What do you tell people when they ask what you do?
It’s never easy and confuses most. About half the work I do is translation, mainly film subtitles for Japanese films into English and the occasional American film like Southpark into Japanese.
The other half is film coordination. I own a production company (Local 81 www.local81.jp) acting as the line producer. Local81 is the source for experienced, bilingual, award-winning filmmakers specializing in music videos, documentaries, commercials and features shot in Japan. We assist overseas directors/producers. We recently did a NIKE commercial with Traktor and are doing the world premiere/press junket for SPIDERMAN 3.
This is the point people’s eyes start to glaze over or look at me like I must be making this all up. Oh, and then I have the acting career too as well as being a dialogue coach, directing actors for computer games and dubbed versions of Japanese commercials. My dad laughs at me because I have to produce television shows for corporations like the Discovery Channel so I can afford to work on Japanese features. He also laughs at me because in college I got offered a job with the CIA and he still thinks that’s what I really do.
Is there any job that you identify more with, or feel the most comfortable with?
I feel pretty comfortable as a line producer. But feel even more relaxed as an actor and director. The long term plan has always been to write and direct a feature. I have always written and always wanted to direct. I never thought it would be possible hence I started out on the producer track. I have directed a music video and a short that was shown at RESFEST and ONE DOT ZERO film festivals.
But damn, if making a dime doesn’t consume your life in this town. At least I have worked with and hired many of the people I want to make my film with. I thought I’d direct by 30 then 35, now at 38, I hope it’s before 40. The biggest problem now is finding the time to write.
This post continues after the jump. Also, be aware the language gets a little blue.
How did you break into the biz?
Dumb fucking luck really. A girl I went to Sophia with was working for an Australian film producer, Charles Hannah, who was running a co-production feature between Australia and Japan. She was leaving, wanted to know if I was interested. When I got that call it was like “Are you high? Of course, I am”. I worked as his assistant interpreter for meetings with the Japanese distributor as well as all the other projects we were doing like development, completion bonds, distribution, etc. Later, Charles went back to Australia and worked for Becker Entertainment a television production company. He introduced me to their production team for the first television show I ever coordinated which was a Lonely Planet show about soccer. Charles was recently the executive producer of The World's Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins.
I started acting through translation and directing. I was doing South Park and set to direct the voice actors. I had been schooled in distribution, producing, production, directing but never acting. I got accepted to United Performers' Studio run by Narahashi Yoko (associate producer for THE LAST SAMURAI, casting associate BABEL) and studied method acting 18 hours a week for a year.
In a sense, I broke into acting through translation. I had been doing subtitles for SUPER MILK-CHAN. The director was planning a feature. The only problem is that he hates dealing with actors and always hires models. I was talking to the producer while we were checking the subtitles and told him about my experiences through acting and that I’d love to audition. Two years later, the same producer’s company was doing JAM FILMS: Justice. He called me and asked me to audition for the part of Robert, the teacher. After I got the role, I found out they had already auditioned 60 people for the role. Since the director was busy, they videotaped the audition which took place in a coffee shop. The audition was playing the scene where Robert asks about the writing on the desk, goes nuts and finally throws the kid out of the class. I found out later that the person playing the student was the main producer. At the end of the audition, I told the cameraman to let me do one more thing and said, “This is for you Yukisada (the director). I took off my shirt, exposed my T-shirt where I had written “seigi” (justice). I turned around showing that the shirt said “heiwa” (peace). I raised the t-shirt exposing my chest where I had written manko or “pussy” in Japanese. I asked my manager at the time, “How’d I do?” She said, “I could have done without the last part.” But that was really what the director liked. He even wrote about in the behind the scenes book for the making of the JAM FILMS series. And he keeps casting me in his movies.
Did you have some lucky breaks, or was it an uphill battle?
It’s an uphill battle as an actor not having an agent or being associated with a big talent agency. Most directors find me through my work or contact me via a friend of a friend. Japanese film doesn’t really audition in the overseas entertainment sense. The hardest thing is convincing Japanese directors that a foreign actor can play more than the pedestrian English teacher, white guy role. Of course, I never try to take such a role or give such a performance. With JUSTICE, I walked like a goose stepping Nazi with fake glasses and all. I talked as fast as possible. Only an American English teacher would think he could recite something and expect his students to be translating it in sync. And gave a hint of my crazed, hidden, ashamed because of the Catholic church inner longing for buruma panties. I said Jesus several times on purpose too. I did a similar thing in PAVILLION. I am quizzing the girl on pronunciation and listening checking “right” and “light” but in the end, I mess it up on purpose as I get close to touching her tits. In SUKIYAKI WESTERN, my English is the least comprehendible once again on purpose.
