- 17 May 2004
by Tom Mes
One of the Japanese directors with the strongest international following at the moment is Ryuhei Kitamura. Wowing people the world over with his self-produced action/horror extravaganza Versus, Kitamura brings a different sense to Japanese cinema. Fiercely independent, armed with a passion for 1980s American action cinema, and with every cell in his body motivated to make movies the way he likes them, he has blasted rather than carved a niche for himself within the Japanese film industry. With his sights set on higher goals, Ryuhei Kitamura's career has only just begun.
First, a very basic question. Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
(laughs) I grew up watching movies. I didn't go to school at all when I was a kid. I was just at the cinema from morning 'til evening, watching movies over and over. So those movies were a big influence. When I was sixteen, and the time came to start thinking about what I wanted to do in life, I figured I loved watching movies, so why not become a filmmaker. It was that simple. A year later I'd made up my mind and quit high school. During class, actually. I stood up and told my teacher: "I quit. I'm going to be a film director. Goodbye." A week later I was in Australia looking for a film school.
I got a lot of influence from the films of George Miller, like Mad Max, and Russel Mulcahy, Highlander. Also Peter Weir. They're all Australian. I also loved Australian rock music, like INXS. So I felt Australia was the natural choice. I found a school for visual arts in Sydney and I just walked up to the principal and said: "I'm from Japan and I want to become a film director, so let me in" (laughs). He thought that I was a funny guy, so he let me in and I studied there for two years.
So you're natural born filmmaker, in a way. You never tried any other job?
Were those films you saw in your youth educational as well?
Yes. The movies taught me lots of things. The movies were my teachers. Watching Mad Max or The Exterminator, you know, I felt like I wanted to take revenge if people did the same thing to me. You learn what is right and what is wrong. I would watch films like Mad Max 2, or Aliens, or Sam Raimi's movies about seventy or eighty times. Sam Raimi was a really big influence on me. When I was fifteen or sixteen he was in his early twenties and with a bunch of friends he made this masterpiece Evil Dead. That was unbelievable. I'd never seen those kinds of handmade movies before. It made me feel that maybe I could do this kind of thing too. So Sam Raimi, James Cameron, John Carpenter, they were really important for me.
But it was not just action/horror stuff, I watched all kinds of films. One of my favourites as a kid was A Little Romance, starring Diane Lane. She was so cute, it was a wonderful movie. Raise the Titanic, that was excellent. Fandango is my favourite. I'm waiting so badly for somebody to release Fandango on DVD. If right now I have to decide my top ten favourite films, Fandango would be number one. But my influence also came from books and comic books. All those influences are inside me now and I'm just spilling it all out as a director.
So you still have that same frame of mind as when you were young? You're a kind of big kid?
Yes, I'm still the same. I go to watch movies during shooting. I finish shooting at nine so I can catch a late screening at the cinema (laughs). When I go to festivals I try to watch as many films as I can.
Your first few films were very independently made. Did you feel a certain dissatisfaction with the structure of the Japanese film industry?
Until I made Versus I was so frustrated with Japanese films, because the industry didn't make entertainment movies anymore. It was always love stories, or family stories, or something about finding yourself. I don't deny them, they're okay, but there weren't any other options. Maybe there were a few edgy, violent movies, but nothing in the middle. The pure entertainment movies didn't exist until I made Versus. Especially action movies. Producers told me they couldn't make money with action movies, they felt Hollywood and Hong Kong were better at it than the Japanese. I disagreed and since no producers would back me up, I decided to make movies independently. I used my own money and took the risk of making Versus. Just because a producer won't support me doesn't mean I can't make films. I'll do whatever it takes to make my films. That's the difference between me and other directors.
You never considered V-cinema as an option? There's a lot of action-oriented films being made for the video market.
No, I prefer to see my movies on the big screen.
The name of your production company is Napalm Films, which seems to express your philosophy and your approach to cinema very well.
(laughs) Yes. There are a lot of stupid people in the film industry, so it's my warning to them: stay out of my way, otherwise I'm gonna burn you (laughs). It works!
Has your opinion of the Japanese film industry changed now that you are very much a part of it?
