Kazuaki Kiriya has never been interested in playing by the rules.
By Matthew Hernon
An outspoken individual who quit junior high school at the age of 15 to move to America on his own, he made his directorial debut with the live action film adaption of “Casshern” in 2004. His latest effort, “Last Knights,” is his first movie in English and features a star-studded cast that includes Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman. Released across cinemas in Japan last Saturday, it’s a story about revenge and honor based on the legend of the 47 Ronin. Wanting to hear more, Weekender recently met up with Kiriya at a coffee shop in Yoyogi, Tokyo.
Firstly how did you get involved in this project?
A producer friend of mine sent me the script in 2009, around the time of my second film, “GOEMON.” As a director you are constantly receiving all kinds of materials, but straight away I could see this one was something special. The writing just blew me away. What really struck me about it was the essence of virtue, honor and loyalty. I said to myself as long as I’m true to that I can change the surface however I want. From the beginning I was really excited.
You then sent the script to Clive Owen. What made you think of him?
Well he’s just one of the great actors in Hollywood today, a real craftsman. We were both with the same agency, but I’d never actually met him before. Like me, he was immediately taken with the script and signed up almost straight away. He was in Shanghai at the time for a film festival and asked to meet me. He was puzzled at first because the original script was written in English, but it was for Japanese actors to be filmed in Japan. He was like, ‘this is great and everything but what can I do?’ I told him that we’d be changing things a little and it would actually be set up in an imaginary country and an imaginary period of time.
Where did that idea come from?
Well I had initially intended doing it with Japanese actors, but the script was loosely based on “47 Ronin” which is a famous title that has been directed by numerous well-known filmmakers in the past. Also the film version starring Keanu Reeves was coming out so that was another issue. I then thought about Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Ran.” That was based on the Shakespeare play “King Lear” but made in Japan. I thought I could maybe do the reverse of that and take a Japanese story and direct it in a foreign country with different actors from all over the world.
Including of course Morgan Freeman. What was he like to work with?
He’s the master. There is such an integrity to his work. He rules both the set and the screen with his presence. He’s a really kind guy as well and just a pleasure to work with. Actually watching him on the monitor sometimes I would forget that it was my film and that I had a job to do. People would be waiting for me to say cut, but I would just keep on watching, enthralled by what I was seeing. On the first day of Morgan’s shoot all these actors who were supposed to be off came to the set just to witness his acting. Even (famed New Zealand actor) Cliff Curtis showed up. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see someone that special perform. I felt blessed and humbled.
Clive Owen said you were very calm on set. Did you not feel nervous directing such big names?
On the surface maybe I looked cool, but inside I really felt the pressure. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I mean Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen could have had their choice of any movie. You also had Askel Hennie, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Sung-kee Ahn, Cliff Curtis … I could go on. So many big names, I just wanted to make sure I was ready for them. It was also the sheer scale of the project. Once filming started, though, any anxieties I had disappeared. I simply didn’t have the time to worry as I only had 50 days to complete the movie.
Given the high-profile names involved, were you surprised that no Japanese companies invested in the film?
Yes and no. I mean international movies, except for epics like Star Wars and Disney flicks, are having a hard time selling here. About 10 to 15 years ago something happened in the market and all of a sudden domestic films started to do very well. I think we’ve also seen something similar in the music industry. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s good that home-grown artists are doing well here, [but] I am just concerned it has perhaps gone too far in that direction.
Why do you think this shift has occurred?
In my opinion Japanese people have become more introverted and are less interested in looking outside. I think it has a lot to do with the otaku culture or what Japanese call ガラパゴス化 (Galapagos Syndrome). If you look at the research we don’t have nearly as many students going abroad to study as we did around 20 years ago. Things have also changed in the business world. Before you had all these great Japanese companies taking risks and spreading their products internationally. That kind of mentality is now much less prevalent in Japanese society.
It’s a worrying trend. The Japanese market is shrinking because of the aging population so as a nation we need to be more outward looking in order to survive. I truly believe that for the movie industry as well. The budget in Japan is going down fast, while in Hollywood it’s going up and up. Ten years ago we were competing with films that had a 100 million dollar budget; right now we are going up against two or three hundred million dollar movies. How can Japanese filmmakers compete with that? At the same time audiences are paying the same prices for each film.
Aside from Hollywood what other markets would you be interested in working in?
I’ve had some offers from China which I am seriously considering. I think it’s an intriguing market that has really opened up recently. I’d love to work somewhere in Africa – I heard the movie industry is ready to take off there. India would be a fantastic place to film as well. Payman Maadi (who plays the Emperor in “Last Knights”) told me that Iran has a great underground scene. Ultimately, though, I’m happy to work anywhere.
It doesn’t matter where I film or where the actors are from. The important thing is that you have that core element, the true essence of the production. As I mentioned earlier the script for “Last Knights” was about honor, virtue and loyalty. That was the key thing for me. Yes, it came from a Japanese story, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a typical “Japanese film” showing people committing hara-kiri and the like. I hate the idea of compartmentalizing everything. This story could have easily come from Africa or Europe, just like a movie about the American Civil War could effectively be about any war in history. It may sound a bit clichéd, but I think in this industry, as well as in music and art, we have an opportunity to transcend borders and express ourselves freely. That’s what I signed up for anyway.