Friday, May 1, 2009

The Woman Behind "Tokyo Sonata": A Conversation with Film Producer Yukie Kito

by Chris MaGee

The first thing you notice when you speak with film producer Yukie Kito is that she’s a huge movie fan. As she speaks about the people that she’s had the opportunity to work with throughout her career, Mira Nair, Wayne Wang, Ethan Hawke, you can feel her energy level rise and a smile breaks out on her face. She categorizes all of them as not only being talented directors, “but at the same time personally they're really good people.” Through talking with her at this year’s Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, as well as over the phone from her home in Japan Kito continually stresses the importance of working with filmmakers who she likes and respects. “I want to work with sincere people and not be taken advantage of by Hollywood. I've seen that enough.” It’s this desire to avoid the pitfalls of the major Hollywood studios that has had Kito and her company Entertainment Farm producing high-quality, critically acclaimed American independent films like Nair’s “The Namesake”, Wayne Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and Ethan Hawke’s “The Hottest State”. It was on the strength of those films that she got to work on her first Japanese production with a director, who she believes decades from now will stand as the most important from Japan. That would be Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the film, his 2008 shift from horror to drama “Tokyo Sonata”.

To many people it would seem an irony that a woman who grew up in Japan would take such a long detour before producing a film in her native language, but as Kito describes it her eyes were on the horizon from a very young age. “Growing up I was interested in the world outside of what I can see or what I can speak. I wanted to speak a foreign language so I could communicate with more people. I wanted to go abroad and see the world.” It was that yearning that led her to movies “which could introduce me to the whole world without going over there.” Of course after University she did see the world and ended up living in Los Angeles for 11 years, at first writing for a Japanese publisher (“...because it was Los Angeles it was mainly about films), and then onto a position with Japanese electronics giant JVC. At the very beginning of 90’s JVC and other major Japanese corporations had yet to be hit with the bursting of Japan’s Bubble Economy, and they were diversifying by investing in Hollywood productions. “They were doing 'Point Break', 'Time Cop' and they needed a Japanese marketing and promotion person. I was invited and I said you know I don't really know anything about making films or distributing films, but they said as long as I'm interested that's fine. You have to start somewhere anyway. So, I took the job.” It was at JVC that she started to make connections in the film industry by attending film festival markets, but most important to Kito was the fact that she got to see the product. “That's where I really started to learn about films.”

Family matters took Kito back to Japan at the turn of the millennium, but she took the lessons learned in Los Angeles back with her. At first she worked on small independent projects with the company Media Soup, but is didn’t take long for her to get the attention of a very big wheel in the Japanese film industry. “I worked for Taka Ichise a little bit in Los Angeles.” For those who don’t know Takashige Ichise is the veteran producer of such J-Horror classics as Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu”, Noria Tsuruta’s “Premonition” and Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-On”. During their time in Los Angeles Ichise was working on a direct-to-video series for Toei that Kito describes “were kind of a hybrid Japanese action films shot in Los Angeles with up and coming American stars, and that included Viggo Mortensen [American Yakuza] and Virginia Madsen [Blue Tiger]”. It was after coming back to Japan that Ichise made her an offer. “He said I'm starting this business with a former investment banker, so I'd like you to come join us. That was 2004, and that's when I joined this company Entertainment Farm.”

While Ichise’s time with Entertainment Farm was short Kito stayed on, gaining a reputation as a film producer, and it was here that she came across a script titled “Tokyo Sonata” that chronicled the life of a troubled Japanese family written by an unknown screenwriter named Max Mannix. “He wanted to direct the film,” Kito explains, “and I was honest [and said] that I can't raise financing for a first timer. He had all the storyboards and everything. He was passionate, but I just couldn't do the project [as is]. So I liked the screenplay, so what I could do was option it, to take it to other directors and find someone right.” Kito sought help in her search from Wouter Barendrecht, the co-founder of Fortissimo Films. It was a combination of her indie sensibilities and Fortissimo’s financial support and stellar reputation for distributing Asian cinema around the world that attracted the right director to the project. “If Wouter hadn’t come aboard then I don't know how many other elements would have followed. I know Kiyoshi Kurosawa had so much respect for Wouter and our combination was one of the reasons he decided to do it.”

After his 2006 horror film “Retribution (Sakebi)” Kiyoshi Kurosawa was looking to make a different kind of film. He’d already gained worldwide fame for his moody horror films like “Cure”, “Charisma” and “Pulse (Kairo)” but as Kito says, “He knew that this project was not a horror film and I think he must have been feeling somewhat refreshed.” Once Kurosawa was aboard the realization set in as to what exactly was taking place. “It was for me the first Japanese film so I was kind of changing direction and [Kurosawa] after doing horror films he was doing more of a straight drama. He was changing towards that direction. And for Fortissimo it was their first Japanese film involvement in terms of starting from scratch because they distributed so many Japanese films, but this was the first time they risked their capital, so everybody was doing something new or something different from before.” In her position as the producer of “Tokyo Sonata” though Kito found herself being put in charge of one of today’s most respected filmmakers. “It was a weird thing that I was his boss. Like shooting days, editing days, he tells me he needs more and then I have to tell him if it's possible or not. And it's all financial. I don’t control him creatively. I mean I told him, ‘I want your world in this film.’” Still Kito felt a responsibility to Barendrecht and Fortissimo to make sure their investment was safe, so she took her cues from her years of working on American indie sets and spent everyday alongside Kurosawa until shooting wrapped. All this time together had the pair develop a solid professional friendship, so much so that Kito sometimes found herself the butt of Kurosawa’s teasing. “One time he said to me, ‘You can tell me if you need more close-ups or shoot more of that person than this person,’ and I laughed. I apologized that he thought about that, but it was a joke.”

Of course the end result of Kurosawa’s, Kito’s and Barendrecht’s efforts was a film that enjoyed remarkable international success. “Tokyo Sonata” ended up winning Best Picture at the Asian Film Awards, The Mar del Plata Film Festival, as well as the prestigious Une Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Its success still hasn’t quite sunk in with Kito though. “I don’t really remember or even now think that this is a film that got so many awards.” She admits, “I guess there are just so many logical reasons for critics to analyze how great this film is and that of course is the reason why we got so many awards, but since we were editing I’ve seen [Tokyo Sonata] a hundred times by now, but I just don’t get bored. I just get so sucked into the story, paying attention to all the details on the screen, and it’s ‘Oh, this must be a great film!’”

Another reason that might be have been a bit difficult for Kito to fully appreciate the success of "Tokyo Sonata" was the passing of Wouter Barendrecht on April 5th from heart failure. He was only 43. “He was really proud of ‘Tokyo Sonata’” Kito says, “I don't know if you've read Kurosawa's tribute to Wouter in Screen Daily. He said Wouter's achievement was that he took away the barriers between American cinema, European cinema, and Japanese cinema; and it really hit me because that's just why he was comfortable, and Kurosawa too, comfortable enough for me to do my first Japanese film. Someone like me has to carry on what he has done for us and introduce good films internationally. He influenced us so much, and there are so many people who think the same way and maybe all of us together we might be able to do more than one person could do... Hopefully.”

Yukie Kito also writes a blog for the Japanese online movie magazine Roadshow. Check it out here. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" is currently being released in North American theatres by Regent Releasing. For a full release schedule click here, and for Pow-Wow writer Bob Turbull's review of the film click here. *Thanks to Fei Phoon, Nippon Connection photgrapher for the top photo of Yukie Kito.

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