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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004

Producer Takashige Ichise: Make it spooky, and they will come


This is Takashige Ichise's moment. Producer of the horror hits "Ringu (The Ring)" (1998) and "Juon (Juon: The Grudge)" (2003), Ichise has become the go-to man for Japanese horror (or "J horror" as it is now known) around the world. His six-film J Horror Theater series was sold to more than 40 territories even before the first two entries -- Norio Tsuruta's "Yogen" and Masayuki Ochiai's "Kansen" -- opened in Japan.

News photo
Film producer Takashige Ichise

Unlike most Japanese producers, who are company men wary of the spotlight, Ichise cherishes his independence and proudly proclaims his large ambitions. But unlike other industry mavericks who see themselves as lords of their own fiefs, Ichise is a down-to-earth type who is more interested in pleasing audiences and investors than stroking his own ego. At the same time, he is the producer as idea man, churning out story lines the way Toyota does cars.

That his prosperity is built on one genre, which saw its best days after the 1998 release of "Ringu," bothers him not a bit. "[Horror movies] have had their ups and downs -- but there are still a lot of them being made around the world," he says. "Rather than say 'the horror boom is over,' I think the audience is becoming choosier about the horror it sees."

And it will, he believes, keep coming back for more.

"The world isn't the same as it was when 'The Exorcist' and 'The Omen' launched a horror boom -- a boom that later ended," he explains. "Back then, people thought the future would bring something good. Do they still feel that way today? Hardly anyone now still believes the future will make everyone happier and better off. Horror reflects that mood."

The key to making good horror, he says, is "high quality."

"By that I mean movies that are really scary; if I can make them, the [genre's] core fans will always come."

They have already started coming to "Yogen" and "Kansen," which were released as a double bill by Toho on Oct. 2. More films, directed by well-known directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, will follow and include the third feature installment in the "Juon" series, which is now being scripted and will begin shooting in the first half of 2005. He also hopes to make a second slate of six J Horror Theater films, this time with new directors. "I'll start thinking about it seriously next year," he says.

Several nonhorror titles are also in the pipeline. One is "All About My Dog" (tentative title), a comedy consisting of 12 linked segments, helmed by seven directors, about our relationship with "man's best friend." Isshin Inudo, who directed last year's indie hit "Josee, the Tiger and the Fish," is directing five segments. Xanadeux will release the film in March. Also in the works is an untitled ninja film. Currently at the scriptwriting stage, it is budgeted at 1.3 billion yen -- high for a Japanese feature. Principal photography is set to start in 2005.

All this activity, including work on the Hollywood remake of "The Grudge," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, has kept Ichise commuting back and forth between Tokyo and Los Angeles. "I'm spending about 10 days out of every month in the States," he says. "I'd like to get to the point where I'm producing both Japanese and Hollywood films."

He is flooded with scripts and pitches from both coasts -- though in Japan pitches based on best-selling novels and comics far outnumber original scripts. "I don't like that," says Ichise. "It's more fun to come up with my own ideas. For example, 'Yogen' is based on a famous comic by Jiro Tsunoda, but the story is almost entirely original. Tsunoda's basic idea -- of a newspaper that can forecast the future -- is really interesting, so I used it, but the story I dreamed up myself. All the novels or comics that have become classics have a strong idea at the center. So I use that idea, but adapt the story to the present. Very few novels are interesting enough to adapt to the screen without any changes.

He is aware of the danger of spreading himself thin -- grisly object lessons in the Japanese industry abound -- but does not see it as an immediate problem. "A director has to spend every day for an entire year thinking about one film. I can't do that -- I get bored too easily. That's why I'm a producer," he says with a laugh. "I've got 20 films in various stages of production. I can think about film A and, when I get tired of that, think about film B, then film C. When I get back to A, I can look at it with a fresh eye. A producer may love a film, but he has to be able to look at it objectively. So I don't think I'm overworked -- but I'd like more vacation time."

Also, while some producers see their jobs as realizing a director's vision, Ichise prefers to hire directors to realize his. "I have a lot of ideas, and a lot of films I want made from them -- though I'm open to ideas from directors as well."

But, whatever the source, ideas have to have commercial potential first and foremost. Art for art's sake comes a distant second. "[Some producers] want to make films that will win foreign festival prizes, but I have no interest in that," Ichise says. "It's not that I hate foreign film festivals -- I enjoy them -- but the prizes hold no appeal for me. At the same time, I don't think a movie is good just because a lot of people like it. A movie may be great even if only a minority likes it."

Does he like his own bread-and-butter genre? "I enjoy horror, but I don't prefer it [to other genres]," he says. "As a producer I know it's good business so I have to keep making it, but I don't want to confine myself to it." Also, he has no intention of spinning "Juon" into a "Nightmare on Elm Street"-like franchise: "The quality [of those series films] declines, but they can still sell the videos on the title alone. That doesn't interest me -- I'm not doing this just because I want money. What's fun for me is making interesting movies that also happen to become hits. I don't want to churn them out until they become crap -- what's the fun in that?" (M.S.)



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