If life is a journey, then the road which has led Andrew Kirkham from his native United Kingdom to Japan has certainly been an interesting path indeed. Though it is often said the destination is less important than the journey itself, for Andrew his physical and professional journey has literally brought him both to Japanese cinema and the sleepy seaside town of Zushi where he has settled. Along the way he has had to reinvent himself as the industry has evolved over his 39 year career, but he has also met and befriended many people who shared in his journey, some short-term, others life long. And the polestar which has guided him continues to be cinema.
“My infatuation with all things world cinema funnily enough grew out of my love of music. I was not a Beatles type person and was always looking for the next interesting musical sound. So began my eclectic tastes in life.” And thanks to the BBC’s late night programming he was exposed early to world cinema through which he first encountered the cinema of Japan. They became young Andrew’s window to places and lives that were outside his sphere of knowledge. This fascination with outside cultures steadily grew in conjunction with his gradual insertion into the film industry. “My first job in the periphery of the film industry was as a video salesman,” he recalls, “This was in the early days of VHS. The company I worked for had Japanese animation in its catalog (i) that I had to sell. At the time [anime] was still known by the term ‘Japanimation’ and was not highly thought of.” After brief stops at Palace and Virgin video where he performed duties in special projects, and becoming a production manager at a failing company (ask him about dining at Pinewood Studios surrounded by the cast and crew of Alien3), he arrived at an independent company which would turn out to be a waypoint in his life. Like all journeys, the people encountered along the way can play a pivotal role in one’s future. His boss was a visionary who was quite open to experimentation. “He very much became my mentor and am now pleased to call him a long term friend.” Andrew worked as both a production manager and in an acquisitions role which saw him bringing Chinese cinema titles to the U.K. The apparent success of these led to his boss agreeing to more world cinema titles for which Andrew created a new label under which these would be released. This became Andrew’s opportunity to delve once again into one of his first loves in world cinema–Japanese cinema. He would attend Cannes in order to make contacts with Japanese companies (among others) which first opened the door. Horror titles were given higher priority as they sold well, but art house titles were also on his sights.
Some of Andrew’s favorite Japanese movies up to now include all 48 Tora-san films from 1969 to 1995; Dodes’ka-den (1970); Ran (1985); My Neighbour Totoro (1988); Ju-on (2000); The Clone Returns to the Homeland (2008); Kotoko (2011); and Our Little Sister (2015).
Fortunately, his responsibilities also meant Andrew could regularly travel to Japan and experience the culture he had been viewing through the window of cinema. What may have originally began as business trips, slowly turned to pleasure (or a bit of both) This may have ultimately been the experience which planted the idea of immigrating to Japan in the future. Additionally, on these trips he was creating working relations with various people in all aspects of the film industry. He met and befriended writer/director John Williams on his very first working trip to Japan in 2005. Over the years their friendship grew, as did their working relationship. The end result is they are now working on developing a series as co-creators and producers (ii). But one particular relationship would have even more significance in his life. He met the woman who would become his wife as well as integral partner in his business. The relationship prompted extended trips to Japan to work out of her family’s tiny apartment as well as stints back in the U.K. Later, circumstances involving her family necessitated relocating to Japan, but the transportability of his work allowed him to easily transplant himself. Once in Japan he called on all his Japanese contacts and began developing that side of the business while still keeping the U.K. side in play. “My wife continues to work as the in-house translator role she’s taken on since we first met. Over the years she has developed her skills and sometimes works on projects that I am not involved with. When we took on filming etc. she took on the role of my assistant and became the behind-the-camera interviewer.”
