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KINGDOM


KINGDOM


April 16, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Shinsuke Sato


FCCJ KingdomKoichi Mori-1
Shinsuke Sato  ©Koichi Mori

It’s the type of question that every filmmaker secretly longs to hear.

It came to Shinsuke Sato following FCCJ’s sneak preview of his hotly-anticipated period epic, Kingdom. “A lot of live-action adaptations of manga are a disappointment,” an American film critic told him. “But yours are always so good. What’s the secret sauce? What makes your adaptations so great?”

Forever humble, the director responded, “There’s no secret sauce. When you have a script for an adaptation, you want to make it into a film that is good as a film. I don’t feel the pressure of having to conform to the original work or to adhere to it as closely as possible. I approach manga adaptations the same way I approach an original story.

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©︎FCCJ

“There are certain details I can imagine some might pay attention to. For example, this manga has x number of fans and they are expecting x type of work, and therefore we have to meet their expectations. I don’t have that in mind. Instead, I think about what would ideally be a good film, sometimes drawing on my own experiences as a moviegoer. I start from scratch, in a sense, even if it’s based on a manga.”

Then, warming to the question, Sato delivered a few of the ingredients, if not the entire recipe. “When I do a manga adaptation, there are always two basic things that I want to accomplish,” he admitted. First, for fans of the original work, I want to surprise them. I want the film to exceed their expectations by a mile. I want them to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect this!’ I want to give them the type of entertainment that only cinema can give. I want them to understand why it was necessary to bring that work to the screen.

1-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

“Second, I want to entertain audience members who are not familiar with the original manga, and make it accessible even if they don’t know what the story is. In order to accomplish these two objectives, you have to always be thinking about the essence of what is fun and entertaining. That’s what I do.”

And that’s what he has done now for nearly 20 years, helming one blockbuster action hit after another, many of them also international award-winners. Heralded for his mastery of CG effects in bringing fantastical worlds to life, Sato’s major works include the Gantz series (2011), the Library Wars series (2013 - 15), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), Inuyashiki (2018) and Bleach (2018).

Kingdom is not only certain to bring him another box-office success; there will surely be a sequel. Any doubters need only examine its pedigree. 

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Kento Yamazaki as Shin. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Kingdom is the first live-action adaptation of the bestselling manga series by Yasuhisa Hara, which started running in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump in 2006, won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2013, and has now been collected into 53 volumes and sold an eye-popping 38 million copies.

To the eternal bemusement of non-Japanese, the series presents a fictionalized account of China’s Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of Qin, succeeded in conquering six rival states and unifying China. In Hara’s manga, however, all the names of the characters — many of whom are based on actual historical figures — have Japanese names and speak in Japanese. The same is true of the film, so Ying Zheng becomes Eisei; his trusted general, Li Xin, is Shin; and his half-brother Zhao Chengjiao is Seikyou.

Kingdom achieves a widescreen grandeur and heroic scale that are rare in Japan, partially due to the film’s budget (small by Hollywood’s standards; bountiful by Japan’s) and its three-week shoot on a massive open set in Zhejiang, China. Last year at this time, it was temporary home to a handful of Japan’s leading young actors, 700 crew from Japan and China, close to 100 horses and some 10,000 extras.

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Ryo Yoshizawa as Eisei. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Sato had first come to FCCJ in 2016 with his superlative zombie flick I Am a Hero, a film that benefitted greatly from its extensive location shooting in South Korea, about which the director and his star, Yo Oizumi, had shared both hilarious and heartwarming anecdotes.

Asked why he’d been inspired to shoot in China, Sato responded, “The film’s story takes place in ancient China, so it was only natural to shoot there. That’s what I’d envisioned from the moment the project started. I really wanted to see what it would be like to collaborate with a Chinese crew. Having had the experience of shooting in Korea, I had a lot of fond memories of all the sweat and toil we put into the production, and that influenced my desire to shoot in China.

