Kanata Wolf’s first film, Smokin’ On the Moon (Japan 2017) had its International Premiere as part of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival. The film stars Arata Iura and Ryo Narita as two aimless thirty-somethings, living weed-filled blissful lives until narrative vicissitudes force them to grow up and face the real world. I had a chance to speak with Wolf, in NYC along with cast members Shaq and Dankichi Magnum, and his producer Tadahiro Sekiguchi, to present the film, about shooting a weed film in Japan, the apartment complex where he shot much of the film, and foiling audience expectations.
CSB: First off, why do you go by Kanata Wolf for this film?
KANATA WOLF: My real surname is Tanaka, so I reversed it. And my first name is Yuichiro and the kanji in it is the same as “wolf.” I am only using that name for films, not for novels.
CSB: This is your first feature film and you also wrote the script?
KANATA WOLF: Yes. My background is in music videos, not film. Here, first I wrote the novel, that’s where it all started. The Japanese name of the story actually translates as Rooster, from one of the main characters [the character played by Ryo Narita].
CSB: Was it hard to cast the character of Rooster, since Ryo Narita has to carry a lot of different tones?
KANATA WOLF: Actually the hardest to cast was the role of the boss yakuza. We got lucky and got a really good actor, Kanji Tsuda. That part was so important. If that role wasn’t played right the whole movie would be messed up. He needed to be intimidating.
CSB: The film starts as a stoner comedy, but then transitions into a yakuza thriller, before changing gears again into a drama. I noticed you varied your filming style as the film shifted. How did you manage that?
KANATA WOLF: I used to be a musician and make beats, and I grew up in the hip-hop culture, so for me making those beats was kind of like sampling. My style is kind of like sampling, when I like something, I mix it with many styles. So during the filming, I sometimes used an iPhone too, or a different kind of camera. Shooting with our real main camera required a lot of set up, so sometimes when I felt something with the actors, I just went with the iPhone.
CSB: So was there a lot of improvisation?
SHAQ: My part was almost no improv.
KANATA WOLF: Sometimes people changed lines as they went, and sometimes I would just keep rolling after the scripted portion was over. We would just keep filming, and I used the best portions.
CSB: You also used a lot of animation in the film, did you have any background in animation?
KANATA WOLF: I was originally part of a music group, and one of the members was well-versed in animation. We brought him in, and someone from Canada who just happened to be on a trip to Japan. He is an amazing animator who did some pretty big work.
CSB: Rather than a stoner comedy about teens or twenty-somethings, you made the leads men in their thirties, and it seemed like a major theme of the film was growing up. Were you worried that the audience that came in for goofy comedy would react badly to the shift in tone?
KANATA WOLF: I was looking forward to that (laughs). Actually some old guy in Yokohama came up to me at a screening and said, “The first part of the movie, that was shit, but when I got to the end, I thought this movie was awesome.” I was surprised (laughs). But I wanted to capture an older style of Japanese filmmaking in the second half.
CSB: There were a lot of very specific details in the story. I was wondering if any of them were taken from real life?
KANATA WOLF: Some of the sadder aspects of my life were mirrored in the film. I’ve lost a friend, and perhaps he wanted me to go straight like Sota does in the film.
CSB: Where did you find the main location for the film, the apartment complex where Sota and Rakuto live?
KANATA WOLF: The main apartment building is my building, I am the owner. Their room is my office actually. On the first floor, there is a bar and a furniture store, and a Jamaican record store. It’s in Osaka, though the story is set in Tokyo.
CSB: You were able to get a lot of interesting talent to appear on the film, including LiLiCo and Eiji Okuda. How did you manage that on my first film?
KANATA WOLF: Because of my producer (laughs).
SEKIGUCHI: I’ve known some of them a long time and we have been talking about this for many years. They supported us.
KANATA WOLF: The book took about 7 years to write, and it came out last year, though I published it online about 5 years ago. It was really helpful in getting the project off the ground.
CSB: How long did it take to shoot the film?
KANATA WOLF: Around one month. It was tough to shoot.
DANKICHI MAGNUM: Our parts were only shot in one day, so it was okay (laughs). We are actually old friends.
KANATA WOLF: Some of the other cast members from the beginning are also old friends or other people I know. Mookie, the Jamaican character, he’s actually a superstar in Thailand, from the hip-hop group Thaitanium. I’ve known him for almost 20 years, so I invited him to be part of the film. He only had to film for one day also.
CSB: Who did the music?
KANATA WOLF: Some I did myself. And I went to Thailand and did some sessions with musicians there.
CSB: Was the psychotic neighbor inspired by any specific person?
KANATA WOLF: He is actually more fleshed out in the novel. There have been a number of incidents, like one guy who chopped up nine people. We have a lot of that kind of incident. How much do you really know about people?
CSB: Did you have any trouble putting together financing or casting the film, given that it has a pretty neutral view about weed – it’s just something the protagonists are using casually – given Japan’s pretty conservative industry?
KANATA WOLF: It was an issue (laughs).
SEKIGUCHI: When we started trying to put together financing for the film, we were approaching companies and they all turned it down because it’s so hard in our market. So we had to move onto private investors, and that is where we got all of the money.
CSB: Did have any effect on the reception of the film?
KANATA WOLF: No, not really. But we did have theaters complain about the length of the film. The original quote was three hours and 10 minutes.
SEKIGUCHI: Actually, this version showing at the NYAFF is shorter than the version in Japan by about 15 minutes.
CSB: What did you cut for the international version?
KANATA WOLF: Some of the animation in the beginning. And in the other version, at the end of the film, after everything is finished, there is an additional animation sequence. There is also another scene with the yakuza play fighting, and a boxing scene with betting. From the much longer version, there is an extended ten minute scene where the yakuza are intimidating Jay [Sota’s dealer]. It starts off casual but gets very intense.
CSB: So what is next for you? Now that you’ve had a taste of making feature films.
KANATA WOLF: I have two projects coming up. The first is about an assassin, I want to shoot it as an animation first, and then base the film on the animation. The second is about a gay man more inspired by Stand by Me. An older gay man on a road trip – a very different style from this film.
CSB: I look forward to it.
Thanks to Kanata Wolf, Takahiro Sekiguchi, Shaq, and Dankichi Magnum for their time, and to Emma Griffiths and Stacy Smith for facilitating this interview.