“Versus was the movie that changed my life and it means everything to me. The spirit of it is pure me and that’s why it was so special. Fight your destiny, find out who you are, fight through to the end for your love; it ain’t over till it’s over… That theme and message came from within me.”
So assesses Ryuhei Kitamura in a moment of absolute clarity. These moments are peppered right throughout any interview with the Japanese director; far from being a scatter-logical talking head or playing things close to his chest with a bunch of guarded one-word answers, like some of his more famous brethren, Kitamura unfurls things freely and easily and occasionally hits home with these moment-of-certainty comments.
Versus (2000) was Kitamura’s big breakout movie, a canny combination of action and horror that in many ways has served to define or at the very least delineate his work since. “It’s all me,” he agrees. “It’s all Ryuhei Kitamura-style, and I’m not going to try to change or steer away from anything. I’m only trying to get better.” Versus, it becomes clear, was an apotheosis in Kitamura’s career; a punctuation mark he always tends to refer to for its apparent sense of purity in his cinematic vision.
“When I was making it exactly ten years ago I hadn’t even started off my career properly, I had no money, and a very murky future. But somehow I had faith in myself, and all the cast and crew believed in me and gave me the incredible courage to finish it.” Kitamura pauses for just a moment. “I don’t know how I survived two years of making the film, but somehow I did and here I am now. Versus is me. It was the very beginning, and now there will be a new Versus. It’s part of my life and I can’t escape that.”
The new Versus he’s talking about is Versus 2, which is already listed on imdb.com but the director admits he hasn’t actually started it yet.
“This year  will be tenth anniversary year of Versus so I’m thinking of doing something special. The original film means a lot to me and has huge fans all over the world, so I can’t do anything easy or cheap – I can’t guarantee anything in the long run, it’s a definite that I’ll do the new Versus in the future for sure.” At the moment Kitamura says he’s in post-production on Shadows, a movie he’s producing rather than directing.
“It’s a supernatural horror takes place in Thailand, and I’m working with writer/director John Penney and stars Cary Elwes and William Hurt. I’m producing many projects now.” On top of this Kitamura is also in pre-production on a movie he’s going to direct that’s called Taekwon. “It’s my version of The Karate Kid and it takes place in Korean Town in Osaka, Japan. It’s the story of a Japanese street-fighting kid who meets a Korean taekwondo martial arts expert. I wrote the script and am producing the movie now; we start shooting this spring.”
Just over five years ago Kitamura had wrapped up the final installment in Japan’s longest, most misunderstood cinematic franchise, when he helmed Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004.
It was somehow equally appropriate that Kitamura’s style and intent on the finale was equally misunderstood in some quarters. The critical reaction was a startlingly mixed bag, as reflected in the movies 50% rating on rottentomatoes.com, with some calling it ‘A rush of explosive excitement’ (Cinefantastique) and others claiming it focused too much on action and not enough on story (Boston Globe).
Personally I loved everything about Final Wars – it was all too apparent that it’d been made by a fellow old-school aficionado of the humble kaiju (Japanese monster) movie. Kitamura himself recalls the experience with obvious relish. “It was great!” he enthuses. “I mean, it was Godzilla. It was the 50th anniversary. And it was the final movie. Who could say no? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I had a great time making it and am very proud of the movie. I even decided to use the old fashioned man-in-rubber-suits style and it was pure fun – think big explosions and motorcycle chases, and I even got to shoot a few scenes in Sydney, where I’d learned film making in the first place. Lots of great memories.”
Final Wars was the 28th Godzilla movie – so it’s pertinent to know whether or not the director sat through all the previous 27 films before shooting his own. “Yeah, I did,” Kitamura confirms. “In fact I loved the Godzilla movies back in the ’70s, but not so much the ones released in the 1980s and ’90s. Godzilla movies back in the ’70s were never just monster movies… There were always messages and themes that reflected the time and world within which they were made, and they combined this so well with straight-out entertainment. They lost that touch in the ’80s. I’m an honest guy and that’s what I told the producer in the first meeting. Strangely, the producer liked what I said and I was hired to do something that was not only new, but also classic in a sense.” So is the kaiju movie still alive and well in Japan in 2010? “I don’t think so.
These days, Japanese film studios are only interested in making dramas based on novels, manga or another TV series. Nobody wants to do expensive, old-fashioned kaiju movies. For me, the beauty of the kaiju movie is the retro man-in-rubber-suits style, not CG; it has more soul. Godzilla: Final Wars was the last movie made in that style. I’d be more than happy to revive the tradition in the future and do a new kaiju movie.”
Kitamura has previously let it be known that his favourite kaiju character is King Caesar, who first appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla in 1974 – then reappeared 30 years later in Final Wars. “I simply love that original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla movie,” says the director. “The moment King Caesar wakes up is my favourite moment in all of the Godzilla movies. It was so hard to choose which monsters would be in Final Wars – everybody has their favourite, and unfortunately we couldn’t put them all in. So some tough choices had to be made.”
Some foreign audiences know Kitamura best for Azumi (2003), a film that turned out to be an energetic, sometimes touching, and definitely underrated action set-piece that was dubbed ninja J-pop by one reviewer. “It was my first big movie, based on a manga comic that was a huge influence in my own style,” he muses. “It took me two long years from start to end; I put all my energy into it and I’m so proud of it. The producer, Mata Yamamoto, hired me after he watched Versus. That was back when I was a complete nobody, and he gave me the big break and also believed in me. I was an angry, young, reckless director, and we had so much fun and a lot of fights making that movie.”
