Kurando Mitsutake has made a bit of a name for himself lately, and with Synapse Films releasing his Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf and Shout! Factory releasing his Gun Woman, both on Blu-ray, this week – we jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain about projects past, present and future.
R!S!P! - How did you get your start in the film industry?
After I graduated from film school at California Institute of the Arts, I was hired to co-produce supplemental featurettes for Newline Home Video. I worked on BLADE, RUSH HOUR, LOST IN SPACE and CORRUPTER. Then I became a production coordinator for Japanese TV productions coming over to shoot in the US.
Rock! Shock! Pop! - Growing up, and even now, who do you count as your main influences?
Kurando Mitsutake - If I’m only allowed to mention a few, I must say Sam Peckinpah and Kihachi Okamoto. Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and Okamoto’s THE SWORD OF DOOM are my bibles.
R!S!P! - One of your first credits was for handling some of the effects on Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge 2. What was it like working with Shimizu and how do you feel about the whole ‘J-Horror’ trend that movies like that and like Hideo Nakata’s Ring films inspired?
KM - THE GRUDGE 2 was my first Hollywood gig. I assisted the VFX supervisor, Mr. Hajime Matsumoto, during post production in LA. Then I became close to Mr. Takashi Shimizu and he bumped me up to his assistant director for the re-shoot in Chicago. The J-Horror phenomenon in the early 2000s was really something. I think the movement created a new horizon for the horror genre worldwide. But the result was Hollywood wanted to pump out more of it too fast and eventually audiences grew tired of it.
R!S!P! - You directed your first movie in 2007, Monsters Don’t Cry. What can you tell us about this film and what was it like being in charge of a feature film for the first time?
KM - MONSTERS DON’T GET TO CRY was an honorable failure, I think. It was 2 men—a confined space thriller and a drama about revenge and forgiveness. I still am proud of the picture and really dig the performances from my cast. It received straight to video distribution in Japan but not in the rest of the world because it didn’t have enough “genre” edge. The German distributor who released GUN WOMAN and SAMURAI AVENGER might release it on DVD towards the end of this year a part of a Kurando Mitsutake revenge trilogy box set. That would be sweet.
R!S!P! - In 2009, you wrote, directed and played the lead in your second feature, Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf. This film pays homage to Spaghetti Westerns like Django but also Japanese samurai classics like the Lone Wolf And Cub and Zatoichi series. What were your main influences here and what inspired you to make this picture?
KM - The biggest advice I received from the failure to obtain wider distribution for MONSTERS was to do something Japanese as a Japanese indie director in the United States. Something Japanese meant Samurai action to me and I wanted to mash it up with my Spaghetti Western influences. My heavy influences from Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s work are apparent in SAMURAI AVENGER: THE BLIND WOLF. Also the works of Kihachi Okamoto, Kenji Misumi and many other Samurai classics influenced me a lot.
R!S!P! - Do you prefer playing the lead in your own films or is it easier, from a directing standpoint, to work with other actors/actresses?
KM - The decision to play the lead in SAMURAI AVENGER came from a purely economical standpoint. If I were to cast myself as one of the leads, it was one less actor to pay and worry if he’d show up on set. But I’m a lousy actor. Especially after I’ve had the opportunity to work with great actors like Asami, Kairi Narita and Noriaki Kamata in GUN WOMAN. I prefer never to be in front of the camera again.
R!S!P! - The violence in this film is over the top and almost cartoonish. What made you decide to take this approach as opposed to creating a darker, more serious movie?
KM - With SAMURAI AVENGER, I wanted to make a happy toy box revenge flick that felt very spaghetti—a fun movie that pushed the envelope in a cartoonish way. So even though it is an ultra-violent movie, all the violence is very stylized and because of that not as dark.
R!S!P! - In 2007 Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django, which is like your film a sort of Japanese take on the classic Italian Spaghetti Westerns. Was Miike’s film an influence on your own picture and what do you think about his work as a director?
KM - I love Mr. Miike’s work. His AUDITION is one of my favorite films of all time and I respect his work greatly. But I didn’t think SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO was a great movie. You just didn’t feel the love of the genre in it. I often hear criticisms toward my SAMURAI AVENGER that it’s a rip off of KILL BILL and SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO but my conception of the idea was completely separate and before those movies, although my film hit the market afterwards.
R!S!P! - You shot both Samurai Avenger and your next film, Gun Woman, in the United States. Do you prefer working in the US or Japan? Why?
KM - Since I was a film student back in the mid-1990s, I have been making movies in Los Angeles. I love it here. There’s so much talent, not to mention the filmmaking history of the city. My fourth feature that just got a green light will be another Japanese action movie shot in LA.
R!S!P! - How did Amanda Plummer wind up appearing in Samurai Avenger and what was she like to work with?
KM - Amanda is great. She’s such a free-spirited amazing artist. It was a pleasure and honor to have her do the cameo in SAMURAI AVENGER. Amanda and I met back in 2006 at a Japanese film festival in Hokkaido called Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. She was traveling with Tobe Hooper at the time and Tobe was a jury member for the competition. We were staying in the same hotel across the hall from each other and we became really good friends. Our friendship lead to Amanda’s appearance in SAMURAI AVENGER.
R!S!P! - As an actor you’ve also appeared on some American television shows like Heroes and Ugly Betty. How did this come about and what was it like working on some major network productions like those two?
