Independent Filmmaking in Japan — Nothing Can Stop Us

This is our passion project, but, who in the world would want to continue to work with us at this unusual time?

“Journey to Mt. Fuji” is the first feature film of the “Mozzman” series, which I launched with my French filmmaker friend Cris Ubermann in the spring of 2009. Before this one, we have made several short films together, mostly in Japan where we are based, which include three shorts featuring Mozzman, a kind-hearted alien philosopher sent to the Earth on a mission he cannot remember.

This character description alone may sound like our Mozzman movies are a rip-off of countless campy sci-fi movies and comics. But, they aren’t. At least as far as we are concerned, he is a completely original sci-fi character whose peculiarities aren’t just for the gimmicks or wowing the audience with eye-catching visuals.

He isn’t a super hero. He is just an ordinary guy who happens to be an alien on our own planet. And I am the writer / producer of this project.

In “Journey to Mt. Fuji," Mozzman takes a long and hard journey to, you guessed right, Mt. Fuji. The movie has a fairly simple storyline that’s easy for anyone to follow. However, it has quite a few characters and distinctively cinematic elements in it, which gives us the filmmakers a lot of challenges.

This has certainly been a long and hard journey for us. We have started the principal photography in Niigata, a southwestern coast area of Japan, in 2010. Since then, we have been shooting all over the country, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Yamanashi and Nagano. As of the time of this writing, that’s about 70% of what we have to shoot according to my screenplay, which I have been constantly rewriting as we progress with the filming.

The remaining 30% of the shooting does make it a tough business for us. As a matter of fact, I think it’s worse than that. I think “tough” doesn’t describe it. Maybe, “killer” does.

A killer business!

Among many others, one factor in play is that there is a pickup we have to do for the scenes we previously shot in a park in January with dozens of child actors. It was vital to shoot that outdoor scene in Tokyo in January, as the movie is set in the freezing winter in Japan. It would be so hard to organize a pickup for this, as the scenery will change drastically once the spring kicks in, which means cherry blossoms everywhere and no more real winter feel, which cannot be recreated on our budget, or the lack thereof. And, those kids are growing bigger every day. All these would create a continuity disaster.

It was already late February, and I had not been able to schedule a shooting day for the pickup. Damn! It’s so hard to organize anything with this large cast including professional and non-professional child actors. Why can’t their parents let them take a day off from schools to join the shoot? Haven’t they gotten our message? Venice? Cannes? The Kodak Theatre?

However, it seemed that the gods of cinema smiled on us at last. Miraculously, everything worked out at the last minute. I got everybody on the second Sunday in March! What a relief. One weak later would have meant that we would not be shooting for a pick-up. That would be shooing for a sequel.

Everything was set to go.

Then, Friday afternoon, two days before the shoot, it happened.

Massive earthquake hit the northeastern coast of the Japanese mainland. The ground, buildings, utility poles, and everything else shook incredibly hard and long in Tokyo. In the areas where it actually struck, cities were literally devoured by the gigantic tsunami. The nuclear power plants in Fukushima became uncontrollable monsters. Many lives were lost.  The country is suddenly thrust into the biggest national crisis it has faced since the WWII.

I was out on a street in Tokyo with my business partner when it happened. It was really scary. Soon, people started rushing out of the buildings. Cell phone became unusable. I was immensely relieved when I learned from the radio that it hadn’t occurred in the south part of Japan where all my family members live.

When I finally had access to TV and watched the cities being washed away by the gigantic tsunami, the streets had become jam-packed with people who had evacuated from the buildings. Public transportation stopped in the city. That day, many walked hours to get home.

I will never forget the day. I simply can’t.

The Sunday shoot had to be canceled.  As we were now dealing with not only a continuity disaster in our little non-budget film, but one of the biggest and the deadliest disasters that have ever hit the country, it was the only option for us.

The next day, I contacted all the cast and crew in Japan and confirmed the safety of everyone in the project. How good to know that! I told them that there would be no shooting on that weekend. There was actually another shooing planned in the next week mostly for getting B-roll footage of the journey to Mt. Fuji sequence. I cancelled this one as well.

The earthquake and the subsequent tsunami on March 11 seem to have changed the entire picture of the country. Whatever feeling I had during the first week after the event is probably similar, if not the same, to how I would have been feeling everyday if I had lived during the time of the WWII when bombs were falling from the sky. I had the similar feeling when I was a student at USC ten years ago and saw the live TV report of the terrorist attacks in New York.

As I am writing this, cherry trees are blossoming all over the country. Usually, many people go out in the evening at this time of year and picnic under the cherry trees with family, friends, and colleagues. I don’t see many people doing that this year. With the rotating blackout still going on in some parts of the city, people in Tokyo are apparently not in mood for such activities. This is an unusual time.

When I decided to contact the cast and crew and let them know about the cancellation, I thought it would be the end of our movie project. This is our passion project, and nothing can stop us from pursuing it. But, who in the world would want to continue to work with us on a strictly non-budget project like this at this unusual time?

However, I learned that they want to continue as much as we do. It seems that they have been enjoying our little international movie project very much and are even happier to be a part of it and get contacted about it especially at a time like this.

This really helped me get back on my feet quickly and decide to work harder to pursue the project. As I said, a movie cannot be made alone. It’s all about collaboration. We already had so many people involved in the project. And, each one of them had contributed their special skills to help us make the movie. It is our responsibility to take this project to the finish line.

And, as far as I am concerned, our finish line is Venice, Cannes, or the Kodak Theater. We must continue to work hard no matter what.

Also, a couple of weeks before the earthquake, we were notified that our latest short film “Mozzman Episode 3: Ladymozz and the Death of Earth” had been selected for screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Soon after the earthquake, it was also selected for screening at different film-related events in California and New York this spring.

All those screening opportunities are highly encouraging to us, as we know the success of this little short will only help us with the success of the feature “Journey to Mt. Fuji”.

The earthquake doesn’t stop us.

Recently, Ubermann has gone back to France and is not likely to come back to Tokyo this year. But, this doesn’t stop us. We are still working closely on the project every day.

The next shoot: this coming Saturday for the Mt. Fuji B-roll.

Nothing can stop us.