Interview with Japanese Film Star Kazuki Kitamura

JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema presented by Japan Society ended its ten-day, 28-film run on Sunday. Known as America’s largest Japanese film festival, this year’s JAPAN CUTS once again represented the diversity of Japanese film with comedies, dramas, documentaries, sexually provocative selections, and a remake of a Western. There were eight special guests, including actors and directors, either in person or through the magic of Skype, and five films were sold out.

One of those sellouts is Neko Samurai, a hilarious Edo Period piece starring veteran actor Kazuki Kitamura as a masterless samurai and expert swordsman who is caught between  rival gangs of cat lovers and dog lovers. Neko Samurai was one of three Kitamura films screened at JAPAN CUTS – in addition to Man from Reno and Killers – and the star was in New York to receive the festival’s CUT ABOVE Award for Excellence in Film.

JapanCulture•NYC sat down with Kitamura at Japan Society prior to the international premiere of Neko Samurai on Saturday, July 19 and talked about Japan’s film industry, Quentin Tarantino, turning 45, and cats.

Kazuki Kitamura, Japan Society, NYC, JAPAN CUTS, Neko Samurai, cats, Japanese cinema, Japanese film, movies, Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill, Crazy 88, film festival

Kazuki Kitamura

JapanCulture•NYC: Neko Samurai sold out faster than any film in the eight-year history of JAPAN CUTS. Are audience members coming tonight to see you or the cat?

Kazuki Kitamura: Probably the cat. You can’t win against a cat.

JC•NYC: What was it like working with the cat?

KK: Usually they say that co-starring with animals or kids is very difficult, but for that specific cat, it was such an intelligent cat. So that was not the case at all. Neko Samurai was a TV drama series, and we always had three cats. The funny thing was one cat was very thin, and one of them was very fat, so the difference was very obvious. And you can even see it in the TV show and the film. But that sort of laxness of the atmosphere and the shooting style, I think, was part of the charm of this work. The one cat I have the most chemistry with is the cat that is featured the most.

JC•NYC: In one film tonight you play a samurai, and in another you play a serial killer. Is there a particular type of role you gravitate toward the most?

KK: I don’t really think about what I want or don’t want in terms of roles. I think it’s important not to have that preference because if you do, you restrict yourself. When a project comes to me, I will think about it and wonder if I can dive into that character completely or not. I find it very important to investigate what the director is thinking about his screenplay and how he intends to shoot it. So I think what’s important in my job is the pre-shoot period; the preparation is my most important work.

JC•NYC: You just turned 45. In Hollywood that is creeping into dangerous territory in terms of limited roles. What’s it like in Japan’s film industry as far as roles for actors over the age of 40?

KK: In Japan in the film industry it’s very youth oriented as well, and of course that part of me is battling against that. But I do projects like Neko Samurai that have nothing to do with my age. The reality is that it is difficult watching the number of projects decrease, but at the same time perhaps I don’t look that mature because I don’t get many of the sophisticated, older roles that much yet. Perhaps I don’t have to worry too much.

JC•NYC: You played Crazy 88 #2 in Kill Bill. Did you actually work with Quentin Tarantino, and what was that process like?

KK: It’s a very interesting story about Tarantino. Tarantino was actually in Japan for an audition, but I didn’t know about it at all. I did hear that he was going to be in Japan one last day, so I went to his hotel and waited for him in the lobby. He came down, and I asked him to shake hands completely as a fan. Of course, I expected that to end there, but Tarantino said, ‘Hey, I know you!’ He invited me up to his room, and lo and behold he had a vast collection of [Takashi] Miike films, and on the DVD covers there were my face. He asked me for my autograph, and I said, ‘I need your autograph!’ It was a very interesting exchange. Tarantino asked me if I were interested in his film, and I said of course, and he asked me if I could do action, and I showed him my back-kicks and so on, my action sequences. He said, ‘The audition is done and I don’t have any rights to casting, but I will consult my people and call you back.’ My thought was that it was just a formality, but a week later he actually did give me a call, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come see our shooting in Beijing?’ So I went to the set in Beijing. That role came out of me just joining in and that playful exchange. Sometimes I would change my hairstyle to be in different scenes. It was just that process of Tarantino allowing me to play.

JC•NYC: So the shooting process was a nice experience for you?

