'Film Your Nightmares' and 6 More Tips from Horror Godfather Yoshihiro Nishimura
Japanese horror auteur Yoshihiro Nishimura's latest, 'Kodoku Meatball Machine,' confirms his rep as a wizard of carnage.
Filmmaker and make-up artist Yoshihiro Nishimura lives by his own rules. Known affectionately by fans as the uncontested godfather of contemporary Japanese horror, he’s responsible for cult classics such as Tokyo Gore Police and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. A glance at his IMDB page shows just how influential he’s been as a make-up artist: a veritable wizard of carnage. Japan’s Tom Savini.
Wherever Nishimura dives in, he makes a huge crimson splash—but he’s far more than just a bloody face. A bonafide jack-of-all-trades auteur, he’s a DIY screenwriter, producer, director, make-up artist, FX master and editor. Even better, in the process of achieving all that with minimal outside assistance, he has developed an unmistakable—and surprisingly hilarious—style. His latest victim is the Fantasia Film Festival, where his Kodoku Meatball Machine had a standout North American debut this past month.
"My number one goal is to amuse my audience. Many filmmakers are too selfish; they make their movies for themselves, like masturbation.”
Nishimura is pure entertainer at heart. He showed up at his premiere in a blood-spattered white jumpsuit, throwing candy to his audience. During the film’s credits, he stole the mic and danced down the aisles singing along to his movie’s theme music. When the lights came up, he got a standing ovation. And during the Q&A that followed, when an audience-member asked for an explanation of the film’s meaning, he belly-laughed, pulled out a Vodka Nip and downed it.
“For your amusement!” he bellowed. “That’s why I give you candy. The film’s meaning is pure entertainment.”
The next day, NFS met with Nishimura one-on-one; again, he was irrepressible. Because his English is limited, he spoke Japanese, while his translator tried to keep up in French Canadian—but even then, the incoherence was worth it. Like his films, his advice was bubbling over with unexpected nuggets of provocation and brilliance. You’ll find the best bits excerpted below…but first, you need context.
For those of you unfamiliar with Nishimura’s body of work, here’s a taste of his latest concoction.
1. Horror can be humor
Inspired by the original Meatball Machine, a film Nishimura worked on years ago, Kodoku Meatball Machine is a sensory overload of gloriously indulgent yet self-aware camp.
At first, Meatball feels realistic. Its protagonist is a 50-year old debt-collector; his unfulfilling life is upended by a cancer diagnosis. Given a one-month prognosis, his perspective changes: suddenly unleashed, he begins to voice suppressed feelings, to confront people who have abused him.
For fans of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, this may sound like plot-stealing – and Nishimura is the first to agree. Not only is this his strange form of homage to the revered Kurosawa; he has even included a direct visual reference to Ikiru, when his protagonist sits on a playground swing.
A construction worker mutates a jack-hammer arm. A showgirl grows nipple-flamethrowers.
Twenty minutes in, however, Nishimura’s homage takes a sharp left turn from Kurosawa to Robert Rodriguez and, well, Nishimura. An impenetrable alien jar from space encapsulates a city neighborhood; the humans within are transformed into ferocious cyberpunk ‘Necroborgs.’ Alien tech turns their bodies—bones, guts and all —into hilariously inventive weapons. A construction worker mutates a jack-hammer arm. A showgirl grows nipple-flamethrowers. The interpersonal conflicts become over-the-top violent: oni-like killing machines battle to the death, while fountains of blood flood the screen.
In between all the gore, Meatball goes even further: it interrupts itself with ridiculous fake commercials: a stylistic trend Nishimura started with Tokyo Gore Police. These funny pop-up moments of hucksterism balance the film’s darker aspects—and help remind us that this is entertainment.
Each sequence outdoes the last. But somehow—despite the gratuitous overload—the film retains a whimsical purity, and its irreverent humor is irresistible. A kung-fu police officer wields a pair of wooden stools like nunchaku. Characters receive mortal wounds, but react like they’re being pinched. “Ow! That really hurts!” shouts one unfortunate fellow, as his face is dragged across pavement at breakneck speed.
