Words: Taylor Boyd
"You're not going to make him do anything," Dustin Craven tells me from his home in Revelstoke, where the man we're discussing rented a room this winter. I keep hearing this. Though I've spent only a few days around Kazuhiro Kokubo, I nod in agreement every time the sentiment is uttered. It doesn't take long to realize.
Approachable is not a word I'd use to describe Kazu. There's an untouchable element to his persona. I say that with hesitation to put him on a pedestal because I hesitate to put anyone on a pedestal. We're all human; some of us just happen to be better at sliding down a mountain and catching air—acts Kazu is remarkable at. In a 2015 Desillusion film, surfer Dave Rastovich quipped on the odd and imagined notion of an alien looking at earth and finding that because within a group of people, a few can "wiggle their bodies" a little better than the rest, it allows them to "have a beautiful house to live in, a lot of time on their hands, good food to eat, and some strange thing called fame." Kazu has all this.
His uncommon vision has carried him to an illustrious place few contemporary snowboarders have reached. Perspective and unwavering commitment to doing what he wants, how he wants, have cemented his place as one of snowboarding's modern icons. These traits have guided the direction for an endeavor he dedicated this past season to. It's called Kamikazu. The signature film project is an increasingly commonplace concept in our world, and of riders who deserve such, Kazu is certainly one. At 30 years old, he's not young by this industry's standards, but within those three decades, Kazu has accomplished enough for multiple careers.
Kazu's early snowboard years were spent in the competitive spotlight. He won his share of medals in international halfpipe events, including back-to-back golds at the US Open, and competed in the Olympics twice. But the independent spirit that defines his approach today displayed itself in an anti-authoritarian attitude that catalyzed controversy in the contest sphere. From his style of dress that received backlash—and his flippant response to the ensuing criticism that ultimately found him banned from the 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremony—to his iconic middle finger salute to X Games judges in 2013, his distaste for the dictation of his direction has been apparent to anyone paying attention. In an on-camera interview with TransWorld SNOWboarding discussing the latter incident, he alluded to the path he would take from there forward.
"What's important in life is not having a strong vision that's kept to yourself. What's important is sharing your vision with others and making it a reality." — Kazu Kokubo
It was around this time that Kazu vanished from the competitive world and parted ways with one of his main sponsors. It would have been possible to assume his career was fading until he re-emerged, deep in the mountains, on a CAPiTA. Since he ditched the bib, his snowboarding has advanced in a new direction, taking him to the point he's at today—starring in a film driven by his vision, documenting some of the best backcountry freestyle riding in history from his hand-selected cast.
"I grew up watching snowboard movies," Kazu explains. "For this project, I wanted to include riders I've been on the mountain with. I picked the riders I respect and want to ride with. I also wanted riders who are more than just good at snowboarding."
The resulting cast is anything but contrived. It's a diverse list with a thread of continuity running through it. At a kitchen table in Mammoth, while we wait for Kazu to decide if he wants to shoot in the afternoon, I ask Justin Hare what went into the decision to cast the film as such. Based on their longstanding relationship, Kazu chose Justin as the lead cinematographer for the project.
"I think the styles that Kazu can relate to are not necessarily technical, but more of a vibe or almost a nonchalance," Justin explains. "It's riders who aren't forcing it, who aren't just following trends, but people who have their heads and hearts in it for the right reasons and do it their way, with their own style and approach."
When Kazu discusses what he respects in others, it's clear he values the same traits that have defined him, which, in practice makes these people different. They are homogeneous only in originality.
"Someone who can make their vision a reality," Kazu says. "This doesn't mean you do things on your own; it's someone who has their own ideas and is able to share them with others, through words or action. I think similar people attract each other and are never alone."
What do Gigi Rüf, Blair Habenicht, and Dustin Craven have in common? It sounds like a snowboard-nuanced version of a shitty joke, but the answer isn't a punchline; they each operate more on their terms than most of their contemporaries. Blair and Kazu's relationship traces back five years to Alaska, where Blair, well-versed in heli-accessed riding at the time of their introduction, was able to guide Kazu in this form of big mountain approach.
