Born 1966 in Chiba, Hideki Takeuchi joined FUJI TV in 1990 and directed his first drama series, “The Ugly Duckling”, 1996. His drama “God, please give me more time” (1998) won the Best Director Prize at the 18th Television Drama Academy Awards. Until today, he has produced 19 television dramas, including the otaku cult series “Densha Otoko” (2005).
Following the success of the drama, the Japanese director made his feature film debut with the cinematic spin-off “Nodame Cantabile” in 2009. Since then, he produced box office hits like “Thermae Romae” (2012) and “Color me True” (2018).
Since we are in Vienna, let me take up the opportunity first to ask you about the work that you have done here?
I came to Vienna 10 years ago to shoot “Nodame Cantabile” (2009). For the movie, we rented out several places in the city. The opening sequence was done in the “Musikverein” and we had a lot of extras to fill up the set. I have a very vivid memory of the shooting because it was my first feature film as a director. The marvelous architecture of the city has made a big impression on me. I cannot believe its been 10 years. I really want to shoot another movie here.
About your recent movie, “Fly me to the Saitama”. The script is based on the manga by Mineo Maya. To what extend did you adopt the original story and how much did you have to develope by yourself?
The original manga only had three volumes and ended abruptly without a real ending. At that time, Mineo Maya realized that his portrayal of Saitama wasn’t right and decided not to continue the story. We picked up his idea but had to write 3/4 of the plot by ourselves to finish off the original story.
You worked together with Yuichi Tokunaga on the script. At the moment, you are also doing this series with him „Rupan no Musume“. Before that, he worked on „Strawberry Night Saga“, which features Fumi Nikaido in the lead role. So, he knows you and your cast quite well. How was the collaboration with him?
The crew that I used for “Rupan no Musume” was almost the same as for “Fly me to the Saitama”. We did “Fly me to the Saitama” before “Strawberry Night Saga”, which actually means that “Fly me to the Saitama” was my first collaboration with Fumi Nikaido.
Your two lead actors, Fumi Nikaido and Gackt, harmonize very well together on screen, even though their roles are very different in the movie. Monomi is very aggressive, controlling and is played by Fumi Nikaido in a very outgoing way. Gackt is basically playing himself. Very serious and always with that cool mysterious look on his face. How did you cast them?
“Fly me to the Saitama” is supposed to be a comedy at the expense of Saitamanese. I didn’t intend to insult the inhabitants of Saitama, though. That’s why I chose these lead actors to distort reality. Having a senior high school boy played by 44-year old Gackt and cast Fumi Nikaido for a male role should exaggerate this distortion. I wanted to make sure that these fictional characters are not mistaken for any real-life citizens of Saitama.
So, you are mixing up the genders in your movie. In „Onna Nobunaga“ (2013) you did a similar twist. How important is the gender topic for you and for „Fly me to the Saitama“? Is it something very common in Japanese films?
No, it is not very common. In “Fly me to the Saitama” I did it to soften the harassment of the Saitamanaese. Concerning “Onna Nobunaga”, I was influenced by historic theories, which claim that Nobunaga may have been a woman.
At the beginning and the end of the film, we can hear the song „Nazeka Saitama“ by Saitama Manzou, which is an old parody about Saitama. Why did you choose that song?
The song is more than 30 years old. At first, the song sounded very primitive to me. But somehow I thought it was fitting for the movie. If you listen to the lyrics it says: “If you look to the West, to the East, to the North or to the South, Saitama is everywhere.” This may have no deeper meaning for you in the beginning. If you have seen the movie, and know about Rei’s secret plan, the meaning of the song gets kind of creepy. That’s why I intended to play the song at the beginning and at the end to let the audience have that little “aha” experience.
In „Fly me to the Saitama“ there is almost no sequence without music. Sometimes it’s a heavy, dark organ, sometimes it is some light classical music. How did you use music in your movies?
Music can contribute a lot to the story. The shooting of “Nodame Cantanible” and “Thermae Romae” (2012) taught me a lot about classical music, even though I was a fan of classical music long before that. In my opinion, Japanese movies do not emphazise enough on music. I wanted to introduce my knowledge that I gained from my previous work into “Fly me to the Saitama” and show the importance of music.
How did you do the opening titles in the fields? Is it real or fake?
It is done with CGI. But in the region around Saitama there is a so-called rice-patty art festival, where they put big letters and pictures into their rice fields.
A question about the film sets. The interiors in the film are packed with flowers, gold, and chandeliers. I’ve red that you worked in Disneyland before you became a director. Is that true? And if so, did Disneyland inspire you for that kind of style?
It’s true. I actually worked in Tokyo Disneyland as captain on the Jungle Cruise. So there is certainly a kind of Disneyfication that played into the film sets. An even bigger influence for the interiors was Takarazuka, which is an all-women theatre near Osaka. When I red the original manga, I had the images of that theatre group in my mind and I decided to shape the film sets according to those. The costumes are also inspired by Takarazuka.
Sohei Tanikawa, who did a lot of films with Sion Sono (“Guilty of Romance” 2011), did the cinematography for your movie. How was working with him?
