Interview with Junichi Kajioka: I have found my passion in filmmaking and I still have a lot of lesser known stories to tell

We talk to Junichi Kajioka about his career, China, Japan, his recent films and many more subjects.


Junichi Kajioka is an award-winning Japanese writer, director and actor based in London. He speaks fluent English, Japanese, and Chinese. He started his career in Tokyo appearing in popular TV series in the early 90s and then went to China to study acting. He was one of the pioneer Japanese actors who went to China to study drama and to work in the Chinese Film and TV industry. 


Junichi's first professional film appearance came in Jiang Wen's Cannes 2000 award winning film “Devils on the Doorstep” in China where he was studying acting at the Central Academy of Drama. He has also played various Japanese historical figures in Central Chinese Television (CCTV) drama series in leading roles. 


He now resides in London and actively works both behind and in front of the camera in the international film industry.


He won Best Supporting Actor awards for the British feature film “Taking Stock” in the USA and Monaco. He was also nominated for Best Actor for his roles in “King of Life” and “Phone Box” at film festivals in the UK and India. Further successes followed and he won awards for his first directorial film “Imphal 1944” - winning Best Producer and Best Screenplay for Short Drama at the Monaco International Film Festival. 



Since 2014, he has turned his attention towards filmmaking, having directed two short films, "Imphal 1944", and "Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese, Past and Future"He has a passion for discovering and telling little known stories to the world, especially those connected with Japanese and British relations. He also believes he can help promote peace and cultural exchange through his filmmaking.

We talk to him about his career, China, Japan, his recent films and many more subjects.



By 1995, you had already become an actor in Japan, but you decided to go to China to pursue your career, in a rather unusual act for the time. How did that occur and what issues did you have to face? 


At the time that I left Tokyo, I had been an actor for 7 years. I needed to find a new challenge in my life and career. I decided to become a Japanese actor who can speak Chinese, and I went to the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. I learned Chinese first and then moved on to the acting course. I became one of the first Japanese actors in Beijing and landed a role in Jiang Wen's film "Devils On the Doorstep". Yes, it was rather unusual for the time, but I was so interested in Chinese culture. In the 1990s, it was completely different from life in China today, and of course very different from life in Japan at that time. I had to face all sorts of issues in my everyday life, from extremely unfriendly shopping experiences to no-wall-no-door-only-hole toilets. I experienced a complete culture shock but I remember that time as the most colourful time of my life and I had great fun. You can't have the same experience in China now. 


You have acted in some of the most iconic Chinese films about the relationships between Japan and China, in productions like "Devils on the Doorstep", "The Flowers of War" and "City of Life and Death". Can you tell us a bit about your experiences in these films?


Those films were life-changing and career-changing experiences for me. When I was in Japan, I mainly acted in TV productions. "Devils on the Doorstep" was my first deep involvement in a film. I worked both in front and behind the camera. Working with Chinese directors such as Jiang Wen, Lu Chuan and Zhang Yimou changed my perceptions about working in the film business. Their approach to filming made it easy for me to imagine how Akira Kurosawa shot his films - so much attention to detail and getting each shot right. I have learned a lot from them and I love working with Chinese people and like their collaborative style very much. 




Then you moved to London, started acting in UK and Hollywood productions like "47 Ronin". How did that happen? Did you pursue this change in bases and how difficult is to act in different languages?.


I realised I needed to be able to understand English in my future career, while I was in China. After working on "Devils", I had other offers for Chinese films, but I decided I needed a new challenge and moved to London. However, it took 8 years to be considered for major films. For "47 Ronin," I had three auditions before I got the role. However, how much will survive in the editing room is another matter. It's tough acting in Hollywood productions, but as an actor, you need to be optimistic. On "Spectre" I was able to see how Sam Mendes works on set and I was even given my own trailer for resting between shots! I'd love to continue working in both big budget and indie films worldwide, not just the UK.


Then you directed and produced 2 short films. And more films in the pipeline. How did the transition from actor to director (producer) occur?


It was another major turning point for me. I felt like I had finally found the answer as to why I had been acting, up till then. I'm still acting but I feel that making my own films gives me a stronger voice to express myself. 



