Japan Cuts 2014: Kitamura Kazuki Talks KILLERS, MAN FROM RENO And NEKO SAMURAI

Beginning his career as one of Takashi Miike's go-tos in films like The Way to Fight and The Man in White, hitting his stride in Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi and Godzilla: Final Wars, and even turning up as one of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, actor Kitamura Kazuki is one of Japan's most recognizable faces.  As the recipient of Japan Cuts' Cut Above award, Kitamura comes to the festival with three very different new films; the noirish Man From Reno, the gory Indonesian nightmare, Killers, and in a complete changeup, the family-friendly, utterly charming, Neko Samurai.

The Lady Miz Diva:  How do you feel about receiving Japan Cuts' Cut Above award here in New York?

Kitamura Kazuki:
  I'm genuinely happy.  For awards, per se, in my career, I'm not that interested, but by receiving an award like this, what's so great is that it opens a lot of windows and it gives me more opportunities to meet a lot of different people, as well as projects.  What specifically makes me happy and proud is that this is Japan Society, and it encompasses a lot of Japanese people who are working very hard in New York City, and to be a member of that, and to be inspired by that network and to consider myself as a member of such Japanese people, is something that makes me especially happy.

I could talk about your career for hours, but we only have a little bit of time, so I'd like to ask about the films presented here at the festival.  First, the movie that completely won me over, NEKO SAMURAI. So many of your films have a dark or serious edge, was counteracting that part of the reason you took this role?

  What I can say about film in Japan, is that I think we're may be moving a little bit towards being isolated.  Or, I could say it's not the best atmosphere over there.  And there's a bad cycle there, where the directors or the filmmakers really pursue high-quality, and they really want to be critically praised and they really want to be awarded and accepted. And that's great too, but I feel like in some parts, they are ignoring the audience and not really thinking about what the audience wants or what they want to enjoy, so in that sense, this is a purely entertainment work.  I think it's a project in which even grandparents to grandkids can enjoy together, so it's not so much the quality as being pure entertainment and enjoyment.  Of course it's silly, but it's something that's refreshing about it, and that's something that I wanted to do.

Of course we must talk about your beautiful costar, the "Neko" of NEKO SAMURAI. What was the cat like?

It's a phenomenal cat; even if it's right there, it's really hard to believe how pretty and beautiful it is.  And you know how cats generally run away if you try to hold it?  But that cat was so well mannered, it's very gentle.  Even during the battle scenes, it would just fall asleep in my arms.  I would keep my center of gravity low and walk like a ninja a little bit in my samurai uniform, so I wouldn't move up and down too much, so the vibration wouldn't transfer to the cat too much. So it was like carrying a child, really, and I miss her so much.

The film reads like an homage to samurai films & your character, Madarame is like a mash up of so many of my favorite jidaigeki actors. Did you have any influences in mind when you created him?

  So, the thing about this film is that it's quite silly and it's almost like a Japanese stand up, in a way, but it doesn't really pursue quality, per se.  But the important thing to remember is that you need a foundation in order to be silly.  So I took great care about the battle scenes, and as I said, I made sure to keep my center of gravity low and bend at the knees, which is comes from my very traditional training in battle swords and also Japanese dance.  So because I have that training, I was able to leap from that to being silly because I have that core foundation. As far as character goes, of course I just embraced the silliness of it

Are you an actor who needs to find something humanising or relatable about your characters in order to play them, or are you able to create them straight off the script page?

  It doesn't really have to be a character that I can empathize with.  For instance, KILLERS, the film that I'm screening tonight; it's a character that I can't even understand.  I can't even fathom.  But I guess it's all about the way you approach it, or think about the role; it's not so much about understanding, but how I show or present that character.  Of course, if it's a human drama, empathy is important, but for NEKO SAMURAI, it's all about allowing the audience to enjoy the film.  So the more complex the character becomes, the harder it becomes for the grandparents to understand.

It's interesting to hear you say you didn't understand your character from KILLERS.  Then what did you think Nomura Shuhei's motivation was? Was he just crazy?

So, it was very hard for me to understand that character, but because all human beings have a motivation; they act because they have a will.  But I couldn't understand, so I asked the director {Timo Tjahjanto}, "Why does Nomura kill?"  The answer he gave me is that you have to consider him like a god.  Just like a fish swims immediately as it's born, or human beings start breathing right after they're born, he was born to kill; so I needed to show that.  The director had a very set visual idea in mind already, so for me, it was about being a chess piece in his narrative and working and pursuing what the director wanted and envisioned for me.  So, it really was up to me to play him like a god, and that's what the director's advice for me was.  And the Indonesian actor, Oka Antara, his character, Bayu, was very humanistic; he has a reason to kill, so he {the director} wanted to give that contrast between Bayu and Nomura.

