Memory Traces: Interview with Shuji Shibata, Producer of Dogra Magra

Illustration by Erica Ohmi

Programmer’s Note
Shuji Shibata was only 24 years old when he began working on the independent production Dogra Magra. He was also far from being an industry stalwart, having worked predominantly in television journalism and production beforehand. Having worked with filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto on what would turn out to be his final feature-length production, Shibata was generous enough to share his reminiscences on Dogra Magra and its production. We’re happy to share this insightful interview which covers his thoughts on the film’s production, the Kyusaku Yumeno novel, his recommendation of rakugo performer Shijaku Katsura to star in the film, and the film’s legacy 35 years later.
Alexander Fee, Film Programmer

Could you speak about your career in film before Dogra Magra? How did you become involved with the industry and film production?

I am not an “industry person” who has devoted his whole life solely to film. Neither am I an artistic type who’s largely active in the world of creative expression, but I was a black belt in karate, so I may be a rugged martial arts type. Having said that, I took in many domestic and foreign films and documentaries, and with an SLR camera in hand, I would stop just to gaze at the silence of temples and shrines, the warm atmosphere of shitamachi, the downtown Tokyo area (plants, wells, half-stray cats…), and the snazzy hanamachi (shamisen practices,  stately janome-gasa umbrellas…) ever since I was in junior high school. 1

Through the introduction of an acquaintance who is a cameraman (who runs a production company) and a skilled producer who dealt with foreign films, I got myself involved in many video production jobs through my strong innate curiosity: I directed news programs (special programs featuring investigative reports) for a major network in Tokyo; planned, researched, and interviewed for documentaries and informational TV programs; organized and directed promotional videos; worked as a director for the Japanese language programs of National Geographic (its first video series, I recall); and even produced and directed a video on wasabi trivia at the behest of the owner of a wholesale wasabi business in Tsukiji as well as a video closely documenting the Sanja Festival at the request of the Asakusa youth club and the head of the Asakusa neighborhood association.

Not only have I felt a sense of accomplishment when the script I worked out fit perfectly with the images, which became a completed product, but I also archived a sense of self-improvement through the knowledge and insights I gained by working on various subjects that crossed over different genres. Building experiences both as a director and producer, even for small productions, led me to gain confidence in myself. 

I was about 24 or 25 years old when I started working on the planning stage of Dogra Magra, so I did not have a career in the film industry before that.

How did you come to produce a film based on the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno? Could you share your thoughts and feelings about the original work?

I was not quite a bibliophile growing up, so the first time I “saw” Kyusaku Yumeno’s novel Dogra Magra was when I was in high school. On the desk of an older acquaintance, who was very much an artist, was a pair of mysterious paperbacks with illustrations of a woman with empty eyes and a languid expression on her face, in a daring pose exposing the lower half of her body. I felt an honest carnal desire as I was in the prime of my youth, but the novel was long enough to be in two volumes, and the title was incomprehensive. I could not digest my acquaintance’s explanation of the book, and wondered if it was a female version of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of a novel I had read in junior high school. Inadvertently, I put off borrowing the books, not taking notice of how much I should have been reading. Later, I learned about Hell in a Bottle (Binzume no jigoku) and The Miracle of Oshie (Oshie no kiseki) from an aspiring doctor or a girl from a hanamachi in my neighborhood, and I finished reading them without hesitation. I was drawn into the mysterious and seductive world of Kyusaku Yumeno, where truth and falsehood intermingled, and the complete works of Kyusaku Yumeno (in seven volumes) ended up taking up a part of my bookshelf.

It wasn’t until a few years later (around 1984) that I once again came face to face with Dogra Magra, a work that was well thought out with exceptional structure. While discussing various topics on a project with director Toshio Matsumoto, he asked me, “Is it true what the inhabitants of Crete say, that all the Cretans are liars…? 2 This makes my head spin, yet it still amuses me…,” and he gave me a smile. This lead-in was one of the themes of Dogra Magra so I couldn’t help but be struck by the well-honed eye of Director Matsumoto whom I respected.

