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BLOOD OF WOLVES


BLOOD OF WOLVES (Korou no Chi)


May 8, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Kazuya Shiraishi and novelist Yuko Yuzuki


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Shiraishi (left) and Yuzuki (right) recall the film's infamously gruesome pearl scene, which the director added himself.   ©Mance Thompson

Is The Blood of Wolves the first salvo in an electrifying new yakuza film franchise from Toei Studios? The film’s “planning producer,” Muneyuki Kii, dares to hope so. Its director, Kazuya Shiraishi, does too. And Yuko Yuzuki, the woman whose rough-and-tumble bestselling novel, Korou no Chi, reignited the studio’s  passion for jitsuroku eiga (actual record films), says, without hesitation, that Shiraishi’s the man if there are sequels in the offing.

Shiraishi and Yuzuki were at FCCJ to talk with the audience after our sneak peek of The Blood of Wolves. It marked the first time the Film Committee has hosted the author of the original novel on which a film is based, and the second time that Shiraishi has been on the dais. He was at FCCJ with four other directors to kick off the Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project in 2016, having directed Dawn of the Felines. It would go on to become the most successful of the five releases.

Shiraishi has explored territory similar to The Blood of Wolves in his previous high-octane actioners The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016), both of which won numerous awards. But he hits a career high with his new film. The boisterous, brutal cinematic bombshell made its world premiere in Udine, Italy at the Far East Film Festival in April and has already been booked for extensive international festival play. Should it prove to be a commercial hit at home, there’s every chance that Toei will move forward with Yuzuki’s just-released Kyouken no me (literally Eye of the Mad Dog), the second in a planned trilogy.

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The tone was surprisingly light through most of the Q&A, a relief after the film's unrelenting intensity.   ©FCCJ

After a decade of churning out popular ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) starring kimono-clad yakuza heroes played by the likes of Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta, Toei shifted gears in the early 1970s and introduced what came to be called jitsuroku eiga, focusing on the true stories of postwar yakuza in what film historian Jasper Sharp calls “a world of craven thugs and corrupt law enforcers… when vaunted traditional codes of behavior have been revealed as shams.” Kinji Fukusaku’s epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was set in Hiroshima and starred Bunta Sugawara, was explosive, spawning four sequels, another three-part series and loads of imitators.

Toei makes no bones about its intention to recapture the invigorating jolt with which that classic franchise was met. “To make a film about the wild way of life of outlaws in the Showa period in the current Heisei era is an ambitious act,” read the production notes for The Blood of Wolves. “[It’s also] a challenge to Japan’s film industry, and to modern society itself.” 

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©FCCJ

The studio describes that challenge this way: “[Wolves] depicts men who traverse the boundaries between trust and betrayal, violence and desire, and justice and atrocity. In their harsh and brutal realm of existence, pride means everything. The striking catharsis and violence delivered by these men… is little seen in modern-day Japanese entertainment due to the highly restrictive nature of domestic free-to-air television and the current family-centric film environment.”

Yuzuki has admitted that if it weren’t for Fukasaku’s films, her novel would not exist: “It's a world that women can't enter even if they try, which is the very reason why it impressed me.” But responding to a question about the influence of the series on her writing, which has earned her multiple awards and widespread acclaim for her hardboiled style and meticulous attention to procedural details, she told the FCCJ audience, “The way I see the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is, they were set in Hiroshima in the chaotic postwar period, and they weren’t so much about yakuza, but about these people and their will to survive. They were ferocious, and desperate to survive. They would kill each other, they would [really get down and dirty]. That was what really attracted me to the series. I wonder how many people in Japan today have such a passionate will to live?"

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© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Added the director, “Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Toei’s jitsuroku eiga, but that era has ended. It’s the type of genre that you can’t make in Japan today, so I hadn’t really given any thought to venturing into that realm myself. In the early days when I was an assistant director, there were still V-Cinema (straight-to-video) yakuza films, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to make a film like this. When they came to me with Ms. Yuzuki’s novel, it was something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I was overjoyed, and also intimidated. But I also had a certain confidence that perhaps I was the only director who was able to take on this project.”