KK: Of course, I enjoyed the set, but more than that, what really struck me and overwhelmed me was just the vast difference in the shooting style from Japan and Hollywood. In Japan you work within a set budget, but in the shop scene with the Crazy 88 for instance, Tarantino would say, ‘I want to dig a hole in the floor, and I need a glass panel to dig a hole in. So they would just deliver the glass from the US right there and then, and they would dig the hole and then say, ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ And it took another week to do that scene. In that sense that scale and the money spent just overwhelmed me. The actors get allowance every day, there’s a bar, there’s a café. The whole thing just really surprised me. But more important than that, the sheer fact that Tarantino knew who I was and invited me up to the hotel room and invited me to the set, that was so surreal. Sometimes I would look from on the sidelines, and I couldn’t believe that I was there.

JC•NYC: But all of that happened because you decided on your own to meet Tarantino at his hotel.

KK: Perhaps it was in The Last Action Hero with [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, there’s a scene where the kid becomes part of the film and jumps into the film. I was just like that when I was meeting Tarantino and looking into his face. I wondered what it would be like if he just killed me right here. It would be like his movies.

JC•NYC: You mentioned the difference in budget on a Hollywood set. Do you think the film industries of the US and Japan reflect what the societies are like, the cultures are like?

KK:  Yes, of course. Not only the budget but the culture and society are all reflective of that. In Japan an actor’s job itself is very constrained, and I feel that what’s important for the film industry is that we’re selling dreams, so we sort of need the element of fun and not to stretch ourselves so thin. It’s the inevitable reality in Japan that we’re so overworked and so tired, actors and filmmakers both. We know that we need to change that. But in order to that, we need money, and we need to protect the rights of the actors more. We all realize that, but it’s quite difficult to change.

JC•NYC: It does seem like actors do two or three films a year. You’re constantly on a set. Is that something Japanese actors have to do to survive?

KK: Probably more than two or three. There are unions in Japan, but it’s not as restrictive or constructive. So in terms of time and protecting the rights of actors, especially for secondary rights of films and merchandising and so on, we don’t ever see that profit. In the United States the good actors don’t have to work as much. It’s a completely different case in Japan because the perception is that if you’re not working, you’re no good.

JC•NYC: What’s the difference between working in film versus television in Japan?

KK:  In the past I used to think that the difference between an artistic film project and a film product is very vast. But lately I feel that because of films with a very big budget – and with big-budget films there’s almost always a television project involved – the difference between an artistic film project and a film product is becoming narrower and narrower. That means that a lot of the films tend to have happier endings, there’s a very lighthearted and easy-to-understand plot, and so on. We’re not really nurturing the audience, either. We’re not nurturing an intelligent audience. In Japan a project that’s considered interesting by a TV production company gets the TV commercials, it gets priority, everybody [starring in it] gets famous, and everybody goes to see it. The actors are constantly in the public eye, but the audiences are not making their own decision to see it or to seek out a particular film. For me, it’s sort of like religion in Japan. I consider religion in Japan to be very, very dominated and driven by mass communication, mass media. We’re just going with the flow of what the TV says is interesting. TV wields an enormous power in Japan and has a big capacity to brainwash society. It’s something we have to change, but it’s difficult.

JC•NYC: That reminds me of one of my cousins in Okinawa who told me that everyone in Japan likes the same things in terms of film, music, entertainment.

KK: In Japan it’s very difficult to have a different opinion from everyone else because you do get reprimanded for that. I think it’s part of the ethnicity of Japanese people. The new things, the groundbreaking things tend to have a more difficult time. We are a conservative society in that sense, so that doesn’t create a good atmosphere for entertainment. Of course, if I do exactly what I want to do, at times those projects tend to be flops, right? It’s very difficult to do that, so I seek a balance. That’s probably why I also seek out international projects as well.

JC•NYC: So if it doesn’t get that push from Japanese television, a project could go unnoticed?

KK: No matter how good the film, the reality is the audience isn’t necessarily interested in internationally recognized film or what’s considered good films internationally. They tend to go to films that have a lot of TV commercials and have a lot of famous celebrities. They associate those celebrities with being good actors. That’s the definition. But at the same time, actors just want to do good work. In that sense there are a great number of actors and crew who really want to pursue a great project and change that atmosphere.