Q&A: Genki Kawamura

"Confessions" Producer Talks about Influences and Early Success

Producer and planner Genki Kawamura has definitely had the Midas touch of late, working on hits Kagehinata ni Saku (Flowers in the Shadow), Detroit Metal City, Confessions and Akunin (Villain). Only 31 years old – and already a member of The Hollywood Reporter's Next Gen Asia class of 2010 -- his two most recent films have been chosen as Japan's foreign-language Oscar entry (Confessions) and won an award at the Montreal International Film Festival (Akunin), respectively. He recently sat down with THR Japan correspondent Gavin J. Blair to talk about his influences, working sans a TV network's backing and the state of the Japanese film industry.

You started producing at a young age at Toho, Japan's biggest major studio. How did that come about?

Genki Kawamura: When I first entered Toho, I attended a lot of meetings of producers working on scenarios, such as for Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (2004) – which was a big learning experiences for me. At around that time, when I was 24, I started trying to think of something that none of the older producers were focused on. I thought that nobody was looking at the Internet and I had the idea of doing something from 2ch (a huge collection of message boards). From that came the idea of Densha Otoko (Train Man, 2005), which was based on a true story and had a very twentysomething sensibility about it. It was a great way to start for me and did 3.7 billion yen ($45 million) at the box office, and we've had about 20 remake offers -- one of which is going ahead in Hollywood. It was a bit like hitting a homerun on the first pitch though, it was hard to follow. Then in 2008, I did two films: Kagehinata ni Saku (Flowers in the Shadow) about a real low-down loser of a guy, and Detroit Metal City, a story of a reluctant death-metal band leader, based on a cult comic, both of which were hits. I work at Toho, but I feel my purpose is to bring independent-type sub-culture films to a big audience. The filmmakers I really respect are people like J.J. Abrams, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, who bring elements of sub-culture into major entertainment. 

As a producer of some of the few recent movies that haven't been backed by TV stations, is that of any importance to you?

Kawamura: People often point that out to me, but I didn't really think about that when planning them. The only point that is relevant is that I want to make cutting-edge films and the kind that can't go out on TV that easily. For example, if there was a TV station involved in Detroit Metal City then they would have asked to have all the swearing taken out of the band's lyrics. 

You've described your stance as 'super-domestic,' and yet your films are getting appreciated abroad? 

Kawamura: I do still call it 'super-domestic' -- the setting for something like Train Man couldn't be any more Japanese -- yet its universal aspects attracted interest from producers around the world. Confessions perhaps even more so; again, I think it's a very Japanese theme, problems at a junior high school -- but it's had really positive reactions from overseas critics. 

Are you interested in collaborating with filmmakers from overseas? 

Kawamura: As I said, my concept is super-domestic, so the truth is -- not so much (laughs). If there's a story that requires working together, that's fine, but not thinking "let's collaborate" and then trying to find an idea that works. There are hardly any international collaborations that have developed that way that have succeeded. I'm not interested in collaborating just for the sake of it. But if there's, say, a Korean director who wants to work on an idea together, or if a Hollywood studio want to use one of my ideas, then I'm interested. For example, there are some talented Hispanic creators that caught my eye recently, people like (Guillermo) del Toro
Who have you been influenced by? 

Kawamura: Well, talking about classic filmmakers, it would be Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, creators that could combine joy and sorrow. As for contemporaries, Korea's Bong Joon-ho, he was the first Asian director of my generation that struck me as a real talent. He goes from one genre to another without missing a beat. And again, J.J. Abrams keeps managing to surprise over and over, as a planner, a producer and director. 
What do you think of the state of the Japanese film industry?

Kawamura: There's a kind of "sakoku" (the period when Japan was closed to the outside world) tendency at the moment. That's not necessarily a bad thing; when it happened before a unique and rich culture developed. So if that's going to happen now, then really interesting art and ideas may actually develop, and then at some point they'll be appreciated around the world and Japan will once again look outside for influences. If you look at say, Hong Kong, it's a real melting pot and that's how someone like John Woo comes about. But Korea and Japan are more domestic-focused, so different kinds of creators such as Bong Joon-ho and Hayao Miyazaki appear. Even in Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle, I see part of their style coming from an island-nation mentality. Anyway, I do think the level of Japanese films is improving recently, and creators are more confident. I don't think there's an inferiority complex about Hollywood anymore. If I think about who's the most interesting director in the world, it's probably Bong Joon-ho. And even the most consistently interesting director working in Hollywood -- it's Ang Lee. They're Asian creators from neighboring countries.