Shiraishi’s confidence is well earned. Not only does he guide his actors to awards-worthy performances, particularly Koji Yakusho, who is electrifying as a corrupt police detective, he also directs with dizzying visual intensity. Jitsuroku eiga fans will be pleased to note the stylistic similarities in The Blood of Wolves: Shiraishi deploys Fukasaku-esque freeze frames, overtitles, narration, newspaper images and docu-style shaky cam to impressive effect.

Kazuya Shiraishi-2FCCJ   Yuko Yuzuki-5FCCJ

Yuko Yuzuki-6FCCJ   Kazuya Shiraishi-6FCCJ
 ©FCCJ

 “These days,” said Shiraishi, “the only yakuza films we have like Battles Without Honor and Humanity are by Takeshi Kitano, the Outrage series. Many members of the cast in this film were first-time yakuza. But they really, really seemed to enjoy it. They really put their heart and souls in it.” (With a cast that includes Yoko Maki, Takuma Otoo, Taro Suruga, Tomoya Nakamura, Junko Abe, Shido Nakamura, Yutaka Takenouchi, Kenichi Takito, Kenichi Yajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Pierre Taki, Renji Ishibashi and Yosuke Eguchi, it’s hard to imagine which are neophytes.)

As for Yakusho, “When I was first starting out, I loved the yakuza roles he did in [V-cinema films] like Drug Connection and Osaka Gokudo Senso: Shinoidare. He was so wonderful in those roles that I wanted to bring back the yakuza Yakusho. Although he plays a detective, he’s a thug detective. But I think he’s fantastic in this film.”  

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Yakusho goes ballistic, brilliantly. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

The Blood of Wolves immerses us in the dog-eat-dog world of Hiroshima at a time when internecine battles between rival yakuza clans could engulf the city at any moment. Detective Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) seems to be the only one holding the place together, using collusion, theft, torture, arson —whatever it takes — to keep the gangs “neutered.” The maverick detective, volatile and unpredictable, has no qualms about bending the law if it will help rein in the gang warfare. Favoring wide-collared polka-dot shirts and sunglasses, and ravenous like the wolf of his name, Ogami is dogged by rumors that he’s in cahoots with the mob.

After a recent transfer from headquarters, rookie cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has had just about enough of his new partner’s balls-out behavior. “What you’re doing is insane, Ogami! Police officers are supposed to uphold justice,” he yells in exasperation. “You wanna hear my idea of justice?” responds Ogami. “I ain’t got one.” But he later confesses he feels “like an acrobat on a tightrope: lean too far to the gangster side or the cop side, and you fall.” 

Hioka secretly records and writes copious notes on his partner’s shockingly unorthodox methods as they investigate the disappearance of a finance company employee, which seems to have kicked off the latest conflict. Scrambling to retain his own sense of honor and humanity (codes that once governed both cops and criminals), Hioka gradually finds himself in over his head, swept up by Ogami’s maelstrom of raw brutality, scrambling to halt the eye-for-an-eye clan vengeance. But just as Hioka is ready to present his evidence to Internal Affairs, the rogue detective disappears and the hounds of hell are unleashed… 

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Matsuzaka has an Ogami-like moment. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Noting that the film is “very exciting, but also very confusing” (a fair criticism, considering the intricately woven plot strands, complicated relationships between gangs, enormous cast of characters who appear fleetingly, and the frequent necessity for multiple English titles on screen at once) one FCCJ audience member asked for some elucidation of the film’s themes. Responded Shiraishi, “One very big theme is the notion of personal justice. This takes place in 1988, the final year of the Showa era, and these days we still speak of the ‘Showa Male.’ It was an era of many historical upheavals, such as World War II. The number of people who lived during those times has dwindled, and their way of life is also disappearing. I wanted to capture the Showa Male and the Showa way of life in this film.”

Said Yuzuki, “What I wanted to depict in the original novel was a universal theme: what human beings are like and how they live. Life, with all its trials and tribulations, still compels us to survive. It’s about survival.”  

