who also produced and wrote the film. A cherished work among hardcore fans of Japanese cult cinema, Organ is still ripe for rediscovery. The film’s offerings of a full-bodied sensorial experience and an abusive questioning of cruelty prove tirelessly relevant.
Fujiwara’s work was recently revived at FFFest in New York City with a double feature of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Organ. Fujiwara prepared a special statement that was shared as an introduction. Following the screening, we had the opportunity to speak to the artist about her life, practice, and ideals in more depth. The conversation was held over the phone in Japanese.

NOTEBOOK: Is Ibunkitan a new Organ Vital?
KEI FUJIWARA: Yes, it’s a new Organ Vital. When I was young, I lived in the rural area. I always just read theater but never had the opportunity to see state-of-the-art theater. When I was in high school, I was always reading, and I picked up an Antonin Artaud book that featured this French term. It meant the vessels of life. When translated to English, I’m told it just becomes, “vitals of organ,” or something, but in Japanese it is called gozōroppu and to me signifies the corporal. That’s the name of my theater company, and it has always been that for me. Born into this three-dimensional world with bodies, we sense and express. That’s what’s interesting in life. Ibunkitan can be done in a very small space. We’ve done it in temples, in the corner of a shop, in salons. Our first performance was in March, and we’re planning to do another in November. We've been invited to perform my new Jomon-inspired piece in a live-house in the mountains in Nagano, so we’re preparing some woodwork for that now.
NOTEBOOK: You were working in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kaijyu Theater production between working with Jūrō Kara?
FUJIWARA: Jūrō Kara, my mentor—when I was in Jōkyō Gekijo [Situation Theatre], he took a liking to me and wrote roles for me. A lot happened, and Kara said he would make a new troupe with me, but I had other plans, so I left once, and he said, “As my mentee, you can leave but wait for me to come get you.” That’s when I went to work with Shinya Tsukamoto on his plays and films. It was after Tetsuo: The Iron Man [1989] that Kara started the new troupe “Kara-gumi” and I returned to work with him.
NOTEBOOK: How was it that you began working with Tsukamoto?
FUJIWARA: I had just left Kara and after a while a friend said that Tsukamoto was looking for someone to act in his plays. He was Tsukamoto’s classmate and an actor, and he made the introduction. I found Tsukamoto interesting and talented. So, I began working diligently as his right hand after that.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask you about Tsukamoto’s 1987 film, The Adventures of Denchu Kozo.
FUJIWARA: Denchu Kozo and Tetsuo were actually both shot in my apartment where I was living at the time. You know all those cats? I couldn’t rent a normal apartment, so I had to live in a cheap nagaya tenement house on the verge of getting demolished. I just needed a place to live that permitted pets. Denchu Kozo and Tetsuo’s interior shots are all at my place.
NOTEBOOK: Are the scenes projected in the TV monitor in Tetsuo from Denchu Kozo?
FUJIWARA: Yes. They’re from Denchu Kozo.
Above: Organ
NOTEBOOK: What turned you onto making Organ, if you were always only interested in theater?
FUJIWARA: That was because of my experience filmmaking with Tsukamoto. It prepared me for how arduous it would be. Theater is an impermanent art, and that’s why it’s such a luxurious art form. But film is like capturing a world in a crystal ball. The joy of creating film is like making your own universe. My staff members at the time— six men other than myself—were all talented, and I thought, “Everyone’s here, why don’t I just make it?” So, all the staff also became the actors, and that’s how we started filming. But it was so difficult at first. We used the atelier space we had and reformed it over and over and shot it like that. It was time-consuming. It became the warehouse set, the school set. It kept on transforming. We did it all in the same space.
NOTEBOOK: That seems like a very theatrical way of using space.
FUJIWARA: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: But first, you started writing it?
