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Seiji Horibuchi, Chairman of Viz Media

by Zac Bertschy,

ANN: How'd the VIZ Pictures affiliate come to fruition?

SEIJI: VIZ Pictures was incorporated in November 2005, but the whole idea of starting a film company had been in my mind even before we acquired the live-action movie KAMIKAZE GIRLS in 2004. That was also the year that VIZ was renamed Viz Media, and I became a chairman, which left me more time to explore new things. When I founded Viz Communications in 1986, we were the first publishing company in the US specializing in English-translated manga. Fortunately, VIZ grew up quickly, thanks to the support of U.S. fans of manga and anime. So I came to feel like I wanted to start something new again, this time with movies for the manga/Anime Generation who grew up with VIZ.

What sort of films are you planning for release? Are you favoring any particular genre?

We are trying to explore a whole new genre, which we call “J-Pop movies.” It's a genre full of Japan's “pop-ness,” “cute-ness” and “cool-ness,” and many of the films are based on Japanese comics, novels and anime. We aim to deliver bright and positive messages to wide audiences, and establish "J-Pop movies" as one of the most exciting genres in film today. We know the popular Japanese movie genres here are horror and violent or samurai/ninja-action movies, and there are so many of those available in the market already, which is really great. But like I said, I wanted to start something new, so we carefully choose movies which represent “J-Pop” from our point of view, and that's our difference.

Are you interested only in Japanese cinema? Any plans to expand to Korean or Chinese cinema?

Oh, I love all kinds of movies, no matter where they're from. I love Wong Kar-Wai and Kim Ki-duk, among others. Right now we're still a small start-up venture so we don't have the resources to expand to other Asian movies yet, but we'd definitely love to. We're just waiting to see if we have any lucky encounters, like when we found KAMIKAZE GIRLS in Tokyo.

What sort of audience are you hoping to reach with these films?

We'd like to bring contemporary Japanese movies that have that “kawaii (cute) & cool” J-Pop sensibility to younger generations who are exploring J-Pop culture beyond manga and anime, as well as to progressive cosmopolitan filmgoers and the existing foreign film audience in North America.

What kind of release strategy are you pursuing? Are you planning on limited theatrical engagements, followed by a swift DVD release, or do you hope to roll the films out to more theaters, following a more traditional theatrical release schedule?

It might depend on the title, but for now we're doing limited theatrical engagements in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. All the theatres we're working with are art houses which are comfortable with showing foreign movies with English subtitles. Unfortunately in the United States, where a handful of major theatre chains always rule, it is very rare and difficult to get subtitled foreign movies into traditional theatrical wide release, like many Hollywood movies. However, we're hoping to find a way to roll films out to more theatres in more cities in the future. We're even in the process of building a new art-house theatre in San Francisco, VIZ's home ground. This building will house this theatre, a J-Pop bookstore, café, and some girls’ fashion retailers from Tokyo.  It's scheduled to open in winter of 2008.

You've released a few films already - what's coming up next?

PING PONG, a movie based on Taiyo Matsumoto's masterpiece comic, is now showing in select cities (www.Viz-pictures.com), followed with a DVD release in September. Also in July, we're releasing HULA GIRLS directed by Lee Sang-il. Based on a true story, it is a heartwarming comedy about coal miners’ daughters recruited as hula dancers and trained by a talented and determined dance instructor from Tokyo. The movie recently received Japanese Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress. We had special premiere screenings in New York and San Diego with appearances by the director last month. Both premieres were huge successes.

Which film so far have you had the most success with? Will you be pursuing other films of that type more aggressively?

THE TASTE OF TEA (directed by Katsuhito Ishii, who directed Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl and the animation segment of Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL: VOL. 1) was our biggest-grossing film theatrically, so we're expecting more people will see this wonderful film on DVD as well. The film received numerous excellent reviews from the major press, including a full page in Time Out New York, which is very unusual and fortunate. The original screening dates were also extended for weeks due to people begging the theatre to do so. This is such a special film, and we will definitely keep our eyes on Katsuhito Ishii.

VIZ Pictures is the first division of the company pursuing live-action entertainment - any chance you'll consider releasing live-action Japanese dramas here in the US?

Actually that's been my long time dream... I check out Japanese TV dramas every week--not only dramas but all kinds of variety shows as well, just because they're so much fun! Unfortunately, releasing Japanese TV dramas in a packaged product like a DVD is pretty difficult due to rights issues, which is the case in Japan too. It could even be said it's a cultural issue... So nobody has done much with them here besides broadcasting some shows on TV...that's much easier. But our mission is to do something nobody else has done, so I'm willing to challenge that. We still don't know if it will be through the Internet or another medium, but keep your fingers crossed for us.

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