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‘Travel is about empathy and love.’

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Feature by Interview: Michael Canning, Justin Drape; Words: Giulia Mendes

Raised between Australia and Japan, and now based between Sydney and LA, award-winning filmmaker and director Kiku Ohe’s passion for film is driven by the emotional experience of travel and the universal language of storytelling. 

Kiku's hunger to explore the world and share the stories he discovers along the way has seen him shoot in Spain, Vietnam, Hong Kong the UK and more, for brands, music videos and feature films. His most recent creative travels have taken him around Australia and the US for a global project with Qantas. Between traveling, Kiku is drawn back to LA’s ever-changing energy and arts scene, where he says no two experiences are ever the same. We chat with Kiku about exploring the red raw expanse of central Australia for Qantas, connecting with the creative community in East LA, and his Travel Playbook to explore the city.


On where you're from

I'm half-Japanese, my mom's Australian and my dad's Japanese. I grew up between Japan and Australia, so I'm a bit of a melting pot of cultural influences. It was quite a contrast culturally, but it was a really interesting experience, particularly in those formative years. 

On how travel inspires your work

Travel has been really important to me. I crave different cultures and different experiences. A big part of why I love filmmaking is the ability to travel and spend time immersed in different cultures and shoot all over the world. Going through that process, you learn there's a universal language and a need for stories. The universal language is storytelling. It pushes my filmmaking, so it's one of the great joys.

On memorable travel moments

One of my favorite places I've shot is Hong Kong. I enjoyed it because some of my favorite cinematic influences are from Hong Kong, like Wong Kar-Wai. Being able to walk through the actual locations and experience the worlds of In the Mood for Love and the apartments in Chungking Express was quite inspirational. I've also shot in Vietnam, Vancouver, Barcelona and through America. Getting out into the desert and some of the areas of Utah and Arizona were a big inspiration. I shot a film out there called The Lines, which was a really memorable experience. To get to some locations we could only have a small crew, it was really special. 

From Hong Kong (pictured top) to Vietnam (pictured second left) and the desert landscapes of California (pictured third row), Kiku Ohe’s love of different cultures and experiences have continued to inspire his work and develop his global outlook. All images courtesy of Kiku Ohe.

On your passion for filmmaking

My passion for filmmaking came from my passion for music. I think music and sound are at the heart of the cinematic experience. It's a big part of my work. Through music, I started to explore storytelling and the emotional experience of filmmaking that unifies so many different art forms. I think that's really what got me into it.

On a project you’re really proud of

The campaign created by The Monkeys for the centenary of Qantas. It was a historical project and it was a real honor to show the roots of the Qantas brand. We also took an iconic song and idea and gave it a modern context. It was really special to work with classic and modern Australian icons and ultimately celebrate our love for home. There are not many brands that can do what Qantas has done. The themes and the emotions of the piece have a more profound meaning — they go deeper. We Australians love to travel — we love to go far. I think it's part of the Australian psyche because we are geographically isolated and look overseas for inspiration and travel.

‘I crave different cultures and different experiences. A big part of why I love filmmaking is the ability to travel and spend time immersed in different cultures.’

On collaborating in the ancient Red Center

Working with this group of classic and modern Australian icons, artists, actors, and the choir was a real treat. It's a really diverse and inspirational cast with some Aussie legends including Kylie Minogue, Hugh Jackman, Troye Sivan, Adam Goodes. It really was a special group of people that came together for it. I particularly liked working with Rene Kulitja, an Aboriginal Australian artist and an elder from Uluru and Maruku Arts Foundation. Going into the community and having the honor to work and film in Uluru was a highlight — it’s never really been captured like that before. Interestingly, Rene also has a history with Qantas because one of her most famous designs is called 'Yananyi Dreaming', which covers a Qantas Boeing 737. 

On an unforgettable experience

We went to Longreach to show the birthplace of Qantas. I actually have a personal connection with the town as my great-grandfather settled there. We were standing on the runway in this tiny rural airport with the Qantas kids singing, 'I still call Australia home'. I'll never forget. It was amazing to be there, to see the brand’s humble beginnings and see where it is now. It has traveled from Longreach and Uluru to the Whitsundays, Tasmania, Melbourne, Western Australia, and then internationally to London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo — which are the main destinations for Qantas. The brand really was the lifeblood for connecting Australia. That's why it has such a special place in Australians' hearts, it literally connected the country.

For his film with Qantas, Kiku traveled across the US and Australia to capture a celebration of the iconic airline’s journey, from humble beginnings in Longreach to a global brand that now connects Australia with the world. The film features Australian legends including artist Rene Kulitja (pictured top), the Qantas choir (pictured second right), Bangarra Dance Theatre (pictured third row), Kylie Minogue (pictured fourth left), and Troye Sivan (pictured fourth right and bottom). All images courtesy of Kiku Ohe.

On the connection between travel and storytelling

There's a quote, I think it’s a Japanese proverb, that says ‘There's no scenery in the place you live’. There's something about it that suggests you have to travel to take delight in the small things. Absorbing that is important to any kind of storytelling, it deepens it. Travel is about empathy and love, and you need to draw upon those elements to tell any story authentically. It also goes to the heart of what is great travel — it's not just a holiday. Great travel is an emotional experience. It affects you on an emotional level. That experience is what I'm interested in, in terms of storytelling.

