Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker John H LaDue Jr Is Helping To Change Our World
Be kind to yourself. Its a cut throat world and a cut throat industry, take care of your mental health and try not to be so critical of yourself or your work. The rest of the world will do enough criticizing for the both of you.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing John H LaDue Jr.
John H LaDue Jr is a TV and documentary film producer. He has been creating content for Japan’s international public broadcaster NHK for 12 years. In 2018, John established the Japan based film and TV production company Kintsugi Pictures LLC, where he continues to produce news features and documentaries on political, economic and social issues in Japan for NHK World and Nippon TV. John produced and co-directed his first feature documentary ‘Mommy or Daddy?’ in 2020; the film is now on release.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I (John) was born in Kailua Kona Hawaii, where my parents met. My family moved to Osaka Japan before my first birthday, so my earliest memories are all from growing up in Japan. My parents worked with a nearby orphanage and adopted two Japanese girls, my two older sisters. My parents would adopt another Japanese girl later on, my Japanese little sister Jennifer (also the co-director of the film).
Including my three adopted Japanese sisters, I have 9 siblings in total, me being right in the middle. Our huge family eventually moved to Tokyo and I spent my days making my siblings act for me in home movies I would create on our family’s enormous straight to VHS camcorder. I would edit the films going from the VHS camcorder, to the VCR and back, I very difficult way to edit, but I enjoyed it.
I remember going to Japanese school and people telling me, (the blonde haired blue eyed American) that I was a “Gaijin”(literally outside person). Though I realized I didn’t look like the other kids, this was the first time that it struck me that I wasn’t a part of the Japanese identity, although I felt more Japanese than American. Even today all these years later, having lived in the states I still feel very much Japanese, and both Jennifer my sister and co-director and I plan to live in Japan for the rest of our lives. It is forever our home.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like I said I always enjoyed making my siblings act in my movies I would create as a kid, and in High school I met Mike, who loved film and we would have sleep overs and watch all kinds of classic films on his projector in his room every Monday night. He introduced me to all his favorite directors and movies, and I fell in love with cinema.
I made my first film in High school Out of Ashes, where I would copy scenes from Trainspotting, mostly the heroine shooting up sequences and get drama students to act in these drug scenes that would lead to overdoses. Mike loved the film and encouraged me to apply for film school. So after high school, it was off to LA where I studied TV and Film directing at Biola University in Southern California. After graduating I interned at a few Film studios but Japan was always calling me home. I realized I wanted to make movies in the place I loved most, and tell stories from what I consider my home country. So I moved back to Tokyo and got a job at International Public Broadcaster NHK (the BBC of Japan). It was here that I fell in love with non-fiction story telling and documentary film making. There was something beautiful about telling true stories, and hearing from real people about issues they cared about most.
After about 10 years at NHK creating news documentaries, I decided to take what I learned and create a feature documentary about a subject that I had been researching for a while, and needed to share with the world.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
It has nothing to do with film or TV, but in the early 2000s I was hired to interpret for an American company doing business with a Japanese company, and they needed someone who was bilingual in English and Japanese. After meeting with the head of the US firm in Arizona, he decided that instead of me translating, I would be a bigger asset to them if I were a spy or sorts. The US company had some suspicions that the Japanese firm wasn’t being completely honest with them about their research results. So I was to sit in on the meeting between the US and Japanese execs and pretend to be the note taker, but actually eaves drop on what the Japanese side were saying to each other in Japanese. Since I’m a blonde haired blue eyes American in Arizona, they thought that the Japanese side wouldn’t suspect in a thousand years that I would understand everything they were saying.
Since I had been hired to translate, I wasn’t too sure about all of this. First I’m extremely loyal to Japan and if I were to take sides I would back Japan, secondly what if I didn’t get any information that was useful to the American side? I didn’t think that a Japanese company would actually say something that was a secret in an official meeting like this. But a job was a job, so I finally agreed and walked into the meeting where the Japanese business people were nervously waiting for us.
Even when living in the states I subconsciously bow my head slightly when I meet people because it’s a habit of spending my entire life in Japan. Even in LA when a car would stop for me at a crosswalk, I would bow to them, then feel embarrassed and run across the street laughing to myself.
