Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kadokawa Haruki on the verge of solving "God's Puzzle", part two

That's "God's Puzzle" star Ichihara Hayato and executive producer Kadokawa Haruki indulging in the aforementioned spot of promotional tomfoolery in the skies between Nagoya and Tokyo. In part two of Cyzo's third-eye opening interview, we learn that even astral-projecting superhumans think the current state of mainstream Japanese cinema is a bit crap.
Kadokawa continues to shock Japan with his larger-than-life talk and actions beyond the ken of ordinary men. Recreating the battleship Yamato to scale in "Yamato", (2005), telling the life story of his former existence Genghis Khan in "Blue Wolf: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea" (2007), and remaking Kurosawa's masterpiece "Sanjuro" with Oda Yuji in the lead (also 2007)... even after his comeback he has continued to bring us incredible films, and his latest work "God's Puzzle" is a youth drama in which university students investigate the 'creation of the universe'. Kadokawa devised the film adaptation [of Kimoto Shinji's book] while incarcerated. Did his isolation from society cause him to consider the existence of space and god?

"No, it wasn't like that. For the first three days of 2003 during the new year's holiday, there was no work in prison and I had nothing to do. Then all these visions suddenly came to me. It wasn't like I was meditating, but somehow my soul took flight into space. And then I saw outer space beyond that which humanity is aware of, and even further beyond was the sun-like presence that the universe originated from. I realised that it drives the entire universe. And I also realised that the universe itself has no interest in the existence of human beings. Essentially, the presence we call god is created by human thought, and can be found within ourselves. I discovered this by taking flight into space and returning to earth. At that point, I didn't know whether I could make a comeback in the film business, but after ordering the "God's Puzzle" novel and reading it in prison, I felt an intense desire to make it into a film. I'd already produced school-based dramas like 'School in the Crosshairs' (Nerawareta Gakuen) and 'The Little Girl Who Conquered Time' (Toki o Kakeru Shojo), so I thought I could probably pull off a school drama set at a university."

For his director, he employed the services of the red-hot Miike Takashi for the first time. The completed "God's Puzzle" is a refreshing scientific and mathematic youth drama, strikingly different from previous Miike works such as "Big Bang Love, Juvenile A", a portrayal of love between homosexuals, and "Imprint", which Eirin refused to rate.

"It was my first time working with Miike, but I'm convinced we made a great duo. I watched his 'Sukiyaki Western Django' and told him 'You're a nutcase!' (laughs) So for this film I explicitly told him to 'do it orthodox'. I wanted him to make a film unlike anything he'd done before. Still, I think it's got just the right amount of Miike-ness. That guy, apparently he couldn't sleep the night before the first preview screening because he thought I was going to hit him (laughs). I'd no idea he was that sensitive. I guess he had quite a reputation in his youth, but I'm a delinquent too, so I get on well with people like that. You see, this film is a youthful rom-com made by two delinquents - Miike and me. That's already a comedy in itself". (laughs)

Kadokawa believes in living as a free spirit, without being shackled by conventional thinking. We wanted to asked him for his thoughts on a Japanese film industry where paltry terminal disease stories, mobile phone novel adaptations and other such superficial tearjerkers run rampant.

"Well, movies have to work in a business sense, but today's film companies have turned into subcontractors for TV stations. They're making films out of things that rated well on TV, but you have to come up with original projects apart from that. If there are times when you team up with TV companies, there have to be other projects where you don't. Marketing's important too, but film companies today are placing way too much emphasis on that. Nothing new will emerge out of that kind of situation. There's no point in making a film out of some TV drama that's neither here nor there. Films have to be either here or there."

Self-professed lifelong "delinquent" Kadokawa says that in business, a sense of playfulness is important too.

"There's a school of thought that believes we're born into this world to train in preparation for the next life, but that's a lie. Religion is a lie. Human beings are born for one purpose: to have fun. I know this from my experiences of space while I was in prison. Everything I do, from one phrase poems to company management, is a game. Film production's another game, but on a rather larger scale. Enjoying life is the ultimate state of being!"

