Tag Archives: Taku Kato

Strange lands

Taku Kato, the director of Japanese film A Stranger in Shanghai, discusses making the single drama for broadcaster NHK, filming in China, and appealing to international audiences.

Set in 1921, Japanese feature-length drama A Stranger in Shanghai follows the story of writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa as he visits Shanghai as a newspaper correspondent.

Having grown up reading classic Chinese novels as a child, what Akutagawa discovers is not the utopia he had imagined. Instead, he is shocked by the military scuffles, Western and Japanese occupation and the local residents living in abject poverty. From intellectual revolutionaries to courtesans surviving in the back alleys, each encounter affects him in unexpected ways.

Based on the exploits of the real-life Akutagawa, a prominent Japanese novelist and writer of short stories, the drama is produced by NHK and distributed by NHK Enterprises.

Here, director Taku Kato, whose credits include Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, tells DQ about making the drama.

Tell us about the story of A Stranger in Shanghai.
Taku Kato: One hundred years ago, Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa visited the Chinese city of Shanghai during a period of turmoil. This was the first trip overseas for the 29-year-old writer, who had already gained renown in Japan for his novel Rashomon, which later became an Akira Kurosawa film.
Shanghai was unprecedented in world history as a city where the occidental and oriental mixed. For Akutagawa, who had been fascinated with China from a young age, every aspect of the society and people he saw there exceeded his imagination.
As he observes China during this tumultuous time, the novelist’s heart and mind gradually transform while his relationship with a deaf-mute boy deepens.

Taku Kato

What attracted you to the project?
More than anything, it was the question, ‘What is China?’ Answering that question means more than talking about Chinese history in terms of political or military aspects; it means encountering Chinese people and culture.
Although there was a deep rift between Japan and China at the beginning of the 20th century, many Japanese people visited and wrote about China as if drawn by the magical power of the city of Shanghai. Akutagawa was one of these people.
Shanghai Yuki [A Report on the Journey of Shanghai], the travel journal that Akutagawa wrote detailing his visit to China, presents a mixture of emotions towards China — deep affection, understanding and also disappointment. That Akutagawa was able to express such emotions in this travel journal was due to his deeply held respect for Chinese culture.
Moreover, his natural genius as a novelist enabled him to depict the Chinese people with delicate precision. Distancing himself from political and military issues, Akutagawa showed China as it truly was, and I feel that his perspective then is extremely relevant for us today, 100 years later, in understanding Chinese and other cultures.
I was also very attracted to the idea of depicting China in the early 1920s using 8K ultra-high definition. Shanghai at that time was a city like a chimera. While the splendour of the Qing Dynasty still remained, the corruption of the revolutionary period was in control behind the scenes. I thought the Shanghai of 100 years ago depicted in 8K would be fresh and captivating.
Another huge attraction was the opportunity to collaborate with the Chinese filmmaking industry. Initially, I envisioned having a few more scenes in Japan, but ultimately virtually all of the scenes were shot in Shanghai.
Working with staff and actors from the Chinese filmmaking industry, which is continuing to develop, was highly stimulating and I believe we were able to create universal and valuable content through working together.

How was the project developed?
I began thinking about this project in 2010, around the time relations between Japan and China were really bad because of the Senkaku islands dispute. In Akutagawa’s time, Japan-China relations were also very tense, but I found Akutagawa’s approach of distancing himself from political aspects and focusing on Chinese culture  to be highly intellectual.
Our scriptwriter, Aya Watanabe, is one of Japan’s most outstanding writers, but the question of whether a travel journal could be translated into a drama was quite a difficult one. By piecing together several of Akutagawa’s novels and essays and introducing a young deaf-mute male prostitute named Lele as a key character, Aya was able to create a story.
The script was very beautiful – the word choice, the flow of scenes – but even Aya was unable to envision how the imagery would turn out, and when she came to see the project being shot on location in Shanghai, she was startled by the imagery we were producing. Inspiring each other as we created this drama was a very enjoyable experience.

How does the series use the classic ‘fish out of water’ premise of Akutagawa arriving in China?
A sensitive person such as [the real] Akutagawa would have felt out of place when faced with rapidly advancing modernisation. He did not feel comfortable with major trends in society. We regard the estrangement between society and Akutagawa as having made him anxious, eventually leading him to choose suicide [he took his own life in 1927, aged 35].
The word ‘Stranger’ in the title of this drama naturally refers to the fact Akutagawa was a foreigner visiting China, but it also implies that he was a stranger to the times.
In Shanghai Yuki, Akutagawa describes the occidentalism appearing in Shanghai as being a “fish out of water.” In the unprecedented city of Shanghai, everything was unknown. The sense of discomfort towards the times, that something was not quite right, is an experience shared by many people today who feel anxious about the rapidly changing world and unseen world of the future.
An important theme of the project was drawing to the surface Akutagawa’s sense of distance from the times as a stranger, and lead actor Ryuhei Matsuda was able to depict this with wonderful balance.

