By Sean Axmaker
I met Tetsuo.
Not the Iron Man, not the Body Hammer, but the actual, flesh and blood Taguchi Tomorowo, the actor who made his brain-searing feature debut in Tsukamoto Shinya's punk sci-fi classic.
Taguchi-san was a singer in the punk band Bachikaburi and an experimental theater actor when Tsukamoto Shinya cast him in his feature debut. Since then he's racked up over 70 features to his credit and become one of Japan's most prolific and versatile character actors. He's worked extensively with some of Japan's hottest young directors (Takashi Miike, Sabu, Ryuichi Hiroki, and Tsukamoto have repeatedly cast Taguchi in multiple films), and become a favorite performer of Japanese master Imamura Shohei in the last decade.
Taguchi-san's appearance at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2004, where he accompanied Ryuichi Hiroki's L'Amant, marks his first visit to North America. I was lucky enough to land an interview with him. Modest, self-effacing and quick to laugh, he made it one of the most enjoyable interview experiences I've ever had, even with the language barrier (Vancouver-based interpreter Kim Kamimura translated). When our time was up, he generously agreed to continue the interview, which we did until the room was needed for another function and Taguchi-san headed off for a late lunch with director Ryuichi, his longtime collaborator and friend.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man was your breakthrough film, and it was very much an underground film.
What kind of acting had you done before that and how did you wind up getting cast byTsukamoto Shinya for that film?
Tsukamoto Shinya used to make commercials and Testuo was his first feature length film. At the same time, I used to do underground theater and I was a member of a punk band [Bachikaburi]. Tsukamoto-san saw me in both situations and he approached me. He said, "We're looking for an actor to play Tetsuo," and he offered me the part.
Was it as physically demanding a role as it looked on screen?
Exhausting! It was very hands-on filmmaking and it took a long time because it was such a Spartan production. We had to shoot when things were available. So it took a year and a half to finish.
It was quite a sensation on the midnight movie circuit in the US. What was its reception in Japan?
The film won a Grand Prix at the Fantastic Film Festival in Rome. But nobody knew about it in Japan. Even after it won the Grand Prize, it took about ten years before Testuo was recognized. In the meantime, Tsukamoto-san was becoming quite well-known in Europe and won lots of prizes, so his recognition first came from outside of Japan. Then people started looking at our filmographies and saw that we had done this film called Tetsuo. It took a long time for it to become known.
Is that when Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer was made?
Before Tetsuo became known to the general public, it already had a cult status among underground audiences. Tsukamoto-san wanted to make Tetsuo II with a broader appeal for a more general audience rather than for a cult audience. So it was made before the first Tetsuo was really recognized, not after.
You mean Tetsuo II was seen by general audiences before the original Tetsuo in Japan?
For some people, yes. For people who got involved originally, including Tsukamoto-san, it's Tetsuo/Tetsuo II, but to a lot of audiences in Japan they are totally separate films. What I most heard was that people would see Tetsuo II and get very impressed, so they want to see Tetsuo, and they like that better.
In the first film you play a man who is in a car accident and begins to transform as the guilt of the accident increases. In Tetsuo II, you are a father whose son is kidnapped and the emotional impact causes you to transform. Do you think that the transformation is a metaphor for what is happening inside your character, the rage and the helplessness?
That's exactly right. It all just comes out.
So as an actor, how do you approach - apart from the special effects - your character's human side? How do you create all that emotional turmoil and intensity?
As a human, we all have many dimensions. The difference is the speed or the time that it takes from the stillness to the boiling point. Tsukamoto Shinya is also an actor in his films and his roles are usually very quick to [lose their] temper or to anger, like Tetsuo's role. I think Tsukamoto-san sees that in me. It's not hard for me to go from zero to 100 instantaneously.
Are those the films that made you well-known in the Japanese film industry? I don't really know that hierarchy of the Japanese star system, but from where I sit, you are a major Japanese film star.
Tetsuo was still a cult film, so it didn't really do anything for my status in the Japanese film industry. I became well-known later, when I started to appear in Miike's films and Imamura's films.
How did you first get involved with Miike-san and his films?
Tetsuo gave me a reputation with other directors. Miike-san loved Tetsuo, so he wanted me to appear in his first theatrical film. There's another director named Sabu who cast me in his first and second films. I often get offered get roles in the early films of directors.
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