Any secrets you are ready to pass along to other foreigners wanting to work in Japanese films?
First and foremost, learn to not only speak Japanese but to read and write it. From there, I’d say focus on what side of filmmaking you want to be a part of. If you want to be a producer, bang on the door of a person who makes films you like and ask for a job. If you want to direct, find a director and offer to be an assistant director. Then get prepared to make nothing or next to nothing. The fourth AD on a film set usually has no experience, runs the slate and works for free. For at least 18 hours a day, you can make nothing working as a “minarai” or about 10,000 yen per day. Of course, you get free food which is where the expression “kutte ikeru” (can you make a living literally can you eat) probably comes from.
There is no overtime paid on Japanese features and most television. All salaries are on a gross amount. It’s kind of a gaman taikai. No one sits down on the set. No one paces themselves to rest. When a film wraps, people often get wheeled off to the hospital. Most films are shot in three weeks under 4 million dollars; what America calls a down and dirty. In terrorism-for-sale-inc or why-does-the-world-hate-us, these films are generally direct to video crappola fare. Here, it’s high-end features.
But if you want to work in production, at least you’ll get paid more than actors. First time extras usually get the luxury of spending a day on set as well as lunch/dinner. Extras – now these are trained actors mind you – might come for the day for 5,000 yen. For my first role in JUSTICE, I was paid the whopping sum of 50,000 yen for two days. Tsumabuki probably got 1 million yen and his managing company HORIPRO took at least half.
Of course, this leads to the dilemma of being an actor in Japan. Features pay very little so most actors must do TV dramas. Everyone hopes for commercials as the appearance fees are staggering. But when you watch TV, ever notice that the show itself is pretty much a commercial especially when it comes to variety programming? But then you think, so-so talent, she’s on so many shows, she must be popular, her fee must be high. Nope. She’s just cheap that’s why they book her so much. That’s why TV is dominated by comedian acts because they are cheap to produce and can talk so no need for a script, kind of like reality TV in the US. Is it 2 AM and have I had a few rum and cokes? You’re damn tootin’!
Is Takashi Miike as crazy as his movies?
Not at all. He’s totally sane; totally talented. On IMPRINT and DJANGO, I often felt I was working with one of the greatest directors of all time. Recently, his sunglasses were broken and you could see his eyes throughout the filming. He has the sweetest, most compassionate eyes complete with long eyelashes.
How do you feel about working with him, and will you do it in the future again?
I love working with him and the entire Miike team. It’s great to be with top professionals. I started with GOZU doing the subtitles, then did ZEBRAMAN, then IMPRINT, then SHONEN A and now DJANGO and recently did subtitles for the SEGA game turned feature: RYU GA GOTUKU.
On IMPRINT, I spent about 90% of the film right next to him by the monitor. He listens to what you have to say and even uses ideas. I spent just as much time on DJANGO learning what I can. He’s made so many films that it’s all in his head. The script for IMPRINT was only 30 pages. He’d arrive every morning and write out a shot list while having coffee.
What makes the man so wonderful is that he can make films without a script. Any Hollywood director or music video director turned feature director can make a film. You get a story which you have to follow anyway to get the project green lighted. You break it down, you budget it, you get money – too much most of the time -- and you hire people. And all of this is done in a very film friendly environment. In Japan, getting cooperation to film in locations takes weeks of preparation and loads of clearances. In LA, you just throw money at someone. In Japan, despite being an economic power, money doesn’t mean everything. Being part of a film means even less sometimes. We were scouting on a studio roof the other day for a commercial photo shoot and were told that we couldn’t use strobes after dark as it would offend the neighbors.
That all being said, it’s still damn hard work. At least 15 hour days often 20 sometimes 24. We shot IMPRINT in 21 days and DJANGO in two months. But no one feels like they are being treated like slaves. They feel part of a grand vision. They don’t get ordered around and told to do things the LA way by a foreign production. Get this…as of ZEBRAMAN, Aikawa Show had the leading role in 100 films. Now get on IMDB.COM and take a look the number of films the flavor of the year actor has made.
Speaking of extreme and possibly crazy Japanese directors, have you run into Shinya Tsukamoto?
Never. Like him as an actor more than a director.
When you were working on the Masters of Horror imprint, did you think it would be banned from Showtime like it was, or did that come as a surprise?
It came as somewhat of a surprise. But the real reason was probably to boost DVD sales. With headlines like “Miike – Too Extreme for Showtime” I think they got what they wanted. I still applaud Mick Garris’s vision to let directors make their own films without any interference from distributors.
What is your latest role like? Will we be able to recognize you? I ask because your appearance looks different in every publicity shot.
