waits for the Ninja to finish showering. Courtesy
Ninja Star on Hollywood Boulevard?
Tsuchida doesn't spit back an answer right away. He
takes a second to chew it over. When he does open his
mouth to speak, the verbal ebullience is unstoppable:
"Everyone in my film school generation was a huge
David Fincher fan. Everyone was like, 'Fincher is the
craziest [expletive] around,' and I think he is. I think
'Fight Club' will be recognized as some kind of masterpiece-misunderstood
now-but a masterpiece ten years from now."
being his carefree self. Courtesy
of Filmmaker magazine
Fincher is one of many illustrious filmmakers that Tsuchida
will discuss with an emphatic f-word, a modifier I've
come to understand as his highest form of praise. Although
he's resolutely opinionated, his tone of voice never
falls to the didactic dark side. He doesn't hide his
amiability. He speaks freely as if there are no secrets
between us and I could listen to his intelligent musings
for hours, but alas, he's only got two to spare right
now. In his West L.A. backyard, the shaggy 34-year-old
filmmaker enjoys Parliament smokes and green tea while
he devotes generous time to each of my curiosities about
his future career, his present one as a TV commercial
director, and his Japanese-Hawaiian identity.
you've got nothing to say, are you really making
this year, Tsuchida had tickled film festival audiences
with his first short, "A Ninja Pays Half My Rent,"
a title as charmingly offbeat as the roommate situation.
When Barry loses his roommate to a deadly grapefruit,
a ninja moves in and the resulting comedy suspends disbelief
by its underpants. Barry and N (his evolved nickname)
communicate their personality differences over a plate
of pancakes. On a lazy day, N plays with Lite-Brite
while Barry decries the victimization of snakes on Animal
Planet. Throw in a red ninja vying for the apartment
space and these are five hilarious minutes you don't
want to miss. Tsuchida's acuteness to quotidian existence
humanizes the ninja, a legendary character we've been
brainwashed by B-movies to think were just a bunch of
esoteric assassins. This ninja does laundry like everybody
Tsuchida claims that a ninja wasn't the impetus for
his creation: "It was actually the grapefruit scene
[in which the fruit squirts into a man's eye and kills
him]. I actually saw that happen in a restaurant-well,
the guy really didn't die-that cliché played
itself out. The ninja thing, I'm not sure. It just sort
of happened. Unfortunately, I don't have a funny story
reason for that kind of short was that I wanted to do
something funny, very short. You've probably been to
some film festivals. There are some films that are [expletive]ing
ten minutes long and it feels like half an hour. You
see a ton of crappy shorts. You see a lot of jokes,
like it was a joke literally THAT somebody turned into
a short. You're just waiting for the surprise at the
end. You see so many shorts about a guy like dreaming
about [expletive]ing a monkey, and all the sudden you
cut to a wide shot and you see the monkey in bed and
then credits. You see tons of those!"
does not have plans to sell or distribute "A Ninja
Pays Half My Rent," since he sees it as "a
humungous glamorized business card. The short will get
me into meetings and then that's it. The conversation
moves on to other things." Rather than gripe about
being in the Hollywood dugout, Tsuchida accepts the
system and knows that he'll have his chance to bat a
waiting for his feature filmmaking career to skyrocket,
Tsuchida does what he's been doing for the last three
years: directing television commercials for Oil Factory
Inc. in Beverly Hills, which attracted him because of
"the idea of art communicating with people."
Interactive is the name of the game since Tsuchida doesn't
consider art a two-dimensional trophy on the wall. Naturally,
a film that involves and provokes will be the next step
in his artistic evolution. "What makes art, 'art,'
is not just the piece itself. It's the piece in tandem
with the person watching it. Advertising-I think of
it that way, but on a commercial level."
is power, so until you prove that you can make money,
you don't have the power."
provides creative repose for this artist who, most of
the time, conforms to the client's product. "It's
completely liberating [doing a short]. In advertising
or music videos, you're trying to inject as much art
into commerce. You try to make them as artful as possible,
but there's a purpose beyond entertainment. There are
few commercials that are very good. When you watch television,
you realize there's maybe one in every 25 commercials."
work in advertising and his aspirations in filmmaking
are the result of a lifelong interest in art and film.
"Growing up in Honolulu, we were really watching
the world through television. I watched a lot of samurai
movies and ninja movies. My father was really into them,
too." His 2nd generation Japanese American parents
never taught him Japanese because they assumed that
their citizenship would change overnight: "It's
probably because they grew up during World War II and
after the war was over, it was like, 'We're all going
to be American now!'" Little did they know that
Hawaii would take another 12 years to become an official
being an islander for 18 years, Tsuchida studied advertising
at Cal State Long Beach. His parents, although traditional,
did not object to the competitive industry he was entering.
"My dad said, 'I don't care what you become. You
could be a garbage man if you want, as long as you're
happy, as long as you can do it yourself.' My dad's
a big proponent of doing it by yourself like, 'I'll
send you to college but you shouldn't really think about
coming back home or asking for [more] money.'"
a college degree under his belt, Tsuchida worked as
a runner at Propaganda Films, "one of the most
influential music video production houses in America"
according to him, which spawned a generation of directors
known for their flashy visual style: Michael Bay ("The
Rock"), David Fincher ("Fight Club"),
Simon West ("Con Air"), Dominic Sena ("Gone
in 60 Seconds"), Antoine Fuqua ("Training
Day"), Gore Verbinski ("The Ring"). At
the time of his employment there, Tsuchida admits, "I
was into Propaganda Films because I thought music videos
or commercials were a conglomeration of everything I
liked, like design, fashion, music, and photography.