He also says he's moving ahead with big business plans outside of film and publishing. As his countdown to divinity progresses, it's getting harder and harder to take our eyes off Kadokawa!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Kadokawa Haruki on the verge of solving "God's Puzzle", part one

As if the bared flesh of its barely-legal star Tanimura Mitsuki wasn't enough, the promotional onslaught for the new Miike Takashi film "God's Puzzle" (opening on June 7th) moved up a gear overnight, with various media carrying reports from the film's premiere and a typically outlandish zero-gravity publicity stunt by executive producer Kadokawa Haruki. I won't rehash the sordid details of the old-school movie mogul's storied career here (Wikipedia does a fine job of that), but his team-up with Miike promises to be nothing if not, er, 'eventful'. After making a triumphant comeback with the long-running box office success of patriotic WWII hankie-wetter "Yamato", his even more ambitious Genghis Khan biopic "Blue Wolf: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea" subsequently suffered the derision of critics and the indifference of audiences, leaving him needing another hit to make himself relevant again. However, as the first part of this bizarre interview with self-styled taboo-breaking magazine Cyzo shows, these days film appears to be the least of his concerns.

"My dream is to conquer the world peacefully, bloodlessly, through cultural invasion." These passionate words were uttered by Mr. Kadokawa Haruki, Japanese film and publishing's soldier of fortune, to this magazine last year. We learned that his latest film "God's Puzzle" [Kamisama no Pazuru] is about to be released in June this year, so we visited his home. The gentleman emerged wearing a hakama, swinging a wooden sword as usual to hone his physique in preparation for his coming neurocellular awakening, in other words man's ecdysis toward godliness.

"I'm at a stage where I'm shedding my human trappings and approaching the province of the immortals. I'm certain I'll awaken within the next three years," asserted Kadokawa when he appeared in our August 2007 issue. Nine months later, how far has his countdown to deification advanced? Furthermore, with his role as executive producer on his new love comedy "God's Puzzle" and his first-ever collaboration with genius director Miike Takashi, we watch with interest as he tackles the mystery that has troubled humankind for all eternity: "How did the universe come into being?"

What does "god" mean to Kadokawa, a publisher and haiku poet whose rollercoaster life has included two years and five months in jail for drug violations? As a film producer whose media mix strategies caused a sensation, how does he view the current state of our film industry where hits can't be created without television companies taking the lead? At his penthouse apartment overlooking the Ground Self Defense Force's Ichigaya garrison, we received a spiritual message from Kadokawa who has taken up the sword in an attempt to shake off the bonds of human flesh.

"No matter how much I swing my wooden sword, I never tire. Did I say in my last interview I was working toward 10,000 swings? Well, now I've done 25,000! This wooden sword is extremely heavy, and even national representatives in Kendo can't swing it 1,000 times. At first I took it up to strengthen my body in order to stimulate my entire brain cells, but physically I've already surpassed human limitations. I feel as if my brain cells will awaken within the year. However, I regret that this won't be in time for the release of "God's Puzzle" on June 7th. If my brain had 'opened' well before the opening date, I'd have come up with a release strategy the likes of which no-one has seen before (laughs)".

In Kadokawa's thinking, the human brain is blocked by filters and usually runs at only 3% of its capacity, so we should strengthen our physical selves and stimulate them to the fullest. "If we open up by 50%, we will already be in the company of the gods," he says. Does that mean this is the last film to be produced by the "mortal" Kadokawa Haruki?

