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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.

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 ©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.”  

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©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.” 

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 ©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

OH LUCY!


OH LUCY!


April 26, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and star Shinobu Terajima


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Both Shinobu Terajima (left) and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi (right) have been critically lauded for the film.   ©FCCJ

Atsuko Hirayanagi has set a high bar for herself. Her first feature, the Japan-US coproduction Oh Lucy!, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-2017, finished the year with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best First Feature and Best Actress (for Shinobu Terajima’s beautifully calibrated performance), and earned rapturous critical praise during its recent rollouts in the US, France and elsewhere.

A poignant character study that deep-dives into the lonely life of a protagonist whose type is rarely depicted on screen, Oh Lucy! is an off-kilter culture-clash comedy combined with a deeply moving drama. Upon its world premiere at Cannes, Variety called it “a chocolate truffle with an arsenic core,” and Hirayanagi’s greatest accomplishment is that the film’s bittersweet aftertaste is pleasantly light and lingering.

Appearing for the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the writer-director and her star admitted they are curious about audience reactions on the film’s home turf. Said Hirayanagi, “I’m grateful that Oh Lucy! is opening in Japan, and I’m extremely curious about how the Japanese audience is going to react, and how they’ll feel about this film. Being here is kind of surreal, and at the same time, a dream come true.” 

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Terajima and Hirayanagi get a laugh out of costar Josh Hartnett's video message (left ©FCCJ, right ©Edwin Karmiol).

Terajima, who was making her third visit to FCCJ (after sneak peaks of Vibrator and Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival), began on a serious note: “I’m very pleased that I could be here tonight on this very special occasion.” Then she smiled her inimitable smile before continuing, “Today is my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married 11 years, and I’m so happy that I could be here.” (To her credit, it wasn't at all clear whether she was being gracious or slightly facetious.)

There were more punchlines to come when Terajima's costar, Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Penny Dreadful), dropped in to chat about his experiences by video. About his director, he said, “Atsuko Hirayanagi is one of the most quietly hilarious people I’ve ever met. [Guffaws ensued on the dais.] I spent a lot of time with Atsuko on the press tour, and everyone I introduced her to thinks she is genuinely one of the funniest people around. She’s a joy to work with, and a lovely human being. I’m very proud of her for making this film, and grateful to her for letting me be a part of it.”

As for Terajima, he ribbed, “Shinobu claims that she doesn’t speak English, but that is not true. [More guffaws.] She didn’t let on that she could understand everything I was saying until deep into production, so she made me feel at a disadvantage, and quite uncomfortable, [but] in a good way.” He then lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially about how she would disappear to play Candy Crush before certain scenes. “In my opinion, it was the best way to prepare for work that I’ve ever seen.” After apologizing for asking so many questions on set, he said, “I hope it didn’t affect anyone negatively, including you, Shinobu. Thank you for your patience.”

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Acclaimed actor Koji Yakusho, left, with Hartnett and Terajima. ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

He went on to laud the cast for being so “well prepared and artistically inspired,” but mock-warned, “The next time we all work together, you’re going to do it here, on my turf.”

In fact, Oh Lucy! does spend substantial time on Hartnett’s turf. Hirayanagi herself is based in the US, after growing up in Japan, going to the US as a high-school exchange student, and then graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. Her thesis film was a short version of Oh Lucy!, which went on to win nearly 40 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals. Although she was courted to direct other projects, she decided to first explore Lucy’s story further, and with initial funding from Sundance and Japan’s NHK, went on to craft the feature version.

As the film opens, chain-smoking office lady Setsuko (Terajima) is clearly stuck in a rut, both professionally and in her seemingly non-existent personal life. En route to work one morning, a man on her crowded platform whispers “Goodbye” in her ear before leaping in front of the train. If that’s not enough to shake her up, a fellow OL is retiring, and she may be the closest thing to an office ally that Setsuko has. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) begs her to fill in at her pricey English classes (reimbursing her directly for the fees), it seems to be just the diversion Setsuko needs. 

