His first feature since Tokyo Sonata, which won the Un Certain Regard at Cannes, as well as best picture and script at the Asian Film Awards, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s REAL marks a highly-anticipated return to the big screen. Kurosawa talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his new film, being better known abroad than at home and what he learned from making Pink Eiga.
The Hollywood Reporter: Early in your career you had periods where you made three films a year but these days it’s closer to a pace of one film every three years; that must be very different in a lot of ways.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: That’s right, though it’s not like I’ve been sitting around for three years doing nothing. I’ve written a few scripts, but haven’t got any of them into production. And actually it was more like five films a year that I made when I was working in what we called V Cinema [straight to video, largely genre films]. They were low budget and you just got them done, there was no promotion or film festivals, they were just lined up at the video store and you were on to the next one and then the next one. So, naturally enough, you make a lot of films. Now, when I make one film, there’s work to be done for promotion, interviews, festivals and the like.
THR: What kind of influence does that have on the way you work?
Kurosawa: Honestly, I’d like to make one after the other and just forget about the last one and get on to the next. Now I get asked lots of questions and have to make excuses [laughs], think about what I’ve done and how I made the film; which I’m not really good at. On the other hand, although I’m always busy on the set, no matter what the budget is, I am able afterwards to think about the film. And then when I get interviewed and have to talk about it, I can really reflect on what kind of film I’ve made and understand it. So that’s a good thing.
THR: And it’s about four years since Tokyo Sonata.
Kurosawa: Yes, but the year before last I made a TV drama Penance for Wowow [Japan’s biggest pay TV network], so I was back on the set for the first time in a while.
And we were fortunate enough to have that shown at international film festivals, such as Venice, which is unusual for a TV drama. It was all shown together in screenings that lasted nearly five hours.
THR: Your new film REAL is based on the Rokuro Inui novel A Perfect Day for Plesiosaur — what made you choose that work to adapt?
Kurosawa: The producer brought it to me and I thought the book was really interesting, but figured it would be really tricky to bring to the screen. But then recently there have been a few Hollywood films, like Inception and before that Shutter Island — which both happened to star Leonardo Di Caprio — that have been about going inside people’s consciousness and altered reality. I though that it would be interesting to do a film like that, and started thinking about how I would approach it.
THR: What were the most difficult elements of the story to get across?
Kurosawa: Well the story jumps around in time and place, but that’s easy to do in film — it happens all the time. So the hard part was expressing that in a way that was surprising and interesting.
THR: There’s a scene late in REAL, on the island with all the rubble and damaged buildings, that was reminiscent of the destruction after the March 2011 tsunami. Was that deliberate?
Kurosawa: I think all of us making films after the disasters were influenced by it, even without realizing it, such as when we’re choosing locations and shots. It’s almost inevitable. But actually that wasn’t consciously in my mind when I shot it.
THR: You’re something of a favorite at international film festivals, but there are probably a lot of ordinary Japanese people who don’t know you. Is that strange for you?
Kurosawa: It’s true and it’s funny in some ways. For example, if I get invited to France, they’ll write about the fact that I’m there in the newspapers. It makes me think how high the status of directors is over there. But in Japan, other than legendary directors like Akira Kurosawa, people don’t really know who directors are anymore, so it doesn’t bother me.
THR: You studied at the Sundance Institute back in the 1990s. What was your experience there like?
Kurosawa: I was only there about two months, but the biggest thing I noticed was the difference in the approach to writing scripts. In America, it seems that most scriptwriters decide on a very clear purpose for their character in each and every scene. I was questioned about this for my script and tried to answer but then I stopped and asked them: do people always have a clear purpose in everything they do, and is it wrong if they don’t? They seemed surprised but then said they understood and that it was true, people don’t always. That was interesting, I learned a lot.
THR: Many leading Japanese directors, including yourself, Yojiro Takita (Departures) and Koji Wakamatsu who passed away last year, got their start in Pink Eiga [Japanese theatrically released soft-core pornography films]. It’s often said that Pink Eiga kept Japanese filmmaking alive; do you feel that and what did you learn from shooting those films?
Kurosawa: I do think that’s true. If you think about Pink Eiga or Nikkatsu Roman Porno [another variety of soft-core films] or V Cinema, where Takashi Miike got his start, it’s all genre filmmaking. The story and cast is basically decided, but as long as you stick to the schedule and budget, you have a lot freedom to do what you like. For a young director it’s a very valuable way to learn and get a lot of practical experience. Often new directors have three years between films, that’s a hard way to learn about filmmaking.
I don’t want to see genre films, not just Pink Eiga, disappear; though there’s very little of it left. The biggest thing you learn is how things almost never go to plan: people don’t listen to your instructions, it starts raining or you can’t use the place you’d planned to shoot at, or whatever. But somehow, you make a film and people say it’s good. So now I don’t worry about making mistakes.