Friday, September 16, 2016
CHAMBARA: THE ART OF JAPANESE SWORDPLAY (Jidaigeki wa Shinazu: Chambara Bigakko)
September 12, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Sadao Nakajima, fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike, Toei Tsurugi Association
Members of the elite Toei Tsurugikai gave a dazzling live performance after the screening, and then struck ferocious poses with Nakajima (center) and Seike (left). These highly trained swordsmen and women are the real stars of Kyoto’s action films, putting the thrills and chills into the fight scenes, and elevating the performances of the top-billed stars.©Mance Thompson
The term sensei is often wielded too lightly in Japan, a catch-all title meant as a demonstration of respect for one’s elders and/or betters that seems to find its way onto the end of altogether too many names, whether deserved or not.
But sometimes, the title fits perfectly, and Sadao Nakajima — always “Nakajima Sensei” or “Professor Nakajima” — wears it well. A veteran Toei director, having helmed over 60 films in nearly 60 years in the industry, he is a cult figure, a fount of knowledge, a veritable walking encyclopedia of chambara lore. (Speaking of walking, to see the 82-year-old stroll into FCCJ’s screening room is to see the picture of crackling-with-youth energy, and it seems certain that his cane is just for show — perhaps, I imagined, there was a hidden blade inside, just like the shikomi gatana carried by one of his characters).
The professor speaks to a rapt audience. Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right ©Rob Nava-Moreno
In his new documentary, Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay, the professor proves to be not only an impassioned scholar, but also a most affable screen presence, as he relates milestones in the history of Japan’s homegrown swashbuckler film (chambara being the sound of clashing swords), and trades anecdotes with an array of authorities (swordfight artists, actors, armorers, historians, critics). A must-see for all fans of spectacular swordsmanship, Chambara is also a veritable master class in everything jidaigeki (samurai period) film, providing just the layman’s approach necessary for those of us (ahem, guilty) who have remained willfully ignorant of the medium’s many delights.
As we learn, Japan’s first-ever jidaigeki was screened in Kyoto in February 1908. Directed by the great Shozo Makino, an industry pioneer whose son Masahiro would become Nakajima’s mentor, the one-reel drama featured kabuki actors in the roles of rival samurai. Almost nothing of Makino’s work has survived, but the swashbuckler continued to flourish with the rise of the samurai, ninja and yakuza genres.
The Toei Tsurugikai in action. ©Mance Thompson
As he traces the origins and growth of the Kyoto-centric industry, Nakajima treats Chambara viewers to rare footage from a wealth of early and later films, and compares the styles of the major stars of each era, from Matsunosuke Onoe (“Medama Matsu”), Tsumabasaburo Bando (“Bantsuma”), Chiezo Kataoka, Utaemon Ichikawa and Arashi Kanjuro (“Arakan”) to Raizo Ichikawa, Jushiro Konoe, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shintaro Katsu and Hiroki Matsukata. Naturally, much screen time is also devoted to the enormous impact of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune on the genre (not all commentators view it as positive).
At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 100 professional swordfighters working on Kyoto’s sound stages, and jidaigeki would account for over 150 film releases each year. But those days are done. In Ken Ochiai’s elegiac Uzumasa Limelight, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014 (and in which Nakajima has a small role essentially playing himself), we see that the skilled bladesmen of Kyoto are running out of work as the jidaigeki industry dries up. It’s no wonder that the swordsmen and women of the Toei Tsurugikai, an elite team started in 1952 at the Kyoto Toei Studio to develop tate, or chambara techniques using kata swords, now number very few, and must support themselves in a variety of realms, not just on film.
Famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike. Photo left ©FCCJ; right, ©Mance Thompson
Not surprisingly, the first questions asked of Nakajima and famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike after the screening of the documentary concerned the future of jidaigeki. Both men were fairly upbeat. Seike noted, “While it’s true that the number of chambara films are decreasing year by year, we have the Jidaigeki Senmon Channel on cable TV, which specializes in jidaigeki programming. Often they air classics and reruns of old shows. But in the past few years, they’ve started producing their own shows. These are sometimes adaptations of classics or jidaigeki manga, or they’re series based on famous novels. They feel slightly different from what we used to see, but I think that’s one avenue for the future of the genre.”
One journalist commented: “This movie’s full of old men complaining about how good times will never come back. But Chihiro Yamamoto, star of Uzumasa Limelight, is in the film, and tonight we’ve just seen a demonstration in which a woman struck down three men. So is chambara’s future perhaps in women’s hands?”
Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right ©Mance Thompson
Nakajima nodded and admitted, “It’s true that the films have been male centered. After the war, they became much more conscious of the female audience, but the strange truth is that in Japan’s history, especially during the Muromachi Period, women really shined in real life. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been portrayed in films enough, except in the o-oku stories about the harems in the inner chambers of the shogunate. I started the whole series of o-oku films, and yet the sad fact is that these women are still seen from the perspective of men, and the films tend to be tragedies. Even with a female protagonist, they’re still seen through the prism of the male gaze.”
He continued, “But we’ve seen a lot more women being interested in history [the so-called “female history buff” or rekijo, trend that many have seen as empowering for young women], and there are many young women who are drawn to the Japanese sword … and the chambara culture in general. So I think that’s encouraging.”
To a suggestion from the audience that Toei should consider launching a “jidaigeki renaissance,” and hire young directors to reinvigorate the genre, Nakajima responded, “I don’t see Toei doing that. Financing both production and distribution in Japan is often under the same umbrella, so everyone wants to do what’s most profitable for the least risk. They only invest in what is very safe. Those of us in the older generation must create an environment in which [chambara] filmmakers feel they can thrive, and perhaps we should provide case-study examples of how these films can succeed. I’ve been asking myself how I can best create that kind of environment for younger filmmakers to be able to carry on the torch.”
Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay reveals the secrets of how those shiny stage kata are made, and discussion returned several times to these potent symbols of the samurai soul. One audience member asked whether real swords were ever used. “Yes,” said Nakajima, to audible gasps from the audience. “But never to swing them. I used them to capture the light reflected on the blades, but we would never use them in action. It’s simply too dangerous. When you see and handle a real sword, you’re confronted with how frightening it is. It’s too intense and emotional. There’s a power that Japanese swords have, and we can’t imagine swinging them around in a movie.”
In the old days, noted an elderly audience member, “we didn’t hear the sounds of slashing and we didn’t see so much blood. Why did this change? Have chambara been pursuing an ever-greater level of reality to make them more popular today?”
Nakajima explained that the sword material itself had changed. “During the postwar period, they used takemitsu, basically wooden swords made from a type of oak,” he said. “The sound on set was thus the blunt sound of wood on wood. We didn’t replace them with sound effects. It wasn’t until 1960 or so that we started replacing the sound with something more metallic. There hasn’t been much evolution since then… But we have to remember that the world was a different place in the period in which jidaigeki are set, and they could hear things — the sound of geta, or the wind blowing — that we hear in a different way today. Most of these sounds have now been wiped out by music on the soundtracks, too.”
Added Seike, “Today, a lot of the blood is done with computer graphics, but we still use pumps and fake blood, and often, we try something different with them. But you’re providing entertainment for the audience, and it’s difficult to answer the question of ‘what is most real?’ I have no doubt that some films will continue to experiment with what works best for a particular film, but I don’t see this as an industry-wide trend.”
Mance Thompson, photographer and ninja specialist,
gets Nakajima's autograph. ©Koichi Mori
After mentioning that jidaigeki once attracted the biggest talents from literature and theater, a situation that is glaringly different today, Nakajima obliged one audience member with a recommendation for a couple of films to watch: “I think Samurai Hustle I and II are good, because even though they don’t have much chambara action, they really show what it was like to be a samurai, and show a new aspect of what jidaigeki can do. The action sequences aren’t too exaggerated; they maintain a certain reality. I think this offers a new direction for jidaigeki.”
Although he didn’t say it, Sadao Nakajima surely hopes that Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay can also play a role in suggesting new directions. At the very least, it should help swashbuckle up interest in the genre among younger generations, as well as among those, like me, who didn’t realize quite what they were missing until now.
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- 中島貞夫監督、最新作「時代劇は死なず ちゃんばら美学考」の試写会に出席
Thursday, November 05, 2015
November 2, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Kazuaki Kiriya
Kiriya's new film is in independent production, with Hollywood stars and an international
cast and crew — a trend he sees as positive for the industry. Photos ©Mance Thompson
Fans of Kazuaki Kiriya’s first two epic adventure stories, both innovative special-effects extravaganzas — Casshern (2004), in which a reincarnated warrior saves the world from genetically modified human mutants, and Goemon (2009), a ninja thriller based on the Japanese folk hero who resembles Robin Hood — probably weren’t surprised when they heard that his new film is a take on the legendary revenge tale Chushingura, aka 47 Ronin. But for the first time in his career, the idea didn’t originate with Kiriya himself.
