Tribeca 2021 Interview: James Latimer on Having Actions Say More Than Words in “Kata”

It has been a hallmark in the recent shorts of James Latimer to translate the swirl of emotions that one experiences in practicing their art into something all audiences can feel when their actions are expressions. An Englishman who has immersed himself in Japanese culture, he has taken it upon himself to collapse the distance between the some of the latter country’s most beautiful traditions and the rest of the world with films such as “Butoh Dance” and “Lady Samurai,” where movement becomes a form of language anyone can understand.

His latest “Kata,” which in English means to “gaze heavenward,” is indeed bound to transport into an otherworldly realm as he follows the teenage Mahiro Tanako, who took the karate world by storm as an 11-year-old martial arts champion, into a dojo for practice. Delivering jumping double kicks, blocks and punches with grace, she trains not to attack others, but to fight off any doubts she has in herself as she carves out uncharted territory for herself. With cinematography agile enough to capture Tanako’s fancy footwork, “Kata” tiptoes towards transcendence and as it makes its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, Latimer spoke about how he has stumbled into making a trilogy of interconnected shorts, the technological upgrades that allowed for his latest to be such a visceral delight and working with Tanako to create a documentary/narrative hybrid that could speak to her life and yet show where she can go in her inner thoughts.

When you started down this path with “Butoh Dance,” did you actually envision it as an ongoing series or a trilogy as it is now?

It’s interesting you called it a trilogy. I’ve never thought of it that way, but about two to three years ago, I was just looking at how can I get the west and Japan to come together, finding these really unique talents and subjects and people who are taking traditional Japanese culture and making it relevant in the modern world? Finding Kaori [Kawabuchi] for “Lady Samurai” and Conan [Amok] for “Butoh Dance” a couple years ago really ignited something in me, making me feel like wow, I’ve got something interesting here, just having this hybrid documentary style. After making those two films, it’s like, what can I do next? How can we step it up with production value and the intensity of the characterization and the action? We came to “Kata” naturally.

Did you actually have Mahiro Takano in mind as a subject immediately?

Because the Olympics were coming up in 2020, I realized this would be a great opportunity to educate and create some understanding more about karate — and kata specifically, which was going to be in the Olympics for the first time — and the athletes behind it. It was originally going to be Olympic athletes I was going to try and pick up on, but then I discovered Mahiro, who was only 13 years old. It would be her sixth year in a row [as] national champion and that was super-intriguing to me like mentally where she must be at to accomplish something that’s never been done before.

It’s a documentary at the core, so it’s important to have that authenticity of first emptying my mind of any potentially cool images or associations I could possibly make or films that I’ve watched in the past or really go in and understand her and what kata is to her. Then I attach other potential images and visual metaphors and better ways of communicating her story, so the core for me is to make it as accessible to a larger audience as possible, an audience that might not even be into karate, to really connect with her story.

Beyond the monologue, what’s it like figuring out the choreography with her?

That’s actually a really interesting question because when I went on a three-hour train ride from Tokyo to Niigata where she lives, it wasn’t just an interview. I really want to understand the movements and the meaning behind the movements because they can look potentially abstract. They don’t look like they’re necessarily like combat ready moves. They are form, so I really wanted to understand the meaning behind the moves and the history and how kata is evaluated and use that as building blocks for how we need to present her to the audience. We [then] used a camera robot arm that normally you’d use in a studio for more product shots, like a lot of the mobile phone commercials that you see are shot with these repeatable camera moves, and it was my idea along with Mikul Eriksson, the [director of photography] because she can hit marks and her punches with a robot-like level of accuracy, [that we could] create these moving, dynamic transitions from her being in her schoolgirl outfit to her karate gi, to be able to externalize that internal journey that she goes through. This camera robot really allows us to have these dynamic swooping shots and really get engaged in her journey.

Did you actually start with a location in mind?

I’ve been through quite a lot of different locations and ideas in my head. I have a strong love of video games, so I was watching a lot of Tekken videos beforehand and thought, “Oh, we can shoot in a temple and do this,” but it was really the bamboo forest that tied everything together to go on this journey through her mind with a meditative approach to this inner battle that she goes through from the day to night with the fire baskets. It was a perfect location for that, so I was definitely lucky to be able to find that. [But the camera] is usually only used in a studio, so to use it outside, there has to be a completely flat ground [and you can’t get] more than a few shots in any one day and we only had two days of shooting, so in the beginning, there was actually going to be a lot more dynamic movements that really follow her fist as she moves, a lot more wild, Hollywood-type shots in the beginning, but as I saw the limitations of the camera robot, I was like, “No, this is only going to be a narrative device now. We’re only going to get our transitions from this.” To be honest, when I finally see the final film, I actually feel it works so much better because the camera robot is mostly invisible. We don’t think, “Oh, this is the camera robot shot.” It’s really just working to carry us further in the story, so in the end, the limitations and the improvisation on set actually made a better film.

You’ve got such a beautiful score as well from Yoshitaka Hirota – at what point do you start of working on the music?

I was a big fan of him for years and I’ve turned up at his concerts and being a fan, we went drinking and I said, “I’ve got this film coming up and I’d love for you to work on it.” He was super interested and I was going through his backlog and found a song that really inspired me heavily for “Kata” to begin with, so I said to him, if we could make something along these lines, that would be amazing. He made a bunch of demo tracks before we even got filming, just to really help inspire the general direction because as much as there’s a story to be told here, it’s a spiritual and emotional journey [first]. I wanted to communicate to the viewer being inside Mahiro’s head, so the score really highlights and emphasizes that and getting from the beginning of the preproduction process all the way to post, being able to work so closely with him was incredible.

What’s it like getting the film to Tribeca?

It’s really amazing because the whole process was really just trying to make a good film. There’s that hesitation of are we going too hybrid with this documentary or is it too narrative? But I decided not to think about any of that too much and really trust in that I really want to tell my hero’s story authentically and honestly and as long as I have her approval through the whole process, there’s going to be a story that’s going to connect to audiences there. Just believing in that the whole time and not backing out or compromising or playing safe is I guess one of the reasons why we were selected for Tribeca.

Has Mahiro had a chance to see it yet?

She has, yes. And even when you film something, sometimes you don’t have a good eye for how it’ll come together, but everybody did such a great job on the team that she was really blown away and the most important thing for me that she said was we really capture what goes on in her mind in a really accurate way. That was all I needed to hear, to be honest.

“Kata” is available to stream online through the Tribeca Film Festival until June 23rd.