“I cannot not do Dogra Magra… This may be the last time I can make a feature-length film…” Matsumoto’s words were mixed with passion and faintheartedness. A terrible chain-smoker, he lit his next cigarette with a bitter smile and continued, “I submitted a proposal to ATG 3, but they didn’t respond….” Half of his chuckle must have been self-mockery: “After all, this is well above you, greenhorn—I’ve wasted my time talking to you about this…” At that time, Matsumoto was in his early fifties, but he was more of a university professor teaching the depths of video and film media as visual arts rather than an accomplished film director. He had been making many experimental films both in and out of the university, as if to channel his creative impulses as an eizo-sakka or video artist/filmmaker (according to him, he created this professional terminology himself), but there had been a 12-year gap in making narrative films since The War of the Sixteen-Year-Olds (1973). Perhaps it was that there was a lack of producers who would offer him to direct, or that Matsumoto, a theorist, an academic and torchbearer of the avant-garde, could not interest himself in those offers…. Naturally, I believed Matsumoto’s words: “There were several projects on the table, but I didn’t feel motivated.”

One of the many fascinations or attractions of Dogra Magra is its story structure. Not only the ireko (nested layers) of a play within a play, 4 but its circular structure presents a “twist” resembling the Möbius strip as described by Professor Matsumoto. In addition, Dogra Magra, a culmination of the prolific career of Kyusaku Yumeno, for which he said, “I have lived my whole life to write this,” surely contained elements that are often evident in my favorite book of short stories by Yumeno, Inaka, no, Jiken (Incidents, in, Countryside), such as a plain and ordinary character who has no sense of personal gain or loss yet they are the ones who know the truth and what goes on behind closed doors.

It is difficult to describe my feelings and thoughts on the original work in a limited space allotted on paper. The novel contains an enormous number of accumulated words, carefully and skillfully packed with murder case investigation records, scientific papers and studies, and even the Ahodara Sutra, 5 which can be considered a “Japanese rap song.”

Dr. Masaki (Shijaku Katsura) chanting the Ahodara Sutra.

In particular, Dr. Masaki’s haunting and spouting Ahodara Sutra, recited as he beats his wooden fish (Buddhist wooden bell), delightfully resonates with the readers, transforming the plain words into some shining gems.

However great of a doctor he is. A man’s psyche, madness of a mind. Which pulse to look at, which tongue to stick out? Which trouble shall be given injection? Which anxiety shall be given incision? Even with X-rays you cannot see through it. The true colors of the mind are stranger than a fart. How can this be ever examined? The chant goes on and on in this manner. It feels just like enjoying a full-length performance of classic rakugo comic storytelling. The book addressed not only psychiatry but the danger of scientism, the vulgarity of money worship and utilitarianism, the suffering of the discriminated and oppressed, and the aberration of our bloodthirsty society masquerading as peaceful… they all reflected what was on my mind.

 I became acquainted with Director Toshio Matsumoto through working on his set or taking on the distribution of films he directed such as the experimental film Ki or Breathing (music by Toru Takemitsu), or folklore-focused documentaries Kite, Ema, and Kumadori. Those were low-budget independent films, so I wore many hats, also serving as an assistant producer and driver, and covered some PA tasks like carrying equipment. During the production, we had a minimal crew of about five people, and it was as if we were in a training camp. It was this environment that allowed me to build an intimate relationship with Director Matsumoto who was worshiped as a charismatic figure by the academic and arty types. Of course, I was one of the people who absorbed his narrative films Funeral Parade of Roses and Demons as well as his many experimental films.

Matsumoto has described the film as an experiment in perception, desiring to overturn modes of perception and to challenge traditional forms of narrative. In this regard, the idea of adapting something as unfilmable as Dogra Magra makes sense, especially given its incongruous nature. How did Matsumoto’s experimental approach manifest itself during the adaptation and filming process? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses in this film, especially given the difficulty of adapting such a challenging novel.