I play the town preacher and act as a mouthpiece for the mayor (Ishibashi Renji). You might know him as the crazed ballet teacher in AUDITION or the yakuza boss who liked to sit on spoons in GOZU. I’m the only non-Japanese actor other than Tarantino so I think you’ll be able to pick me out. I also speak the worst English in the bunch.
Do you do loose interpretations when you translate, or do you get pretty close to the literal meaning?
I try to get as close to the literal meaning as possible but making sure that I convey the writer’s vision. If he wants a laugh in a certain place then people better damn well at least chortle. In cases like this, I often “transwrite” by substituting words or jokes that will play better. In KOI NO MON/OTAKU’S IN LOVE, the main character lives in an apartment that looks pretty scary. The visiting girlfriend says, “Pretty excentric looking room.” The boy replies, “yeah, the plumber said it looked like Osorezan.” Osoresan, literally Mount Dread, is a mountain temple in Northern Japan associated with spiritual mediums. So for the subtitled version the boy replies, “The plumber called it "Blair Witch".”
I often have to render colloquial Japanese into English subtitles which is fairly easy given my dialogue coaching background.
What's your craziest anecdote from working in Japan?
You asked so…spending more money in one night than my monthly salary at a hostess bar with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Me, I would have settled for a bowl of ramen and a raise. Later not getting my contract renewed and realizing the freedom of working for myself. Meeting former AUM devotees and then getting prank calls for months. The guys had a sense of humor. They played THE LAST WALTZ by THE BAND. Explaining to customs at Narita what AMERICA’s NEXT TOP MODEL is and getting the contestants through the next day. Hiding film in our production manager’s house until final payment was made on a music video. Washing cars for a month with my chinpira friend in Saitama. Being threatened by corporate ad tools who don’t realize that we have escaped the weight of our corporate logo and have no appreciation for the fact that we did all their creative work for them. Crashing for three hours a tele-kura with Jeff my production cohort while our client slept at The Okura and wouldn’t pay for our room or any other moment spent with the man. Sharing a double bed with Junya another production friend in a business hotel/production office for over a month while the client of course had a suite. Being one-on-one for a week with Paul McCartney and Wim Wenders and realizing that anyone else is a complete poser. But most importantly, having the privilege to not only be with Miike but everyone else on his team and to be a part of that group.
Where you happy when you where an English teacher?
Yeah because I was fresh off the boat and everyday was a learning experience. I had a huge revelation when I realized that despite my Japanese ability or deep cultural understanding or later to come Japanese wife and eijuken, that when I got on the train I will forever be the tourist. But then I realized that all Japanese people suffer this same loss of identity. The same guy that pushes you is the corporate president who doesn’t get called “shacho” until he walks in the door at work. So enjoy the train. Realize why the SONY Walkman was developed in Japan.
Get local. Make friends in your region hood and your professional hood. I’ve run into Suzuki Seijun, Fukusaku Kinji and Seiji Ozawa on the train and introduced myself realizing that none of the other Japanese passengers have any idea of who these great men are or were. And when you get down on your life, think about driving in your car in America in traffic and the extreme loneliness associated with it. Then think that loneliness is a universal concept. Coming to Japan didn’t cause it. Then as Jung said embrace your grief for there your soul will grow. For years, I’ve been listening to THE BAND sing WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE which is of course a Dylan song. “Some day everything is gonna sound like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece.”
So find your rhythm or your curious groove and get on with it. Hell, I’ll even let you listen to J-POP if it will get you motivated and stop you from blaming Japan for how you feel. Everyone in this world is fuckin’ crazy man. Do you want to be a happy crazy or a sad crazy?
Do you find you are able to get past culture barriers, fluent as you are, or does discrimination and/or misunderstanding still get you down at times?
I've evolved beyond the realm of my homeland. In my absence, I've have been freed from the dailies. Not only do I not care about the latest gossip in town, I am unaware of it. Indifference is even more detestable than hatred according to some. I'm willing to make that sacrifice. But sometimes I say to myself, "Motherfucker. Am I gonna end up like Bill Bixby?!"
Otherwise, fuck everyone who doesn’t get you. Be glad you are not forced to talk about Monday night football or the weekend’s baseball games and always, always request to ride the fatass, handicapped motorized carts at Walmart on your return to the dirt that spawned you! Oh, and when you go through US customs and get accused almost belittled for living overseas as their subtext reads, “Why would you want to live anywhere else then our fine nation of freedom?” Please reply, because I am not brainwashed.
I recently got a housing loan refused on the grounds that I paid my taxes late the last two years. The total in late fees was about $70. But if banks gave loans to people who paid their taxes late, no one who even pay taxes. The system exists in any country.