VP Okuyama’s stock rising

Kazuyoshi Okuyama is not a major film producer in Japan. He’s the force to be reckoned with. In a recent edition of “Screen International,” he was ranked No. 19 out of the world’s 100 top movie moguls. An executive at a rival company refers to him as the “Messiah of Japanese film.”

Get the picture?

Okuyama is nicknamed Okuyama Jr. to distinguish him from his father, the president of Shochiku, Toru Okuyama. Since the son also is an executive, the nickname helps to avoid confusion.

However, this is not merely a case of nepotism. Actually, “Junior” says that “working as father and son has more demerits than merits, and he (senior) was the one most against me joining Shochiku. I almost had decided to go to (rival studio) Toei – I liked Toei’s yakuza films which were then a big hit series, but in the end, it just seemed too weird.”

Though they obviously share a passion and commitment to films, the son is not just a chip off the old block. Okuyama Jr. says that “the president – my father – does not really agree with all of my philosophies, but he leaves these decisions to me. He has a strong feeling that the times are changing rapidly here in Japan for software, so he leaves many judgments to me. He knows I’m fighting on the front line.”

And indeed, many of Okuyama Jr.’s ideas and policies could be called revolutionary. He established his pre-eminence in the film world by bringing Shochiku big box office hits and honor through awards such as the Nippon Academy Awards Best Planning Award, the Golden Gross Award, Fujimoto award, Japan Producers’ Assn. Award, Young Executive of the Year Award, and the Genesis Awards from the U.S.

He accomplished this with what were often considered bold moves in conservative Japan. His choice of directors, such as comedian Beat Takeshi (originally Takeshi Kitano) for “Violent Cop” and “Sonatine,” and trendy writer Yasushi Akimoto for “Goodbye Mama” led to popular and critical success. He also was involved with a 60-minute film called “Operation Room,” which was notable not just because of its success but also for its director, Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo.

At age 42, he is continuing his tradition of innovation. For example, he is at the head of the restructuring of the entire international division at Shochiku. In fact, the young reformer says he would go further if he could but, “The board is older and has a more traditional viewpoint, and we are a very family type company, so with recent changes people have been moved around, rather than let go.”

His latest choice of directors was no less interesting than his unconventional viewpoints; he chose himself. Actually, even in his directorial debut, his decisions were unexpected and unprecedented. After the completion of the film “Rampo,” directed by Rentaro Mayuzumi (who was hired by Okuyama Jr.), Okuyama Jr. himself reshot over 60% of the footage, packaging it as another version with himself as director. Both films were simultaneously released in Japan, to much fanfare.

Yet another version of “Rampo” is in the works. The latest, so-called “international” version also is under Okuyama Jr.’s direction. There was a special screening of this version at Cannes last year. Set to be released to the public in the U.S. this month by Samuel Goldwyn (and simultaneously in Japan), it is largely based on – but different from – the original “Okuyama” version. Meanwhile, that version will be released on video with the Mayuzumi’s version on television.

Among the differences is the soundtrack, which in this version is a fresh score performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, Okuyama Jr. boasts that “this is the first Japanese film to use digital sound – believe it or not!”

“Rampo” was the first film produced by a sub-body of Shochiku called “Team Okuyama,” and named after the son rather than the father. This group consists of Okuyama and an entourage of largely young, internationally oriented producers and various assistants.

Okuyama also notes that “this is the first time for (Shochiku) to do such a venture in the U.S., so I really want it to be successful, and I am hoping that success will lead to co-productions in the future.”

Team Okuyama is planning on releasing films co-produced by Shochiku and various foreign studios, especially Hollywood. The hope is that these will be truly cooperative ventures, both financially and creatively, and there are several such films already in the works. Also planned is a series of three film releases each year with young or debuting directors.

Okuyama partially credits the creation of the fund to Robert De Niro, who he says inspired him. The relationship is not merely business – in fact, there are no concrete plans for joint projects as of yet – Okuyama considers De Niro a friend. He says, “This is one major difference between Shochiku and myself. Shochiku wants relationships with major companies, but for me it’s respect for certain individuals that is energizing.”

Because of this, he hopes to use at least some of the funds for projects in conjunction with De Niro and also Meyer Gottlieb and staff at Samuel Goldwyn. Okuyama believes that this crew has a “full understanding of where we (at Shochiku) are trying to go, step by step.”

With his reputation as the Japanese film “Messiah,” Okuyama has the unenviable responsibilities and expectations placed on him by not only Shochiku but the entire Japanese film community. On this subject, the “savior” himself says, “It may take 10 years (for such international ventures to succeed), but my feeling is that the general state of Japanese cinema is very low right now in terms of trust, reliability and artistic standards. So we need to take time and to take risks.”

Okuyama Jr. hopes to see Shochiku become an internationally successful software company while predicting that the only way for Japanese film software to survive is to produce pix that sell overseas.

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