It goes without saying that Professor Matsumoto’s keen analysis, deconstruction, reconstruction, and experimental approach (i.e., innovative visual expression) are crucial for the film adaptation of the source novel, which reaches 1,200 pages of 400-character manuscript paper. The flood of an infinite number of words, the cleverly constructed structure that makes you doubt your convictions of whose story it is, and the storyline that breaks up the established theories… you must be quite a peculiar person to try to capture such a monster and unleash it onto the silver screen. If you loosen the rope that’s keeping it captive, there is a danger that the film itself will face death (e.g., be put on hold indefinitely). It was no one else but Director Matsumoto who was able to somehow tame the beast. If nothing else, it was the exceptionally sharp mind of the screenwriter Toshio Matsumoto.

However, there was some concern that his outstanding talent could become a double-edged sword. 

“When a painter is about to paint a picture, he cannot do so if he is interrupted with objections.” 

This is a phrase that Director Matsumoto uttered after we went into principal photography. From the planning phase, I had repeatedly told him that “experimental-film-style expression is absolutely necessary. However, it should not be just a larger-scale version of an experimental film…,” and Director Matsumoto nodded his head firmly. However, his attitude toward creation and identity as an auteur were those of an experimental filmmaker.

I was about to say that if he were a painter, he should provide all materials himself—his own paints, canvases, and models—but I swallowed my words seconds before they could come out of my mouth. If it is an experimental film, it can be considered an independent creative activity, and you can make sense of spending one’s own money or using a university’s research funding to create teaching materials. However, a feature film, which is an organically made synthesis of creativity by actors and staff members specializing in each department, is a different matter. For me, the most important thing was not the commercial value (i.e., money) that producers often bring up, but the potential power and merit of the work for what it is without any exaggeration.

If I had been a producer employed by a distribution company, it would be my duty to speak positively about the film. However, I’m an outsider to the industry and when I speak freely about the film adaptation or my feelings about the original novel, I must be prepared to invite anger from Toshio Matsumoto’s fans. 

The strength of this work is that we were able to organize and reconstruct the extensive and complex structure of the original novel into a film script. And the weakness of the film is this wise and logical rearrangement itself. Once the meat and fat of the original work had been trimmed away, I think there was only little fleshing out done (by the direction) during the filming stage to fill in the gaps between the lines in the script. I can’t describe it well, but it was as if I were looking at a specimen of a skillfully pieced together skeleton.

Professor Matsumoto’s storytelling was very logical, but on the other hand, he seemed to be out of touch with the views and feelings of the general public. If I were to give (at least from my view) a negative example:

Let’s take the scene where Ichiro, the protagonist, is in the storehouse sketching a picture, on a scroll, of his half-naked bride, Moyoko, whom you cannot tell is dead or alive. Ichiro’s aunt, Moyoko’s mother, horrified by the sight of abnormality, starts talking about the picture scroll as soon as she confronts Ichiro, and makes no gesture to care for her unconscious daughter. If I were the director, I would have shouted “Cut!” and done another take. For example, while the aunt and Ichiro are glaring at each other, she could’ve tried to steal a moment and reach her child to see if she was breathing…. I think the true value of directing is to fill in the gaps between the lines. Although there are a good number of scenes where my ideas were reflected or directly incorporated (during the pre-production stage), I can’t help but to feel that he stuck to the approach of an internationally-known “eizo-sakka.”

This may sound unrefined, but it’s vital that you let your characters have blood in their veins and live in a reality where audience can empathize with them; otherwise, viewers will be left behind and the impact of the original work’s brilliant traps, such as the confusion of truth and falsehood, repetition, illusion and fluctuation of time and perspectives, and the collapse of the circular structure, will be reduced by half. When you think of the various visual expressions, not only from the bird’s-eye view of a philosopher, but from a low angle perspective crawling on the ground… surprisingly, you will realize that the esoteric novel is indeed filled with intense entertainment which will make you burst into laughter.

I believe it is also my duty to welcome not only comments or disapproval but also bitter criticism upon your viewing of the film. 

