Producer, scriptwriter, best-selling author and now award-winning director Genki Kawamura is best known for his work on Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 anime megahit Your Name. Beginning his career at Toho, his talented was spotted early and he was trusted with producer duties on major projects at Japan’s biggest studio.
In 2010, he worked on the Confessions, a box office hit that was shortlisted for a foreign language Oscar, and Lee Sang-il’s critically acclaimed Villain. That same year, he was Japan’s only representative in The Hollywood Reporter’s Next Generation Asia list of upcoming talent in the region. He wrote his first novel If Cat’s Disappeared From the World in 2012; a critical and commercial success, it sold well over a million copies in Japan, was a hit in China, Taiwan and South Korea, and was turned into a film four years later by Toho.
As the film and book hits kept on coming, he branched out into scriptwriting for both live-action and anime. Kawamura’s role as a producer on Your Name, which took over $350 million on a record-breaking run, brought him even more attention at home and abroad. The remake rights were bought by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, with Kawamura attached as a co-producer.
Kawamura set up his own production company STORY Inc. with Yoshihiro Furusawa in 2017, in which Toho invested and has a first-look arrangement. This year, Kawamura filmed his own 2019 novel A Hundred Flowers (Hyakka), winning best director at San Sebastian. The film is screening at Tokyo International Film Festival, where the debut director is also giving two talks. The affable storyteller sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at STORY, a stone’s throw from the fest, to talk about directing, his admiration for Bong Joon-ho, the Your Name remake and the benefits of coming off social media.
Congratulations on your directorial debut. Was it always your plan to eventually direct?
I really didn’t aim at being a director. It was the same with novels, I didn’t want to be a novelist when I started writing. My fundamental interest is in storytelling: when the best way to do that is through live-action then I make a live-action film, when via anime, then it’s anime, when a novel is the best method then I write a novel. When I can express myself best through producing, that is the route I take. with A Hundred Flowers, I thought directing it was the best way to realize my vision, so I directed it. The thing I’m most interested is what is the most engaging way to tell the story.
I always thought you’d direct one day…
Really? It was seriously hard going. So, because I love the telling of stories, I enjoy writing screenplays and editing, and writing novels. But actually shooting is real hard work; you’ve got the weather, actors not delivering exactly the performance you’re after, scary staff getting angry at you. Of course, being able to communicate with talented directors, Shinkai and Hosoda from anime, and Tetsuya Nakashima [Confessions], and my friend Bong Jong-ho, allowed me to discover how to express myself. At the end, I got a stye on my eye from the stress. I couldn’t see the screen properly; it was like a sign to stop. Being a perfectionist, I was concerned with every shot down to the millimeter, and how many seconds the camera took to turn. And I can’t handle it when it deviates even slightly from what I envisioned in the novel or screenplay, that’s why I hadn’t directed. With anime, you can pretty much control things, that was one of the reasons it appealed. However, shooting a live-action film I discovered that it is those deviations that make things interesting. The actors move in a different way to what you imagined, Mieko Harada and Masaki Suda [Hyakka’s two leads] have their own logic and imagination, and move according to that. Or when you imagined a sunny scene but it starts raining, and that then somehow makes the story much more interesting. Such things gave me ideas for my future filmmaking.
You had a lot of experience being around sets and filmmaking, so you knew how hard it was going to be, but you decided to do it anyway. Can you talk about how you approached directing?
I thought there was no point in me making a film that is similar to other Japanese movies, or to what I have made as a producer. For example, I used colors in a way not usually seen in Japanese film, the female lead only wears yellow, whereas her son wears complementary colors like blue and purple. This portrayed them as a mother-son unit. When Duality, a short we made, was screened at Cannes, some of the jury and critics said they couldn’t tell the Japanese actors apart. When I realized that people from overseas couldn’t distinguish Japanese people’s faces, I thought, oh, then this time I’ll use colors to identify the actors. I also employed colors to help mark places in time because the narrative jumps back and forth.
