In 1982, When Genki Kawamura was three years old, his father took him to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which had just been released at the cinema. “It was the first film I ever saw. It was a special experience for me,” Kawamura says, citing the famous scene in which Elliott, who befriends the film’s eponymous visitor, is silhouetted against the moon as his bicycle takes flight. “When I was 23, E.T. was re-released with a special remaster. I was just as stunned by the same scene. That’s why I wanted to become a filmmaker. To inspire the same emotions in someone who was three and also 23.”
Fast forward 36 years from that first viewing, and Kawamura is one of the most successful and influential filmmakers in Japan, and possibly the world: his production credits such as Confessions (2010) and animated blockbuster Your Name (2016) have earned billions of yen – and some high-profile collaborations.
Part of the reason he has flown overnight from Tokyo to London is to meet J.J. Abrams, arguably the hottest player in Hollywood today. The pair are working on a remake of Your Name. And the day after we talk, Kawamura will be driven to the set of the new Star Wars film, which Abrams is directing and which is currently being shot at Pinewood Studios.
“It is very, very high security,” Kawamura tells me. “I can’t choose the taxi. Only a registered car can visit the set. I have to pay three hours for the hire, because the same car has to wait. Expensive experience. But also very exciting.”
I first encounter Kawamura at the revolving door of his London hotel: he is on the way out for photographs as I arrive for our interview. He looks, on first glimpse, like any slightly ageing hipster, with elegant facial fuzz, round glasses, retro T-shirt (The Supremes) and an aura of understated cool – all of which seems to knock a few years off Kawamura’s age of 39. Indeed, as he shakes my hand and mumbles “Kawamura”, my second impression is that he looks nothing like one of Japan’s leading filmmakers and most popular novelists. Then again, as he wanders a little wearily into the pale sunshine, I wonder what bestselling novelists and superstar filmmakers are supposed to look like.
A few minutes later, Kawamura slides into his seat and gets ready to talk, occasionally in English, but mostly with the help of his comparatively perky translator. Kawamura’s body may be in London, but the rest of him seems half a world away, on Japanese time. There is, though, little rest for the wildly successful. He has already lunched – at the ultra-hip Tramshed steakhouse, replete with dead cow and chicken suspended in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst. “The art is very good; the food is only so-so,” Kawamura opines.
If he is to survive a packed schedule that involves both sides of his creative ventures, Kawamura will need all the sustenance he can get. As well as hanging with “J.J.”, as he calls him, he is promoting the English translation of his first novel, If Cats Disappeared from the World, which has sold more than a million copies in Japan since being published in 2012.
Sleep deprivation rather suits Kawamura’s baseline personality. Laid back to the point of gentleness, he exhibits little ego, and talks with quiet intensity about his life and work. When he discusses his most recent hit novel in Japan, April Come She Will (2016), named after the 1965 Simon & Garfunkel song, he seems as keen to discover my thoughts on his subject – lovelessness in the modern age – as describing his own.
“The people around me in their 30s and 40s are complaining about a lack of love,” Kawamura says. “You might be married, but you don’t really have those romantic feelings any more. Or you’re single and can’t find a partner. But it’s more that people enjoy their own company. If you’re in a relationship, you might get jealous. You can live without all that stress. It’s easier. It’s like an ultimate self-love. Loving other people is ineffective, or a waste of your time.”
Kawamura has detected this trend in New York, Los Angeles and Beijing, but says it is “a particular phenomenon in Tokyo”. Such introversion and self-attention, he argues, is a distinct feature of island states. “[Japan is] selfish as a nation and has selfish individuals,” he says, before offering an example. “In Japan, the creative arts are not really political. I think they are more introspective and personal. I think the UK has similar artistic trends. We are both islands and tend to look at ourselves rather than outside.”
Is Kawamura one of the modern loveless? “Yeah, I think I am one of them, but looking around it seems to be a situation for many people,” he says. “Quite a few movies and dramas are dealing with that theme. My book is about people losing a sense of love for others, but why is that?”
Writing the novel, he says, gave him an understanding of the phenomenon. “You have to love yourself to love others,” Kawamura says. “However, if you love yourself too much, then loving others is just annoying, isn’t it? If you love the UK so much, you don’t care about Europe. That’s what people think: I love myself so much, I don’t really care about others. I am constantly worrying where we are going. Are we going to return to loving other people?”
Here, in a nutshell, is the thread that connects Kawamura’s works, on page and screen. “The theme that I have as an artist – the thread linking all my work – is how to be happy. What makes people happy,” he says, believing the main obstacle blocking humanity’s pursuit of this goal is the rising tide of that aforementioned self-centredness.