The only way to understand the real artistry of the original work, which couldn’t be realized in the film, is to read the novel. In 2002, the novel was selected as the first work to be translated by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP), a project of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, created to translate and promote modern Japanese literature. I cooperated with the project, but unfortunately, even for a skilled English translator, it was too complicated to come through with it. Only the French version came to fruition, and the English version has since been abandoned. I hope that those who are fluent in French will devour the book.

With some fear and admiration for those who commit themselves to research Kyusaku Yumeno and his books, I would like to share some personal observations:

I can’t help but think that Dogra Magra was written with the assumption that it would be turned into a film at one point in the future. The structure of the book where even if you continue reading it, you will be taken back to the previous segment; the fear of being caught in the trap of the thesis that “the brain is not a place to think” and having to ask yourself questions; the persuasive power of the thesis “Dream of the Fetus (or Embryo’s Dream),” which claims that the fetus imprints its each memory in each cell through its evolution from a single-celled paramecium to a human being; and the thrill of sleuthing around the mysterious incidents with the use of headings such as [Subtitle] and [Exposition] along with unique terms like “Natural Colored, Embossed Sound Film.” 6 The novel is indeed packed with the perfect ingredients for a film adaptation. I felt like I was being scolded by Kyusaku Yumeno, whom I hold in high regard, saying, “See, I have it all lined up for you, and all you do is just fold your arms!”

Could you speak to the casting – in particular, rakugo actor Shijaku Katsura II as Dr. Masaki. Matsumoto mentioned that with the casting of Katsura, he was interested in bringing out the “unexpected aspects of a person.”

The role of Dr. Masaki, the “storyteller” in both the novel and the film, was essential, and I pictured him to be beyond the realm of a mere film actor. I was torn when the talented assistant director suggested the name of an unconventional writer who was also a well-known mahjong player, but it was I who saw the role of Dr. Masaki in the genius rakugo master Shijaku Katsura and decided to cast him. He was full of charm as a storyteller. However, Professor Matsumoto had never heard of Master Shijaku, and his first response was, “Who is that?”

Professor Matsumoto’s treatment did not include the Ahodara Sutra, which is Dr. Masaki’s unrivaled monologue in the original novel, but when the exceptional screenwriter Atsushi Yamatoya put it back in point blank, Professor Matsumoto was genuinely delighted. I pictured Master Shijaku pounding the wooden fish while I was scrambling to get him on board.

Dr. Masaki relating the “Dream of the Fetus.”

Rakugo storyteller Master Shijaku Katsura uses a variety of facial expressions and a unique physicality to express emotions, convey confusion, and create comic relief, causing the audience to burst into laughter. During the costume fitting, Master Shijaku, who occasionally has a daunting look on his face, turned into the eccentric Dr. Masaki with the fake mustache which was not in the original novel. He was quite into it himself, and as he looked in the mirror, he started to walk with his hands clasped behind his back in the manner of a medical doctor. At that moment, I felt as if half of the weight on my shoulders had been lifted.

The truth is Master Shijaku had a sensitive personality, and he must have been very nervous about appearing in a film for the first time, but his presence brightened up the set, as written by him and dyed on his tenugui (Japanese hand towel), “Always, in a good mood.” 

As the producer of this film, I would like to touch upon one more person: Mr. Yoji Matsuda, who played the difficult part of the first-person pronoun “I” in the original novel, a.k.a., the young man who lost his memory (is he Ichiro Kure?). He had made his debut as a child actor in a TV drama series at the age of five, and his excellent acting skills led him to a wider range of roles, constantly appearing in TV, movies, and theater. He also starred in lead voice roles in the animated films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke (as Ashitaka). Director Matsumoto decided to cast him in this film upon the strong recommendation by director Yukio Ninagawa. 7 How to play the unidentified “I”?… Of all the leading cast, he was probably the one who struggled most with creating the character. It was his professionalism that allowed him to overcome the high pressure.

Yoji Matsuda as “I” with Shijaku Katsura’s enigmatic Masaki.

The film’s set design, costuming and setting play a pivotal role in the film. Can you talk a bit about these creative choices?

