Interviewing Guest teacher at Seattle Necchu School February 23rd class
Necchu School invites specialists from different walks of life to speak at its adult-education classes. The first class of the Seattle Necchu School on February 23 will feature Ken Kurasaki, director at NHK (Japan Public Broadcasting), who is director of the 2019 version of the NHK’s annual year-long historical fiction television drama series titled “Idaten: Tokyo Olympic Story.” Before he lectures at Necchu, we spoke to him about his current work and the path he followed to get there.
Interview by Misa Murohashi, translated by Bruce Rutledge. Photos by NHK.
What sort of work does a director do?
It starts with gathering material and finding the subject. The work requires demand of everything from figuring out what the message of your story is, what you want the viewers to take away from it, to planning, location scouting, editing, and broadcasting the program. The subject could be anything from something that speaks to the viewers to a societal issue. If it’s a drama, we search for original work, and if we have an original story, we look for the nucleus of the story.
Turning “If Cats Disappeared from the World” into a radio drama started with me badgering the writer Genki Kawamura. The title caught my eye. And I wept when I read his work. When Kawamura visited NHK study group as a teacher, I asked him to please let me turn the story into a radio drama. Kawamura had produced the popular films “Your Name” and “Moteki,” so he was attracting a lot of attention. He had several other offers for his novel in front of him. I spent time imploring with him that a story about a world where phones and watches are slowly disappearing was just right for a radio program where listeners could use their imagination. About a month later, I received the
message from him: “I guess it would be good for me to work with someone young,” he responded.
After pestering the writer, I presented a plan for the program to my boss and NHK executives. Actually, this process is usually pretty difficult. At NHK, no matter what kind of show – small or big, is being proposed, it starts with one A4size proposal from a planning director. The NHK network gets all sorts of proposals from its branches throughout all 47 prefectures. (NHK has one branch network in each prefecture in Japan.) If your proposal doesn’t pass, your show doesn’t get made. Getting the “If Cats Disappeared from the World” proposal through took a lot more time than badgering Kawamura.
Once a proposal is accepted, if it is a drama, the next step is casting. For a work to reach a lot of people, the actors are very important. After reading about 10 pages of Kawamura’s novel, I thought, one of Japan’s most famous actors, Satoshi Tsumabuki, has to be the story’s protagonist. However, an actor of Tsumabuki’s caliber is not likely to agree to do a radio drama. With someone young like me in charge, if he didn’t hear my passion directly about why he should take the part, it was likely to be shot down by his office. So I wrote him a letter and asked his manager to hand it to him. When I received his reply the following week, I was very happy. From there, production took off until we were ready to broadcast. The little secret why Tsumabuki read my letter with interest will be one of the subjects of my talk at Necchu.
What do you do as director of a long-running drama?
With this NHK long-running drama series, there are currently four main directors and 12 assistant directors. We rotate responsibility, one story at a time. I am one of the assistant directors and oversee production management including arranging filming locations, managing the schedule and directing actors. Last summer, we spent three weeks on location in Stockholm recreating the Olympics in 1912 with the collaboration of a multinational group of actors. Drama production in a phrase is about the cinematization of the script. Kankuro Kudo, the scriptwriter, wove together his unique script, and the staff and cast worked with all their might to breathe life into it cinematically. The rolemaking of the actors was also important. Kankuro Nakamura, the actor who played the protagonist Shiso Kanakuri, trained for more than a year to get his body into shape as a track-and-field athlete, and underwent special training to run like Kanakuri. He also learned the Kumamoto dialect. I was in charge of finding specialists to teach the actors the necessary things about their roles. With a long-running drama like this one, the staff alone is a big group of more than 100 people. Professionals from different departments work together to produce the drama scene by scene. Of course, the cast is wonderful. I am moved every time they exceed what I imagined to be possible.
The director must direct a big group of staff and actors. Especially for this NHK long-running drama series, I work with many experienced staff members and actors. To lead these experts, I must deeply understand the story and its historical accuracy. I also need to be a mature person. This is such a big challenge and I would like to enjoy it.
Why did you become a director? Please tell us the circumstances that led to your current position.