Shiraishi and YuzukiKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

Another journalist sought clarification: do they think that survival is more difficult in 2018 than it was in 1988? “I think it’s rather more difficult to get by in 2018,” said Shiraishi, “because we’re not allowed to express ourselves or speak our minds. It’s a little more suffocating now than it was in 1988. But that was the time just before the Anti-Organized Crime Law kicked in, so for the yakuza, it was a time when it became increasingly difficult to do business and get by. But it was a time when the yakuza were active, and had more power than the police. So it’s easier to depict the life-and-death [struggle] during that period.”

Explained Yuzuki, “I set the story in Showa 63 [1988] because there were still various ties between the yakuza and the police. There was a gray zone, so I could depict the kinds of clashes and connections they had. Right now, I think everything is much more black and white. So it makes the era of the story easier to depict. Going back to the theme of pain and suffering we encounter in life, those are timeless things. Because of various economic factors and war, they haven’t changed in 20 years. Even if this story is set in the late 1980s, the audience can still relate.”

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 ©FCCJ

Pointing out that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima’s position as the site of the atomic bombing “loomed large,” one audience member inquired what the writer and director thought it represented in The Blood of Wolves. Responded Yuzuki, “Before I started writing the book, I went to Hiroshima to do some research. What really struck me was the power of the Hiroshima dialect. It’s very powerful. While I was in town, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the absolute destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima. When I left the museum, the was sun shining and people were walking along the street, smiling and laughing, and it struck me how much determination it took to get us here, to this age. And I decided that I had to set the novel there, and include the Hiroshima dialect.”

Shiraishi smiled. “I remember watching the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series when I was a teen, and I assumed all yakuza spoke in the Hiroshima dialect. When the screenplay was written and we showed it to all our actors, I didn’t have to explain, they all understood what we wanted to do. I think that’s due to the wonderful films that Toei made in the past; they’ve been a guiding light for us. Under the influence of all those films, I thought Hiroshima must be filled with yakuza, but at the risk of angering Hiroshima citizens, I’ll just say that I found it to be a wonderful town.” 

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 ©FCCJ

 Asked whether she felt her gender had “delivered a revitalizing jolt to the genre,” as has been widely hyped, Yuzuki said, “As a writer, I’m not all that aware of gender. But what I often find gender-specific in Japan is the way that [friendships are formed.] Women seek friends who share the same values, while men, even if their values are 90% different, if there’s one thing that they can share, they can see eye to eye. That’s what I find really appealing about the male world. That’s the kind of relationship I wanted to depict, and I wanted to make the male characters as masculine as possible.”

Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice screenwriter, Junya Ikegami, adapted Yuzuki’s book for the film, and the author admitted, “There were a few scenes that the director played around with. One scene was the pearl scene, which wasn’t in the novel. Also, the line that [actor] Renji Ishibashi says, ‘Coinkydoink, coincidence, cli—’ [she stops before uttering the full, potentially offensive, word], was not included in the novel. I really thought the director outdid me on those types of things.” She laughed, “I’ll try harder next time.” 

Kazuya Shiraishi-2Mance Thompson  Kazuya Shiraishi-1Mance Thompson
 ©Mance Thompson

Shiraishi said, “I mentioned that there are very few yakuza films out there besides the Outrage series, and those films were hits. Without Ms. Yuzuki writing the novel, there wasn’t much opportunity for Toei to venture back into the yakuza genre. If this film becomes a hit, hopefully, if Ms. Yuzuki wants me to direct the sequel, I’d be more than happy to take on that role.” Here, Yuzuki interjected, “Soshiso ai!” a passionate expression that we’ll interpret to mean “You know I would!” 

Shiraishi continued, “The [cigarette] lighter that ultimately went to Tori Matsuzaka in the film — he actually took that home with him. He said, ‘I’m gonna keep this until the next time we meet.’ So if there’s another project with this series, I would be more than happy to take up the challenge.”

