You may have noticed a theme in the recent film reviews posted. The last three films I’ve written about (and a review of Glass Johnny is coming, I swear!) were all screened at the touring show No Borders, No Limits, brought around by Marc Walkow of Outcast Cinema. Marc was available at all the screenings to talk about the films AND provide live subtitling. He knows his stuff and so after the last screening, I asked if he’d be willing to do an interview — he agreed, so here we go! He answered these questions while in Vancouver, BC with the films — which sadly turns out to be the last stop (at least for now). HOWEVER — it does sound like you may want to keep your eyes peeled for DVDs of some of these titles in the upcoming future!
And, of course, this isn’t Marc’s only gig; he also, among many things, is responsible for getting some of these movies released stateside and has done lots of DVD production work as well. And he’s really nice, too, and loves talking about movies. Luckily, so do I (and so does Dale Comer, who provided a few of the questions too, as he was with me when I saw No Borders, No Limits and asked Marc for the interview)!
Part the First
At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Marc Walkow: You know, I’m one of those rare folks who’s just not into contemporary music. Maybe at some point in the past, I made a subconscious decision to focus my limited mental cataloguing abilities on movies rather than music? I’ve got less than 30 CDs in my collection, though my wife’s a music fan so she pretty much fills in the “must have” gaps there. I like plenty of stuff I hear, but I don’t buy or download any of it, compile favorites or even recognize the titles of most of the songs! do like oddball film soundtracks, though, especially Japanese ones. The song I can’t particularly get out of my head at the moment is a Japanese pop hit called “Kitaguni No Aoizora”, or “The Blue Skies Of The North Country”, literally translated. It’s a song featured in Velvet Hustler, one of the films in the Nikkatsu Action series, and I’ve heard it so many times I can sing it in Japanese now.
What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Marc Walkow: The Spiders, a 60s-era Monkees-type boy band who made a bunch of films at Nikkatsu featuring them getting into various hilarious misadventures in exotic locations. You’ll want to rip your eyes out after seeing all their films.
What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Marc Walkow: A poster of Radley Metzger‘s 1968 lesbian erotica film Therese and Isabelle hangs in our bedroom, personally autographed to us by Radley. He gave it to my wife & me as a wedding present five years ago. I’ve got a lot of autographed movie posters, but this one’s the coolest.
What’s the strangest thing you own?
Marc Walkow: Maybe an original scratch-and-sniff card from John Waters’ Polyester? Nah – lots of people have those. A barf bag from the US premiere of Ichi the Killer, maybe? We have a lot of animal skulls hanging on our wall, too – all of them scavenged from the desert southwest, none actually killed by us.
Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Marc Walkow: I suppose the thing I’m most pleased to have done is marrying my wife Jennifer! I met her though a variety of random circumstances and via a bunch of acquaintances, like anybody meets anyone, I suppose, but if I hadn’t gone to a certain party on a certain day, I’d never have gotten together with her. And I’m happy not to have screwed things up too much with her in subsequent years.
But that’s a little too sappy and predictable, maybe, right?
I think I’m just really proud right now that I’ve been able to transition from a fan of Asian cinema to someone who’s actually helping to bring more of it to viewers in the West, and contribute a bit to its history and availability, even in a small way. For instance, I was reading KFC Cinema‘s news page the other day and realized that of the three news items that had gone up that day, I was personally involved somehow in all of them! (For the record, they were the release of five more Takeshi Kitano films by BCI (I’m working on the supplements for those), the acquisition by Mondo Macabro of five Nikkatsu Roman Porno titles (a deal I brokered), and the news that Criterion would be releasing a bunch of Nikkatsu Action titles on DVD (another deal I was heavily involved in). I wouldn’t exactly call it making history – this is just home video for a small specialty audience, after all – but it makes me happy to have been able to turn the feeling of “why doesn’t somebody do this?” into something I’ve accomplished on my own.
Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Marc Walkow: My wife Jennifer, who does paintings and pottery. She likes looking through my weird books about Japanese monsters and yokai for inspiration, lately.
