If taken just on face value, the career of Furuta Wataru might seem inapplicable to a magazine about independent film directors. After all, the Shizuoka Prefecture native studied economics and computer programming at a Canadian university and upon graduation landed a job as a programmer for a computer company before being transferred to manage sales, advertisement, and promotion there. Only upon joining a production company did he begin creating visuals as a computer graphic artist. However, look a little closer and you’ll discover Furuta is an award-winning director of short movies that have played at various festivals both at home and abroad. His unique vision and humor has often been praised including by the likes of director Izutsu Kazuyuki, the Japanese equivalent of Simon from ‘American Idol’, who had “no complaints” about Furuta’s short, Confession, saying it was “a masterpiece.”
Even when not in the director’s chair, the works with which he’s been involved still garner attention. He produced the outrageous Burst the Earth short movie compilation which created quite a buzz following its broadcast on satellite television. Likewise, shorts such as the humorous Room Service from the 68Films series he also produced managed to catch on especially after appearing online. He attended Cannes to pitch a feature length concept under the official auspices of UNIJAPAN. And he produced the directorial debut of Asano Tadanobu. Yes, that Asano Tadanobu. With such achievements why isn’t Furuta more well known? The answer may be as simple as “timing.” Today the internet and video-on-demand services are creating a market for original content. Back in 2001 when he established his own production company, the only outlets for exhibiting one’s works were theaters, television or DVD. Furuta’s high concept filmography does seem more suited for today’s viewing habits. Had he gained the accolades he has received just a few years later, further opportunities may have followed. There is, of course, no guarantee of that as those same platforms have exponentially increased the competition, but the “bite-sized” entertainment of his short movies does seem to be what the web now craves.
All things considered, Furuta seemed to be slightly ahead of the times. With a family to provide for, today he enjoys being a busy art director and photographer for ad campaigns and promotional visuals, utilizing his unique visual “storytelling” sensibilities and “directing” his subjects to communicate via a single frame rather than 24 per second.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2015. Revisions have been made with the director’s supervision)
What made you decide to study in Canada? Was it specifically for a filmmaking program?
I left to study in Canada immediately after graduating from high school. I chose Canada because I could go skiing nearby the school and I thought going to a university abroad was exciting. By chance, my high school teacher knew a lot about a university in Canada so I chose to go to Canada. Back then I absolutely had not thought of doing work involving visual production. In fact, I had no image of what job I wanted in the future.
What was the idea and purpose behind the 68Films short movie series?
I produced and directed a [television] program called “68” (six-eight) which presented outstanding short movies from Japan and abroad. I initiated a project within the show to create original shorts. The name for this label would be “68Films.” Short movies are a challenging field therefore I gave the creators as much freedom as possible. The only general restrictions were a 15 minute or less length, and the work had to be suitable for broadcasting. This resulted in the creation of fascinating works you couldn’t see on a normal television program.
Was the casting of relative unknown actors at the time such as Miyazaki Aoi, Horikita Maki, Oguri Shun, Nishijima Hidetoshi, and Mikako Tabe among others a coincidence or an intentional promotion of upcoming actors?
Creating opportunities to promote promising directors and actors had also been the policy [of the production].
You made your directorial debut in the series with Confession. What attracted you to this story? Why did you direct just this one short movie?
I was the show’s producer so introducing myself as a “promising director” didn’t seem proper. But I really yearned to do one and I did. That’s why doing any more was unthinkable.
At the time, I was planning a serious feature length movie so I remember wavering and thinking, “maybe I better shoot a comedy after all”
The original Confession was a short manga (comic) of the same title by Ishikawa Masayuki presented in the manga magazine “Morning” [note: Japanese comics are published as short episodes serialized with other titles in a collected format]. When I read it, I felt a strong desire to tell the story in live-action. To do so meant exercising care in the casting. I chose someone very girl-like for the young heroine, someone very masculine for the father, and someone very feminine for the mother to express the ridiculousness of the abrupt change in the apparently unremarkable setting.
Years later, Confession received the Special Jury Award at the JETRO/UTB sponsored “Picture Battle vs. Show Biz Japan” short movie competition in Hollywood. It was even praised by jury president and notoriously hard to please Pachigi! director, Izutsu Kazuyuki, as “a masterwork, no complaints”. How did that feel?
I was elated. The event was held at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and the audience kept erupting with laughter during the screening which made me particularly happy. I was moved to hear him (Izutsu) say: “This is what a short movie should be like.” At the time, I was planning a serious feature length movie so I remember wavering and thinking, “maybe I better shoot a comedy after all.”
You’ve been involved with high concept works for TV and DVD. These days, there are multiple platforms like Youtube and Vimeo all trying to vie for the attention and membership of viewers. The competition between them seems to have created opportunities for similarly original, experimental shorts to get made and seen. What are your thoughts about this? Is it still as difficult?
