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Tokyo Cowboys shoot for more diversity on Japanese screens

by Kayla Sturdevant

Contributing Writer

Over his first four years in Japan working as an actor and model, Christopher McCombs had become increasingly frustrated by the limited options for foreign artists.

“I was getting tired of the parts available for foreigners in Japan,” says McCombs, 37, one of the founders of short-film production company Tokyo Cowboys. “You could be a lost foreigner, a rude foreigner or a loud foreigner. Only one of those three.”

The “final straw,” he says, came in 2014.

“I was at a TV show and they had said to me, ‘When you came to Japan what surprised you the most?’ And I said: ‘Society, like there’s so little space here but people are conscious and aware of that fact and they try really hard to make space. I was really, really impressed. We have all the space in the world in America.'”

But the follow-up wasn’t what he’d been hoping for.

“And they said: ‘Now can you talk to us about toilet seats? How do you feel about your toilet seat? And what can you tell us about the convenience store?’ And I was like, ‘Nothing. I’m in my 30s and I don’t care about toilet seats.’ But they managed to edit me to sound like an idiot and I was ready to quit.”

McCombs related the same story to the manager of his agency, who planted the seed of Tokyo Cowboys in his mind.

“She said: ‘Don’t wait for good parts. You have connections and you have ability. Make them yourself. If you’re not satisfied with the work, then find a way to satisfy yourself.’

“And that,” he says, “was it. I started reaching out to people — Japanese actors, foreign actors, Japanese staff members, foreign staff members, and put a team together.”

The key concept behind Tokyo Cowboys is diversity.

“It’s not enough to have just people from different countries,” McCombs explains. “There needs to be men and women, people from the LGBT community. We want to keep it diverse as possible so we can make creative work that appeals to all kinds of people.”

In the four years since their inception, Tokyo Cowboys have produced a number of short films that have garnered recognition at international festivals. For those who want to get an idea of what they are about, their musical mystery web series “Till Death,” which picked up awards at three festivals, is available in full on YouTube. Other shorts that have garnered praise overseas include same-sex love story “The Actor and the Model” and short shockers “Nopperabou” and “Jikiniki.”

“To be honest, the stories are mostly based on things that have happened to me or things I wish would happen to me,” McCombs says of his films. “I usually have three or four ideas on the back burner at any time.”

The Cowboys’ latest comedy, for example, “The Benza,” is inspired by a real-life event, though apparently not that infuriating interview in 2014 (benza means “toilet seat”).

Although the current core team of nine are based in the capital, Tokyo Cowboys have collaborated with people in and from a variety of countries. The back-and-forth between these different personalities and their cultures, says McCombs, helps keep the ideas coming.

“If I meet the right actor or right director I start writing and planning. People really inspire me,” he explains. “I love challenging our cast. Sometimes I’ll write something for one of our cast members just because I’m curious to see what they will do with it.”

To fund these projects, team members have to track down their own funding, as well as rely heavily on volunteers.

“I have three TV shows on air right now that I am in as an actor,” says McCombs. “That helps pay for the projects that I produce and direct for Tokyo Cowboys.”

He encourages budding filmmakers, actors and production staff to reach out and get involved.

“Tokyo Cowboys is always looking for new members. Anyone who is interested in entertaining people and wants to pitch in can message us on Facebook at any time.”

As for the future, McCombs hopes that in the end, Tokyo Cowboys’ values of inclusion and diversity will filter through to the wider world of entertainment in Japan.

“I hope that moving forward we are able to build more and more momentum,” he says. “I’d like to keep creating scenarios that encourage Japanese and overseas actors to work together and see that reflected in Japanese mainstream entertainment.

“We can’t all be lost, drunk, rude gaijin (foreigners) on television and movies forever,” McCombs says. “That image change has to start somewhere, and I’m happy to have it start with me and my team.”

Tokyo Cowboys will premiere their most recent film, “The Benza,” at Nakano Zero in Tokyo on April 6 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.tokyo-cowboys.com or www.facebook.com/TokyoCowboys.

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