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The veteran actress and the first-time feature director.    ©FCCJ

Her unorthodox instructor, John (Hartnett), greets her with a warm embrace — “I’m a hugger, what can I say?” — has her don a curly blonde wig and pick her new name out of a box. Setsuko becomes “Lucy” and is encouraged to be “lazy and relaxed” when she speaks American English (a ping pong ball apparently helps). The new identity unleashes her inner she-vamp, empowering her to say all the things she’s pent up, some of which she instantly regrets. But it also rekindles the flames of hope in her heart. She’s immediately smitten with John, and thus aggravated when the red-wigged, widowed “Tom” (the great Koji Yakusho), joins the class and she no longer has the teacher’s hugs all to herself.

Then John suddenly disappears and Setsuko, nearly inconsolable, discovers that he’s left for Southern California with Mika. Desperate to see him again, she takes off in hot pursuit with her estranged sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), in tow. Their first surprise, after realizing that California isn’t all beaches and glorious sunsets, is that John is no longer the Charisma Man he was in Tokyo, and Mika has fled. They coerce him into chauffeuring their search for her, and Setsuko/Lucy seizes one last chance at midlife liberation. 

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 Ayako (Kaho Minami) joins Setsuko in America, where Hartnett becomes
the bickering sisters' chauffeur.  ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

Praising Terajima for her ability to play both “lifeless” (in Japan) and “full of life” (in California), a journalist asked how she’d mentally prepared for the difference. “Was it a geographic thing?” he asked. Explained the actress, “We shot all of the Japan scenes before we left for the states, so the geography did rub off on the character. The vastness of America, where you can walk a long way without ever bumping into someone, really elevates your spirit. I think the way I played the role was affected by that. We didn’t change my makeup, but even the director said I looked more beautiful in America. So I think the environment freed both Setsuko’s, and my, spirit. It was a really fun shoot to do.”

Hirayanagi was asked about her own relationship to America, since the film “presents America as a liberating space, but also rather twisted, dangerous and cruel.” The director began, “I’m not sure which part is twisted… I think American people are more present and speak to you as a person, rather than what your title may represent.” Switching back to the film, she then said, “So it was freeing for Setsuko, and not being labeled as an office lady or single or a chain smoker was freeing. No one knew who she was, so she could create something that she wants to be. I think that’s where the magic, the empowerment, of being in the states comes from. It freed her up and let her find the part of herself that she didn’t know existed.”

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  Top left ©Edwin Karmiol, bottom left ©Pierre Boutier, right two ©FCCJ.

To a question about the superb casting, Hirayanagi immediately responded, “Shinobu-san was a no-brainer. “The producers sent me a list of actresses because I’m away from Japan, so they thought I wouldn’t know actresses in her age group. But I saw her name and I knew she would be perfect. I knew her from Vibrator, one of the great Japanese films, and she was phenomenal. So we sent her the script and the short, we talked and she said ‘Yes.’”

Was she influenced to cast Koji Yakusho by his charming role in Shall We Dance? one attendee wondered. Although his role in Oh Lucy! is a small one, it is absolutely essential to the film, particularly in its closing moments. “Of course I know Shall We Dance? and there are similar threads in both films; but there were a lot of coincidences that came together and resulted in our casting him. We had him in mind from the beginning, but we weren’t sure how to approach him. I finally decided there could be no harm in asking him. He’s extremely versatile, and being able to cast him was like a dream. They say ‘shoot for the stars’ in English, and that’s what we did. And we got the stars.”

A film academic asked whether either Hirayanagi or Terajima had been challenged by differences in acting or shooting styles between the US and Japan. Said the director, “I think the main issue for Japanese actors is coverage, since we have more coverage if you try to shoot in so-called American style. I was in constant negotiations between my [cinematographer], who’s based in Hollywood and wants to take pictures as beautiful as possible, and my Japanese actors, who were getting tired from doing so many takes of the same scene. I wound up shooting Shinobu-san first, then Josh, since he’s used to it and gets warmed up after more takes.”

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Terajima and Hirayanagi react to Hartnett's video message.   ©FCCJ

Said Terajima, “I underwent very harsh training with Koji Wakamatsu, who made super-indie films and would go straight into shooting without any run-throughs. With Oh Lucy!, we did the same shots over and over again, and it was just as exhausting as Wakamatsu-san’s style. As for acting styles, I really don’t think it comes down to nationalities, but because Atsuko-san has a black belt in karate, I think she really knows how to read people. She’s able to meticulously gauge how and to what degree she should direct [each actor], so she can achieve the results she wants.”

