I interviewed a number of people at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and these interviews are being published over at V-Cinema. This interview was the first to go online on March 28th.
Yoshinori Sato was born in Aichi, Japan on February 1975. After graduating from high school, he travelled to the US to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California. Since graduating, he has worked as a director in Japanese television while also making independent films. His film credits include Bad Child (2013) and Her Mother, which played at international film festivals including the 21st Busan International Film Festival and the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017.
Sato returned to Osaka to give the world premiere of his documentary, Shinjuku Tiger, a fascinating look at a flamboyantly dressed and inspiring man who wears a tiger mask and, since the 70s, has practically lived in the bars and cinemas of Shinjuku as he pursues good films, beautiful woman, and delicious sake. It is all part of a fiction he has created to “spread love and peace” and the film shows the character in action as he works his normal job in newspaper delivery and goes on epic bar crawls that rope in celebrities and friends. This films borders on hagiography but gains depth as Sato uses the life of the man to examine the changes and events that Shinjuku has seen through the decades so we get some sense of the culture of one of Tokyo’s most famous wards.
Sato kindly gave an interview after the Q&A that followed the second screening of Shinjuku Tiger at the festival. The interview was conducted in English but we were joined by interpreter Keiko Matsushita who offered some interesting questions and insights.
Jason Maher: Thank you for making the film and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. When I watched Shinjuku Tiger, I was immediately dazzled by the man’s energy, his lust for life. I had never heard of him before. How did you discover him?
Yoshinori Sato: My producer found him. My producer goes to the cinema in Shinjuku a lot and every time he went there, he saw Shinjuku Tiger and he became interested in finding out what kind of guy he is. Actually, my producer is the one who distributed Her Mother and he told me, it would be great to make a documentary about him.
You’ve directed dramas in the past, is this your first documentary film?
Did you have any concerns about making a documentary?
Actually, I directed some documentaries for TV before, so I kind of know how to make documentaries but this time I shot over almost a year. That’s a long period. For TV, I only worked over a short period so I had a lot of time to think about it while shooting. So I observed him. When it comes to fiction, I make it in my head but in documentary I observed him and I tried to find out what he’s thinking.
You shot over the course of a year, how long was an average day with the Shinjuku Tiger?
Five or six hours a day.
How many days a week?
Actually, the Shinjuku Tiger remembers how many days I spent shooting the film and he told me it was 36 times. (LAUGHTER) He remembered. I don’t remember.
Presumably you have hundreds of hours of footage.
I have 200.
Was it difficult to find a unifying theme for the film?
He is very talkative so it was hard to find a theme so I watched the footage many times and I tried to write down a plot, connections. I got four main themes and then I connected the conversations to those four main themes.
Movies, sake, and beautiful women. Did you ever go to his home?
He didn’t want me to enter his room.
So Shinjuku Tiger is a performance and he just wants people to see the performance?
Actually, at first, I wanted to know what kind of person he is like as a human but when I was editing, I began to think I didn’t want to know him as a human, I wanted to protect his vision, what he’s doing. He’s living in fiction. I wanted to protect his fictional world.
What do you think he symbolizes?
He said love and peace, right? To be honest, I don’t know how serious he is about that. It’s like art, right? It depends upon how people feel about him but one thing I am sure about is he is, I don’t know if this is the right word, but he is against common sense.
His appearance is almost absurd. His costume and bright pink hair and the dolls are very eye-catching and to live like that is very brave because he stands out.
He has a peaceful and cheerful way to express himself. For example, if he thinks he is a tiger and wants to express it, he doesn’t do so directly, he wants to make people think.
Through the positive energy he gives out?
Yeah, that’s right. He doesn’t want to be negative. He’s always positive.
Which is pretty hard to maintain when you’re tired or frustrated, so he must have a lot of energy.
He’s 71 years old and very energetic.
Was it very exhausting keeping up with him when he was going to bars all night long?
I was so exhausted. One time he started drinking from 6pm to 4pm (laughter). At 3am, he was singing karaoke. 30 songs.
Was it difficult to keep your positivity up in those situations? (laughter)
Yes, it was very hard.
He must be really inspirational, as well. Did you ever encounter anybody with a negative opinion about him?
When he started wearing his costume, he said people were against him and there was a guy who smashed a beer bottle over his head but he never fought back.
One scene that stood out was the actor Shibukawa Kiyohiko’s random appearance. It seemed like he was surprised. How did that encounter happen?
It was by accident. When Shinjuku Tiger was collecting money for the newspapers, I was following him and then Shibukawa was riding along on a bicycle and the Tiger said, “Hey!” It was very surprising.
Such a funny scene but the Shinjuku Tiger has the energy to make it a fun scene. Why did you get Terajima Shinobu to narrate?
My producer worked with her before and he asked her to add narration. Shinjuku Tiger is weird for people who don’t know about him so I think the producer wanted someone with a voice we can trust to do the narration.
She has a good voice that fits the film. The music also fits the film. Could you explain a little more about the selection?
I wanted to use jazz for the music because this movie is also about the 60s and 70s in Shinjuku and a lot of people at that time listened to jazz. Do you know Charles Mingus? His jazz music has a very dubious atmosphere and the Shinjuku Tiger is kind of a dubious guy at first. Charles Mingus makes jazz music that feels a little dubious.
Who did you get to compose the music?
They are students, a guy and a girl, [Riku Horimoto and Misaki Umase]. They are like 22, 23. I met them when I screened Her Mother here in Osaka and so I asked them for music and they gave me a demo. I liked their music and I asked if I could use it.
It’s a very interesting way of looking at the history of Tokyo. Did you find having Shinjuku Tiger made it easy to examine the changes over the decades?
He has lived in Shinjuku for almost 50 years so I thought I could describe the history of Shinjuku as well as his story.
He acts as a focal point in the film for you to look at figures like Wakamatsu Koji and the student protests.
He said that he didn’t join the student protests. I think he was affected by the student movement but he didn’t join. I think his way of living is like the yakuza way. Like a Ken Takakura movie. Ken Takakura played a yakuza who protected people but he has his own way of behaving. I think Tiger lives in that way.
Shinjuku Tiger is like a movie character.
He’s very influenced by movie characters. There are many movies that describe the ideal person and when we see a movie, it’s great if we can live like that but we never try because it’s too hard and we think, “ah, that’s fiction so he can live that way”. In the real world, it is hard to live that way but he lives like that. Very pure.
He’s admirable. Could you ever imagine someone of our generation or a younger generation becoming the next Shinjuku Tiger or is he totally unique?
I hope someone tries to be like Tiger but I think he’s the only one who can do that. We can learn from how he lives, his beliefs. I am influenced by him. I don’t put on a tiger mask but I want to live like him. I hope that when people see this movie, there are some who want to live like him. I think he’s a rare person and I like him a lot.
Thank you very much for the interview. Hopefully people will be inspired by Shinjuku Tiger.
Shinjuku Tiger was shown on March 10 and 14 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.