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An Interview with filmmaker and writer Kawamura Genki

An Interview with filmmaker and writer Kawamura Genki
Interview by Morgane Chinal-Dargent

Kawamura Genki is a surprising character. At just 39, Kawamura already worked with several renowned filmmakers such as Hosoda Mamoru (The Boy and the Beast, 2016) or Shinkai Makoto (Your Name, 2016) as a producer and published novels such as If Cats Disappeared From The Worldwhich is greatly acclaimed in Japan and newly available in the UK. Yet, in between photo shoots, interviews, a book festival and a meeting with J.J Abrams, the multi-faced artist welcomed me at his hotel for an interview with an unsettling natural laid-back attitude that instantly eased me. As I was discreetly examining the man sat in front of me, containing my slight agitation, I noticed that little distinguishes Kawamura from the regular film nerd you would meet in an indie cinema or lost in a thick book in a hipster coffee shop. Still, we met in a luxurious hotel in central London and we discussed with a dazzling sensitivity and a good dose of wisdom the impressive career that Kawamura built as well as the reception of his latest literary success with the release of If Cats Disappeared From The World in the UK.

In this debut novel, Kawamura narrates the story of a postman in his thirties who discovers that his days are numbered because of a brain tumour which will cause his imminent death. When the narrator comes back from his doctor’s appointment, he finds a strange devil on his couch: his doppelgänger in a Hawaiian shirt who proposes a simple trade-off: for each item that the young postman would be willing to make disappear from the world, he will gain one extra day of life. After giving up his phone, films and other seemingly trivial items, our narrator finds himself truly conflicted when the devil decides to trade his life against the existence of cats.

Assisted by the very helpful and thoughtful translator Kozue Etsuzen, we discussed how If Cats Disappeared From The World questions our attachment to material goods and helps readers around the world to understand the true value of life. 

Morgane (The Japan Society Review): If Cats Disappeared From The World is your debut novel. How did you come to write it?

Kawamura Genki: I’m primarily a filmmaker so I never really thought of writing a book before. Nevertheless, I feel that this story was more suitable for a book than for a film. It’s quite challenging to represent a world without cats, so I started to write instead. I was excited to write what I cannot show in a film. Nonetheless, I feel like this book remains very visual in some aspects. I just liked the idea that reading stimulates your imagination in a different way than a film does and it was a new way for me to interact with my audience.

Were you prepared for such a positive response in Japan and internationally? What explains the success of your book according to you?

I do not know if I was completely prepared for it. I don’t really invest time in marketing or advertising in my work so much, which is why I wasn’t fully expecting such a massive engagement from my readers. Still, I think what I value the most is making my work relatable and conveying a sense of awareness to the people reading my book. Let me give you an example: imagine that you are on your way home one day and there is a teddy bear forgotten outside of the subway station. There is no reason for this bear to be there. There might be 10,000 commuters using this station every day and noticing the bear. Still, most of them will never question it and will just go about with their day without thinking about it. My role as a writer is to lift the bear and ask who realised it was there. With If Cats Disappeared From The World I did something similar, I focused on relatable feelings and asked my readers to stop and notice them. I think this partly explains why people wanted to read my book as we are all longing for this kind of awareness and the need to relate to each other.

 Does the success of your novel will influence you to focus more on your career as a writer?

I’m still planning on writing both films scripts and books. I mainly identify myself as a storyteller, so I think that what really matters to me is sharing stories with others. Movies and books are means to tell these stories and they both offer a very unique vision. Still, when I think you can make a book as visual as a film, I find it hard to transfer the musicality of a film into a book. This will be one of the only limitations I can think of and maybe one of the reasons why I will not stop making films. I’m deeply inspired by music in my work. This happened with Simon & Garfunkel’s song ‘April Come She Will’ for instance. It inspired me to write a love story that would focus on what comes after the first six months of a relationship, what you call the ‘Honeymoon Period’. My third book was exactly this, with an eponymous title, which addressed the lovelessness we live in today.

All in all I do think that the most important element to me is to be able to tell a story the best I can, I adapt the medium afterwards.

Back to your story: As we have previously remarked, in If Cats Disappeared From The World the characters and story are very relatable and convey a deep feeling of authenticity. How were you inspired to write this story?

There are three main reasons I can think of that inspired me to write this book.

The first one is that I lost my phone 5 years ago. In a minute of inattention, I lost 10 years’ worth of data, pictures and eventually memories. I realised I didn’t even remember the phone number of the people I was the closest to. I also remember sitting in the train that day and simply staring looking out the windows. While doing so, I saw a beautiful rainbow in a distance. No one around me saw it as they were all occupied with their phones. Instinctively, I must have sensed that I had to lose something in order to gain something. I started to notice things and realised how our lives had changed in a very short period of time with the appearance of mobile phones. It made me step back for a while and I wanted to share that experience somehow.

Secondly, I wrote this book to unconsciously prove that my uncle was wrong. My uncle was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour at 42. We were very close and it deeply affected me. Before dying he told me not to be sad because the world will not change when he is gone. Back then I was not able to refute him nor argue otherwise. However, after ten years, by my novel getting published now worldwide, I know what I felt was right. That my uncle’s existence did change the world. The world where a person existed and no longer existed. The tiny fraction of a difference is proof enough that they existed. I think that my main character eventually comes to the same conclusion. It also helped me to find some closure as writing about my uncle’s death did make the world different in the end.

