YUICHIRO SAITO, Producer
YUICHIRO SAITO, Born November 5, 1976 in Ibaraki prefecture. He is now Producer and Chief Executive Officer of animation studio, Studio Chizu. After studying in the U.S., he joined Mad House in 1999. Under the tutelage of Producer Masao Maruyama, he participated in numerous animation projects, co-productions with foreign animation studios, and live-action collaborations. He also produced two Hosoda films, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2009). After he left Mad House in 2011, he established Studio Chizu with Mamoru Hosoda from which time he has exclusively produced Hosoda films, such as Wolf Children (2012) and The Boy and the Beast (2015). YUICHIRO SAITO told us the story behind the Studio Chizu’s pictures, and how the animation studio running in Japan.
About Studio Chizu
CFM: Mamoru Hosoda’s project, The Boy and The Beast, was presented at the Beijing International Film Festival. We also heard the news about Studio Chizu cooperating with a distributor in France. What are your plans for international sales of The Boy and The Beast?
A: International sales are very important to us. Hosoda wants to make films that can entertain audiences on the other side of the globe as well. To borrow his words, he wants to make films that have a “universality” to them. And so, one of my tasks as a producer is to figure out how to realize this. We also think that in order to win over a wider audience, our works must transcend genres. From a business perspective as well, we must sow seeds in wider pastures. That is next on our agenda. Up until now, as a general rule, we have been working with distributors who specialize in animated works, but it has also been our wish to work with partners who not only understand our work in an animation context, but who also have the ambition to transcend those boundaries of genre and put our film, more generally, on the map of film history.
In 2013, a gentleman named Johan approached us. He was a young man in his early 30s, and was a Hosoda fan. He told us he wanted distribution rights because he thought Hosoda’s work could transcend genre and that he would do his very best to sell it and have it distributed in France too. We felt we should do business with someone like Johan as he not only showed respect for Hosoda’s work, but he also had a good eye in general and business acumen. It just so happened that this person we wanted to do business with was with Gaumont, a French company that boasted a 120-years’ history and was the oldest film company in the world. They had the ties that we didn’t have with distributors and film festival directors and curators around the world. They were also the producer, distributor, and sales agent for films like “The Big Blue” and “The Intouchables”. These were films that were enjoyed by audiences all over the world and that had made their mark on cultural and film history. We felt they were good partners to help us sow our seeds, and we felt we shared the same philosophy, so we asked them to do the sales and distribution.
Simply put, we wanted Mamoru Hosoda, who we think is first and foremost a filmmaker who just happens to use animation as a form of expression, to make his mark on film history. Going forward, we want his films to travel over to the other side of the globe. We thought we should therefore work with a like-minded company like Gaumont, I think that Hosoda’s work will go down in film history. This is because his works are relevant to the times, and we see that he is one who tries to venture into new territory while still using themes and motifs that are specific and hit close to home. He depicts universal values, and you can see that he works with the whole of film history in mind. So, if there is future potential for Hosoda’s films, a producer should strive to bring that potential to fruition.
We asked Gaumont to do sales in non Asian territories, as we had already established many relations with Asian partners from countries that shared similar tastes with the Japanese. Our sales reps are tenaciously collaborating with each distributor for the Asian territories.
CFM: Does Studio Chizu have any development strategy for the international market?
A: Again, it’s to always have the international audience in mind. We must ponder what kind of projects would get people’s attention even if on the other side of the globe, and we must try to figure out ways of bringing those to them. We’ve only been sowing our seeds for one year, and it has been a challenging process. There have been seeds that have grown sprouts and seeds that haven’t, and perhaps the latter call for sober recalibration. For the seeds that grew sprouts, we should revisit, review, and then continue to water them. Some projects may take 10 to 20 years, but we do want them to grow flowers. All you can really do is work film by film, and continue to take on new challenges. It’s also important to nurture relations. We just have to take it one step at a time, one picture at a time, and pave the way for future projects. We also have to make sure that people continue to see the pictures we have made. We hope that all of this leads to both critical and commercial success, so that we can take on more challenges going forward.
CFM: Mamoru Hosoda actually has a large fan base in China. Has your studio tried to connect with those fans? What is Studio Chizu’s take on the Chinese market?
A: We actually haven’t been able to license the films we’ve made from “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” up to “The Boy and the Beast”. China is a massive, still growing market, so for the past year, we’ve been eyeing it and have been hastening to strategize which approach would be best for the Chinese audience to enjoy them. There are now a string of films we have yet to bring to China, so with our next film we hope to introduce these too. I myself haven’t been to China yet, but our works have been shown in the Beijing International Film Festival and the Shanghai International Film Festival. We hear that the younger generation is showing interest in Hosoda’s work. There was even a Hosoda Mamoru seminar held at the Beijing Film Academy. So there are all these ties being made with Chinese fans outside of the commercial arena. But we do hope to bring our works to the theaters. China is now an ever changing intriguing market and we want to keep track of those trends.
CFM: Please tell us about the next project for Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu?
A: Whether we can continue making films or not really depends on the audience’s feedback. They are the ones who give us that opportunity. So we strive to meet their expectations and to create films that each fan can call his/her own. Hosoda believes that the wonder and hardships one family encounters is also shared by families all over the world, so if one family can work through such hardships, then all families can. That is the notion he wants to share with audiences all over the world through his work. His next piece will follow along that same path. He will bring us something that is dear and personal to many. The recurring themes in his work have alternated between “time” and “two worlds” and the conflicts that arise between, so if we follow that sequence, his next work would be about “time”. I believe he may be working on a story that has to do with “time” and “family”, which is another leitmotif in his work.
CFM: How does Studio Chizu balance commercial success and artistic quality?