KM - One of my actor friends introduced me to his agent and the agent wanted to represent me. So I took this offer thinking it would be a great learning opportunity from a directing perspective. Then I had a lucky streak. My first acting job was a big budget cell phone commercial for Europe and that shoot alone made me a SAG actor. Then I got cast in UGLY BETTY and HEROES. On UGLY BETTY, I had a big scene with Vanessa Williams and my HEROES episode was directed by Jeannot Szwarc of SOMEWHERE IN TIME and SUPERGIRL. All fantastic experiences. Currently, I’m focusing on my directing career and not going out to auditions.
R!S!P! - Gun Woman was a much darker, more serious film than Samurai Avenger. Why the decision to ‘change gears’ and make a completely different movie from Samurai Avenger when that movie was popular enough that it probably would have been easier to make a sequel to it or do something in a similar vein?
KM - When the Japanese film distribution company Maxam, Inc. approached me to do a feature, I thought about doing SAMURAI AVENGER 2 but the budget was too low for the idea I had. So I decided to do GUN WOMAN instead. Asami and I had developed the story several years back and we were waiting for the financing, so it was meant-to-be timing.
R!S!P! - What was Asami like to work with? I’ve seen some of her movies and she’s a very bold, brave, fearless actress but in interviews I’ve seen with her she comes across as a total sweetheart. Why the decision to cast her in the lead?
KM - Asami is a force of nature. She is an amazing actress. Fully committed, no holds barred. But at the same time, she is one of the sweetest people I know. I couldn’t have done GUN WOMAN without my partner in crime Asami for sure. Asami was feeling the need to have her starring picture and GUN WOMAN was the perfect project for that and I was looking for an actress who could be bold and beautiful. So it was like a match made in movie heaven for us to do GUN WOMAN together.
R!S!P! - Gun Woman features a lot of effects, most of them practical but a few of them digital. Where and when do you decide, as a filmmaker, to use practical effects instead of digital effects and what is your preference?
KM - I am a movie nerd from the 80s, so naturally I love practical effects. But nowadays you do need to take advantage of digital effects to make the film more cost effective. I try to combine the best of both worlds.
R!S!P! - Did the decision to shoot Gun Woman in California and Nevada have anything to do with Japanese frontal nudity censorship laws and how do you feel about those laws?
KM - My Japanese government has so many stupid laws and bills but I have to say the frontal nudity censorship law is one of the dumbest ones ever. But that does not stop you from shooting full frontal nude scenes in Japan. You can shoot it but you cannot release it there without censorship. Our decision to shoot GUN WOMAN in the US was actually so that we could use real firearms in the movie.
R!S!P! - How did it come about that you “cast” Tatsuya Nakadai as Hamazaki in Gun Woman and did you get his permission to use that photo? What were his thoughts being involved in this movie?
KM - Nakadai san and I became close in 2013 after my mentor Kihachi Okamoto’s widow introduced us. I pitched the idea of him doing a still photo cameo for GUN WOMAN and he loved the idea. I was literally about to fall over when Nakadai san said yes, thinking, oh my god The Kurosawa Actor will be in my movie! Nakadai san says he likes bloody movies. If you think about it, he actually is the first Japanese actor to do the over-the-top blood splatter scene in SANJURO for Mr. Kurosawa. We are currently developing a feature together. I can’t wait to work with him closely.
R!S!P! - The end credits of Gun Woman promise a sequel – what can you tell us about this? Have you started work on it and, just as importantly, will Asami be back to play the lead?
KM - I’m hoping to do GUN WOMAN 2 and SAMURAI AVENGER 2 fairly soon. The synopses for both are ready. If you know a millionaire who wants to make genre movies, please let me know. And of course, Asami will return as GUN WOMAN. She is GUN WOMAN.
R!S!P! - With both Samurai Avenger and Gun Woman getting Blu-ray releases in the US from Synapse Films and Shout! Factory respectively, how does it feel getting your movies out there to a bigger North American audience?
KM - It feels amazing. With the Synapse and Shout releases, I finally feel like I have a foot in the door, and it marks a major departure point for my directing career. SAMURAI AVENGER originally had a very short limited US release back in 2010 on DVD and then was orphaned when the distributor folded. So I’m very happy to see the amazing re-issue on Blu-ray from Synapse Films. As an avid DVD / BD collector, I was a huge fan of Synapse Films to begin with, but to see and experience the love and care of Synapse’s restoration firsthand has been a pure joy. SAMURAI AVENGER Synapse Blu-ray edition includes for the first time in the US the feature length behind-the-scenes documentary. It shows a thing or two about ultra-low budget filmmaking, so I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking about making his or her own movie.
R!S!P! - What’s next on the horizon? Any new projects in the works that you want to tell us about?
KM - My fourth feature will be a martial arts movie. We are slated to begin production this fall. It should be done towards the end of the year and do the festival tour in 2016. Please be on the look out for it. Also, I have several things in development including the Nakadai san feature. I’m excited about them all. Thank you very much!
And thank you for being kind enough to answer our questions! Anyone interested in checking out more of Kurando Mitsutake’s world can check out his website here! Thanks to Matt at Synapse for helping to put this together and to Synapse Films and Shout! Factory for providing the review materials needed.