His Last Knights marks several other significant milestones in the director’s career. Not only is it his debut English-language film, it is also the first time he didn’t shoot on a digital backlot in Japan. Even more impressively, it stars no less than Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen as the two leads, with a wealth of award-winning actors in supporting roles. The number of Japanese directors who have helmed big-budget English-language films featuring Hollywood stars can be counted on just about two fingers — and both of them made J-horror remakes.
The emcee was happy to leave the floor to the locquacious director.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
During a thoroughly candid Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of Last Knights — candor is clearly one of Kiriya’s defining traits, along with charm, self-reflection and occasional self-deprecation — he recalled receiving the script (by Canadian Michael Konyves) from producer Jim Thompson in 2009, and wanting to make it immediately. “But unfortunately,” he said, “there was another project in development called 47 Ronin, with Keanu Reeves. So the studios rejected this film and that left us the independent route. So we went around the world to get financing for the film, and that took us two or three years before we could go into production.”
The unlikely hero was Owen, the Oscar-nominated British star who’s been carving out a new audience (pun intended) with his TV hit The Knick. “Clive helped us get financing. He was the first on board,” Kiriya said. “I sent him the script, he liked it and he saw my film [Goemon]. After two weeks, I got a call from him and he said he was in. Then he waited [for production to start for] three years. He’s a cool guy.”
No argument here, ahem. Owen is absolutely electrifying in Last Knights, which transplants the 47 ronin to a European-ish setting during the Middle Ages, focusing on feudal warriors who seek to avenge the loss of their master at the hands of a sadistic minister. Owen is Commander Raiden, head of a band of elite soldiers and surrogate son to Bartok (Freeman), the lord of a vassal kingdom. For his services and devotion, Bartok names Raiden his heir and gives him a cherished sword. But when Bartok refuses to pay a bribe to a greedy minister and speaks openly (and eloquently, as only Freeman can) about the corruption of the empire, he is sentenced to death, with Raiden forced to be his executioner. Bartok's estate is divided and the clan disbanded as Raiden nurses his despair with alcohol, falling so low he even sells Bartok’s sword for more drink. After a year, Raiden’s men and his wife will have nothing more to do with him. Yet the evil minister still suspects the men will attempt to exact vengeance… and with good reason.
Last Knights was sold to 30 territories, but Japan wasn’t one
of them. Kiriya is working with Gaga on the nationwide release.
Loyalty, honor and payback are familiar themes in Japanese films, but Last Knights doesn’t exactly go where it’s expected to go, and the sword-fighting scenes, which don’t occur until quite late (by Hollywood standards), are not the point. This is a more contemplative, more realistic approach than the Keanu Reeves version, shot on stunning locations throughout the Czech Republic, in mostly natural lighting, by the great Mexican cinematographer Antonio Riestra. Chambara fanboys may be disappointed, but patient viewers will be amply rewarded.
“This movie is not about the battles,” Kiriya emphasized. “It’s about the conflict between the world of material[ism] and the world of the soul, the spirit. That argument is valid is this world today. Everybody worships materials and things, but does that make us happy? I know it’s a cliché, idealistic notion, but it’s a huge question that we’re hearing more now.”
Speaking of the film’s “mix of peoples,” as one audience member put it (critics dubbed it “a veritable Middle Ages melting pot”), Kiriya explained, “Originally, the script was written to be played by Japanese actors, and it was set in Japan. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, with an Asian cast, shot in Asia but all in English. But I was thinking about doing it more like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is Shakespeare transplanted to Japan. Then I decided, let’s forget the race issue, let’s just find the best actors from all over the world. That’s what I told my casting agent, and we got actors from 17 countries. I was very lucky to get these actors.” (At which point, Kiriya ticked off many of their names, with exclamations like “wow!” and “I mean, come on,” punctuating each.)
“I’m hoping that this will become a trend,” continued Kiriya, “to open the doors to actors from Asia, the Middle East, to break the typecasting. That was my intention.”
Kiriya with the Japanese poster, adorned with raves
from a range ofJapanese stars.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
It wasn’t just the film’s cast that hailed from far and wide; after the 50-day shoot in Europe ended, Kiriya presided over a truly global post-production process. His Oscar-winning editor, Mark Sanger (Gravity), “happened to be in London, and I happened to be in Tokyo,” laughed Kiriya. “But we just communicated on Skype and we edited online. I think it’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in the film world — we can collaborate [through the internet] in the true sense… We had the orchestra in Moscow, I was in LA with the musical team, and we connected through the internet in real time. They played, we gave them notes right there, [the score] was recorded and it was done. The CGI was done mostly in Korea, but also in India and Louisiana, everything was done online.”
