[*omake (おまけ): Japanese for “bonus”]
As much as we discuss home media releases here on Cinapse, I’ve always wanted to speak to someone behind the scenes about what it’s actually like to work on one of these special editions. Luckily enough I happen to know one such individual, who was kind enough to humor me as I asked the questions most of us have when we pop in a disc and start culling through the extras.
Marc Walkow has worked on releases over the years curating special features and producing content for the likes of Arrow, Image and Criterion to name a few. With his specialty being Japanese Cinema, Marc most recently worked on the excellent Battles Without Honor and Humanity Collection and the Female Convict Scorpion set, which are great examples of the kinds of releases that are responsible keeping physical media relevant amongst collectors.
It was both fun and informative chatting with Marc, who spoke about not only what got him into Japanese cinema in the first place, but also about what it’s like putting these editions together as a fan himself. We also discuss future releases from Arrow he is currently working on and why Meiko Kaji’s voice is noticeably absent from her genre films. My biggest takeaway is that Marc is a fan just like us, and it’s good to know that these films are in the hands of folks that want to see these sets be the best they can be just as much as we do.
Dan: First off I know you’re a huge fan of Japanese cinema, having worked with the likes of Criterion and Sushi Typhoon in the past both producing films and content for home video releases. What was the film that sparked your love for Japanese cinema?
Marc: Honestly, I have no idea! But this is a question I get all the time, especially from Japanese friends who want to know where all this passion and interest came from. I think there are several, actually. My first exposure to Japanese entertainment was when I was a kid, and used to watch English versions of Ultraman and Speed Racer on TV after school every day, like most kids of that era. Plus Godzilla movies on TV on the weekends.
Then when I was in junior high or high school, I used to belong to a mail-order video rental service called Home Film Festival, which allowed me to rent VHS tapes of movies my local video store didn’t carry, like Seven Samurai or Harakiri.
And then much later, in my early 30s, I was living in LA, and programmers Dennis Bartok and especially Chris D. used to put together amazing programs of lesser-known Japanese films. That’s where I first saw stuff like Blind Beast, School Of The Holy Beast, the second Female Prisoner Scorpion film, and Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza movies. That whole period was instrumental in cementing my love for these kinds of films.
DT: So you’ve most recently been working with Arrow Video on their forays into Japanese genre and produced many of the special features on not only the Female Convict Scorpion set but also the amazing Battles Without Honor and Humanity set. Why do you think fans still love these films so much and what keeps these films so relevant today?
MW: I think films from this period, like a lot of U.S. and European films from the ’70s (or ’60s or early ’80s), have something to them that just isn’t reflected in filmmaking these days. An honesty, or an edginess, or a willingness to depict things that, for whatever reasons, aren’t depicted in cinema today, and usually aren’t even depicted by the best TV series of our era.
It’s difficult to express, but it feels to me that films of that period (like the ones you mentioned) were able to give audiences something that hadn’t been done before. You had filmmakers like Fukasaku and Shunya Ito reacting to contemporary historical events, as well as addressing the legacy of the war and postwar changes in Japan, and that’s just something that’s not possible nowadays. There was a uniqueness or freshness to even studio-made cinema that the time that’s impossible to recapture.
Many Japanese filmmakers have made films in reaction to the catastrophes of 3/11, for example, but it’s hardly the case that major studios will allow them to address the disasters in a subversive or truly interesting way. There are exceptions, of course – Nobuhiko Obayashi’s post-3/11 films or those of Sion Sono – but in most cases, neither the film companies nor the filmmakers are interested in radically coming to grips with contemporary social events. It’s all about entertainment, even if it’s intended to be heavy or “serious.”
There’s nothing wrong with that – film is primarily an entertainment medium – but in the ’70s you had major studios creating films for purely commercial purposes (entertainment, that is) which took pulp subjects and elevated them to the highest levels of social commentary and artistry, simply because it was a medium that allowed some of the best and most radical filmmakers to express themselves. The studios, despite their faults, were remarkably cooperative in that regard.
I think it’s the power of that kind of honest filmmaking, not afraid to confront something in a possibly unlikable or uncommercial way, which still gives these films that kind of overwhelming power, despite the cultural differences and their distance in terms of the era in which they were made. For instance, you don’t have to know anything about the postwar occupation or ANPO protests, for instance, to appreciate the power of the Battles Without Honor series.
DT: I’m a big fan of the Female Convict Scorpion films and first came across a tenth generation copy of the second film and I had to see more. What was your first introduction to the series and what’s your personal favorite of the films?
MW: That would have been in LA, at the American Cinematheque’s “Outlaws of Japanese Cinema” series programmed by Chris D. They screened Female Prisoner (then called Convict) Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 on 35mm and it blew me away. Absolutely knocked me out. I recommended it to everyone I know, and when the film came to NYC shortly after, I told all my friends there to go see it. David Schultz licensed it for DVD release soon after, and I was the coordinator of those series of discs (which also included Black Tight Killers and a pair of Koji Wakamatsu films) at Image Entertainment, so I got to work with Chris on the liner notes and the overall package.