FUJIWARA: Yes, I first started writing it. I’m actually not very good at planning. I just think that if I put my mind to it, I can make it happen. So I wrote the script, and had the staff pool in their savings. Between the seven of us we had 200,000 yen, so I thought, “Great, if we have 200,000 yen and one reel of film is 5,000 yen, and even if we bought lights, we can make 30 minutes of footage.” As for the equipment, there are countless aspiring-filmmaker boys who have camera equipment lying around collecting dust, so we borrowed from them. As for the set, we were all used to making it for our theater. We were good at foraging free stuff to make things. That warehouse set in the beginning of Organ was made with an extremely cheap budget. Then we started filming. All those organs in that scene were worked from what was supposed to be our dinner for the day [laughs]. We used real food. We took some gelatin- and konjac-noodles and thought, “This can look like veins!”
NOTEBOOK: And then you had it for dinner?
FUJIWARA: Well, we ended up not being able to, because it was covered in fake blood! It was all about how little money we could spend and still make something, which was a valuable lesson for me.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve mentioned the Kenji Miyazawa poem, Ame ni mo makezu1.
FUJIWARA: Yes, I just really like Kenji Miyazawa. I like the way he thinks, and his philosophy. He’s a Buddhist, and as I haven’t studied Buddhism properly, I cannot say for sure, but I think his seimeikan, or view of life, is on par with that of Osamu Tezuka. Osamu Tezuka and Kenji Miyazawa are two gods with the same perspective regarding seimeikan. No matter how great their art is, Yoshihide Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki can never reach Osamu’s level. Osamu’s core is love. There’s only love. The way they think about life is totally different. I was reading manga before I was literate [laughs]. I like Osamu Tezuka, but also Sanpei Shirato. And in my teens, I liked Daijiro Morohoshi. He’s an extremely interesting person.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that your films need to be discovered?
FUJIWARA: They need to lock in perfectly with someone’s desire to watch it, or else watching it has no meaning. It just appears as a confusing, grotesque film.
NOTEBOOK: Please tell us about your make up and special effects.
FUJIWARA: Since Tetsuo, my method is always the same. I don’t have any background knowledge of special effect makeup. I just have a gut feeling of what can and can’t be used. Tsukamoto had these drawing storyboards for Tetsuo, like the steel body and the drill penis. For the latter, Tsukamoto just wanted to make something simple and said it would be enough if we could just pretend like it was moving, but I thought it would only be interesting if it actually moved. I didn’t have any hi-tech skills, so I thought, “That’s it!” I took the nearest working electric fan, dissembled it down to its core, used all the rubber and tape I had at home, sprayed it up and got it to go, vroom [laughs]! It was the same for Organ. I used household products, mostly kitchenware.
Above: Organ
NOTEBOOK: What about your cinematography?
FUJIWARA: I had no background knowledge. The first time I started shooting was on Tsukamoto’s set. A lot of people who graduated film school and wanted to help were there, but Tsukamoto didn’t trust any of them. Just because you have technique doesn’t mean you can shoot well. He thought that the person wielding the camera needs a certain amount of power, of energy. So I, who had never touched a camera in my life, was given the camera and told where to press to get it rolling, and shot all of the scenes Tsukamoto was in.
NOTEBOOK: Do you still shoot with a camera lately?
FUJIWARA: Rarely.
NOTEBOOK: As the occasion for this screening was FFFest, Female Filmmakers Festival, could you comment about your experience as a female filmmaker?
FUJIWARA: Something men don’t have—there are two types: female filmmakers who focus their perspective on their immediate surroundings and daily lives, and those who focus on creating a worldview from the even more intimate bodily perspective. That’s what’s a little different from male filmmakers. Even in theater, most female directors write familial narratives, although I don’t [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: The podcast Ladies Horror Night, on the occasion of this screening, recorded an episode that raised the question of why you, a female filmmaker, didn’t include more female characters. I’m not sure about this pressure for female filmmakers to represent female subjects, as I think there’s power in the female filmmaker re-writing the male-centric story. Can you speak on this and how you came to write the police story in Organ?