I knew that if I did this at the meeting it would give me away, and so I tried to act as American and stiff as possible. Even though every ounce of my being wanted to bow when all the Japanese execs were exchanging business cards and bowing to me.
But somehow I managed to keep my cool, and sat down at the table and pretended to take notes on the meeting.
The Japanese company were selling nutritional pills full of Natto extract, and they had come with research results to prove the health benefits to the US firm. They had brought one Japanese guy who translated, although his translation was not very good, and he was sweating the entire time. I kept my head down so that every time Japanese language was spoken, my eyes and expression wouldn’t give away that I understood. It was really hard when the translator was searching for the right word to translate and had to look at his dictionary to find the right word, it took everything I had not to just blurt out the word he was looking for.
I sat through the entire 2 hour meeting and took notes…and nothing… I thought to myself that of course they wouldn’t say anything incriminating at such an important meeting, Japanese or otherwise and was thinking about what to say to my boss because I was no use to him as a spy.
That’s when it happened.
The Japanese side were giving specific reports on the data they had collected on the nutritional benefits. When one of the Japanese men said to the presenter that those specific tests were inconclusive and had to be retested on a broader control group. But the presenter told him to shut up, and it’s fine we’ll just go with this for now and the test results will probably show these results anyway. And the presenter went on to tell the US firm that the test results showed without a doubt the nutritional benefits are substantial.
My first job as a spy was a success, and I was beaming with pride, but kept my head down and tried to keep my ear to ear smile from being visible.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
What I love about making documentaries is being able to interview so many kinds of people, and learning so many things that I had no idea about. I feel like I am at a graduate school or sorts, where I listen to people talk about their lives and the fascinating topics that are of importance to them. But I especially love listening to people who have overcome heartache and survived and continue to be resilient. When I was doing a documentary story about the 2011 Northern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, I was interviewing a woman about how her entire family was swept away. There was a moment in the interview where she reached out and touched my shirt, and started to feel the material. She said her son had been my age and used to wear a shirt just like that, the ocean had taken him away from her with the rest of her family. Now she worked at a seafood factory and lived in a shelter set up by the government.
The depth of sorrow was so apparent in her expression, but it was also a moment where I was able to see the strength and resilience of people in Japan, who continue to choose life inspite of unspeakable hardship. That’s why I decided to call my film company Kintsugi, it’s a traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer and gold. Instead of hiding the broken parts, it accentuates it and those broken golden veins are visual reminders of a past.
These stories from people who have been broken, but choose life have some of the most incredible stories, and I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life telling those stories.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I moved back to Japan from the US, I had no experience in Japan’s TV industry and no one would hire me in Japan’s film industry because of the same reason. The industry is extremely competitive and very small with limited positions, and hardly none of those in the industry are foreigners. When I went into the interview for NHK (BBC of Japan) the interviewer was name Yoneno san. He had a kind face and I felt comfortable around him instantly. Soon we were chatting about world events and the rise of China and the future prospects of the Japanese economy. He laughed saying he forgot for a moment that we were in an interview. He looked at my resume and said, you have absolutely no experience do you? I tried to talk about my Hollywood internships and how they could help me learn how to work in Japan’s entertainment industry as well, but he was not convinced. He said, if I hire you, you’re going to have to work harder than anyone else around you, and I have to train you from scratch, are you ok with that?
I agreed and started the following week.