"Hmmm, my last work as a human? (laughs) Well, there'll probably be something physically human left of me even after I achieve mental enlightenment. Even so, by then it won't be about things like film promotion and distribution, nothing on that level, I will have undergone a more fundamental change. According to a Buddhist nun named Shiraishi Jikei who channels Lord Kannon, it seems that when you exceed 15,000 swings with a wooden sword you are no longer human, you are in the domain of the superhuman. When I imagine myself facing up against figures from the past like Yagyu Sekishusai and Miyamoto Musashi, I'm sure I won't lose. In the mythical era, humans lived for two to three hundred years, so why have modern people become so short-lived? Some people call it the seal of 'Brahma', and the thinking goes that this Brahma created the universe and placed filters on the minds of human beings. In my case, those barriers are about to be broken. I think I'll live to be 200. You see, I haven't aged in the least. I can swing a wooden sword to my heart's content. Now my employees who take turns counting, they're the ones who have it rough." (laughs)

It would seem that many things that cannot be picked up by the naked eyes of we mediocre humans are visible to Mr. Kadokawa. Specifically, what kind of visuals?

"The moment I exceeded 15,000 swings, various deities materialised to offer their blessings, and that's when I realised 'Ah, so this is the realm of the gods'. By closing your eyes and swinging a wooden sword, unexpected sights appear one after another, like the festivals of the world. Actually, I wanted to reach enlightenment during June by training in the upper reaches of the Indus River with Yogi Naruse Masaharu, who's recognised as the "King of Yoga" in India as well, but I had the film's release to deal with so I postponed it until September. It's easier to open up in a truly natural surrounding. However, I still have the desire to enlighten myself during June, so I want to be able to clear 33,000 wooden sword swings by then. Even if I swung once every second, it would probably take twelve hours. That's including two meal breaks and time for rehydrating."

To be concluded in part two...

Monday, May 12, 2008

More Sai on "Soo"

Following on from last week's Sai Yoichi interview, this time I've translated an earlier one from the June 2007 issue of venerable monthly magazine Bungei Shunju (thanks Aceface). Again, Sai is able to be so candid about the shortcomings of his "Soo" colleagues because of his status (he also chairs the Director's Guild of Japan's board of directors) and the fact that his livelihood isn't dependent on the South Korean film industry, but as outspoken as he is I doubt he could be so scathingly specific if he was writing about "Quill" or "Kamui Gaiden".

South Korean film shoot journal

"The South Korean film industry is becoming too predictable, and we want you to breathe new air into it. We're certain that the hardboiled style of Sai Yoichi will become a new genre in South Korean film... The title is 'Double Casting' (it was later renamed "Soo")."

That was the way the letter began, and it captured my imagination. It was like a love note from the South Korean film world. As someone who had been keeping an eye on their successful run in the Asian market and popularity boom in Japan, I was left with no choice but to accept such a strong invitation, and I didn't hesitate.

Twin brothers torn apart after a youthful theft are finally reunited several years later, but in that instant the younger brother is gunned down before his older brother's eyes. The younger brother had escaped from a crime syndicate to become a police officer, and the older brother worked as an assassin to earn money to track down his sibling... It was overwhelmingly nihilistic. Hmm, kind of Hong Kong noir-ish, but as Sai-style pop action set in modern day Seoul it could be interesting, so it made sense to me.

When I was in Seoul on some other business, I met with the producers. A trendy gent sporting frameless specs and a Yves saint Laurent dress shirt, and a serious-looking intellectual type in a denim jacket and a polo shirt. Both were professional elites: Mr. Dress Shirt had worked for KBS (the South Korean equivalent of NHK), and Mr. Polo Shirt had handled marketing for "My Sassy Girl". They were in their mid-30s and the epitome of the so-called "386 generation": born in the sixties, participants in the democracy movement of the eighties, and now in the prime of their careers in their thirties. At this point I began to worry a little. These two spoke logically, and they came across as decent types. Still, there was an air to them that suggested they didn't know what making a film entailed.

The pay was almost twice what I'd get in Japan, and the completion bonus was a 10% cut of the box office revenue. I conveniently interpreted this business-like rationality as the source of South Korean films' prosperity, and my anxiety was assuaged.