Ryuhei Matsuda as Ryunosuke Akutagawa in A Stranger in Shanghai

How did you prepare for production?
For the sets, our Japanese production designer drew images. Based on these, the sets were created jointly with the design team in China.
For character styling, Chinese staff created both costumes and make-up based on images drawn by our character visual director.
With regard to direction, scripts were prepared with Japanese and Chinese text printed side-by-side. Sketches and shot lists were written in, but we did not use storyboards. However, I don’t think many of the staff actually looked at these scripts.
As is almost always the case when working with an international team, the staff were able to instantly gauge the aim and level of production from the images appearing on the monitor. This is an interesting aspect of producing projects with a multinational team.

Where was the series filmed? How did you recreate 1920s Shanghai?
All of the Chinese scenes were filmed at two studios in Shanghai over a 16-day period. The Japanese scenes were shot in Tokyo in one day.
The Shanghai studios have streetscapes and buildings from various periods, which we decorated to suit our needs. Our production designer is Japanese but graduated from a Chinese university and has a very deep understanding and respect for Chinese culture, so was able to recreate Shanghai in 1921 working in cooperation with the Chinese team.
We referred to a great deal of historical material. Japanese and Chinese researchers kindly provided us with photographs and material relating to the relevant period and answered any questions we had.
We also intentionally incorporated many furnishings and clothing designs evocative of the Qing Dynasty. It was important to show the contrast between the Chinese culture that Akutagawa loved and Westernisation, so we took especial care in balancing this mixture.

How did you work with the actors on set? Did it involve lots of preparation or rehearsals?
A major part of directing is arranging art and lighting crew as well as extras and other peripheral staff so that the actors can move naturally. Within the worldview presented by the director, it is the actors who possess the skills to constantly enthral and surprise us.
Naturally, I provide direction with regard to the story flow, but the performances created are entirely the work of the actors. If you are not satisfied by an actor’s performance, it is the worldview presented by the director that is at fault.
The reason that all the scenes for this drama were shot at studios was that this made it possible for us to create a certain worldview. The main character, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, always walked the streets of Shanghai as a stranger, while Takashi Okabe, in the role of Shiro Murata, blends into the Shanghai streetscape with astonishing acting skills – despite the fact that he cannot speak Chinese and had not even been to China before filming this drama.
Virtually all of the Chinese actors were selected through auditions. They used their own imagination and skills to weave performances based on the script within the worldview created by the sets. We used a filming style of rehearsing each scene first, followed by actual filming. The costumes provided by our character visual director were also tremendously helpful in assisting the actors to immerse themselves into their characters.
Watching through the monitors, even the Japanese staff who don’t speak Chinese were deeply impressed by the Chinese actors’ expressive abilities. The characters of Lele, the deaf-mute boy, and Yulan actually have no lines. The fact Japanese viewers are also able to deeply empathise with these two characters’ feelings is because of these actors’ extraordinary expressive abilities.

Taku Kato is also known for his work on Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

What was the biggest challenge you faced making the series?
The drama was filmed almost entirely in China, and in 8K at that, and everything was a first-time experience for us. In that sense, we too were ‘strangers.’
I have filmed dramas in Europe numerous times, but if a team comprising people from different cultures can create imagery together, they can gain mutual understanding and give birth to new creativity as while inspiring and stimulating each other.
However, for this project, the number of Chinese staff was much higher than the number of Japanese staff – 200 Chinese staff to 30 Japanese. I thought it would be overwhelming, but the filming process was enjoyable throughout.

Why will the story appeal to viewers?
Akutagawa’s Shanghai Yuki is a travel journal, so the drama tells the story of a journey. The irresistible feeling of excitement and stimulation at crossing borders and encountering different cultures is something that has probably been preprogrammed into humankind.
Akutagawa the traveller discovered small things and endeavoured to imagine what lay deep within different cultures. This is surely something everyone has experienced.
China, in the past and today, is a mysterious country. One of the attractions of this drama is that it enables viewers to experience China from a traveller’s perspective. The Communist Party of China led by Xi Jinping today was born 100 years ago in the home of a young man called Li Renjie (Li Hanjun), whom Akutagawa met.

