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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003

Meeting Hollywood halfway

Hollywood and history have never gotten along very well. Hollywood makes entertainment and history has a tendency to be boringly complex, so accuracy and authenticity often get lost on the way to the multiplex.

News photo
Hiroyuki Sanada

Some Hollywood filmmakers, however, are trying harder to get it right. One is Edward Zwick -- the director of "Glory," "Legends of the Fall" and, as I learned by e-mail from Zwick himself in June 2002, "The Last Samurai." Zwick said he needed people in Japan -- including me -- to help him with the Japanese dialogue and the historical details. In short, to get as much as right as possible without sacrificing the drama.

He admitted to heavily fictionalizing the real-life rebellion, led by Saigo Takamori, that inspired the film. "I know full well that [the rebels] took up modern arms to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, and that I've fudged the dates of conscription and the edicts," he wrote. "What I need is for you to highlight those descriptions, interactions, issues that will evoke giggles, if not outrage, from the Japanese audience."

This, he added was not just a commercial consideration, but "a personal and artistic one." "I honestly believe," he continued, "(and this is, perhaps, the greatest hubris of all) that I can present rounded, complex, heroic Japanese characters to an international audience; that 16-year-olds everywhere might just come away with an awakened sense that our history and that of Japan were intertwined long before Pearl Harbor; that words like honor and duty have resonance throughout history; and that the birth of the modern and such wrenching transitional moments have resonance and application to our present circumstance."

How could I not sign on? My first job was to send Zwick notes on the script. I picked a few nits, found a few howlers. One of the characters, a young samurai, was called Yoritomo, the name of a famous 12th-century warrior and statesman. It was, I wrote Zwick, like calling a character in a 19th-century British period drama "the Sheriff of Nottingham."

Zwick ditched the name. He also accepted several other of my suggestions, such as changing the martial art the samurai practice from karate -- which was then known only in Okinawa -- to jujitsu. Several others, however, he passed over in silence. In one scene, the rebel leader flings his sword end-over-end at an enemy. Couldn't happen, I said -- samurai weren't knife throwers. But Zwick liked the image -- and it stayed in.

More importantly, I found him a Japanese scriptwriter who could rewrite the Japanese-language script -- a direct translation from the English that Zwick admitted was "horrible." Yo Takeyama is a period-drama veteran whose credits included the hit NHK drama "Hideyoshi" and the Kon Ichikawa film "Ka-chan." Meeting several times during the summer at a Tokyo ryokan, we went over the script line by line. I had to make sure Takeyama's rewrites were reflected accurately in the English script. In several scenes, he not only corrected the Japanese, but added new dialogue, all of which had to be translated.

We also met with Zwick once in Tokyo. Late for our appointment in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, I spotted a short, bearded, dark-haired man eyeing me through the crowd, rushed over to him and starting apologizing in Japanese.

It was Zwick. In my panic I had taken him for a vaguely Japanese-looking assistant -- but he loved being mistaken for one of the natives. He also hit it off with Takeyama, a tall, lanky former actor who is an engaging raconteur and had the answers to his questions about Meiji court etiquette.

Early in September, Takeyama and I sent off our final batch of corrections. That October, we went to see the final day of shooting in Japan, which took place at a temple in Kyoto. When I got to the set, at around 7 in the morning, Zwick was preparing a simple scene -- Tom Cruise walking up the temple steps with two foreign companions. Beaming, he introduced me to his star, who was being frantically fussed over by three women -- one in charge of his Army officer costume, the other his makeup, the other his hair.

I had the odd feeling of stepping out of sleepy, early morning Japan and into a hyper-charged Hollywood moment. I noticed that Cruise had tiny crow's feet around his eyes, wore a retainer on his teeth and was looking straight at me with that trademark burning gaze. No surprise there; I had never expected Cruise to be laid back. I was even ready for the retainer, having read about it on an Internet gossip column.

What shocked me, first, however, was his height -- I had thought it was about the same as mine. I later realized that his boots made him stand several centimeters taller.

Second, he really wanted to talk, asking me where I was from, how long I had been in Japan, and how I liked Tokyo. He was trying to put me at ease, but a normal conversation with Tom Cruise was my idea of the bizarre. Also, I had my own questions -- but it wasn't the time or place to ask about Nicole.

That brief encounter, and a check, were two of my big rewards for being what Warner Brothers called a "Japanese script liaison." I also got several later revisions of our own revisions, considerately forwarded to me by Zwick's company, Samurai Pictures.

At least one of my ideas made it into the final version, as I recently saw at screening for the press: Samurai practicing jujitsu in the tall grass. In Hollywood, scriptwriters commonly get rewritten out of existence -- I felt lucky to have, in some small way, survived.

But will they spell my name right in the credits?

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