FUJIWARA: When I think about seimeikan—our view of life—it appears to me that the moral judgment of good versus bad is not something universal, but just a rule that protects our lifestyle in society. It’s a regulation. We make regulations to protect ourselves. That takes the form of “good” and “evil.” But that’s not the good and evil that holds ground in nature. Animals kill other animals for their own predation, right? Humans, too, in the context of war, can kill other humans and become heroes. The concept of zen-aku, or the notion of good and evil, is just a societal regulation. The police represent upholders of this regulation. And then there are those who defy this regulation, who lie in a realm completely different from this conventional morality. Organ is a clash between these two groups. That’s how I formed the police narrative. As for why there are few female characters, well… In the case of females, expressing them requires—for many, not all—a focus on the micro world, the micro perspective, that is, if you pay attention to their priorities. In other words, if you have a goal and you want to finish something, but she says she needs to take a bath at this certain time and cannot participate, there’s nothing you can do. In my theater, only men can keep up with me. Because of this standpoint, if a woman were to express a woman, she would need to create a micro world. But when describing a police story, a macro worldview, the direction would lose focus.
NOTEBOOK: It would become more internal?
FUJIWARA: Right. That’s why there aren’t as many female characters. But the wife of Numata represents the reality for women. And also the female teacher who approaches the criminal but gets killed. Woman participated in this way. But it’s hard for them to take leading parts for the narrative. It’s hard to let them be there and have their perspective be represented, because their perspective is in a different dimension.
NOTEBOOK: What about the character you play, Yoko?
FUJIWARA: Yoko is outside of that realm. She’s an outlier. She doesn’t represent family or the household or the joy of daily life, because she didn’t enjoy any of those things. That’s why she can exist there.
NOTEBOOK: How did you direct your actors in Organ, was it different from how you usually direct them in theater?
FUJIWARA: It’s the same. The only direction I gave them in Organ was that they only get one shot. I don’t give actors multiple takes. If there’s a camera or equipment problem that requires another take or two, I’ll do it. But I won’t do it for the actor. The actor has one chance, the take. But, on the offhand that the actor makes a mistake and requires a take two, I tell them they need to buy their own film roll. That was the rule. So, no one ever made a single mistake. They were all dead serious, completely focused. They’re all broke and have no money to buy film.
NOTEBOOK: In that sense it’s theatrical.
FUJIWARA: Right, and I had one actress tell me that that it was brilliant. She said, “I do lots of work for TV and film, but everyone is so lukewarm and they do take after take, and think about it so leniently. But there’s none of that here. The one take is the real thing.”
NOTEBOOK: So, that urgency was good for the actors?
FUJIWARA: Right. They said they couldn’t afford to buy their own film.
NOTEBOOK: If you give theater actors the same direction for film, how does that work? The performances in Organ don’t come off as exaggerated; I doubt a viewer without knowing would assume they are all theater actors.
FUJIWARA: There’s no difference. In theater, my scripts are like music scores. The lines come out and dance, modulate, sing, calling on the innate sensation playing the instrument that is yourself on stage. The actor, with this music-score-as-script, has a multitude of possibilities of how to play it. In film, the scripted character is a part of the environment. They are simply material for the scene. I didn’t need to explain this to them, they naturally just became materials for the scene.
Above: Organ
NOTEBOOK: That’s a good transition into my next question: can you talk about your music and sound design direction?
FUJIWARA: Music is difficult. What I say doesn’t get across, because I was working with new people. They hadn’t even seen any of my theater. I like German bands, something strong and hard. But even if they mimic the Germans, the Japanese can’t avoid making music that doesn’t sound soft and weak. One day I said, “Make it more powerful, something that alludes to the power of nature, more animalistic and sturdily-built,” and they said, “Okay.” The demo they brought to me literally had animal sounds, like elephants wailing and dogs barking, and I was like, “…That’s not what I meant” [laughs]. It didn’t get across. But there were some interesting sound bites that I could use. But Japanese band musicians can’t get over their own softness. I think what they have is different.
NOTEBOOK: So you’re not happy with the results?
FUJIWARA: Well, I’m the type of person that thinks, que sera, sera. So I wasn’t satisfied, but…
NOTEBOOK: You’ve mentioned that you a very easily scared person. But in Tetsuo and Organ, your characters say, “I won’t be afraid.” How do you interpret this difference?