"There are all these nerves that come along with the heli," says Justin. "So having somebody like Blair can help you settle down a little bit. Not that Kazu needed his hand held, but it's just nice, versus a crew that's like, 'What are you gonna do? Cool, I'm doing this. Have fun.' Instead, they're actually working together to get shit done and trying to keep each other alive."
On riding and filming with Kazu, Blair explains, "It's cool to watch him because you can tell he's not always in his comfort zone. He's not complacent. He's pushing himself to try something new—a different trick or terrain feature. You can tell he doesn't just care about filling out a part. He wants bangers. He's going to go for it. If he lands, he's over the moon; if he doesn't, he's pissed, but he's over it quickly and on to the next. He reminds me of Gigi [Rüf ] in the way that there's nothing holding him back."
"I don't think Kazu is an example of tradition; he is a modern example of carrying deep values" — Gigi Rüf
I ask Gigi how he would explain Kazu's approach. He puts it this way: "It takes a lot for him to speak up, so he does it with snowboarding. I don't think Kazu is an example of tradition; he is a modern example of carrying deep values."
Standing at 5'4", Kazu's small stature contrasts his large presence. The way other riders revere him is notable, and the STONP films he's starred in provide a sense for what he represents in his home country's snowboard scene. STONP crew member Teddy Koo grew up admiring Kazu and has become one of his close friends. "Kazu's a G. He gets his shit done," Teddy tells me. "He knows how to have fun and handle business at the same time, which is pretty hard to do for a lot of people. He's more motivated than most snowboarders. He seems like he takes serious advantage of his situation and makes it work for himself."
Teddy explains Kazu's philosophy as such: "He's true to his word. He takes his time and money and puts it into supporting the next generation—people he feels like he wants to back. A lot of people, when they're at that caliber, want to do their own thing. He doesn't have a bunch of expensive cars or whatever. He spreads the wealth."
Possession of extraordinary style is a commonality in riders Kazu has put in this project. Kevin Backstrom is, in my opinion, among the most stylish snowboarders of this next generation. He demonstrates Kazu's influence when he talks of receiving the invite to film for Kamikazu.
"He's the rider I've looked up to the most, so to get that email is one of the coolest things that's ever happened to me."
Playing the lead role in a signature project contrasts with the part-based films Kazu has been included in.
"I can't just think about myself; I need to think about the balance of the whole movie, so I picked the locations and riders around that," Kazu says. "I wanted to show the best traits of each rider, so I spent a lot of time thinking what's best for each. I'm thankful for everyone who spent their time during the season filming for this movie. I didn't want to disappoint the riders who were willing to join, so I spent nearly every minute of the season thinking about this movie."
If Kazu's career is marked by sheer talent and an uncanny ability to do it on his terms, it is also defined by longevity. Staying power in snowboarding is achieved through a variety of factors, of which calculated decision-making and physical wellbeing rank high and are often interconnected. At risk of sounding too existential, energy defines everything we do, and properly focusing it stands to benefit anyone, in any context. Snowboarding is certainly not exempt. Kazu has the ability to turn on and off, as though a switch has been flipped. He is energy efficient.
Justin explains Kazu's regimen during the winter. "He spends most of his free time relaxing and chilling, stretching and rolling. When we have days off, you won't see the kid. He'll be in his room just listening to some Japanese podcast, stretching, and sleeping, He's found a way to micro-hibernate."
"He's either going 150 percent or just chilling." — Kevin Backstrom
Dustin elaborates, "It's the same thing when you're out in the backcountry; Kazu will just be sitting on a sled, basically taking a nap, then, boom, he turns on for an hour, does the mindblowing stuff you see, then goes back to just chilling. He's sat on his snowmobile while I've done six or seven runs. If he wants to do something, he does. And if not, he doesn't really give a shit."