And I shot it one-scene, one cut, influenced by Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, which I’m a huge fan of. I thought that the way a person could change in one cut is frightening and an effective way to portray Alzheimer’s. Blurring the edges of dreams and reality is something Mizoguchi did so well and that I tried to do in this film. The scene in the supermarket that goes round in a loop in one cut uses a technique employed in anime. So, from Mizoguchi, but also what I learned in anime (laughs). Maybe I’m the only live-action director who also makes anime, produces and writes novels. I felt I was able to express my identity and use all my originality in making this film.
What was the reason you chose the subject of Alzheimer’s in the first place?
My grandma got Alzheimer’s and when I went to see her for the first time in a while, she asked me ‘Who are you?’ It’s a question you might get from a toddler, but not an adult. While feeling sad I also was fascinated by what was going on inside her head. I started visiting her every week and would talk about her memories from the past. Talking about when she first took me fishing to the sea, where I caught a big fish, she told me it wasn’t the sea but at a lake. I figured she was going senile but when I returned home and looked in a photo album, it was at a lake. I realized my own memories were false, alongside my grandma’s Alzheimer’s; that’s a compelling phenomenon. At the end, my grandma remembered a lot of episodes that were important to her: they bloomed like a hundred flowers. That’s why I gave the novel that name. Humans are made of their memories rather than their physical bodies.
It’s five years since you became independent from Toho to form STORY, was it the right move?
Well, we have a close relationship with Toho. There was a place called the Tokiwa apartment where manga geniuses Tezuka Osamu, Shotaro Ishinomori and Fujio Akatsuka used to live and work in Tokyo. I wanted to create a space like that for the film world, where talented creators such as Makoto Shinkai can drop by and ideas for stories can be born. It’s a fairly small office, there are only 12 members of staff and we’re not planning to increase that. And while visiting Hollywood for the Your Name remake, I saw a lot of cool, small offices, and was inspired to try and create something similar. And we’re doing the Netflix series [The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House] with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Bun-Puku, which is also a small office of creatives. It’s great to have that freedom, and there are now more distribution channels too.
This is your first live-action series, right?
Yeah, and with myself and Kore-eda creating a drama series, and with a top-notch crew, it’s like making nine films in a row, a lot of work. It’s the type of thing you should only try and do once every ten years (laughs). The idea came from a young female producer here, based on a manga, with themes of Kyoto and Japanese cuisine. And Kyoto was empty because of the lack of tourists [Japan was still largely closed to visitors], so it was so easy to shoot. It was incredible, like we’d used CG to remove all the people.
Is there any progress on the Your Name remake?
Well…there should be a big announcement soon, I think, from Bad Robot. Things are moving forward. Making live-action independent films in the US is not easy either now. It doesn’t seem like it’s a good environment for the next Jordan Peele to emerge. I wonder if Get Out would get made now.
On the other hand, in the country next door, there is Bong Joon-ho, who is a friend and something of a mentor. He always has the ability to surprise. He makes a true-crime film, then when you wonder what he’s going to do next, it’s a monster movie, then it’s a train [Snowpiercer] next it’s a pig [Okja], and then the semi-basement [Parasite]. Every time it’s surprising; he has both that sense for ideas and his storytelling ability. He’s ten years older than me, but certainly a level to aim for. When I won the director’s award at San Sebastián, the first congratulatory message was from Bong Joon-ho. I felt like I’d taken a tiny step towards him, just a tiny one (laughs).
I read in an interview from about five years ago that you’d come off all social media, have you stuck to that?
I’m not on any of it. Posting on social media saps your creative juices as a storyteller, I feel. I’m saving mine for novels and films (laughs). And what you’re taking in as information is vital. So, getting your information from a platform with tens of millions of users isn’t ideal. I walk around town, buy actual newspapers, go to the bookstore and buy real books. It’s my work but going to the cinema to watch films, it feels like it’s now a rare form of entertainment. I have faith that it’s from there that I’ll get ideas and inspiration, not from thousands of likes on social media.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter