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SEKIGAHARA


SEKIGAHARA


August 8, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Takehiro Hira


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Although they're in the middle of shooting a new film together, Harada and Hira took time to field questions at FCCJ.   ©Mance Thompson

Mitsunari Ishida as a humane, love-struck champion of truth? Ieyasu Tokugawa as a bloated, nail-biting, self-serving opportunist? Leave it to master storyteller Masato Harada — returning to FCCJ for a record-breaking fifth time in 10 years — to delve into one of Japanese history’s watershed episodes, and to emerge with a powerful reinterpretation that completely overturns our conventional understanding of its key players, transforming their fateful conflict into a war between justice for the greater good and absolute power for the chosen few.

The battle of Sekigahara, fought on a single day in 1600, is considered a defining moment in Japan’s future. Lasting just six hours, with forces estimated to number over 150,000 (30,000 of whom would not survive) its outcome brought to an end the centuries-long Warring States period. By 1603, the victor was named shogun and ushered in the peace, stability and growth that would last throughout the 260 years of the Edo period.

For such a historically decisive battle, it’s surprising that Sekigahara has never been mounted on screen before. This may be partially due to budgeting and logistics constraints. In the past, Akira Kurosawa was able to rally 1,000 extras and 200 horses for his Palm d’Or-winning Kagemusha, with its climactic Battle of Nagashino. But he was infamous for cost overruns, and his later Ran, shot on a similar scale, was the most expensive film in Japanese history at the time. Amply aided by today’s CG wizardry, but on a far smaller budget than either Kurosawa or Hollywood would require, Masato Harada has managed to create battle scenes in Sekighara that deploy 500 extras and just 30 horses to convincingly epic-scale effect.

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©Mance Thompson

The writer-director had been interested in adapting Ryotaro Shiba’s 3-volume, 1,500-page novel of the same name for 25 years, but recognized that he would have to become more experienced at directing action first. As his filmography grew, his approach to the Sekigahara story also evolved. Although he’d initially imagined different characters as the protagonists of the sprawling narrative, he eventually decided to put Mitsunari Ishida at the center of his film.

During the Q&A session after FCCJ's screening, Harada admitted that he had shared the commonly held view of Mitsunari, a “[historically sidelined] character” who is considered too much of a bureaucrat, and too inflexible in his pursuit of “justice.”  “Many people hated him, including me, until I turned 60,” he said. “But he created his motto One for all, all for one and his thinking process is really contemporary and up to date. We have much in common with him today.”

(It should be noted that One for all, all for one is the motto traditionally associated with the swashbuckling Three Musketeers, but Alexandre Dumas père’s novel was not published until 1844.)

Directing just his second jidaigeki period drama (after 2015’s Kakekomi), Harada populates Sekigahara with a teeming assortment of historic characters and enough political intrigue, Machiavellian maneuvering and exciting ninja action for an entire miniseries. But his focus is resolutely on the motives and strategies of the two men whose forces would meet for the final showdown in a foggy Gifu valley: Mitsunari and Ieyasu.

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©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Shortly after the film opens, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Kenichi Takito), the samurai who had completed the unification process begun by Nobunaga Oda, is on his deathbed. His devoted acolyte, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), vows to protect Hideyoshi’s 5-year-old heir until he is old enough to rule, but the cunning, power-hungry Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho, never better) has other ideas. Hideyoshi’s hold on western Japan has been weakened by a series of costly invasions of Korea, while Ieyasu has become the largest landowner in eastern Japan. With Hideyoshi gone, he begins consolidating his expanded power base, forging alliances with notable daimyo families and hatching plots with his servant-conspiracy partner to undermine Toyotomi clan rule.

Mitsunari cannot compete with Ieyasu’s record as a military general, but he won’t stand by as the older man gains dangerous ground. Stolid but determined to persist in his belief that justice alone can create a world without chaos, he enlists the help of Sakon Shima (Takehiro Hira, in a star-making performance), the “most honorable samurai in the land,” and the two set about rallying support. He also begins to rely on intelligence reports from the comely ninja Hatsume (Arimura), whom he had saved from death and soon falls in love with. But she goes on an errand for him just as Ieyasu is gathering his troops. Mitsunari’s Western Army outnumbers his rival’s Eastern Army and victory should be assured. But fate intervenes in unforeseen ways.

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Hideyoshi holds a meeting of daimyos.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Harada was asked about his increased focus on stories featuring “casts of thousands,” and he recalled, “The first time I dealt with many actors and characters was Jubaku: Spellbound in 1999. At that time, I thought I was able to handle them all just like Mr. Kurosawa did. I always wanted to make a film like Seven Samurai; I was really impressed by that kind of scale — 100 speaking roles and everybody feels real. [But it wasn’t until I’d made] Kakekomi and also The Emperor in August — a war film with 150 speaking parts — that Shochiku and Toho producers said ‘It’s about time for you to make Sekigahara.’

