Japan Cuts 2012 Interview: Kenji Kohashi, Director of Route 66 Doc DON'T STOP!

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
If Kenji Kohashi seems like a familiar face to you that's because he probably is. As an actor, he's appeared in numerous TV dramas in Japan, and is probably best known to Western audiences as Hyuga in Ryuheu Kitamura's 2003 manga to live action adap. Azumi. Taking time away from the spotlight, Kohashi stepped back into the film world when he had an opportunity to document the journey of Cap, a wheelchair-bound motorcycle enthusiast, whose dream it was to travel across Route 66. Our correspondent, The Lady Miz Diva had a chance to sit down with Kohashi and talk about the experience of making his first feature, in this, our final dispatch from Japan Cuts 2012. This interview is being cross-published at Diva's site, The Diva Review.

The Lady Miz Diva:  How do you feel presenting your feature directing debut, "Don't Stop!" before Japan Cuts' New York audience?
 
Kenji Kohashi:  I was sixteen when I came to New York all by myself, so that time was my first time in New York.  So, I couldn't ever imagine that sixteen years later, I would be bringing a film here as a director.
 
LMD:  How did you find your film's subject, Cap?
 
KK:  Two years ago, I met Ayumu Takahashi, who is a famous writer in Japan.  At the time, I heard the story about them going to Route 66 with Cap.  Then I got an intuition and I asked Ayumu, "Can I make a movie for this trip?"  So, I was just stricken by this inspiration that I had never had before.  I was okay with directing the film, but I didn't want to portray disability in a disrespectful way.  I was quite sensitive about that, so I wanted to make sure Cap was okay with me making his story into a film, so I first went to Hokkaido and asked for his permission.
 
LMD:  Were there any boundaries he set or times that he didn't want to film?  It's such a personal look at his life and what he goes through with his disability.
 
KK:  The journey itself was only ten days, but before then I lived with Cap for about one month, and during that time of course he told me about the part of his life that he didn't want to be filmed.  He started out being very cool and aloof in front of the camera, but as we lived together for one month, gradually that went away.
 
LMD:  Why do you think Ayumu and his friends took on such a difficult task as bringing along this man who requires so much care?  They must literally carry him and his chair up and down canyons and mountainsides, yet they have a great attitude about it all.
 
KK:  They didn't really perceive it as a difficult issue.  They encounter Cap and he's in his late forties and he wants to go on Route 66 and that was a very innocent and childish dream that they really sympathised with.  And also the character of Cap; he is a very captivating person and they were just interested in being his friend, and it was almost as if you had a friend with a broken leg, or if he was feeling sick, you would help him.  So it wasn't an issue of feeling sorry for him, it was more about being with a friend.
 
LMD:  When we first see Cap come to America, it's as if it doesn't really register to him that he's here.  As you move to White Sands, you get the first stirrings from him that the trip is a reality.  When do you think it became real to Cap that he was finally living his dream?
 
KK:  The desert scene was earlier in the film and I think at that time he was still sort of dazed and he didn't know what he was seeing.  He didn't even know that place existed.  So it seemed he was constantly in a dreamlike state.  I think the moment he really realised that he was living his dream was when he was in the town that was steeped in the tradition and history of Route 66 that had the group of Harley-Davidson riders.  But I think what that was most important to him was not driving the Harley, necessarily, but realising that there were so many people supporting him.
 
LMD:  The film shows some moments of tension.  Why did you feel it was important to include the disagreement between Cap's daughters and Ayumu's group?
 
KK:  For regular documentaries, I think there are restrictions to what you can shoot; there's generally a script, but for my documentary, up to the point before I went on the journey, I wanted to absorb as much as possible, and when I went on the actual journey, I wanted to be released, be free.  So, the conflict between Cap's daughters and Ayumu's team happened all of a sudden and I instinctually knew that I had to shoot that because Ayumu represents this very free spirit, whereas the daughters were kind of restricted within themselves a bit, conservative, and I was curious to see how that situation would resolve itself and I took a very objective standpoint.
 
LMD:  There's another tense moment between Cap and the still photographer where the photographer is crying because Cap is saying that he's getting too close or too invasive.  Did he ever say anything like that to you while filming?
 
