Kurando Mitsutake

Kurando Mitsutake

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Director Kurando Mitsutake talks “KARATE KILL” with Fangoria!

August 8, 2016 - 2:55 pm  |  by:

One of the best things about the incredible, inimitable Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, held annually every summer in Bucheon City, Korea, is that you’re just as likely to find a black-and-white art film about the meaning of existence as you are to find a balls-to-the-wall action masterpiece with some of the best martial arts set pieces in contemporary cinema. In the latter category sits KARATE KILL, Kurando Mitsutake’s hard-hitting tale of bloody vengeance and retribution with a potentially star-making turn from it’s lead badass, Hayate. FANGORIA recently caught up with Mitsutake at the festival to talk about action filmmaking, independent revenge stories, and much more…

FANGORIA: So, you’re originally from Japan, but you’re currently living in Los Angeles?


KURANDO MITSUTAKE: Right. Early on, I actually wanted to be a comic book artist. Japanese manga, you know, has a very strong cultural presence. And me growing up, in the late ’70s to early ’80s, there were a lot of master manga artists, at their prime, so I was heavily influenced by their work. And I guess I always wanted to be a storyteller, so I wanted to be a comic book artist. But when I saw Stephen Spielberg’s DUEL on TV, I was just blown away. And I was like “I actually wanna do movies.” And I was stupid, you know, a six or seven year-old kid, I thought “If you make a movie, you don’t have to draw. Just get the camera, point and shoot, it’s easier!”

So from there on, I really began this love affair with cinema. And in the ’80s, Japanese cinema was kind of hitting a low point. All the kids weren’t into Japanese cinema. We were growing up watching Cannon Films and American B-movies. And at the time, in Japan, there weren’t many legit film schools. So pretty early on, I wanted to study film in the states. I had the opportunity to be an exchange student when I was in high school, and my exchange school was in Fresno, California. From my map of the United States, I looked at the state of California and thought “Maybe I can bike from Fresno to Los Angeles.”

I ended up kind of in the armpit of California. But I learned while I was living there, that Sam Peckinpah was from Fresno. So I thought, “Hey, not a bad start,” and from there, I ended up living in L.A.

FANG: You mentioned a fascination with American B-movies. Did those get released in Japan at the time, or were they difficult to track down?

MITSUTAKE: At the time, the video rental bubble had just hit Japan. So everything was coming to Japan. And there was no rating system! So as a thirteen year-old boy, I could rent CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, uncensored. I guess that’s why I turned out so weird.

FANG: What made you decide to make a martial arts film?

MITSUTAKE: Truth be told, I’m actually not a huge fan of martial arts genre movies. I love, you know, a handful of movies. Bruce Lee’s films were a work of art. I love early Jackie Chan stuff.

FANG: You referenced Cannon. What about Sho Kosugi?

MITSUTAKE: You know, me being Japanese… Now I can enjoy it for what it is, but when I was younger and more pure, I was like “That ain’t Japan!” I couldn’t really get into it. He wasn’t authentic! Now we look at it and smile, but the American ninja movies didn’t get much support in Japan.

FANG: Sorry, we got side-tracked. You weren’t a huge martial arts movie fan?

MITSUTAKE: Not really. So, KARATE KILL was sort of my first step towards “professional” filmmaking. My first three movies were indie films. My first feature was called MONSTERS DON’T GET TO CRY, and that wasn’t released around the world. It’s just got video distribution in Japan.

FANG: From what I’ve heard, that one’s kind of different? It’s not as much a genre film?

MITSUTAKE: I was twenty-nine when I made that picture. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do kind of a heavy, human drama, torture movie. So [laughs] it didn’t really find an audience. It’s set around a fictional high school shooting. We made that film a few years after the Columbine shooting, or even growing up, the O.J. Simpson trial was so big. And I had this kind of reaction to what was going on in society. Like, these trials should be for the victims. Instead, the perpetrator gets this star treatment. They become the twisted hero of these stories, and I despise that. They’re the bad guy. And so I was really unhappy about it, so I made the movie MONSTERS DON’T GET TO CRY. It’s about a father who lost his daughter at a high school shooting, and he kidnaps the perpetrator and tortures him to teach him a lesson. It really didn’t find an audience, because it’s a confined space, high human drama thing… With a lot of gore [laughs].

But I learned my lesson. You really can’t create a genre if you’re the little guy. If you’re a David Lynch, or Jodorowsky, you can create your own cinema genre. But me, a nobody, I can’t create that. So I said “Hey, maybe I should do genre movies, put my foot in the door, then I can eventually do something crazy.”