“I’d been training for that for the past 10 years. So the only problem I had was how to minimize the number of characters in Mr. Shiba’s book, because there are probably 500 speaking parts. Toho wanted me to do it in one piece, no longer than 2 hours 30 minutes. So I decided to concentrate on Mitsunari and his family drama.”

To the delight of viewers, much screen time is also devoted to the exceptionally valiant exploits of Mitsunari’s righthand warrior, Sakon Shima, played by Takehiro Hira. Harada had seen Hira on the 2016 NHK Taiga drama Sanada Maru, and been impressed with his “classiness.” He noted, “The casting of Sakon Shima was really difficult, because he’s such a well-known character, and everybody’s favorite. I totally didn’t understand Mitsunari’s notion of why he left the battle and didn’t stay to die there. That’s something against the samurai code. But Shima died beautifully, and he fought with his family. His wife participated in Sekigahara, too.”

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Hira as Sakon Shima.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

How did Hira transform himself into the far-older Shima, with his jagged facial scars, wild brows and heavy limp, but also with such gravitas and charisma? “Special effects,” he joked. “In comparison to [Harada’s] 25 years of preparation, I only had a few months to prepare for the role. But the director gave me a lot of hints as to how to approach the role, not so much from the text itself, but the external appearance. He gave me Shima’s characteristics early in the rehearsal period. It was my first time to play an older person, so it was a trial-and-error process at first. But somehow, it felt natural as the shoot continued.”

“When I started casting,” recalled Harada, “everybody suggested typecasting ideas for Shima: Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, all the superstars. But I had Junichi Okada, who’s perfect for Mitsunari in terms of his size, his athleticism. So I needed challenging casting for Shima, a new star in the making for Japanese audiences to discover. Nobody believed that 41-year-old Takehiro Hira could play [60-year-old] Shima. That’s one of the reasons I cast him. I remembered that Tatsuya Nakadai played the ronin in Harakiri when he was 28, and his character was in his 50s. I thought, if Nakadai could do that, why couldn’t Takehiro? I met him, I liked him, and since he was educated [in the US], we had a lot in common.”

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                         Making his first appearance at FCCJ, Hira looked at the famous blue banner and said, “I see this place all the time on TV.
I never thought I would be here. I’m really honored.”       
©Koichi Mori

A journalist asked about Harada’s female characters, who had impressed him with their strength. “Not just one or two of them, but all of them,” he said. “In comparison to some of the men, they seemed more active in a variety of ways, whether as fighters or advisers. Did that come from Shiba’s book?"

“In Shiba’s book, there are hints,” answered Harada. “Hanano [Shima’s wife] is mentioned, but I wanted to develop her character. I wanted to develop the female characters, along with Mitsunari's and Kobayakawa's. Filmmakers have forgotten how important females were in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were strong, and they’ve been neglected characters. As I researched, I discovered that Ieyasu actually used one of his concubines as an adviser, and Mitsunari had female warriors. So I wanted to depict those new facts.”

And then the kicker: “And always, my wife is stronger than me.”

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  Harada was appearing for the 5th time at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori

In response to a question about his editing, with cutting that feels “breathless” in the film, Harada explained that he places prime importance on pacing in his films. “The Emperor in August was about 1,600 cuts, and my earlier Rowing Through, based on David Halberstam’s book [about American rowers preparing for the 1984 Olympics] was about 1,800. Sekigahara has 2,615 shots. About 1,000 shots use CG, including creating the big belly for Ieyasu. Today’s technology made it possible for me to make this film.”

One of the biggest challenges for foreign audiences in particular, with so many characters and such rapid-fire editing, is that they must also grapple with subtitles and unfamiliar names. Said Harada, “I was a bit worried about the subtitles. The visuals are so fast, it might be difficult to read the dialog. I worked with James Yaegashi [his longtime subtitle collaborator] to shorten them as much as possible. This is the first time we had so much back and forth, probably 3 or 4 different drafts. I made them shorter, but they’re still long. It’s the minimum information needed.”

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                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

One audience member asked the question on many of our minds: what contemporary resonance did Harada find in the tale? He is known for his rare ability to fuse social criticism with world-class entertainment, in acclaimed films from Kamikaze Taxi to Bounce Ko Gals, Climber’s High and even Chronicle of My Mother. Sekigahara is no exception. He responded: “Mitsunari’s final line is ‘Where is justice today?’ If you see the political situation and how Japan is moving, in every which way, justice is lost. [Despite leaving the battle,] Mitsunari had principles that never wavered. In today’s Japan, we could use 10,000 Mitsunaris.”