To get to work on the films again with Arrow has been a real pleasure, and a nice bit of closure for that circle in my life.
DT: Being a lover of physical media and digging into those releases, I have to ask what goes into producing a box set of that magnitude like the Female Convict Scorpion set in particular, gathering transfers, bonus features, and how much was Toei involved in the set?
MW: It’s all about balancing what you want to do with what kind of budget you have to do it, like any endeavor. The Scorpion series was relatively straightforward, actually; it was the Battles project that was enormous and could have been much much bigger, but our budget just didn’t support it. I think there’s also a limit you have to consider in terms of creating something that just completely outweighs the audience desire for it.
For Scorpion, Toei was involved in licensing the film to Arrow, but that’s about it. Arrow did new transfers of the films in this case, which they didn’t on Battles (since Toei already had hi-def masters available of those films). Since the Scorpion films don’t have the kind of critical praise or cultural & historical importance that the Battles films have in Japan, there wasn’t anything available from Toei for us to add as special features. (The Japanese DVDs only have trailers on them, for instance.)
The most important thing for me was to reach out to Meiko Kaji to be part of the set, and since I was also producing the Criterion set of the Lady Snowblood films at the same time, we contacted her about doing interviews for both series. As with anyone overseas who’s tried to contact her for these kinds of projects, we were soundly refused. But we did proceed fairly far down that road – an associate of mine in Kyoto had multiple conversations with Kaji’s manager and pitched the project in a variety of ways, only to be politely refused each time. I think her reasons for that refusal are complicated, and I wouldn’t try to repeat them since even I don’t really understand what’s going on. But it’s clear that she doesn’t really want anything to do with these films or that era of her life any longer, at least with regard to overseas releases of those films.
Once Kaji was out, we set out to find other people who had worked on the films, since it’s very important to me to hear those original voices.
Since we had already arranged to reuse the Shunya Ito and Yasuharu Hasebe interviews originally recorded by Tom Mes for the German / Rapid Eye Movies DVD set, we decided not to contact Ito again, though he’s still alive and well. Hasebe had died a few years ago, so it was very lucky for us to get those materials. My regular editor, Kosaku Horiwaki, who’s NY-based, cut those two long interviews, which had been presented on the German disc as a very straightforward, talking-head style video with no clips or cutaways, into a trio of really great pieces, I think, and has made them much more entertaining and watchable.
We contacted original manga author Toru Shinohara for a video interview, but since his health wasn’t great and he didn’t live anywhere near Tokyo, it was difficult to arrange that. In the end, another associate did a phone interview with him which I translated for the booklet, and that turned out to be much longer and better than a video interview would have been! It’s a remarkable capsule history of the genesis of the manga industry in the 1950s. Shinohara rubbed elbows with basically everyone responsible for creating some of the most important comics in Japanese history.
For video interviews, we managed to talk with assistant director Yutaka Kohira, who was very lively and went on to direct the two New Female Prisoner Scorpion films as well, so his familiarity with the series was very strong. We’d tried to get the other main assistant director (who worked on episodes #2 and #3) named Shokaku Baba, but he politely refused our inquiries due to his health. Co-writer Hiro Matsuda had the same issues; it’s something we unfortunately have to deal with when working on films from the early ’70s. Many of these folks are quite old and confined to their homes, or otherwise can’t talk about or remember their work on these films. For the Battles set, I learned that several of the main actors are in the midst of dementia or Alzheimer’s; very sad.
We also got an interview with genius production designer Tadayuki Kuwana via Kohira, which I think turned out great. Beyond the original interviews, we wanted intros from various filmmakers or critics who liked the films, plus contributions from Arrow regulars like Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes, all of which was easy to put together. For Kaji, we re-used Chris D’s interview from his book on Outlaw Japanese Masters, and Chuck Stephens contributed his first piece for Arrow, which is a fantastic set of lines notes, I think.
The transfers and packaging artwork are all handled by Arrow on these releases; producers like me don’t have very much input into that. But I’m happy with both the transfers and the work on the packaging by Ian McEwan. Obviously it might have turned out differently if I’d supervised them myself, but I’m very satisfied with the results.
DT: Now when you’re curating special features, what are the things you’re most excited about as a fan that you come across, get access to, or you’re able to share with an audience?
MW: Generally, I think that anything new which hasn’t been presented before on previous home video editions is exciting to me. I think that special features production used to be about quantity more than quality – jam as much stuff as you can on the disc, just to fill out that back-of-boxcover copy. But nowadays, with so much stuff competing for the same attention-span bandwidth, I don’t think anybody watches most of the special features on the BDs or DVDs they buy, if anything at all!
