Exclusive: Azumi Director Ryuhei Kitamura

One day, all Americans will know the name of Japanese action director Ryuhei Kitamura… or at least, that’s the America that I hope to someday live in. Known solely to devout Asian cinephiles for his early movie Versus, Kitamura is the kind of filmmaker that Michael Bay might be if he were Japanese… and talented… but he’s a rare breed, making Hollywood-style action movies that still owe much to the traditions of his native country.

A good example of this is his 2003 samurai epic Azumi, based on the comic by Yu Koyama about a teen girl who is trained since childbirth as a samurai assassin. The success of that movie in his homeland led to Godzilla: Final Wars, meant to be the last Godzilla movie but clearly the best one in years, paying simultaneous homage and spoof to the great Godzilla movies of the ’70s.

To commemorate Azumi finally arriving on our shores, Kitamura showed up at Comic-Con in San Diego last week to show the film, and ComingSoon.net/SuperheroHype.com had a rare chance to sit down to talk to him about his two high profile movies. One of the few Japanese directors we’ve interviewed who speaks fluent English, Kitamura has yet to find the right English project to blow American moviegoers’ socks off, but in the meantime, he’s built up a fine collection of action movies that should insure that happens very soon.

ComingSoon.net: Were you familiar with the comic book “Azumi” before being asked to make it into a movie, and how were you approached to adapt it?

Ryuhei Kitamura: I was a big fan of the comic, of course, and I was also a big fan of Yu Koyama. He wrote lots and lots of great comics, so I’ve been a big fan of him for the last thirty years, and I kind of grew up reading his comics. This producer, Mata Yamamoto, he saw my first feature film called “Versus” at the film festival in Japan. It was like the year 2001, two years before we made “Azumi,” and he loved “Versus.” Right after the screening, he came to me. Mata Yamamoto is kind of a living legend in Japan; he made this great movie called “The Man Who Stole the Sun,” it’s a very great cult classic Asian movie, and I knew him. He said, “I love Versus and I want you to direct my project, Azumi.” I said, “Woah, Azumi! That’s my favorite. I’m in!” So it was like a thirty-second done deal.

CS: How did you go about finding a young actress that could do all of the action required of the role?

Kitamura: That was the most difficult part. This producer asked me and I said, “I will do Azumi, but we have two big problems, one is the story. The comic is so big, so long, so how do we make a two-hour story out of the huge comic? The other thing is the actress problem. Who’s going to play Azumi?” It’s impossible to find an actress who can move in Japan. It’s not like Hong Kong or China or Korea. Most of the Japanese actors and actresses, they can’t move. That was the problem, I knew that, but “Azumi” was a very big movie so studios were all saying they wanted to use someone famous. Someone famous is easy to find, but it’s a different thing if she can move, so I had to find somebody who I can train as Azumi, maybe famous or maybe becoming famous. Me and the producer auditioned 200 beautiful girls. We just called every beautiful girl from 14 to 23, all over Japan, but we couldn’t find one. I was so desperate. I’m not the kind of director that can make a movie just as a job, so if I have no confidence in it, I’m not going to do it. On the one hand, we were fighting how to write the script. It took like a year and a half til we finished the script.

CS: The movie ended up being an open-ended story to set-up a sequel, so did you just grab a section from the bigger serialized story and condense it?

Kitamura: No, it’s more original. It’s impossible to pick parts from the comic book. The beginning is the same as the comic, but the ending and the middle part, I just created on my own with my writers, so that was one thing we were fighting and we couldn’t find the right person to play Azumi. I was so desperate. I was walking one day and I saw Aya Ueto first on a baseball campaign poster at the station, and she had this great eye, so I called my casting agent. I’m looking at this baseball campaign poster and I want to know who she is, and he found out she was Aya Ueto. She wasn’t that famous at all.

CS: Was she more of a model in Japan?

Kitamura: No, not a model, but only done a few acting [jobs] and singing and that’s it. She was nobody. I called this producer, and I said, “Mata, we found one, Aya Ueto,” and he said, “I’ve never heard of her.” “Of course you haven’t heard of her. She isn’t famous,” but we met all the beautiful girls within six months. It’s only fun for a day or two talking with beautiful girls.

CS: Sounds a lot like Takashi Miike’s “Audition”…

Kitamura: (laughs) That’s okay, ’cause he was looking for his wife, but we were so fed up. We asked her agent to send us material and they sent us this kind of video where she’s playing in a swimming pool and singing karaoke. It was the stupidest video, so Mata told me, “What do you want to do with this cute little girl?” And I said, “C’mon, this isn’t a pop star video. We should meet her and see her acting. You never know.” But he didn’t listen to me, so nothing happened for six months, and after six months, she suddenly became so famous because of her acting in one TV series, and this producer he was on the way home, and he has this big BMW with a TV, so just by accident, he saw her acting, so one day, I got a message from this producer saying, “Ryuhei, we found her. This is the one. We’re meeting her tomorrow, so call me back!” I didn’t call back. “I told you six months ago!” So finally, we met her and when she entered the room, we decided she was the one. After that, it was simple.

CS: Of course, if I asked this producer the same question, he’d probably say he discovered her right away. As Americans, we think samurai movies and we think Akira Kurosawa, but there’s also things like “Lone Wolf and Cub.” Could you talk about the influences for this movie and whether you found influence more from movies or comic books?