Terajima then shared her experience at her first awards ceremony in Los Angeles: “I was really busy at the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, and could only fly over for 1.5 days. The Independent Spirits aren’t as well known in Japan as the Oscars, and I was curious what it would be like. But being there, you really feel like America is the country of cinema. You feel that everyone’s so passionate about the film industry. I got to meet [eventual Best Actress winner] Frances McDormand, and she’d seen Oh Lucy! and told me it was a wonderful film. Without going, you don’t realize the extent of the passion for film, so it was a really rewarding experience.”

Added Hirayanagi, “By the way, Frances McDormand was very, very complimentary about Shinobu-san’s performance. She’s not going to say it herself, so I have to add this fact.”

And it is, indeed, a fact.

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©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved 

Selected Media Exposure


THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST


 August 3, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Koji Yakusho


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Koji Yakusho and Masato Harada each mark their fourth appearance at FCCJ,
as well as their 20th year working together. The award-winning team behind 2012’s
Chronicle of My Mother, they first collaborated on the unforgettable Kamikaze Taxi in 1995.

FCCJ’s SRO audience wasted no time in drawing connections between the subject matter of Masato Harada’s new film The Emperor in August, which recounts the four months leading up to Emperor Hirohito’s historic broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the current state of affairs in Japan.

In the lengthy and occasionally allegorical Q&A session following the screening, Harada and his star, Koji Yakusho, chose their words carefully, but did not mince them.  

Queried about the film’s focus on the indecisiveness of Prime Minister Suzuki’s cabinet (which stalled so long over the language of surrender following the Potsdam Declaration, that it prompted the US to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Harada noted: “If we look at the Abe administration dealing with issues like the new national stadium, it can seem that indecisiveness is a national trait.”

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Harada's research into the film's events made him an expert. He insists that he is neither rightwing nor leftwing. "I am impartial."

Yakusho, responding to a question about the film’s appeal overseas, said: “This is a film about how Japan ended the war. But it has a simple message that we can all understand: It is easy to start a war, but it is very, very difficult to end one.”

Harada emphasized, “I do want people outside Japan to see the film… I’m sure many of you have read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, but unfortunately, it distorts the emperor’s image based on leftist ideology. I’m not a rightist, but I do think facts should not be overruled by ideology.” (Bix’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning work found Hirohito complicit in Japan’s “fever of territorial expansion and war,” and inflamed an ongoing debate about the extent to which he had ruled or simply reigned.)

Harada was asked what he thinks of the imperial system in general. “At the time of the war,” he responded, “the emperor was considered the head of the house, the head of the family, and I feel this type of thinking was able to save Japan and end the war. If a politician like Prince Konoe or General Tojo had [tried to issue] the decision, Japan would not have survived.”

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Yakusho stressed the ambivalence his character felt: "If you don't feel it too, then I've failed as an actor."

FCCJ President James Simms praised The Emperor in August for its “richly detailed characters and its ambivalence,” and drew laughter for his comment about the “absurdity of people trying to do a coup on bicycles” (as the rebel soldiers attempt in the film). But he also voiced a commonly held view by the international community regarding Japanese resistance to critical self-evaluation at this time of year: “I’ve been here for about 20 years,” said Simms, “and it’s always kind of heavy to be here in August, because it seems like a lot of the television dramas and documentaries and movies are sort of one-sided. Japan is always a victim. We don’t see multiple viewpoints, just Japan the victim and not, for lack of a better word, a perpetrator. Higaisha, kagaisha. In your view, how do you see Japan in August?”

Harada agreed. “I feel the war should never be portrayed from the standpoint of the victim only. There should be a balance with the wartime atrocities.” He recalled that he grew up watching American films, and “until I was about 10 years old, I was always on the side of the Allies. After that, I started learning Japanese history.”

He continued, “There’s a scene in the film, where the emperor is walking in the garden, lamenting how the war has been going on for 15 years, as long as the Onin War. But actually, 15 years prior to this is when the Manchurian Incident occurred, when Japan began invading China. Maybe the connotation is that the war of aggression should end.”

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Both men fielded a series of tough questions — and some lightweight ones — with candor and wit.

Harada also mentioned a 1937 journal entry penned by Yasujiro Ozu, a director he greatly admires, concerning his experiences on the Chinese front. “He wrote that all the Japanese soldiers heading to the frontlines always smelled of alcohol. Just 2 weeks after he wrote that, the Nanjing Massacre occurred.”