“The collaboration in China was in much the same spirit as it had been in Korea. We had core crew members who were Japanese, but we also had a large local crew. There was some trepidation, because there are differences in customs and practices, and of course there was the language barrier. We were worried about how it would turn out, because we had massive scenes to shoot and limited financial resources. But when we arrived, we discovered how robust China’s film industry has become. The crew were really skilled, and we enjoyed very effective collaboration through all the filmmaking processes. The Chinese crew put a lot of attention into details, and we really appreciated that.”

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©Koichi Mori

But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. Asked about the best and worst of these, Sato recalled, “We had crew members in Shanghai and Beijing. The studio lot was a 5-hour drive from Shanghai, so it was quite arduous logistically, and there was a lot of communication that couldn’t take place in person. For example, we had a vendor in Beijing for all the costumes, and although we rented a lot of them, we also had to make many of them. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communications about the details. There were difficulties because what we wanted to do was often different from the style in which they were used to making costumes. It took a lot of time and effort to get all the nuances across.

“But what made a great impression on me was that they were really diligent and stuck with us until the very end. There were certain details that we wanted to fix or change, and with a Japanese production we might not have been able to do that. With this company, they responded to all our requests, and what they produced was very nicely done.”

As with all of Sato’s work, costumes are absolutely crucial to the creation of his colorful characters and his imaginative worlds. Kingdom is no exception.

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Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Set in approximately 245 BC, during China’s Spring-Autumn Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC) in the state of Qin (present-day Shaanxi province), it tells the tale of two young war orphans, Shin (Kento Yamazaki), who dreams of becoming the greatest general under the heavens, and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa), who just wants to win against Shin in their daily sparring matches. They’re separated in their teens, when an emissary from the king takes Hyou away to work in the palace. Shin continues to train alone and dream big. Then one day, Hyou suddenly returns.

He bears an urgent message, leading Shin to a surprising encounter with King Eisei (also Yoshizawa), who dreams of uniting all seven of the Warring States under a single banner. But Eisei’s half-brother Seikyou (Kanata Hongo) has led a successful coup, and before unification, Eisei must first amass enough allies to help him reclaim the throne. Shin signs up, but the challenge is staggering: Seikyou has 80,000 soldiers at his beck and call, and Eisei’s forces barely number 3,000.

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Kanata Hongo as Seikyou. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Praised by another film critic for his direction of the film’s many action scenes, Sato said, “I relied on crew members that I’ve worked with for a long time, all the way back to Princess Blade [in 2001]. We had all this experience of creating action sequences together, and that formed the basis of the film. We had a lot of discussion and debate about each sequence, and one of the things we did was to shoot video of all the action scenes in an empty room before going on to the set, because there’s a lot of drama in those scenes, too. We shot footage like an indie film, cut it together and discussed what we needed to change. So there was one extra step in the process.”

The director admitted that he couldn’t take credit for the casting of megastar Kento Yamazaki (best known overseas for playing Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable). Asked why he’d been selected to play Shin, Sato explained, “The producer had already made the decision to cast him before I joined the project. It was like: ‘Kingdom, with Kento Yamazaki.’ Mr. Yamazaki has played a variety of roles in the past, but this was quite a departure from his previous films. I think it was a challenging and difficult process for him, but he is very savvy and smart, a really passionate actor. We discussed his approach to the character a lot, but what he created made it seem that he was accustomed to roles like this, and it fit him really well.”

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Sato with the posters for the film. ©FCCJ

With such an enormous cast, the leads aren’t the only roles to savor. There is also Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa, the high-kicking chieftan of the mountain tribe; Tak Sakaguchi as Saji, an exceedingly cruel mercenary; Masahiro Takashima as Eisei’s righthand man Shobunkun; and Takao Osawa, making his return to film after a 3-year absence, as the greatest general under the heavens, Ouki.

How did Sato lure Osawa back to the cinema when he’d gone on public record as having lost his acting mojo? “General Ouki is a really popular character with fans, and I can imagine there was a lot of discussion about who was going to play the role,” said Sato. “So a lot of thought went into the casting choice, as well as into the visual design. A lot of effort of went into the makeup, the beard, the armor. Because he’s such an overwhelmingly powerful character in the manga, we thought it would be quite a feat for us to ground him in reality. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and I think Mr. Osawa delivered the vibrancy of the character that fans expect.”

