Filmmakers sign Japanese co-production for Chicago indie “Homesick Blues”

“Homesick Blues” filmmakers Ed M. Koziarski and Junko Kajino

The teeming maze of the Tokyo subway has begun to feel more and more like home lately.

I’ve just returned to Chicago with my wife and directing partner, Junko Kajino, from our second Japan trip this year to develop our feature film, “Homesick Blues.”

“Homesick Blues” is the story of a Japanese girl who goes to Chicago hell-bent on becoming a blues singer.

We’ve been courting production companies in New York and Los Angeles to back the project since we got our investment package together last fall and took our script to the IFP Market.

But it was when we turned our attention eastward that we really started to make headway.

Independent film is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan. They don’t really have the entrepreneurial culture of the hustling filmmaker. Companies generally package the films and hire the directors. A production executive from a major entertainment company even told us that we were the first filmmakers ever to approach him, rather than the other way around.

So we didn’t have much difficulty getting meetings with top people at a range of production companies. Once they adjusted to the novelty of the project, they were intrigued by the concept, and by the prospect of an international co-production and an entr?e into the U.S. market.

The company that was most receptive was Excellent Film, a 12-year-old production house with 53 films under its belt. Last January we met with Excellent development exec Takano, who had studied at the University of Chicago and found it easy to identify with the story of a Japanese girl making her own way in this town.

After I returned to Chicago in February, Junko met Excellent president Hidehiro Ito, and he committed to helping us get “Homesick Blues” off the ground. Ito worked as a studio director in Japan in the early ?80s, spent a few years as a director-for-hire, then founded Excellent Film in 1991.

Since then, Excellent has garnered top prizes at the Japanese academy awards, had four films adapted into TV series, produced five of Ito’s own pictures, and 11 by Japanese master Takeshi Miike, including “Graveyard of Loyalty,” a selection of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Japanese production companies like Excellent Film raise much of their financing from revenue-sharing deals with video distributors. (Video has a larger market share relative to theatrical in Japan than it does in the U.S.) This gives our U.S.-Japanese co-production the best of both worlds, in a sense ? the security of a return on investment from the Japanese market, without a compromise of artistic freedom, plus the potentially greater income from the more high risk/high return U.S. market.

Ito accompanied Junko to Columbia Records Japan to see a performance by 19-year-old singer Zoey, a prospective lead actress for “Homesick Blues.” Zoey won over both the Columbia executives and Junko. Zoey’s debut single is due out on Columbia this summer, and her album is set to be released in the fall.

Zoey has some impressive firepower behind her. Her management/production team, Michael Martin and Noriyuki Ota, are the team behind Hikaru Utada, the top-selling Japanese recording artist in history. Martin, an American who lives in Osaka, owned the U.S. independent label that first signed Christina Aguilera, before her climb to superstardom.

Junko and I went to New York in March to see the filming of the video for Zoey’s first single, a Japanese-language cover of Bjork’s song “Venus as a Boy.” Zoey has a powerhouse voice and we found that she is also a magnetic visual performer. We offered her the lead role in “Homesick Blues” and she accepted.

Our April Japan trip was largely spent in relationship building with our key collaborators. We spent a day in Osaka with Zoey, talking about her character and imparting to her as best we could the spirit of the blues. Ito took us out for karaoke after his meeting with the president of Warner Bros. Japan. Ito made the commitment to seek financing for “Homesick Blues” as soon as Zoey’s video is finished and ready to show prospective investors, which will be any day now.

It’s finally coming together. After years of struggle, we’re on track to shoot our film in Chicago this fall. Chicagoans on board for the project include cinematographer Pete Biagi (“Design,” “Stolen Summer”); blues guitarist Shun Kikuta, a bandleader and Koko Taylor sideman; and entertainment attorney Joe Madonia (“Desperation Boulevard,” the original “Meet the Parents”).