What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
Marc Walkow: Not counting the Nikkatsu Action stuff, that would be the new Korean serial killer flick The Chaser, Steve McQueen’s Tom Horn, the original version of the Slamdance Festival movie Paranormal Activity (it’s undergoing a remake, apparently), William Shatner as a leisure suit-clad killer in Impulse, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
What’re your top three movies?
Marc Walkow: Oh, man, you just opened a can of worms. I actually don’t rank movies in terms of favorites, or at least I don’t without the caveat that I can change my mind about them at any time. Like a lot of things for me, my likes and dislikes among movies depends heavily on my mood. But if I had to name three films that I could literally watch anywhere, any time, they’d be Dawn of the Dead (don’t even ask if I mean the original or the remake), Seven Samurai, and for one not available on US video, Kinji Fukasaku’s Wolves, Pigs and Men.
Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Marc Walkow: Lots of stuff by my wife, of course, and we also have a painting by the late, famed Korean video artist Nam June-Paik, who was a friend of her family. He painted it as a present for our wedding.
What is your favorite game?
Marc Walkow: Life. Not the one that comes in a box.
What sort of pie do you enjoy?
Marc Walkow: Not a big fan of fruit pies, so I’d say pecan and shoo-fly are a tie for the top.
If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Marc Walkow: “So how’d you like that Television show we saw you at?”
Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.
Marc Walkow: There’s one for the NY Times that I absolutely can’t stand. It gets shown about every 40 seconds on NY1, New York City’s local all-news cable network. Otherwise, we watch NY1 all the time, but this particular commercial drives me up the wall. For those in the know: “I’m not one of those ‘call now’ people…but you should call now.” Aaaarrrrgghhh!
What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Marc Walkow: See above for my thoughts on ranking favorite things, but five that come to mind right now are Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s graphic novel Elektra: Assassin; my Pinky Violence Roman Album about that particular genre [Link NSFW] of Japanese exploitation film; A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King, the mighty monarch of exploitation David Friedman’s autobiography (part 1 – where’s part 2?!?); and for the perverts out there, an oddball little novel called The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker.
What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Marc Walkow: Probably Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls.
If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Marc Walkow: Sonny Chiba Bronson.
What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?
Marc Walkow: Cats, of course. For the claws.
What is your favorite meal?
Marc Walkow: Right now, the street hot dogs – or smokies! – in Vancouver. Awesome, and you can doctor them all up with various condiments like wasabi mayo and all kinds of hot sauce. The best one so far is from Japadogs, which has a miso mayo sausage that’s to die for.
Otherwise, Japanese food in general. The weirder, the better. I love taking friends out and ordering pigs’ ears and stuff like that, then making them eat it without telling them what it is.
What is reality?
Marc Walkow: Overrated.
Part the Second
Do you speak Japanese?
Marc Walkow: Yes, a bit. I can get by in restaurants and casual conversations, but once it goes past that, I run into trouble. I took Japanese lessons for a few years in NYC, but dropped it due to various reasons. I should get back to it, and practice more. I do understand a lot more than I can speak, though, and can follow most conversations pretty well.
How did you get into these films?
Marc Walkow: The $20 question, and the one that all my Japanese friends ask, too.
I think probably my interest was first piqued watching Speed Racer and Ultraman on TV after school as a kid. Then came Godzilla movies, Kurosawa samurai pics, and I was hooked. I remember in 2001 seeing the Kinji Fukasaku retro at the American Cinematheque in LA (where I was lucky enough to actually meet Fukasaku, as well as Sonny Chiba), and falling in love with yakuza movies. The genre was so vibrant, and gritty, and filled with interesting stories about honor, loyalty and betrayal. I immediately needed to know more about the director, the genre, and the actors. They showed about a dozen films during the retro, and I kept recognizing actors’ faces without knowing who they were. Like other things I’ve gotten into, I set out right away to learn as much about the subject as I could. Luckily, my friend and AmCin programmer Chris D. was there to feed the addiction.
As someone who didn’t care much for perhaps his most famous film — at least in the States — Battle Royale (sacriledge, I know!), what Kinji Fukasaku films would you recommend?