“My view is people are becoming more selfish. The [United] States, Russia, China, UK, Japan … they are thinking of their nations’ own benefits. It is not just about the countries. I think individually we may be becoming more selfish, thinking about ourselves rather than the collective.”
The need to break free of selfishness to connect with the wider world is one of the moral messages of If Cats Disappeared from the World. “One of the things I want to say is you are not just you,” Kawamura says. “You have people you know, people you love, things you own, or don’t own. It’s a patchwork of associations. Protecting yourself means protecting others.”
If Cats Disappeared provides an understated, whimsical and ultimately poignant update of the Faust myth. Our unnamed narrator is a young man who discovers he has little time to live. His despair over being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour is alleviated by the appearance of the Devil, who is nicknamed, with cheerful irony, Aloha.
Aloha makes a truly infernal proposal. Extend your life, but only if you sacrifice a series of objects of the Devil’s choosing. The ensuing story is ostensibly the tale of what happens when each object vanishes: phones, clocks, movies, right up until the narrator’s beloved cat, a gift from his deceased mother. The subtext is unashamedly about memory and love – not material love but romantic and familial love.
“The book is about memory,” Kawamura says. “It’s not about things, objects, it’s about the memories related to them. It’s not the film you are losing, it’s the girlfriends you saw it with. It’s not the watch as an object, it’s about his father. It’s not the cat, it’s the mother.”
What is it about Japanese writers and cats? There are Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles (2012); Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (2001); A Cat, A Man and Two Women (1937), by Junichiro Tanizaki; and Natsume Soseki’s feline classic, I am a Cat (1905), to name but four.
Kawamura laughs. “Dogs are easy; you can read them,” he says. “You know what they are thinking. They are always loyal. Cats are a mystery. You think they might disappear one day. That’s what’s fascinating about cats and it’s why I like them: that instability.”
Such thoughts about cats are some of several random ideas that Kawamura collects in what he calls his “odd box” – the place where he stores material for stories. “Whatever sticks in my mind – some weird billboard or funny person I come across – I put all of them in this odd box. When I have three, four or five things, I think, ‘What would be the best way to create something out of them? Which medium would suit them the best?’ It could be a book or a film.”
The first odd box idea for If Cats Disappeared sounds inconsequential. “Five years ago, just before writing this book, I lost my smartphone,” Kawamura says. The loss left him feeling vulnerable. “It’s just a phone, but you don’t know what to do. I was going to call my mum to tell her and realised I didn’t remember her phone number. Do you remember when you remembered phone numbers, back in the day?”
Kawamura returned home by train. “Obviously you want to look at your phone, but I didn’t have the option,” he recalls. “I was looking outside and saw a rainbow in the Tokyo sky. I was surprised. You don’t really see rainbows in Tokyo. I thought, ‘This is really beautiful. I just wonder if anybody else is looking?’ And literally everyone else was looking at their phone.” Kawamura pauses. “That’s when I got the idea. You might lose movies, clocks, cats, but what would you gain instead?”
Technology in the novel is a force for both good and enervating distraction from meaning. Does Kawamura see our increasing reliance on phones and computers as the cause of that aforementioned selfishness? “That’s a universal issue with the smartphone and the social network,” he says. “As much as they help us reach out, we are not really communicating directly. It definitely happens in Tokyo and probably London and Hong Kong. Are you texting the person next to you? Do you go to a cafe and both of you are on the phone? I think everyone in the world is feeling uneasy.”
This uneasiness extends beyond our enslavement to Facebook to ask wider questions about family, love and value in the everyday. “People take things for granted,” Kawamura says. “If you don’t lose a thing, you don’t really appreciate its value. Just like the character in the book, you don’t really appreciate your mum. You know you love her, but you don’t really appreciate her. Every day you might get irritated by her, but all of a sudden she might die or get ill, and you realise how much she means to you. Sadly, it is human nature. We can’t help it.”
This nakedly emotional and personal note was struck by the second odd box idea. “The narrator in the book is based on my favourite uncle. He actually had a brain tumour when he was 40 years old,” says Kawamura, who was still at school at the time, “and he died in two years. When he got his diagnosis, he spoke to me personally. What he said was, ‘When I die, nothing will change. Every day, you will think of me less and less. The world goes around with or without me being in it.’ When I heard that, I was really, really sad, but I was too young to say anything to him.”
