Japanese filmmaker Kazuaki Kiriya made waves both in Japan and in America when he released his 2004 opus Casshern to theaters. A groundbreaking sci-fi/action film, Casshern earned Mr. Kiriya praise around the globe for his unique visual style. Casshern is currently available in the United States on DVD.
Mr. Kiriya came to the United States when he was 15 years old. He went to Parsons School of Design to study architecture and then became a photographer at age 26. After that, Mr. Kiriya went back to Japan and started making music videos, which ultimately led to his directing Casshern. At the time of this telephone interview (August 2008), Mr. Kiriya was filming his next project slated for release in 2009, Goemon, an action film which tells the story of a benevolent thief who could be viewed as Japan’s answer to Robin Hood.
Brett Homenick: (Please) talk about how you got involved in the film industry.
Kazuaki Kiriya: When I started doing music videos, I got to know a lot of very talented people, including the art director, costume designer, CGI artists, etc. We became a team and started to realize that we can do something bigger than music videos. That’s how we made Casshern. I had absolutely no idea about the movie business. I didn’t even have a studio behind me. I just simply went to Tatsunoko Productions. That’s where they had the rights to Casshern. I showed my reel and convinced the president. Much to my surprise, he said yes. It was supposed to be a low-budget film, less than a million dollars, but after the studio came onboard, the budget became six million dollars. It was never enough, though.
BH: All right, well, when you finally got the green light to do Casshern, what approach did you want to take with the film? Where did you want to go with its theme and everything else?
KK: I watched Casshern when I was about 10 years old. The show was very groundbreaking back then because of its tone. The hero was tormented, and the world was very dark. I really wanted to retain that dark tone but wanted to update the story. I was criticized a lot from Japanese audiences because of that. (laughs) I deliberately made the characters morally ambiguous. The hero of the film was not totally righteous. In the end, we know that he had killed somebody, and the villains have their own logic to doing what they do. Am I making sense?
BH: Oh, yes. Yes, I understand what you’re saying.
KK: It was the time of the Iraq War, and that affected the story as well. There are always two sides to the story. I really wanted to say that we all have the seeds to do evil deeds, yet capable of so much love.
BH: Right. You mentioned incorporating some of the Iraq War debate into the film. When you were writing your screenplay, and when you were coming up with these ideas, did you get any resistance from the studio about, “Well, we don’t want you to do that because that’s getting too political for what we want to do”?
KK: See, the thing is, I’m very blessed. I had total control of my films, and they didn’t change anything. And that’s very different from what I’m used to here in U.S.
BH: On the other side of that, when you were writing the screenplay, did you try to invent any scenes that you later had to abandon because you could not film them, because they were too elaborate, or for any other reason?
KK: No. I cut some scenes because the film was getting too long. (laughs) It was long to begin with. But that was about it. Pretty much everything we wanted to do is in the film.
BH: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the casting of the film. When you were originally trying to cast the film, did you try to go after any actor or actress that you wanted to cast in the film, but you couldn’t get for any number of reasons?
KK: Yes, there were some, but pretty much I got everybody I wanted. The guys I couldn’t get were because of a scheduling problem. I was amazed how they all said yes to me! (laughs) To a first-time director. And they were great actors. Some of them are in Kurosawa films. Yeah, I was just amazed how it came together.
BH: All right, well, let’s talk about Yusuke Iseya, who played Casshern in the film. What was he like to work with?
KK: I think that was his first real leading role. He started as a fashion model and did a few films before Casshern. He was struggling, because this movie had a very theatrical tone to it. He worked really, really hard, and we had a lot of discussions, and in the end he did a great job. Wearing the suit, and doing the action, it was very tough on him.
BH: You did mention that you worked with actors who had worked in Kurosawa films, and certainly Tatsuya Mihashi was one of those actors. What was he like to work with?
KK: He was just amazing. After this film, he passed away, and it was devastating for me. He taught me a lot. He used to tell me about Mr. Kurosawa and how he worked. It was very intimidating at first, directing such a legendary actor, but he tried really hard to make it comfortable for me at the set. One day, Iseya was making a lot of mistakes with the dialogue, and the takes were getting something ridiculous, like 17 or 20. Mr. Mihashi was in the scene, and I was getting really anxious. But he took me aside and said, “Kaz, this film will stay forever, and we have to do it right. No matter how many takes it requires, I’m happy to do it, so don’t worry about it.” I was very grateful for that. He had so much compassion. Just a great man.
