Director Kazuaki Kiriya struggles to be taken seriously in Japan

by Kaori Shoji

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.”