FUJIWARA: When I came to Tokyo in my twenties, the first theater directors I met said they’d never met anyone as weak and sensitive as myself. They didn’t think I could live on a few years longer, much less do theater, and that I might find myself drugged up in a brothel in the near future. Kara was the only person that ever said to me that I was the strongest person he’d met. In other words, the fear and strength that I have appears to others as a weakness that can barely withstand life, but it’s just my highly sensitive nature they see. In actuality, I’m very strong. I feel very easily, so that seems weak, but my capacity for empathy is just very large. I feel others’ pain and sadness so strongly that I throw up thinking about them. That’s why I don’t watch TV or read the newspaper. Or else I would be crying all day [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: Watching Organ feels like you’re making the audience feel this extreme pain you describe.
FUJIWARA: Yes, that’s the result of the film. My second film, ID [2005], is even more so.
NOTEBOOK: In addition to fear and pain, pleasure is another large theme. After the screening, someone told me your film was grotesque but something about it was so pleasurable. How do you maintain that balance?
FUJIWARA: I think humans, in order to live, can’t cut those away from existence. If you deny desire, you’re not human. The existence of such things causes our misery, too. Thus, desire and slaughter are inescapable. My fear and sorrow regarding this, and my questioning what are they anyway. That’s what I wanted to portray.
NOTEBOOK: What’s interesting about your portrayal of violence is that Yoko uses the gun as a weapon but doesn’t shoot from it. The one time she tries to shoot at her father, it wasn’t loaded. She mostly hits with it.
FUJIWARA: When I act a role, it needs to be real for me to imagine it. I can’t shoot a gun just like that. I need to feel it. Whenever I do something I feel a corporal build-up that can’t just be released by shooting away.
NOTEBOOK: Shooting it would be too easy?
FUJIWARA: An action needs to be taken. The body and the heart are connected. It’s not that easy.
NOTEBOOK: What was the biggest challenge in shooting Organ?
FUJIWARA: The most difficult challenge was the first scene, in the warehouse. When the doctor and yakuza fend off the police while trying to dissect the man. That shoot was in the middle of summer, but we had to close off the warehouse because it was a night scene. It was hot, smelly, only men, and everyone’s body odor was suffocating the room. That was really difficult. At the time there were seven of us, and now there are three of us, just Takahashi, Mori and I. In Organ, all the actors take on multiple roles. Whenever they weren’t onscreen they were doing lights or shooting. We shot it scene by scene in order. I remember towards the end of the film, during the scene in the tunnel, when my role Yoko comes in on a bike and there’s a fighting scene, we couldn’t get a permit to shoot. We were able to shoot outside the tunnel on the road but not inside. But I badly wanted to shoot inside so we went at midnight, and the characters got all bloody and we were shooting, and the police came. They thought it was a real yakuza fight and took off the safety on their pistols and were about to shoot at us. We thought we were done for. The character Yasuda, who later falls into the ditch and gets stabbed with a Japanese sword, was responsible for getting the permits and he had all the documents on him. So, he came out from the ditch all bloody and with a sword in him, screaming, “We’re shooting a film!” terrifying the police even more. While he was negotiating with them we finished shooting the scene. The police just told us to be safe and left, but it was all thanks to him for putting his life on the line. We really thought we were going to get shot. Usually film shoots have large crews and it’s obvious, but in our case, all the crew were also the actors, so it was hard to tell, and the lights were hidden.
NOTEBOOK: What about the camera?
FUJIWARA: Yes, but it was a small 16mm Scoopic, and the police were so focused on the bloody actors they didn’t notice it. The police were terrified, but it was a great location and I just needed to shoot there no matter what.

1. Undaunted by the Rain by Kenji Miyazawa, translated by Donald Keene (Dawn to the West, 1984):
Undaunted by the rain,
Undaunted by the wind,
Undaunted by the snow or the summer heat,
With a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
cultivating a quiet joy
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
in everything
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there's no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a suit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there's drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer's cold, walk in concern and empathy
called a blockhead by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become
***
Above: Nagano, Japan. © Kei Fujiwara.

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