2. Don’t let the plot drag
Has Nishimura always mixed blood and laughter?
“Yes, yes, yes,” he nodded enthusiastically. “My number one goal is to amuse my audience. Many filmmakers are too selfish; they make their movies for themselves, like masturbation.”
He offered a vigorous hand-motion, in case his translator’s message wasn’t clear, then cited the Transformers movies as an example of unforgivable self-indulgence.
“Just look at how those films end,” he said. “There’s always this shot of the robot giving a long speech. It’s boring! I want to give you guys the most pure entertainment experience I can possibly give.”
In order to avoid further boredom, he confided that he had cut out a lot of footage near the end of Meatball –even though some of it provided important exposition for the story.
“I don’t want the plot to drag on after the fun part is over. And I definitely don’t want my ego to dilute the entertainment,” he explained. “Above all, the audience should be having a blast.” For good measure, he repeated his hand motion, this time air-fondling an entire crowd of imaginary viewers.
3. Channel Tobe Hooper—and Salvador Dali
Makeup was Nishimura’s first love. Bloody visual effects never grossed him out. Instead, he saw them as a challenge.
“I would watch movies with these weird visual effects, and become obsessed by how to do it.” Step after step, he taught himself, and made his first horror film in junior high school. “I love classic horror movies,” he explained. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a major influence.” He also cites The Thing and Videodrome. And Salvador Dali, whose paintings of distorted bodies have inspired many of his onscreen effects.
"I come up with some of my best stuff when I’m drawing."
Nishimura compares filmmaking to illustration: “I have an image in my mind, and do my best to recreate it on screen,” he said. “Once I’ve written the script, I do my own storyboards next. I end up with a lot of differences between the script that I wrote and what I design on the page. I come up with some of my best stuff when I’m drawing.”
He gives an example from Kodoku Meatball Machine: two aliens disguised as women who paint a white circle around the city streets, marking the area to be engulfed by their spacecraft. This is one of the film’s biggest visual cues—and it wasn’t in his original script. It came to him while sketching the storyboard.
4. Keep making mistakes
“The aim is always the same: to make lots of mistakes,” he laughed. “That’s how I keep learning.”
Teaching himself makeup wasn’t easy: “What someone could have learned in a day of school, it took me a year to learn on my own. But that’s how I don’t end up like everyone else.”
Evolving at his own pace over the years has been an invaluable learning process. More often than not, his mistakes have turned into happy accidents, or “things I never would have thought up if I actually knew what I was doing.”
“I still make mistakes all the time,” he continued, “more now in my personal life than on set. But at least when I’m shooting, I know how to fix the errors. Learning to solve problems is easier when you work on your own. Because most of the time, they’re your own fault!”
5. Let others pay you to learn
In 1995, Nishimura’s mistakes paid off: his short film Anatomia Extinction won a Special Jury Award at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, and the film world was quick to notice.
He started doing makeup for other people’s projects. He gained a reputation for being able to create amazing effects on extremely low budgets—a direct result of his DIY methods—and soon began working with well-known indie Japanese filmmakers. One of them was Sion Sono, whose award-winning Suicide Club (2001)—known in Japan as Suicide Circle—is a Nishimura favorite.
“Not only did I get to learn Sono’s secrets,” Nishimura confided, “but he paid me to do it! Doing effects for other filmmakers helped me learn all the other parts of filmmaking.”
"Doing effects for other filmmakers helped me learn all the other parts of filmmaking."
Gradually, largely by trial and error, Nishimura taught himself the entire filmmaking process, from writing to editing. He kept refining his style, and before long, he had more job offers than he could handle. Finally, in 2005, he started his own effects company: Nishimura Motion Picture Model Makers Group. At long last he could collaborate with friends and VFX supervisors who shared his visions, while still making his own films.