A: Studio Chizu does not consider itself a “corporation” nor the works it provides “corporate” works. The works are strictly Hosoda’s, and we, the “studio” are the place where artists gather. That is our premise. Studio Chizu doesn’t necessarily think in terms of commercial success vs. artistic quality. We are an auteur’s studio. All we strive to do is simply to make the director’s work in the best way possible, and continuously bring it to the world. We believe that our function is to strive together with the creators for both critical and financial success and lay the environment for our creators to take on new challenges.
CFM: How does an animated film tell a good story?
A: The answer does not lie in the company. It lies in the individual and the artist. That is Studio Chizu’s approach, and Hosoda’s philosophy in filmmaking. My job is to bring Hosoda’s work to the audience in as many ways and forms as possible. Large scale events are one way to do that, and I am also interested in seeking out new unconventional business approaches. A sense of adventure is called for not only in making compelling films but also in seeking ways to bring them to the audience. I intend to continue to seek how to position the works in a historical context and in the audiences’ eyes, and to create a sense of attachment to the works.
CFM: Studio Chizu presented animated films with the strong personal style of Mr. Mamoru Hosoda. Will Mr. Mamoru Hosoda extend his creation into more diversified forms in the future?
A: I will borrow Hosoda’s words and say that step by step, we intend to pioneer into new territory with the art of animation. We want to pave new possibilities in filmmaking. We don’t intend to stay in the same place. We want to open new possibilities for audiences and bring to them a wider variety of work. Life is finite. There is no time not to take on new challenges.
About Japanese Animated Films
CFM: Japanese animated films have won international reputation through many years of industry wide effort, and it’s not very hard to imagine the intense competition among all the animation studios. What’s the key point to survival for a studio?
A: This goes not just for studios but independents as well, but it’s all about wanting to bring joy to the audience, and continuously taking on challenges to keep the works compelling. Apple did that. They opened doors to new possibilities. Hosoda always says you need to keep working together and learn from each other to offer works that audiences will enjoy, even if on the other side of the globe. You need to do that one picture at a time. And no studio or individual stands alone. It’s more about collaboration rather than competition. We have to think of ways to work together so that we can push open new doors. Hosoda makes a point of making films where everyone in the audience can enjoy a good meal afterwards, no matter their predicament. He is always thinking about how to entertain all audiences, regardless of generation.
CFM: Japanese animated studios have the knowhow for IP product development. They also enjoy strong sales in derivative products such as merchandise. Do you have any success stories to share in that area?
A: Not yet. IP business is important, but what is even more important is to provide compelling films. Of course we do welcome the idea of exposing more people to our works, and if secondary usage helps, then it’s something we should partake in. We’ve tried many new things this summer. The outdoor screening of “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” at the Tokyo National Museum attracted 7000 people in one night, and the tie-in café in Shibuya Parco was a record breaker with long lines of customers waiting 7 hours to get in. And now we will be showing a retrospective at the Tokyo International Film Festival. But it’s not that we did these because we were motivated to utilize the IP. It was more because of the people who came to us with these proposals. We agreed to do the Shibuya Parco café because it was by the same people behind the small exhibition and tie-in shop in Kichijoji Parco when we released “Summer Wars” 7 years ago. We were happy to collaborate with them again, and would not have done it were it not for them. So perhaps these collaborations with outside parties could be considered success stories. We also made available 5 merchandise items during the release of “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, 30 items during the “Summer Wars” release, and 40 items during the “Wolf Children” release. When we did “The Boy and the Beast” exhibition we made available a total of approximately 200 items from all four films. The drive to do the exhibition came from our wish to now give context to these films for our already loyal audience, and have them be able to string the works together. It was also a way to return the courtesy to the fans. Efforts to show our works collectively like this started last year. It allows the patrons to see the films in a broader context and perspective.
CFM: Have you and your studio worked with any Chinese companies before? If a studio were to work with a Chinese counterpart, in which part of the process would that be?
A: As a matter of fact, back when I was with Madhouse we were trying to do a co-production with the late Edward Yang, director from Taiwan area. “Yi Yi: A One and a Two” and “A Brighter Summer Day” are my favorite films. They are classics. Edward Yang was a filmmaker who had a mind of his own, was experienced, and was steadfast in his commitment. On top of that, he had gained international acclaim. He always had ideas. He had been talking about wanting to experiment with animation, and he had been drawing as well. Working with Mr. Yang made me acutely aware of the importance of seeing eye to eye with an artist. It taught me that something good only comes out of close-knit relationships between creators. We need a framework in which we can learn from one another. Moreover, the language barrier is not as high as it was before, so the Japanese should not be afraid to collaborate with people from overseas. At film festivals, they should more actively seek communication with international figures and see how they can contribute. Both producers and creators need to further venture out into the world. They should see that the world is a level playing ground and strive to collaborate. It is the creators, after all, who can grab onto ideas and possibilities and put them into form.
CFM: In what way do you think Japanese animated films meet the demand of the international audience?
A: I once heard that the population of the movie-going audience amounts to 700 million. That could be considered a small percentage of the total world population, and yet everyone has a film that they can’t forget about. Perhaps that is because there is a special something about the film that pulls them to it – something that reflects their own lives. If that is so, we could also say that films have yet to express all the wonders of the multitude of lives that exist on this earth. So there is still much room to explore. It is up to creators to take on these challenges and bring new films.
CFM: Is there a key or strategy to follow in bringing Japanese animated films to the international market?
A: I don’t necessarily think so. But in all sincerity, I do think that it’s worth it to revisit the value of film festivals. It is through film festivals that we can see the history and context of film, and what possibilities lay ahead for the form. It is also where creators can compare and debate values and aesthetics. More people should know that there are such platforms. Film festivals are melting pots of people of various nationalities and conflicts and issues. If you are a creator you should participate and share these moments with others.