Young Japanese filmmaker’s dystopian dream

by Mark Schilling

Special to The Japan Times

Several years ago, a film project of mine was selected for J-Pitch, a government-backed initiative that introduces new filmmakers to veteran producers outside Japan, in the hope (in my case, a faint hope) that they will co-produce an original film. At a J-Pitch seminar where new filmmakers delivered their pitches to the assembled producers, one standout was a rail-thin and tightly wound young director named Hiroshi Nakajima.

He made his pitch in rapid-fire American English while quickly covering a whiteboard with his downward-slanting scrawl. Given that the rest of us had laboriously prepared PowerPoint slides, his hyper, off-the-cuff presentation struck me as either bold (if it worked) or crazy (if it didn’t).

As it turned out, Nakajima was not crazy. His J-Pitch project never got off the ground, but he has since made two features in the U.S.: “Lily,” a semi-autobiographical drama about a young scriptwriter’s professional and romantic dilemmas, released in Japan in 2011, and now, “The Secret Children,” a sci-fi drama based on Nakajima’s screenplay about a near-future society in which a new government decides to eliminate thousands of human clones produced under a previous regime. Rather than submit to their fate, the clones go underground to survive, while government agents ruthlessly hunt them down.

In contrast to Nakajima’s high-energy personality, the film is somber and deliberately paced, focusing more on clones’ personal crises — as they face the propect of their unjust ends — rather than on splashy CGI effects and violent action sequences (which were impossible anyway, given the film’s ultra-low budget).

Made with the backing of Fox International Channels and Hikari TV cable and satellite services, the English-dialogue film will open in Japan on May 10.

At the center of the film is a couple, Cedric (August Coryell) and Sophia (Jamie Bernadette), whom Nakajima modeled on the heroes of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984″ — Winston Smith and his doomed lover, Julia.

In an interview at Fox International’s Shibuya office, Nakajima says “The Secret Children” is less inspired by his own experiences of prejudice as a long-time expat in the U.S. (“That kind of thing has not been matched by my experiences,” he says), than by his own reading of Orwell’s novel.

“It had a huge impact (on me),” says Nakajima. “It is where the concept of the central government making war on its own citizens comes from,” he says.

Though Nakajima’s theme may not be unusual — dystopian sci-fi continues to be a hot Hollywood genre — he has chosen a career path vanishingly rare among Japanese filmmakers. Rather than establish himself first in Japan and then take the Hollywood plunge, as Japanese horror maestros Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu did nearly a decade ago, Nakajima has studied and worked at his trade almost entirely abroad.

Influenced by his movie buff father, he says he only watched “old Japanese movies” as a boy in Tokyo and, at 11 years old, started writing stories for future films. Entering high school, he spent several months skipping classes to go to the movies, until he finally confessed his truancy to his mother.

“She let me (keep watching films),” he says, “but she told me to do it seriously.”

Dreaming of making films abroad, Nakajima went to high school in New Zealand to improve his English and, after graduating, entered a junior college in California as a film student. He later transferred to San Francisco State University, where he received his degree in 2003.

“I didn’t want to study film in Los Angeles because everybody does that and I didn’t want to be like anyone else,” he says with a not-entirely-ironic grin. The thought of returning to Japan to start his career also didn’t appeal to him.

“My goal from the beginning was to make films with English-speaking actors,” he says. “I thought I could only do that in the U.S.”

Like many beginners, Nakajima wrote his own scripts and sent them “everywhere I could think of,” he says. He used one of those scripts for “Lily,” a short film he shot in LA in 2007 that he successfully submitted to several festivals. It also became the basis of his first feature film.

“I felt that if I wanted to call myself a filmmaker, I had to make a feature,” he says.

The president of Fox International Channels in Japan saw “Lily” in a small Yokohama theater and liked it enough to back “The Secret Children.” That theater visit, however, was no accident.

“We became friends before he went to see the film. When it opened in Yokohama, I told him about it,” Nakajima explains. The hustler never stops hustling, even at home.

Nakajima says making it as an independent filmmaker in the U.S. requires persistence, passion and a kind of confidence his peers in Japan aren’t often encouraged to cultivate. “You have to be able to tell people ‘This is what I want to do.’ If you just kind of go with the flow, trying to be agreeable to everyone, you’re not going to make it.”

At the same time, Nakajima isn’t a lone wolf in the Hollywood jungle.

“For me it’s fun; I’m hanging out with other (young filmmakers) and making films,” he says. “I don’t think of it as competing with people, including Americans. I feel comfortable in LA.”

He is also not worried about ascending from the indie ranks into the exalted heights of his directorial heroes, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. “I’m just focusing on the film I’m making,” he says. “I’m trying not to think about anything else.”

He is also not about to quit. “I’m too stubborn,” he says. “I want to stick to my dream, no matter what.”

For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to “The Secret Children,” visit http://jtimes.jp/film.