Takeo Kimura, an established art director, personally appointed a talented young partner, Iwao Saito, as his collaborator, with the expectation for their partnership to produce new inspiration and stimulating sparks for the visual imagery. However, Director Matsumoto, who was in his mid-fifties and more than two decades younger than Mr. Kimura, saw things differently. The reason was simple. I would have fallen on my knees to ask him to join us if there had been a single staff member who would stand against Director Matsumoto, who habitually stated, “This film belongs to the world of Mannerism… (and so on).” He did not give many specific directions as to the art direction or costumes, rather leaving it up to others. 

First of all, the huge Buddha head was not in the original novel, and it felt too representational and out of place for me. I thought it would be more in line with the characteristics of the Freedom Cure Experimental Grounds if it was cruder and even partially crushed.8 I conveyed my opinion to the art director, but it was Director Matsumoto who made the decision.

Dr. Masaki’s Laboratory, the film’s main setting, was imaginatively created, taking advantage of the limited budget, and the skillful construction proved well with the various camera techniques. The cinematographer, Tatsuo Suzuki, had a difficult time avoiding reflections from the surrounding windows, mirrors, and glass shelves, but it was necessary for the room which held the film’s secret devices that served the story—one can only tip his hat to the ingenuity of the art team.

Maestro Takeo Kimura showed me preliminary sketches of the laboratory, pointed to its design, shaped like Art Deco-style curves, and said, “Not bad, huh?” He smiled and I, too, narrowed my eyes.

In connection with this film series, Taisho Roman, there were no such things as vividly colored magic lanterns back then,9 and the dolls that appeared in the film seemed to have transcended the times. There were elaborate mannequins and realistic iki-ningyo or living dolls in the Taisho period, 10 but to serve the plot, they could’ve looked handmade by Dr. Masaki. In this film, Bunraku-like movements (a puppeteer Hiroshi Hori acting in unison with his own puppets) and exceptional art direction accompanying them in the background made all the notable difference. It expands your imagination infinitely and provides you with various options. For example, the puppet theater seems very eerie with the kuroko or kurugo going in and out of your sight 11—is it Dr. Masaki? Or Dr. Wakabayashi? I find it interesting because it overlaps with the main plot of the story.

The puppets of doomed painter Wu Ching-hsiu and his bride Dai.

How was the filming and production process of the film? What were some of the difficulties and challenges on set?

In the middle and end of filming, borrowing a line from the protagonist, Ichiro, I asked Mr. Matsumoto: “Is it your heroism as a director to adapt Dogra Magra into a film?” Mr. Matsumoto lowered his head down with a difficult expression on his face, and gave me an evasive answer, “Hmm? …I’m not sure….” He then lifted his head up and glared at me as if to ask me back, “Is that what you think?”

From the time we were working on the script to the time we finished filming, the relationship of the three continued as if the intellectual Professor Matsumoto was Dr. Masaki, the screenwriter, Mr. Atsushi Yamatoya, was Dr. Wakabayashi who struggled with Dr. Masaki, and I was Ichiro Kure. What I, or rather the production itself, including those around me, wanted was not Professor Matsumoto, but Director Matsumoto. It was more of a heartache than a headache.

Of course, there are salvations. The important characters (or they’re supposed to be) such as the servant, Sengoro, and the elderly janitor, function as a sedative to the readers (or viewers), and assist them with stabilizing their perspectives, as they experience the confusion of truth and falsehood, and fluctuations of time and space while following the story. On the set, the accomplished Mr. Takeo Kimura played this role. While the production team was held back by the abstract visual theories, he would make suggestions in his mischievous manner, asking “how about this?” and devoted himself to coming up with visual ideas and making them specific.

As an independent film production, what additional challenges did you face with the film as a result?

First, in regard to the budget which is often brought up as a subject of discussion, although it is difficult to compare it with independent films in the U.S., I believe we were comparatively well off as a Japanese independent film. At the time, even though the bubble economy was starting to collapse, the film industry was still doing fine. However, in the case of this film, it was extremely rare to find a distributor or corporate sponsor that understands the content of the film, which was essential. At the same time, this film could only be made as an independent film which was not bound by their wishes. Not only did the film contain risky contents but it also faced potential box office risks. 

