Execs Behind Sony's Brad Pitt Action Film 'Bullet Train' Explain Why More Japanese Adaptations Are Heading to Hollywood

Ryosuke Saegusa, Yuma Terada - Publicity - H 2020
Munemasa Takahashi

Ryosuke Saegusa (left) and Yuma Terada of CTB Inc.

Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa, co-founders of Tokyo-based artist management company CTB, discuss what Hollywood gets wrong when it adapts beloved Japanese IP and how they plan to streamline rights sales to bring more contemporary Japanese storytelling to the world.

When Brad Pitt signed on in August to star in director David Leitch's upcoming action thriller Bullet Train, it gave Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa, co-founders of startup Japanese artist management firm CTB Inc, a burst of high-profile visibility for their unconventional business model.

Produced by Sony, Bullet Train will be a big-budget adaptation of Japanese author Kotaro Isaka's novel Maria Beetle. Published in Japan to bestselling success in 2010, the book has all of the elements that U.S. studios typically look for in bankable source material: indelible characters, a thrilling premise (hitmen and assassins aboard a train hurtling through Tokyo), and a relentlessly twisty plot. But like countless other works of inventive Japanese fiction, the novel is unknown in the West; it had sat untranslated, unread and un-optioned for nearly a decade.

Terada and Saegusa believe that fundamental differences in the way Japan and the West handle literary copyrights has prevented contemporary Japanese storytelling from having the global reach that is warranted by its diversity and high quality. In 2017, they launched CTB, Inc. with a mission to fundamentally streamline the acquisition process of Japanese rights. The Sony deal for Maria Beetle/Bullet Train — with the rising action filmmaker behind Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw in the directors chair and Brad Pitt in the lead, no less — should indicate that their disruptive business model is getting traction (the pair also serve as executive producers on the film). In addition to the film deal, Terada and Saegusa also recently sold the English-language publication rights to Maria Beetle to Harvill Secker, the prestigious literary imprint of Penguin Random House (other translated writers there include Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), bringing Isaka's writing into English for the first time. Terada and Saegusa believe these high-profiles sales will be the first of many to come — after all, if Japanese rights have been so difficult to acquire, it follows that a trove of desirable content has accumulated by now.

The Hollywood Reporter connected with Terada and Saegusa to discuss why Hollywood has had such limited success adapting Japanese IP, how they are circumventing the usual copyright entanglements and how the urgent issue of Asian-American representation on screen overlaps with their ambitions as advocates for Japanese storytelling.

First off, how did the two of you come together to found CTB, Inc?

Saegusa: Well, I started my career at Kodansha, one of the largest publishers in Japan, and for 11 years I worked intimately with the most prominent manga creators, novelists and critics as their editor.

Terada: I started my career at Goldman Sachs and spent my first seven years as a principal investor in equities and real estate. But my father is the Japanese screenwriter Kenji Terada (best known as the scenario writer for the original Final Fantasy games, as well as many influential anime), who taught me so much about entertainment.

Saegusa: Our hypothesis is that, between the two of us, we may have the necessary resources to rectify the present situation in which deserving Japanese authors and artists have no global recognition.

It seems that with Maria Beetle/Bullet Train, you have that first proof of concept for your business model.

Terada: We’re pleased that parts of our hypothesis are playing out, but given the degree of critical and commercial success the authors we work with already enjoy in Japan, we are a far cry from where we want to be in the U.S. and in other markets. We continue to be shocked at how slowly we are moving compared to our expectations.

So how would you characterize the untapped storytelling IP that exists in Japan?

Terada: Hollywood’s ability to discover Japanese content is extremely limited. The few Hollywood adaptations — Pokémon, Transformers, Power Rangers — have been based on Japanese properties already known in the U.S. though media other than movies, like games, toys or animation. When it comes to Japanese content that American audiences are unaware of — which of course is the overwhelming majority — Hollywood has negligible access. A good example is Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka, which was published in Japan a decade ago with enormous success but was unknown in Hollywood until we developed a pitch based on the novel, which immediately attracted multiple bids.