Marc Walkow: Of the ones available on US DVD, definitely Graveyard of Honor (1975), Street Mobster (1972), and Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (also 1972), for an incredibly anti-war, non-yakuza movie. His crazy 1980s Kadokawa-produced 80s sci-fi / swordplay epic Legend Of The Eight Samurai is also a blast. Just shows you what a coke-addicted producer can turn out when he’s got a good director on his hands. Of the ones not on US DVD, definitely Hokuriku Proxy War (1977), a brutal late-period yakuza flick set in northern Japan, as well as his much earlier film Wolves, Pigs and Men (1964), simply one of the best crime films ever made.
Of the “No Borders, No Limits” series, do you have a favorite film?
Marc Walkow: I have two: A Colt Is My Passport and Gangster VIP. Both have amazing soundtracks, performances from their leading actors (Joe Shishido and Tetsuya Watari, respectively), and are just awesome crime tales.
Besides ethnicity and location, what admirable traits of Japanese gangster pictures make them more interesting to watch than their counterparts from the USA or Italy?
Marc Walkow: I think that Japanese yakuza and other crime films have a more well-developed genre code to them, which results in similar stories getting told all the time, but also in them being uniformly excellent. There are plenty of bad, or just mediocre, American crime films and Italian cop movies (and plenty of good ones, too). But virtually every yakuza or crime film I’ve seen from Japan made in the 60s or 70s – excluding V-cinema stuff from the 90s – has been just awesome. I keep waiting to run out of ones that blow me away, but so far, I haven’t been able to. It’s like mediocrity was banished from the genre entirely.
There’s also the whole Japanese notion of “giri”, usually translated as “duty”, which distinguishes the films made there from ones in the West. You can talk as much as you want about a criminal code in western films, but it’s nothing compared to what’s present in the Japanese wing of the genre. There’s a moral code present in those films that underpins the entire drama, and creates some really interesting conflicts in most of the films.
Are you interested in other Japanese cinema?
Marc Walkow: Absolutely, and lots of cinema outside Japan, too. I love horror and sexploitation cinema, Japanese swordplay films, HK Kung Fu and action, American westerns, you name it. It’s funny sometimes, in that my horror fan friends think I only like Japanese movies, and my Japanese movie fan friends think I’m way too into horror and gore flicks!
If you were to put together a horror festival (and ignoring rights issues and whathaveyou that’d come into play), what films would you screen?
Marc Walkow: Wow – big question, and one I can’t really answer without doing a lot of research and memory jogging. But off the top of my head, I’d love to do a Shintoho exploitation / horror retro series. Shintoho was a studio that operated in Japan in the 50s and very early 60s, and turned out lots of quickies in exploitable genres. They produced Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku, which is out on DVD from Criterion, among many others. (Don’t be confused if you Google the company name – it’s now a pink film company, complete unrelated to the original studio.) Their stuff is pretty unexposed in the West, and there are even titles they produced that have never been released on home video in Japan. It would be fun to put together a weekend spook show of their stuff, though I bet it’s literally impossible to find elements on some of these titles.
Are you a Seijun Suzuki fan?
Marc Walkow: Yes, definitely. I’ve seen probably a dozen of his films and they’re all terrific, or at least interesting in one way or another. I’ve been watching a bunch of his earliest films from Nikkatsu – stuff from the mid and late 50s, never available in the West – and it’s great. I’m hoping that a US company picks up some of these for a box set or something; fans who are used to his crazier, color films from the mid and late 60s are going to be shocked. They’re more like Jules Dassin noirs, or gangster pics from Allied Artists or Warner Bros from the 30s to the 50s.
I know that in the US, some studios didn’t take care of the prints for some films, though the prints you screened from Nikkatsu seemed to be in pretty good shape. Did Nikkatsu take good care of all their films?
Marc Walkow: In my limited experience, I’d say yes, though I’ve only been exposed to a tiny area of this world. I’m not sure when the prints we’ve been screening date from, but my guess would be the 80s. They’re certainly not from the 60s, the time of the films’ original release. And yes, they’ve been in good shape, overall. I know that most Japanese studios have good archives, particularly for post-1950s films, and I expect Nikkatsu has got elements for most of their catalog, even if they might not have projection prints for all of them, or have released many of them on DVD.