It turns out that the original manga, by Yu Koyama, was a pivotal factor in Kitamura’s own development as an artist and filmmaker. “I grew up reading the great comics of Yu Koyama. He was my favourite comic author, so I was extremely happy when I got this job [to make Azumi], but also it created an unbelievable sense of pressure because I loved the comic so much. Then again, I realized that I understood the spirit of Azumi better than any other director, so I was 100 percent confident that I was the right one to accomplish the mission.”
Joe Odagiri‘s turn as the effete killer Bijomaru Mogami is as funny as it is eerily scary – it turns out like an amalgam of British vocalist Morrissey‘s live performance tic in the ’80s (when he inanely tossed flowers into the crowd) blended with Ben Kingsley, in Sexy Beast mode, dressing up as Boy George.
“The original comic series is really long – there are something like 48 volumes, a huge story arc, and tons of characters – so it was very difficult but really important to choose which episode and which character to incorporate. I thought about it again and again and created an original story for the movie, and for that chose Bijomaru for the main enemy. I think I made the right choice, and Joe Odagiri did a fantastic job.”
Some of the criticisms of Azumi were that it was too violent, especially given the laid-back, somewhat zany nature of the opening part of the story. By the end, with Azumi herself drenched in blood and most of the principle characters dead, the scenario could be seen as quite bleak. “I agree, and that’s what I wanted to do. It’s easy for me to make movies without blood or violence, but Azumi wasn’t that kind of movie,” Kitamura says. “The whole concept was about war, life, death and terrorism. I never agree that having violence in a movie is a bad influence on kids. F**k no. It’s not a f**king videogame,” he asserts. “Not that I mean anything against video games; I love them. What I mean to say is that kids shouldn’t feel that killing is just like playing a video game. I was making a live-action movie, and Azumi was serious – not like more fun movies Versus or Midnight Meat Train. Azumi had to feel real and painful when she’s killing somebody.” Kitamura puts it another way: “If you cut someone… it hurts, and blood comes out, and that’s what the audience should feel.
“With this movie I couldn’t go into a clean, sterile safety zone. I know if I took out the violence and thus avoided the ratings issue, and maybe cut out 20 minutes to make it a two-hour movie, it would’ve been a much bigger hit – but I just couldn’t do that. I had to do the right thing for the story. That’s the most important thing for me. Violence and length were the two big issues I had to fight about all the way through. I’m just glad I had the strength to fight till the end, and kept the movie I really wanted it to be.”
Azumi was also actress Aya Ueto‘s big break, and she shone in the pivotal title role. “We met more than 150 beautiful actresses and couldn’t find our Azumi,” Kitamura recalls. “One day I saw Aya on a local poster for a baseball campaign, and I instantly knew that it was her. She was an absolute nobody at that time and I had to fight against everyone else to cast her. I only feel respect and love for Aya – she’s a wonderful girl and an amazing actress. We did a new animation movie together called Baton this year,” for the City of Yokohama 150th anniversary celebrations.
Direction of the sequel, titled Azumi 2: Death or Love, fell into the hands of Death Note director Shusuke Kaneko. When I ask for Kitamura’s opinion on this sequel, he responds with another of those moments of clarity I mentioned. “I don’t want to answer this question. The fact that there was never an Azumi 3 is the answer. I have nothing against Mr. Kaneko – he’s been a great supporter of me since Versus. But I don’t want to even think about Azumi 2.”
Which brings us full circle to how he actually first got started making movies. “I grew up watching movies back in the ’70s and ’80s – Hollywood, Japanese, Australian, Italian; action, horror, sci-fi, drama… everything!” He laughs. “I spent most of my time in cinemas and didn’t go to school much. Movies were instead my school, my teacher, my life.
“When I was 17, I started thinking about my future and it was natural for me to decide that I’d become a film director. It all started as my fantasy, my own imagination, and I could make that real… That’s the best thing about movie making. So I promptly quit high school, went to Australia, and entered film school. That was the beginning.”
Why Australia? “For simple reasons. Mad Max, director Russell Mulcahy, and INXS, all of these together conspired to make me go Down Under. “I wasn’t great student at school, I was poor, but those were happy days for me. From 1987 to 1989 I went to the School of Visual Arts in Sydney, I lived in Paddington, Rose Bay and North Sydney. I love Australian movies and Australian rock – not only INXS but also James Reyne, Jimmy Barnes, Icehouse… I still love them.”
Citing favourite international film directors is deceptively easy – “James Cameron, George Miller, Peter Weir” – but when it comes to chalking up a list of preferred fellow Japanese directors, Kitamura stumbles. “That’s a tough question to answer. There have been too many great directors in Japan, and I can’t pick just one or two,” he then sighs. “However, that said I feel bad that I can’t find so many directors that I respect in Japan these days. But if I had to choose just one… I’d say Shunji Iwai [Fried Dragon Fish]. I really admire his talent and highly respect him. I think Swallowtail Butterfly  is one of the most original and beautiful Japanese movies ever made.” Finally, as per a recent interview bent, I just have to ask Kitamura what he thinks is the most offbeat place in Tokyo.
Interestingly enough, he opts out of the city altogether. “Tokyo is a boring city,” he asserts. “I love my hometown, Osaka. I think it’s Latin Japan – totally different from Tokyo, more funky, more crazy, and more sexy.” To get you in the mood for Versus 3, here’s the trailer for the one that started it all a decade ago:
Interview © 2010 Andrez Bergen ‘Godzilla: Final Wars’ images © 2004 Toho Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved ‘Versus’ images © WEVCO / Napalm films / KSS
Andrez Bergen is senior editor of Impact magazine in the UK. He’s a long-term writer on Japanese pop culture, music, anime, movies and weird stuff who has covered the space since 2001. Andrez also runs Tokyo-based IF? Records, makes music as Little Nobody, writes a personal blog called JapaneseCultureGoNow!, and can be found on Twitter @andreziffy