Japan pix with int’l twist

Question: What do actress Maria de Medeiros, casting agent Pat Golden, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Universal Studios have in common?

Answer: They are all working closely with Shochiku Co., Ltd. to produce something new from Japan, namely English language films for international release made not just with Japanese money, but with significant Japanese creative input and staff.

At the heart of this new drive is Shochiku executive vice president Kazuyoshi Okuyama and the international group under him called “Team Okuyama.” The team is defined by a fund established with money from 32 companies which, according to Okuyama, “trusted us because of the reliability of the Shochiku name and also because of our success (with ‘The Mystery of Rampo’). The main goal of the fund is to make Japanese films of international standard.”

The fund was created last year largely in response to the decision to shoot two additional versions of “Rampo,” a romantic-fantasy about a turn-of-the-century mystery writer, Edogawa Rampo. Director Rentaro Mayuzumi’s original version was taken over by Okuyama, re-shot and released last June in Tokyo. It was revamped again and debuted in the U.S. on May 19. That third, so-called “international” version was re-edited with new music (the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) and seven minutes of animation for a special viewing at Cannes and simultaneous release in the U.S. and Japan this year – a first for a Japanese film.

Surprisingly enough, the film is also the first Japanese pic to be made with digital sound. Even more shocking for the Japanese public, Shochiku plans to release the film for the same ticket price in both countries (about $7 even in Japan, where films normally cost more than twice that much).

It will be a veritable “Rampo” bonanza when the next version is released, as Okuyama’s previous version will be released on video and Mayuzumi’s version will be aired on television at the same time.

Team Okuyama concerns itself with developing and producing films intended for the global market. Besides “Rampo,” current projects include:

* ” The Amateurs,” about the Harvard rowing team and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, co-written by Masato Harada and Rebecca Ross, to be filmed in Canada and/or Boston. Team Okuyama is aiming for an international release date that will coincide with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

* “East Meet West,” about two mid-19th century samurai warriors who end up in the American West. Currently shooting in English in Santa Fe, N.M., the film is directed by Kihachi Okamoto. “East Meets West” will be released in Japan in the fall and will be the first completed, released film produced with the funding of Team Okuyama, with a budget of about 600 million yen (more than $6 million at today’s rates).

* “Good Man, Good Woman,” a film by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Team Okuyama is helping to fund the film, to the tune of about $1.5 million. The film has one Japanese and one Taiwanese executive producer (Okuyama and Teng-kuei Yang) and two Japanese and two Taiwanese producers. Most interesting to note is that a Japanese company is playing such a crucial role, considering this film-within-a-film deals with Taiwan’s struggle to free itself from Japanese rule around the time of World War II.

One of the first films planned and announced has yet to get out of the initial development stages, despite years of trying and hoping. “The Yellow Handkerchief” is a remake of a 1977 film directed and scripted by famous Japanese director Yoji Yamada (director of the world’s longest-running movie series, “Tora-san”). The film is set to be produced in cooperation with Universal Studios in the U.S. with an English script adapted by director Jim Sheridan. Originally slated for release this year, the film, to Okuyama’s frustration, has yet to move into production.

But he is optimistic about Team Okuyama’s film success. The company was slated to hold a special one-day screening at this year’s Cannes festival.

In terms of the U.S. market, Okuyama believes “East Meets West” and “The Amateurs” could break through at the U.S. box office.

“The U.S. is a tough market,” Okuyama observes, “but in the long term – maybe five to 10 years – we will know how to market our films better so that we can succeed more. We need time to work together with companies like Samuel Goldwyn (which is releasing “Rampo” in the U.S.) to get the feel for the American audience.”

Ironically, he laments that “it’s the Japanese who look down the most on Japanese films. For example, for ‘East Meets West,’ we’ll have to market it (in Japan) as basically an American film in order to succeed. That will be our marketing strategy.”

Ultimately, decisions regarding use of the fund lie with Okuyama. He bases his decisions on common sense, experience and intuition. For inspiration, he says that two significant encounters have been assisted his artistic life – befriending Robert DeNiro and the staff at Samuel Goldwyn, headed by Meyer Gottlieb.

Okuyama hopes to use some of the funds for projects in conjunction with those two partners, as well as companies like Universal, with whom Shochiku already has agreements. He says that “compared with the close, personal bond I feel with DeNiro, my relationship with (Goldwyn) is more casual, but I do think that they have a full understanding of where we (at Shochiku) are trying to go, step by step.”

Though nothing is official yet, Okuyama counts DeNiro as a partner already. “A meeting with him was the driving force behind setting up the fund,” Okuyama says, “and I hope to use a percentage of the funds for productions with DeNiro.”

Also a key link in the Team Okuyama chain is Katsu Mizuno. His official title is deputy general manager of acquisitions and sales in the international business division, but besides these duties, he is also Okuyama’s right-hand man and the company’s senior representative at international markets. Shochiku recently vested him with full decision powers while at overseas festivals, a move that has, according to Okuyama, made business dealings “much more efficient.”

For international productions, this means Mizuno can also be the first step in getting Shochiku’s approval for developing deals. He is also acting as one of the producers for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Good Man, Good Woman.”

As part of its longterm plan, the team has also earmarked some of its funds for a series of lower-budget films directed by newcomers. Okuyama says “the goal here is to nurture young, talented Japanese directors to build for the future.” The general idea is to release three films a year, each with a budget of no more than $1.5 million to be exhibited each fall during a special nine-week new directors’ fair (three weeks per film).

For any director whose film recoups the costs or profits, budgets twice that amount will be awarded.

One of the first year’s productions is “Helena,” a movie about jazz which stars Maria de Medeiros and is directed by 33-year-old Akinori Tsujitani, with a budget of about $750,000. There was a special presentation around “Helena” scheduled for this year’s Cannes fest.

Okuyama tells how the film’s young director came from England to make his presentation and was forced by the Shochiku executive to rewrite the script three times. Finally, he was given backing on the conditions that he film with a budget limited to $500,000, and still find well known talent. Despite original doubts and strict conditions, Okuyama says he has “seen the rushes and is impressed.”

The two other young-director films are “Score,” an action film shot in the Philippines, and “Hito De Nashi No Koi,” a love story intended for domestic release.

Okuyama says, “The company keeps looking at its past since it is 100 years old, but we need to feel strongly that this is a new beginning, the first step to the future. Even if it involves risk, we must nurture new people, and the first great new step should be toward expanding internationally. This year’s three new directors are coincidentally all Japanese, but I’m not limiting myself… I’m looking for someone like a second Tarantino, students at UCLA or wherever, or even a veteran who really believes in a certain script. I want a wider perspective, to feel there are lots of possibilities. I don’t want to be bound by 100 years of history. I want our image to be freer, and then we’ll soar.”

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