Shinya Tsukamoto might still be best known for his explorations of the boundaries between man and metal in his cult classic cyberpunk breakthrough Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and its 1992 sequel Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, as well as such other dystopic visions of urban existence as Tokyo Fist (1995) and A Snake of June (2002).
The past few decades, however, have seen the director’s focus on the psychological schisms between individuals and their immediate surroundings shift to more politicised historical contexts, such as with the harrowing portrait of a soldier adrift on the Philippine frontline in his 2014 adaption of Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel Fires on the Plain, set during the Pacific War, or his brutal dissection of the bushido code in Killing (2018).
His latest, Shadow of Fire, portrays the shattered aftermath of the Second World War in a haunting tale of a traumatised widow, who ekes out an existence in the derelict tavern she has made her home, and a young war orphan.
Shadow of Fire is currently playing at selected venues across the UK as part of the Japan Foundation UK’s annual touring programme and will be released by Third Window Films later in 2024.
Can you tell me why you chose the title Shadow of Fire?
The word ‘fire’ signifies war, and the title refers to peoples’ lives in the wake of the flames of the war, and to the small insignificant day-to-day lives of the ordinary people depicted in the film, who have been forgotten by history.
What drew you to this post-war period?
My previous film but one, Fires on the Plain, was set during the peak of the war and depicts the horrors of the battlefield. In that, I really wanted to realise the pure terror of being in the midst of war. However, as I researched various aspects of war while making this film, it became clearer to me that even after a war officially ends on a specific date, diplomatically and politically speaking, for most ordinary people their personal war is not over, and they don’t have any immediate sense of closure. The war still overshadows everything. I realised that in order to portray the true horror of war, it was very important to show this aftermath.
Your early films such as Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet are all very much rooted in the here and now of when they were set. Could you explain why you have moved towards more distant historical settings in Fires on the Plain, Killing and now this new work?
Originally, my films focused on the relationship between urban environments and human beings, or technology and human beings. This was something that really interested me when I was in my thirties and forties. It’s partly my age, but mainly because of the situation in Japan – I worry that we are in a period of gradually slipping closer and closer towards war. I felt that one way of relieving this anxiety is by addressing such concerns in these three works.
Do you see the worlds and characters you portray in these films as connected with contemporary Japan, or is there a disconnect with these historical moments that you wish to remind audiences about?
Shohei Ooka’s original novel of Fires on the Plain was something I’d wanted to adapt as a movie since I first read it as a teenager. I didn’t want the film to be completely detached from contemporary existence. On the contrary, Fires on the Plain is viewed through the eyes of an ordinary private soldier, not a great military commander. This was the last war that Japan was involved in, but I was trying to depict something that could happen again in the future, rather than what happened in the past. No matter what era of war, in the end, it’s the lowest-ranking people who kill or are killed. It is the little people who suffer the most.
What always impresses me in all your work is this very immediate expression of the physical environment your characters are a part of, that this environment is perhaps an extension of the characters and forms the overall mood of the piece. Is this something you are conscious of?
It’s a difficult question to answer, but first of all I should say that the scale of my films tends to be limited by their low budgets. That’s why the settings are smaller and more intimate. However, theoretically speaking, if one has a larger canvas, it is easier for one’s ideas to become diluted. A more intimate setting allows me to dig down deeper and more effectively into the themes I want to deliver. With Shadow of Fire, it is implied but never explicitly mentioned that the setting is just after the Second World War. By keeping things more abstract, the emotions become more universal.
In terms of abstraction, none of the characters are given names.
I didn’t do it consciously, but I soon realised that in the world we are living in now, so many people in various countries are suffering terribly in unnecessary wars. We always hear of the casualties of conflict in terms of numbers, but we should realise that every one of these casualties is an individual person, with a name and life story behind them.
The story has a distinct two-part structure, with the first half centred on the mother figure happening entirely within a one-room setting, and the second in the outside world away from this makeshift home.
At the beginning, I was thinking about detailing the backstories of how the widow came to be working at the bar, and how the boy ended up being orphaned. Then I thought this was too complicated, and I decided to streamline things to keep the theme as simple as possible. The first part is about the victims who have suffered due to the war. In the second part, the story is centred upon the male character who has returned from the battlefield, who killed people during the war. So there’s a contrast here between the victims and the perpetrators of the horrors of war.
I was really impressed by the performance of Tsukao Oga, who plays the young boy. His face remains impassive and expressionless against the more emotionally demonstrative adults as the story unfolds before his eyes.
It’s difficult to believe, but he is actually a first-year primary school pupil, about six or seven years old. He appeared at the audition of his own accord and felt a real sense of responsibility about pursuing this role to the very end. I was really impressed.
What were the challenges of recreating the occupation era on film?
As I mentioned, this movie was made on a really small scale, so it really came about due to the collective efforts of everyone who worked on it. I asked a construction company in a town called Fukaya, where the film was shot, to create the exterior of the main set of the bar, which looks like a tunnel from outside. Afterwards, the young staff of my production company Kaiju Theatre used their creativity to paint and dress the set to make it look right for the era.
In terms of mood, there is a sense of continuity with your previous work through the soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa.
Ishikawa composed the scores for almost all of my films from Tetsuo onwards. As an experimental composer, I thought his metallic percussive sounds would be perfect for my first film, but it turned out he was a lot more versatile, so we worked together ever since. The last work I commissioned from him was for Fires on the Plain, as he passed away in 2017. However, after getting permission from his widow I was able edit some of the unused music he had composed for Killing. When it came to making Shadow of Fire, I couldn’t give up using his work, so again I edited his unreleased and unpublished music for the score.
I’m always in awe of how after so long making films you remain so resolutely independent. To what extent is this liberating for you as a filmmaker?
There are advantages and disadvantages, but I think it is really more in my nature to work as an independent director. It’s not like I’ve decided not to make bigger movies – and indeed I still have plans to do this. However, being independent means that if I have a film I want to make, I can do it right away when I’m ready.
The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2024 takes place in cinemas around the UK from 2 February to 31 March 2024.
A Snake of June is available to stream on BFI Player.