Yes, in some ways. After I made Versus I finally found some good producers, like Mata Yamamoto, who I worked with on Azumi. He saw Versus three years ago, when it wasn't released yet. He saw it at the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival and he decided that I was the one to direct Azumi. That was one of the biggest projects in Japan at the time. I don't think other people were happy that such a young guy, a newcomer, was chosen to handle this project, but Mata fought for me, he fought hard and backed me up all the way through. So there are some producers who take risks and who have faith in what they're doing. So it's changing. I'm still a kind of new director in Japan, but they let me do Godzilla (laughs).
Could you talk a little bit about the origin of Versus? I believe it was a follow-up to your first film Down To Hell, is that correct?
Down to Hell is actually the second amateur movie I made. The first one was called Exit and it was my graduation short film from Australia. Exit was my first film and I made it when I was 19. But I'd already decided to become a filmmaker at 17, so I was really lazy at the time. I didn't direct anything for two years and I hardly went to school either. I just watched movies, went to concerts and hung around with friends. Of course I had to make a film if I wanted to graduate. In the end I had only two days to shoot and one day to edit and the budget was the hundred dollars I had in my pocket. That's how I made my first movie (laughs). I'm not going to show the film to anyone, but it's the same as Versus, in the woods, with zombies, punching, kicking, knife fights.
The students and the teachers loved it, and it even got an award, which really motivated me. I felt that maybe I could really be a film director. But then for five years after that I didn't make any films again. I was a singer in a band, but I was still being lazy about filmmaking. Lots of amateur directors make movies all the time, but not me. So it took me five years after returning to Japan to make another film and that was Down to Hell. This time I had $3000 that I'd made on my part-time job, one video camera and a six-man crew and cast. It was a super low-budget video movie, but it came out quite good, so I started knocking on the doors of some producers. They all ignored me completely. Now they keep calling me and I tell them "Well, I met you five years ago," but they insist that they never met me before. Producers are like that all the time.
I was lucky to meet the actor Atsuro Watabe, though. We became close friends and decided to make a movie together independently. So that was my theatrical debut film, Heat After Dark. I was young and I didn't really know how to deal with a professional crew, so I was butting heads every day on the set. It was tough making that movie. Just because I was young and I didn't have any experience, the crew didn't listen to me. I thought that was so stupid. If you don't have faith in me, you shouldn't work with me in the first place. I was so angry about the Japanese way of thinking and the Japanese way of filmmaking, and that anger motivated me to make Versus. I was so fed up with the professional way of making films, but I'm not the kind of person to give up easily, so I decided to show them what I could do.
I did Down to Hell for $3000 and with my own team, and it was really fun to make. I felt I had to go back to my origins to make Versus. Down to Hell contains everything that's also in Versus: it's set in the woods, since we didn't have money for sets or renting locations; everything is handmade because we didn't have money for explosions or CGI either; there's punching and kicking and falling and rolling. Originally Versus started out as a sequel to Down to Hell, it was going to be Down to Hell 2. We started making it with about $10,000. I didn't want to spend that much money, so I wanted to shoot it the same way, on video and with a very low budget. As I was proceeding with the pre-production, the script kept growing and was becoming really cool, and I met several very interesting young actors. I felt that I couldn't just do a sequel. I had to take a chance, I had to bet more on it to win the game. Moviemaking is a game, a gamble, and I felt it wasn't wise to try to play it safe. I needed to risk everything if I wanted to get anywhere, and that's when I decided to shoot it on film and make a movie for the big screen.
A lot of Japanese producers and directors like to work in this low-risk way. They shoot on low budgets and for the straight-to-video market. You can get a little money, but it doesn't go anywhere. There are too many people around who think that way. I had to do something different, something that no other director would think of. No other director would risk their life to make a movie, but that's what I did. I called everybody, my family, my friends, ex-girlfriends, producers. We called everybody to raise money. Everyday we were shooting in the mountains and as soon as we finished we would start making calls, because we didn't have any money for the next day (laughs).
