The following is an interview with Neil Cantwell, co-director of the film KanZeOn alongside Tim Grabham. KanZeOn is screening as part of the Japanese Music Sound Season at The Space Bangkok and is a film that takes you to another world that connects nature, religion and philosophy.
What's your inspiration for making this film? Do you have a background or interest in Japanese music?
My inspiration for the film was the experiences I had during the two and a half years I was living in Japan – mostly in Fukuoka in Kyushu, but also some time in Kyoto. I was there studying the language and doing research about Japanese religion, in particular the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage but then at the same time, I am also a musician and it just so happened that the progress I made with my studies came about through pursuing my interest in music.
As for background interest in Japanese music, I would say that it was hearing DJ Krush for the first time that most informed the exploration that the film ended up making, drawing inspiration from his ground-breaking bringing together of hip-hop aesthetics and techniques with traditional approaches to Japanese instruments and sounds.
How did you choose the main characters for this documentary?
Since all of the main characters were people that I had met in the course of playing music, there wasn’t really much element of choice in how they came to be included in the film. It was more a case of when I met Tim (Grabham, Co-Director and Producer) and we were talking about ideas for making a film together, I just realised that these friends might fit together into a larger story about Japanese music and religion. Between them they covered a few different musical styles and religious ideas, but also somehow had something in common. All of them are successful within their musical fields, performing professionally.
How do you think the Buddhist monk that is interested in Hip Hop can reflect the music and modern society in Japan?
Something we found interesting when thinking about this kind of question in relation to Tatsumi is that to some extent he is just doing the same for his generation as he learned from other generations around him. That is, taking the popular music of his day and practicing that alongside more traditional parts of Japanese culture that is part of his role as a priest, and then finding his own way of bringing these two things together. So Tatsumi’s Mum is really musical for example, and she likes playing songs from the 60s on the piano, like the Beatles, which I guess she would have encountered in a similar way to how Tatsumi is into hip-hop now, and she brings this into the life of the temple through the style of devotional songs she leads the singing of. And then the old ladies at the temple were performing their dance to a song that I guess would have been popular in their youth. Perhaps the point is even clearer in thinking about how Iitomi loves jazz, which when you think about the direct musical links between Jazz and Hip-hop between generations, shows that he is something like a generational equivalent of Tatsumi.
How did you shoot this film as it's not like a traditional documentary?
I like to think that part of what might make the film unlike a traditional documentary is the way that we worked as a very minimal crew, and that this ‘travelling light’ somehow enabled us to get to places and things that we presented in the film that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. There were just 3 of us, myself, doing some production and direction and recording sound, Tim, filming as well as production and direction, and then our cameraman Tom Swindell, who was also recording sound. We did 2 shoots lasting about 3 weeks each, and the whole film took about 5 years from inception to completion. Perhaps one slightly unusual thing we did in recording sound was to use binaural mics alongside conventional mics, which we hoped would help to give the audience a sense of actually being there experiencing the musical performances we were filming.
How did the atmosphere in Kyushu affect your stories?
Perhaps that question is best answered by recounting that some Japanese people who have seen the film say that it gives them a “furusato no kanji”, which means something like a nostalgic feeling of home, that is also somehow tied up in traditional countryside living. So I guess that could be the atmosphere of Kyushu coming through – for us, it would perhaps be the cumulative results of the region’s enthusiasm for things like onsen and shochu that had a big effect, along with perhaps how the light and colours are there, close to the equator.
Did you find any Asian concepts or philosophy hard to understand? Did you have to research more deeply into it?
The idea in the film that I enjoy finding hardest to understand is Eri’s final explanation about the glass of water that overflows due to some inexplicable force, as a metaphor for the attentiveness in listening that is required in order to be able to ‘see’ sound. I think this explanation is like a koan that is deliberately impenetrable, it’s a direction to enquire in and to try to realise within yourself through experience, but perhaps not in a way that you could put into words.
I was a Foreign Research Fellow at Shuchiin University, the University you see in the film, so researched quite deeply into Asian philosophy, having done my undergraduate degree in European philosophy before that, and so I’m especially interested in the possibilities for understanding that exist on that type of cross-cultural level. By this point I’m not even sure if words like ‘understand’ or ‘know’ are the most useful in this context – it feels more important to me to spend time in places with people and their ideas rather than to try to abstract from those settings too much into easily package-able philosophical terms.
How do you find the connection between music, nature and religious?
Without wishing to get into defining words too much, I would say that music and the religious arise out of nature, whatever that is. Does music arise out of the religious or the other way around? I saw a programme recently, Jill Nicholl’s BBC Imagine documentary on ‘How Music Makes Us Feel’, which suggested music was created in the service of religious worship, but I’m not so sure about that. Might it not be possible that the experience of music, or even just raw sound, created our religious impulse?
In your opinion, how can spiritual belief continue or be a part of modern society?
Hopefully the making of the film itself is the best answer I can give to this question. I’m pleased that it affirms spiritual beliefs, and also in a way that is hopefully contemporary with modern society.
Find out more at the official Kanzeon website.
Neil Cantwell was interviewed by Bow Supatcha
KanZeOn is screening on the 19th July at The Space Bangkok. A multimedia venue curated by The SRK in collaboration with photographer Jim Nachtwey.