On finding home in East LA

I have stayed in all different parts of LA. Then I started to gravitate towards the Silver Lake area in East LA. It’s where we're now based. There is quite a thriving arts and creative community there and a lot of friends live in that area.

‘I remember standing on the runway in this tiny rural airport with the Qantas kids singing, 'I still call Australia home'. I'll never forget. It was amazing to see the brand’s humble beginnings and see where it is now.’

On your relationship with the city

My relationship with LA is ever-changing — it’s one of those cities. For me, it was the next step when I joined my LA–based production company Superprime. But it’s also a city I traveled to for fun, to explore. Particularly when working in music and arts, I'd go through LA. I was really inspired by the scale and vastness of the city. Now, it's taken a different meaning. It's a second home and my daughter was born there. So it's constantly changing. That's the only way I can describe it. 

On connecting with the creative community in LA

It's such a richly diverse place, and it really comes down to where your preferences and interests lie. But whatever they are, the only way to do it is to get out and explore, go to the things that interest you. That's how the city starts to present itself — people, groups, and communities. So it's just about getting out there.

When not based in Sydney, Kiku feels right at home in East LA. He finds inspiration in the unpredictability and ever-evolving nature of the city. All images courtesy of Kiku Ohe.

On how LA inspires you

The one thing with the city, more than any other city that I know, is that it keeps unfolding and presenting new things — almost like different rabbit holes. It changes so much — whether it's neighborhoods or pop-ups, the city just keeps unfolding. That's what I really like about LA. There are so many dimensions that allow different ways to interact with it. It always keeps you inspired. That's why people either love or hate LA too, because like in any first relationship, it's impossible to crack. So based on first impressions, a lot of people hate it. But it just takes time.

On the tough side of LA

Because it's such a city of contrasts, there's a lot lying under the surface: the foundations on which it was built, the rising inequality, the homelessness. There are important issues that are always present and need to be talked about. LA is a tough city, and people fall through the cracks. You see it and I'm very aware of it, and it’s something that weighs into my relationship with the city.

‘The one thing with LA, more than any other city that I know, is that it keeps unfolding and presenting new things — almost like different rabbit holes.’

On your ideal morning in LA

A good day would start with a hike. There are so many great hikes in LA, depending on the area. One of my favorites is Elysian Park, which is in the Echo Park area. It's generally not too busy and offers some really spectacular views of downtown. Then after that, I'd probably look to get something to eat. There's a great place called Dune, in Atwater. They make really great falafels and Mediterranean-inspired food. I also love digging for records. There's a place called The Artform Studio in Highland Park. It's a record store and barbershop owned by Adrian Younge [and his wife Sherry Younge], who's quite a prolific hip-hop producer. A lot of his records are available for sale as well as stuff you can't find readily, particularly, 60s, 70s soul, and early hip-hop and jazz. It's not a bargain basement kind of record store because a lot of the records are super rare. It's a real museum for some of these genres that I personally really love.


On evenings in LA

Next door to The Artform Studio there's a place called Gold Line Bar, an intimate, small bar owned by Peanut Butter Wolf of Stones Throw Records. He has a good portion of his record collection at the bar. There are always people there DJing, and the drinks are great. I think it's inspired by these kinds of Japanese vinyl bars and it has a good local vibe. I also like catching a movie. There's a small cinema called the New Beverly Cinema, which is owned by Quentin Tarantino. They exclusively play 35 mm films — a lot of the film prints are from his personal collection. He holds some of the only prints of certain films, which is pretty amazing. I've seen Pulp Fiction on 35 mm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a range of other inspiring films.


Kiku’s Los Angeles Travel Playbook takes you on a tour of some of East LA’s top gems, including a wine store complete with its own monthly zine, a barbershop-cum-record store, Quentin Tarantino’s independent cinema, and a buzzing vinyl bar. First image courtesy of Psychic Wines, second row courtesy of The Artform Studio, third row courtesy of New Beverly Cinema, and bottom image by Dylan + Jeni, courtesy of Gold Line Bar.

On where to taste wine in LA

There's a place called Psychic Wines — it's a wine shop in Silver Lake that I often go to. It's run by a great crew of people. They have an awesome wine club, and they put out this zine every month that showcases some of the wines they bring in. They write these incredible stories on the winemakers and where their terroir is. They also work with local artists and graphic designers to put the zine together. So there's a real handcrafted personal community feel to what they do. I enjoy going down there, hanging out and tasting some nice wine.

On the song that best represents LA to you

There's a song called 'Trouble On Central' by Buddy. It always reminds me of LA. It's a hip-hop track, but the production is quite modern. It reminds you of being stuck in traffic and has that West Coast sound.

On a window or an aisle seat

Probably a window for longer flights and an aisle for shorter ones.

On LA in one word


What I love about LA is that it's such a richly diverse place. It really has something for everyone. And that's what's exciting. LA is a city that keeps unfolding, ever-changing, and can be hard to get your head around, but I think the more you give to it, the more it gives back.


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