In 2014, you directed wrote and starred in "Imphal 1944", a short film about the reconciliation of British and Japanese. Why did this theme picked your interest? Could you tell us some details about the film?


When I was researching the role for an Indian film, which was based on the Battle of Imphal in 1944, I read a book written by Mr. Masao Hirakubo OBE, who was a Japanese veteran living in London. He tirelessly devoted his later life to building bridges between British and Japanese veterans. I didn't know about him up till then, but I became very interested in his life story. When the Indian film didn't go ahead I decided I had to make my own film, as the 70th anniversary of the battle was approaching. I decided to base my film on Mr. Hirakubo's reconciliation activities. I hadn't made a film before and I didn't know how, but I couldn't give up on the idea. I started from scratch, wrote a script, gathered the crew, directed the film and played the lead, and then worked on post-production - all in 3 months. I then travelled to India and screened it at the closing ceremony of the Battle in Imphal. It was an absolutely surreal experience but it was how I started making films. The film is centred on the countries of Japan, Britain and India, but still attracts wide attention and was recently screened in Russia, where it was really well received. 


Your latest work is about Chiune Sugihara a Japanese diplomat who saved 6,000 Jewish people in WWII. Can you tell us a bit about this film? 


I was always fascinated by Chiune Sugihara's humanitarian deeds in WWII. When I discovered that there are a lot of unknown stories related to the Holocaust survivors and the Japanese people who helped them, I immediately took my camera, went to NY and interviewed some of the survivors. I'm very spontaneous and passionate. I wanted to keep both Mr. Sugihara's and the survivors' stories alive. I strongly feel that these stories need to be told to present and future generations. 




Do you still follow Akira Kitade in his research for the survivors?  Why do you think did he pursue this subject and why did you? Is it a way to redeem the image Westerners have for the role of Japan in the war? In general, how do you feel about Japan's role in WW2? 


I'm still working with him when we screen the film together. Mr. Kitade is also a very passionate guy! I can say that as Japanese we are proud that Mr. Sugihara saved so many people. But for me, the story of how someone deals with life and death situations is a universal subject which still resonates in our world today. It also proves that one country's image can never represent the character of all its citizens. The stories of the two Japanese men, Mr. Hirakubo and Mr. Sigihara, are about the good deeds of individuals who decided to make positive actions in very challenging circumstances.


What are your influences as an actor and director? 


Jiang Wen has been a major influence in my working life. He is so versatile and talented!




What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to shoot a feature film or documentary in the future? 


As an actor, a Scottish horror film “Dark Highlands” will be released soon. I play a mysterious Japanese painter in the lead role and spent a few weeks in the Scottish Highlands for the first time. It was good fun and it’s great to have a legendary Scottish actor involved in the same project. This year I’m going to China for filming soon. As a director, I’m making another short film, "Soseki and Me". The story is about the Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume, who lived in London in the 1900s, and also about the founder of the Soseki Museum, which regrettably closed its door last year, after more than 30 years. Yes, I would love to make a feature film. I have a script ready and lots of ideas. Actually I have started making a feature documentary. I've already been filming for more than 2 years but it will certainly take much longer to complete! Well, I have found my passion in filmmaking and I still have a lot of lesser known stories to tell, especially those related to ties between Japan and Britain. There are a lot of obstacles ahead of me, but my only way is to keep moving forward.




You are quite prolific in all of your capacities. Do you find yourself being tired at times? 


I love learning new things and enjoy new challenges. Every year I go back to Japan to screen my films and meet Japanese audiences. It can sometimes be challenging but I learn a great deal from them. Yes, I sometimes get physically tired, but the enthusiasm never leaves me.





Junichi Kajioka's documentary film "Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese, Past and Future" is to be screened  on Feb 6 at the Brundibár Arts Festival in Newcastle as a part of the Holocaust Memorial events in the UK and he is attending the Q&A event. 

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Asian Film Vault: Interview with Junichi Kajioka: I have found my passion in filmmaking and I still have a lot of lesser known stories to tell
Interview with Junichi Kajioka: I have found my passion in filmmaking and I still have a lot of lesser known stories to tell
We talk to Junichi Kajioka about his career, China, Japan, his recent films and many more subjects.
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