What are the obstacles that have historically prevented successful translation and adaptation of Japanese manga and literature?

Terada: The assumption in Hollywood is that every author is represented by agents or managers with whom they can discuss potential deals. Such a system of representation does not exist in Japan. While this is not problematic for domestic Japanese business, when it comes to international transactions, the fact that authors — who usually own the rights to the books on which many Japanese movies and TV shows are based — lack representation presents structural obstacles.

It explains why past Hollywood adaptations of Japanese content have mostly been based on properties previously known in the U.S. through different media. Such deals are usually initiated from the Hollywood side, when buyers try to acquire properties with which they are already familiar. Rarely does the Japanese side initiate deals based on properties that have commercial potential but are unknown in the U.S., because nobody is in the business of representing those properties and their authors as sellers.

Second, even when there is demand from Hollywood, would-be buyers often fail to find the right seller in Japan due to the lack of representation. Hollywood buyers’ point of contact may be Japanese studios or TV stations, but because the idea of chain of title is understood differently in the two countries, these companies are rarely in a position to unilaterally dispose of these rights. In many cases, such deals require the approval of the author of the underlying book, but these individuals are unrepresented and therefore inaccessible.

There is another obstacle as relates specifically to Japanese novels. Unlike the U.S. where authors generally have most of their works published by a single publisher, in Japan, it is customary for multiple publishers to publish different works by the same author. This means that when American publishers have interest in publishing a Japanese author in translation, they have to speak with multiple Japanese publishers, none of which is in a position to discuss the entirety of an author’s oeuvre. This makes it difficult for American publishers to invest in a Japanese author, because they are never sure if they will be able to continue publishing that author’s works. As a result, only a handful of Japanese authors are widely read in English translation, which again leads to Hollywood’s inability to discover Japanese literature.

Saegusa: When I was an editor at Kodansha, it was frustrating that I wasn’t in a position to provide all the services that authors need. I wanted to be in a position not only to work on the manuscript with the author, but also to promote the book domestically, commission translations and market them internationally, and work on movie adaptations and other deals based on secondary rights, all for the purpose of supporting the author’s career. In Japan, nobody truly represents the interests of the author that way.

How does your company circumvent these challenges? 

Saegusa: CTB represents authors directly and is in a position to sign deals based on every work written by those authors. Rather than brokering one-off deals with Hollywood studios or New York publishers, we are committed to working with select authors in an effort to establish them internationally.

As Yuma mentioned, one of the structural impediments preventing Japanese authors from gaining meaningful exposure overseas is the fact that the rights to different works by the same author are held by multiple parties in Japan. We realized early on that these rights need to be held by a single entity, so with the authors' consent, we aggregated them to CTB. This negotiation took many years. But as a result, we are in a position to comprehensively and continuously represent all works by an author on an exclusive basis. Without this aggregation of rights, it would have been difficult, for example, to have Maria Beetle published in many languages worldwide and at the same time, have it made into a major Hollywood movie as Bullet Train.

Japan has had such a profound influence on Western moviemaking and U.S. pop culture — from video games to anime to the great Japanese filmmakers of the postwar era. Yet when Hollywood attempts to adapt Japanese IP, they so often misfire. Why do you think that is?

Terada: One possible reason is Hollywood’s interest in only the IP and not the author who created it. Hollywood purchases Japanese IPs, but they rarely invite Japanese creators to develop projects with them. We have certainly done IP-based transactions, but also see strong potential in the latter model. In fact, we have signed a deal with a Hollywood studio in which Kazushige Abe, an author who is prominent in Japan but unknown in the U.S., is paid to write an original pilot intended for American television (the project, titled Sentimental Journey, is in development). The Hollywood executive responsible for that deal saw an opportunity to acquire differentiated storytelling that other studios don’t have access to. The unconventional nature of the deal presented unique challenges, but we were able to source, structure and close what I think is a groundbreaking deal.

Looking back at semi-recent Hollywood adaptations of Japanese IP, which projects would you describe as the rare successes?