Not unlike Guillermo del Toro—another fantasy wizard who spent years doing makeup for other people’s films—Nishimura eventually saved up enough favors to make his passion project. Following the cult success of The Machine Girl , a film by Noburo Iguchi with effects by Nishimura, the U.S. distribution company Media Blasters offered the effects artist a chance to direct his first feature.
Nishimura’s choice was astute: he chose to turn his successful short film, Anatomia Extinction, into the feature-length sci-fi horror Tokyo Gore Police (2008). This is where he truly hit his stride. The film was a huge cult hit; audiences were mesmerized by his Lovecraftian/ Cronenbergian imagination.
This was also the first feature film where he did everything. And that’s been his strategy ever since. Nishimura loves doing it solo because he gets to realize his vision completely.
6. Film Your Nightmares
Unlike most sub-genre films, Nishimura’s style isn’t pure horror. It’s far more an expression of his own unfiltered voice.
“When I’m making a film,” he admitted, “I can never avoid the images in my head. They come to me like dreams, or, better yet, nightmares. So it’s just a matter of asking myself how to achieve them onscreen.”
His films also go unexpectedly deep. Despite his obvious carnal pleasures, there’s profound introspection behind his style.
At one point, Nishimura even went to law school. This wasn’t your typical artist identity-crisis, dropping film in favor of a more stable career. No, he simply liked law, and he was still making films the whole time. And his studies proved to be a strong influence on his art.
“I’ve always been interested in law, sociology and history,” he confirmed. “They all contain deep moral questions. Exploring these topics has helped me make films that represent what’s inside of people.”
Nishimura’s characters are often morally reprehensible…which makes it all the more satisfying when they’re disemboweled. In particular, he is fascinated by war crimes: Germany in World War II, and Japan too, he admits.
“We were trying to be such a big imperial presence in Asia, not far from the Nazis.” He bows his head, suddenly sober. “My scripts come from questions I ask myself all the time, even today: ‘When will violence and killing end?’ Why are men capable of this?’ I’ve been repeating these themes since the beginning of my career. Anatomia Extinction, Tokyo Gore Police … nothing has changed.”
He sighed. “In many ways, I have no choice but to portray my nightmares in movies.”
In fact, he confides, he sees the creation of films like Kodoku Meatball Machine as his duty.
7. Fight with your producers
Nishimura unapologetically pushes the envelope. And yet throughout all the gore and the juvenile jokes, he maintains a zen-like integrity in his art form. He works hard, covering bases with careful attention to detail, and sees himself more like a laborer than an artist.
“This film, Meatball Machine, is about the working class,” he explained. “I live in the old part of Tokyo, around factories and blue collar people. I think of filmmaking that way too—because even if we work really, really hard, we don’t make a lot of money. It’s always hard to make films, especially in Japan, no matter how big the budget. So I don’t see myself as a director; I’m more like a factory.”
This view of filmmaking has made him sympathetic to younger filmmakers. He knows how hard it can be, so he helps them on their way up.
“These days, I produce the films of many young directors in their 20’s,” he said. “My advice is to all of them is, ‘Do whatever you want to do, freely. Stick to your vision. Push that envelope.'”
He’s also their fierce defender.
“My whole career—even now that I’m well-known—I am always in conflict with my producers. We fight constantly. Even this morning I was yelled at by a producer,” he confessed. “And I want my young filmmakers to fight with their producers too…especially because in their case, I can help them win the fight.” His eyes glint with the delight of battle. “After all. At the end of the day, I’m an audience member too. I know what we want to watch.”
But isn’t all that conflict stressful?
“Stress?” He laughed. “Directing is a way for me to take off stress. I have less time for naps now, but that’s a good thing. All of the stress from production accumulates, and ends up in the film.”
Nishimura throws his hands toward the heavens. “Whenever I make films, I pray,” he explained. “I pray for the god of cinema to come, to bring good ideas.”