FANG: Going the Peter Jackson route?

MITSUTAKE: Right, exactly! So that was my dream. You know, a hard lesson was learned, then I did SAMURAI AVENGER, and that kind of put me on the map. Then I was hired to do GUN WOMAN, which was kind of cool, because it was ultra low-budget. And because of that, producers didn’t breathe down my neck. They let me do whatever the hell I wanted to do. Then, going back to your question, KARATE KILL landed on my lap, this was my first movie that I didn’t initiate. I was basically a hired gun. 

My executive producer, Naoki Kubo, discovered our star, Hayate. And I guess Hayate played a small role on Kubo’s first produced feature, DANGER DOLLS. You’d have to try really hard to look for Hayate in that movie. He’s a bit player villain. He wasn’t on Kubo’s radar, but when they came to Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido, Japan, Hayate didn’t have his own hotel room. And it’s such a small town, every March when they do the festival, they run out of hotel rooms. So Hayate couldn’t find a place, and Kubo said “Fine, you can crash on my couch.”

They got to talking, and Kubo is a huge martial arts enthusiast. He knows all these little obscure martial arts from everywhere. So when Hayate told him, “I’ve been doing Karate for twenty years,” he said, “Okay, show me some moves.”

And Hayate’s movement was this totally bizarre, like, not Karate you’d know. So Kubo says “What is that?” and I guess Hayate’s Karate… You know, first there was Kung Fu, from China. Kung Fu came to Okinawa from China, and Okinawans developed it into Karate. And it was just called Te first, meaning “hand.” And Kara was added, meaning “empty.” It traveled to the mainland and became, you know, Kyokushin style, that kind of thing. But the beginning form of Karate had more of that Kung Fu movement. And Hayate’s Karate is like that. That lethal Karate that isn’t practiced for sport. All the movement is to the eyes, the throat, the balls. They want to kill you!

So when Kubo saw it, he was like, “Holy shit, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen! I need to make my next film starring him.” Then, at that time, at Yubarri Film Festival, GUN WOMAN was playing. Kubo came to watch it, and was like “Holy shit, who’s this crazy director? Ah, maybe he should direct Hayate.”

At that time, the stars just aligned, and that’s sort of the birth of KARATE KILL.


FANG: Now that you’ve done a martial arts film, is it something you’d like to revisit? I think KARATE KILL has franchise potential, similar to the Cannon stuff.

MITSUTAKE: Oh, sure! I want to be a cross-genre guy. I’d love to do more martial arts movies, I’d love to do horror movies, anything! I mean, my mission is to put my kid through college, so hire me and I’ll do whatever! [laughs]

But me being not the martial arts film enthusiast, I approach KARATE KILL like DIRTY HARRY. I approached it like, KARATE KILL is not about Karate, persay. To Kenji, the main character, his Karate is what the .44 Magnum is to DIRTY HARRY. He wouldn’t be Dirty Harry without the .44 Magnum, but the movies aren’t about the Magnum.

FANG: What would you say you did differently from a directing standpoint, for a martial arts film?

MITSUTAKE: Well, you kind of wear the stunt guys out if you try to do too many takes. So we always rolled A Camera and B Camera, so it was a multi-camera shoot. And I would ask A Camera to get a little wider perspective, then B Cam to be focusing on his hands or legs, a little tighter coverage. So if you do three takes of that, with both cameras, you end up having six different angles to use.

FANG: How did you find the stunt crew?

MITSUTAKE: Immediately when I knew I was working on a martial arts movie, I wanted to work with the stunt coordinator from GUN WOMAN, Keiya Tabuchi. He’s a Japanese stunt person coming to L.A., he’s great at working in that situation, at understanding the differences shooting there from shooting in Japan. And he did an amazing job.

Our headache, really, was that Hayate’s style is so real. His Karate doesn’t have those flashy moves. He doesn’t have these big split kicks, like Van Damme. That was Keiya’s headache. How do we make this ultra-realistic Karate more flashy for the camera?

So Hayate and Keiya worked really closely in Japan for about three months, prior to the principle photography. The first step was for Keiya to be familiar with Hayate Karate, so he learned his moves. Then he could be like, “Instead of doing this, could you do it a little more like this,” and they kind of met in the middle. The stunt choreography guy and the real martial artist, they met in the middle to create the movie version. Huge credit to them, for all the hard work.

FANG: Were there any safety concerns, working with Hayate’s style?