Whether Kingdom’s realm will now expand to encompass the entire globe is yet unkown; but at least it will be coming to fans old and new in the US, where Funimation will be releasing the film later this year.

Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Selected Media Exposure


PSYCHIC KUSUO


October 19, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yuichi Fukuda


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The director is like a character in one of his own films. ©Mance Thompson

Screening just its second-ever comedy in the past decade, the Film Committee welcomed ebullient director Yuichi Fukuda to a Q&A session that we imagined would focus on his astounding success in Japan and recently, in China — only to discover that he would rather talk about his love of 1970s American sketch comedy and his dream to work on the late-night TV show Saturday Night Live.

“I’ve liked slapstick and gags ever since I was a kid,” he told the FCCJ audience, “since my parents were huge comedy fans and instilled that in me. They would recommend that I watch shows like The Drifters and Oretachi Hyokin Zoku [with Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya] and Owarai Star Tanjo, which my dad used to tell me to cut school early to come home and watch.

“When I was in grade school, I really loved the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. They did this 6-episode TV series called Police Squad! that was the basis for Naked Gun, also starring Leslie Nielsen. It was very tongue-in-cheek, and I loved the gags. You would see Nielsen driving in his cop car and they would randomly superimpose these visuals on the rear window, like the Roman Coliseum, or there would a monkey sitting next to him. That kind of throwaway gag isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.”

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                     Interpreter Mihoko Imai had difficulty keeping a straight face.   ©Mance Thompson

And that he did, although few realized it until Fukuda appeared at FCCJ. As recently as 2014, one could have imagined that Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king was stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of retro humor. If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His obsession with the sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the off-kilter line reading, the non-sequitur and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary has subtly shifted the tenor of the entire comedy industry.

In just over a decade, Fukuda has built an empire of amusement through his stage plays (including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot), his TV series (like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police), and his film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga (like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy dons women’s panties to gain superpowers).

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©Mance Thompson

And then the director’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from Shueisha (51 million copies sold globally). Creating the first live-action version with his friend (and sometime co-writer) Shun Oguri as the silver-maned, nose-picking samurai hero Gintoki, Fukuda had a certified summer smash.

Gintama is currently 2017’s No. 1 live-action domestic film at the Japanese box office, at $40 million and counting.

Perhaps more significantly, the film got the largest-ever China opening for any Japanese film in history, when it opened on a record 12,000 screens in early September, handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s global juggernaut, Your Name.

But it’s unlikely his newfound box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling, both visual and verbal. If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and casts filled with faces familiar from his other work.

Asked about the film’s enormous success and whether he hoped to repeat it with Psychic Kusuo, Fukuda said, “I’m honestly not that interested in box-office results, so I’m not sure how massive a hit Gintama was in China, although I do know it was successful in Japan. I would be happier if it were a hit in the US, honestly speaking, because I want to work there.”

He hastened to add, “I hope my work is universal, and I hope it caters to every nationality. But I’m always saying, ‘Can’t we please bring this to America?’ I believe all my work has been inspired by Western influences, like the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python, and pieces of them have been the basis of my Japanese comedies. I love Saturday Night Live, and it’s been my dream for a long time to live in New York and work as an SNL writer.”

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Teen heartthrob Kento Yamazaki.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But first, the prolific multi-hyphenate has new product to pitch, and that would be Psychic Kusuo. An adaptation of the popular gag manga series in Weekly Shonen Jump (5 million copies sold), it concerns a pink-haired teen with unimaginable psychic powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, X-ray vision, teleportation, clairvoyance, walking on air — you name it. Yet Saiki Kusuo (Kento Yamazaki) calls himself “the unluckiest guy in the world,” and longs to lead a normal life.

Saiki’s classmates at the PK Academy are all troublemakers, and he is forever having to secretly use his powers to sidestep all the trouble they cause. It’s the start of the annual school festival, and Saiki’s homeroom teacher warns that one more dangerous incident like last year, and the event will be canceled forever. The excitable red-haired Hairo (Hideyuki Kasahara) decides the class project will be an Exhibition of Interesting Rock Formations on Campus, just to be safe (although one class has cross-dressing waitresses, while another lets kids machine-gun their tentacled teacher, in a nod to Assassination Classroom).

