By David Novak.
Carnival Folklore 2045 is perhaps the first true Noise film; its development is driven by the Noise that bursts out of the narrative, dominating the landscape of the film and binding the characters together in a mysterious world of sound. Combining the audacious absurdity of B-movie science-fiction kitsch with the swirling rage and confusion of Japan’s anxious response to the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, Carnival Folklore 2045 is at once brutal and raw, silly and bizarre, and strangely resonant with the complex political landscape of post-3.11 Japan. In the interview below, filmmaker Naoki Kato discusses the aesthetic of such a unique film experience.
There are several scenes of Noise performance (including an incendiary sequence with T. Mikawa of the infamous Incapacitants and Hijokaidan, who plays “The General”) and in the end, an intense blast of Noise music brings down the government, and saves the world. One might say that the main protagonist and hero of the movie is, in fact, Noise. How did you first discover Noise music, and how has it influenced your artistic development?
During elementary school and junior high school, I listened to basic pop music – B’z, Bon Jovi, things like that – and during high-school, I got into Heavy Metal, Hardcore, Grunge and Alternative music. Then I encountered Merzbow – that was my first experience of Noise music, and around the same time, I discovered Keiji Haino. With Merzbow, it was easy to say “Yep, that’s Noise!” But with Haino-san, I felt something mysterious…it’s impossible to boil it down to Noise. Anyway, I don’t really know the reason, but I cannot help listening to it.
During college, I liked Post-Rock bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Envy [a Japanese band]. These are still my favorite groups: Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky… And then, of course, “You made me realize” by My Bloody Valentine: I heard a live version, where the second half of the song just turned into total noise – it’s really cool. I loved these distorted sounds, and went to performances of Haino, Boris, Sunn 0))), where the amps were just stacked up like a wall onstage. Around this time, I met Keisuke Masuda, the co-screenwriter and music director of Carnival Folklore 2045, who’s also my partner in Sierror! Back in college, he was in a drama group and playing with a rock Band called “Uramichi” – I remember he lent me a CD by Les Rallizes Dénudés.
But music has been part of my approach since I first began to create independent films in college. For instance, in my short film “FRAGMENTS Tokyo Murder Case (2005),” there is a scene in which a phantom killer beats the citizens to death in a park in front of the train station. For this, I had Masuda play the noise guitar with a roaring sound, and at the film screening, we brought lots of amps and speakers and screened it at a very loud volume. So my obsession with noise began when I first started to create my films.
Music and sound are central forces throughout your work. Abraxas (2011) starred the real-life pop star Suneohair, who plays a former punk-rocker-turned-Buddhist monk who confronts the ongoing importance of music in his life; the film is scored with a Chicago post-rock style soundtrack by the well-known experimental guitarist and composer Otomo Yoshihide. Your attention to the presentation of sound – whether music, noise, or incidental effects – is an obvious feature in all of your films. How do you conceive of the roles of music and sound in relation to the visual aspects of film?
I like movies which use music and sound in interesting ways, films by Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson; Demonlover (2002) by Olivier Assayas, or Elephant (2003) by Gus Van Sant.
When I create a plan of my film, it’s easier to imagine sound than just an image on screen. When I design the plot, I treat it like a long piece of music. The story, the emotional ups and downs of the characters – I imagine them through musical elements like rhythm and groove, in the dynamics of tone and volume. Of course, I have also visual images, but to get the whole picture, I first capture them acoustically.
For me, Abraxas is a important film. It’s my debut work. Until this, my feelings and themes about noise or music were just fragmentary ideas, but with Abraxas, could fold them into one story.
To accomplish this, I had three key inspirations. First was the novel The Feast of Abraxas (2007) by the Zen monk, Genyu Sokyu, which matched my concept exactly; second, I cast an actual musician, SUNEOHAIR, to play the leading role; and third, Otomo Yoshihide agreed to create the music for the film. If Otomo hadn’t agreed, Abraxas would have been a very different film. I got a real rush when he told me “I’m gonna do this Chicago [post-rock] style.” We had a lot of meetings to discuss which noise would be best for each scene, and he brought his guitar – I don’t know any film composer who can also participate on guitar like this.
In addition to your work as a film director, you are one half, with composer Masuda Keisuke, of a “Noise Death Match unit” called Sierror! Can you tell us about how this group formed, and give readers a sense of what your Noise sounds like and how you have integrated it into your filmmaking?