The most difficult part was the pre-production. Until I finished writing another proposal and an outline, based on Professor Matsumoto’s synopsis, it did not bother me if my gums bled, or my blood pressure skyrocketed—it was not painful as I knew I was working with the difficult novel, Dogra Magra, and turning it into a film exactly as I had imagined. However, I became acutely aware of the need for organizational strength rather than individual efforts to solidify the platform to create the film adaptation. I was in a situation where I had no choice but to cover the costs of the preparatory phase on my own.

The first step was to acquire the film rights, but to my surprise, I found out that, quite a while ago, a well-known major film director had already been in touch with the rightsholder (Mr. Tatsumaru Sugiyama, the eldest son of Kyusaku Yumeno, who dedicated himself to green India with his own funds and is known locally as the Green Father of India). Since there had been no real action on their end, in 1985, I obtained the first option rights for the film adaptation (a rarity in the old-fashioned Japanese film industry) from the author’s estate. I knew that the copyrights would become public domain within a year in 1986 as it marks the 50th year since the death of Kyusaku Yumeno, but I rather wanted to have the deal done in time and go visit Yumeno’s (Sugiyama family’s) grave with that. 

Even if we were lucky enough to bring the adaptation to fruition, there was still the hurdle of distribution. With the newest proposal I created in hand, I met with the senior executive of a certain major distribution company to find out their interests. He was known as the best in the company and had worked on masterpieces, and he told me that he had indeed heard of Dogra Magra from that certain master director. However, the risk was too high, and the company put it on hold, further suggesting that an affiliated company (run by the president’s family) could take over. What surprised me even more was that he listened to me with keen eyes, gave one quick look at my proposal, and asked, “about the director—can’t you do something about it?” Then he suggested two or three names including the previously mentioned auteur. Of course, I politely declined. 

There were many small problems and challenges, but for me, the biggest problem with being an independent film was, for better or worse, that it ended up being an “independent film.” No matter how experimental the method was, my goal was to blow away the minds of the audience, who saw the film for the first time, and of which the majority had not even read the original novel. In a sense, there was much more that could’ve been done. I am proud to say, however, that with the support of those around me, I was able to make an appropriate preparation for the film.

I believe Director Matsumoto stubbornly disliked what was considered “entertainment films.” In fact, he once told me, “I am not interested in, nor do I want to see, anything that can be done by others rather than me.” I guess he genuinely distanced himself from it as the world he would never be a part of.

What was the initial reception of the film when it was released?

I’m usually not too interested in the opinions of film critics or cultural figures, but on this film, I found a wide range of reception, from praise to criticism, and neutral ones that were neither poison nor medicine by those who didn’t understand the film. I had rather accustomed myself to listening to my close friends and acquaintances who would express their true feelings about it. Those who knew the original novel were all generally impressed, giving comments such as, “how did you organize the novel that way..?” but, perhaps they were mincing their words a little bit. The problem was the response of those who had never read the original novel. I mostly heard: “I didn’t understand it well” or “I couldn’t follow it.” During the production, all my efforts and struggles were made so I could avoid the possibilities of such comments.

Taking a more positive look at things to lift up my spirits, I was surprised that quite many young women in their teens and early twenties attended the film since the initial release. These young women, who appeared to be quiet bookworm types, were eagerly reading the provocative looking program. Furthermore, they came all the way from the countryside or came back two or three times to see the film. As a producer, I felt very humbled by this.

The movie theater where we premiered it was Cine Saison Shibuya, which was located on the 6th floor of a building. Once we opened, the long line of people queuing up with great excitement reached the basement of the building, and we broke a box-office record for the venue, moving on to a successful theatrical run in Fukuoka (where the novel is set) and Osaka (where Master Shijaku Katsura was based). However, although the initial explosive reach was more than sufficient, the subsequent spread and amplification were not as strong. According to box-office data including audience surveys, the strength of the original novel was at the core of the success.

American audiences are excited to see the 35mm print of this film. It’s now been 35 years since the film’s initial release, how does it feel to know American audiences will have the chance to discover this film again after so long?

