Award-winning producer, screenwriter, author, and now award-winning director Genki Kawamura known for Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 anime blockbuster Your name. Starting his career in Toho, his talent was soon discovered and he was trusted as a producer for major projects at Japan’s largest studio.
In 2010, he worked on Confessionsa box office success that was shortlisted for the foreign language Oscars, and Lee Sang-il was critically acclaimed. villain. That same year, he was the sole representative of Japan at The Hollywood ReporterList of Next Generation Asian Upcoming Talents in the region. He wrote his first novel If the cat disappeared from the world in 2012; It was critically and commercially successful, selling over a million copies in Japan, a huge success in China, Taiwan, and South Korea, and was adapted into a film by Toho four years later.
As movies and books continued to sell, he turned to writing scripts for both live-action and anime. Kawamura acts as producer on Your name, grossed over $350 million in a record-breaking run, earning him even more attention at home and abroad. The remake rights were purchased by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, with Kawamura as co-producer.
Kawamura founded the production company STORY Inc. his own with Yoshihiro Furusawa in 2017, in which Toho invested and had the arrangement at first sight. This year, Kawamura filmed his own 2019 novel One hundred flowers (Hyakka), won Best Director at San Sebastian. The film was screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where the debut director was also speaking to the two. The cheerful narrator sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at STORY, a throwback from the festival, to talk about the director, his admiration for Bong Joon-ho, Your name redo and the benefits of turning off social networks.
Congratulations on your directorial debut. Is it always your plan to steer in the end?
I’m not really aiming to be a director. Same with novels, I didn’t want to be a novelist when I started writing. My primary concern is storytelling: when the best way to do that is through live-action then I make a live-action movie, when through anime, then anime, when a novel is the best method then I write a novel. When I can best express myself through production, that’s the way I go. With A Hundred Flowers, I thought directing that was the best way to realize my vision so I directed it. What I am most interested in is what is the most compelling way of telling the story.
I always thought you would direct one day…
Really? It’s really hard to go. So because I love to tell stories, I enjoy scripting and editing, and writing novels. But actually shooting a gun is a real hard business; you get the weather, the actors don’t exactly deliver the performance you’re after, the creepy staff members are mad at you. Of course, it is possible to communicate with talented directors, Shinkai and Hosoda from the anime, and Tetsuya Nakashima [Confessions], and my friend Bong Jong-ho, have allowed me to discover how to express myself. In the end, I got a stye from the stress. I can’t see the exact screen; it’s like a sign to stop. As a perfectionist, I’m interested in how accurate each shot is to the millimeter and how many seconds the camera takes. And I can’t handle it when it deviates even a bit from what I envisioned in the novel or screenplay, that’s why I didn’t direct. With anime, you can pretty much control everything, which is one of the reasons it’s so appealing. However, when shooting a live-action film, I discovered that it is those deviations that make it interesting. The actors move in a different way than you imagine, Mieko Harada and Masaki Suda [Hyakka’s two leads] have their own logic and imagination, and move with that. Or when you imagine a sunny scene but it starts to rain, and that somehow makes the story so much more interesting. Things like that gave me ideas for my future filmmaking.
You’ve got a lot of experience in studios and filmmaking, so you know how difficult it will be, but you decide to do it anyway. Can you talk about how you approached the director?
I think there’s no point in making a movie that’s similar to other Japanese films, or what I’ve done as a producer. For example, I used colors in a way that’s not often seen in Japanese movies, where the female lead wears only yellow, while her son wears complementary colors like blue and purple. This describes them as a parent-child unit. When Duality, a short we made, was shown at Cannes, some judges and critics said they couldn’t tell the Japanese actors apart. When I realized that people overseas can’t distinguish Japanese people’s faces, I thought, oh, this time I’ll use color to identify the actors. I also use color to help mark places in time as the story jumps back and forth.
And I shot it a scene, a cut, influenced by Kenji Mizoguchi Ugetsu Monogatari, which I’m a big fan of. I think the way a person can change in one cut is terrifying and an effective way to portray Alzheimer’s disease. Blurring the line between dream and reality is something that Mizoguchi did very well and I tried to do in this movie. The scene in the supermarket turns around in one cut using a technique used in the anime. So from Mizoguchi, but also what I learned in the anime (laughs). I’m probably the only live-action director who also does anime, produces, and writes novels. I feel like I can express my identity and use all my uniqueness in making this film.
Why did you choose the topic of Alzheimer’s disease in the first place?
My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when I went to her for the first time, she asked me ‘Who are you?’ That’s a question you might get from a toddler, but not an adult. While feeling sad, I was also fascinated by what was going on in her head. I started visiting her weekly and would talk about her memories of the past. Talking about the first time she took me fishing in the sea, where I caught a big fish, she told me it was not the sea but a lake. I thought she was getting old but when I came home and looked at a photo album, it was in a lake. I realized my own memories were wrong, along with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s; It’s a fascinating phenomenon. In the end, my grandmother remembered many details 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 been 5 years since you independent from Toho to found STORY, is that the right move?
Well, we have a close relationship with Toho. There is a place called Tokiwa apartment where manga geniuses Tezuka Osamu, Shotaro Ishinomori and Fujio Akatsuka used to live and work in Tokyo. I wanted to create such a space for the world of cinema, where talented creators like Makoto Shinkai could drop by and come up with ideas for stories. It’s a rather small office, with only 12 employees, and we have no plans to increase that number. And when visiting Hollywood to see Your name doing it again, I’ve seen a lot of small, fun, and inspired offices try to create something similar. And we’re doing the Netflix series [The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House] with Bun-Puku by Hirokazu Kore-eda, also a small advertising agency. It’s great to have that freedom and now more distribution channels as well.
This is your first live-action series, right?
Well, with Kore-eda and I creating a TV series, and with a top team, it’s like making nine series in a row, a lot of work. It’s the kind of thing you should only try and do every ten years (laughs). The idea came from a young female producer here, based on a manga with themes about Kyoto and Japanese cuisine. And Kyoto is empty for lack of tourists [Japan was still largely closed to visitors], so it is easy to shoot. It’s unbelievable, like we used CG to get rid of everyone.
Any progress on Your name rework, do it again?
Well… I think there will be a big announcement from Bad Robot soon. Everything is moving forward. Making a live-action independent film in the US isn’t easy these days either. It doesn’t seem like a good environment for the next Jordan Peele to appear. I wonder if Get out will be done now.
On the other hand, in the country next door, there is Bong Joon-ho, a friend and mentor. He is always capable of surprises. He makes a true crime movie, then when you wonder what he’s going to do next, it’s a monster movie, it’s a train [Snowpiercer] followed by a pig [Okja]and then the semi-basement [Parasite]. Surprise every time; He has both his ideas and his ability to tell stories. He’s ten years older than me, but definitely a class to look forward to. When I won the director’s award in San Sebastián, the first congratulatory message was from Bong Joon-ho. I feel like I took a very small step towards him, just a very small step (laughs).
I read in an interview about five years ago that you turned off all social media, are you stuck with that?
I am not among them. I feel that posting on social media will deprive you of your creativity as a storyteller. I’m saving for novels and movies (laughs). And what you are using as information is very important. So getting your information from a platform with tens of millions of users is not ideal. I walked around town, bought actual newspapers, went to bookstores and bought real books. That’s my job, but going to the cinema feels like a rare form of entertainment now. I believe it is from there that I get my ideas and inspiration, not from thousands of social media likes.