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Sunday, July 15, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

Former foes find common ground in court together


Special to The Japan Times

The shoot of "Ashita e no Yuigon (Best Wishes for Tomorrow)" that began on June 2 has ended. The film is in the can — as they say — and is now being edited.

In this column, I have previously written on May 20 and June 24 about this film, having been fortunate to be able to do the screenplay together with the director, Takashi Koizumi. This time, I would like to convey a brief sense of what it's like to work on a feature film in Japan.

The story of "Best Wishes" centers around Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada (played by veteran actor Makoto Fujita). Some weeks before the end of World War II, Okada ordered the trial and execution of 38 American aircrew captured during indiscriminate U.S. bombing raids on the Tokai region in central Japan.

At the Toho Studios in Seijo Gakuenmae, Tokyo, we built an exact replica of the Yokohama War Crimes trial courtroom. Koizumi was Akira Kurosawa's assistant director on his last films, and most of the people working on "Best Wishes" were from the so-called Kurosawa Team. The attention to historical and physical detail was in every respect meticulous. Dust and light rust on the set's window locks gave a totally authentic look. Every costume (most of them military uniforms) was perfectly true to rank in 1948, when the events depicted took place.

The three main American actors, who came from Los Angeles for the filming, threw themselves into this world they previously knew little about.

Masterful and poignant

Robert Lesser, known in America for his work in film ("Die Hard") and on stage (Steven Berkoff's "Kvetch") portrayed Chief Defense Counsel Joseph Featherstone with a subtle passion, masterfully and poignantly characterizing Featherstone's task of indicting his own countrymen for war crimes.

Richard Neil, as President of the Military Commission Louis Rapp, set a dignified and impartial tone in his courtroom; and yet, could not hide the suggestion of regret as he sentenced Okada to death by hanging. Neil, who has toured extensively as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire," is a world-class craft actor.

Fred McQueen was unrelenting as Chief Prosecuting Attorney Burnett in his attack on Okada's record.

On any film set where there is a language barrier, great patience is called for. It is important to have a number of bilingual staff around, and not just people who can interpret ordinary conversation. Actors, director and technicians have special needs, both artistic and technical; and it behooves any interpreter to know the processes of film creation well.

The central portion of the film is the trial. Any film of a trial can get bogged down in tedium. The tension in the drama must be maintained through the onscreen expression of the characters' inner motivations. Why did Okada execute the Americans? What are his feelings now about assuming responsibility for his actions? What is going on inside the mind of the American defense attorney as he accuses his own people of having been war criminals?

This is where our use of three cameras came in. A luxury in filmmaking, it meant that all the actors in the courtroom had to be present at all times, since virtually all angles were visibly covered during a take. Hence, when Camera A was filming the prosecutor grilling Okada, what were the fears and hopes of his wife and son, who are sitting in the courtroom? Camera B picked this up. Meanwhile, Camera C might be focused on the 19 subordinates on trial with Okada. Are they going to be given the death sentence too — for following orders? These portraits can be intercut during the questioning, giving insight into what torments Okada's loved ones and what his former subordinates are experiencing.

Psychological tension

As a director, Koizumi is supremely methodical and an ultimate team player. "Best Wishes" is his fourth film. To Koizumi, pacing and rhythm are, I believe, the all-important filmic elements. In the script, we specifically avoided the usual courtroom melodrama. The drama here is based on the record, which ran to thousands of pages over which we pored. In addition, there are no flashbacks to battle scenes or gory executions. This means that the film's drama relies on the psychological tension among the players, and the illumination of the main theme: Who is responsible for war crimes and how should they be dealt with?

I have worked on a number of Japanese sets where there has been a mixture of Japanese and non-Japanese artists, and it has always struck me how amicable and polite everyone is, bending over backward to show deference and create understanding. How starkly this contrasts to the war stories we are depicting, where either side would gladly have cut the other to shreds at the drop of a cap.

As for me, one of my roles during the shoot was to make sure the English dialogue was spoken properly. The other one was as an actor playing the director of Sugamo Prison. In the latter capacity I wore, for the first time, a U.S. Army uniform (costume, I might add), and stood beside the Stars and Stripes in front of photographs of Harry S Truman and Douglas MacArthur. I was born in the United States but am no longer a U.S. citizen. My parents, were they alive, would finally have been able to say, "My son, the Captain!" (The photo can be viewed on my Web site at: www17.ocn.ne.jp/~h-uesugi/)

"Best Wishes for Tomorrow" presents the life of a man who believed that those at the top of the chain of command must take responsibility for their decisions. If this theme resonates with people around the world today, then Okada's wish for a better future may not have been made in vain.



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