MITSUTAKE: In movie fighting, we always stress safety first. So say there is a punching scene, you wouldn’t punch at their face, you would punch to the side. But because Hayate is the real deal, he prefers that it actually comes at his face, because he’s 100% sure he can dodge it. But the stunt people’s instinct is to punch to the side, which is where his face is going to go when he dodges! So that was a difficult adjustment. We had to ask the stunt people to actually go for his face. Which I think made our fights a little more realistic.

FANG: Were there any injuries or accidents?

MITSUTAKE: Hayate got cuts and bruises every day. It was a tight 18-shoot in L.A. And every day, he was either doing a fight, a parkour move, jumping to something, falling down to something. It was a really hard shoot. We couldn’t be like, “Let’s shoot drama for a few days, then we’ll do the big stunt scene one day. Then move back to the drama.” Nothing like that. It was like, this morning Hayate is crying in a car, this afternoon he’s getting his ass kicked. Every day he had something. I’m sure it was super brutal, but… He did it.

He didn’t even have a passport, you know! It was his first time doing all this, out of his comfort zone, coming to the US, working under these unimaginably hard conditions, but he just did everything perfectly. I’m impressed with not only his physical abilities, but I’m impressed with him as an actor.

FANG: I’m hoping this launches something for him!

MITSUTAKE: Me, too! He’s definitely an undiscovered gem.

FANG: So, there’s a long, continuous take in one of the fights where the camera rotates in this weird way. That’s very atypical in this genre. What was your idea for that?

MITSUTAKE: Well, there are so many martial arts movies, and I wanted to try to be different. I didn’t want to be buried under mountains of martial arts movies. I wanted to approach it like a director who doesn’t normally shoot martial arts movies. I didn’t want this shaky camera bullshit. You can make anyone look strong with that. If you look at Bruce Lee movies, the camera work is simple. You just park the camera in front of the real deal, that’s it. I wanted to do something like that, but I didn’t want to just do the fixed shot. I wanted to follow the action, but I didn’t want to make it all blurry bullshit.

The rotating camera thing, that shot to me signifies a descent into a crazy world. Kenji’s entering a world of killing, and blood, his world is turning upside down.

But also, I wanted to one long fight scene in the movie, with no cuts. I loved the hammer fight in OLDBOY. But our budget is probably like 1/100th of OLDBOY. So we couldn’t do the long hallway, one continuous shot or anything. I was like, “I really want to move the camera and do one long take,” but there was no way to do that, so I said “Why don’t we just rotate it like this?”

FANG: I thought the soundtrack captured the vibe of ’80s action movies really well. Have you worked with this composer before?

MITSUTAKE: Yeah. His name is Dean Harada, he’s third or fourth-generation Hawaiian-Japanese. This is actually the third feature we’ve worked on together. He scored SAMURAI AVENGER, GUN WOMAN, and now KARATE KILL. Our inside joke is that I call him Ennio, and he calls me Sergio, when we text each other.

At this point, we kind of have shorthand communication. When I finish the script, I make kind of a sample CD, like, what I heard writing the script, and I give him that, and he just goes off and does it.

FANG: A big part of the movie involves Kenji learning to fight against guns, which seems like something you have to address when making a modern martial arts movie. Was that in your head from the beginning?

MITSUTAKE: It’s definitely the biggest hurdle for the suspension of disbelief. Like, they could just point, shoot. But also, I’m a sucker for the training montage. I wanted to get a training montage in there. But Kenji is already a Karate master, I couldn’t get my training montage in there! Then I thought, “Wait a minute. He still needs to learn how to dodge a bullet.”

It also takes away some of that problem with the suspension of disbelief. I think we did alright.

FANG: Yeah! And I loved the training montage in the film.

MITSUTAKE: One of my childhood favorite films was REMO WILLIAMS. It’s like a training montage fanatic’s wet dream. He lives with this little Korean master and has to be trained to dodge bullets. Kenji learning how to dodge the bullet was like my homage to REMO WILLIAMS.

FANG: Speaking of homage, it seems like Cannon Films are the biggest influence on KARATE KILL.


FANG: But you mentioned loving comics as a kid. Did any comic or manga influence KARATE KILL? I got a Hokuto No Ken vibe.

MITSUTAKE: [laughs] It’s definitely there. My villains kind of look like Hokuto No Ken characters. It’s not really a direct influence, but subconsciously, all my movies were influenced by manga. GUN WOMAN was kind of called live-action manga, and I don’t disagree with that.

FANG: How did you find the artist for the poster?