KK:  Actually, he never really said that to me personally.  In that scene where he had an argument with the photographer, it wasn't that he was getting too close; it was that he {the photographer} was kind of putting himself too much in the scene.  He just wanted to emphasize how hard he was working.  I think a lot of young people are guilty of doing that these days.  I think what happened was Cap started out recognising himself as a disabled person, but he never really recognised himself as an older man to the people who were joining with him.  But as they went on this journey, he started to realise, 'I'm not just a person contained in the wheelchair. I'm human.'  So, because Cap himself grew during the journey, I think he was able to -- out of love -- advise the photographer as someone older.
 
LMD:  I was a bit jealous watching this film because I'm an American who has never traveled those historical places in my own country, and you, as a Japanese visitor, experienced and captured it beautifully.  What was it like for you see to that?  Had you ever ridden through Route 66 before?
 
KK:  Five years ago, I used to live in Boston and New Jersey; I didn't speak a word of English then.  So there I was, sitting in Boston in the dead of winter and I made a promise to myself that come Spring I would find an American friend and do that cross-country trip.  And another goal of mine was to be able to fight in English.  And as promised, I did make an American friend and I did make that cross-country trip.  It was from LA to Miami that time, but I did drive through Route 66.  It was an entirely different road this time and it wasn't as if I could go anywhere that I pleased.  It was very unpredictable where we would go as a team or what we were doing, but of course I wanted to enjoy the process myself.  I think normally from a filmmaking standpoint, it's difficult to shoot something so unpredictable.  I think whether it's good or bad, it's kind of a phenomenon that you're witnessing as it happens.  I knew by instinct before shooting this film that something incredible was going to happen.  The reason I felt that way is ever since I was eight, I've been in the entertainment industry as an actor and when I was about twenty, I was very busy and I was caught up in a lot of the entertainment industry rules.  I was very cooped up in my own shell and I made a lot of excuses and deceived myself and didn't really challenge myself or go after my own dreams.  In my mid-twenties I thought about getting into my thirties and I was really scared that even though I had a very stable life, if I continued this way, would it be really my life?  That thought really scared me.  I don't know why, but when I was twenty-six, I took off to go to Nepal and I met a guy who was my same age.  From an economic standpoint, he was a lot lower than I am, but he was just so much bigger than myself as a human being, and that really made me cry.  What that made me realise was the sense of values; that there was so much more important than money or anything like that.  So that's why I realised I needed more experience as a human being, not so much as an actor, so I kind of put a stop to acting and decided to go on a journey to America.  And of course, during this journey, my mind changed and I knew what I wanted to do and all these things would come up and shooting a movie was one of those things.  I know that all these things sort of happened to me as sort of a phenomenon, so I was used to that feeling of something happening or about to occur.
 
LMD:  People know you primarily as a television and film star in Japan, but I wonder who your influences are now that you have decided to direct?  Did you look at other documentaries to help with how to make a film that is informative, yet also entertaining?
 
KK:  It wasn't that I was really trying to shoot a documentary; it was just that I wanted to communicate something and the only way to do that visually, the outlet for that instinct, was film.  So, if I were a chef, I would have cooked something, or if I was a novelist, I would have written something about it.  Working on this documentary film, I looked at a lot of various documentary films.  But what was interesting to me during that process was not that I picked up who I liked, but that I started to realise what I didn't want to do.  I think it's different in America, there are a lot more entertainment-based documentaries, but a lot more times they are more social or didactic or have an educational tone.
 
LMD:  What would you like viewers to take away from "Don't Stop!"?
 
KK:  I think what they take away depends on the audience's different lives and I'm just providing an opportunity for them to think about it.
 
LMD:  What is next for you?  Have you given up acting completely?
 
KK:  In terms of my next film project, it's not really quite decided.  I'm kind of devoting myself to promoting my baby and spreading it to as many people as possible.  I do various work in Japan and I think in that process it'll come to me what I want to do next.  So, if the theme that I happen upon happens to be cinematic, then I will take on a film again.
 
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 26th, 2012
 
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