Interview with M Haris Sheikh, Director of Howling (OAFF 2022)

Howling is a blackly-comic neo-noir from M Haris Sheikh, who subverts the genre by creating a collection of characters defined by desperation, cowardice, and disappointment rather than the expected avarice and lust.

This motley bunch of no-hopers is led by Ryuji Tanoue (Ichiro Hashimoto), a flawed 40-year-old who is in desperate straits and equally desperate to be a hero which leads to him being a bit of a fantasist. Their number also includes housewife Chisato (Sanae Kotani) and 20-year-old student Akane (Yukino Takahashi). These two women fulfil the roles of femme fatales who manipulate the woefully underprepared main protagonist into a situation requiring him to commit murder. Alas, what Ryuji thinks will be easy become increasingly dangerous and darkly comic due to a serious case of sophistry blinding him to his personal failings. These characters never lose our interest in their quest to escape their situations as they are multifaceted and capable of change. But will change come in time for everyone? Viewers will find themselves gripped by the twists and turns until the film reaches a finale which will leave viewers both shocked and laughing.

Thanks to the help of festival staff, members of M Haris Sheikh’s team, and the translation services of Takako Pocklington, I was able to talk to the director about his singular vision.

Where did the idea come from and what was your intention with making the film?

This project started when Tsukasa Tsuchiya, who plays the “believer” in the film, proposed that I write the screenplay for five actors including himself, Tsukasa Tsuchiya, Takahiro Ono, Ryoma Ikegami, Kiyoe Koiiduka, and Sanae Kotani, and make a film. It was my first experience writing a story with main characters who are in their 30s and 40s. and it was also my first ever feature film, so I struggled to come up with ideas at the beginning.

One day, I was pondering a plot for this film in a café in Shinjuku. A scruffy man in his 40s was on the opposite side fiddling with his mobile phone. I became curious about him and wondered, “Maybe he will have a rendezvous with someone. If so, who is he waiting for?”. My imagination started to run, like – “For instance, if a twenty-something university girl came to meet him, what sort of conversation would they have?”. Then I managed to dash off the scene of Ryuji meeting Akane for the first time. Starting from the scene, I dug deep into the character of Ryuji Tanoue. I also inserted my experience entering Tawaman [Tower Mansion High-rise apartment/condominiums] while working at Uber Eats or an unforgettable memory with my high-school sweetheart. I finished writing up the script relatively smoothly after that.

The main character is a thoroughly disreputable and delusional fellow. Can you talk about how your writing process for coming up with him and the world he exists in?

Whenever I am asked about the main character in my writings, I always answer like this: “I look at part of myself (mind) through a microscope and make it tangible. The tangible form becomes the character”. I had managed to create characters like this before because the main characters in my previous works were around my age. However, I was a bit worried if I could invent one for this story in this way as the character was aged 40, but there was no problem, haha. I created the main character Ryuji with the fear of, “I might become a guy like him when I turn 40”. I will try hard not to become like him, haha.

Ichiro Hashimoto manages to do an impressive job at making his character sympathetic. Why did you cast him and how did the two of you shape the acting?

I met several actors who were either introduced or recommended by Tsuchiya and other highly experienced actors as I searched for someone who matched the image of Ryuji Tanoue. I found that I share sensibilities on films with Hashimoto and he perfectly captured my idea of who Ryuji is at our first meeting, I instantly decided to cast him. Therefore, there was hardly anything to tell Hashimoto about shaping the role, so I left it all to him. By the way, he is a gun geek and is familiar with guns, so the one used in the film was his own(haha).

Yukino Takahashi and Sanae Kotani both give distinctive performances. How did you work with them to shape their roles?

The men in the film are all untrustworthy/unreliable. They are untrustworthy in their lives and with their faith and their religion. They are all irresponsible people who avoid confronting reality and interpret things to suit themselves. I created the characters Akane and Chisato as strong women who are toyed with by these men but are determined to seize any chance to live their lives the way they want.

Recently it was revealed that a certain director had been sexually assaulting actresses in his films. Unfortunately, there are still many nasty men like him in Japan. Men who abuse their authority and power. I wanted to create those female characters as figures with strong wills, people who do not flatter these men and, instead, work with a strong feeling of using these men against each other.

Since many of the actors in Howling come from a stage background, I tried something new and we walked through everything in a rehearsal studio before filming. I watched them act and discussed scenes with them when I felt something was not quite right, then gradually shaped the characters for the shoot. They were brilliant when it came time to shoot.

The inclusion of the homeless characters seemed to open up the subject of class warfare. What was your intention with them?

I got inspiration from “King Lear”, with “King Lear” and “the Fool”. The Master is King Lear and the Believer is the fool. The castle for the Master is the Tawaman, haha. The episode where they storm the Tawaman was based on my experience when I worked for Uber Eats during the Covid 19 state of emergency two years ago. Filthy looking delivery men like us enter those luxurious condominiums and look out of place. One day, I suddenly thought, “I would not be surprised if one of us planned to blow up Tawaman”. I think that kind of person will emerge sometime.

I was reminded of the film Blue Ruin by Jeremy Saulnier in how a normal guy is thrown into an extraordinary situation. Did any films or other media serve as an inspiration for the story?

I haven’t watched Blue Ruin yet, but hearing about it makes me want to see its story.

The concept of Howling is an “old guy version” of Under the Silver Lake, which is the story of a geeky young slacker living in Los Angeles who believes in a crazy conspiracy and rushes recklessly to solve the mystery. Howling is an old guy version of it, haha. For your information, the Master’s cardboard house was designed in the image of the cult tent in Under the Silver Lake

You might already have noticed, but I also got some inspiration from Taxi Driver. Ryuji would never be a hero like Travis though. Taxi Driver is one of my favourite films. Despite that, I made this film as an antithesis of it. 

I am deeply influenced by some neo-noir films, such as the ones David Lynch or Diao Yinan tend to make. Apart from films, I am hugely influenced by Haruki Murakami’s works, especially Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. One of my dreams is to make Wild Sheep Chase into a film.

If someone handed you 10 million yen and a gun, would you be willing to kill?

Yes, if the target is a death penalty level villain, haha. But I would probably chicken out and not be able to pull the trigger, like Ryuji.

Howling was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and 17.