Mataichiro “Mata” Yamamoto & Ryuhei Kitamura
After his directorial debut with his cult hit action/horror flick Versus, Ryuhei Kitamura received both domestic and international fame among filmmakers. He went on to make a number of exciting films including his first Hollywood movie, Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train, starring Bradley Cooper. Known for a number of productions such as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Mataichiro “Mata” Yamamoto is a veteran movie producer who specializes in bringing Japanese films to a global audience. Yamamoto and Kitamura originally collaborated together on the live-action adaptation of the jidaigeki manga Azumi in 2003, and have returned to work together once again on Lupin III.
Asia Media International: Lupin III is renowned as one of the most classic anime and manga series of all time. What gave the two of you the desire to adapt Lupin for the big screen, and how does it feel to be given the opportunity to bring such a renowned franchise to life as a live action film?
Yamamoto: Well actually it’s been always, not only this time, but a various number of times that producers wanted to [adapt Lupin], because it is a big title… producers always expect something, some idea that has an audience already attached to it. You know, a ready-made audience. So producers wanted to make this into live-action, but there’s been a lot of difficulty, because the title is too well known. A lot of people say against such a production, and the author never easily gives the rights to everybody. It’s difficult, and when it’s difficult, it always gives us a strong notion of “Why me? Why do I produce it?” So that’s how we started…
Kitamura: So I got a call from the producer, “Big Boss”, a few years back… we made this great movie called Azumi together ten years ago, so we have facing each other, so whatever my boss says, we go, and I have no choice, right? So “ok yes sir, but what are we doing?” And he said Lupin III and I was like “Oh my God, that’s like a minefield! It’s like going into a warzone!” [laughs] But then I thought about it… if anybody can make this happen, it’s gotta be us. So I had facing him and I had facing Shun, who was the lead star, so I just made up my mind and we tried our best…. It was a tough challenge but on the other hand it was a great honor to be chosen to be the director of this great franchise. It was challenging but it was fun.
AMI: (to Kitamura) You began your career as a director with the short film Exit in 1995, and later achieved mainstream recognition with your cult-classic action film Versus in the year 2000. You also made your official debut in America with the horror film Midnight Meat Train in 2008. Now that you have successfully adapted Lupin, in what ways do you feel you have evolved as a filmmaker since you began your career as a director?
Kitamura: [laughs] I dunno… I don’t analyze myself too good but you know [points to Yamamoto] he analyzes better than me how I’ve evolved myself!… The good thing for me was this movie Versus, which was a tiny independent movie, and I just did everything my way… luckily it was well accepted, and that was the reason he (Yamamoto) chose me to do Azumi… it was a great experience: my first studio movie in Japan was with this strongest tough producer like “Mata”, and we had a lot of fight[s]. Not the emotional fight, but more like [a] creative fight. And that’s what I think expanded my range, because until then I was just doing everything on my own and everything my way. When we were doing Azumi together, he is not an easy producer. He always tries to find a spot to attack [laughs]. So I had to defend myself, but that I believe expanded my ability… that was a big thing for me that my first big movie was what I did with Mata. Then I had, y’know, up and downs… and adjusting to Hollywood’s system, which was another challenging thing, but somehow I’m still alive. I thought I was gonna die, but I survived [laughs]… Everything I do I believe improved me.
AMI: How does it feel for the both of you to achieve receive the opportunity to achieve recognition in the United States and Western pop-culture while also representing your country and Japanese cinema?
Yamamoto: Well first of all… [for] every single filmmaker, ambition is always trying to show to the audience, as many as possible. And this adventure, trying to… not only for the Japanese audience, especially for the Asian audience. We wanted to expand the audience in a way to be able to involve all those different races together, and this is just the beginning. Maybe [we] want to show this movie not only in Asia, but in Europe and in America… If you have that kind of goal, you always knock on your head and say “Are you ok? [laughs] Are you good enough doing such a thing?” Your idea is big enough to involve these kinds of audience not only for a small market in Japan, but also all those market, all those people, and all those place. That’s a question to ask to myself. So when that happened it’s always sort of expanding myself. And part of it is America is the biggest goal. If you make some product workable in this country, it has a big possibility [to be] workable for a worldwide market. The reason why is because this is a multiple race country. So an idea you have in America sort of involves every single world. That’s why it is our ambition always, trying to make [a] workable movie for this market, America.
Beginning her career as a stage actress in 2004, Okinawan actress Meisa Kuroki has appeared in a number of films such as Vexille and Crow’s Zero. She is also known for her modeling career in the popular Japanese fashion magazine JJ, as well as a career in singing. Now she appears as the iconic femme fatalle Mine Fujiko in the live-action adaptation of Lupin III.
Asia Media International: Lupin III is renowned as one of the most classic anime and manga series of all time, and the character you portray, Mine Fujiko, is one of the most well recognized heroines in anime and manga history. How does it feel to be given the opportunity to portray such a character?
Meisa: [laughs] So, I would say I was mixed between nervousness as well the desire to play this role because as you have said, she is a very iconic character. So at the same time I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to live up to the expectations of the role; but the director and the producer they have assured me, and they are both very passionate people and they insisted “we want to make a very cool movie here in Japan”. And since they seemed so confident and they believed in me playing the role, I think it gave me that reassurance and the desire to want to play her.
AMI: You began your career at an early age as a model for the popular fashion magazine JJ, but it wasn’t until 2004 that you began your career in acting… What made you decide to branch off from your career in modeling and pursue a career in acting?
