Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi on Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai

Yuka Onishi in Typhoon Club (1985)

Programmer’s Note
On the occasion of Japan Society’s upcoming series Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai (April 28-May 13, 2023), the first North American retrospective on ‘80s auteur Shinji Somai, we took the opportunity to ask director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) for his thoughts on the significance of the program and the role of Shinji Somai in Japanese cinema. We’re very pleased to present Hamaguchi’s comments below. 
Alexander Fee, Film Programmer

I can say with absolute conviction that no Japanese filmmaker makes a film without being conscious of Shinji Somai’s existence. That is how significant Somai’s presence is in the history of Japanese cinema. However, his international recognition does not meet this expectation. When asked if they know Shinji Somai, even Americans with a certain degree of knowledge about Japanese cinema reply, “Who?” As Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who has been on set as one of Somai’s crew, once said, “That may be because they don’t know the legendary stories of Somai on his set.” The kinds of legends referred to here include the opening scene of P.P. Rider which required three cranes to shoot or Ken Ogata, the star of The Catch, actually catching a tuna fish. Yes, that is also true, but that cannot be the only reason.

When Shinji Somai made his debut in 1980, he was already deeply aware that he had begun making films in a place where traditional Japanese cinema lay in ruins. Over the 20 years leading up to his premature death in 2001, in a career that was by no means long, Somai continued to undertake drastic changes in Japanese cinema. A certain difficulty in watching as well as understanding Somai’s films stems from the fact that his films are the crystallization of both the problems of Japanese cinema at the time and the universal beauty of cinema. As a matter of fact, watching his films is, at the same time, seeing those qualities and savoring the dynamism in which they underscore each other. However, you don’t need any knowledge of Japanese film history to watch his films. What you need to do is not flinch and keep your eyes open when you encounter something that’s completely different from what you’ve seen before. Because that is exactly what Somai was doing on his set.

Those who watch the Somai films in this lineup will quickly notice that his stylistic signature is his long takes. However, it should not be compared to that of, say, Orson Welles or Theo Angelopoulos. From such a perspective, one would only find the impoverishment in which Japanese films of that time were relegated to. Shinji Somai’s camera, as if to throw away the “story” created in the artificial studio, ventured out into a time and space that exists only then and there, seeking something more than simply acting. The mere body placed in that time and space, or in other words, the very life of the subject, was what he relentlessly pursued to capture. The astonishing long takes are just a byproduct of such obsession. The spark of life in the young people in his films—including familiar faces from Jim Jarmusch’s films, Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh—is what convinced the Japanese audience at the time that “cinema is not dead yet.” I’m sure that the films of Somai will certainly make the New York audience (or some of them) think, “This is a movie I’ve been waiting for.” For anyone who wants to see a movie that has the power to change and sustain your life, I urge you to see Shinji Somai’s films. Because there is no better place to see his films than in a movie theater.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Translation by Karin Yamamoto

Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai runs from April 28th through May 13th.

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