Becoming a filmmaker requires specific skills. An understanding of and practical experience with film production techniques is a matter of course, however a non-English speaking filmmaker will also need to become English proficient if they aspire to the world stage. Unfortunately, the language barrier is still a daunting and significant obstacle for a large majority of Japanese filmmakers in 2019. Yamamoto Hyoe perhaps innately sensed the importance of learning English when he left Japan to attend high school in Massachusetts before entering NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to study film production.
Back in the mid-to-late 90s, this made him somewhat of a trailblazer if not an oddity, but doing so would give Yamamoto early insight regarding how filmmaking, like language, possesses a cultural component which can not be fully understood until one fully immerses oneself in that culture. From the creative process to business fundamentals, major and independent film production alike in the U.S. does differ from Japan’s idiosyncratic film industry–sometimes significantly. This education and experience is brought to the fore in Yamamoto’s debut feature documentary Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair which deals with Japan’s largest financial scandal not from the standpoint of U.S. vs. Japan politics or economics, but between western and Japanese culture. His approach to the material could only have resulted from his time living abroad. Requiring years of development and pitching to investors at international project markets, the movie reflects Yamamoto’s own desire to understand the scandal as both a Japanese and a Japanese who has spent half his adult life in the U.S. His follow-up documentary is tackling the odd case of a tattoo artist who was arrested for practicing his trade. Still a work-in-progress, it is a story the local media are not covering, but Yamamoto sees the importance of it in a manner the majority of his countrymen may not or do not.
Despite the western tinge to his background–or perhaps because of it–Yamamoto has not chosen the road taken by other Japanese filmmakers educated abroad who decide to remain overseas. Instead, he set up a production company, Vesuvius, and has based himself in Japan where he hopes to change the practices by which independent filmmaking has languished. He is not the first with such goals, of course, but his advantage over pure westerners with similar ambitions will be his capacity to draw from both his native and adopted cultures.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2016. Revisions have been made with the director’s supervision)
What made you leave high school, travel to America, and enroll at a Massachusetts high school? I assume you didn’t know much English.
I spoke some English. Very little. I always wanted to study filmmaking in the US and wanted to start sooner rather than later. So I decided to go there for high school.
You then entered NYU’s Tisch School of Arts. Was that always the plan or had there been a certain film or experience which led you to want to study filmmaking?
I applied to the film schools on the West Coast as well, but didn’t get in. NYU was one of the few that accepted me. As I said, I always wanted to study filmmaking. My Dad is a movie buff and I grew up watching movies thanks to the new invention back then called Beta and VHS.
Upon graduating from NYU you landed a position at distributor Kino International. What were your responsibilities there? Had this also been an opportunity to study the film business?
I started as an intern and worked my way up to assume the role of Office Manager. My responsibilities included overseeing accounts, royalties, general office duties, and occasionally acquisition and marketing. It certainly gave me a nice lesson as to how distribution works. It’s a tough racket.
I felt I could depict Japanese people from a fresh perspective and that’s why I chose to tackle the LGBT issue by making it a non-issue.
When I Become Silent was your fourth short and your first shot in Japan. What had been the impetus to film back home and at the same time tackle the LGBT issue in 2007?
I have been wanting to make a film in Japan for a while. I felt I could depict Japanese people from a fresh perspective and that’s why I chose to tackle the LGBT issue by making it a non-issue. Yes, the protagonists are lesbians (or Japanese) but they are no different from you and me (whoever you or I might be).
In the press sheet for the film, you talked about the “miracles” that need to take place in order to complete a film. Can you give some examples of the miracles you and the cast and staff of 17 pulled off over the three month shoot?
The shooting was only 3-4 days. It was 3 months to prepare. I think I had many miracles along the way, but a major one was casting. I interviewed about 120 actresses and I was lucky to get those two ladies. They had chemistry together and became good friends after the production.
Could you please relate the circumstances that led to meeting Kanyama Keihiro, the other principal filmmaker at Vesuvius, your production company. Was he essential element for its formation?
We all met at a film festival, SKIP CITY International D-Cinema Festival. I was working there as staff, Keihiro had a film there, and Deborah also happened to be working as a staff member. Forming Vesuvius happened organically without too much planning. At that point in my career, it felt like a good idea to form a company since everything is so company oriented in Japan, but at the same time we had no intention to make it an ordinary company where we had to beg for gigs just to stay afloat and we all agreed with that principle.
One of the company’s tenets on its homepage addresses the singular vision which is “fatally deficient in Japanese films today.” Could you please go into further detail about this and do you think it’s still a problem?
I think it’s still the same. Most Japanese films are still based on popular manga, comics, TV series, and novels. There are not many films with original screenplays. The industry relies a lot on material that already have commercial value and take no risks in material that might seem too risky or even different. Perhaps it’s happening everywhere in the world. The golden age of auteurism is long gone and it’s all about dollars and cents. There are still ways to make good films with a singular vision. You just have to be smarter and wiser in doing so and I’m still learning.
The difficulties Japan’s peculiar business culture faces adapting to globalization is at the heart of your first feature documentary Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair. In the press kit, you mention as a result of your many years living abroad, Japan’s cross-cultural conundrums seemed all too familiar to you. In what way did your time living in America influence the approach you would take to tell this culture clash story?