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Hira joins journalists and film aficionados in the bar after the event, clockwise from left, Aaron Gerow, Mark Schilling,
Mance Thompson, Rob Schwartz and Markus Nornes. ©Koichi Mori

Selected Press Coverage

TATARA SAMURAI


TATARA SAMURAI


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Yoshinari Nishikori and star Naoki Kobayashi


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                       Naoki Kobayashi and Yoshinari Nishikori were all smiles on the dais.    ©Koichi Mori

Writer-director Yoshinari Nishikori is a history buff. Nothing excites him like discovering little-known or forgotten facts about bygone Japan — especially those that relate to Shimane, his home prefecture — and bringing his discoveries to the big screen. Four of his films have been shot in Shimane, and his latest, the gorgeously cinematic parable Tatara Samurai, is no exception.

The director’s first jidaigeki period piece, it is set in a small village in ancient Izumo that is renowned for its steelmaking prowess. Using a secret method to forge the purest steel known to man, the blacksmiths of Tatara have become legendary. Their fame attracts warriors from across the land during the 16th-century Warring States period, lured by the promise of indomitable katana swords. But it also attracts the unwanted attentions of rival clans, and of merchants bent on procuring steel for the latest weaponry: firearms.

Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) has been groomed from youth to become the next Murage (master blacksmith) after his father and grandfather. But he dreams of leaving home to become a samurai under Oda Nobunaga, and one day, he siezes his opportunity. On the road, he meets the merchant Yohei (Takashi Sasano), who helps him join Oda’s army. But Gosuke proves to be no soldier, and returns home resigned to his fate. When Yohei later arrives to ply guns over blades, there is little resistance from the villagers, except for Gosuke’s childhood friend Shimpei (Naoki Kobayashi), who senses the merchant’s true motives but is branded a traitor and banished. It isn’t until the Izumo lord, Shinnosuke (Akira), falls victim to the senseless violence that accompanied the armaments, that Gosuke begins to understand the true essence of the Bushido spirit.

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Aoyagi at the tatara oven. ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Appearing for the second time at FCCJ after his 2013 Konshin (also set in Shimane and also starring Aoyagi), the irrepressible Nishikori discussed the impetus for the film: “Japanese people think they know their history, but I discovered they didn’t know the story of tatara-buki and the swords that were made in Shimane,” he said. “The tatara [smelting] technique is better at producing steel for swords than today’s state-of-the-art machines.”

The 1,300-year tradition of passing down tatara-buki through the generations had been halted after World War II, the director explained, before being resumed under the auspices of the government. In 1977, the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japanese Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nittoho), built the Nittoho Tatara foundry in Shimane with Hitachi Works to provide the steel necessary for the continued production of Japanese swords. It operates only between late January and early February, but creates the purest, most refined form of steel available anywhere — attracting customers from around the world, including Stephen Spielberg, for its sought-after blades.

“Hitachi’s employees carry on this legacy,” said Nishikori, “and [tatara-buki] is still a secret technique.”

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                     Nishikiori explains the finer points of steelmaking.   ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

But Nishikori wasn’t inspired to make Tatara Samurai just because he was intrigued with the ancient craft. In the production notes, he had called Tatara village “a microcosm of the unresolved problems and suffering that exists across the contemporary world today. The secretive craftsmanship of the tatara-buki and the power-wielding ability of the swords it creates is [similar to] the issues behind global oil demand today. In the film, the village is determined to use arms in order to fend off an impending attack – leading to a critical situation.”

The film’s allegorical wrapping is difficult to miss, but viewers will find themselves, first and foremost, immersed in its historical accuracies. Among its many impressive features is a fully operational Sengoku-era tatara, and there are dazzling scenes of steelmaking that feel imbued with documentary-level exactitude. Because it is crafted with such loving attention to detailed authenticity, one audience member admitted being confused about whether Tatara Samurai was or was not based on true events.

“There are almost no historical records from the Sengoku period,” explained Nishikori. “What we see of this period in films and read in novels is basically fiction. So we based the film on the supposition that this type of thing probably happened, that the people in power were trying to get their hands on the tamahagane steel [used to forge the samurai blades].

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                   Kobayashi answered in English, and then translated himself. 
©FCCJ, Mance Thompson

He continued, “The people who made this steel were very, very rich and there was a lot of abundance in the region. Through the research we did for the film, we discovered that there was a lot of international trade going on, and there were a lot of foreigners visiting this area. So that’s how we constructed the story. Because it was such a rich region and there was a lot of money, Izumo had ties to the people in power, and was under the warlords’ protection.”