When you're young and when you're trying to learn and
expose yourself to things, you haven't found yourself,
so you end up gravitating toward the flavor-of-the-day-style."
after Propaganda, Tsuchida got a graduate film degree
at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His higher
education paralleled his creative maturation as he realized
that beautiful camerawork only left a skin-deep impression
on viewers: "I grew out of this guy trying to be
Fincher and Wong Kar-Wai and [became] more of a story-character-guy,
which is why I would cite Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and
Woody Allen [as influences]. As for modern directors,
I like Alexander Payne ('Election,' 'About Schmidt').
He really hones that feeling after you walk away from
the movie that it was great. I really want people to
walk away with that feeling [from my films], instead
of 'Wow, look at that traveling shot through the building.'"
admires "any Asian filmmaker you can think of"
but his praise has no ethnic colorblindness to others
like Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby. As Tsuchida
accolades the work of Ang Lee, his volume raises a bit,
the alacrity kindles his words: "'The Ice Storm'
was [expletive]ing phenomenal. It's so unbelievable
that that this guy who's not from America did this movie
about the 70s. What he's great at-when it boils down-he's
great at family units and the interaction between them.
And he's masterful at relationships."
only logical that Tsuchida wishes to dramatize similarly
complex relationships drawn from his own life: "I
gravitate to stories that deal with families, whether
they're traditional or not. Hawaii holds those kinds
of memories. Hawaii's that kind of place. It's very
family, very community. It's a very fascinating mix
of Pacific and Asian cultures. To the casual observer,
it feels predominantly Asian. You grow up very American,
but celebrating all the Asian customs. I identify with
my Asian roots more that I'm now in the mainland. I
think it's because when you're in Hawaii, you never
think about the idea of you being a minority. In fact,
you never have any of those issues. When I came to the
mainland, I think about it a lot more. I realize I took
the Hawaii identity for granted."
than live in regret, Tsuchida glimpses redemption in
a future project about his homeland: "Part of it
is to share that world, part of it is because it's dear
to me and I want to encapsulate it on film. Every filmmaker
wants to impart themselves onto the audience. If you've
got nothing to say, are you really making a film?"
doesn't envision his films to exclusively discuss Pacific-Asian
identity issues because he strives to be a commercially
accessible director, although he does "applaud
the effort of a lot of independent movies and minorities
[like Latino Americans and African Americans] who try
to do movies about their cultures. I want to do a movie
that's going to be in 2000 theaters." And just
like "The Ice Storm," which called for Ang
Lee's universal sensibility secondary to his cultural
experience, Tsuchida's film-to-be may deliver a story
that both serves the general public and the inner passion
of the filmmaker.
you're young and when you're trying to learn and
expose yourself to things, you haven't found yourself,
so you end up gravitating toward the flavor-of-the-day-style."
far as the tone of his feature film, Tsuchida looks
up to directors who have accomplished comedies with
dramatic depth like Wes Anderson ("Rushmore"),
Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"), and
John Hughes ("The Breakfast Club"). "To
me, comedy and drama are opposite sides of the same
coin. Comedy is on the verge of becoming dramatic. You're
laughing at it almost because it's painful. Laughter
is the balm to heal the wounds."
we talk shop about the social scene of advertising and
film, Tsuchida plays the race card like an ace instead
of a joker. No complaints about racial discrimination
here. "In my industry, on the set, I'm pretty much
the only Asian there. And I love being the Asian guy
because I'm different. I'm unique. People go around
the set and they're like, 'Hey, there's the Asian guy.'
It's actually a good thing."
suggests that eager beaver Asian Americans take more
proactive measures if they're tired of being underrepresented:
"You know how [Asian] people say, 'Yeah, I'm trying
to get these faces on television' and all that [expletive]--you
want the [expletive]ing power? It comes from Asians
as producers, as heads of studios. A lot of Asians don't
think of these as viable careers." All he's suggesting
is that progressive Asians should think bigger than
the short-lived efficacy of celebrity-remember Russell
Wong? Yeah, I don't either.
Ninja Pays Half My Rent" won the Special
Jury Recognition award at the HBO U.S. Comedy
Arts Festival and the Best Comedy Short at
the Arizona Film Festival.
production cost of "Ninja" was around
Tsuchida will be promoting his short at the
following: Hawaii International Film Festival,
Denver International film Festival, Stockholm
International Film Festival, and RES Fest.
incontinent, Tsuchida's closing advice may be the hardest
pill to swallow, but I champion his candor. It's a wakeup
call for the idle, a gag rule for the whiners, a left
wing for those who only think with a right one. Reject
the argument as a nagging and you won't glean the good
intentions: "I meet a lot of talented [Asian] people,
but the perception of them is quiet, nerdy just because
[expletive]ed up I guess (laughter). Sad, sad. You look
around Hollywood and you think, 'Wow, how'd that talentless
[expletive] become powerful?' It's because he's a good
communicator and a lot of Asians aren't in my opinion.
Talent is one of the smaller components of success on
any level. I have friends from film school that are
way more creative than me, but they're [expletive]ing
lazy. You know what I mean? I'm sure you'll discover
the same thing."
strikes a chord with his last prediction, as he is savvy
about my continuing film school education. I walk away
from his house, convinced that I'll see his work in
a movie theater sooner than other filmmakers who ignore
Tsuchida's acumen: "Filmmaking is an art form,
but it's a business. You can make all sorts of comedies
and lighter fare that will make money so you'll have
the power to make movies, eventually, that you'll want
to make. Money is power, so until you prove that you
can make money, you don't have the power."