Kitamura: I don’t know. I got a lot of influence from lots of movies. I didn’t watch much Japanese movies when I was a kid. I preferred watching Hollywood movies or Australian movies. I studied filmmaking in Australia because I loved “Mad Max” too much. So I got lots of influences from lots of movies but when I was making “Azumi,” of course I wanted to make these fighting sequences something original, in the way of those “Lone Wolf and Cub,” Kenji Misumi style. At that time, Japan was making these great swordfighting movies. There was “Lone Wolf” and “Zatoichi.” Of course Kurosawa. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Japan was leading the action movies at that time, but now, they don’t make these kinds of movies anymore. I guess I’m the only one who sticks to the action movie genre. No other director does it. Some others started to do it after “Azumi” but they all failed. They don’t make these kinds of movies, so when I first toured the world with my first feature film “Versus,” I had a great reaction from the audiences and the journalists, and everyone told me that “This is the best Japanese movie since ‘Baby Cart’/'Lone Wolf’!” and that movie was thirty years ago! So what has Japan been doing for thirty years that all these overseas journalists were so happy watching “Versus,” and I was so happy but so sad that Japan no longer makes this kind of entertainment movie. When I had this big chance of making “Azumi,” I said that I would bring back the spirit of these ’60s or ’70s samurai movies into this movie.

CS: “Azumi” is a very violent movie, but there are some anti-violence themes in there. It always comes back to her wanting to stop a war, but having to kill to do so. Can you talk about that?

Kitamura: Yes, that kind of thing was in the comic book already. The story is set 500 years ago in Japan, but it’s the same thing happening right now, see? It’s a story about terrorists, you can say, and it depends on what side you’re on. I can’t say what is good or what is bad. There are always two sides, that’s why war happens, and always, there’s clearly another point of view when you go to the other side. Azumi, this poor girl, and her friends, they’ve trained and kind of been brainwashed more than ten years. They learn only to kill and just listen their master’s order, and for me, I think the same things happen with Al Qaeda and terrorists. If you’re in the States, you can call them bad people, but you never know. There’s always the people who enlist them and brainwash them, so Azumi, the comic book, is still going on and the author still hasn’t found the answer to the story yet. I wanted to have answer or a goal for this two-hour movie for what is this movie about, so I decided to put this ending sequence. [Which we won't spoil here.] The big difference is that at the beginning of the movie, she just listens to her master’s order. She doesn’t know what is right or what is wrong. She just goes out and kills people because her master tells her to, and in the end, everyone’s gone and she’s on her own, and she still decides to kill. I can’t say that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the difference is that she’s on her own. She’s not just brainwashed or listening to her master. That’s a big thing for me.

CS: Of course, you went right from “Azumi” into directing another huge Japanese icon in “Godzilla: Final Wars.” You seemed to get the best parts of the ’60s and ’70s Godzilla movies into that, too. How did that come about?

Kitamura: Three days after we released “Azumi,” Toho Studios called me and asked me if I was interested in doing Godzilla, and I said, “What? Why me?” I’m very straight person. I tell people what I think. I don’t consider my feelings. So I met producer Mr. Tomiyama, he’s been making Godzilla movies for the last 15 years, and I told him that I loved Godzilla back in the ’70s, but after the ’80s, I didn’t like it and I don’t go and watch anymore. “Only Godzilla freaks [went to see them], so I have to be very honest with you, because I don’t want to get into trouble after I start making the movie with you. I don’t like the Godzilla movies for the last 15 years. I think there’s something missing because back in the ’70s, Godzilla had more power, more crazy things.” I think Japanese people, they think Godzilla is a superior thing, but it’s a fun thing, Godzilla, right? Only the first one, that was a masterpiece and that was something different, but after that, back in the ’70s, Godzilla had lots of fun in it, very stupid things and funny things. Recently, they lost that kind of spirit. That’s what I told him, so why do you want me to do it? And this producer said, “I want something new for the last Godzilla. I know that I’ve been making mistakes.” So I said, “Okay, if you ask me to do it, I will do the upgrade version of ’70s Godzilla, that’s what I’m going to do. Is that happy for you?” and he said yes.

CS: I’ve heard that you’re interested in directing more American films, too, and that you actually moved to L.A. for a bit?

Kitamura: I come here every two months, and I have my agent here, and I’ve been talking to studio people and producers.

CS: So is that something you’re still interested in doing or are you keeping busy enough back in Japan?

Kitamura: Yeah, I’m talking and maybe, yes. I haven’t decided yet, but soon. Of course, that’s one of my goals to make a big Hollywood movie, but I kept my style even when I was making Godzilla movies or samurai movies, and I’m that kind of director. I’m not the kind of director who just can do all kind of jobs, so it’s a little hard to find the right Hollywood project that interests me a lot. Maybe for a job, it’s a good thing, but I’m not that kind of director.

CS: You weren’t involved with the sequel “Azumi 2,” but are you still planning on doing a “Versus 2″?

Kitamura: Yes, yes. Some people overseas, they are interested in doing a remake of “Versus.” I’m not that interested in doing the remake, but “Versus” is very special for me, so I might do that on my own, and I will do the “Versus 2,” maybe next year or within two years.

Azumi is now playing in New York; it opens in L.A. and San Francisco on Friday, July 28, San Diego and Chicago on August 4 and elsewhere in August. If you’re into samurai swordfighting ala Kill Bill Vol. 1, this movie is a can’t miss!

Source: Edward Douglas