Shinya Tsukamoto has always been very open and vocal about his films. Since his major debut during the Cyberpunk wave in 1988 with the genre defining Tetsuo much of his work has embodied a self fascination with the human flesh and the city that surrounds it. As he points out with Vital in 2004 his ideas changed and he began to deal more with themes surrounding the human conscious. In 2004 he was given the chance to further explore his ideas when presented with a short film option by the Korean Jeonju Film Festival. He’d revisit films such as Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, but also incorporate elements from his later works. The result was Haze - a twenty five minute short that did festival rounds in 2005 and was given a longer cut for selected venues. Now we can enjoy Tsukamoto’s full, forty nine minute cut of the film on DVD, and true to form it’s another great effort.
Haze is very basic on the outset. Tsukamoto casts himself in the lead as a man who wakes up to find he’s trapped in an unknown location. All he can see around him are narrow passages and walls that are cloaked in shadow and darkness. He can barely see three feet in front of him; scared and confused he tries to piece together the reasons for him being there: a kidnapping? A cruel joke? Nothing is certain for him, but all he knows is that he must escape. As he struggles to make his way through the maze-like structure he witnesses cruel visions and experiences mental anguish and torture, before meeting another survivor (Kaori Fujii) who is also lost as to why she’s there. Together they vow to escape from the bowels of this dreaded place, where the water runs crimson from the bodies of those who have already met their fate.
Haze represents Shinya Tsukamoto’s first foray into the digital medium, a format with which he’s all too happy to accommodate. As such Haze offers a gritty sense of realism, pulling the audience closer and smothering them so that it achieves its purpose of having them experience the fear of unknowing. Haze is, as to be expected, a tightly shot film, though here it can be taken quite literally; it’s cramped, dank and distressing as Tsukamoto serves up an intimate portrayal of claustrophobia. The film is therefore unnerving as it invites us to experience the things that we’re afraid of, once it begins to take on a metaphorical form: being buried alive, having no sense of direction or purpose, loneliness, despair – all of these things rise to the surface while the director reaches deeper with symbolic images of carp and water, creating a strangely sensual - though not uncommon - experience as his character begins to withdraw into himself in order to find a true meaning. And knowing Tsukamoto there is a meaning; he doesn’t make ambiguous films for the sake of ambiguity, though he doesn’t necessarily spell them out either. The point of Haze, as he acknowledges in the interview provided on the disc, is to look at the human condition once more, in this case the human conscious. While visually and aurally capturing that he also deals with the basic plot line, which is left for the viewer to work out – the last five minutes of course being crucial as the reality of this man’s disconnection with life and love finally hits home.
With the exception of his commercial features Gemini, Vital and his short film Female, Shinya Tsukamoto has cast himself in all of his independent directorial films. Here he once again takes centre stage as the unknown protagonist, while joining him is Kaori Fujii whom he last worked with on 1995’s Tokyo Fist. Their relationship here is wonderfully played: subtle and mysterious it works its way toward bigger things as the greater picture reveals itself, culminating with a moving denouement. Both actors convey realistic mental attributes when it comes to dealing with the terrors within and neither overplays their role, which keeps in check that naturalistic element. Composer and long time collaborator with Tsukamoto, Chu Ishikawa provides another suitably atmospheric and grinding score that consists of industrial metal born from home-made instruments which convey the characters’ unsettling predicament, taking us right back to his earlier compositions, such as his unforgettable work on the Tetsuo features.
Part of their Black label, Terra presents Haze on DVD for the first time in the west.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. It looks like we have another company reliant on NTSC-PAL conversions. In the case of Haze, due to its very dark look and often quick flashes of light this doesn’t stand up too well on progressive displays. Aside from that Terra has done a decent job with what is undoubtedly a difficult film to transfer. Haze is an exceedingly dark film, in fact it’s almost impossible to see anything, which is the whole point. The concrete walls that Tsukamoto finds himself within are lit in a dull fashion, using predominantly green tints, while the rest consists of blacks which appear natural enough for a DV production. The last five minutes of the film offers a better range of colour, showing pleasantly lit interiors and exteriors. Edge Enhancement is also visible, though again it’s only really noticeable at the end. The film is presented in its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced.
Although Haze comes only with its original Japanese DD2.0 track it’s an impressive one, and that’s largely thanks to Ishikawa’s disorienting score. It’s not going to rock your ass but it’s nicely channelled and certainly effective enough as it places you right into the heart of the film.
Optional English subtitles are included. These come in a white, easy to read font with no errors to speak of.
Making of Haze (23.55)
Starting off in December 2004 we’re taken behind the scenes where Tsukamoto and his team begin preparations for Haze’s locations. Impressively the set was constructed in a tiny room; we watch as it goes from being built to being painted and finalised. Afterwards we see footage of the “Claustrophobic Hell” scene being filmed, followed by an introduction to the Panasonic AG-DVX100A cameras used for filming. Special effects, make-up and green screen work take up a portion and then we’re introduced to Kaori Fujii as she films some scenes. There are optional English subtitles but they don’t translate everything, just the most important pieces of certain conversations. This is a pretty good look at the making of the film which just goes to show how much you can do with so little.
Interview with Director Shinya Tsukamoto (19.36)
Tsukamoto was interviewed at the 58th Local International Film Festival as part of the Video Competition Section in which Haze was participating. It’s quite an extensive insight give that it’s just twenty minutes in length. The director talks about being invited to take part in the festival, evolving his ideas, acting, editing and especially the experience of working with digital film for the first time. He often praises its ease of use and informs us that it allowed him to make this film a lot more possible. There are other various bits and pieces of worth, including his comments on writing, shooting on a tight schedule and casting.
Kaori Fujii at the Locarno Film Festival (17.00)
Kaori Fujii, looking very beautiful in her kimono discusses working with Tsukamoto for a second time. We then get footage of a separate occasion in which she and Tsukamoto tour their location. These bits of footage goes back and forth as she speaks about her decision to act in the film and how it appealed to her on a deeply personal level, having gone through some difficult times in her life a few years earlier. The pair is then shown taking part in an introduction prior to Haze’s screening where they reflect on their past experience at Locarno. Fujii talks about the audience reactions from Tokyo Fist in comparison to Haze before we see her and Tsukamoto wander around the city again and fondly remember the last time they visited. The piece finishes up with Fujii explaining her character in the film and returning to Locarno.
Trailers 1 and 2
The first trailer is for the Original long version. This shows some brief clips and places emphasis on the text which lists various states of mind. The second trailer is for the shorter version and incorporates elements of the first, while throwing in some dialogue, disturbing imagery and Ishikawa’s score.
Photo Gallery (1.05)
A nice collection of production stills make up this brief segment, accompanied by Ishikawa’s gruesome main theme.
Here you’ll find a list of films by and starring Shinya Tsukamoto, along with a much briefer segment for Kaori Fujii.
A trailer for Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level rounds off the disc.
Shinya Tsukamoto has often said he’d like to make features overseas; he’s been on about it since Tetsuo, and it’s clear that with Haze there’s some influence being drawn from western hits such as Cube. Naturally he retains his own style and finishes up with a feature that is surprisingly unique, but all the more effective because of how little we actually see. Tsukamoto proves that even with low-budget digital footage he can make any film look big, and despite its length Haze does pretty damn well to compete against some of the larger efforts out there. One to watch with the lights turned down.