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Nakashima Tetsuya - The Commercial Genius

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Rather than being just another commercial director making commercial-like films, Nakashima Tetsuya has proven himself to be a leader in the evolution of that trend. At a time when feature films by commercial directors are criticized for emphasizing style over substance, Nakashima - as writer and director on all of his own films - blends powerful themes with an equally strong eye for colorful visuals, creating works that are both thought-provoking and visually appealing. With just six feature films under his belt, Nakashima has injected a strong shot of adrenaline in the Japanese film industry, making him one of the most dynamic contemporary Japanese directors working today.

Nakashima Tetsuya was born in Fukuoka in 1959. During his time at Meiji University, Nakashima's 63-minute student film Ha no Ji Wasurete was accepted into the 1982 Pia Film Festival. The independent film competition, now over three decades old, continues to play an important part in Japanese cinema, introducing directors such as Sono Sion, Ogigami Naoko, Lee Sang Il, and Tsukamoto Shinya to the Japanese film industry with both its film competition and its annual filmmaking scholarship. Even though neither the festival's jury awards nor its filmmaking scholarship had been established yet in 1982, Nakashima's presence at the festival was still a major first step for his directorial career.

After his time in university, Nakashima became a director for the Nihon Tennenshoku Eiga ad agency, respected in the industry for its award-winning ads. In 1988, Nakashima officially made his feature film directorial debut with a segment in the first installment of the hit Morita Yoshimitsu Bakayaro! I'm Plenty Mad omnibus series, which also features a section by Tsutsumi Yukihiko (20th Century Boys).

Despite making two feature films - Happy-Go-Lucky and Beautiful Sunday - between 1997 and 1998, Nakashima was more recognized for his television commercials. If you're a fan of Japanese commercials, chances are that you've seen a Nakashima Tetsuya work before you've ever seen his films. From an intense game of table tennis over beer, to an inspirational story about a baseball team comprised of men past their prime, to even a live-action version of Gatchaman, the award-winning ad director has told a wide variety of stories 30 seconds at a time. It is the influence from this world that prepared Nakashima for his 2004 breakout film: Kamikaze Girls.

Kamikaze Girls

Based on the novel by Takemoto Nobara, Kamikaze Girls (a.k.a. Shimotsuma Monogatari) could very well be just another coming-of-age story chronicling a friendship between two very different girls in a small town. However, nothing ever appears normal when seen through Nakashima's eyes. In its opening ten minutes, Kamikaze Girls literally drops the audience into a condensed, ten-minute version of Momoko's life story, from her parents meeting to how she became a small town girl who finds happiness from Lolita-style clothing that can only be found in Tokyo. The surreal images, strong colors, and breakneck pacing from this ten-minute section loudly proclaim that Kamikaze Girls is not just another coming-of-age story.

In addition to using a strong color scheme and computer-generated images (both often used in contemporary television commercials), Nakashima also incorporates influences from everything from shojo comics to anime, making Kamikaze Girls look unlike anything audiences had seen before. Originally opening on only 40 screens across Japan, Kamikaze Girls became a word-of-mouth hit, eventually spreading to 165 screens. In addition to acclaim for Nakashima, who won the Best Director award at the Yokohama Film Festival, the film also won plenty of praise for Fukada Kyoko (as Momoko) as well as model-turned-actress Tsuchiya Anna, who plays a biker gang girl that teaches Momoko about loyalty and friendship. The film even helped put the town of Shimotsuma on the map, as its popularity was later used as part of the effort to stop the town from being incorporated into a neighboring city.

Kamikaze Girls remains the most important film in Nakashima's career thus far. In addition to establishing his unique visual style, it was also the beginning of Nakashima's motif of telling stories about women. From Tsuchiya Anna and Fukuda Kyoko in Kamikaze Girls to Takako Matsu's vengeful high school teacher in Confessions, Nakashima's films are always about the plights and struggles of female central protagonists surrounded by weak-willed, devious male characters that both physical and emotionally abuse them.

Memories of Matsuko

This motif is at its clearest in Nakashima's fourth feature film Memories of Matsuko (a.k.a. Kiraware Matsuko no Issho). Based on the novel by Yamada Muneki, Memories is a Citizen Kane-style biography drama about the life of a woman who makes one wrong choice after another in the name of love until her violent, untimely death. In a mix of old school Hollywood musicals and modern music videos, Nakashima intentionally offsets the misery from the neglect and abuse in Matsuko's sad life with grand, upbeat musical sequences filmed in vibrant colors. Featuring the voices of Bonnie Pink, AI, Michael Buble, and star Nakatani Miki herself, the film uses a broad spectrum of musical styles spanning from R&B to waltz to express Matsuko's life in songs. In an interview, Nakashima said that he used musical sequences, vivid colors, and hyper-reality to depict the generally depressing life his protagonist led because he wanted to make it easier for audiences to feel Matsuko's life had value and left a positive influence on those she left behind.

At the center of this modern, bubble-infused musical epic is a brilliant performance by Nakatani Miki as the unfortunate Matsuko. Nakashima is notorious for his tough attitude towards actresses on set, and it was rumored to have sent Nakatani walking off the set at least once during the shoot. However, Nakashima's efforts also helped Nakatani deliver the most acclaimed performance of her career. In addition to recognition from local publications like Kinema Junpo, Sports Hochi, and the Mainichi, Nakatani also won the Best Actress award at the Japan Academy Awards and the Asian Film Awards.