So for me, it’s about more bang for the buck…is there something on there that’s impossible to see or learn about elsewhere, and which expands on the viewing of the film itself in a substantial and meaningful way?
For instance, when it comes to reusing existing supplements from previous editions, I think the same rule holds. Reusing something on a new edition just because it was out in the market before doesn’t make sense to me, particularly if you’re creating newer supplements or interviews that are of a better quality, or are simply newer. For example, we chose not to reuse the Hideo Nakata and Koji Suzuki interviews that were on the Dark Water disc from Japan, even though they hadn’t been made available in English before, simply because we’d just interviewed them in May and they covered much of the same ground, and then some. For me, it’s about what will enrich the viewing of the film itself and what really belongs on the disc, and makes sense as part of the package.
To give a specific example (again), I was really excited to be able to include the new interview with Toru Shinohara on the Scorpion disc. And I was very happy that we were able to reprint a 1974 article written by the screenwriter of the first four Battles Without Honor films, for the first time in English. That kind of stuff, which most Japanese audiences have never seen or read, let alone overseas ones, is a treasure-trove for me.
DT: Did you have a particular favorite piece you brought to the set? I really enjoyed the inclusion of the Shunya Itō interview since he tries to set the record straight a bit as to why he left the series on the third film.
MW: I also liked the vintage Ito and Hasebe interviews, too, but I think my favorite interview piece is probably the one we did with Tadayuki Kuwana, the production designer. He worked on a lot of landmark films, and of course the production design and overall visual style of the Scorpion films is just amazing. A lot of it was due to his genius, and his unique collaboration with Ito. They were both old-school lefties, hardcore union supporters and very dissatisfied about what was happening in Japan in the 1960s and ’70s. That anger and social concern is very apparent when you watch the films, even more so after you’ve listened to what Kuwana’s inspirations were.
DT: I have to ask – Arrow has released some of Kaji’s best films and she has since become an icon of Asian cinema, but we never see her participate in these releases; do you know why that is? I know there was rumored to be a documentary on her in the works.
MW: A lot of this was included in one of my earlier answers, but yes, we did reach out to her via her longtime manager and she politely refused. It wasn’t a matter of money or anything like that. My suspicion – and this is only my supposition – is that it’s a combination of her lack of interest in her old genre films, her bad memories of working for Toei (she claims the studio exploited her), and also her desire to be remembered more for the art films she made with directors like Yasuzo Masumura rather than for her genre films. Which is sad, I think, since of course the persona she created in those genre/action films is completely unique; there’s not another Japanese actress like her, or even another actress outside of Japan with her kind of powerful presence.
She a combination of Pam Grier and Catherine Deneuve in terms of her appeal and strength, and I wish she were able to recognize that and live with it or promote it nowadays rather than seeming to be embarrassed by it. But that’s the problem with genre cinema overall, isn’t it? Not just in Japan but elsewhere, too – most mainstream critics and audiences don’t give it any respect, so it gets painted with a very wide brush as merely trash, even though those of us who appreciate it know that there are many treasures to be found within.
DT: I think Arrow has been doing an amazing job releasing some great classic Japanese genre over the last few years. Are there any “wish list” titles you would like to work on or would like to possibly see get a proper release in the future?
MW: Thanks for the kind words! I was a big Arrow fan before I started working for them, and actually pitched the company several times on hiring me before they came back to me with the offer to do the Battles and Scorpion sets!
As for a wish list, how many choices do I get? 🙂
I’ve communicated with the acquisitions team there about dozens and dozens of recommendations, some of them realistic and some of them not. I’m happy to say that Arrow has another deal with Toei in the works, for about a dozen additional titles from the ’60s and ’70s, most of them Blu-ray premieres and many of them never before released on video with English subtitles. I’ve already started doing interviews for that batch, all of which will be out in 2017.
A big “wish list” title for me, which I’ve recommended to Arrow as well as to other companies, is The Man Who Stole The Sun, which was directed by Kazuhiko Hasegawa in 1979. Hasegawa was a genius screenwriter, but did only one other film as director to date, an early ATG production called The Youth Killer (which is also brilliant). But Man Who Stole is just unlike anything else out there: an indie production distributed by Toho and starring Kenji Sawada and Bunta Sugawara as, respectively, a high school chemistry teacher who creates an atomic bomb in his kitchen, and the hard-as-nails cop who’s after him.
The story was written by Leonard Schrader and it was produced by maverick Mataichiro Yamamoto, who also produced Schrader’s The Killing Of America and the Crows Zero franchise. It’s a unique piece of filmmaking in Japanese cinema history, and blends comedy, police procedural, tense nuclear drama, and a great character drama to boot. But the rights are very complicated, so I’m not sure whether we’ll ever see it on home video outside of Japan.
One last tidbit: I’m happy to report that I’m working a pair of Takashi Miike box sets that’ll be coming out from Arrow in 2017 as well, both of them trilogies and both of them making their worldwide Blu-ray debuts!