However, the script that arrived turned what should have been a stylish hardboiled story into a sandwich of an almost abnormal brotherly love story and a revenge saga, brimming with South Korean-style sentimentality.

I immediately complained to the producers in Seoul that such stereotypes were unacceptable. The response was amusing. They said they had already brought in another writer on the sly. On top of that, another writer ("B") had joined in before I knew it, and I was told that they were collaborating on the screenplay. So, did that mean the secret writer was "C"? Things were becoming confusing.

Complaining wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. I met writers A and B who had done the first draft in Seoul. Both seemed like affable adults. They nodded profusely in agreement with my objective as the director. They even apologised for misinterpreting my intentions. There was nothing else I could do, so I began casting while waiting for their revisions at the hotel. I heard that South Korean stars were all aware of the project and wanted to act in it, and I yelped in delight.

However, I realised later that this was only wishful thinking on the part of the producers and investors (major film industry players). The only tangible aspect of it was the schedule that revolved around dining out with the presidents of the stars' talent agencies. Well, I'd been prepared for a certain amount of wining, dining and currying favour, but I grew tired of it. To cut a long story short, it was just binge drinking for the showbiz mafia and their sales gimmick from Japan.

Second and third drafts of the script were completed, but neither had fixed the problems. Finally, secret weapon writer C presented their version. However, it was a total plagiarism of Tarantino's "Kill Bill". I couldn't take any more. I announced I was dropping out. The producers fell into a panic, but my resolve was firm.

Then, as if the logical thinkers I'd known until then had disappeared somewhere, they came to me pleading with tears in their eyes to take pity on them. The investors had put their money in based on my participation, and in the case that the director or lead actor pulled out, all funds would have to be returned to them in full, they said. It was like a prostitute asking for money in advance. I was stuck. I pictured the faces of the crew and Ji Jin-hee ("Jewel in the Palace"), who had agreed to take the lead role despite being aware of the turmoil.

Now it had come to this, I couldn't pull out. As the sole alien I had ambitions to 'confront the South Korean film world head on', but I cast them aside.

I rewrote the screenplay myself. No, I virtually wrote it from scratch. In the end, I spend a year and three months based in Seoul. On the day the shoot wrapped, I thought I'd experience some special kind of emotion, but I was surprised at how little I felt.

As I'd expected, "Soo" was a commercial flop when it opened in March. The accepted logic is that the South Korean film bubble has burst, but now I consider it an honour for this little film of mine to be described as one of its flashy failures.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sai Yoichi talks filmmaking in Japan, South Korea and New Zealand

Respected zainichi Korean filmmaker Sai Yoichi's first foray into South Korean cinema "Soo" has finally seen the light of day in Japan, which is definitely something to be grateful for considering its troubled production and the demise of the Korean wave, not to mention the fact it failed to click with domestic audiences and received quite a few patchy reviews to boot. To mark the film's limited Japanese release, the May issue of film mag Eiga Hiho interviewed the outspoken director and I've translated it for your edification below.

Eiga Hiho (EH): I was blown away when I heard that you'd suddenly gone off to South Korea by yourself to make a South Korean film. How did "Soo"� come about?

Sai Yoichi (SY): "Blood and Bone"� (2004) represented a culmination of my work to that point, and when I was thinking about what to do next I was approached by an up-and-coming South Korean film company. They'd gone to the trouble of watching the films I'd made here and they told me "We want to make the kind of hard-boiled film that's never been done in South Korea until now", so naturally I was quite pleased [laughs]. Of course, as a film director I was interested in making a film in South Korea, so I went to meet them first.

EH: The film is based on a South Korean manga entitled "Double Casting". What did you think of "Old Boy", which was also a manga adaptation?

