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Sunday, March 16, 2003

YOJI YAMADA

Showing samurai as they were


Japan Times film writer

A director since 1961, with 77 films to his credit, Yoji Yamada, 71, is a Japanese film industry icon. His "Tora-san" series, about a wandering peddler who is forever falling in love, but never gets the girl, generated 48 hit installments -- and made Yamada the most successful Japanese director of his generation. He has also won his share of prizes, both domestic and international.

News photo
Yoji Yamada (Photos courtesy of Shochiku Co.)

His latest film, "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)," has garnered the largest haul at home, including the Kinema Junpo magazine Best One prize -- considered Japan's most prestigious. On March 7, it also won 12 Japan Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director -- the second-highest number ever after Masayuki Suo's 1997 "Shall We Dance?" Ironically, the film is Yamada's first-ever samurai drama -- but he is now planning another.

Why did you decide to do a samurai drama, after more than 40 years of making contemporary dramas and comedies?

First of all, I liked the work of [Shuhei] Fujisawa -- he wrote period fiction about the samurai and the common people. I thought I would make a film based on three of his novellas. This was about four or five years ago.

Secondly, I had seen many period dramas over the years, but I wasn't satisfied with them. They were full of lies and said nothing about how the samurai really lived.

Akira Kurosawa told me that also bothered him [about the genre]. He wanted to make a realistic film about the lives of the samurai. He had a lot of trouble getting the information he needed -- the materials just weren't there -- so in 1954 he ended up making "Shichinin no Samurai [The Seven Samurai]" -- a totally different kind of film. (laughs)

Anyway, I wanted to try to make a film that would show how the samurai lived, ate, talked and felt. I thought I could understand that sort of thing -- after all, these people were my ancestors.

The climactic fight scene between Hiroyuki Sanada and Min Tanaka is especially impressive. It gives a sense of the way it really might have been.

I wanted to shoot more realistic fight scenes than you see in [samurai movies], even Kurosawa's. I mean, when the bad guys have the hero surrounded, why do they always attack him one at a time, so he can pick them off? Why don't they all go for him at once? (laughs) Also, when the bad guys are cut, they die right away. In reality, it's a lot harder to kill someone in a sword fight, unless you get in a good cut. According to period accounts, samurai sword fights could go for two or three hours. They'd cut each other again and again, until they turned white -- and the weaker one finally fell. That's how it was -- they would slowly die of blood loss.

Also, back then women didn't usually wear the sorts of flashy clothes that you see in samurai films. They dressed more plainly. They didn't do their makeup as nicely or wear their hair as elaborately. I wanted to show that.

There have been good period dramas -- Sadao Yamanaka's "Ninjo Kamifusen [Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)]" and of course Kurosawa's "Shichinin no Samurai." When I saw those films, I was surprised. I realized that there were period dramas that you could watch just as you would contemporary dramas. Those films were my touchstones.

Even though "Tasogare Seibei" is a period film, it has a lot to say about contemporary Japan -- the hero deals with the same sort of social and economic turmoil that you find today.

I tried to include plot elements that present-day Japanese could relate to. When you're ordered to do something by the boss, you have to do it -- or it might be the end of your job. That's something everyone can understand -- and that's the kind of situation the hero faces. Some people buckle under the pressure and commit suicide. In Japan, nearly 30,000 people kill themselves every year -- a lot of them men in their 40s and 50s. Some of them have been fired, some have been told to fire others. The hero deals with his situation differently, of course -- but the pressure is similar.

The heroine, played by Rie Miyazawa, is also a contemporary type -- when her husband beats her, she leaves him. That's not the sort of thing you see in traditional period dramas, where the woman is supposed to stick it out, no matter what.

She has a modern way of thinking, that's true. In a way, her story is a critique of the feudal system, though the film doesn't spell it out as such.

In the Edo Period [1603-1867] women weren't allowed to have their say. In the Middle Ages, Japanese women were fairly strong and made important contributions to culture, but in the Edo Period and the Meiji Era [1868-1912] women more or less disappeared from public view. Particularly in the Meiji Era, women were discriminated against. They were supposed to be impure. That way of thinking still exists -- women aren't allowed to step into the sumo ring, for example.

But while injecting modern elements into the film, I tried to make it exciting. When a company employee is restructured he can't reach for a sword. (laughs) But a sword fight makes the film easier for the audience to understand. It also has more impact.

Min Tanaka, the butoh dancer who plays the hero's opponent in the climactic fight, is particularly impressive, even though it was his first film role. Did you have to give him any special training or instruction?

News photo
The climactic swordfight in "Tasogare Seibei" between Hiroyuki Sanada (left) and Min Tanaka.

He had never used a sword before, so he had to practice that. He really worked hard. (laughs) Also, in butoh, the dancers hardly say anything, so he had to study how to deliver his lines as well. Fortunately, he had a good voice. He had a great death scene -- only Tanaka could have done it that way. It took him two minutes to die on camera. I just told him, "Do it your way." (laughs) He had a scary face -- that helped. You need a long face to be scary, like Seiji Miyaguchi in "Shichinin no Samurai." Tanaka has that kind of face.

The film was also something of a departure for Hiroyuki Sanada. Before this film, he had usually played comic roles -- not many serious ones.

He had been in a lot of period dramas, but he told me he was also dissatisfied with them. He wanted to know why everything had to be so beautiful, when it wasn't like that in reality. He told me it was his dream to make this kind of film. That was encouraging.

His training in the martial arts helped a lot -- I felt confident that he knew what he was doing. Real samurai stand differently, somewhat like noh actors. Not straight up, but with their hips forward a bit. They take small steps, without lifting their feet from the ground -- they do that to keep the sword steady.

There's something of a period drama boom now, but unlike "Tasogare Seibei," many of the new period dramas use computer graphics to create fantasy elements. They aren't about realism at all.

Yes, that kind of fantastic film is popular. Also, there are a lot of horror films now. In troubled times like these, more films like that tend to get made -- fantasy and horror. People want to escape, and that's what they go for.

But "Tasogare Seibei" has done well at the box office, even though it's taken quite a different approach.

That's true, but it's drawing a different kind of audience. First of all, older people came to see it. Then they told their sons about it -- men in their 30s and 40s. Then their sons saw it and told their sons about it -- junior and senior high school students. (laughs) So there are three generations seeing it. That's helped it have a long run -- the audience keeps changing.

It has a universality -- you don't need to be a period drama fan to enjoy it. The message -- that you can find happiness even without a lot of material possessions -- appeals to people.

Japanese are wondering what is going to happen to the country. They feel anxious -- and so do I. What's going to happen to the banks? Is my money going to be there tomorrow? But at the end of "Tasogare Seibei," Seibei is with his children -- and as long as he has his family and they all love each other, he can go on. The audience leaves with the feeling that everything will somehow turn out all right. They're thinking, if I have something like that in my life, I can make it, even if the company goes under. That thought gives them comfort and courage.

The film is in tune with the mood in Japan now, but do you think the same will be true abroad?

That worries me -- how will people from other countries react? But we're living in anxious times, when people everywhere don't know what is going to happen next. What is the Bush administration going to do? Will they start a war? That is certainly worrying. Why have things come to this pass? Why can't this be settled by the United Nations? Why do we have to have this sort of international conflict? What is going to happen if a war starts?

People from Iran and other Islamic counties who took part in February's Berlin Film Festival certainly felt this sort of anxiety. The world has come to a strange and unpleasant pass. So in that sense, I think people abroad will be able to relate to the film, even though Americans and Europeans don't feel the same economic anxiety as Japanese.



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