The other actor who worked in Kurosawa films was Akira Terao. He played Tetsuya’s father’s role. He was amazing, as well. Yeah, I was very blessed with such great actors.
BH: Now, on the production side of it, another person who worked on the film who has a long, extensive career with special effects in Japanese films was Shinji Higuchi. What was it like to work with him? Did you work with him much?
KK: No, this was my first time to work with him. He was the special effects director for Gamera and was working on Evangelion. I was a big fan, so I asked him to do the storyboard for me. He did a great job. I think he’s a fuckin’ genius.
KK: When he showed us the storyboard, I was like, “Wow this is amazing!” But at the same time, we were horrified, especially the special effects team. We weren’t sure if we could make it in live action. It was just mind-boggling.
BH: And that does bring up an interesting point. What was it like to work with the digital backlot process, which was sort of new to film?
KK: Yeah, actually, that’s the thing. We pretty much perfected the craft through bunch of music videos, so we weren’t too intimidated by it, but it was a lot of work nevertheless. We had something like 2,000 CGI shots. Just planning it was a nightmare. Every shot of the movie was storyboarded, from the beginning to the end, not by Higuchi, but myself and another storyboard artist. Higuchi only did the robot action sequence. Most of the actors weren’t experienced with green screen. Nobody even knew how these things would work.
BH: Well, aside from that, what was a typical day of shooting like on the film?
KK: It was pretty systematic. I was operating the camera, too, because we didn’t have the time to discuss where the camera should be with a DP. I knew what I wanted, and I knew where the camera should be. Action sequences were the hardest for the actors and the staff because it was choreographed with the camera moves. Every frame had to be exact, and that was very difficult for everybody. Does that answer the question?
BH: Yes. There were certainly a lot of action sequences in the film, and the natural question to ask is, were there any accidents on the set during these action sequences?
KK: Yeah. Actually, at the very end of the filming, Iseya broke an arm. It was horrifying. We had to stop the production for a while because of that.
BH: Aside from that, after filming was wrapped, talk about the process of editing. What was that like?
KK: The movie jumps from one scene to another. It’s non-linear storytelling. Because of that, the editing took a long time. I kind of wanted it to be like a music video. I tried hard to stay away from conventional filmmaking. I think that was the biggest criticism I got from the critics. (laughs) The story just appeared to be broken, and they didn’t understand it was intentional.
BH: Do you have any other stories from the set or just anything else that you’d like to mention about the film?
KK: I don’t know. If you had read the script, it’d read like a sixty-million-dollar film instead of six. Even among my staff, there was a huge concern from the very beginning of the production. They didn’t think it was feasible. I had to do a lot of convincing, telling them that if we run out of the money and can’t do some shots, then we’ll use pen and paper and put the drawings on the screen! But in the end, we pulled it off. I thought that was an amazing thing. It was a great moment for us.
I think a lot of people just assume that certain movies would cost certain amount of budget. I really wanted to challenge that. Up to that point, all the Japanese directors, all the Japanese filmmakers were saying, “Oh, we cannot do what Hollywood does because we don’t have the budget.” I hated that. I hated that excuse. And that’s what this movie was about. We wanted to challenge that. Yes, there are certain shots that I wish I had more budget. If we had more budget, the other action sequences would have looked like the robot action sequence.
But yeah, it was a good challenge for us. Actually, I was very glad that we didn’t have that much budget, because in the end, it forced us to be more creative. It forced us to think and try to come up with something unconventional. Isn’t that what this is all about? Be creative.
BH: That does actually lead me to another question. When you were improvising on the set, what was that process like? How would you know when to improvise, and what sort of brainstorming would you do when you had to improvise?
KK: I don’t know. It was just such chaos in the systematic environment. I asked actors to move in a certain way and next moment asked them to improvise. I would change the script in the morning to accommodate the change. Some scenes were very experimental. We all didn’t know what was happening until we finished the film. (laughs)
BH: When you were finished with the film, and when you saw the final cut, what did you think of it?
KK: I was really glad that we could finish it. That was my first thing. But at the same time, I knew that we gave birth to something new. I didn’t know how it was going to be received, but I knew we did something different. You’ve got to remember that this was before 300, before Sin City, I think even before Sky Captain. It was something new, and we could feel it. I was very proud of that. As soon as we released the trailer, I got so many calls form all over the world. It was crazy.