Director Kazuaki Kiriya struggles to be taken seriously in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

Forty-seven-year-old filmmaker Kazuaki Kiriya is as famed for being a tall, flamboyant loudmouth — he married Japanese diva Hikaru Utada when she was 16 years old (and he was 35) — as he is for making sleek CG-heavy extravaganzas that never manage to do well at the box office. Now Kiriya has directed his first English-language Hollywood production, “Last Knights.”

Starring Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen, and made on the kind of budget many Japanese filmmakers can only dream of (rumored to be around ¥5 billion), “Last Knights” opens on Nov. 14 — more than seven months after its U.S. debut. Even a cursory glance tells you this is a distinctly Kiriya production: It oozes gorgeous visuals and nonsensical plot lines.

“I don’t know, the Japanese movie industry doesn’t seem to like me very much,” Kiriya says, in excellent English. “But then, people always thought I was strange here — I was this crazy kid, and still am.”

Kiriya (whose real name is Kazuhiro Iwashita) hails from Fukuoka, where his family owns a chain of pachinko parlors. He quit junior high school in his second year and flew to the U.S., where he went through what he describes as a kind of “Catcher in the Rye” period of drifting in and out of various schools — even a posh prep school — before ending up at Parsons School of Design in New York.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” Kiriya says. “I first fell in love with photography and then I wanted to make films. But in Japan it doesn’t work that way. You have to go through an apprenticeship, and then through another wringer and work yourself up from the bottom. I never did that, which is probably why it’s a little hard for me to establish myself here.”

Kiriya added it was also difficult to get “Last Knights” distributed in Japan, despite the fact that “it’s such a Japanese tale!”

Based on the historical story of the 47 ronin (which occured in early 1703), “Last Knights” takes the Bushido concepts of honor and loyalty, and plays them out in a medieval fantasy world ruled over by corrupt Euro-types in resplendent costumes. Like in the story of the 47 ronin, there’s the stolid and stoic lord Bartok (Freeman) who speaks out against an oppressive system, and is then cut down for his trouble. There’s the faithful Raiden (Owen), Bartok’s second in command, who vows revenge on the enemy nobleman Gezza Mott (Aksel Hennie) and gathers a bunch of soliders for a showdown. Japanese actor Tsuyoshi Ihara makes an appearance as Ito — the only actor recruited from the home front, which means there is at least one person on the team whose sword technique is fully deployed.

“I told everyone that it was about the 47 (ronin), and the fact that Morgan Freeman was playing the lord,” Kiriya says. “But no Japanese distributor would raise their hand for it. This movie was picked up in 30 countries and Japan was the only one that wasn’t interested.”

Eventually, Kiriya found a distributor: an online media company that once dealt in sexual content and was “just as stigmatized as I am,” says the filmmaker with a laugh.

In all fairness, “Last Knights” is tricky to market here. The material is one of the most beloved and oft-adapted tales in the nation’s history (even Hollywood and Keanu Reeves took a crack at it with “47 Ronin” in 2013) and a fantastical Western version can prove to be a huge psychological barrier for local audiences.

“I wanted to show that stuff like loyalty and honor and wanting to avenge one’s master were not really unique to Japan and Bushido,” Kiriya says. “The same sort of thing has happened throughout history all over the world and will continue to happen. I just wanted to take some walls away, because the Japanese tend to get too hung up on their own national character traits.”

On the other hand, Kiriya says he understood how the walls of race and prejudice got there in the first place.

“I myself never faced prejudice first hand,” he says. “I was just a kid when I went to the U.S. and I was warned beforehand about racism and all that. But everyone I met saw my craziness before they saw I was Japanese. And in art school, my race became an advantage. Everyone was impressed that I came from the land of (Yukio) Mishima and that Sankai Juku was a Japanese dancing and theater group, and (Yasujiro) Ozu and (Akira) Kurosawa and all the rest of it. So I never really felt the sting of racism. But my whole life has been a struggle against it.”

Morgan Freeman laughingly said that “Last Knights” provided him with the first and last opportunity to play a lord over white men, Kiriya points out.

“That’s how it is,” he says, “even in Hollywood.”

  • Nicole

    Honestly, he’s a terrible director. Great visual sense, but he’d be better off making music videos, TV commercials, or art installations. Narrative film isn’t his forte. No idea how to frame a shot, no concept of mise-en-scene, no original ideas whatsoever. Or he could go back to film school and watch more films and learn from real directors. The Japanese industry and audience is right to reject him and his insufferable movies.

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    • Philosopher

      I don’t think most Japanese people realise how universal the story of 47 Ronin is. I am regularly told by them that I won’t ever understand Japanese culture because I am not Japanese but they still lecture me on Japanese “loyalty and honor”. It’s touching that they try. It’s annoying that they believe such nationalistic nonsense.