In earlier remarks, Harada said that one of his impetuses for making the film was personal. “In 1945, my father was 19 and he was stationed at Chiran, at the southern tip of Kyushu, the kamikaze airbase. He was only digging trenches, but if the war had continued, I think he would’ve been one of the casualties. So for many years, I’ve thought that the emperor’s Imperial Decision saved my father.”

Renowned for the exhaustive research he conducts before writing his scripts, as well as for the English fluency he developed during 20 years spent in the UK and US, the director adapted Kazutoshi Hando’s nonfiction novels Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi (Japan’s Longest Day, 1965, 1980) and the followup Seidan: Tenno to Suzuki Kantaro (Imperial Decision: The Emperor and Kantaro Suzuki, 1985), both of which were based on extensive eyewitness interviews, for The Emperor in August.

 “In 1967, when Okamato Kihachi adapted Mr. Hando’s first novel into the film Japan’s Longest Day,” said Harada, “it was prohibited to show the emperor’s face. So the actor portraying [Hirohito] had to be shot from behind, or in long shots. It was difficult, therefore, to depict the nuances of what was going on in his mind. In the 21st century, Issey Ogata portrayed the emperor in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, and we saw him in closeups for the first time. I realized that we could finally portray the emperor as the protagonist of a film like Japan’s Longest Day.”

“I drew heavily from Mr. Hando’s novel Seidan for The Emperor in August,” he continued, “because it depicted the events of the final four months of the war, not just the final day, and explained why he was not able to issue an Imperial Decision [to prevent the war from continuing] earlier. By combining both books, we’re able to understand why it took so long for the decision to be reached.”

Yakusho was asked about his preparations for his role. “I’ve been acting for many, many years now and I’m not sure about my ‘process,’ he said. “But whenever I work with Mr. Harada, he sends a lot of research materials, and I always begin by reading them all.”

In The Emperor in August, Yakusho plays Korechika Anami, the man who led Japan’s War Ministry in the final months of World War II, a warrior who wants to lead his troops to the bitter end, but who also reports directly to his sovereign, as he makes clear in the film. His devotion leads him to support the cause of peace.

“I’m aware that there are different interpretations of Minister Anami’s character and role,” said Yakusho, “but as far as I’m concerned, once the emperor made his decision, [Anami] gave up on pursuing a decisive battle at home. But he was also aware that the younger officers were planning a coup, and he was caught between those officers and the emperor, a very difficult position. I wanted to portray that dilemma. When I look back on that period now, especially after the bombs were dropped, I’m grateful that the emperor, Prime Minister Suzuki and Minister Anami worked together and were able to end the war.”

Harada affirmed, “My belief is that if Mr. Anami had resigned, the Cabinet would have fallen apart and led to the decisive battle at home. I really wanted to show the ambivalence that Mr. Anami felt.”

TEIA poster
The director and star pose with the Japanese and English-language posters.

When The Emperor in August begins in April 1945, the Japanese military had already been in control of domestic and foreign policy for a decade, and the Japanese people were uncertain about the war’s outcome —the government had strictly censored and rewritten the news since 1938. The military’s strategy was to continue pushing for the decisive battle (Kantai Kessen) by drawing the US fleet into a titanic fight at sea, somewhere off Japan’s southern coast. There were still 270,000 Japanese soldiers on various war fronts, and the concept of surrender was not in their vocabulary.

Once the Allies have broadcast the Potsdam Declaration in July, demanding unconditional surrender, the Imperial Cabinet convenes to begin an endless debate: Do we follow Emperor Hirohito’s inclination to accept the declaration or do we practice mokusatsu (kill it with silence)? Would the Potsdam accord preserve kokutai (national polity), or would Hirohito be subjugated to the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces… or worse, be help accountable for the war?

Anami argues for the long-planned decisive battle, which would allow his troops to die with honor; but he knows it will also cost untold civilian lives. After endless Imperial War Council debates over wording, Hirohito informs his ministers that Japan must accept defeat, and lays plans to announce the war’s end to his people in a historic radio broadcast at noon on August 15. But when word of the recording leaks to the army, a group of young firebrand officers moves forward with plans for a violent coup.