Immediately I was overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge about everything, and was yelled at daily by my superiors. I would actually take a walk in a nearby park to hide the fact that I was crying and regain my composure. Yoneno san saw I was struggling, and gave me a task to do after my long day in the TV studio. I had to watch a hundred feature documentaries from the NHK archives and give him a report on all 100 features about what I had learned. It was the best task I could have done, because it taught me the basics of news documentary features, and I learned the proper format for Japan’s TV industry. If it hadn’t been for Yoneno san giving me a chance, there is no way I would be where I am 13 years later. Very few would have done what he did, especially because foreigners just don’t do the job I do in Japan. But I think Yoneno san saw that my heart was indeed Japanese, and that may have been one of the reasons why he took a chance on me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is by Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in a speech he gave to his son.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
So many times in my life I’ve hit rock bottom, actually lower than rock bottom, I’ve had to start over with life multiple times. Only those who have experienced deep deep pain will understand the kind of darkness humans experience. But this quote always brought tears to my eyes, because it’s a father telling a son, you got this, I know you can do this buddy, keep choosing life, just one foot in front of another, one more breath, it doesn’t have to be epic, it doesn’t have to be viral or something for the history books. Just choose to “be” in the moment. That’s enough for now.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I really wanted to co-direct this film with my Japanese little sister because I want to see more diversity in the entertainment industry. There are quite a few women directors in the TV industry where I work, but not a lot of film directors. Jennifer my sister did an amazing job, and we worked so well as a team. I also chose to follow my main character because she has a filipino mother and Japanese father. You don’t see many films where the main character is an Asian woman, but I would like to see more representation in all areas of the entertainment industry.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am currently working with my sister Jennifer on our next feature documentary called “Children of the Sun” It is about the identity of the Japanese people and all the legends surrounding their history. The film also examines the US influence on that identity post WWII. Since I grew up in Japan, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese identity and am looking forward to exploring it deeper. The film synopsis and teaser can be found on our website. www.kintsugijapan.com
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
In a world where we consume endless streaming content, from super hero movies to reality TV, I want to tackle some of the deeper human experiences. Not everyone will enjoy or even want to watch the content I create, and I’m ok with that. I know that there is a lot I need to improve when it comes to storytelling, but I want to keep telling stories of those who have endured pain and come out on the other side, and can give us some incredible insights that can only be attained in the depth of despair.
I hope I can shine a light on stories and people who have often been overlooked by society and share their stories of resilience and endurance.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. It’s not going to be a straight line to get to a job you enjoy. My journey was like a plate of spaghetti, completely incoherent. I wasn’t even considering non fiction storytelling in High School. I was going to make films in Hollywood. One night stands out that sent me on the path I am at now. My college buddy who was working in Hollywood told me at a party at his house one night, that I should go make films in Japan. He told me Hollywood was over saturated and I would standout so much more in the place where I grew up and called home. It was some of the best advice anyone has ever given me.
2. Don’t be afraid to let your ideas of success and ideal job evolve. We all have dreams, aspirations and ideas of what success looks like, but for me those ideas matured and changed much like life.
3. Don’t wait to tell the story you want to tell until you get enough investment or the finances are in order, but don’t put everything on a credit card either.
I found that there are ways to film a story and not have it cost a fortune. One way of doing it was spreading the filming out over several years.
4. Be kind to yourself. Its a cut throat world and a cut throat industry, take care of your mental health and try not to be so critical of yourself or your work. The rest of the world will do enough criticizing for the both of you.
5. Filmmaking can be a sidehustle too. I always thought making movies had to be my bread and butter, but there is no shame in doing it on the side, if the film gets made that’s all that matters.
When you work on a film or music project, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I would say it’s the viewers that I always have in mind when telling a story, if my audience can’t follow the narrative then there’s no point. When I was planning out the progression of the film I always would come back to the connecting thought, like the central nervous system.
Mommy or Daddy was a bit complicated as I was documenting a mother’s journey to reunite with her son. Since it’s a true story I couldn’t influence her to make certain decisions but followers her with cameras capturing her journey. It was a delicate balance of staying on the central theme while documenting someone’s life, and I wanted to do it with the utmost of dignity for the central character.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The goal of my company, Kintsugi Pictures,
is sharing through film, the value of restoring broken things in an age where so much is discarded in favor of newer, better models.
No story is more beautiful than a broken life restored. The stories of people who change the world, not in spite of their brokenness, but because of it.
Brokenness repaired and proudly visible — and held together by gold — becomes the strength and catalyst for our heroes to help restore others and in so doing, all of society as well.
The past is not something to disguise or hide. Rather, as part of our heroes’ history, it is redeemed becoming the power drawn from to find the strength to fulfill their destiny.
That is why I named my company Kintsugi,
broken pottery restored with gold.
The film will be released on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Tubi and Vimeo on Demand from Dec 10th.
Where to watch
Japan/ Amazon Prime Beginning December 10th 2022
Amazon Prime, Google Play — Beginning December 10th 2022
Worldwide Vimeo on Demand
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker John H LaDue Jr Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.