      • Nicole

        That’s your opinion and limited experience with Japanese people. I have decades of experience interacting with large swathes of Japanese people, and my experience does not mirror yours. Too bad.

      • Philosopher

        What makes you believe that your “decades of experience” are any more valid than mine?

      • Nicole

        Did I use the word “valid”? No. I said my experience does not mirror yours. I disagree with you. Simple as that.

      • Nicole

        That’s your opinion and limited experience with Japanese people. I have decades of experience interacting with large swathes of Japanese people, and my experience does not mirror yours. Too bad.

      • Nicole

        My decades of experience interacting with large swathes of Japanese people from different walks of life do not agree with such an assessment.

      • Nicole

        That has not been my experience in decades of interacting with a large swathe of Japanese people so I disagree.

  • Aholl Urang

    In a free world, you are free to fail or succeed, more power to you. Have the courage to break down the walls and do what you want and love.

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    Can’t get acceptance…married a 16 year old, and yet, in another JT story today we have schoolgirls complaint of sexual harassment.
    Cognitive dissonance anyone?

  • Philosopher

    I am impressed that he’s made a movie in Hollywood and doubly so that he’s showing the universality of bravery and honor. It’s refreshing after all the self-congratulatory nonsense I see in the media in Tokyo.

    At least once a week, a Japanese person tells me how unique Japanese culture is, how ethics and honor are only found here in beautiful Japan. I do think Japan is beautiful and unique. I do think Japan has impressive ethics sometimes. Other countries do, too.
    Last week, an older Japanese man took hours of out of his day to teach me about bushido, katana and Japanese education, all the while telling me that no other country has had an education system that teaches ethics and honor. Last month, a group of eight Japanese people gave me an hour long tribute – complete with written pieces – to their culture which included lots of racist swipes at foreigners. These are just two examples of Japanese people, knowing full well how long I’ve lived in Japan, still feel obliged to school me in the wondrous uniqueness of their culture with no regard for how blinkered their vision might be. It seems these peons require the speaker to denigrate other countries as they go.

    Mr. Kiriya’s movie is now one I want to see!

    • Nicole

      Too bad you have such a negative perception of the culture you have forced your way into. Too bad your interaction with Japanese people is so limited and you have adopted the pose of beleaguered and privileged foreigner who thinks he is the expert on culture and society based on the smallness of his world view. Too bad you do not understand that a country is not a monolith made up of people all thinking the same way and acting the same way. Maybe you should go back to reading Said’s Orientalism and some Spivak and other post-colonialists. I can say the same thing based on my limited interaction with gaijin and say they are the most annoying, self-righteous, butthurt, spoiled people in the world, especially the men, and they should get over themselves and their thinly veiled condescension and sense of entitlement and that all gaijin are like you. But I won’t because I’m not you.

      • Philosopher

        “Nicole” you just did say it. Most of what you say is about yourself. It’s the way of all human beings.

      • Nicole

        To be clear: say isn’t the right word. I meant to say: I won’t insist that it’s true. And, sure, what you say reflects who you are. At least we can agree on that and so I don’t need to interact with you any further.

    • Nicole

      There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s own culture and it is dangerous to let such limited experience with a few people speak for an entire country or culture as a whole.

      • Philosopher

        I think you may have missed a few of my points.

        Firstly, these were not limited experiences. They are so common as to almost be regular. At least once a week, as I said. Having had more than two decades of regular “lectures” from Japanese people about their culture, I think I have a wide enough sample size now.

        Secondly, I love a lot of things about Japan and I think Japanese people, and even foreign-born residents, have many reason to be proud of their culture. Why that pride has to so often take the form of criticizing another culture is beyond me. For example, “I love Japan because it’s so clean. China is dirty. Chinese people are dirty but Japanese people are hygienic.” Another recent example, “Japan is a safe country because we learn ethics. Foreigners don’t have ethics.” Do you believe it is possible to speak about the positives of your culture without putting another culture down? I do and I have Japanese friends who do exactly that.

    • Nicole

      Good luck watching his awful movie! Nothing wrong with being proud of one’s culture and being nationalistic. I try to mind my own business, live my own life, practice compassion and understanding of other people and feel no need to overly generalize and constantly criticize those whom I interact with in real life.

      • Philosopher

        Having over two decades of regular – two or three times a week regular – experiences, I wouldn’t call that a “limited” set of incidences of displays of nationalism.

        What’s wrong with being nationalistic? A dictionary definition tells you, “having strong patriotic feelings, especially a belief in the superiority of one’s own country over others”. That sense of “superiority” can cause some ugly and even violent behavior. Think Germany invading Poland ugly. If you were just patriotic, that is “having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country” then we all have fewer problems.

        Maybe JT was censoring your nationalistic statements along with your attempts at insult.