SANTA MONICA — Roosevelt High School graduate Kurando Mitsutake's journey from Tokyo to Hollywood to be a movie director probably would have taken a different course had he owned a bigger map.
"The map I had was very small. It looked like Fresno was so close to Los Angeles, I thought I could bike there," Mitsutake says.
He quickly discovered it would take more elaborate forms of transportation, but Mitsutake finally made it to the film-making capital. He just wrapped production on his third feature film, "Gun Woman," which will be released in Japan and eventually in the U.S. Just like his two previous movies — "Monsters Don't Get to Cry" and "Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf" — his latest film reflects the love of horror movies he cultivated while growing up in Tokyo.
Mitsutake's mother was a huge fan of horror films but afraid to watch them alone, so a young Mitsutake was enlisted to sit with her while they watched the movies on Tokyo TV. He quickly became a film geek.
"First, I wanted to become a comic book artist so I was drawing comic books frame by frame. When I watched (Steven) Spielberg's 'Duel,' I realized making movies was what I wanted to do because I could tell a great story with a camera and not have to draw every frame," Mitsutake says.
In the 1980s, when Mitsutake's interest in making movies was blossoming, the Japanese film industry was going through a low point while the American film industry was booming. He wanted to be where the better films were being made but there were a couple of things standing in his way: he spoke no English and was living thousands of miles away.
His father found a Japanese high school that would teach students in English and then arrange for them to be an exchange student. Mitsutake spent 15 months at the school and when it was time to move to the United States, he noticed that Fresno was the city with a host that was closest to Los Angeles. He lived with the family of Fresno Fire Capt. Al Rush.
Mitsutake's English was pretty rough when he moved here in 1990 and his junior year was tough. Bill Weatherford, a longtime theater teacher, designer and fight choreographer at the Roosevelt School of the Arts and Fresno High School, provided the most mentoring for Mitsutake.
"My English was terrible but he made me the stage manager for 'As You Like It,' " Mitsutake says. That was a start of two years of intense study in theater and TV production.
Weatherford — who has a role in "Gun Woman" — didn't have Mitsutake in any of his classes. But, after fellow Roosevelt teacher Eric Acree, who taught the video, radio and TV program, told Weatherford about the talented student, Weatherford sought him out.
"He (Acree) showed me some of the shorts that Kurando had made and brought with him and I was just wowed. He made things with imagination, a terrifically mature eye and ear, a controlled quest to use and expand technology at hand and just plain soul," Weatherford says.
"What always was so special about Kurando was that he knew he wanted to direct films before he was even a teen. He knew the types of film he wanted to make: action films that in many ways were a hybrid of Japanese 'bushido,' mixed with Western settings and situations, and a sense of mirth, a sense of mischief and a whole lot of bloody fun."
His quest to make those films took Mitsutake to the San Francisco Art Institute and then California Institute of the Arts.
After graduation, he made a living with a variety of jobs including directing short projects produced in America to be used on Japanese TV while pulling together the $100,000 he needed to shoot his first movie.
"Gun Woman," made on a tight budget, is the story of a man seeking revenge for the death of his wife. To get an assassin inside a stronghold, he surgically implants guns inside a woman and delivers her as a corpse. The film — also written by Mitsutake — was shot in Los Angeles in two weeks.
Mitsutake has not forgotten his Fresno past. He cast fellow Roosevelt High grad Matthew Miller as one of the leads in "Gun Woman." Mitsutake and Miller did a lot of student movies together while students of Weatherford.
"And now at age 40, we finally had an opportunity to do a 'real' movie together," Mitsutake says. And they shot it in the city that's more than bike-riding distance from Fresno.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.