Lastly, being confronted with events such as 9/11 in the United States or the Fukushima disaster in Japan as well as the many wars happening in the world as we talk pushed me to write as well. It made me aware of mortality and that it’s a relatable topic for people worldwide. This is why I wanted to write a book about death and how we can all feel the same way as the main character.

I am really curious to know where you find your inspiration as a writer. As If Cats Disappeared From The World demonstrates, you have a very personal writing style. You can tell a tragic story and still find a way to introduce humour into it, where does that come from?

My storytelling is deeply connected to Rakugo, a traditional form of verbal entertainment, which often weaves three seemingly unrelated elements to compel the plot. In the case of If Cats Disappeared From The World, for instance, I chose the theme of mortality paired with my own experience losing my phone and my uncle’s death. These events happened at different times in my life and are unrelated but I realised they offer different perspectives on the same subject and I decided to write a story out of this. Additionally I try to think about songs that could fit the story and how I can incorporate this into my book. This is how I keep my writing style personal.

Do you identify with the main character of your novel? If so, in which ways?

I do identify with my character in the sense that mortality has been a subject I’ve always spent much time thinking about. For instance, since a young age, I’ve been thinking about my own funeral and who would attend, how it would be. By reflecting on my own mortality, I realised that everyone does. That is why this character is obviously born from my own reflection but as I previously explained, the most important thing was to write a relatable story. That is why I have not named this character. Because it is not only his story, or mine, it’s a book everyone can relate to. I wanted to convey this message of hope as well and how we should value what we have.

Something I found very interesting is how your novel tackles many modern issues through the story of its main character: family issues, unfortunate love stories and most interestingly, the dependence on technology and especially on our mobile phones. I really like this quote in your book where you say that “When human beings invented the mobile phone, they also invented the anxiety of not having one.” We touched a little bit on that already but why did you feel it was important to convey that message in your book?

When I started writing, I realised I was writing about my memories. Not so much about the objects I was making disappear, but rather about the people these things relate to. It made me aware of how we based our society on objects rather than seeking a true human connection. As I mentioned earlier, the central theme of mortality in my book is meant to push people to recognise the importance of life. It is human nature to take things for granted. The common consensus in my readers in Japan was that the book helped them see the importance of what they have. The strength of the book is that it doesn’t finish at the end, it’s the beginning of a certain form of revelation for the reader.

Another very interesting feature of your book is the character you imagined to portray the Devil. As you said in your book, the Devil is usually portrayed as this red character with horns. Where did you get the inspiration from in order to imagine your Devil as this extravagant character wearing Hawaiian shirts in your novel?

This story structured as a reverse version of the genesis. While it took 6 days to create the world, in my story the world loses something each day over the course of 6 days. Having the genesis in mind, that is why the Devil makes its appearance. And I purposely made the Devil to look like our protagonist. He is identical on the outside but completely opposite on the inside. The Devil represents the life that could have been. Obviously such life did not materialise because of the conscious choices that lead up to the present.

If the Devil appeared in front of you and was asking you to make cats disappear from the world for you to become a better writer, would you also prefer to save cats?

I cannot get rid of anything, this is what this book taught me. Each time I write a book, I learn something about myself. This is certainly the reason that I write, because I do not know who I am. I believe that to a certain extent, all creators are similar; our wish to create is motivated by a need to look for ourselves.

I think I asked all I wanted to ask you concerning your novel. Thank you very much. Now I would like to ask you for more details on your producer career. How do you consider your role as a producer?

Producer entails a lot of roles but I mainly consider it a way to expand my way of telling a story. I’m a very committed producer; I like to be involved in all aspect of the film. I’ll discuss the scenario with the filmmaker, we’ll go through the script together and I’ll be present on the shooting.

Does that mean that the next step for you could be making your own film?

I actually directed a short film called Duality which was in competition at Cannes. I now look forward to directing a feature film. It’s especially on my mind with the novel I’m currently writing. It’s a story that was inspired by my grandmother. It would be the story of a single mother with dementia who starts forgetting about her son. I don’t want the novel to be pitying or debilitating. Instead, I want it to be a way to reflect on how I’m also forgetting about my past, how I change my own story by imagining things that were never really there maybe. I think this story could adapt well into a film and could be one of the stories I tell in a feature film.

How do you feel about the experience of working on a film compared to the experience of writing a book? You produced the cinematic adaptation of If Cats Disappeared From The World for instance, how can you feel like it’s still your story when you have to share the process of creation with so many other persons?

To me, making a film is like polishing a diamond. It beautifies the story that I imagined because it gives the possibility for other people to help me create with their own perception of my idea. I feel like it gives more dimension to the project. It’s also a very different process of creation. Making a book is a challenging and lonely process: you dig into yourself until you uncover something worth writing. That can be quite painful at time. Making a film is more like climbing a mountain together with a passionate team, reaching new heights.

To conclude this interview, can you disclose some of your future projects with us?

I have various projects for this year but the most important one is to adapt my novel ‘Million Dollar Men’ into a film. I started to meet over 100 millionaires and talk with them about what makes them happy in life, subjects like that. It’s been an interesting process and I’m looking forward to adapting this novel. Then I’m hoping to publish the book about my grandmother in Japan.

These are my main personal projects for the year to come but there will be more collaborations with other filmmakers and artists as well certainly.

Having read If Cats Disappeared From The World, we strongly recommend you to check out Kawamura Genki’s other projects, both past and future. His works are truly original and The Japan Society would like to extend our warmest thanks for Mr. Kawamura and his translator for their time.