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Friday, March 6, 2009

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Redefining defiance for a modern Japan

Yusuke Iseya plays Japan's most singular gentleman, Jiro Shirasu, whose sturdy principles helped rebuild a postwar nation


Staff writer

More than 3 million people are likely to tune into the second installment of NHK drama "Jiro Shirasu" on Saturday night — and chances are, most will be waiting expectantly for the re-enactment of one particularly famous episode from the subject's life.

News photo
Mind your manners: In a key scene from "Jiro Shirasu," the title character (played by Yusuke Iseya) faults Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers, for his ungrateful receipt of a gift from Emperor Hirohito.

It's Christmas, 1945. World War II is not four months past. Cambridge-educated Shirasu is working as a liaison officer with the Occupation forces on behalf of the Japanese government. He takes a special delivery to U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur — a Christmas present from Emperor Hirohito. MacArthur waves a hand to a spot on the floor and tells him to put it down. Offended at MacArthur's cavalier attitude, Shirasu reproaches him, whereupon MacArthur backs down and has a table prepared.

Jiro Shirasu, who was born in 1902 and died in 1985, is well known for many things — his good looks, his 185-cm height, his love of Bentley sports cars and his fluent English — but it is his stubborn adherence to what he called his "principles" that is most fondly remembered. Those principles are what prompted him to defend the Emperor (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) in front of Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers MacArthur, and today they are what prompt many contemporary Japanese to wish that Shirasu, or others like him, were alive now.

Actor Yusuke Iseya, who plays the man in the NHK drama, is one person who thinks modern Japan has much to learn from Shirasu.

"He said what he believed in, especially in the field of politics," 32-year-old Iseya explains to The Japan Times. "If there were people standing up today and saying what they thought was right, on the basis of their own principles, I think people would look at politics differently."

Of course, labeling Shirasu a "politician" is slightly problematic. After returning from Cambridge in 1928, he first worked as a journalist at The Japan Advertiser — an English-language newspaper later acquired by The Japan Times. After marrying Masako Kabayama, another student recently returned from overseas, Shirasu was introduced to the political world by his father-in-law, and eventually worked as an adviser to the group of prewar politicians who were trying to resist the power-grabbing maneuverings of the Japanese military.

During the war, Shirasu predicted food shortages and the aerial bombing of Tokyo, and quickly moved his wife and three young children west out of central Tokyo to begin a quiet life farming. After the war, his politician mentors remembered his English skills and he was recruited by then-Foreign Minister Shigeru Yoshida to work in the Central Liaison Office, the government team that negotiated with the Occupation forces. Shirasu was later made head of the government's trade ministry and then played a key role in establishing the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and thus helped set the course for Japan's postwar economic development.

The varied nature of Shirasu's career is another thing that makes him attractive to modern-day Japanese. As Iseya explains, "The Japanese have always had a tendency to pigeonhole people. You're either this or that. People aren't allowed to just follow their dreams."

If the semifictional NHK drama is to be believed, it was Shirasu's Cambridge education that taught him to prioritize his own desires.

In a scene from last week's episode that Iseya says affected him personally, Shirasu is berated by his Cambridge professor for simply parroting what the professor had told him.

"I want to know what every one of you thinks," says the exasperated educator.

After reflecting for a moment, the young Shirasu jumps up and announces, "You're right. That's exactly what I wanted to hear somebody say," and tears up his own essay in disgust.

The scene might strike Western viewers as a little contrived, but for Japanese who have grown up through an education system that even today emphasizes rote learning, it strikes a chord.

"It was that education," says Iseya, "that British tradition of debating and formulating your own opinion, that allowed Shirasu to do what he did."

While Iseya himself never studied in Britain, he still exhibits some Shirasu-like traits — including a long-standing interest in the English language.

News photo
Yusuke Iseya YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"When I was in primary school, my mom bought me some cassette tapes for studying, which I listened to all the time. That meant when I got to junior high I was sort of ahead of the other students, and that motivated me to keep going," he said.

Iseya had another great motivator: "I preferred Western girls," he laughs. "I still find it easier to make friends with foreigners."

Those language skills were further honed on a one-month exchange trip to the United States while he was a student at Tokyo University of the Arts.

His part-time job helped too. From the ages of 19 to 24 he put his 180-cm frame and angular features to good use in modeling work, which took him around the world for companies such as Prada.

"The modeling work was good because it gave me more time to spend on making my own artworks," he explains.

Those artworks tended to be videos, as Iseya had decided early on that he wanted to be a film director. It was in order to get closer to real film directors that he accepted his first acting job, in "Wonderful Life," the arty 1998 film by director Hirokazu Koreeda.

Since then he's found that, like Jiro Shirasu 60 years ago, his English skills have put him in great demand.

He was a standout in Takashi Miike's English-language Western set in Edo Japan, "Sukiyaki Western Django" (2007) — not just for his sexy turn as a villain but for producing the most convincing cowboy drawl of the local cast. He also had a major role in Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness" last year, and found the experience so rewarding that he can't wait to do more work overseas.

"A film is essentially a tool for communication," he says. "There is so much you can learn from working on foreign films, in terms of both technique and cultural exchange."

In many of his Japanese roles, including his own directorial debut, "Kakuto" (2003), Iseya plays slightly rough-hewn youths who flirt with drugs and gangsters. He had a memorable cameo at the end of Akihiko Shiota's 2001 film "Gaichu" ("Harmful Insect") as a country-town hustler who swings by a diner and recruits the heroine, a confused young runaway, with the ease of a man ordering fries.

For that reason, his taking on the gentlemanly Shirasu was a departure, but one that made practical sense to Iseya.

"They needed someone who spoke English and who was tall," he says matter-of-factly. "There just aren't that many Japanese actors like that out there."

Iseya had no problem with the language component, but worked on his mannerisms a little.

"I realized that with British gentlemen, the idea isn't that you must act in a certain way, but that you must have your own style," he explains.

He decided that when Shirasu drank a cup of tea, for example, he would hold his elbow out, not tucked in at his side.

"The director told me I shouldn't try to mimic Shirasu, but instead try to be myself, be 'Jiro Iseya,' " he explains. The actor took that to mean thinking about his own principles, and what it would be like to live his life, and Shirasu's, true to those principles.

"For me, that is about having the strength to be who you want to be," he says.

The actor-cum-director also has a personal interest in motorcycle racing, something that is frowned upon within the acting fraternity for its physical danger.

"You know, if Shirasu were alive today, I think people would probably try to cut him down," Iseya says on reflection. "In Japan these days, if you do too many things then people start criticizing you. They want you to fit into a category — 'actor' or 'director.' "

Iseya is also involved in the Rebirth Project, a campaign to put the mountains of waste produced by contemporary society to use.

"At the moment I'm really happy just dividing my time between acting, directing, motorbike-racing and the Rebirth Project," he says. "The bike-riding lets me experience the kind of adrenaline that helps in acting. They each express different aspects of me."

"People have to learn to follow their natural beliefs, their principles," he adds. Perhaps that's a lesson contemporary Japan can learn from Jiro Shirasu, too.

The second part of "Jiro Shirasu" airs on NHK-h at 5 p.m. on March 6 and on NHK-G at 9 p.m. The third and final part airs in August.


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