Director Gareth Evans talks to Andrew Osmond about a mania for manga
Now in British cinemas, The Raid is the hardest-core martial arts hit for years. An Indonesian SWAT team swarms up a thirty-storey slum-apartment ruled by a brain-bashing, video-eyeballing crime lord and his mangy tenants. Just about all of them are masters of Pencak Silat, the film’s martial art of choice. Cue a torrent of punching, kicking, headbanging, neck-snapping, back-breaking, head-stamping, cheek-slicing [okay, okay, we get the idea – Ed], punctuated by shoot-outs and nuked fridges. The film’s been covered in awards and rave reviews, and hailed as reinventing action cinema. And the director of this Indonesian opus is… Welsh.
It’s true – Gareth Huw Evans, take a bow. You may have heard the story; how this lad from Hirwaun near the Brecon Beacons studied scriptwriting at the University of Glamorgan, made a couple of student films, and met his future wife Maya. She came from Indonesia, and on Evans’s own account, Maya did much of the running. Seeing her husband’s career stalling, she pulled strings to get him a commission directing a documentary in Indonesia about Pencak Silat. Though new to the style, Evans was a fan since childhood of Asian martial masters: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung…
Evans discovered his own action star during the documentary, a phone delivery man called Iko Uwais. The director claimed that when he offered Uwais an acting job, on his film Merantau (Merantau Warrior on British DVD), Uwais was sure it was a hoax. Together with stunt co-ordinator Yuyan Ruhain, Uwais worked out much of the fighting in The Raid, based on Evans’s vision of the situation. As well as his collaborators, Evans also respects his film influences. In a piece for the magazine Empire, he cites everything from Enter the Dragon to the notorious “Born Free” music video by MIA. Oh, and anime.
“When I was really young, my dad would show me things like Akira Kurosawa, and I watched a lot of the classic samurai films,” Evans remembers. “But after that, I started buying the magazine Manga Mania.” A British magazine devoted to Japan’s pop-culture, Manga Mania included articles and translations of manga serials. “I used to get it mostly for the monthly instalment of Akira, because I loved Akira, that was the first anime film I’d seen. That started the whole wave of anime, like Crying Freeman and Doomed Megalopolis… I used to buy all the videos. My friend bought the Guyver series, but I was more into Crying Freeman, the Triad stuff, the action. I love Ninja Scroll, such an awesome film. Fist of the North Star, Golgo 13 as well…”
Prepare to be shocked, dear readers, but Evans confesses he saw some of these anime when he was a teeny bit young. “Legend of the Overfiend was quite the eye-opener as a child, to be honest!” Evan laughs. “I saw it when I was probably about eleven years old.” (Don't tell the Daily Mail) “I was way too young to be watching it, but back then, none of our parents knew what anime was capable of doing. It was, ‘Oh yes, it’s cartoons,’ and it’s not, it’s absolutely not. Yeah, Urotsukidoji fucked me up big-style…” says Evans, supplying a perfect cover quote.
Manga Mania introduced Evans to Japanese cinema beyond anime. “I read a lot of the reviews and they used to hook me up with different films. I became a huge fan of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, I was obsessed with his cinema. Then I saw an article on Violent Cop [the director debut for Japanese megastar Takeshi Kitano]. At that time I was into John Woo movies. In the review it said, ‘Kitano plays a hardboiled cop,’ and my brain must have ignored the sentence and just read ‘hardboiled.’ So I thought this was going to be like John Woo, and then when I saw Violent Cop it was completely different. It was stripped-down, it was raw, it was more realistic and people were killed with one shot to the face. There was an aggression there, the violence was hyperreal and that became a big influence on me.”
Evans is also an admirer of the insanely prolific Takeshi Miike.” I adore Ichi the Killer, Audition, Dead or Alive 1 and 2, Fudoh: The New Generation… I love a lot of Miike’s work from the late 90s into the mid-2000s. Some of his more recent work has been incredible as well, like Thirteen Assassins. I haven’t seen Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai yet, I’m buying it this afternoon! What I love about Miike as a director – and this is something I’ve tried to do a bit with The Raid – is you feel like you’re in the hands of a maniac. Miike can make a children’s movie like Yatterman [a comedy film version of a TV anime, due on DVD/Blu-ray this Monday]. When you’re watching it, there are moments in there like, “Wait, this is for kids?” You don’t know which turn he’s going to take next, you have no idea how far he’s going to push it. That’s something that excites me, when I feel I’m in the hands of somebody who’s going to push the boundaries of everything. Then I kind of get scared and that’s exciting to have in a filmmaker. It applies to Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Scorsese, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky…”
Aronofsky leads Evans to discuss the anime director Satoshi Kon, whose imagery was borrowed by Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream (a shot of a character huddled in a bathtub). “Kon was just fantastic, and such a loss. The first film of his I saw was Perfect Blue and that was such a major step up for anime. I’d seen Otomo’s work and Miyazaki’s work, and those were two very different styles… and then all of a sudden Kon was making films that were just like a normal thriller, but with this incredible imagination behind them, without going into cyberpunk, or the gentle eco-friendly stuff that Miyazaki was doing. This was something completely different; it felt very cinematic and terrifying. Perfect Blue was so frightening to watch. And then Kon followed up with Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers… These films are incredible.”
Did any of these anime influence Evans’s live-action? “It definitely influenced my visual style in some respects,” the director says. “They tend to be a little more stylised than we were going for in The Raid. Crying Freeman feels like a John Woo movie at times, with a lot of slo-mo. It was more the fearlessness of it I admired, the idea that nothing is going too far, that almost-recklessness that I related to. In The Raid, I kept to a line with the violence I wouldn’t go over; there were certain areas, like a moment in the first minutes with a child, that’s a bit of an audience-tester. I had to be very careful with that scene, not to tip it over the edge so I lose my audience. That was a tricky balance.”
Evans aimed for a similar balance with his portrait of Indonesia’s police in The Raid. The plot involves (small spoiler) corruption in the police hierarchy, and a major cop character has a dishonourable agenda. “What I wanted to do in The Raid was not to show all those (corrupt) guys, to just show one of them,” Evan says. “I show the actual SWAT team, and they are the good guys. We had one moment where Iko says himself that not all cops are corrupt, and another character says, ‘If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have opened the door.’ That was an important point to make, that there’s bad in the world but there’s always good, and there are righteous cops, good guys who’ll fight for what they believe in.”
As a Welsh director of an Indonesian martial arts film, Evans gets questions about his background in Indonesia, as well as in Britain. However, he hasn’t encountered any malevolence from the Indonesian press. “I haven’t had that many weird questions yet, I’ve been lucky with that. Once or twice you get asked, why did I come to Indonesia, or why did I end up focusing on Silat, but truthfully I feel I was very lucky. I fell into this position and it’s been a blessing and I’m just excited to be there and work there.”
Indonesia is Evans’s home now, but he also sees a lot of Japan. His wife is Indonesian-Japanese, so he has Tokyo in-laws. “Whenever we see them, it’s cool because I know I’m a stone’s throw away from Shibuya and Harajuku and Akihabara!” he laughs. “I’ve always been obsessed with Tokyo, I love the lifestyle and the culture. Japan is the only place I’ve been to where it can be 2 or 3 in the morning, and I can go out to grab a drink and feel 100% safe. I’ve never felt that in another country before. Normally, you feel like the foreigner; okay, I have to be careful, be aware of where my passport is… but in Japan I feel so free, and safe.”
The Raid is out now in UK cinemas.