Ten years later, Kawamura wrote If Cats Disappeared, in part to give voice to these unexpressed emotions, but also to articulate his own character and feelings. He is, the writer says, quite like the book’s narrator. “I am actually very emotional, but I am not good at expressing my emotions,” Kawamura says. “There are more people like this around me. I am constantly frustrated.”
On top of this, Kawamura had developed a sharp sense of his own mortality that became the third note in his odd box. If Cats Disappeared was written in 2012, the year after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 people. “I thought, ‘I could easily be one of the victims. I could die just like that,’” he says. “I thought many people would be feeling the same. This common fear of death makes people think, ‘What’s important to me? What matters to me?’ A lot of people realised through loss what was important to them.”
The book’s success honours both Japanese stoicism and Kawamura’s departed relative. “I think my uncle did change the world, a little.”
Kawamura was born in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo. His mother was an airline cabin attendant, his father a filmmaker – at least, to start with. “He made independent movies, so he was very poor,” Kawamura says. “My mother hadn’t got much money. Before I was born, she gave him money and he made a film. She was a producer financing his movies.” Kawamura laughs. “After I was born, he gave up being a filmmaker and started to teach design at school.”
His father’s unfulfilled cinematic ambitions echo the disappearance of movies in If Cats Disappeared. Kawamura looks appropriately melancholy. “I was my father’s dream,” he says. “He educated me and trained me to become a film director.”
On the surface, Kawamura Jnr seems to be a filmmaker of a very different stripe from his father, involved as he has been with blockbusters, anime and box office success. Nevertheless, he says, the paternal influence is clear. “I have still got an independent spirit like my dad,” Kawamura says. “My films happen to be successful, which is great [...] Those who are successful have an independent spirit, like Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg. But as an independent director, I have a kind of inferiority complex. I’m not this big studio guy. If I am successful, I can get over that complex. That drives many of us. The more you dig and explore what you are interested in – like hitting a well with oil – the more you will influence people.”
It is not the first time Kawamura has used this metaphor of digging to describe the creative process. Earlier, I asked him to compare writing for movies with writing fiction. “Filmmaking is like mountain climbing,” he said. “You climb mountains, pass crevasses, to go higher. Writing a novel is like digging a hole. You are digging into yourself. If you climb mountains, you get a great view from the top. When you are digging, you might find something you never saw before. It might be regret or dark thoughts or some fantastic pleasure. Fundamentally, they are the same.”
Despite this conclusion, Kawamura accepts the two mediums have their differences. To prove the point, he set himself an intriguing technical challenge when writing If Cats Disappeared.
“When an editor asked if I wanted to write a book, the first thing I thought was, ‘How can I write something unique?’” Kawamura’s response was to write something he could not possibly film. “If you are a reader, everything is in your head. You construct the pictures. What’s important in a novel is the imagination. Movies are really graphic. They are in your face. Disappearing is hard to film because it’s not there.”
Kawamura has already gone back on his word, though, writing the screenplay for director Akira Nagai’s 2016 big-screen adaptation of If Cats Disappeared from the World. He has also adapted his second novel, Million Dollar Man (2014), about the attainment of sudden wealth when hard-working but unfortunate Kazuo wins the lottery. “I spoke to 100 billionaires,” says Kawamura, “to find out what changed them, what makes them happy and what life is like when you have billions in your hands.”
These exchanges between the two parts of Kawamura’s creative life have become the norm. “I am alternating one and the other – a movie, then a book,” he says. “Each experience influences the other. When I am writing a book, I talk about what I am going to do to my movie staff, actors or musicians. They often tell me, ‘Yeah, I know what that’s like.’ By being introspective, you can still connect to other people. Again, it’s fundamental, common emotions that everybody has.”
With our time running short (Kawamura is appearing at the London Review of Books store later in the day), a couple of obvious questions remain. For one, how does Kawamura fit all of this in? Right now, as well as promoting If Cats Disappeared, he is making two films in Los Angeles, two more in China and no fewer than five in Tokyo, and he is writing a new novel. “I want to know,” he says, laughing, before suggesting, “Clones.”
Kawamura says he likes working in China, but adds that it is not an easy market for Japanese filmmakers to break into. “It is very strictly controlled. Only [a limited number of] Japanese films can be shown in China. But I want to try.”
To wrap up, I ask If Cats Disappe ared’s central question: what makes Kawamura’s life worth living? “The stories I have created or I am going to create are what make life worth living,” he says. “If any of my works could change someone else’s life, only slightly, that would be great. It’s not just what I am thinking, it is a story created by what I am thinking. I think I am my creations.
“When I die, what have I done? I just hope I make things that will last.”