It is the next 20 hours that prove decisive for the fate of Japan, and which provide the most tense, thrilling and indelible moments in The Emperor in August. As the clock ticks toward Hirohito’s historic address, as the Cabinet resigns itself to ritual suicide, as the military rebels storm the Imperial Palace, the full absurdity and futility of war are revealed.

Nobody shoots a group of older men sitting around arguing with as much visual interest, dramatic intensity and individual specificity as Harada, nor recreates period Tokyo with such astonishing beauty and terror. He also draws exceptional performances from his veteran actors, and portrays an impossible — and impossibly complex — situation with remarkable clarity, as well as an admixture of regret and admiration.

The film is sure to be a major box-office draw in Japan during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end in August, and beyond.

  Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 “The Emperor in August” Film Partners

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A SAMURAI CHRONICLE (Higurashi no Ki)


 A SAMURAI CHRONICLE


 SEPTEMBER 18, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Koizumi, star Koji Yakusho, special advisor Teruyo Nogami


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Nogami, Yakusho and Koizumi share a laugh.

FCCJ’s audience had a special treat awaiting them after the sneak preview of A Samurai Chronicle, when Akira Kurosawa’s principal assistant for half a century, Teruyo Nogami, joined the film’s director and star for the lively Q&A session. Although the questions focused primarily on the new film, the 87-year-old leavened the proceedings considerably whenever she joined in to reminisce about the old days. “I was very fortunate to work with Kurosawa-san for a long time, from Rashomon onward,” she noted, “and whenever I see one of his films today, I realize that he was an incredible director, far better than I imagined at the time. I really regret that I didn’t realize it earlier.”

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Yakusho, Koizumi

Nogami was in attendance as a special advisor, a “dai sempei,” according to the director, who was also a longtime assistant to Akira Kurosawa and had made his own debut directing the master’s unfilmed screenplay, After the Rain (2000). She had visited the set during production, and felt Kurosawa’s spirit present, sometimes shouting “Hey, Koizumi!”

A film of autumnal magnificence, both in its stunning scenery and its sublime performances, A Samurai Chronicle was adapted by Koizumi from the Naoki Prize-winning novel by Rin Hamuro. Set at the end of the Edo period, it follows a samurai’s final three years before he must keep his promise to commit harakiri, the punishment for a crime he committed seven years before the tale begins. The 10-year delay is so Shukoku Toda (Yakusho) can complete a genealogical chronicle detailing the domain’s history.

Into his life as a simple country squire comes Shozaburo Danno (Junichi Okada), who has been sent by the prime minister to keep watch over the samurai. Toda’s love for his family and commitment to the community, especially the area’s downtrodden peasants, is unusual and Danno soon comes to suspect that this honorable man could not possibly have murdered someone in a fit of jealous rage. He sets out to investigate the truth, but finds something even more incriminating: a document that could unravel the domain’s entire chain of command.

A jidaigeki (period drama) in the traditional mold, the film was well received at FCCJ and inspired discussion of its meaning for contemporary theatergoers. In light of the political climate in Japan, and the film’s story of the manipulation of history through the chronicle of the title, Koizumi was asked whether he had intended audiences to draw any parallels. “There is no political message,” the director answered. “These events actually happened, and I tried be as accurate as possible in their depiction. At the same time, I hope the audience gets something out of the story, and I welcome personal interpretations about what is being explored.

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Yakusho joins Team Kurosawa.

Yakusho, generously making his third appearance at FCCJ in the last four years, was questioned several times about his plans to appear in more international films, considering his English-language successes Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Babel (2006) and his continued popularity in global hits like Takashi Miike’s hits 13 Assassins (2010) and Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). “If I could speak English better, it’s possible that I might be working more in America,” Yakusho said. “But I’m grateful to be able to keep working in Japanese film, and I’ll continue to focus on doing my best possible work, and hope the films will be seen by as many people as possible. I hope the rest of the world can also see how good Japanese films can be.”

Chances are we can expect Yakusho to work with Koizumi again: both the star and his director expressed an interest in another collaboration, although Yakusho did mention he was a little worried about the high average age of Koizumi’s crew, which is peopled with veterans of Kurosawa’s shoots. If anything, age proved to be an asset on A Samurai Chronicle — at least behind the camera. In front of it, youthful megastar Junichi Okada and Maki Horikita essay impressive turns, and their love story is sure to draw the younger generation (most of whom think “Kurosawa” refers to Kiyoshi) to the theater.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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