I could understand what Michael Woodford was mystified by and didn’t ultimately understand about these Japanese business practices and the people who were in the system. At the same time, I understood why Michael Woodford was so frustrated. So I could appreciate two sides of the same coin in this case. It’s not necessary about who’s right or wrong. If you’re speaking from two different perspectives, of course you will crash against one another, but people don’t understand that it happens on every level of human communication. It’s not even about culture clash anymore in the end. How tolerant can you be to different perspectives? And what kind of choices would you make in the end?
If you’re speaking from two different perspectives, of course you will crash against one another, but people don’t understand that it happens on every level of human communication. It’s not even about culture clash anymore in the end. How tolerant can you be to different perspectives? And what kind of choices would you make in the end?
Obviously, a documentary like this is quite a significant undertaking. How did Berlinale Talent Campus and other project markets help you develop the project?
The project markets are great because you learn to communicate your ideas and the theme of the project. And you have to do it well otherwise, they won’t be interested in working with you. Berlinale was a bit different. It was more about forming ideas and narratives for filmmakers. It was also wonderful because there are no occasions in Japan to talk about the project in a way you’re allowed to at a place like Berlinale–in a very friendly encouraging atmosphere. It took a while to get financing together, so that was a problem, but it was my first feature film and I had to learn many things along the way.
The new ongoing Nissan scandal involving former CEO Carlos Ghosn seems to have shades of the Olympus scandal. Have you seen any difference in the way the media is handling the news itself and/or the developments, particularly in terms of the foreigner now being the accused rather than the accuser?
Some had more provocative headlines than the others, but I think the media was relatively cautious this time in pointing their fingers at foreigners. But then again, the accusations against Mr. Ghosn, who insists his innocence, appear to be substantial as far as the way the prosecution is handling the case. So that’s quite different from the Olympus case.
When this interview was first conducted, the topic of Netflix and the performance of their first original feature Beasts of No Nation was brought up with regards to how they were creating award winning work and changing not only TV but Hollywood as well. What are your thoughts now on the competitiveness among the various platforms–particularly local services– for original content especially with Amazon and Netflix actively courting submissions of, and producing original concepts in Japan.
With the arrival of Netflix, we saw many companies (mostly online platform companies) spending more on the ads, trying to attract subscribers with different content and even produce original content. But in my opinion, they [were] trying to copy what Netflix [was] doing without any specific vision. On the surface, they [sounded] like they [were] trying something new, but without any vision or direction, it [was] just a business practice that may or may not [have worked].
[Now] I think it’s good. The Japanese film industry needs to have more variety and competition. But then again, if that doesn’t provide opportunities to take risks and be bold, it won’t change the industry in positive ways. So hopefully, the internet platforms will take more risks in Japan (they are known to take risks and be bold outside of Japan). It remains to be seen how they affect the industry in general. Filmmakers have opportunities now and we need to grab them somehow.
In your blog “Many Mountains to Climb,” you draw a parallel between the Japanese government’s Cool Japan initiative to expand Japanese culture abroad to Exit through the Gift Shop, the documentary about graffiti artist Banksy. Do you think Cool Japan has always been more about commerce? Should the focus be on teaching film business skills?
Why do we need government endorsement to export our culture overseas? Why do they do it? Because it makes money. It has nothing to do with preserving culture or cultural heritage. Cool Japan has been from the very beginning a ploy to make an economic impact overseas. So what is culture? Does it have to make money? It’s a question we will have to battle for years to come.
Why do we need government endorsement to export our culture overseas? Why do they do it? Because it makes money. It has nothing to do with preserving culture or cultural heritage. Cool Japan has been from the very beginning a ploy to make an economic impact overseas
Contrary to my education, I’m not much of a believer in teaching filmmaking in an academic environment. Because what is essential as a filmmaker is to grow as a person rather than honing your skills and gaining technical knowledge. Sensibility is not something you can attain in an academic environment. It can provide inspiration, but it can’t nurture you in a way you need to grow as a person. Besides, the more academic institutions come to exist, the more it becomes about money, so in the end, it has nothing to do with nurturing culture or cultural heritage. It’s all business.
Tell us how you became aware of and interested in the case of tattoo artist at the center of your latest documentary Criminal Engravement.
My producer brought me an article about the case when the tattoo artist decided to bring the case to the court. It was one of those cases which makes you think about how backwards Japan can be. It was clear from the beginning that the tattoo artist was challenging the status quo in Japanese society and that was why we were intrigued.
Why does it matter for this story to be told?
The story is not just about tattoo artists and the tattoo industry in general, but a universal subject about fighting to claim your rights as a human being regardless of cultural biases and taboos. Raising one’s voice is really important especially in Japanese society where rocking the boat is often punished and considered taboo.
One of the few Japanese actors working consistently abroad, Kikuchi Rinko, names you as a friend on her official website and you had edited her short Rinko K in 42 sec. Any chance you two will work on a film together, short or feature?
Maybe. Who knows. She is a good friend.
To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 word message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?
Have you achieved what you set out to do 5 years ago? Be smarter.
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.
TBD – Criminal Engravement–A Tattoo Artist Challenges the System (working title)
2015 – Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair (documentary)
2007 – When I Become Silent
2004 – At Night
2001 – Wisdom Day
1998 – A Glance Apart