Nishikori was asked about Tatara village itself, and explained that “The village is not real, [but a set]. It was all built for the film, except for the shrine, which is about 1,500 years old. We had a lot of help from the local carpenters in Izumo, the miyadaiku craftsmen who do a lot of restoration work on the Izumo Shrine [Japan’s oldest]. They have a specialized technique that allows them to build without using any nails.”

Nishikori was accompanied by one of the film’s stars, Naoki Kobayashi, a member of the Exile theatrical troupe and leader of the J-pop supergroup Sandaime J Soul Brothers. Although he’s been dancing and acting for a decade, Tatara Samurai marks Kobayashi’s film debut.

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        Kobayashi demonstrates his fighting skills in the penultimate batte. 
©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

During the Q&A session, he immediately charmed the audience with his English skills (apparently perfected over just a single year of study) and his relaxed manner — a far cry from his stoic character in the film. Asked whether he got to use one of the state-of-the-art katana, he said, “I wanted to use a real sword, but this is a movie, right? Of course it was an imitation. But I trained with a real sword to get the sense of being a samurai.” (He then plunged amiably into the Japanese version of his response, prompting a spate of Japanese-press headlines about his “self-translation” capabilities.)

Kobayashi was asked whether his dancing had helped him prepare for his demanding role as Shimpei, the devoted friend and sparring partner of Gosuke who is banished from the village when he dares to challenge the gun merchants’ motives. “Since I’m a dancer, that experience was the best way [for me] to understand the lives of the characters,” he responded. “I like expressing myself through dancing, without any words. Acting uses words, so it’s difficult for me. But using my body is close to acting. My character’s main scenes are fighting scenes, so expressing myself using my body was easy.”

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             The villagers opt for modern armaments, bringing about a crisis.  ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Another FCCJ viewer asked about the beautiful dance performed by a miko shrine maiden in the film, wondering if it had been influenced in any way by Exile style. Nishikori verified that it is one of many miko-mai that are still performed at shrines throughout Japan. This one was inspired, he said, by “Izumo no Okuni, the woman who started the kabuki tradition. She was said to have been raised in an iron-making house in Shimane and gone to Kyoto, where the tradition took root.”

While lauding the film’s authenticity, one audience member said he couldn’t help noticing an absence of blood. “It’s grounded in reality,” said Nishikori. “It was intentional to show as little blood as possible. We’re used to seeing blood spurting out as samurai are cut or split open. But in reality, that isn’t real. The blade is so sharp that the blood doesn’t spurt out [like that]. Before Kurosawa started showing blood spurting, Japanese jidaigeki weren’t like that.”

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©Mance Thompson

“Also,” he added, “we wanted to make a film that’s accessible to children, so the whole family could go and see it.”
 
Tatara Samurai was shot on 35 mm film, not on the currently preferred digital format, to better capture Shimane’s magnificent scenery and the excitement of swordfights choreographed by famed stuntman Yoshio Iizuka. While limited theaters across Japan will project it in digital 4K resolution, even in its 2K condensed form, the film has the look and epic sweep of the sumptuous cinematic feasts once served up by the major studios. That this independent production achieves such a level of artistry has already earned it international awards, including one for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2016 Montreal World Film Festival.

Izumo is the birthplace of many vaunted Japanese traditions, including kabuki, sumo (which Nishikori celebrated in his earlier film, Konshin) and even sake. Tatara Samurai has not been made to promote the prefecture, but audiences may find it impossible to resist booking a Shimane visit as soon as they’ve seen the film’s stunning visuals.

after bunch KM                  Nishikori and Kobayashi joined attendees in the bar after the screening event.  ©Koichi Mori

 

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©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Press Coverage


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


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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).

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                                                                      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.

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                                                                                                                                     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.

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                                                                        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?”

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                                                                                                                                        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.”

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                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

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.”

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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.

 yoshimoto kogyo
                                                                                ©Yoshimoto Kogyo

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LAST KNIGHTS


LAST KNIGHTS


 November 2, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Kazuaki Kiriya


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

LastKnights poster 
©2015 Luka Productions

©2015 Shochiku

Media Coverage

 

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.

MC chronicle poster

Media Coverage


 UZUMASA LIMELIGHT


 June 16, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Ken Ochiai and Stars Seizo Fukumoto and Chihiro Yamamoto


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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.

uzumasalime 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.

uzumasa flier©ELEVEN ARTS/ TOTTEMO BENRI

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