It was tough, but we were really happy to be doing it. I was really confident that by making the film completely my own way - I was writing, producing, in control of everything - Hollywood would call me. Even though everybody in the Japanese film industry ignored me, I had 100% confidence that Hollywood would call me. After the experience of making Heat After Dark, I was surprised that all the cast and crew of Versus had confidence in me. They didn't think that I was just a big mouth, that I was just bluffing. They believed in me. We took two years to make Versus and we didn't have any money. We couldn't do other jobs, so it's still a great mystery how we could survive two years of hard work with no money at all (laughs). But it's a gamble anyway and I think I won.
What made you decide to pack so many genres into Versus? I mean, there's gun action, martial arts action, there's chanbara, horror, comedy.
It was my first feature film and maybe it was going to be my last. I risked everything, so there was a possibility that I could never do it again. Then why not do everything I like and use everything that influenced me? I just put everything I loved into the movie. People categorise things too easily. They say it's a horror movie, so you shouldn't add comedy or action. They want to limit it too much to one genre. I'm not that simple, I got a lot of influence from a lot of things. I don't like people telling me what type of movie I should make.
The inspiration for Versus came from the films of the 1980s, Sam Raimi movies, John Carpenter movies, George Miller movies. Everything I like: zombies, gun fighting, kung fu fighting, sword fighting. I wanted to do car action too, because I love Mad Max so much, but I didn't have enough money for it (laughs). So aside from the car action, everything is in there.
So you're keeping the car action for a future film, then.
One of the great virtues of Versus is that it's such a genuinely handcrafted film. Did you set out to create a really handmade film?
Yes. Lots of people told me that I could never beat Hollywood movies, since they have lots of money and they can do anything they want using CGI. But CGI doesn't look real to me at all. It doesn't have as much power as films from the 80s. Sam Raimi's movies had power, Mad Max had power, The Terminator had power. These days, movies don't affect me as much as the films from the 80s, and I believe that it's because twenty years ago the movies were handmade. It's not computers making movies, it was people making movies. You could sense the power, the passion, and the energy of those people. I really believe in that.
My cast and crew are like a family. It's not like we meet for the first time on the first day of shooting. We don't consider filmmaking a job. It's a way of life, a way of thinking. Versus is my flesh and blood, everything is in it. I didn't actually have the title Versus until the very end of shooting. We were still using 'Return to Hell: Down to Hell 2' as a title. Of course it wasn't Down to Hell 2 at all anymore, but I couldn't come up with a good title. Then my best friend - he went to Australia with me when I was 17 and he is now the second unit director on Godzilla, shooting the overseas sequences - he was shooting the making of Versus at the time and I told him I couldn't come up with a good title. He told me, "All your life you've been fighting, and this movie is all you, so you should call it Versus." He is the one that came up with that excellent title.
Even though I'm directing big budget movies now, I still try to keep the same philosophy. Because I believe that the audience can feel the energy that we put into making the film. My audience will tell me when I lose sight of myself and start directing just for the money (laughs). I don't want to be like that.
Why do you think Versus became such a big hit with foreign audiences?
Because they haven't seen a Japanese film like that for a long time. It's also something different from Hong Kong films or Hollywood films. I'm actually surprised that the film did quite well in Japan too. When I was making it, I didn't care at all about what the Japanese people would think about it. I was just focused on the international audience, because I was so disappointed in Japanese movies. I was sure the foreign viewers would like it, because I'm a big fan of fantastic film, so I know what they want to see. I'm the same as the fans of Versus, and I make the films that I want to see.
One thing that makes Versus special is bushido, the way of the samurai. You can see that way of thinking when you look at The Last Samurai, but the Japanese themselves have forgotten it. Tom Cruise has to show the Japanese what the way of the samurai is (laughs). The samurai attitude, their way of thinking about life and death attracts me a lot. I think it's very cool the way we lived back in the time of the samurai, but the modern Japanese have forgotten it completely. That's why I want to add that kind of taste to my films. That's one thing that makes Versus special, that makes it different from something like Hong Kong films. There are many excellent action films in Hong Kong or Hollywood or China, but the difference is the way of the samurai. Like the final duel in Versus, when the two guys are fighting and they close their eyes. They know that the next attack will be the last. They know they're going to die. Maybe the bad guy knows he's going to lose, but he accepts that fact. That's a very Japanese way of thinking and I try to put it into all my movies.