But Kiriya lamented the “unforgiving” nature of today’s film industry, where studio budgets have now ballooned to $300 million on a regular basis (Kiriya’s was closer to $22 million), and many directors have fled to the greener pastures of television production. “It’s becoming very, very unforgiving. [Films have] to be in a specified style, fit a certain format, a certain taste, a certain genre. Even in the ’80s, we never saw what we’re seeing today. It’s very difficult, especially for small, independent filmmakers. They make great, small films but you can’t watch them — the theaters are all closing, because even for promotion, you need a lot of money. Everything’s become about the business model, not art. It’s the battle of the business models.”
Kiriya chats about the industry with critics from Twitch Film,
the Japan Times and Metropolis.
To a question about differences between the original 47 Ronin story and Last Knights, Kiriya responded: “I fought really hard to keep the essence… at some point, I was going to make Morgan Freeman commit harakiri [as per the original], but at the last minute, we changed it. It’s like, harakiri is already a stereotype, a Japanese thing, like Mount Fuji, sakura, sushi, sumo, harakiri, right? I didn’t want to go there.” While the audience laughed, Kiriya hesitated, and then explained that his grandfather had committed suicide after the war, and that it was personal to him. “I just didn’t want it to be that kitsch Japanese thing. [Harakiri] is a sacred act, it’s called ‘self-deciding’ in Japanese. So I had Clive Owen kill him instead, since they’re like father and son. I’m proud of that scene. I think it was a good choice.”
—Spoiler alert —
As for the ending — which does not, like the original tale, feature a mass suicide, but is seemingly unclear about the fate of Raiden — Kiriya said, “Again, we needed to transcend that Japanese thing, that stereotype, of the spirit of the samurai. But to me, the samurai spirit [exists] in Europe, in America, in Africa, China, everywhere. What did I mean by the ending? I want audiences to decide.”
— Photos by Koichi Mori where uncredited.
©2015 Luka Productions
Sunday, September 21, 2014
A SAMURAI CHRONICLE
SEPTEMBER 18, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Koizumi, star Koji Yakusho, special advisor Teruyo Nogami
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.”
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.
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.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
June 16, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Ken Ochiai and Stars Seizo Fukumoto and Chihiro Yamamoto
Chihiro Yamamoto, Seizo Fukumoto, Ken Ochiai
They call him the Man Who Died 50,000 Deaths, but legendary chambara actor Seizo Fukumoto revealed the truth to the FCCJ audience: “It’s an exaggeration. I’ve probably been killed only 20,000 times.” Cue an eruption of laughter. Unlike the taciturn, aging stuntman he portrays in the crowd-pleasing Uzumasa Limelight, Fukumoto proved to be a loquacious guest.
In Ken Ochiai’s film, as in life, the 71-year-old veteran plays a kirare-yaku, a sword-fighting extra who has plied his artistry in Japan’s once-predominant samurai film and TV industry for over 50 years. When the hero slices him with a sword, as will inevitably happen, Fukumoto’s eyes and mouth fly open in a deadly grimace, his back arches in a gravity-defying arc, and finally, he thuds heavily to the ground. This death is his trademark move, and it helped make him an industry favorite at Kyoto’s Uzumasa Studios, once the Hollywood of Japan.
But the rapidly dwindling production of jidaigeki samurai dramas has threatened the livelihood of everyone at the studios, and this is essentially the story of Uzumasa Limelight, which pays richly deserved homage to the stunt performers of yore and features many familiar faces from the much-loved genre. Both Ochiai and wushu junior world champion Chihiro Yamamoto — who makes an extraordinary acting debut in the film at age 17 — told the FCCJ audience they recalled their grandparents watching the long-running Mito Komon TV series when they were growing up.
The director and stars recieve their FCCJ honorary membership cards
But it wasn’t until Ochiai went to the US to study film at the University of Southern California that he realized how essential jidaigeki are to the world’s perception — and appreciation — of Japanese film. Ochiai’s experience in the US, along with that of his LA-based producer, Ko Mori, and his American cinematographer contribute to the film’s successful combination of Japanese tradition and international sensibility.
The astonishing, real-life skills of Uzumasa Limelight’s two leads is worth the price of admission alone, but there is much else to admire, from the stunning art direction to the evocative soundtrack. An elegy for Japan’s once-plentiful period films and the unsung heroes of the genre, it is also a timely reminder that every generation stands on the shoulders of giants.
— Photos by FCCJ.
©ELEVEN ARTS/ TOTTEMO BENRI