Interview with Haruki Kadokawa

By Mark Schilling

Haruki Kadokawa is a Japanese soulmate to the Hollywood moguls of old -- a master promoter and unrepentant egotist who was the most powerful producer in the industry for nearly two decades.

Taking over as president of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing from his founder father in 1975, Kadokawa quickly began churning out best-selling pop fiction. Beginning in 1976 with the hit mystery The Inagami Family, Kadokawa also produced and directed nearly sixty films, including the 1990 samurai swashbuckler Heaven and Earth, which became the third-highest grossing Japanese film ever made.

Most were mass audience entertainments, based on Kadokawa Shoten novels, that Kadokawa relentlessly hyped on the basis of spectacle or star, orchestrating media saturation campaigns of a type familiar to Hollywood, but new to Japan. (Kadokawa launched several unknowns to stardom himself, most notably eighties super-idol Hiroko Yakushimaru.)

Kadokawa promoted himself, however, less as a master showman, more as a poet, adventurer and general renaissance man. He published his haiku and other verses in legitimate poetry magazines -- not owned by his company. (His most recent collection of haiku, published this year, is simply titled "Japan.") In 1985 he led an successful expedition to find the remains of the Yamato, a battleship sunk on a suicide mission to Okinawa in the closing days of the war, with the loss of nearly 2,500 lives.

Kadokawa dreamed of playing a leading role on the world stage, with movies as the main vehicle of his ambitions. One was Virus, a 1980 disaster epic starring Glenn Ford, Chuck Connors and Sonny Chiba that was a hit in Japan, but a disappointment in the US. Another was Ruby Cairo, a 1993 romantic thriller starring Andie MacDowell, Viggo Mortensen and Liam Neeson that failed to find a US distributor, though it was later distributed there on video.

In August 1993, it all came crashing down when Kadokawa was arrested on a drug smuggling charge. The resulting encounter with the Japanese legal system not only put him into prison for two-and-a-half years, but destroyed his career. In the face-conscious, scandal-shy Japanese film world, he became a non-person.

Now, after years of struggle, including a draining battle with cancer, Kadokawa is back with Yamato, a war epic that recounts the last days of the battleship Yamato, especially its fiery end. His credit as executive producer is the biggest he has had in more than a decade. "This the first film I felt I had to make...this is not just business for me," Kadokawa commented in a recent interview at his office in Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho, the media company that has been his base since 1993. "...Of course, a movie should make money -- filmmaking is a business and your movie had better be a hit if you intend to make another one. I'm not against that. But this is first time I've felt this strongly about a film. I'm in the business now just so I can make this film."

The genesis of the film was Kadokawa's aforementioned discovery, in a mini-sub, of the real Yamato on the seabed between Nagasaki and Okinawa. "At that time I was not thinking of making a film," he said. "Just finding the Yamato was a miracle. Better people than me had tried and failed to find it. I think I was guided by the spirits of the Yamato's dead."

Launched soon after Pearl Harbor and sunk in April, 1945 by US planes, the Yamato, noted Kadokawa, has come to symbolize the war, particularly its end, for many Japanese. "'Yamato' is an ancient name for Japan," he notes. "In other words a ship named after the country sank and that tragedy has had a big impact on the souls of the Japanese people."

The people he is hoping to most appeal to, however, are not the oldsters who are the main target of so many Japanese war films, but the young. "Young people in their teens and twenties keep the film business going and I want them to see this film." he says. "I think they'll support it. But the distributor, Toei, didn't believe me when I told them that."

Kadokawa proved Toei wrong with a recent survey showing that the age group with the highest want-to-see was between fifteen and twenty-five. "I find it really interesting that the group I most want to see the film is the group that most wants to see it," commented Kadokawa.

Why the interest? "Because I made the film," Kadokawa notes modestly. "Now there's a Yamato boom." Fueling the boom is a Yamato Museum opened in April in the port of Kure, as well as the open set Kadokawa had built in nearby Onomichi, where a full-scale mockup of the Yamato now on display to visitors. "Last Sunday alone we had 9,000 visitors, giving the local economy a big shot in the arm," Kadokawa said.

The Yamato mockup -- 190 meters long and built at a cost of nearly Y500 million ($4.5 million) -- would seem to be an anachronism in a CG age. Kadokawa argues otherwise: "The actors' performances and the images are completely different," he says. "If we'd just used CG (for the ship), we'd have shot the film in a studio -- and it would have had no depth. When the actors boarded the ship, they felt as though they were really fighting a war. Their expressions changed -- their whole consciousness changed."

After the filming, he explained, his formerly pacifistic young cast told a packed press conference, " that they would go to war to protect their families." "In war both the winners and losers are trying to protect their families, their communities, their countries," he added. "At the same time, they're killing each other -- that's what war is. It's a tragedy for both sides. I want to say that clearly in the film -- that both the winners and losers are victims."

While claiming to being "guided by the spirits of the Yamato dead" in making the film, Kadokawa was also influenced by his own experiences over the past twelve years. "My outlook on life has changed," he says. "I was judged and condemned by the Japanese legal system. Until then I had dedicated myself to Japan -- then I was judged and condemned. My anger at that injustice is extremely strong. For the rest of my life I will be an enemy of the Japanese government. That's different from my love for Japan, because Japan and the Japanese government are different...That message appears in the film -- I'm saying 'don't trust the government.' You may go off to die in a war, but don't trust the government."

He confesses, proudly, that he is, not a blameless victim, but a "a life-long delinquent." "In any era it's the delinquents who give birth to culture." he explains. "When you forget that, you lose sight of the meaning of culture. The people who create culture are always problem children."

Despite Yamato and other projects, includes plans for remakes and games based on the Akira Kurosawa classics Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjuro, Kadokawa has no desire to reclimb the industry heights he first ascended three decades ago. "I don't have that sense of mission any more. When I was in prison I realized that phrases like 'sense of mission' and 'sense of justice' are lies. That sort of thing doesn't really exist.

"I finally understood that human beings are born to enjoy life. More than knowing it instinctively, you might say I learned it the hard way. I have a sense of life as a game -- and there's no more interesting game than the business of movies."