Meisa: Well first I have to correct you a little bit. [laughs] I actually began on the stage, so I have always been acting, and this was going in tandem with my modeling career so there was never a point in my life where modeling was my exclusive career. There has always been an element of acting.
AMI: You have achieved massive acclaim and popularity in Japan throughout your career as both an actress, model, and a musician. Now that you have officially made your debut in the United States through LA EigaFest, how does it feel to receive the opportunity to achieve recognition in the United States and Western pop-culture while also representing your country and Japanese cinema?
Meisa: I would say, just looking at how the market and industry has evolved, it looks to me as though Japanese cinema is in a weird way on the rise right now. And thanks to events like this, the LA EigaFest, there is a lot of focus being drawn towards Japanese produced movies, and that is not just to say in LA for example, but even in Japan the fact that it is making it out here in the States is becoming news, and that is getting the Japanese population excited about watching movies again.
After making his debut in 2002 with his contemporary fantasy series, Modern Magic Made Simple, Hiroshi Sakurazaka became one of the most popular lite novelists in Japan. He went on to write a number of short stories such as Saitama Chainsaw Shōjo, which won him the S-F Magazine Readers Award’s best story award. In 2004, he achieved widespread international recognition with his gritty sci-fi action/thriller All You Need is Kill, which was adapted for the big screen by director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) into the blockbuster film Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise.
Asia Media International: How does it feel to receive such massive recognition in the United States and Western pop culture, and how do you feel this will affect your writing in the future?… Do you feel that perhaps your stories will become more globalized for a more global audience while also taking into account your domestic Japanese audience?
Sakurazaka: I think there is no doubt that it will be affected in the future… it wasn’t the intent for [All You Need is Kill] to be localized from the get-go, and when all this sort of happened, it was flattering and an honor, but at the same time when I created the story and I made the protagonist [of All You Need is Kill] eighteen years old, one of reasons I did that is because the novel was intended for a younger audience, so I wanted them to be able to relate. But at the same time, you have to draw the line of when you’re allowed to go to war, so eighteen seemed like the natural number. But now in hindsight, when the adaptation took it in a different direction it makes perfect sense in that context.
AMI: There was one specific part of Edge of Tomorrow that was very different from All You Need is Kill, and that was the ending. In the ending of Edge of Tomorrow, it had a more happy ending with more of a positive outlook, whereas in the ending of All You Need is Kill had a much more somber, melancholic, bittersweet ending… Since there was such a massive difference in the ending between the two, how did you feel with the way that change was made? Were you dissatisfied or were you satisfied with the final product?
Sakurazaka: I think I’m very satisfied with how it’s been adapted. The reason being, I broadly define Hollywood movies in two different types in my own sort of way. One is where all the loose ends are tied, there is resolution, there is a happy ending, and everyone walks off in the sunset. The other is a little more grim, where the protagonist or the hero has to take on all the responsibility and sort of disappear silently into the darkness. I was actually curious as to what type my novel was going to be adapted into, and I was actually amazed with how they were able to keep the sort of gritty texture and the grimness while also resolving it with a happier ending, so I am quite satisfied with how that turned out.
AMI: Are there any more exciting projects that you can let us know about for your fans in the future that you’re working on?
Sakurazaka: [laughs] There is a sequel novel [to All You Need is Kill] in the works right now that should be finishing soon, but I guess it’s not going as quickly as it should.[laughs]
Graduating from Keio University in Tokyo and receiving his MBA from UCLA, Hayato Mitsuishi co-founded the Japan Film Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Japanese cinema and culture in America. Serving as JFS’s president, Mitsuishi leads a number of events, screenings, and seminars dedicated towards establishing further understanding and appreciation between Japanese and Hollywood filmmakers; most notably through his annual LA EigaFest. He also serves as the president and CEO of the talent management and consulting company, Kevin’s Entertainment.
Asia Media International: Where did you get the inspiration to put together LA EigaFest to begin with?
Mitsuishi: Well, I thought there wasn’t really a big Japanese festival that really represented Japanese films. We wanted to make it very Hollywoodish: have red carpets, and media, a lot of buzz, and really flashy. So there wasn’t any Japanese film festivals that I know of that was like that, so we wanted to make it that way, so that was my inspiration.
AMI: Out of all the guests and movies that you’ve had, which do you think was the most exciting that you’ve had not just this year, but all past EigaFests that you’ve had?
Mitsuishi: That’s difficult, I can’t really say one [laughs], but one memorable one was the very first one where Takayuki Yamada, a big star in Japan; he came, which was very important for us that an A-list celebrity would come to LA, to our film festival. That kinda set the standard for our film festival, and the beginning was Milocrorze, which was kind of a comedy that I really loved and Americans really loved as well. But Kenshin was great too, Lupin was great, our openings were great. We had Ken Watanabe come last year, which was exciting; Meisa Kuroki, a really famous actress in Japan, so everything was fun.
AMI: As being a major part of contributing to Japanese cinema and promoting it abroad, how does it feel to now officially be a major voice in promoting Japanese cinema abroad and representing your home country?
Mitsuishi: Well I don’t know if I’m a major force or not [laughs], but I would like to start and help promote Japanese film and culture here in the United States. So hopefully our film festival will be a platform for that.
AMI: Do you have any other exciting bits of information to share for EigaFest in the future or any other future events for your organization, Japan Film Society, in general?
Mitsuishi: LA EigaFest 2015!