MITSUTAKE: It’s done by “The Dude Designs,” Thomas Hodge. Ever since he made a splash with the HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN poster, I’ve been a fan of his work. He’s a great artist, who captures that VHS generation. He’s kind of reviving it, in an awesome, ultra-cool way. I was a fan of him, then I had a chance to meet him in Germany at a fan convention. We had a few drinks together, I told him I was a fan, and we started to hang out. So when I finished the post-production for KARATE KILL, I pitched him to my producer, and showed them his work, and they were like “Wow, this guy’s great!”

And I hate current movie posters. It’s like, an actor’s face. There’s nothing to it. And the Japanese are notorious for those Photoshop bullshit posters. I didn’t want to do that for this movie. We’re going to have a Japanese theatrical release in September, so already the posters and the fliers are at movie theaters, and it just stands out, screaming out, “This is different!” It’s cool.

FANG: Is there any word on the US release?

MITSUTAKE: I was just talking to my producer this morning. They’ve sold a few territories in Europe, a few territories in Asia, but not North America yet. I’m hoping for a decent VOD release, and hopefully physical media. I still love physical media.

FANG: There’s a character death in the film that caught us by surprise. What was the decision to kill this character?

MITSUTAKE: You know, MONSTERS DON’T GET TO CRY was a revenge movie. SAMURAI AVENGER was a revenge movie. GUN WOMAN was a revenge movie. I didn’t want to do another revenge movie. But, I guess I was feeling this gravity towards revenge a little bit. That essence of vengeance found its way in.

FANG: Any idea what’s coming next for you?

MITSUTAKE: I have three projects. One, I’m a huge horror fan, but I’ve yet to do a proper horror picture. So I’m looking forward to doing that. There’s this Japanese published horror story that we just got the rights to. It’s not supernatural. It takes place in Japan, but the story is so universal, I’m hoping to adapt this in America. I think it will be 90% an English-language movie. That’s in the works.

The other one is kind of my homage to Italian Giallo film. I want to do Japanese Giallo. It feels like currently there’s this big reassertion of Giallo. This Neo-Giallo movement around the world. And I’m sure some other Japanese filmmaker’s gonna do it if I don’t. But I want to be the first Japanese to ride that wave.

The third one is kind of a political thriller film noir. I’m looking at it like, that will be my launching into more mainstream movies. A little less blood, a little less craziness, hopefully more cinematic. I’m not a political person, I’m just a stupid cinephile. But there’s so much shit going on right now. Some of the Japanese politicians in power right now, they openly said “Don’t give too many rights to people.”

There’s video of them saying that at their convention!

The horror of war isn’t in anybody’s head anymore. The Japanese economy is slowing down, and their last-ditch effort is to go into the war business, to scare people. And it’s bullshit. Keep the senseless violence in the genre movies, where it belongs.

So this movie that I’m raising money for and pitching right now, it’s kind of an anti-fascism movie.

FANG: KARATE KILL has some sort of tongue-in-cheek satire of some of the American culture and fetishization of violence. Did that come from your time living in the US?

MITSUTAKE: You know, what I see on the internet almost discourages me from going on as a genre filmmaker. Because growing up, in the VHS generation, we were watching a Fulci movie and just going frame-by-frame like “How did they blow up that fucking head?”

And now a real head chop or head explosion is on the internet. Anyone can go on there and see the real thing, and… I guess I wanted this kind of mixed commentary. Let’s keep violence out of reality. Our villain is sort of a fanatical YouTuber. I didn’t want to explore that too much, I didn’t want to be too preachy or heavy-handed. I definitely don’t call myself “an artist.” I’m an entertainer. I’m a lounge singer! I’m here all week, tell your friends. I’m here to entertain people.

Everyday life is pretty crappy. You deal with bullshit. If my movie can be a ninety-minute escape to fantasy land… You want to punch your boss but you can’t, my guy punches him for you. So I think that internet violence, that social commentary definitely influenced me, but I didn’t want to explore it in a heavy-handed way.

FANG: What’s your favorite fight scene in a film?

MITSUTAKE: Keeping it strictly hand-to-hand combat, that hallway scene in OLDBOY is gorgeous, cinematically. Also, a visceral sort of fighting, I believe it was in the first Jason Bourne film, they have a fistfight with a rolled up magazine or something. That left an impression on me, a really visceral and realistic fight.

Then, of course, if you wanna go over the top, I loved THE STORY OF RICKY. If you wanna go the slapstick route, the fight scenes in Ricky are priceless.

FANG: The last kill in KARATE KILL is awesome. What are some of your favorite kills in movies, as a genre fan?

MITSUTAKE: Well, the Fulci eye poke. That’s definitely my favorite. I think about that scene quite a bit. That pops into my head.

FANG: Just at different points in your life?

MITSUTAKE: Whenever I see a splinter, I’m like “Ah!”

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