It is hard to argue against the fact that Tokyo—with its striking contrasts of old world meets new world, concrete jungles, a dizzying flurry of economic activity, and unrestrained youth culture, to name a few reasons—is a cinematographer’s paradise.
Looking back at popular films from the latter half of the twentieth century onwards, the Japanese capital has been proven to be one of the most favored cities in East Asia by international film directors and producers. A common theme has been using Tokyo as a setting for futuristic, science fiction narratives, in films such as Solaris (1972), Blade Runner (1982), and most recently The Wolverine (2013). Other filmmakers have used the city as a backdrop to explore more nuanced sentimental narratives that resonate with contemporary audiences, like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).
What are the specific experiences, struggles and challenges that independent filmmakers face as they shoot a film in Tokyo for the first time? In particular, what are the qualitative experiences—professionally, culturally, and socially—of emerging expatriate foreign filmmakers here in Tokyo? The following is an interview with Emmanuel Osei-Kufour, Jr., 27, a graduate of Stanford University where he earned a B.A. in Film Studies. Emmanuel went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Graduate Film Production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia. He has made six short films in Tokyo, four as a director and two as a producer, including Suu and Uchikawa (2010) which was an official selection to the Cannes Film Festival 2011. He is presently working on his first feature film, which will be produced and shot in Japan.
TABuzz: You lived several years each in Singapore and Tokyo. Can you compare and contrast your experiences as a young filmmaker in these two major cities?
Emmanuel Osei-Kufour, Jr.: For me making films was difficult for different reasons in both places. When I was in Singapore four years ago, the media development section of the Singapore government (the MDA) really wanted people making films there but lacked the infrastructure. I remember it being very difficult to find actors for auditions. In the States, it’d be easy to get a ton of replies to casting call but at that time in Singapore you’d be lucky to get even ten. It may have changed now since more productions are being done there and more film schools have popped up. But aside from actors, I found the government to be super helpful to filmmakers. They would often help us secure locations and there were a number of grants available to local productions.
Tokyo is a great place to make films, but the cost of living is very high, so it makes the price of productions increase substantially. If I didn’t like Japan so much I’d avoid it at all costs due to how expensive it is to do any film here. Also my own personal setback in making films here in Tokyo is that I don’t speak fluent Japanese so it’s always a barrier really connecting to my cast and crew in the same way I would in Singapore or the States.
TB: The language barrier aside, what do you find are the specific challenges, advantages and qualities of working as an expatriate film director in Tokyo?
EOK: In Tokyo, I have found that being an ex-pat filmmaker makes it easier to bring people into your project. There are number of Japanese actors and crew that are really eager to participate in an American style film production. So I’ve been lucky to recruit really talented people to be in my films at the student rates.
One challenge I have had in Japan is finding a good producer. Without a local Japanese producer it’s near impossible to shoot a film with the actors and locations you want here. It was a struggle at first to find a producer that “gets” my style, my Hollywood aggressiveness, and my financial limitations.
TB: Regarding your short film, The First Time, what was most challenging about completing that project? How long did it take to complete it? Give us an idea of the variety of work that goes on behind the scenes to produce a short film, and how this is similar to or differs from producing a full-length feature film
EOK: The most challenging part for me on that film was actually just writing the 15-minute script. It took me about five months just to write out a version that I felt worked. But it’s like that for me with every film I make. Writing is the hardest and after that I tend to have less of a difficult time. This is not to say that production wasn’t difficult. I just remember feeling the most intense stress during writing since I had a crew, a shooting date, and a plane ticket to Japan but I didn’t have a script.
The actual filming took place over four days. Just for comparison, a feature length film typically takes about 30 days to shoot. Two days of my shoot took place near Hachioji at Digital Hollywood University’s Hachioji Campus and the other two days were spread over Setagaya Park, a house in Ikejiri and a residential area in Futakotamagawa. We shot for twelve hours each day (the maximum allowed for an NYU shootby my film school assignment), and . And I had a crew of about ten. Since my budget was extremely low we didn’t use lights except for in one shot at the house. My cinematographer Shijie Tan was really good at finding the best angles that utilized natural light—which was the main reason I chose him as the cinematographer of the film.
TB: You mentioned that had you shot The First Time (with the exact same plot and theme) in the United States it would have been very different. In what way? What aspects of Japanese culture did you find came to the fore in the production of this film?
EOK: I think The First Time is a very subtle and sensitive film. I think it worked well in Japan because many Japanese people are subtle and sensitive by nature. It’s engrained into the culture to “read the air” and be aware of when you are doing things different. It seems that people won’t spell things out to you directly here. So when Japanese people feel isolated or different they show that in a less visible way than Western audiences would. I think this minimal reaction gives the film a less melodramatic feel than that you would get in American film.