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 ©FCCJ



blood of wolves  2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee 

Selected Media Exposure

ERNESTO


ERNESTO


September 19, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Junji Sakamoto and star Joe Odagiri


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Writer-director Junji Sakamoto and his star, Joe Odagiri, crack up during the photo call.    ©Mance Thompson

At least three generations of Japanese have grown up wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian physician, author and Marxist revolutionary. But few of them know about Guevara’s controversial exploits, and fewer still know that a Japanese-Bolivian fought with him — and died, as did Che, in a CIA-assisted ambush in Bolivia — 50 years ago this October.

Junji Sakamoto’s new film, Ernesto, pays tribute to that man, Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation immigrant who became radicalized while in Cuba pursuing medical studies. Inspired by “The Samurai of the Revolution,” a novelized biography penned by Maemura’s sister Mary, Sakamoto has created a work that is at once Cold War history, coming-of-age story, compelling relationship drama and cautionary tale.

The project began when Sakamoto (The Projects, The Human Trust) came across the story of Maemura Hurtado, and was deeply impressed that he had followed his convictions so completely throughout his (tragically short) life. Realizing that he would do best to coproduce the film with a Cuban production company, thus gaining access to the island’s locations and local talent pool, he set about putting together the first Japan-Cuba coproduction since 1969 (not counting one documentary). Almost entirely in Spanish, the film is perfectly timed to mark the anniversaries of Che’s and Freddy’s deaths.

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Sakamoto's films frequently feature scenes in languages other than Japanese, but this is the first
that is almost completely in another language.      ©Mance Thompson, ©FCCJ (top right)

Ernesto opens with a historic 1959 scene, shot in Hiroshima. Just months after the Cuban Revolution resulted in the ousting of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara (dead ringer Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) visits Japan in his role as a trade diplomat for the new communist government. Without notifying his hosts at the Foreign Ministry, he goes to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pay his respects. Then he turns to a Japanese journalist (Kento Nagayama) who has followed him there. “Why aren’t you angry at the Americans?” he demands. “They have done such a horrendous thing to you.” It is a question that hangs heavily over the entire film.

During the Q&A session after the FCCJ screening, Sakamoto was first asked whether that visit had taken place, and why he’d included it in the film. “It’s a fact that Che Guevara visited Hiroshima and laid flowers at the Peace Memorial cenotaph,” responded the director. “It’s also a fact that Freddy went to Cuba for his medical studies, and not long after, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. I wanted to juxtapose these two events, and through them, to pose questions about nuclear warfare.”

He continued, “During the missile crisis, Che was probably the only one who had been to Hiroshima and had memories of what nuclear warfare could do. That must have been at the back of his mind.”

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Che and Freddy in Cuba.  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Following up, another audience member asked about the lines (quoted above) that Che speaks to the journalist, and how Sakamoto had balanced fact with fictional elements in the film. “That line actually came from the journalist who covered the event, who had been with Che Guevara on that day," responded the director. "All the lines in that scene are factual, and came from the journalist, who was the only one to cover his visit, since no one really knew who he was at the time. He has since passed away, but he made detailed notes about the visit. His family was kind enough to share them with me.”

Sakamoto went on, “I don’t think films should fictionalize events; they must be grounded in reality. We did a lot of interviews and research. I did take liberties as long as they were fact-based. Sometimes it’s necessary to take liberties in order to better depict the atmosphere or the spirit of the historical [time].”

Considering today’s constant North Korean missile "tests" and Donald Trump's chest-beating, did Sakamoto intend to play up the looming danger of war by delving into the complicated Cold War-era proxy wars in his screenplay?

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Odagiri spent 4 months mastering his Spanish lines, as well as the correct body language.  ©Mance Thompson

“The approach I took was to tell the story of one individual,” said Sakamoto. “There are, of course, Hollywood movies like 13 Days, that depict the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I wanted to depict this medical student who arrived in Cuba and experienced the crisis, but wasn’t ‘in the know.’ The students weren’t given a lot of information, and they were later angry that the US and Soviet Union had negotiated without [Cuban] involvement.”

