New York Asian 2018 Interview: SEKIGAHARA Director Harada Masato on Filming History Through a Modern Eye

New York Asian 2018 Interview: SEKIGAHARA Director Harada Masato on Filming History Through a Modern Eye

For someone whose filmmaking career began in the 1970s, including such amazing fare as Kamikaza Taxi, Bounce KO Gals, Kakakomi, and The Emperor in August, director Harada Masato is showing no signs of slowing down. 

At the New York Asian Film Festival with his big-budget historical epic, Sekigahara, director Harada spoke with LMD about his influences, the importance of strong female characters, and why his Lifetime Achievement Award is right on time. 

The Lady Miz Diva:  You’re here at NYAFF to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. Sometimes when filmmakers who are still very active receive such an award, they have mixed feelings about it.  Do you feel like perhaps it’s too soon? 

Harada Masato:  Timing-wise, it was really perfect for me.  These days, there are so many overrated directors, and I’m one that is underrated. {Laughs} I just continue to evolve every film I make, and this film, Sekigahara, is the biggest budget film I ever directed.  So, it’s very nice, great timing, that I receive a lifetime achievement award right after Sekigahara.

LMD:  You’ve been making feature films since the 1970s, I believe.

HM:  1979, yes, that’s my first film.  

LMD:  Yet, it feels like you are accelerating after all this time, as opposed to slowing down.  That is very unusual.

HM:  {Laughs}

LMD:  What is the secret of maintaining youthful creativity?

HM:  Because I’m paying great respect to those great filmmakers.  For example, starting from Howard Hawks, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu Yasujiro, Ingemar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and even Elia Kazan.  Elia Kazan: A Life, the book, taught me a great deal; how to behave as a filmmaker.  I constantly think about what Howard Hawks would do, or what would Akira Kurosawa do whenever I am writing screenplays, those approaches.  Occasionally, I go back to those films:  Seven Samurai, I’ve seen maybe more than fifty times, Hawks’ Red River, or His Girl Friday.  I’m a film buff, basically. {Laughs} I think that makes me young all the time.

LMD:  With SEKIGAHARA, you are bringing a monumental historical moment to movie screens.  What was the most important aspect to highlight that perhaps you had not seen emphasised in other films? 

HM:  Well, actually most of the Japanese youth, they don’t know what the Battle of Sekigahara was all about.  And they certainly have no idea who Ishida Mitsunari was.  So, I wanted to do some kind of justice about what Lord Ishida contributed, and what if he won the battle?  The Japanese could have been different.  Or what if we have a politician with Ishida’s mind?  Japan would be much, much better today.  

So, that kind of question I wanted to raise, but at the same time, the book, Shiba {Ryōtarō}-sensei’s book was published in 1966, and ever since, it’s sold five million copies, so it’s a long time bestseller; he’s someone like James Michener in the States.  The book itself is like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there are so many characters, and so I had to reduce to a certain number of people, but there were still too many for contemporary movies.  So, I just wanted to take a different approach.  

For example, one of my favorite films, The Godfather, because there are certain similarities between Michael Corleone and Ishida Mitsunari.  Structure-wise, The Godfather has this beautiful wedding sequence in the first twenty minutes, in which important characters are introduced.  So, I thought about up until the Sanjo riverbank execution sequence, it’s exactly the wedding sequence of The Godfather, where all those important characters are being introduced.  Particularly, the Sanjo Riverbank itself, it’s the first time you witness Ishida and Hatsume together, and also Shima Sakon, and Ishida’s nemesis, Lord Kobayakawa, is there.  Lord Kobayakawa and Lord Ishida, they obviously met at the Sanjo riverbank, and they argued about the execution of Princess Koma and the others.  

Once I came up with the idea, everything was rather smooth and easy.  I’m coming from the old school of filmmaking, so I strongly believe in the bookend effect:  In The Godfather, the opening sequence ends with the family photo, and the film itself end with Kay watching Michael close the door — like a shutter — the doorframe is a photo frame, so it’s a bookend effect.  And so this film started with the Sanjo River as a prologue, and it ends with the Sanjo riverbank with another execution.