When I was a student, maybe also even now, I would compare myself to my peers and feel this pent-up anxiety. I was envious of soccer players, artists, and anyone who could express themselves. As I went about trying different college activities and felt empty. At the end of my freshman year, I thought that I needed to change things, so I took a trip by myself to Laos. There, I got to know a Japanese person who worked for a nonprofit organization. She showed me around the poor rural areas. I saw a crude school where children learned under the blue skies. The people made a strong impression on me with their desire to make sure their kids got a basic education. I was filled with the thought that I could do something. Soon after I returned to Japan, in March 2007, I started working on a project to build an elementary school in a village in Laos. I was an impulsive 19-year-old. I got friends together, raised donations, and began to talk to the villagers and local governments, and in September 2008, one elementary school was opened. Today, this activity has become a student organization called SIVIO. College students there work together with local people in Laos listening to their needs, working on building clean restrooms for girls, opening a new kindergarten etc. I think our mentality is more of helping friends in need.
Around the same time while I was building a school in Laos, Kota Hada started a similar activity in Cambodia. He published a nonfiction book about his work called “We Can’t Change the World.” I provided some photos for his book. Taking photos is one of my hobbies. The book was turned into a film in 2011 by Director Kenta Fukasaku, and I was invited to the production site. I saw with my own eyes actors turning what we students experienced into a movie, and I had a pleasant feeling of discomfort and mystery. “I want to make something like this,” I thought, for the first time realizing I had an interest in producing dramas.
When I was accepted for a job at NHK, I took three months off from university and traveled the world. I came across a crematorium on the banks of the Ganges in India. It wasn’t just old people being cremated there. I also saw young people like me in their 20s and 30s. It was the first time for me to experience death that close up. It made me think sincerely about what I wanted to do with my life. That’s when my answer came to me clearly: “I want to be a director and make movies.” Movies begin with a director’s idea. The director’s life experience could become the subject of a work. I felt a lot of motivation to do this sort of work. I went to a nearby Internet café and looked up film schools. That’s where I found the New York Film Academy, where I spent two months studying.
What else do you want to accomplish in your career?
When I was studying in New York, I had a lucky incident bumping into Film Producer Caroline Baron on the street just by chance. I explained to her that I am studying to become a drama director. Surprisingly, she allowed me to visit her production site. It was a Hollywood film site with an international cast and staff of all sorts of backgrounds working together. I thought, someday I want to produce a work with a multinational staff and cast that moves a worldwide audience.
In this age of overflowing information, truly good things often get buried. Media and people’s lifestyles are so varied these days, it makes me want to keep working on quality works and have them seen by lots of people.
Necchu School is a school for adults who look to rediscover the enjoyment of learning, broaden their horizons, learn from experts in various fields, or just simply make new friends and connections. Using closed elementary school buildings and available facilities, Necchu School started in 2015 in Takahata of Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, and has hence grown to 12 schools with 800 students. The background and fields of the all-volunteer teachers can range widely from CEOs of tech companies and university professors to designers and engineers. Seattle Necchu School is the first Necchu School branch outside of Japan; some guest teachers will be local experts and others will come from Japan. Classes will be taught in Japanese. 1st Semester (Feb-June 2019) registration is now open online: https://www.necchu-seattle.org
Written by Kankuro Kudo, Music by Yoshihide Otomo, Storytelling by Takeshi Kitano, Starring Kankuro Nakamura, Sadao Abe, Haruka Ayase, Toma Ikuta, Mirai Moriyama, Koji Yakusho and more.
Shiso Kanakuri was the first Japanese Olympic athlete. Seiji Tabata brought the Olympics to Japan. If these two hadn’t done what they did, there would be no Olympics in Japan. The story of the Japanese who worked so hard over a half century to eventually realize the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is told by a remarkable cast.
Ken Kurasaki was born in Kyoto in 1987. While a student at Doshisha University, he founded the international organization SIVIO to help build an elementary school in Laos. In 2011, he entered NHK. His directorial debut, a radio drama called “If Cats Disappeared from the World” (Sekai Kara Neko Ga Kietanara) received honorable mention in the Galaxy Awards and won a Prix Italia award. Other works he has directed include the drama “Watashi No Aoo Ni,” which is set in the Yamagata Prefecture area, the same part of Japan where Necchu Elementary began when it opened its first school in Takahata. Kurasaki loves traveling by himself and has traveled to more than 50 countries.