Did you hesitate at all or worry that a film that violent and gory might keep your fans from seeing it?

So, for me, to be critically praised, or to do something for the fans is not so much important to me: I don't consider myself an idol.  In that sense, I just want to do various roles in various projects as much as possible.  Even if it's a controversial work; if it's a role that I can believe in and want to pursue, I will give my all to that role.  It's not really about the result for me, but just pursuing something that I believe in and carrying it through.

When you're playing someone as warped as Nomura Shuhei, are you able to shake him off at the end of the day?

  I try to transition right away, but I can't change 100%, so it tends to put me in a darker mood. {Laughs} So while I was shooting, we're so concerned about how it's being portrayed, or we'll talk about the scene, the different technical aspects of the scene; but once you see the result, that's when it really strikes me because it was so gory.

MAN FROM RENO was also featured at the festival.  What brought you to that project?

  I received the screenplay through my agency, actually, and it really intrigued me when I read it.  I looked over the director's previous work and I really felt that he had a great sense of taste.  I've seen a lot of American films with Japanese actors, but in Director {Dave} Boyle's film, I feel like there's a meaning why the Japanese actors are in the film.  I felt like I could play a human role even as a Japanese part - it's a human part.

MAN FROM RENO is has a very classic film noir vibe.  Did you look at old film noir movies to achieve the feel of that performance?

No, not so much that era.  The 40s and 50s film noir, I watch it on my personal time, but when it comes to researching before I play a role, it tends to stick in my mind, so I'd rather be a blank canvas before shooting.  And here it's a Japanese person, so I just considered how do Japanese people really act in everyday life?  So, before the shooting I might be watching something that's completely unrelated, but even if it's completely unrelated, it stays with me, so maybe it does play a part somehow, all the films that I watch.

What is the perfect filmmaking environment for Kitamura-san?  Are you someone who prefers to have everything strictly mapped out, or do you prefer to have freedom to improvise or contribute?

If I'm given a lot of freedom, it's a lot easier for me, psychologically, but I prefer the minute-by-minute instruction, because if there's a structure, it's the meaning of taking on a new project - a new structure.  But of course, we meet beforehand for the shooting and I talk to the director and I give him all my opinions, but when it comes down to the choices on set, I leave it to the director.

Working many times with innovative filmmakers like Miike Takashi and Kitamura Ryuhei, is there a common thread with directors of that quality?

  It's always the case that they ask me, and I consider that very fortunate and lucky that they approached me and asked me to be part of their projects.  The choices always lie with the director and the production side for me, they usually come to me.  As for Miike, both of us started working together before we became we are today, so I consider him part of my family, and the same for Kitamura, too.  So for me, it's not about what I want, but it's about becoming as close as possible to what the director wants, even if it's not 100% but as close to 100% is possible to what they envision. That's what's most important for me.

You're one of very few Japanese actors to successfully transition into international filmmaking, including Chinese, Korean, Indonesian and American productions. What made you want to expand your talent overseas?

  I came from Osaka, originally, and people said to me, 'Oh, Tokyo is so much different than Osaka.'  But once I grew up, I knew that Osaka and Tokyo, they are both part of Japan, it's all the same.  I approach film in the same way; whether I'm shooting in Indonesia or in the United States; it's all part of the world, that's how I see it.  And of course there's a language barrier, but it's really important for me to shoot in different parts of the world, and it's all about experiencing different shooting styles.  And it's something that I wanted to do; that I wanted to be involved in since a very long time ago, and it's something that I want to continue doing.

Having worked with so many impressive filmmakers, have you ever wanted to direct?

  When I read a screenplay, I construct scenes in my head.  It's inevitable. I wouldn't say it's impossible, but I've worked with so many great directors that I know that intuition alone is not enough.  You need years of study.  But from time to time, when working with a certain director, I feel like, 'Why aren't you shooting it that way?'  So, in that moment I feel like I want to direct.

What is next for Kitamura-san? I am hoping for a NEKO SAMURAI album called "Madarame Sings!"

This is still under wraps, but I'm still negotiating and wondering if we're going to do the NEKO SAMURAI sequel, but my personal opinion is that Madarame should come to New York.  It would start with a close up of his face and the camera would pull back and open up to reveal the New York City subway.

I must ask the real burning question; is Kitamura-san a dog person or a cat person?


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos from the festival there.

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