This theme weaves its way through every conversation I have about Kazu, so similarly explained each time that I'm tempted to edit the quotes with a synonym for the verb "chill."
"He's either going 150 percent or just chilling," Kevin Backstrom says succinctly.
Blair cites a specific example from a trip to Eagle Pass this season that netted ample footage for the film. With one too many riders for the number of available seats in the two helicopters, Kazu opted to sit a session out.
"Kazu wasn't feeling the zone, but other people were, and he was stoked to let the others ride. It was like, 'This is my movie, and you guys are all in it. I'm not feeling this spot, but I want to watch you ride it.' So he just kicked back and watched. That speaks to his maturity and the level of confidence he has in his video part; he can sit out a session."
As a father of three children, Kazu's ability to flip the switch allows him to balance his job with his family. To maintain a career at his level requires months out of the year away from home.
"I make sure that I think about snowboarding first when I'm riding. I'm always riding for myself, and my family knows that, and they support me for it," says Kazu. "When I'm home, I don't think about snowboarding."
After riding together for three film projects, and renting a room in his Revelstoke home to Kazu during the making of this one, Dustin is familiar with Kazu's program.
"It seems like he deals with it really well," Dustin tells me. "I think he knows that snowboarding is go time for him; it's work time. When he's doing it he really tries to excel at it, then every single day when he gets home, he's in the bedroom FaceTiming his kids for hours. You'll hear him on his phone, and his kids are just giggling."
Blair also has a family and notes the way in which it similarly influences his and Kazu's approach to traveling. Both have passed the point during which trips are synonymous with party time. Rather, they are an opportunity to do their dream jobs.
"We totally relate on that. We talk about our kids, show each other photos. He doesn't drink. He's not looking to get back to some youthful party mindset. It's hard sometimes; you miss your family and at the same time want to be as productive as possible. When we're on a trip, away from our families, we're going to throw down as hard as we can. That's what we're there to do."
But family and throwing down came to a head this winter while Kazu was in the British Columbia backcountry.
"We were filming for a couple days at a location without reception," Kazu explains. "I was planning on going back to Japan as soon as the shoot was over to be there for my kid's birth, but my kid was born earlier than the expected due date. Every one of my relatives was trying to get ahold of me."
"…halfway home i started getting texts like, 'sos! Where's kazu? urgent!' so he took off the next day to japan to see his new kid." — Dustin Craven
Dustin was there when it went down. "That was a crazy point. I don't think he knew he wasn't going to have service. I left maybe an hour before him, and halfway home I started getting texts like, "SOS! Where's Kazu? Urgent!" So he took off the next day to go to Japan to see his new kid."
The tier Kazu sits at can be attributed to talent above all else, and the thing about being exceptional at something is that it affords you the ability to be discerning in how you apply it. In Kazu's case, it is the catalyst for the emphatic creative freedom that characterizes his approach.
"That's something I really appreciate about Kazu," Justin tells me.
He's referring to the ease with which Kazu can reject the demands of someone like himself. As a filmer, your job is to get footage, and when you've been at it as long as Justin, you learn to identify low-hanging fruit. But it's not the easy route that's taken Kazu to where he's at.
"When we're on a trip, away from our families, we're going to throw down as hard as we can. That's what we came to do." — Blair Habenicht
"Sometimes it can be frustrating, but it ends up making sense. He has a real vision of what he wants to do, what he wants to ride, and the style of tricks he wants to do. If it doesn't line up with his vibe or what he wants, he's not interested. He's waiting for this very specific thing that he can create his vision on. But in the end, he comes through, so it's worth the wait. I think that's one of the reasons he's had the success he's had. He's not necessarily playing by anyone else's rules. He's not the dude that you just tell, 'Go do this right now 'cause we told you to.'"
It comes down to vision, and Kazu's intent is to unwaveringly follow his and share it.
"What's important in life is not having a strong vision that's kept to yourself," he says. "What's important is sharing your vision with others and making it a reality. It's the same for snowboarding."