Sierror! has no format and no style. We change our equipment all the time, too. So the only condition is “Play Loud.” Both of us use two or three amplifiers each at a time – maximum five amps per player. In that kind of a situation, it’s like “Fight to the Death” conditions.
In 2011, I received an offer from Sendai Shorts to make a short film. It was hard to think normally, because of the 3.11 disaster…. but for that reason, they wanted their festival to go on. Each director made a short film that lasted three minutes and 11 seconds, and they screened 42 films in total. Mine was called “Echo Never Goes Out” (2011), and we made it by driving around Fukushima, about 1000 Kilometers in three days.
Masuda made the music, and it was also the first time in my life that I made sounds come out of an amplifier. I made feedback by putting an SM58 [mic] directly into a Fender Twin, then Masuda sampled that sound from the Twin into a Moogerfooger pedal. So that’s when we started Sierror!, and a year later we started to prepare Carnival Folklore 2045.
You’ve presented Carnival Folklore 2045 several times as a “live screening” in which the film is shown with simultaneous Noise performances: in Seattle, these were by Sierror! and T. Mikawa. How did you conceive of combining a live Noise performance in the same time and space as the screening, and what kinds of effects does this kind of experience produce for the audience?
First, we played a live performance at Yokohama, but the mix didn’t keep up until opening day for some reason, so we didn’t have a chance to completely synch the music and sound to the film. So to resolve the problem, we decided to do a live performance during screening with Sierror! That’s the first time we did it, but actually, we screened another version at the same time. In that version, Hiroyuki Nagashima [who plays Dr. Acid] edited and mixed the music. He is a film musician, and also plays in the electronic music group Dowser. So in this case, we were able to have two very different presentations of the film: a Dowser music version and a Sierror! live screening version. That experience definitely impressed me. Another time, we had the chance to do a live screening with Hideyuki Okamoto in attendance. That kind of performance, in which actors suddenly appear live and play in front of the screen, creates a huge impact among audiences, like the film actor is coming out of the film.
After a few of these live screenings, I am convinced that I should leave the movie as it is, and then complete it by doing the live screening. Bringing our equipment into the theater, too, can make the sound even louder than the maximum volume of the existing PA in the theater. So the idea of the “Live Screening” completes the film perfectly, and it creates a different impression and experience of the film each time. At SIFF, T. MIKAWA appeared as a guest. I was so excited since it’s my first experience playing live with him. Since most audiences at SIFF had not yet experienced Noise, I looked forward to seeing their reactions to our loudest and purest “live screening” ever.
Something that struck me in watching Carnival Folklore 2045 was what I perceived as a resonance with Japan’s political underground theater traditions of the 1960s and 70s – for example, the experimental work of Tokyo Kid Brothers – in both the everyday, vernacular style of the acting, and in the Brechtian immediacy of the staging. But I also recognized an overlay of images from popular media and the contemporary world of commercial pop culture. Can you talk about the mix of influences and references here from avant-garde and mass cultural materials of performance, theater and filmmaking?
Well, in the 60s and 70s, the things they called “avant-garde” remind me of things we now call “independent” or “low-budget.” It’s about making works that are solid, and focus on what can be done under specific limitations. The biggest difference between then and now is photographic equipment. Now we have cheap digital cameras, digital recorders and Mac computers, which are enough to make a movie. The main circumstance of low-budget films nowadays is that we must use landscape effectively to structure the movie’s vision. Carnival Folklore 2045 was shot in Yokohama, which flourished as an port city, with an old brickwork landscape that harmonizes modern and synthetic design. So I think our way of utilizing the actual landscape – cannibalizing it – is common with the avant-garde.
I never heard anyone mention a connection with Tokyo Kid Brothers or Brecht…. What I might say about the actors, though, is that most of them are amateurs, except for Shigeru Okuse and Junya Ishii, but even if Ishii is a stage actor, he’s still more of a body performer than a stage actor. Miaski Oka, who plays Chelsea, was a member of an idol group, while the Nurse, Jailer, Patients, Kintaro, YSG, Turles were all played by students of actor’s training institute. All of the rest are musicians. I explained only the situation in each scene to them, and then left the acting to them to improvise.
For the image, I relied on cinematographer Yonly Ukibumi Josha. The situation we faced was that we had no lights, no equipment, and no assistant. But even under this circumstance, he was able to keep the film at a high quality. Yukiko Iioka, who was charge of camera B, also made a big impact. For example, it was her idea to take the opening scene of the live Noise performance in the harbor, as a panorama.