SY: "Old Boy" was apparently made by the young generation, and I think it's well made, but it would have turned out differently if I 'd made it. In terms of adapting "Double Casting", I didn't think it'd be a good move for me to offer my opinion from the start, so I had the South Koreans write a screenplay first. So then, what came out of that was something pop like Tarantino would write. Pop's fine, I like pop. However, its approach to the source material was too sarcastic, and it didn't work for me much. So, I decided to rewrite the whole thing from scratch myself. The South Koreans were happy with that, but it worked out to be about four hours worth of story, so from there I began the process of whittling it down.

EH: So then you completed the screenplay and at last began pre-production, then the shoot. What was it actually like to work in the South Korean film industry?

SY: What I realised from working there is that the young generation is clearly attempting to break away from the older generation. For the older generation, the epicentre of South Korean film is a place in Seoul called Chungmuro. It's roughly equivalent to Shochiku's Kamata, or Toei's Oizumi, or Uzumasa in Kyoto. In contrast, the offices of the younger generation of filmmakers are concentrated on a strip of prime real estate called Gangnam-gu, which is across the river from Chungmuro. Alright, quiz time: do you know what the young generation of South Korean filmmakers places the most importance on?

EH: Hmmm, I wonder.

SY: Appearance. Looks, in every sense of the word. The offices of these film companies are amazingly unnecessary and lavish. A bit like Roppongi Hills. With two gorgeous surgically-enhanced receptionists sitting side by side [laughs]. The same applies to the rest of their staff, and the first stylist I thought of using for "Soo" was one too. She showed me the work she'd done in New York, and it was all patched together from the kind of costumes you'd see in some trendy cop show, so the content of her work was underwhelmingly shallow. As if she had absolutely no grasp of the basics.

EH: Has that got anything to do with the South Korean government's policies to stimulate the film industry?

SY: I think so. As a result of the government's unified effort to take things to new level, films became eligible for corporate investment. Because they built film into a huge entertainment industry in an unduly short period, it's come to resemble a structurally unsound building. Its foundations are wobbly. Resultantly, there were many occasions when I'd try to do things my way but they couldn't handle it.

EH: Specifically, what kind of things?

SY: In the middle of the shoot, the art design team ran out on me. There were about 15 of them, but every single one ran away one night [laughs].

EH: I hear that your shoots are famous for their severity, so were you in a situation where you had to push the crew hard?

SY: No, of course not. The things that were necessary for the sets were already written in the script. Despite that, they tried to put single sheets on a double bed, so I had no choice but to tell them they'd messed up. As a result of them running away the shoot was shut down for a month, which did cause problems, but as the director I couldn't let that go. But of course, there were also many highly skilled staff. The special effects makeup team were particularly excellent. I was amazed by the ingenious dummy corpse they created.

EH: What was it like directing the actors? Your lead Ji Jin-hee said in one interview that "the set was like a warzone". He starred in "A Jewel in the Palace" and is strongly associated with the gentle image typical of South Korean television dramas, so were there various gaps to overcome?

SY: Ji Jin-hee had wanted to play a tougher role in order to change his image up until that point, and I was aware that he wanted the part. Then when I met him, he seemed extremely masculine in comparison to what I'd seen of him in "Jewel", and his enthusiasm for the role appealed to me, so I decided to cast him. He probably said that "the set was like a warzone" because I made him do so many action scenes, and because of the trouble surrounding the shoot too. For Korean films, apparently they don't do much in the way of rehearsal and include the actors' ad-libs as they go along, but that's not the way I do things. I do rehearsal after rehearsal, and give directions on everything from subtle hand movements to eyelines, so from what I hear everyone was a bit taken aback in the beginning. And it wasn't only them either; in some ways, everyday was a battle for me too. That's because it was just myself and the associate producer there from Japan.

EH: So that's how the film came into being, and it's overflowing with passionate energy. The opening car chase and the climactic brawl were especially amazing!

SY: The passion probably comes through because the shoot was so tough. We shot the opening car chase over two days. I wanted to take more shots for that scene, but we weren't able to shoot certain cuts due to the restraints of our budget and schedule. We had to reduce the scale of some parts of the climax, but we did everything we could within our limitations.