Saegusa: We thought Edge of Tomorrow was a rare example in which the underlying property was not widely known in the U.S. prior to the Hollywood movie. As we discussed, there is an endless supply of Japanese content that is unknown outside of Japan, but that has commercial potential not only in Hollywood but also in other countries with a robust filmmaking business — like China. We certainly look forward to realizing projects based on many such properties down the line.

What is it about Isaka and his work that gave you such confidence he could find an audience in the U.S. — both in the translation of his books or as the basis for film/TV projects?

Saegusa: Kotaro Isaka debuted as a novelist in 2000 with Audubon’s Prayer and has published roughly 40 novels to date. Although Isaka is a consistently best-selling author whose books sell several hundred thousand copies each in Japan alone, his novels are also ambitious works of literary fiction. As entertaining as Isaka’s books are, showing influences of Hollywood movies, crime fiction, and Japanese manga, they also inherit the tradition of Japanese literature established by the likes of Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe.

Still, Isaka’s books are ideal for Hollywood adaptations. They manage to be humorous and suspenseful at the same time, and feature unforgettable characters, an intricate plot, and surprising finales. At the same time, as a novelist, Isaka always challenges himself to write stories that can only be told using the literary medium. For that reason, it is often necessary to develop our own take on what the Hollywood version of an Isaka book would look like before pitching it to Hollywood studios. We do this with Isaka’s blessing, and the effort certainly paid off with Maria Beetle.

Yes, how did the deal with Sony come about? I understand that this has been a long work in progress for you.

Terada: When we started, we thought we would simply have Maria Beetle translated into English and send it to studios, and everyone would read the book and immediately realize its commercial potential. Clearly, we had never done any business in Hollywood at that point. We didn’t know anybody then, but through introductions, managed to submit the English translation to one studio, which after a long pause rejected it. We got our hands on the reader’s report the studio had commissioned and were shocked to see how uninteresting Maria Beetle looked on that report. With Kotaro Isaka’s blessing, we decided to write our own pitch, not as a coverage of the book, but as our take on what the two-hour Hollywood movie version of Maria Beetle would look like. This pitch material immediately attracted multiple bids in Hollywood and we ultimately decided to work with Sony. I should clarify that we regard this pitch merely as our way of getting through the door. Once the deal is closed and actual filmmakers read the novel, the book would speak for itself and filmmakers can make their own version of the movie, as is happening now with Maria Beetle.

Another difficulty we faced in bringing Maria Beetle to Hollywood concerned chain of title. One fun aspect of Isaka’s novels is that characters from one book often appear in a different book. As a literary device, this helps establish a sense of consistent world view that his readers enjoy. From a legal perspective, especially as it relates to Hollywood’s particular understanding of chain of title, however, the fact that some characters from Maria Beetle make minor appearances in another Isaka book that had previously been made into a Japanese movie proved problematic. The complication was such that at one point, there was tangible risk of the deal falling apart because of this specific issue. But we worked with both American and Japanese lawyers to negotiate a compromise that was acceptable to all parties involved, both in the U.S. and Japan. Especially in Japan, our ability to negotiate this deal derived at least partially from our direct and strong relationship with Kotaro Isaka.

How loose will the film adaptation of Maria Beetle be? I assume that since it stars Brad Pitt it is being transposed into a Western/U.S. context? To what extent will it remain a Japanese story on screen? Will it be set in Japan? In English?

Saegusa: We’re not at liberty to discuss [details of the film] at this point, but I am excited the project is attracting excellent staff and cast. I will say that we regard literature and cinema as two entirely different forms of expression. The best way to enjoy Isaka’s literary work is to read the book, whether you see the movie or not. I am pleased that Harvill Secker will be publishing the novel with an excellent translation next year. The movie will of course stray from the novel, as it should, in order to create the best possible cinematic experience. Creatively, we are not against such adaptation. In fact, we think it is necessary and as previously discussed, we even proposed dynamic changes in our own take when we first pitched Maria Beetle to Hollywood. I am convinced that the English translation of the novel and the Hollywood movie will both be highly enjoyable as separate pieces of work. As a big fan of movies, Isaka himself has an appreciation for the unique nature of each medium.

