Art Director Katsuya Imai brings Japan to Thailand for Netflix hit ‘Kate’

In his earliest years, Katsuya Imai found himself drawn to visual arts. Growing up in the countryside by the small city of Niigata, Japan, he was inspired by his parents. His mother painted as a hobby, so he too found himself drawn to painting, drawing, and sculpting. His father was a film lover, and when they would watch a movie, a young Imai would try to recreate characters through sculpture or draw a scene from the film. These passions never wavered, and now as a celebrated Art Director, Imai’s two childhood hobbies are now an illustrious career.

“I have dedicated my life to films. I spend a lot of time, effort, and energy creating something beautiful. Every time I see something I worked on, it reminds me of the process and all the memories of how we made it. It’s such a special experience at a theatre. I’m proud of what I have accomplished in my life,” said Imai.

Imai is known for his work on prolific projects like the GI Joe Origins story Snake Eyes, the Apple TV sci fi series Invasion, and Ridley Scott’s movie Earthquake Bird, starring Oscar Winner Alicia Vikander. However, it is working on his newest film, Kate, that Imai says was the highlight of his career.

A Netflix Original film starring Emmy Award winner Woody Harrelson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kate follows meticulous and preternaturally skilled Kate, the perfect specimen of a finely tuned assassin at the height of her game. However, when she uncharacteristically blows an assignment targeting a member of the yakuza in Tokyo, she quickly discovers she’s been poisoned, a brutally slow execution that gives her less than 24 hours to exact revenge on her killers. As her body swiftly deteriorates, Kate forms an unlikely bond with the teenage daughter of one of her past victims.

“I like the concept of a very tough, strong and smart woman who influences the next generation. It’s beautiful and they deserve more opportunities to be the hero in films,” said Imai.

Imai was eager to tell a story centered in his home country of Japan with so many concepts of Japanese sub-culture featured in the film. He understood exactly what was required from an art direction standpoint, with vast experience and knowledge of authentic Japanese design. They shot in Bangkok, but Imai knew what was required to make the capital of Thailand look like the capital of Japan.

“It was challenging since we were creating Tokyo in Bangkok. I had to make sure every single detail was appropriate, such as sign boards, posters, architecture like tatami mats and shoji-doors, materials used for sets and types of plants and flowers. I was the only one who had Japanese knowledge in the art department. I flew to Tokyo to take care of finding the authentic materials and products and shipped them to Bangkok,” Imai described.

Imai was tasked with recreating Shinjuku Golden Gai, one of the most beloved streets in Tokyo that is packed with many bars and restaurants. The set would host one of the key scenes in the movie with a large shootout and a lot of intricate camera work and stunts. This meant that not only did the set have to look narrow the way the street is in real life, but also practical for filming purposes. The end result is stunning and beautifully captures Shinjuku Golden Gai.

Imai also travelled to Hawaii for his work on Kate. There, he created many sets that dove into Kate’s background, key to the character development of the story’s lead. Imai is proud to have played such a major part in the visual storytelling for the film.

“I liked that all of the crew including producers, director and also the crew in Thailand and Hawaii were very supportive. They all respected Japanese culture and architecture and put all their efforts to meet our vision. I had to check all the details and give them directions but they were all willing to help me,” said Imai. “When I traveled to Bangkok, it was interesting to see similarities and differences between Japanese and Thai architecture. I learned a lot of things from my stay in Bangkok. This is one of my favorite things about traveling for work.”

Imai’s attention to detail paid off, as Kate was a big success for Netflix. When the film premiered in September of 2021, it shot its way to Nielsen’s movie streaming chart. Forbes reported that at its launch, Kate was the #1 movie for Netflix. It has subsequently been released around the world in over 180 countries. The film went on to rack up 413 million minutes of viewing in the United States alone. 

“I was so excited and proud of the film streaming all over the world, especially, when I watched it with my father. It was an incredible moment for us. Of course I’m grateful that it’s such a success, but the compliment from my closest supporter is a moment I don’t have words for,” said Imai.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out Kate on Netflix to see Imai’s outstanding work.

Photo by Sean Mannion

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