The film has yet to recoup its production costs after more than 30 years since its initial release, but on the contrary, the fact that I still get occasional offers to screen it is in itself the true value of the film. 2016 saw the second release of a remastered DVD, and three years later, a Blu-ray release. They both did very well, and just last year in 2022, ETV (public broadcasting/educational TV) in Japan also delved deeply into the world of Kyusaku Yumeno with Dogra Magra as its centerpiece, stimulating a new generation as well as those who had no encounter with the original novel or the film in the past. I am pleased that a 35mm print of the film is being screened at Japan Society, a cornerstone of Japan-U.S. relations. Aside from the international film festivals and related screenings in 11 countries, this is the first time that a 35mm print of the film is shown at a venue outside of Japan.

On the other hand, I’ve had a feeling that this film could have been much more… That feeling was there back then and never went away. And my deep respect for Toshio Matsumoto, the filmmaker who directed my favorite narrative film Shura (Demons), who endlessly challenged himself with audacious experiments and came face-to-face with Dogra Magra, which was said to be impossible for film adaptation, has never changed.  

Now that 35 years have passed since the film was made, I hope that this screening will provide his fans and those who don’t know him—beyond whether or not they know the original novel, and even regardless of the time and generations—another opportunity to partake of the universal themes that speak to today’s audience and innovative visual approaches this film offers, even if only a little. Of course, harsh criticism is also an important gift from the audience.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Japan Society for their attention to this film and their efforts to screen it.

—Shuji Shibata

The Freedom Cure Experimental Grounds.

Translation by Karin Yamamoto

Taisho Roman: Fever Dreams of the Great Rectitude runs from December 9—16, 2023.

Follow Japan Society Film on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Letterboxd for more exciting deep dives into Japanese cinematic history. Founded in the early 70s, Japan Society’s illustrious film program is the premier venue for the exhibition of new Japanese film as well as classic series and retrospectives.

A limited quantity of printed Zines with the full interview will be available on-site at Japan Society for screenings of Dogra Magra.

1 Hanamachi, which literally translates to “flower town,” indicates a district where geisha reside and work, that often consists of a combination of three elements: Ryori-ya (restaurants that serve traditional cuisine), Geisha-ya (houses where geisha perform dances), and Machiai or Machiai-jaya (a business that provides space for geisha and customers to meet up); Janome-gasa, which literary translate to “snake’s eye umbrella,” is a Japanese traditional umbrella with a bold-colored design resembling the eye of a snake, that became commonly used in the Edo period.
2 Matsumoto is referring to the Epimenides paradox, a logical paradox attributed to classical Cretan philosopher and poet Epimenides of Knossos.
3 ATG stands for the Art Theatre Guild, a legendary production company and distributor which released notable new wave and arthouse works from the 1960s until the 1980s.
4 Ireko are nested objects, traditionally plates and dishes in Japan, that fit within each other, similar to Russian Matryoshka dolls.
5 The Ahodara Sutra was a chant—comical in tone and fast-paced—that was popular from the end of the Edo era into Meiji.
6 Yumeno’s novel is known for having interwoven various forms of writing, making it harder for readers to comprehend; notably, he inserts headers such as “subtitle,” “exposition,” and even “fade-out” with brackets, which suggest cinematic expression and interests; “Natural Colored, Embossed Sound Film,” a reference to the film entitled Madman’s Liberation Cure created by Dr. Masaki, is depicted extensively in the novel, and is also implemented in the film.
7 Yukio Ninagawa was a prominent theater director internationally known for his visually arresting Japanese language adaptations of Shakespeare and Greek dramas, incorporating elements of traditional arts such as kabuki into his renditions.
8 The Japanese name for Dr. Masaki’s Freedom Cure Experimental Grounds translates literally to “Madman’s Liberation Cure Center.”
9 The magic lantern was an early projector which used transparent plates to emit images of paintings, prints, or photographs.
10 Iki-ningyo are life-sized Japanese traditional dolls dating back to the Edo period.
11 Kuroko are stagehands, dressed in all black, typical of traditional Japanese theater.