By Mark Schilling
This is Takashige Ichise's moment. The producer of the horror hits Ringu and Juon: The
Grudge has launched a new slate and a new company with international ambitions. Called
J Horror Theatre, the slate consists of six films by six of the genre's leading directors,
including Ringu's Hideo Nakata and Juon: The Grudge's Takashi Shimizu. The company,
Entertainment Farm, will produce other projects through a film fund subscribed by both
Japanese and international investors.
Unlike most Japanese producers, who are company men wary of the spotlight, Ichise
cherishes his independence and proclaims his outsized ambitions. But unlike other
industry mavericks who see themselves as lords of their own fiefs, Ichise is a
down-to-earth type, who is more interested in pleasing audiences and investors than
stroking his own ego. At the same time, he is the producer as idea man, churning out
story lines the way Toyota does cars.
His current prosperity is built on the horror genre -- but its popularity has faded in Japan.
Not that that bothers him: "(Horror movies) have had their ups and downs -- but there are
still a lot of them being made around the world," he says. "Rather that say 'the horror
boom is over,' I think the audience is becoming choosier about the horror it sees."
He feels that horror is not only a good business, but a steady one. "The world isn't the
same as it was when The Exorcist and The Omen launched a horror boom -- a boom that
later ended," he explains. "Back then people thought the future would bring something
good. Do they still feel that way today? Hardly anyone now still believes the future will
make everyone happier and better off. Horror reflects that mood."
The key to making good horror, he believes, is "high quality." "By that I mean movies
that are really scary -- if I can make them, the (genre's) core fans will always come." As
will buyers. Lions Gate, which is repping J Horror Theater films worldwide, has reported
brisk sales since Ichise announced the slate at Cannes this year. "Other than North
America, we're nearly sold out around the world -- and we haven't released our first film
yet," he commented.
Ichise is about to remedy that: The slate's first two films, Infection and Premonition, will
be released by Toho as a double bill on October 2. More will follow, including the third
feature installment in The Grudge series (there are also two early straight-to-video
entries), which is now being scripted and will begin shooting in the first half of 2005. He
also hope to make a second slate of six J Horror Theatre films, this time with new
directors. "I'll start thinking about it seriously next year," he says.
Several non-horror titles are also in the pipeline. One is All About My Dog (tentative
title), a comedy consisting of twelve linked segments, helmed by seven directors, about
Man's (and Woman's) relationship with its canine Best Friend. This will be
Entertainment Farm's first film. Isshin Inudo, the director last year's indie hit Josee, The
Tiger and the Fish, is helming five segments and relative newcomers the rest. Completion
is set for August and release, by indie distributor Xanadeux, in March of next year. Also
in the works is an untitled ninja action film. Currently in the script stage, it is budgeted at
$12 million -- high for a Japanese feature. Principal photography set to start in 2005.
To finance Entertainment Farm films, Ichise plans to launch a $30 million film fund this
autumn that he claims is the first of its kind in Japan. The object of other funds was to
acquire foreign films for distribution in Japan. The main purpose of this one is film
production," Ichise explains. "Also, control (of production) will be in the hands of the
producers and creative talent, not the investors. Of course, investors want to make a
return on their money, so we will try to satisfy them, but we won't let them tell us how to
write the script."
All this activity, including work on the Hollywood remake of The Grudge starring Sarah
Michelle Gellar, has kept Ichise commuting back and forth between Tokyo and Los
Angeles. "I'm spending about ten days out of every month in the States," he says. "I'd
like to get the point where I'm producing both Japanese and Hollywood films." To that
end he has set up a Los Angeles office to liaison with the Hollywood industry.
He is flooded with scripts and pitches from both coasts -- though in Japan pitches based
on best-selling novels and comics far out number original scripts. "I don't like that," says
Ichise. "It's more fun to come up with my own ideas. For example, Premonition is based
on a famous comic by Jiro Tsunoda, but the story is almost entirely original. Tsunoda's
basic idea -- of a newspaper that can forecast the future -- is really interesting, so I use it,
but the story I dreamed up myself. All the novels or comics that have become classics
have a strong idea at the center. So I use that idea, but adapt the story to the present. Very
few novels are interesting enough to adapt for the screen without any changes. One was
Koji Suzuki's Ringu."
He is aware of the danger of spreading himself thin -- grisly object lessons in the Japanese
industry abound -- but does not see it as an immediate problem. "A director has to spend
every day for an entire year thinking about one film. I can't do that -- I get bored too
easily. That's why I'm a producer," he says with a laugh. "I've got twenty films in various
stages of production. I can think about film A and, when I get tired of that, think about
film B, then film C. When I get back to A, I can look at it with a fresh eye. A producer
may love a film, but he has to be able to look at it objectively. So I don't think I'm
overworked -- but I'd like more vacation time."
Also, while some producers see their jobs as realizing a director's vision, Ichise prefers to
hire directors to realize his. "I have a lot of ideas and a lot of films I want make from
them -- though I'm open to ideas from directors as well." But whatever the source, ideas
have to have commercial potential first and foremost. Art for art's sake comes a distant
second. "(Some producers) want to make films that will win foreign festival prizes, but I
have no interest in that," he says. "It's not that I hate foreign film festivals -- I enjoy them
-- but the prizes hold no appeal for me. At the same time, I don't think a movie is good
just because a lot of people like it. A movie may be great even if only a minority likes it."
Does he like his own bread-and-butter genre? "I enjoy horror, but I don't especially prefer
it (to other genres)," he says. "As a producer I know it's good business so I have to keep
making it, but I don't want to confine myself to it." Also, he has no intention of spinning
The Grudge into a Nightmare-on-Elm-Street-like franchise: "The quality (of those series
films) declines, but they can still sell the videos on the title alone. That doesn't interest
me -- I'm not doing this just because I want money. What fun's for me is making
interesting movies that also happen to become hits. I don't want to churn them out until
they become crap -- what's the fun in that?"