Like Kamikaze Girls, Matsuko also caught Japanese audiences by surprise with its groundbreaking visual style and powerful story. The film picked up a sizeable audience during its theatrical release, losing only 18% to 30% of box office gross the first several weeks in cinemas. In the end, Memories became Nakashima's most commercially and critically successful film of his career at the time, grossing almost double the money Kamikaze Girls made at the Japanese box office. If Kamikaze Girls got people to start paying attention to Nakashima as a filmmaker, Memories of Matsuko got people to truly recognize his talent.

Paco and the Magical Book

After the dark, ambitious Memories of Matsuko, Nakashima softens up considerably for his 2008 follow-up film Paco and the Magical Book (a.k.a. Paco to Maho no Ehon). Based on a play by Goto Hirohito, Paco is Nakashima's first film targeted for a family audience, and it's easily his lightest film to date. While the film's protagonist is a cranky old tycoon with a heart of stone (played by Yakusho Yoji), the character given the most attention is Paco (10-year-old Ayaka Wilson), a cute little girl who eventually melts the old man's heart.

Set entirely inside a hospital, Paco also features Nakashima's most star-studded ensemble cast yet. In addition to Yakusho, Paco also co-stars Tsumabuki Satoshi, Kase Ryo, Tsuchiya Anna, Kunimura Jun, Kimura Kaela, and Abe Sadao, all hidden under layers of make-up to play various eccentric characters in the hospital. Told with manic energy and imaginative images, Nakashima employs a large number of computer-generated images to match the film's whimsical, fairy tale-like story. This is especially apparent in the climax, during which everyone in the hospital brings Paco's favorite fantasy book to life in front of her eyes. While Nakashima's hyperactive style usually helps soften the blow of his films' darker elements, Nakashima seems to have finally found a story that truly calls for his unique style with Paco and the Magical Book.

Thanks to the family-friendly story and the appeal of Nakashima's visual style, Paco and the Magical Book was a box office hit in September 2008, despite competing against the first installment of the 20th Century Boys trilogy. The film ended up staying in the top ten box office chart for eight weeks, grossing 2.36 billion yen to become another new box office high for Nakashima. The film's technical team was also rewarded with the Best Art Direction prize at the Japan Academy Awards.


Some directors who have found Nakashima's kind of commercial success would choose to stick with safe, commercially-friendly material to hold on to their audiences. However, Nakashima chose to follow up his children's fairy tale two years later with a not-so-family-friendly look at children in contemporary Japan, and the result was by far his biggest success yet.

Based on the popular novel by Minato Kanae, Confessions (a.k.a. Kokuhaku) follows a wicked revenge plan by a high school teacher (played by Matsu Takako) to avenge the murder of her daughter. Taking a pessimistic approach towards contemporary issues like overprotective parents, bullying, and conniving teenagers, Confessions definitely lacks the relatively positive messages Nakashima conveyed in his earlier films. Ending on the suggestion that the avenger will never let the murderers get their redemption, Confessions is a relentlessly downbeat film that is easily Nakashima's darkest film yet.

This time, Nakashima strips his film of bright colors, opting for a white and gray palate to create a parallel universe with traces of our world. The visuals are deceptively bare, with Nakashima relying even more heavily than ever on editing and music to create the right atmosphere for the film. Unlike Memories of Matsuko, which tried to emulate the look and feel of a grand musical, Confessions looks closer to an extended music video in which the music exists outside the film's world to build the atmosphere for the audience.

Nakashima establishes this style from the very beginning with a 30-minute opening sequence that lays out the story's characters, incidents, and motivations. As high school teacher Yuko coldly lays out pieces of the puzzle, the music sets the pace of the images, creating an extended montage that slowly grips the viewers into the story. Even as the film gets into a more normal pace, Nakashima continues to use a combination of images and music to tell the story, making Confessions a visceral 109-minute cinematic experience rarely seen before.

Despite the dark subject matter and the R15+ rating that restricts viewers under 15 from seeing the film, Confessions was another major commercial success for Nakashima. Thanks to a promotional campaign that sold the film as extreme, edgy entertainment, Confessions stayed at the top of the Japanese box office for four straight weeks, gaining viewers each week during the entire month of June. In the end, the film grossed a phenomenal US$42.5 million in Japan alone, with successful theatrical runs in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well. Critically, Confessions was equally successful, winning four grand prizes at the Japan Academy Awards, including Nakashima's first Best Director prize. It was also picked to represent Japan in the Best Foreign Film competition at the 2011 Academy Awards, making the short list of nine until it was eliminated for the final five.

In addition to feature films, Nakashima also wrote the sex comedy Lalapipo and directed a segment of the relay short film omnibus Flarella for singer Bonnie Pink. The director also branched out into making music videos, directing Sotto Kyutto for SMAP and Minna Hitori for Matsu Takako. He ran into controversy with the music video for AKB48's 2010 single Beginner. Starring the popular idol group, the video depicts the girls in a fantasy video game in which they are killed in various violent manners. Due to its violent nature, the video was pulled from public airings and the single's bonus DVD. The video was finally included in the group's music video compilation in 2011.

Nakashima has yet to announce plans for his seventh feature film, though he continues to do music video work. After a long string of increasingly successful films, it's difficult to imagine how Nakashima could possibly continue to outdo himself. As the expectation for his future works continues to build up higher and higher, we can only sit and wait to see how this 51-year-old director will pull the rug out from under his audience once more.

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Published June 30, 2011

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