How is Japanese drama evolving towards international audiences?
I am always tremendously inspired by dramas from outside Japan. Producing dramas that translate internationally is probably about creating stories featuring issues with which people across national borders can identify, while emphasising the unique characteristics of each region.
International award-winning films Parasite and Shoplifters depict cultural aspects and customs particular to South Korea and Japan respectively, but these stories are set against backgrounds of social disparity and division — problems common throughout the world.
In Japanese drama production, however, there are few producers taking on the challenge of such genres. Although there are constrictions imposed by budgets and client orientation, more than anything, I think there is a lack of awareness with regard to connecting with international markets.
From the start, A Stranger in Shanghai was intended for broadcasting on NHK World Japan, because the subject matter was of interest to people around the world and was depicted from a uniquely Japanese perspective. If this drama does draw the interest of viewers around the world, it is because China is a subject that draws the interest and curiosity of the world.

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Less is more

The rampant demand for long-running series is seemingly unstoppable, yet TV movies and one-off dramas are becoming a powerful tool in addressing single issues or themes. They’re also evidence that not every story needs to run to multiple episodes and seasons.

TV movies come in many forms, whether they’re single dramas with a feature-length running time or topical one-offs that dramatise a contemporary or historical theme or event. And while it might seem logical that the current demand for binge-worthy series would temper the desire for small-screen movies, in truth they are as sought-after as ever as viewers seek a quick storytelling fix before starting the next must-watch 10- or 13-episode show.

“They have their place, for sure,” says Ian Whitehead, a producer at Canada’s Incendo Films. “But subscription-based firms are always looking for newness. Yes, they might have Breaking Bad to attract viewers, but they’re trying to broaden out and have something new.”

Europe has long been keen on TV movies, with schedules built around 90-minute dramas. This remains the case in Germany, where Rowboat Film und Fernsehproduktion is behind Die Toten vom Bodensee (Murder by the Lake), a series of small-screen movies produced twice a year, following two cops as they investigate murders at a lake that borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Distributor Beta Film has sold the series, produced for Germany’s ZDF and Austria’s ORF, into more than 50 territories.

Brain Power Studio’s After the Storm

“Every market’s different but Germany somehow kept the 90-minute timeslots in abundance,” says Rowboat producer Sam Davis. “We produce two or three a year with the same cops and the audience responds to it because it’s a cinematic experience in a serial context. We find there’s still a big audience for that.

“We can’t ignore the fact the audience has become more serialised. And because they’ve become more serialised, we’ve adapted to more serialised TV movies, as we know the audience can keep a lot of subplots and complex characters in the air at the same time.”

Ontario-based Brain Power Studio has a slate of family movies, Christmas-themed films and romantic comedies, and also has a deal with Harlequin Books to adapt some of its novels for television. Titles include After the Storm and Christmas With a Prince, while My Perfect Romance, Christmas Wedding Planner and Christmas With a View have all been sold to Netflix.

“As well as higher expectations from viewers, there is also greater sophistication to those films than there was in the past,” says Beth Stevenson, Brain Power founder and executive producer. “There are great concepts you can do with standalone films, and when you adapt a novel, there’s a whole backstory that’s been created within that book that you can actually utilise during the storytelling. That makes a really big difference. It may not attract the same audience that’s watching complicated and complex dramas, but those viewers still have very high expectations of not only being entertained but also being carried along with the story.”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter (pictured top) tells the story of O-Ei, who lived in the shadow of her father, celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai, before creating a name for herself with her own style of painting. The film emerged when Taku Kato, a senior producer in Japanese pubcaster NHK’s drama production department, sought a local story that would create interest abroad. A Hokusai exhibit at the British Museum coincided with his discovery of a book about Kurara, leading him to believe the story would appeal to viewers at home and around the world.

Christmas with a Prince, one of a number of Christmas-focused films on Brain Power’s slate

The decision to make a TV movie, as opposed to a series, came from Kato’s preference to focus on the core theme of the story. “In real life, Hokusai and O-Ei had debt problems and a complicated relationship. By making a one-off drama, I was able to focus on their affection for each other in the context of art,” he says. However, this approach was not without its challenges. “Summarising the life of a great artist in a single story is difficult because diverse elements of the circumstances, motivations and processes behind the artworks are interwoven in complex ways,” Kato adds.

The power of TV movies to shine a spotlight on topical or weighty subjects is one of the best uses of the format, with the BBC a particular champion of this type of TV drama. Films such as Murdered by my Boyfriend, Murdered by my Father and Killed by my Debt have told fact-based stories via dramatic reconstructions, while others have dramatised sensitive and often invisible issues.

Upcoming BBC single Care stars Sheridan Smith as Jenny, a single mum-of-two whose world comes crashing down when her beloved mother Mary (Alison Steadman) suffers a devastating stroke, leading to dementia. Written by Jimmy McGovern (Broken, The Accused) and Gillian Juckes, it is produced by LA Productions and distributed by Kew Media Distribution.