No, I don’t think it’s difficult. There’s a chance for digital distribution. The times keep changing and the possibilities also keep expanding. I was lucky, however, because there had been an attitude of challenging freshman staff at BS-TBS at the time I made Burst the Earth in 2000. That’s why it was such an experimental project though there’s no denying the courage they had to trust in me. Now? The media seems [too] uptight due to regulatory compliance and if that’s case, there’s the web, right? The internet has possibilities, but I have a feeling it’s still far from mainstream…[at least] in Japan. But it’ll soon reach that point. The “Next Wave” is not far away.
In an interview, you expressed a desire to follow-up Burst the Earth, but despite its success and attention abroad, it never happened. Why?
I thought it had value for television, but I didn’t get the timing for it as a television project quite right so I wasn’t able to make it.
What was the idea behind your first documentary ADOR? Does the title have any particular meaning?
The original plan was to make a bodyboarding “how-to” DVD. As pre-production went forward the two women to be featured learned they were pregnant and their tummies were expected to grow over the period of the shoot. There was talk of calling it off, but I felt it was interesting and devised setting the movie up as a documentary. The title feels similar to “kawaii” (cute) in Japanese. Women, surfing, pregnancy, and child rearing all seemed “adorable” subject matter.
How was creating a documentary different from the short movies you had worked on until then?
Though the direction of the actors and the cinematography are often handled by different people in the case of a narrative, it’s practical since the responsibilities are different. You also have the time to prepare. But shooting a documentary requires instantly capturing whatever happens on the scene while still overseeing the objective of the documentary. Therefore, I think it’s best for the director to be behind the camera. Whether a narrative or documentary, I both shoot and direct, but I feel it’s particularly effective on documentaries.
Overseas commercial, music/promo video directors like Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, David Finch, among others often go on to become major movie makers. Does this happen on the same level in Japan? If not, why?
No, I don’t think so. Perhaps the reason, in Japan’s case, is being a “movie director” may not be the “end-all, be-all.” What I mean by this is the “genre” of movies is not necessarily the pinnacle that every visual creator is absolutely striving to reach. If I were to ask myself, “would a first-class commercial director want to make a movie?” My feeling is, no, not really. But that might change if the film industry changed. If making movies came to emulate other creative endeavors accordingly and be given the opportunity to be valued on the same level, I think this would change. In truth, movies do have an allure.
If I were to ask myself, ‘would a first-class commercial director want to make a movie?’ My feeling is, no, not really. But that might change if the film industry changed
Thinking along these lines, it’s the same as the agricultural industry problem. The number of young people in the agricultural industry is slowly falling. This is the fault of people who enacted various one-sided policies back when [working in] agriculture was attractive. Isn’t something similar happening in the film industry as well? In order to reclaim movies as something inherently attractive (career-wise), it would be necessary to correct the thinking of those who hold the big monopolies.
You have many contacts in the entertainment industry from producers to actors. Is that how you became involved with Asano Tadanobu’s directorial debut TORI?
I received word about Asano’s directorial debut through an acquaintance. It seems I became a candidate because I had produced many short movies and there was a belief that I was looking to take on a new project. I met with Asano, spoke with him, and was floored by his charisma. So I consented to produce. The concept definitely lived and breathed inside him. It was my job to make it a reality. I was in charge of almost all the specifics from hiring the writer, to casting, staffing, set construction, editing, scheduling and budgeting. Talking with Asano in the condensed time we moved toward the same goal I was able to share in his passion for movie making. That has been a very invaluable and cherished experience for me.
Currently you’ve become more of a photographer and graphic designer than a filmmaker. Do you feel a sense of regret or nonfulfillment about the direction your career has taken?
I’m enjoying my work now. The jobs I do as a photographer are especially fun. I’m going to be holding a photography exhibition soon [note: he has held two exhibitions since the time of this interview] so I’ve been busy preparing for it. A reviewer has kindly said that the distinctive trait of my photography is the direction contained within the photographs. By those words I guess it means I’m pretty much doing the same thing (directing).
With your producer experience, have you thought about helping develop young talent or independent filmmakers?
Since 2009, I’ve been serving as the jury president of a film festival for children called the Ibusuki Children Film & Video Festival. During the event, I give a talk to the children on the subject of film & video production through a workshop. I thought it would be great if the children could feel a connection to moving images, photography, and design.
To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 character message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?
What are you doing now?
Excerpted from a full interview to be published in curated eBooks which will be offered for sale sometime in the near future. Please bookmark the Indievisual blog, Backstory, for news when the eBooks are available for purchase.
2007 – STAY (short film compilation)
2006 – ADOR (mid-length documentary)
2005 – Confession (short)
2005 – Last Interview for Spy (short)
2005 – Paradise Bonbon Detectives (short)
2004 – Assassin (short)
2004 – Kobudo (short)
2010 – Death Game Park (for BeeTV)
2004 – TORI (Asano Tadanobu directorial debut)
2002 – Shigoto-nin
2001 – Burst the Earth (short film compilation)