So, when the structure came up, everything became easy to put all those characters in there that were involved, and it’s just before the final execution, that is the Battle of Sekigahara episode.  I checked all those Japanese samurai films with battle sequences, and still, Seven Samurai was the best.  And Seven Samurai was only 100 farmers and families fighting against 40 bandits, right?  So altogether, it’s only 200 or so people, or less.  In Sekigahara, you have to deal with some 200,000 people. {Laughs} But still, the Seven Samurai battle sequences were great help, and I just wanted to recreate that kind of classic atmosphere.  Then I also checked all those 60s epic films from Europe or the States, and also when I saw Alexander Nevsky by Serge Eisenstein, a 1933 film, it had a beautiful spear fight, so I borrowed that fight there.  Also, how to die on the battlefield, Orson Welles did it beautifully in Chimes At Midnight, so I borrowed those frames and then I put them all together.

Now, I wanted to challenge the musical score itself by not only using typical Japanese music, but what if I used some 19th century classics like Frederick Delius?  Those were the kind of ideas I put together, and then the texture of the film was there.

The most important thing was the characters; when you can tell what about the truth of this characters.  The author did a certain justice about recreating Lord Ishida as a rational, logical person, unlike any other Japanese historical characters.  His way of thinking is more of contemporary Westerners, and thus, I understood Ishida’s character quite well.

Also, the new analysis about Lord Ishida’s nemesis: Lord Tokugawa is so well known, so I didn’t touch him, except I wanted to create his character sort of three dimensionally, and more attractive.  I also wanted to say something new about, Lord Kobayakawa:  Ever since Sekigahara, he had been treated as the number one traitor in Japanese history, but in reality, it was something like the character I showed in this movie, and it’s the first time that so many people would understand who he was.

Plus, during this preproduction period, researching all those Japanese films and everything, I was so frustrated by the weakness of female characters.  That’s something I wanted to put an emphasis on in this movie.  For example, Sakon’s wife; in the book, there’s only one line introducing her — that his wife was coming from a doctor’s family — but I researched, and it happened that Hanano and her sons actually went to Sekigahara and just formed this frontline hospital.  Now, talking about this frontline hospital in the period of Jidaigeki, there are no other Japanese films that depicted that kind of element on the big screen.  So, this was a challenge, and I wanted to show it.  So, in that way, I created more of those female characters that are three-dimensional in every which way.

LMD:  We are now going to talk about female characters because you opened the door.  In all the films shown at the festival, you have very strong, self-determined women.  Whether it’s the warrior Hatsume in SEKIGAHARA, the women of the temple in KAKEKOMI, or even the prostitutes of KAMIKAZE TAXI; you show us women who are not content to be rescued, or decorative, and are truly strong and realistic, but not necessarily hard.  Why are you able to do what so many filmmakers can’t?  Is it important to you as a writer to show us that realistic interpretation?

HM:  Um, I always feel for my wife. {Laughs}  She has a strong character. {Laughs}  I learned those charming, strong female characters from Howard Hawks as well.  His Girl Friday is a marvelous film; and he changed the sex of the male character to a female.  He also pays great respect to the female characters, like in Red River:  I mean without Joanne Dru, the John Wayne character and the Montgomery Clift character, they wouldn’t reconcile.  Every other film always had these strong, charming women.  And in that way, I started out my career as a film director, and in private life, my wife is always bitching about what kind of female character I’m putting in the film. {Laughs}

LMD:  Including SEKIGAHARA, you’ve worked on eight projects with Mr. Yakusho Kôji.  I feel like he’s like an avatar for you.  What is it about him or his technique that suits your work so well?

HM:  I think he represents the virtue of the Japanese leading character.  Every time I work with him, I feel like I’m watching the father character in Ozu films.  So, I wanted him to play this father character in my film, Chronicle of My Mother, and he was perfect for that.

The first time I worked with him was Kamikaza Taxi, and I was just impressed by the approach that Yakusho-san did on this Kantake character.  I had a strong image about who Kantake was, then I gave it to him and he came out a much, much better character than I anticipated, and that kind of joy he can constantly give me.  It’s a powerful relationship between a film director and an actor that we have sort of been developing.  I love his interpretation of those characters.  Whenever I write certain things in a screenplay, he can come up with two or three different ideas, and it’s a plus.  That kind of catch ball excites me and keeps me going and making better films.  He’s just a sort of great ballplayer to inspire me in every sort of way.

LMD:  You’ve been directing features since the 1970s, but you did two acting roles back in the early 2000s.  After so much time behind the camera, did those experiences in front alter your perception of directing at all?