Is there a film considered a “holy grail” of the NIkkatsu action series? One that’s believed lost?
Marc Walkow: Not that I know of, but my experience with the genre is still pretty limited, overall. I will say that one film I saw during my discovery times within the genre is going to blow Western fans away. It’s called Cruel Gun Story, and it was recommended to me, like many others, by Chris D. Criterion just licensed it for a box set, and it’s fabulous. Kind of an Asphalt Jungle or The Killing riff, starring Joe Shishido as a roughneck who’s forced to put together a gang of low-lives to rob an armored car carrying racetrack receipts. As you might expect, things go wrong. Way wrong. It’s an amazing B&W noir and totally hard-boiled. Fans are going to love it, though surprisingly, even my contacts at Nikkatsu had never heard of the film! It’s pretty unknown, even in Japan.
In your eyes, what film is the quintessential Nikkatsu Action film; the one that best illustrates what it’s all about?
Marc Walkow: Either A Colt Is My Passport or Velvet Hustler. Both of them are completely Japanese in tone and moral spirit, but if you changed the nationality of the actors, they wouldn’t feel out of place in Western cinema, with Colt being the riff on American noir films and Velvet being inspired by European crime and New Wave films. Both of them encapsulate everything that’s cool about Nikkatsu Action.
Did Nikkatsu have its own label for the single releases made to help promote the film?
Marc Walkow: Honestly, no idea. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, given how “vertically integrated” most of the J-film companies were in the Golden Age. I do know that many of the songs from these films were released either as singles or albums, and became popular outside the films themselves. Some of the songs are actually better-known these days than the films.
Did other studios have tie-in singles like Nikkatsu did?
Marc Walkow: I’m not really sure, but I don’t think so, at least not as much. Toho did some contemporary-style comedies and films like that, but for the most part, Nikkatsu had the lock on these kinds of “youth pictures”. I don’t think samurai movies had tie-in singles!
In all of the pictures in the Nikkatsu Action Cinema series there was great art direction, especially in Velvet Hustler with the great backdrops of the Kobe seaport and nightclub scenes. Do most films from Nikkatsu have this quality of art direction, or is this more typical of only the best films from the studio?
Marc Walkow: I think Nikkatsu had a great stable of technicians working for them, but in the case of Velvet Hustler and Gangster VIP, that’s all due to the great Takeo Kimura, one of the best production designers who ever worked in cinema. He’s head and shoulders above all the others I’ve been exposed to in Japanese cinema, and much of the credit for Seijun Suzuki’s genius can be attributed to his design work. For instance, the crazy colors and set design in movies like Gate of Flesh, Tattooed Life, and Tokyo Drifter are all courtesy of Kimura. Plus he wrote the screenplays for Branded to Kill and Pistol Opera, which should say something.
Did any other studios make films similar to Nikkatsu’s, in terms of genre pictures with high quality?
Marc Walkow: Absolutely, but each Japanese studio had its specialty. For Toho, there were the giant monster films and sci-fi pictures, like Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, which can stand among the ten best sci-fi / horror films ever made, I think. They also did a ton of comedies that have never come out in the West. Toei were the kings of yakuza, and even Nikkatsu yakuza films can’t come close to the quality of the tons of films Toei turned out. Daiei had the best chanbara, or samurai swordplay films. And so it goes. Shochiku was really the only studio that didn’t have much of a lock on genre films, though they did do some samurai films of note. And at least one great sci-fi film, Goke: Bodysnatcher From Hell.
Where do you see this series going—do you think there would be interest in touring with similar films from this period in Japanese cinema?
Marc Walkow: Once the screenings in Vancouver are over, I’m going to take a break from it for a while. The prints need to go back to Japan and I feel like we’re pretty played out with the genre, in terms of theatrical screenings in major cities in North America. It’s a lot of work organizing this series, particularly since I do it by myself, and it’s time for these films to percolate in viewers’ consciousness, and wait for a home video release. But I’d love to do another touring series of some sort in the future, perhaps with the same kind of digitally projected subtitles that we used for the Nikkatsu Action series. Maybe a classic, unreleased Toei yakuza film series? That would be my dream pick, I think.