Today most of his work continues to be done through his Silk Purse Enterprises, a film production and services company he established in 2000. Even if the name may not be familiar, the company has worked on subtitles or special feature material for Eureka Video, Arrow Video, All the Anime Inc., and in terms of Japanese cinema specifically, titles released by Third Window Films. “Working with Adam Torel has been a joy,” he says, “his choice of films is always very individual, everything from the works of Tsukamoto Shinya and Kitano Takeshi through to new filmmakers.” He has filmed interviews with Kawase Naomi, Miike Takashi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and Fukada Koji among others, but the interview he and his wife conducted with Shishido Jo left an indelible impression. “He was brilliant and enthralled us with all his tales from his illustrious career. At one point he pulled a gun from one of the plastic bags of memorabilia he brought with him and gave us a demonstration of his gun-toting skills.” But the experience didn’t end there. “At the end my wife and I asked for our usual photo with the interviewee. He said yes, but my wife had to sit on his lap. The man is still a player. Loved it. Days like that make the job [worthwhile].” Naturally work, particularly for freelancers, cannot and usually are not all experiences like this. Now that he deals directly with Japanese companies locally Andrew has experienced the frustration of Japan’s business culture such as the slow pace involved in decision making often lamented by foreigners or the air of control exerted by the large corporations. “Decision making is a misnomer. If I ever hear the terms ‘maybe’ or ‘It is the Japanese way’, I swear I will go mad.” At least the behind-the-scenes irritations has done little to diminish his appreciation of Japanese cinema. In fact, residing in Japan has given him opportunities to view works which would have otherwise been or still are difficult to distribute overseas, particularly independent fare. Working closely with independent filmmakers through Silk Purse has also fostered new friendships and given him insight into the state of Japanese independent cinema. He shared these observations:
“There is a big hole in the industry that cannot be serviced by the committee system that is prevalent in getting most releases made. Like everywhere else in the world there is a wealth of talent available that cannot get their projects properly funded and so have to scramble around in the micro/low budget end of the market. There is no development money and so films are rushed into production with scripts that are barely serviceable…. The trouble is not all films can be made on either no budget or a huge budget. It is those all important middle budget films that tell interesting or groundbreaking tales that need to be told but are being ignored.”
For his part, Andrew decided to pick up (that is to say shifts in theater projection technology mandated) the skills required for creating Digital Cinema Prints (DCP) so he could work with and support independent filmmakers. Through the trial-and-error mentality at the core of his willingness to reinvent himself, he added DCP conversion to his list of many services. But it would not be an overstatement to say this is perhaps as much business opportunism as recreative fulfillment. “I have to say I love living and working in Japan. Being here has afforded me opportunities I do not think I would have had in other places, certainly not in my home country.” Drinking cold Kamakura craft beer while looking out toward the Shonan Coast from the narrow terrace of a restaurant on Enoshima where scenes for one of the Tora-san films of which he is so fond was shot, that statement is truly undeniable.
If as Robert Frost wrote taking the road less travelled makes all the difference, then certainly Andrew Kirkham’s journey is a testament to the poet’s words. “In a way, I suppose I am living the dream as I am working in the industry and living in the country itself. Who would have thought this would be case when I was watching those Japanese films on UK TV back in my youth.” Affable and full of stories from his myriad of experiences over the years, Andrew Kirkham is thankful to the world cinema he fell in love with initially for leading him down the path to the professional and personal fulfillment he enjoys today.
Andrew Kirkham’s “Ones to Watch” Filmmakers
Asakura Kayoko – She is a very talented director and still deserves wider exposure to this day. I am proud of being able to help in getting two of her films onto the UK film festival circuit – It’s a Beautiful Day and Hide and Seek.
Mino Ryuichi & Kazuhiko – I liked their film Rojin Farm.
Matsumoto Yusaku – Noise.
Niwatsukino Norihiro – did the wonderfully eccentric Suffering of Ninko.
Hirose Takashi – has done some difficult to watch low budget extreme horror films, but I feel has more to say outside the horror genre.
Miyazaki Daisuke – I loved his Yamato (California)
Katayama Shinzo – Siblings of the Cape was a difficult watch, but worthy of much greater exposure.
Ueda Shinichirou – after the runaway success of One Cut of the Dead it will be interesting to see his follow up projects.
(i) UK Home Video Sales Titles:
Kimba the White Lion (1966)
Space Battleship Yamato (1974)
Phoenix 2772 aka Space Firebird (1980)
The Fantastic Adventures of Unico (1981)
(ii). Currently Andrew is working away on the film/series “Metamorphosis,” a unique take and extrapolation of the central motif of Franz Kafka’s classic novel. He is developing the property together with writer/director John Williams as a hard look at modern Japanese society with the question of who or what are the real monsters. Although fashioned as a multi-part horror, action, thriller they are hoping to entice viewers to look at themselves and the world around them. They have prepared a script for the “pilot” and bible for the follow up multi-season series. Andrew is busy hunting down the funding and concurrently starting to rally the behind the camera talent and distribution partners needed.