EH: And still you created something so powerful... Also, regarding the fierce violence and the treatment of the action, I felt that fearfulness of blunt instruments and knives was portrayed very realistically.

SY: That's what we were aiming for. I brought sound effects recordings with me from Japan, and paid a lot of attention to each sound. I spent four months in post-production, including the acoustic design.

EH: What do you think about the current state of the South Korean film industry, now that the bubble has burst and the slump has begun? In contrast, the Japanese industry is said to enjoying a boom...

SY: South Korean films were industrialised rapidly, so I imagine that's why they've gone off the boil just as quickly. There was a continuous string of blockbusters said to have been seen by more than 10 million people in a country with a population of only 45 million, and I think that was something of an aberration. If you think about it, Japan's film boom probably won't last long, and it's an odd situation. I've been saying this for a long time, but a huge hit in Japan only rates a C in world terms. As long as there's no domestic change in the structure of the film industry, nothing will change. And this applies not only to filmmakers; Japanese audiences have to start demanding better quality films. Come to think of it, in the sense that the Korean wave*1 was so lucrative, it instilled the South Korean film industry with a great deal of confidence.

EH: In South Korea they say "If a film's a hit, the director builds a house".

SY: Not just a house, more like a large building [laughs]. The Korean wave had spread to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, and Japan was the slowest country in Asia to catch on. Anyway, from now on the film viewing environment will change as in watching movies over the internet, so people's ability to adapt to new media, including Blu-ray, is being challenged. In particular, the relationship between film and the internet is a major issue. Even with the net, there are more people accessing it via cellphones rather than computers, so as devices become more and more mobile, it'll become easier to watch only what you want to watch. On that basis, South Korean films could make a comeback.

EH: In Japan, young people who enter the film industry wanting to become involved in filmmaking often end up overworked and underpaid, having their dreams used against them by employers who have the attitude that such jobs are a privilege that they bestow, and then they eventually give up.

SY: As an industry, the Japanese film world probably doesn't have the soundest approach to finance sometimes. The fact that people aren't paid enough is a big problem. It makes it difficult to attract new talent. Speaking of which, that reminds me of the time I met filmmakers in New Zealand.

EH: Something to do with your new film?

SY: I was considering doing post-production for "Kamui Gaiden", the film I'm currently working on, in New Zealand, and visited Peter Jackson's Weta. When I went to New Zealand to shoot a home appliance commercial in the '90s I used a local crew, and was amazed by their high quality. At the time Australian films were doing well, but I thought it wouldn't be long before New Zealand films would start to take off.

EH: Speaking of recent films, "The Golden Compass" director Chris Weitz had no experience of making a big budget film with CG, so he took a special one-week lesson with Peter Jackson. I see he does lectures like that too.

SY: When I was visiting, Jackson wasn't there so I spoke with Weta staff about many things, and the place was buzzing with energy. It had a great atmosphere. Eventually, there were several things that we couldn't settle on, especially in terms of the budget, so we weren't able to work with them this time around, but I hope I'll have another chance sometime. The success of "The Host" came partly from working with Weta, and there's nothing stopping Japanese films from doing the same.

EH: Finally, how do you feel after completing "Soo"?

SY: Very refreshed. I have the confidence to go anywhere in the world and make a film, not just South Korea. It's a bit of a shame that "Soo" will only be given a limited screening in Japan as part of a festival*2, but it'll receive a normal roadshow release in Europe, including Germany. So, I'll be pleased if some European producer who has no idea who Sai Yoichi is watches "Soo" and says "That was great, I want to work with this director". I'm ready to head off on my own at the drop of a hat!

*1 The surge of popularity of South Korean popular culture in other countries, especially in Asian countries. Called "Kanryu" in Japan.

*2 Kanryu Cinema Festival 2008, a travelling collection of South Korean films playing the Cinemart chain.