by Jason Suzuki
Thanks to the Colorado Dragon Film Festival I had the opportunity to meet and interview Ken Ochiai, director of Uzumasa Limelight (review here). It is a film that on each viewing brings out so much loving detail to its source materials. With many short films under his belt as well as a handful of features, Ken Ochiai has worked in Japan, the United States, and most recently Vietnam. Below he gives his thoughts on the Japanese film industry, what draws him to a project, and also recommends some jidai-geki films.
How did you become involved with the film?
In 2012, Ko Mori, the producer of the film, had approached me with the script. Back then, I was not really familiar with the work of Seizo Fukumoto, except for his role as the silent samurai in Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai. After I fell in love with the script, I researched Seizo and fell in love with the project even deeper.
I went to Kyoto to take Seizo’s monthly choreography lesson without telling him that I am a director. He was a great teacher and also very humble. After the lesson, we had a cup of tea (he is allergic to alcohol) and talked about the film. It is a funny story that the most challenging thing that we faced was to convince him to be the lead of the film. Who would have thought to get rejected by a kirareyaku (actors who specialize in being cut down in jidai-geki films) for being the lead of the film? He was so humble that he thought some younger actor should be the lead.
It took us months and it was until one month before the production, he hadn’t accepted the role. Our final blow was to explain how this film could spark the interest of the next generation in Jidaigeki and the film would hire many young aspiring actors for experience.
Seizo Fukumoto is one of the most talented actors that I worked with and it was my honor to work with him. I was like Satsuki in the film, learning what Jidaigeki is little by little from Seizo and the filmmakers in Kyoto.
This film is not a pure remake of Chaplin’s “Limelight” but knows the original work very well. What is your relationship with Chaplin’s work and how much care was put into this particular aspect of the film?
The script writer and producer of the film, Hiroyuki Ono, is a president of the Japanese Chaplin Association and the film was very much inspired by Limelight. Hiroyuki had a relationship with Chaplin’s family and Claire Bloom. It was very encouraging that we got a blessing from them.
I started watching Chaplin’s work after attending film school in America. Soon he became one of my favorite actors/directors. Partially because I didn’t speak English back then, Chaplin’s silent films touched my heart and made me laugh more than any other films. Limelight was definitely my favorite film.
Though Uzumasa Limelight was hugely influenced by Limelight, the film is more based on Seizo Fukumoto’s life story and his works. The big differences were that Seizo’s character, Kamiyama, was never a successful actor, and that we dropped the romantic relationship between Kamiyama and Satsuki. Also, in terms of the structure of the film, we wanted to depict the current status of the kirareyaku in Kyoto rather than just focusing on the two characters. We wanted to put a spotlight on those unsung heroes in Kyoto.
Adam Torel, owner of Third Window Films who released your film in the UK, has said it is becoming increasingly difficult for up and coming directors with original ideas to get the films funded and recognized. What is your take on the current state on Japanese film?
It is true that it is becoming harder and harder to get your original idea made whether you are an established or not, or in Japan or anywhere in the world. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones to be able to keep directing the original films. Except for Tiger Mask (2013), all of my other features and shorts are based on the original ideas.
However, it is not that I rejected these movies based on IPs. It just happened that way. I don’t really think that making an original movie necessarily is better. It is actually harder to make an original film good because the source materials usually have already proven that there is a good story.
As for the current state on Japanese film, I don’t have much knowledge or I’m not an authority by any means to talk about it, but I’m happy with where it is going. Japan is one of a few countries in the world that the film industry is functioning and sustaining. Japanese domestic box office is equal to or better than foreign films and the anime films are traveling all over the world. Japan and Vietnam are the only countries that a domestic film beat the first week of Star Wars Episode 7 when it came out. The Japanese film industry might have reached the limit of the growth, but it's still a healthy industry producing good films.
You’re currently working on a film in Vietnam, could you give us more details on that project?
My latest film, Saigon Bodyguards is a Vietnamese action comedy that follows an intense and hilarious journey of two professional bodyguards. They are hired to protect a young kid who is soon to become the president of the biggest milk company in Vietnam. However, things go horribly wrong when the son is suddenly kidnapped. The film is starring two of the biggest actors in Vietnam: Thai Hoa and Kim Ly.
I had stayed in Vietnam from December 2015 to this April and we just locked the picture of the film. It will be released in Vietnam and other Asian countries by CJ Entertainment in December.
Working in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language was a big challenge, but at the same time, a very rewarding experience. The film industry in Vietnam is booming and full of opportunities. The filmmakers are passionate and hungry to make the best film possible. I was fortunate to be surrounded by Vietnam’s most talented cast and filmmakers and able to create a film that I could make nowhere else.
I hope the film finds its way to screen in the U.S!
What do you look for when deciding your next project?
To me, genre or style of the film is not really a deciding factor. There is a famous fable in Japan called "The Frog In The Well," which refers to ignorant people who pretend to know everything without experiencing anything--not one single part of the world outside of their own home.
Thirteen years ago, I came here to the U.S with a dream of becoming an international film director like Akira Kurosawa, and I think the story applies to that moment in my life. I too was like a pretentious frog in a shallow well, knowing nothing of the great ocean. It opened my eyes and I wanted to know more about this country. I tried to speak and think in English, to make friends with Americans. I went on a road trip, traveling around most of the states, hoping to understand its culture.
However, all during the road trip, my American friends asked me about my Japanese culture and history. They wanted to know everything, and I realized as they asked, that I didn’t know much of anything. It embarrassed me, to such an extent that I committed myself to learning about my heritage. Since then, every time I’ve gone back to Japan for holidays, I take trips to the countryside of Japan―always someplace I have never been to. I take photos and try to absorb the Japanese local culture.
Strangely, it took me leaving my home country to understand that where I’m from isn’t just a fact, or a memory. It defines at least part of who I am. By jumping outside the well, I have finally realized not only how big the world is, but also how beautiful the well that I lived in is.
That realization has become a crucial aspect to my filmmaking. Finding home is a reoccurring theme in all my films, most especially because my own journey of finding home didn’t stop at that realization. It is ironic, but after living 13 years away from Japan, Japanese people often treat me as foreigner. Even after living 13 years here, Americans still treat me as foreigner. Where is my home? I haven’t found the answer yet--and that is exactly why my protagonists are searching too.
Making movies is my way to find the answer to the only question that matters, and I will never stop until I find it.
Do you have any jidai-geki film recommendations? What did you watch in preparation for Uzumasa Limelight?
Before the production of Uzumasa Limelight, I watched countless samurai films to study the language of jidaigeki. Lone Wolf and Cub, Harakiri, and 13 Assassins are one of my favorite films of all time, but if I were to pick a film that I discovered recently was Onibaba. It is not a conventional jidageki at all, but the film grabs you by heart.
Thanks to Ken Ochiai for putting so much thought into his answers.