Producer Colin McKeown says the story, based on Juckes’ real-life experiences, was always destined to be a single drama. “It had a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “To me, a series is designed as a series. It’s about knowing when to stop and also what animal you’ve got. If it’s a single one-off, it shouts at you and says, ‘This is more poignant if you treat it not as some sort of commercial exercise but as a piece of storytelling that’s got maximum impact by being what it is in the first place – a unique story.’”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

LA Productions has good form with singles, having produced Common, another McGovern film, which explored the UK’s Joint Enterprise law when a young man gives friends an impromptu lift to a pizza parlour and ends up being charged with murder. The film helped change British law. “We’re very proud of what it achieved. Would it have achieved that if it was a series? I don’t think so,” McKeown says. “What Care will achieve in flagging up the problems that families are subjected to when a member of the family unfortunately contracts Alzheimer’s will be that much more rewarding because it’s a single film. It’s always the films that touch people’s hearts a lot more and have a bigger impact.”

Dementia is also key to another upcoming BBC feature-length drama, an adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing, about a woman struggling with the illness as she sets out to discover the truth about her friend’s disappearance. Shooting is set to begin in March 2019.

“It deals with an incredibly current and relevant issue to a lot of people but did it in such a fresh and accessible way,” producer Sarah Brown, head of drama at STV Productions, says of the source material. “There hadn’t been many dramas about dementia and it is such a huge issue of our time. We were very keen it should be on a mainstream channel for a mainstream audience because it’s an issue that touches so many people’s lives.”

The book’s unique viewpoint – the story is told from the perspective of someone with dementia – meant Elizabeth is Missing suited a 90-minute format, rather than the three-parter that was originally discussed. “There was no agenda, we just all felt creatively and editorially that a single was the best form for this story,” Brown says. “Some stories are designed and meant to be told as a multi-part show, and we all love those long-running stories that unfold slowly. But not every story is suited to that format, and we felt this story was best told in a single immersive experience.”

Sheridan Smith in BBC one-off drama Care

Whitehead says that, like serialised dramas, TV movies are introducing more flawed characters and complex situations. “In our movies, we go in different areas and have villains we enjoy as much as the heroes. Some broadcasters invest because the film is about a controversial subject or it’s a historical piece. We try to have interesting characters, and don’t believe we have to go big budget or big name. What I hope to do is more a mix of characters and languages. People are more open to that, so I hope it translates with movies.”

TV movies also allow stories to be told more directly, without becoming consumed by the side plots and peripheral characters needed to flesh out multi-episode series.

“Movies allow you to tell a story in a very condensed way. As you have only about 90 minutes of runtime, you can’t allow yourself to explore too many facets of a character’s life – even if it would be interesting,” says Caroline Labrèche, the director of Incendo thriller Second Opinion and the forthcoming Thicker than Water. “So everything in the film, be it story beats or character beats, needs to be very precise. You need to watch a scene and know exactly why you’ve just watched it. It can’t be too vague or subtle. There’s just no time for that, especially in plot-heavy thrillers. But that’s the challenge.”

Brown laments the way quieter single stories have been squeezed out in favour of multi-part dramas. “So the ones that tend to be commissioned are either big, topical, campaigning issue pieces or based on a really big well-loved book or with a bit of talent attached,” she notes. “In our case, it’s a combination of the subject matter and the book. Hopefully the way we make that and cast it will further enhance its visibility.”

With the trend for serialised stories showing no signs of stopping, TV movies can offer themselves up as a bitesized drama that can be watched in the time it takes to watch two episodes of a series. Meanwhile, investments in the genre made by Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms continue to blur the boundaries between TV movies and feature films on TV.

Incendo thriller Second Opinion

NHK’s Kato believes that as creators cross the boundaries between film and television, stories will too. “Given that TV movies allow suppliers and buyers to have informed negotiations after watching the programmes in their entirety and are generally cheaper than drama series, I believe there will be further growth in the market,” he says. “So it’s very likely I will stay involved.”

Stevenson adds that in the current political climate, feel-good TV movies that offer viewers something wholesome and heartwarming can be a tasty antidote to the turbulent and tempestuous news cycle.

“For anybody who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, that was a time of a lot of political upheaval. So Happy Days and The Waltons started, and that’s when television movies really took hold,” she says. “It feels like viewers are seeking out TV movies right now to be able to take a break and enjoy a beautiful Christmas story or be wrapped up in a cosy mystery or suspense tale that’s not as awful as the news coming into everybody’s house every day. That’s what’s making the difference. It feels like there’s a little resurgence of the television movie genre.”

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