I ask because this is one of the more fraught aspects of adapting Japanese IP today. Paramount, for example, generated a lot of controversy several years ago when Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead of the live-action adaptation/remake of the iconic manga and anime Ghost in the Shell. The assertion was that the lead role had been whitewashed, and that an Asian actress ought to have played the lead. 

As you know, within Japan, there was no backlash at all to Scarlett Johansson's casting, because it was basically expected that the Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell would become a foreign Hollywood remake in every respect (if there was any disappointment, it centered on the fact that the new movie wasn't particularly good, whereas the original is considered a great classic). What does generate controversy in Japan from time to time is when actors of other Asian backgrounds — Thai-American, Chinese-American, Vietnamese, etc — are cast to play Japanese characters. The perception is that Hollywood assumes that all Asian peoples and cultures are somehow the same, or interchangeable. Since your business entails you working across both sets of perspectives, how do you negotiate these issues?

Saegusa: Well, we are unequivocally against racial discrimination. We also believe that it's unproductive to indiscriminately denounce or praise certain practices without regard to context. We don't necessarily believe that movie roles must always be played by actors or actresses whose ethnicities correspond to the characters as written in the screenplay or the underlying novel. We also believe the novel and the movie are two separate things. In the case of Bullet Train, the best way [for non-Japanese speakers] to enjoy the novel as it was originally written is to read the forthcoming English translation. The movie is a separate work that is born out of the creative team's efforts to realize its cinematic vision. I do believe that in the case of Bullet Train the movie, the ethics of representation are being taken into careful consideration.

You mentioned that you're also active in cultivating an audience in China. How does that huge market factor into your ambitions?

Terada: Yes, the U.S. is by no means the only territory in which we have business. In China, we have worked diligently with select publishers over the years and, today, in the example of Kotaro Isaka, all of his works are published in Mandarin Chinese. We are at a point where we receive offers from Chinese publishers for a new book by Isaka before it’s published in Japan. In 2016, Isaka was the guest of honor at the Shanghai Book Festival, and over a thousand young Chinese fans lined up for his autograph.

But our efforts in different markets all affect one another. For example, Isaka’s popularity in China is important for Hollywood buyers, since it means that a Hollywood movie based on an Isaka book would have an enthusiastic audience not only in Japan but also in China. In the example of Maria Beetle, specifically, the book is published in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese, and is forthcoming in English, Italian, Lithuanian, Russian and Thai, with more deals to come.

Besides Maria Beatle/Bullet Train, what other projects do you have underway?

Terada: There is a book by Isaka called Seesaw Monster that we believe would make a great Hollywood movie. Like we did for Maria Beetle, with Isaka’s blessing, we wrote a pitch based on our take of what the two-hour Hollywood version of Seesaw Monster would look like. Instead of taking it to a studio, this time, we are working with a producer here to first attach a screenwriter. We are exploring different models to see how much producing we can do in Hollywood.

Saegusa :We are producing an original series for a major streaming service, which will be announced next year. I cannot discuss this in detail yet, but between this, Bullet Train and other projects, we are managing to keep ourselves quite busy.

And Hollywood is only one part of our business. While working with top tier novelists like Kazushige Abe and Isaka, we are concurrently producing a hit comedy show in Japan called Creator’s File starring comedian Ryuji Akiyama. We are also editing the forthcoming book of film criticism by Shigehiko Hasumi, a towering figure of film and literary criticism. So our portfolio of projects is quite diverse.

Terada: We also recently started working with contemporary artist and theater director Miwa Yanagi, known for representing Japan at the 2009 Venice Biennale, on her next project. There is also increasing demand from Japanese authors who we don’t represent for us to take their IPs to Hollywood. We are blessed to be working with key artistic talent in diverse genres. We believe that our experience in one area informs our work in others.