I hear you met your lead actor Tak Sakaguchi while he was fighting in the street.
Yeah, that's true. He's a streetfighter. He fought with a bear once, and won. Otherwise he would be dead now, of course (laughs). He fought a crocodile, he even fought a bull (laughs). He's a real fighter. He's just like he is in Versus, he's a crazy guy, but I love him. He's now the action director for Godzilla, which should bring some new blood to that series.
I met him on the street while he was beating somebody up and told him to call me. I told him he should be fighting in films instead of on the street. I told him to come to this party I was going to, some kind of independent film party. And when he arrived there, I was the one who was fighting (laughs). With some stupid German guy who was in a friend's film. I was beating his head into a table just when Taku came in (laughs). So the first time I met him, he was fighting, and the second time we met, I was fighting. Hideo Sakaki, who plays the bad guy in Versus, was also at that party, but he was talking to some pretty girl trying to get her phone number. He didn't care about the fighting. That's how the three of us met.
The character Taku plays in Versus, the prisoner, he's a combination of my character and Taku's character. He knows how I get angry and I know how he gets angry. For example, I know he hates it when somebody treats women badly.
Could you talk about the new version of Versus that was recently released.
Three days after I finished Sky High I was back in the mountains again. I reassembled the crew and cast and went back to the same mountain, with the same poor lunch. I was carrying the equipment myself, it was exactly the same as when we originally made the film. We shot for five days, more crazy zombie stuff, and more fighting for the sequence at the end. We also put some funny CGI in the beginning of the film and changed some of the music. We remixed it in 6.1 channel sound.
I'd like to move on to Aragami. I hear that that film came into existence after you met director Yukihiko Tsutsumi at a film festival and you challenged each other to make a film.
I was at the CineAsia festival in Cologne, Germany, about three years ago. At the bar of the hotel one night I met Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who is a very famous director. I wasn't that famous at the time, but he had seen Heat After Dark. I was surprised that someone like Tsutsumi-san had seen that film. He said he liked it and he invited me to have a drink at the bar. I accepted of course, because I was so happy that Tsutsumi-san knew me. So we had a drink at the bar at midnight and we started to talk. I told him I liked his film Chinese Dinner, which is a film set in only one location, a Chinese restaurant, with two guys and one waitress, and that's it. It's 80 minutes long and it's very well directed and well written. And Tsutsumi told me that he made Chinese Dinner because he had seen Heat After Dark. The opening scene takes place at a restaurant and he said that that scene inspired him to make Chinese Dinner.
Tsutsumi directs a lot of TV series, music videos and commercials, but he loves making movies. So he said, "If you like Chinese Dinner, why don't we make another one? We'll do Chinese Dinner 2 and 3 at the same time. You think of one situation and I will think of another, and we'll release them together." If it hadn't been Yukihiko Tsutsumi I might not have done it, but I respect him a lot and I said yes. He and I are both outsiders, we both came from outside the film industry, so two outsiders doing something different was an idea that sounded like fun to me.
But it was midnight at a hotel bar, so the next morning you're back on planet earth. Normally people would forget about that kind of conversation, they don't take responsibility for something they say. Producers in particular say "Let's do this" all the time, but they forget about it later. Tsutsumi didn't forget. Three months later he called me and said "We're really going to do it, are you still interested?" I respect people who take responsibility for what they say, so it was natural for me to say yes again.
That was the second time we spoke, and the third time he told me he was going to start shooting the film the following week! He said I had to come up with an idea for my film in one week. He was ready to do his film 2LDK, which is a story of two pretty girls killing each other. But I wondered what I should do, and he suggested doing something like The Matrix, but with two old men. Grandpa doing The Matrix! (laughs) I told him it wasn't fair that he got to work with two pretty girls and I had to use old men. I thought at least I should get some young cool guys to fight each other. I was preparing Azumi at the time, and I felt that it would be great to have a chance to practice doing swordfighting scenes. So I set my situation in an old, mysterious temple with two samurai.