HM:  Yeah… for a while.

LMD:  For a while?

HM:  For a while. {Laughs} When I embarked on The Last Samurai, I’ve memorised all those lines beforehand, like every actor did, and then just one night before the shooting, Edward Zwick — he is a writer/ director/ producer — and so he constantly worked on the dialogues.  So, he changed the entire dialogue just one night before the shooting, and I suffered from that. {Laughs} So, I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t want to suffer my actors. I can’t change my lines once it’s planted,’ but after a year or so, I just wanted to improvise. {Laughs}

LMD:  SEKIGAHARA, like KAKEKOMI, like THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST, are beautiful-looking films.  Even the dark seediness of KAMIKAZE TAXI is perfect for the demimonde the story exists in.  Can you please talk about working with your DPs to achieve the visual you have in mind for a film?

HM:  I always have a close relationship with my DP.  That means I don’t control him 100%; I always give a certain freedom, but basically, I have a certain vision.  I write screenplays, and during writing screenplays, there’s always visions coming in.  Most of the complicated sequences I storyboard by myself; I just draw the sketches of the action sequences.  For example, in the case of Sekigahara, the entire battle sequence I storyboarded, and then I asked my DP, “Whatever you want to add, this is the idea, we can work together.”  

Basically, I choose lenses: I hate 50mm and those regular sizes; I want either wider or long lens.  I simply say to my DP, “Okay, this scene, you gotta use a longer lens,” and what millimeter, he can choose.  And then when I check, and it was too tight, then we just use a different lens.  It’s that kind of relationship.

I can’t work with primadonna DPs!  {Laughs}

LMD:  KAMIKAZE TAXI begins with a scathing indictment of the racism of many homegrown Japanese against those who emigrated to Latin America.  BOUNCE KO GALS exposed the world of compensated dating.  I feel you are no shrinking violet when it comes to ripping the scales off the audiences’ eyes with your films. I’m curious if your very different perspective on long-established history, in SEKIGAHARA, or THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST is also a social commentary?  

HM:  In the case of Kamikaze Taxi, it’s a combination of both my own comment of what’s going on; that there was something wrong with the society in Japan, plus my son.  He was most of the time educated in Los Angeles, so Japanese was a second language.  So, when he came back to Japan — for the first three or four years we were based in Tokyo, his Japanese was so-so.  He spoke sort of strange Japanese, and he had this problem in his elementary school, and so every time he came up to me, all his friends bullied him about his language, and that was the element of Kantake-san’s language.  Maybe you can’t get the nuance from the screen, but his Japanese is a little bit strange, but it was like my son’s vocabulary. 

Then Yakusho-san, he developed it a little bit more; he met this Russian guy who lives in Tokyo, and his Japanese was very, very strange, so he combined them.  Also, I researched certain Brazilian and Peruvian Japanese living in Japan, and his vocabulary I Incorporated into that.  So, that was the kind of combination that I used.

In the case of Sekigahara, that’s just definitely a strong social message to contemporary Japanese traditions and the Japanese society.  I mean, look, what we need is Lord Ishida Mitsunari, and his sense of justice today in Japan.  Otherwise, we are moving into some dangerous water.  That kind of message was in The Emperor in August and continues in Sekigahara.

LMD:  Well, as it seems that many companies are giving you more money to make these films with social messages, I need to know what you have next in store?

HM:  My new film is coming out on August 24th, it’s a film noir.  It’s called A Killing for the Prosecution.  It’s definitely dealing with the contemporary situation in Japan, and those crap politicians, and just what is justice today.  The two main characters are two prosecutors; one is a seasoned prosecutor, and he commits a certain crime.  His protégé, the young prosecutor accuses him, and they eventually go to the confrontation.

LMD:  Can you tell us who is in the cast?

HM:  Yes, Kim Taku {Takuya Kimura} and Nino {Kazunari Ninomiya}. 

LMD:  Before you walked in, I was just talking about how impressive Nino’s acting talent has been.

HM:  He’s genius.  And Kim Taku is also good in this movie.  He’s totally come out as a serious actor.  Then next year, I think I’m going to make a film about this group of assassins set in 1868, so that I can cover all three revolutionary periods of Japanese history, from the 1600s, 1868, the Meiji Restoration, and 1945.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

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