The number one reason why he became my cinematographer for “Fly me to Saitama” was because he is from Saitama. Like I said before, I did not want to offend the Saitamanese. Sohei Tanikawa was a good indicator of how far I could go with my humor. I was born in Chiba, which holds some rivalry against Saitama. I needed him to get a validation for the depiction of Saitama people.
How did you shoot the mass scenes? How many extras did you have?
The river scene was supposed to display 150.000 people. On the set, we only had around 3000 extras and we shot for two days. The rest was animated. I wanted to reminiscent the big ancient wars of Japan, kind of like the time of “Onna Nobunaga”. The image of the two rivalry parties at the river was the origin of where I sketched the whole movie. It was something I had on my mind from the beginning. Concerning the scenes in Tokyo Downtown, I was quite surprised that the city permitted us to shoot there, since the movie has a critically approach towards Tokyo. At that point, I realized that Japan may have changed and became a little bit more open towards sensitive topics in arts.
In addition to that. Japan is very anxious about its image in the world („Cool Japan“ campaign etc.) and it plays out quite well. More and more people visit Japan, Japanese dramas are very popular and other Asian countries copy them. My question would be: What role does Japanese film play in that cultural exchange between nations?
That’s a very interesting question. When we released the film, I was hoping that “Fly me to Saitama” would be successful in the Kanto region, where its story takes place. When we had the World Premiere in Shanghai and the audience went crazy about it, I was kind of shocked. After that, it was shown at Udine Far East Film Festival, Nippon Connection in Frankfurt and also in Chicago. Everywhere people had a blast. I realized that my film touches a universal scheme and speaks to a global audience. I wasn’t aware of that cinematic power before.
I think it was important for the atmosphere of the film to have these two narrative levels. The real world and the urban legend. Was it your intention to use these two worlds to keep a balance in the narrative structure?
Yes, that was the reason why I chose this kind of structure. Some jokes only work in the present world with a relationship to real facts, others only under the conditions that exist in the fictional world of the urban legend. In the end, I tried to bring them together.
Having seen all of your movies, I noticed the clash of the worlds as a reoccurring motiv in all of your cinematic work.
That’s true. I really like that kind of set-up for my movies.
At the beginning of your career, you did a lot of dramas for FUJI TV. How did you come to do TV dramas and when did you decide to do feature films for the cinema?
I did the drama series “Nodame Cantabile” for Fuji TV, which became pretty popular and people were demanding a feature film based on that show. So, I came to Vienna and started to shoot my first movie here.
Some actors of your movies also appear on your TV Series. For example Hiroshi Abe (“Thermae Romae” / “Shotgun Wedding”) and more recently Akaji Maro, who plays in „Daughter of Lupin“ and now in “Fly me to the Saitama”. How strict are the boarders between TV and feature films in Japan? I was wondering because here it is normal that once you are on television you stay there and you do not do any cinema movies. Is it very difficult to change your profession from a TV actor to a cinematic actor?
Until recently, it was the same in Japan. TV and Cinema were separated. Slowly, there is an exchange between the mediums. Since I am also working a lot for both, I was able to take actors with me.
What medium gives you more freedom and allows more creativity? Is it a TV or feature film?
Feature film, by far. Feature film gives you much more freedom because you do not have sponsors like in TV dramas. Those sponsors can censor your drama and do not allow certain topics. For example, if a car company sponsors your production, you are not allowed to show any car accidents. A lot of scenes from my feature would not be suitable for a TV screening then.
You already shot a lot of movies in foreign countries. In which other countries would you like to shoot a movie?
And would you also cast a foreign actor as a lead role? Like your colleague, Koreeda did recently with Catherine Deneuve in his movie „The Truth“ (2019).
I would like to, but I couldn’t. I have to learn English first.
What are your new projects? Will there be a sequel to „Fly me to the Saitama“? Where will it take place?
A lot of voices are calling out for a sequel to “Fly me to the Saitama”. The biggest advocate is the prefecture of Saitama itself. They were very pleased with the film. When I return to Japan next week, there will be a reception with politicians of Saitama and I will receive an award from them. In the past, I even had the opportunity to talk to Akie Abe, the wife of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who liked the film as well.
Generally speaking, the movie had a big positive impact on the political and social self-confidence of Saitama. They even used posters of “Fly me to the Saitama” to boost the voter’s turnout of the prefecture. It raised from 26 to 33% this summer. In October they will use them again for the next local election. For eight months straight, the movie is being shown in Saitamas’s theatres. I can’t believe it myself.
But you are not going to run for the mayor’s office, right?
(laughs) Everybody is telling me that they would vote for me as governor.
My last question is about your success. You are very successful in the cinema as well as on TV. „Fly me to the Saitama“ was a box office hit in Japan. What does success mean to you? Does it give you more freedom for your future projects or do you also feel a pressure to keep up with the expectations?
It’s both. Freedom and pressure. But I need pressure to be creative and to produce new films. Success also brought me the freedom to produce a movie like “Fly me to the Saitama”. People trust me because of my previous achievements, so I have the chance to go a little bit further than others and do things that are not political correct sometimes. Especially with this project it was a very precarious undertaking. The slightest error could have triggered a massive outrage.
Were you forced to cut certain scenes out of the movie because of that?
There were no cuts in the postproduction or the script. But we left out a thing from the original manga, which was called the “Saitama smell”. I censored that by myself and did not even include it in my draft for the script.