The Hot Producer Behind Japan's Body-Swapping Blockbuster
Genki Kawamura, who is gearing up for a major presence at the Tokyo International Film Festival, opens up about his smash hit 'Your Name.,' why he loves "weak" characters and how his Midas touch also is a curse.
It's safe to say Genki Kawamura is Japan's hottest producer. Responsible for a string of hits including Mamoru Hosoda's The Boy and the Beast, Japan's 2015 box-office king, and the current smash Your Name., a teen body-swapping drama that is on course to gross $200 million, Kawamura, 37, is on quite a hot streak. He also will have a major presence at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival, with Boy and the Beast and Your Name screening alongside his latest release, the murder mystery Rage starring Ken Watanabe, and the animated short Moom, based on one of his three children's books, directed by US-based Tonko House's Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. As if that weren't enough, Kawamura is a successful author (he has written three novels). His 2012 debut novel, If Cats Disappeared From the World, has sold 1.3 million and was made into a film this year by the studio Toho, his employer, while a Chinese film based on his second novel Million Dollar Man is in the works. Kawamura spoke with THR about redefining the traditional role of the producer in Japan, why he loves "weak" characters and how his Midas touch also is a curse.
What do you see as the major differences between the roles of producers in Japan and Hollywood?
Producers in Hollywood are basically independent and contract with studios for projects, but in Japan we're nearly all studio employees, myself included. Directors mostly work independently in Japan, so their risk and sense of urgency are much greater, but realizing truly unique projects is a challenge in Japan for producers who are employees. One of the major issues is the way directors' and producers' roles are so clearly defined and separated in Japan. In America you have people like J.J. Abrams who direct, produce and write scripts, and it's not a problem. In Japan I'm thought of as strange because I do a variety of things.
But you do work on your own projects outside your studio
I work on writing books and music projects etc. all independently. My novel If Cats Disappeared from the World has sold about 1.3 million copies. It's been published all over Asia, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, and is now scheduled to be released in France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
When you wrote the novel were you thinking of it being made into a film?
I wasn't thinking of that at all.
Seriously, I'll explain why. If you think of the title If Cat's Disappeared from the World, now try to imagine that in film - a town or world which cats had disappeared from – how would you shoot that? As I was writing a novel, I wanted to do a story that would be difficult to express in a film. Though it's often stories that seem like they wouldn't work on screen that turn out to be the most interesting films. Confessions (Kokuhaku) was like that, based on a novel with five main characters who just talk to themselves. [Produced by Kawamura in 2010, it was a box office and critical hit, winning a slew of awards and making the shortlist for the best foreign-language Oscar in 2011]. Nobody would have thought the novel Oil! would become There Will be Blood or that a conceptual story like No Country for Old Men could be made into such a good film.
The films you have produced are so varied in genre and style. From your point of view, is there a common theme?
People who don't lead happy, successful lives, who aren't heroic, that's maybe the common theme. Beginning with Train Man (2005) and carrying on with Confessions and Love Strikes! (Moteki, 2011), they were weak characters who don't become heroes but live intelligently. I guess I'm interested in the disappointing aspects of human nature. It really comes out when I'm writing novels. If Cats… theme was how when people are facing death they really start to live. My second book Million Dollar Man was about people who are desperate to be rich, but as soon as they get money they become unhappy. Money is created by humans but ends up being stronger than them. My third book April Come She Will, from the title of the Simon and Garfunkel song, is coming out in November and is about love in a time when romance is disappearing from urban life. Those are the three main themes of my films too, because no matter how clever people are they can never really deal with those three; humans have been battling with those three since the time of Socrates and Plato and nobody has found the answer.
Your Name. is a huge hit. Why do you think it has captivated audiences?
As of today, 10 million people have seen it. No non-Miyazaki anime has [become a blockbuster], so it's like Hayao Miyazaki versus the world. He's such a giant in the field and has influenced everybody, but it was something completely different that caught the imagination. Makoto Shinkai, who animates by himself using digital technology and isn't attached to an anime studio, together with myself as a storyteller, introduced new ideas that made people want to go and watch it.
THR: And do you still have the Midas touch? [In 2010, THR wrote that Kawamura had the Midas touch due to the string of hits he'd already produced]
I don't think I do. People who have the Midas touch really know what they're doing to attract audiences — I'm always surprised when the films succeed. [Your Name. director] Makoto Shinkai's last anime only did $1.5 million, and we thought no matter how hard we tried we could only do a maximum of 10 times that, so the budget and marketing expenses for Your Name. were kept pretty low. We never imagined we could do 100 times that.
You know in the original story of the Midas touch it was a curse?
I know, In that sense, I suppose I may have the touch. People expect everything I do to become a huge hit.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The previous version of this article contained a number of inaccuracies, including the title of Kawamura's second novel, the number of novels he had written and saying he wasn't interested in working on international projects. THR regrets these errors.