As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, director Katushito Ishii opens up about the cult film’s legacy – and the night Quentin Tarantino followed him home
In the mountainous countryside of Japan, petty thug Samehada (Tadanobu Asano) is on the run alongside an attractive hotel worker named Toshiko (Sie Kohinata). He’s being pursued by a band of hapless gangsters; she’s fleeing her perverted uncle. As a cat-and-mouse chase ensues, a mono-browed hit-man soon raises the stakes, and a deadly confrontation awaits at the end of a trail of bloody noses, soiled public toilets and stolen 1981 Corvette Stingrays.
This is Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the chaotic crime caper feature debut from director Katsuhito Ishii – the man latterly responsible for absurd comedy anthology Funky Forest, Wes Anderson-esque The Taste of Tea, and the anime sequence in Kill Bill. After 25 years of waiting, the 1998 cult film finally receives a UK home media release this summer, with the director arriving in the UK for a pair of exclusive live screening events ahead of a new box set release of his works via Third Window Films.
It all began in the late 90s, when Musashino Art University alumni Katushito Ishii was searching for relief from a repetitive cycle of commercial advertisement projects. His 1995 short film The Promise of August — a quirky and colourful adventure following a group of friends who go hunting for marijuana crops — had just won a Grand Prix at the Yubari Film Festival, and was being exposed to a wider audience after a Ginza district cinema began tacking it onto the end of screenings of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. When a V-Cinema production company approached Ishii asking if he was interested in adapting a manga series by Minetarō Mochizuki (Dragon Head), he suddenly found a big opportunity on his hands – and though his ideas were too expensive for Japan’s straight-to-video market, Shark Skin Man got the green light anyway.
“I really wanted to make something like True Romance,” Ishii tells Dazed via an interpreter, “like a really active Hollywood action film using several handheld cameras.” The US film industry, he remembers, was booming at the time, whereas the Japanese industry had declined to the point of becoming “boring”. In response, he wanted to create “an experimental, crazy kind of cinema that was off-the-wall and completely over-the-top” – even if, in the end, the budget meant he had to do it all with just one camera and a tripod.
Much of Ishii’s creativity would be satisfied in an extroverted photo shoot title sequence featuring lens-blurring camerawork, DIY animation and riotous punk rock music. The hyper-kinetic sequence immediately set the tone for the bonkers scenario that would unfold thereafter, while also introducing its unforgettable cast of eccentric, gun-wielding oddballs. The finished introduction would ultimately liken the film to contemporary Western crime classics like The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, similarly well-regarded for their ensemble casts and offbeat characters.
The cast of rogues would include superstar leading man Tadanobu Asano who, as suited and booted Samehada, rivals his legendary turns in films like Electric Dragon 80,000v and Ichi the Killer. He’s up against Tanuki (Ittoku Kishibe, Zatoichi), a sly mobster with a penchant for knife-throwing, plus a horde of colourful cohorts. The sequence makes a great case for the director’s phone book, but it’s the incredible wardrobe that makes the strongest impression, with the ensuing film as much a catwalk as it is a deadly rat race.
“I wanted to create costumes that were completely over the top,” says Ishii, “something that a normal yakuza would never wear.” Aside from Samehada’s costume (done by designer Takeo Kikuchi, for whom actor Asano was a model at the time) the director designed all the garms himself, with stylist Ikuko Utsunomiya – famous for creating costumes for J-pop idols like SMAP and Kyoko Koizumi – manufacturing them for the cast.
Eye-catching highlights include Tanuki’s stiff leather gloves and trenchcoat combo, and the white, fur-lined jumpsuit and wraparound shades worn by silver-haired, lighter-twirling thug Mitsuru (Shingo Tsurumi, The Age of Shadows). The latter was inspired by stories of yakuza gangsters who would put metal plates inside their jackets in order to make them bulletproof. The director’s favourite outfit, though, is the one that’s “naff and unfashionable”: a vest sweater adorned with playing card suit symbols, paired with baggy, rolled-up jeans – a tribute to the questionable looks Ishii came across while frequenting the horse racing tracks.
The untrendy character in question – a mono-browed, nosebleed-afflicted assassin named Yamada – is a scene-stealer, whose bizarre antics were as much a feature of actor Tatsuya Gashûin’s off-screen life as they were his on-screen performance. “He was a professional impersonator of the famous pop star Hiromi Go [later regarded as Japan’s answer to Ricky Martin, after his cover of ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca’ became a hit in 1999]. He was a bit like Jim Carrey in that sense, except he wasn’t that famous – he was just doing it in these little nightclub bars, like a small-time comedian. Anyway, he’d gone missing once, and I’d heard about it on the news because people thought he must have been trying to commit suicide, or something. Eventually, he reappeared claiming he had no idea what happened to him — and that he just found himself lying by the shore of the sea. To this day nobody knows what actually happened.”
Putting Gashûin – an inexperienced actor – up against the leading man in a pivotal scene that takes place in a blue-tiled public toilet, though, would end up being a moment of genius. “You have this extraordinary actor, Asano, and then Gashûin, [who was] a bit pants, and a bit of a weird person. I asked them to follow the script, but I also said that they could improvise, and in the end it was fantastic.” Gashûin would end up being cast in nearly every one of Ishii’s films thereafter, and became an established voice actor, as well – playing prominent roles in two of Studio Ghibli’s biggest films, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, in the years shortly thereafter.
Shark Skin Man was something of a hit in Japan’s arthouse cinemas, landing director Ishii a nomination for the Directors’ Guild of Japan New Directors Award in 1999. In the West, meanwhile, the film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the ‘New Beat of Japan’ section. It was at the Hawaii Film Festival, though, that it won its most vociferous fan.
“Tarantino followed me in a taxi all the way back to the hotel, and we ended up talking in the hotel bar until about 3 or 4am. He asked me about everything to do with my film in detail” – Katushito Ishii
“Shark Skin Man was the last screening of the day, and it was really late at night,” Ishii recalls of the 1998 event. “Afterwards, Quentin Tarantino grabbed me, saying he really wanted to talk to me, but my interpreter wanted to go back to the hotel to go to sleep. Tarantino followed me in a taxi all the way back to the hotel, and we ended up talking in the hotel bar until about 3 or 4am as he asked me about everything to do with my film in detail. What he really liked was the animation, and at the end, he asked me if I would do something with him if he was to ever work on something with animation. Of course, I said yes.”
Lo and behold: just a few years later, Ishii got a call regarding Tarantino’s new film, Kill Bill, and ended up doing the character designs for the young O’Ren Ishii and the yakuza boss and gang members in the film’s anime sequence. It remains the Japanese director’s most high-profile production credit in the West.
But with the upcoming UK release of Third Window Films’ career retrospective box set – which collates Shark Skin Man alongside loony hotel romp Party 7 (which throws ‘90s indie icon Masatoshi Nagase into the mix), The Promise of August, Sorasoi, Hello! Junichi, and 2022 comedy-drama Norioka Workshop – Ishii’s own canon is now ripe for re-appraisal. The director’s appearances at London’s Prince Charles Cinema and Derby’s QUAD on July 5 and 7, then, mark an overdue celebration of a larger-than-life filmmaking oeuvre – with Shark Skin Man the ideal introduction for any offbeat film aficionado.