The conceptual background for the film concerns a struggle for psychic control of the population in the post-apocalyptic technoscape of “YKHM City” in the wake of a global nuclear disaster. For the authoritarian government, everything must return to normal, despite the chaos and destruction that rages through the city. Most of the population has already forgotten, except for those imprisoned in the pyscho ward; one resident develops a miniature reactor, which suffers a mini-meltdown, as the other inmates debate the safety of reinstating nuclear power.
The ongoing effects of the 3.11.11 triple disaster are clearly on your mind, and embedded in the film. What is your sense of the current moment in Japan, politically and artistically, in regards to nuclear policy and the ongoing effects of the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi?
Survivors of disaster try to overcome their reality. There are so many supporters, and people going on with their lives. Others who have not faced such a devastating situation will forget with time about traumatic events and lose their memories. I’m the same myself. On the other hand, there are some people who deliberately set out to erase this disaster from people’s memory. Although the situation of nuclear contamination, and the possibilities of a similar disaster happening in Japan are definitely not ZERO, some keep saying this is nothing or that it could never happen again. I made a short film called “Echo Never Goes Out”: as this title reflect, the effects of things that happened before are never erased, and their impact is neverending. But the worst thing is that our government is actively trying to erase the fact that these things happened in the past, just so we can attract the Olympics to Tokyo. But even before that event can even take place, war or terrorism could happen at any time.
A month after 3.11, I went to Fukushima with friends, to visit to places and people related to Abraxas. Then we went towards Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant. I was shocked to see the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami. And as we come closer to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, there are fewer and fewer people, and the scene I face becomes extremely unusual. Invisible radiation is scattered all around, and we cannot detect it. I feel a fear that never experienced before. Even if I start a camera to shoot the scene, I cannot capture anything of the radioactivity. The things we cannot see, the fears we can feel – I thought these things could not be taken into the film. This simple thought overwhelmed me. At that time, I felt that I could not create a film.
Then the “2045” project was started in 2012. I started thinking through the outlines, and the story in Spring 2012, and created the screenplay in Fall. We shot most of scenes in between the winter of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. So it was this film that reflected my thoughts and feelings from 2011, the year of the 3.11 disaster. It was very hard to change my feeling from “I won’t be able to make films anymore” to “I will try again.”
The big change was making “Echo Never Goes Out.” I thought then “From now on, I am going to shoot what I love.” Then the first thing that came to my mind was “Noise” – I think I can shoot a film again if it’s about Noise.
Carnival Folklore 2045 was originally called Sonic Road Movie Yokohama! which was released in Japan in 2013. Were there changes between these two iterations of the film? What does the change in title signify? Can you talk about the circumstances of the film’s release schedule, both in Japan and internationally, and your plans for further distribution?
We initially planned it as a Road Movie, where we’d go around various places, with unique characters. But in discussion with Masuda, our thoughts and ideas grew until we decided this should be a Science Fiction film. We came up with ideas of ANIKI, Mandrake and the Turtles, all of which supported the s-f idea. At the first preview, the title was still Sonic Road Movie Yokohama!, but after a few edits, we decided to change it to Carnival Folklore 2045, as a story that marks one hundred years from the anniversary of the atomic bombings in Japan.
After SIFF, I want to do live screenings in other film festivals and events around the world. Also, we are planning to broadcast the movie at a streaming site called Loadshow (http://en.loadshow.jp; time is still TBD). This site is hosted by Okamoto-san, who plays Mandrake in the film, and broadcasts Japanese independent films online, some with subtitles. You can watch my previous movies like “FRAGMENTS Tokyo murder case,” “Echo Never Goes Out,” and “Roadside Picnic” at that site.
What exactly is H.D.R. (Heavy Doom Ramen) and what is the recipe?
Ha ha ha. In the film, there’s “Drag EHP” noodles that are distributed by the City government – you can add toppings like ganja, and DMT – it’s like with Japanese Ramen where you add Tamago (egg), char siu (roasted pork), Nori (seaweed), Horenso(spinach), like that. Have you ever tried Ramen Jiro in Japan? Now that’s real life Japanese Heavy Doom Ramen! You should try it.
David Novak is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with affiliations in Anthropology, Film and Media Studies, and East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies. His work explores the relationship between modern cultures and the circulation of musical media. He is the author of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press, 2013).