Appearance can only tell a fraction of the story, and it’s a notion wholly applicable to Kata, a martial arts short from Japan-based filmmaker James Latimer currently showing at Tribeca in the “Go Big” programme.

The seven-minute work is, like Bart Layton’s docudrama American Animals, a cinematic profile of Mahiro Takano, a 13-year-old karate star from Niigata, and the titular self-training technique. Also featured in the short are her actual coach Takako Kikuchi and actor Kôhei Mashiba.

Kata is technically and thematically similar to two of Latimer’s previous works in 2019. The first is Butoh Dance, which follows former member of the famous Dairakudakan Butoh troupe, Conan Amok (who is credited as co-writer here). The other is Lady Samurai with Kaori Kawabuchi, a singer, stuntwoman and mo-cap artist for Square Enix’s games (one is Final Fantasy XIII as Lightning’s sister Serah).

We got to chat with Latimer on the making of the short, video games and the spiritual and mental lessons derivable from a highly physical art.

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Could you let us know the moment you found out your short was selected for Tribeca?

Honestly, it came as a massive surprise! I could still remember, I think it was the 8th of January — like way back, six months ago I guess. I got a call while I was in Japan — I live in Japan and I’m in my 10th year living there. It was one in the morning, a U.S. number in New York. I was like, “Who’s this calling me at 1 a.m. from New York? No one calls me from New York!” It was the programmer from Tribeca, a personal call. I’ve gotten into a bunch of festivals with previous films, but a personal call was the first time with Tribeca. He just congratulated me, saying, “We love your film Kata, and we’d really love [to have it] at our festival.” It went on for about 10 minutes, about what he loved about it.

It was so super surreal, especially at one in the morning. Is this really happening? (laughs)

From one Final Fantasy fan to another…many of the games — or all of them, really — have this motif of defying your destiny, to be more than your form. Can we draw potential parallels between there and Takano-chan’s story in Kata, or is the scripting process something entirely organic?

It was quite organic because it’s a documentary, first and foremost. I really wanted to make sure that we’d first tell Mahiro’s story, and I wasn’t trying to put too much of my hand as a director being “OK, this is the story we’re trying to tell.” She lives in Northern Japan, I live in Tokyo, it’s like a three-hour train ride. I went several times to visit her just to build rapport with her, to really know her as a person, to try and get some of the deeper questions about what kata and karate mean to her. And it’d just all start to uncover itself, as I get to understand the spiritual side of it.

There’s a spiritual component to what she does, more than just the physical. She’s special, a six-year-in-a-row national champion! There’s a mental ability behind that, not just the physical ones. I’d start to try and find what visual metaphors can we get to kind of allow us to get into her mind, because her mind is so special.

I guess, coming from this strong video game influence — Final Fantasy and everything else like that, I was like, “I want some of the ways those games did for me, kind of open worlds to me, how can I potentially use this in a live-action film? Let’s go!”

Could Kata be considered as a follow-up to Butoh Dance? And Lady Samurai?

Exactly. There wasn’t necessarily a plan to make three of these films, but, yeah, I found these interesting subjects and found unique ways [to show them] — kind of a hybrid, they’re documentaries but they feel very cinematic. I was like, “Wow, I’ve found something cool here!” and I would like to tell as many stories as I can in that style. Hopefully, there’ll be more in the future, too!

This one does make a fitting opening for a feature. Is that something you have in the works?

Maybe… (laughs) Oh, I’d love to, though.

You co-wrote Kata with Conan Amok, whom you previously collaborated with in Butoh Dance. What was the process like? Also, both shorts seem to center around form and an art form that’s not so well-known.

That’s a really good point — I’m glad you picked up on that! Working with him on Butoh Dance was really important to me to kind of create some context for the viewer to appreciate his art because just to see an image, just a performance of him… it can be unusual. So it’s important to have that context to be able to appreciate him. He also wrote his own script for Butoh Dance — all the narration that goes over the film.

And he has such a poetic way of communicating with words, how he feels during every moment of his dance, that when he came to Kata…. I knew the structure, and I knew roughly what I wanted [the actors] to say exactly in these different sequences that we had already planned them all out, but in terms of finding the poetic edge —- especially in Japanese — I’d collaborate with him to find that “Yes!” [moment]. The way that it’s spiritual, it’s used differently. That definitely is the result of collaborating with Conan.

And since the shots are all thought out, it was just a matter of making sure everything would click into place?

Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the reasons why even when submitting this to Tribeca — is this a documentary, or a fiction? It just borders that line where everything’s structured and decided in advance, but it’s telling a real, personal story, which is cinematic and has a lot of visual metaphors to communicate that story. And every part of the process I’d constantly ask Mahiro, “If this doesn’t feel natural to you or if this is not representing you in the right way, let’s talk about it and let’s find the visual that matches what you’re really feeling internally?” I want to make sure we’re not going too crazy with the bamboo forest, fire, and smoke…

Speaking of it, the temple that is Kata’s setting, Myojuji in Osaka, is gorgeous. Why did you pick it?

The original idea was — I was thinking about shooting Mahiro in a dojo, a traditional one that you might see in Tekken or something like that (laughs). Actually, my mind was like, “Oh I can make a real-life Tekken right now!”

But rather than like, “Be at a temple,” or that kind of vibe, I was just… The meditation that she has when she enters the bamboo forest it’s like she’s entering a dojo, she’s going into a different mental space. I felt like the switch from daytime from nighttime just allows for more [visibility] of the mental change that she goes through. And it gives us, hopefully, a metaphor to go on that journey with her.

I read an article that when the Olympics would be hosted in Tokyo Takano-chan was still underage and so couldn’t compete. Was it a point you wanted to cover during the making of Kata?

I was kind of looking for that angle, actually, during interviews. With kata being in the Olympics, I thought that’s probably one of the inspirations I had to pick up this subject. I was curious about how she felt about not being able to be in the Olympics, and that actually kata won’t be in the next Olympics. She might not even have an opportunity to be featured in the Olympics at all, at any point, so, “How does that mean to you? Does that make you feel frustrated in any way?” But she was actually very calm about it. It didn’t seem like it bothered her that much.

I couldn’t tell if that’s just the Japanese way of not showing too much of their real feelings, but the more I talked to her I realized Kata has already grown so much beyond a competition, being a performer on the biggest stage. It is an internalized self-development process for her that’s guiding her in her life generally. In the future, she may not continue karate and she may go into something very different, but the grounding that she’s got through this journey that she had is going to set her up for life. And I think she just believes in that. That’s the most important thing for her.

You also managed to court composer Yoshitaka Hirota for this short. How did that happen?!

You’re asking the best questions (laughs). After a few years in Japan, I went to his concert as a fan. I was actually standing in the back as the only foreigner in the place. Because he plays in smaller venues, quite intimate, afterward he’d go mingle the fans and have a chat with people.

That’s nice of him!

Yeah! I basically was, “This is my chance to say hello to my childhood hero!” So after one of his performances, I came up to him and said, “Oh, this soundtrack really inspired me as a kid, I’d listen to this, listen to this.” And then I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but he was like, “Yeah! Let’s go drinking sometime.” I was like, “Really?!”

We went drinking, and then I told him, “Oh, yeah, I’m actually a filmmaker.” I was like, “Can I say this? I’d love to collaborate with you actually one day.” He was like, “Well, sure! No problem! When’s your next project, let’s do it!” It just so happens that Kata came up, and he was so enthusiastic about it. Super surreal for me.

I applaud you — if I were you, I’d faint.

He’s so friendly and so open!

Back to the short: Would it be OK for me to interpret Kata as more than a profile and a self-motivating short to rise above the current global anti-Asian wave?

Definitely! Just like my position — I’m a foreigner to Japan — I’m doing my best to understand the culture, really connect to the people, to speak the language and then to authentically, appropriately communicate Japanese culture back to a foreign audience to bring people together. Those are my goals.

We’re not in individual bubbles where it’s “you’re White,” “you’re Black,” “you’re Asian,” “you belong here,” “you do this” — I really want to see more of a coming-together, and a more mutual understanding of ideas and cultures. Hopefully, this is the kind of film that inspires that, be that holding-up-the-mirror to the person watching who’ll go, “I can do better, I can do more.” Kind of the facing-up-to-yourself moment. I hope they’ll see the message in that.

Finally, if you have the chance to adapt a game to film, what would it be?

It’s a tricky one. There’s not that many good adaptations, if I’m to be honest, and they’re kind of hard to do. But immediately off the top of my head, I’d say — I don’t know how Final Fantasy would work, to be honest — I feel one that would work pretty well is Metal Gear Solid.

Good pick.

Hideo Kojima is, generally, amazing in subtle character developments and stuff. Maybe a Tekken film could be good?

Yes, please! Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and for bringing the short to Tribeca. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

Thank you! I’m really looking forward to being able to make more things and communicate with more audiences. So thank you so much for being a part of this journey.

No problem, domou arigatou!

Douitashimashite.