How did you approach financing the project? It's a lot of fun to say "Let's make movies together" but it needs to be financed too. And I can imagine having to finance two films at the same time makes it extra difficult.
I have a good relationship with Shinya Kawai, for whom I made The Messenger, the short movie that was part of Jam Films. He's an excellent producer. He doesn't overthink things too long, he decides very quickly. I presented the idea of making two movies with Tsutsumi-san and he said: "Sounds good, let's do it." So there are still some good producers in Japan. Of course it helped that I was becoming a little bit better known thanks to Versus, Alive and being selected for Azumi, and Tsutsumi is already a very famous guy, so we didn't have any problem finding the money.
On Aragami I had one week to write and one month to prepare. Then I shot it in seven days, which is not much. And the budget was pretty low. I was also preparing Azumi at the same time and the producers of Azumi got angry that I decided to do this low budget movie in the middle of preparing the biggest film project in Japan. Mata Yamamoto got so angry, but I didn't care (laughs). I'm happy to make producers angry. If producers aren't angry, that means the movie will be no good. When I'm making the film, producers get angry, but when it's finished, they become happy. That's the only way to make good movies.
Could you talk about the casting of Takao Osawa and Masaya Kato for Aragami?
We were only one month away from shooting, so it was difficult to find the right people. I was lucky that Osawa, who plays the samurai, accidentally saw a memo I'd sent to Kawai-san. Kawai-san left it on a table or something. There was no screenplay yet at the time, but Takao Osawa saw this three-page memo and he loved the idea and wanted to do it. He's a great actor and I really respect him, but I never thought he would be willing to do this film. So suddenly everything sped up after he got involved, and I wrote the screenplay especially for Osawa, because I was so happy to have him in the film.
Then Masaya Kato was a friend of Kawai-san as well. Kato is a big fan of fantastic films, he'd seen Versus and loved it. When Kawai-san asked if he wanted to work with the director of Versus, Kato immediately said yes.
In Aragami, like in Azumi and Versus as well, there is a strong presence of chanbara. Do you feel that there is a need to revive that genre?
Yes, because nobody else is doing it. A few directors are trying, but they're not doing it well. You know, Versus is a film about fighting, any kind of fighting. But I was surprised that when I was traveling Europe and America with the film, the audience and press told me that Versus was the best chanbara film they'd seen in a long time. They said they hadn't seen those kinds of films from Japan since the Baby Cart series or the original Zatoichi. I was very surprised, and it made me think that if people like chanbara that much, I should make a real chanbara movie. Then Azumi came along and it was the perfect opportunity to make a big samurai swordfighting movie.
I still feel that we must revive the chanbara genre, because that's what we're good at, but we're not doing it anymore. Hollywood will do it with more money and with Tom Cruise. I loved Last Samurai, but it's what we should be making. Hollywood always does it first.
With Azumi and Sky High you're moving towards films with female protagonists. Why the change? Is that purely a coincidence or is that something you wanted to try?
It's just a coincidence. It's always more fun working with girls than with sweaty guys (laughs). When I was doing Versus there were mean looking guys all around me (laughs). When I was doing Sky High I decided that this time I would pick only beautiful girls to work with. It was fun on the set. But I don't really care if it's a guy or a girl. It depends on the story you want to tell.
And now you're going to kill off Godzilla.
Yes (laughs). I was initially thinking of moving to the States and doing something different. Azumi was the biggest movie of 2003 and I did more than my best on it. I thought that was it, there was no way to go from there within Japan, so it was time to move out. But then Toho asked me if I would be interested in doing Godzilla: Final Wars, and who can resist that? Nobody can resist Godzilla, only the chosen ones get to direct those films. It's going to be a very special one, because it's the fiftieth anniversary and it will be the last Godzilla movie. It will be the last and the biggest, so I couldn't resist. So that's keeping me in Japan for one more year. After Godzilla, that's it, I'm moving away. I'll continue to make movies in Japan too, I think, but right now I need to move on to something new. And that's to make movies in America.
(Special thanks to Filmfreak Distribution and the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.)