Do you have any dream picks for the Toei Yakuza series?
Marc Walkow: Wow – my fingers would fall off if I started typing all this. But I think it would be good to just do a cross-section between “ninkyo” honorable yakuza flicks and “jitsuroku” true-life stories where the gangsters are scumbags, featuring a representative sample of actors (Koji Tsuruta, Ken Takakura, Bunta Sugawara, etc) and directors (Masahiro Makino, Tai Kato, Kinji Fukasaku, etc).
Is this the type of situation one where you can recoup your costs and make a living touring with these films, or are there times where you’re eating a lot of costs because of a low turnout?
Marc Walkow: Luckily, I’ve been able to break even at worst, at least in terms of hard costs involved with the series. But it’s not possible to make a real living doing this, and if you count up the working hours devoted to it, I’m way in the hole! But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love the films and the genre, and feel a dedication to make it all available to viewers in the West who have no other way to see the films. Each time someone comes up afterward and tells me ‘thank you’ for allowing them to discover these cool films, it makes the stress and hard work worth it.
How do you get involved in brokering deals like you have on getting these films stateside releases?
Marc Walkow: It all comes down to knowing the right people, establishing a relationship with them and having the drive and stamina to see it through. That latter part is especially important when dealing with some of the Japanese film companies, I’m sad to say. Many times it looked like some of the deals I’ve been involved in would collapse, either because one of the parties got busy with something else during the lengthy negotiations, or the Japanese studio made some kind of unreasonable demand or refused to budge on the cost of something as part of the deal. It’s being able to keep the deal moving along and both parties happy that’s the difficult trick to pull off sometimes.
If someone wanted to do something along similar lines of getting lost and forgotten films on DVD, how would they go about it?
Marc Walkow: Hmmm….difficult. There’s no easy answer to this. Again, it just comes down to being in the right place at the right time, meeting the appropriate people, and having the knowledge and drive to see it all through.
Are there any directors today you think embody the Nikkatsu Action spirit?
Marc Walkow: Wow – tough question. But off the top of my head, I think Miike during his Black Society Trilogy period, maybe. His movies back then (mid-90s to 2000) embodied an international spirit, yet really delivered in genre film terms. Stuff like Dead or Alive 2, Rainy Dog, and so on. It’s not too far off from something like A Colt Is My Passport, when you think about it.
Do you have any other projects you’d like to mention?
Marc Walkow: Well, I’m one of the directors / programmers for the NY Asian Film Festival, which concluded its seventh edition in July. But watch for us next year, in late June. It’s tough work, but very rewarding in the way the Nikkatsu Action series has been. There’s also my DVD producer work, and I’d recommend that anybody with an interest in weird cinema, not just Japanese movies, pick up two DVDs that are essential for any film buff’s collection.
The first is Synapse Films‘ release of Teruo Ishii‘s Horrors of Malformed Men. This is a movie that should be as well-known as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or El Topo, in terms of midnight movie qualities. It’s adapted from the works of Japanese mystery and horror novelist Edogawa Rampo, and it’s about a mad doctor who makes surgical freaks on an isolated island. The hero – who may be insane – comes to investigate what’s going on and winds up in a crazy web of incest, murder, mystery, mysterious identities, and half-human / half-animal creations. The DVD is nice, too, with a beautiful transfer and some extras I’m proud of.
The other disc that no self-respecting weird movie fan should be without is another Ishii film, made later than Malformed Men and released in the US by Discotek Media. It’s called Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight. It’s based on a manga by Kazuo Koike, who also did the Lone Wolf and Cub manga. But this one’s even more adult, if that’s possible. It’s about a nihilistic swordsman (played by the late, great Tetsuro Tanba) who wanders into a strange clan of warriors called the Bohachi. They’ve abandoned all moral codes and live their lives like animals, satisfying each sensual pleasure as it arises. They keep a stable of women who work as prostitutes and among them is a group of female warriors who fight in the nude. The movie is as jaw-dropping as that description promises, filled with great swordplay and copious nudity, plus Ishii’s trademark touches of phantasmagoric visuals. Both of these discs are for sale on Amazon, and Malformed Men is available for rental on Netflix.