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Yamazaki and Hashimoto.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But the black-caped Dark Reunion choose the festival to reappear and issue a dragon-ball challenge to Shun (Ryo Yoshizawa), who’s suffering from chuunibyou syndrome (in his case, he’s a wannabe manga hero). Even worse, the most popular girl in school, Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto), starts stalking Saiki and very nearly reveals his superpowers. Bombarded with such potentially disastrous situations, it’s no wonder that the young lad starts to panic a little — even if his expression never changes and his hands never, ever come out of his pockets.

Asked whether Saiki’s desire to be normal represented typical Japanese youth, the director responded with a laugh, “Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But this particular character is the exact reverse. That’s why I found it so interesting — he’s like the antithesis of the superhero — and that’s why I wanted to make it into a film.”

The casting, as with all Fukuda’s films, is sure to draw in a huge youth crowd. How does he manage to get all the hottest stars? “The casting, I’ll be frank about this, is all done by my wife,” Fukuda said. “She constantly tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and always cast as my wife wishes. So I do what my wife says, because otherwise, I’ll ultimately regret it. When I’m shooting and I haven’t listened to her advice, I always discover that the actor’s not right for the part. So I’ll tell her and she’ll say, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to me?’ I’ve found that it’s better to listen.

“For Gintama, 80 percent of the casting was done by my wife. She’s the one who told me to cast Kento Yamazaki for Psychic Kusuo. She noticed him long before he became so popular in shojo (female) manga adaptations. I didn’t know who he was, but I followed her advice.”

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©Mance Thompson

On a roll, relishing the truth, he confessed, “I would go so far as to say that a lot of my work is led by my wife. She often advises me on which projects to do or not to do, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker.”

A beat.

“I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry,” he laughed. “But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”

His wife isn’t the only helping hand in the family. Explained Fukuda, “I went into my eldest son’s room looking for something, and found 5 volumes of the Disastrous Life of Saiki Kusuo manga. My son only ever read One Piece, but there were these 5 volumes. I started reading and found it to be really funny and compelling. And I could tell from the visuals that Kento Yamazaki would be perfect for the part.”

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©Mance Thompson

As knowledgeable as he is about American TV, Fukuda did not grow up in the US, and when a prominent entertainment journalist drew clever connections between scenes in the film and the actions of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and between a character played by the great comic actor Murotsuyoshi and Gene Wilder, circa Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the director said he was pleased, but did not have such homages in mind.

After being told by one attendee that Psychic Kusuo might be considered a bit over the top in the West, Fukuda said, “I think there are two types of comedy, the first being a straightforward ‘well-made’ comedy and the other being slapstick. Billy Wilder’s films were ‘well-made’ comedies, and certain prestigious directors have followed in his footsteps in Japan, such as Koki Mitani. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't many who do gag comedy in Japan. Since I was heavily influenced by American comedies, my films have a strong parody aspect. For some reason, we don’t we do much parody in Japan, either.”

But he also insisted that the Japanese audience is “literate” in both types of comedy, and that he doesn’t “look down on or over-explain or dumb down my comedy for the audience. I trust them to get it.”

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Fukuda has fun in the FCCJ photo gallery. ©Mance Thompson

For the past decade or so, every project Fukuda has touched has turned to gold. Big studios line up to work with him, while eminent actors gamely deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags. And his legion of followers? They’re the all-important youth demographic (and the millions who never quite grew up). They clearly can’t get enough of him.

In short, no one has his finger on the Cool Japan comedy zeitgeist quite like Fukuda. It seems impossible that he won’t get a shot at US glory. But in the meantime, he is remaking a US romantic comedy hit and will soon begin adapting the popular “Saint Young Men” manga.

Psychic Kusuo poster SHUICHI ASO  SHUEISHA 2017 Psychic Kusuo FILM PARTNERS
©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

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