Ernesto’s “one individual,” Freddy Maemura Hurtado, was born in Trinidad, Bolivia to a well-to-do Japanese father from Kagoshima Prefecture and a Bolivian mother, and he was determined from childhood to become a doctor so he could treat the poor. In 1962, Maemura (Joe Odagiri, nearly unrecognizable as a very studious young man) arrives in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to study not only medicine but also the “spirit of liberty and equality.” Yet classes are soon disrupted by the US naval blockade, and the school becomes a barracks for anti-aircraft artillery troops for the duration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maemura and his classmates are given the choice of enlisting in the fight against America’s presence, and the young physician’s radicalization begins.

Missile Crisis averted, Maemura continues his studies against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War, and is soon skillful enough to become a lab assistant. He shares his salary with Luisa, a fellow student whom his friend has impregnated but refused to help support, and life seems good. But when civil war breaks out in Bolivia following a US-backed military coup in 1964, he decides to slip back home and join Che Guevara’s revolutionary army there. He visits Che, a fellow physician-turned-rebel, to tell him that he is following Castro’s advice to “follow my heart” about becoming a fighter, rather than a doctor. The guerrilla commander bestows the nom de guerre "Ernesto Medico" on him. Two years later, their fates are forever entwined when deep-jungle ambushes by CIA-backed Bolivian troops capture the men and they are killed within weeks of each other.

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Freddy listens to Castro speak at his medical school.   ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Odagiri (Bright Future, Over the Fence) disappears completely into the role of Freddy, aided by convincing makeup, and delivers a slow-burn, career-best performance. One of Japan’s tiny handful of truly international stars, he is surely the only Japanese actor who has tackled roles in every major language but Italian. Here, he speaks entirely in Bolivian-accented Spanish.

Admitting it was one of his most challenging to date, the actor responded to a question about preparing for the role: “Thank you for that question. I’d wanted to have a drink before this press conference, but I refrained. I’m so glad I did, because I’m so ready to give a very serious answer. The way I approached the Spanish was not just to memorize the lines, but to be able to act in Spanish. For that, I sought the help of my [mostly Cuban] costars. I had three or four very kind costars who spent hours and hours with me, helping me mold this character.

“They each had their own visions of what Freddy would talk like in certain scenes, and they would read the dialogue for me. So I would ask them, ‘In this situation, how would he say this line?’ They showed me many possibilities, a full range of tones, and I then discussed different approaches to each scene with the director. With foreign languages, there are issues with [pronunciation], where to take a breath and the rhythm of the speech. It was all really complicated, and I’m so thankful to my costars, who I heavily relied on. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to make this character so well-defined.”

Sakamoto Odagiri posterFCCJ
©FCCJ

Pointing out that Odagiri’s first lead, in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, ends with a scene in which aimless young men sporting matching Che Guevara t-shirts kick garbage along a Tokyo street, an audience member asked about the actor’s personal connection to Che. “I hadn’t thought about that last scene, thank you for reminding me,” Odagiri laughed. “When I decided to take this role, I told my circle of friends about it and they all said, ‘Are you playing Che?’ They probably didn’t think it was such an outrageous idea. One reason might be that I usually grow a beard and have unkempt hair. I do actually have a Che Guevara poster on my wall, and I have Che t-shirts, as well.”

Sakamoto had high praise for the film’s Cuban producers. “When we took this project to them,” he explained, “they said yes right away. We asked if there was any sensitivity with [a Japanese production] depicting this time period on film — since there are no Cuban films depicting this decade — and they kindly took it on as their own project, as well.”

For all its heavy political overtones, the director made it clear that the theme is one of commitment and optimism: “The name of the film, Ernesto, is not just Che Guevara’s name, it also has a meaning: someone who is very earnest… someone who has a goal and is adamant about obtaining it. I think that's an important message. Whether you’re involved in political activities or just going about your day-to-day life, it’s important to have a goal, and to have unwavering faith as you strive to achieve it.”

Freddy Maemura’s remains, which were missing until 1999, are now laid to rest alongside Guevara’s in Santa Clara, Cuba. Ernesto ends with footage of Maemura family members visiting the site, to thank Freddy for “inspiring millions of revolutionary doctors with your dream,” and becoming a role model for succeeding generations.

poster2017 ERNESTO FILM PARTNERS
  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP!SHOWBIZ TODAY オダギリジョー 異国の地で悪戦苦闘

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