Tokyo International Film Festival’s ‘Seven Samurai’ directors compared the restrictive studio-controlled filmmaking environment of modern-day Japan to the golden age of Akira Kurosawa at a talk event on Sunday.
For this year’s edition, the festival has selected seven directors, who have achieved a degree of international recognition, to promote Japanese cinema to the world. Three of the seven attended the talk event: Keishi Otomo, who has directed two hit films based on the Rurouni Kenshin manga series; Takashi Yamazaki, whose Parasyte is closing the festival; and Lee Sang-il, whose credits include the Japanese remake of Unforgiven.
The other four ‘Samurai’ are Takashi Miike (13 Assassins), Tetsuya Nakashima (Confessions), Eiichiro Hasumi (Umizaru series) and Daihachi Yoshida, whose Pale Moon is the only Japanese film in TIFF’s competition section. The event was followed by a screening of Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai.
Asked to compare filmmaking in Japan today to the era when Seven Samurai was made, the directors all said they envy the amount of preparation Kurosawa was allowed to indulge in before he started shooting, and the control he had over actors.
“Period films need to be deeply rooted in costume, behaviour and mannerisms and that is difficult to recreate. You can’t just have a costume change and then start shooting,” Otomo observed. “Kurosawa told his actors to stay dressed in kimono always. His films were rich in preparation and that shows on the screen.
“Nowadays, I suppose if we were really determined, we could do it the same way, but that hasn’t been my personal experience.”
Yamazaki added: “Back then there was lot of energy in the Japanese film industry so all that was possible. Now too many companies would say no. Even though the studios were really powerful in Kurosawa’s day, he always fought for what he wanted, and usually got his own way.”
The directors then went on to talk about some of the “outrageous” behaviour that Kurosawa got away with – such as asking for three separate sets of the same village to be built; and taking a break from filming over the winter because he hadn’t captured all the shots he’d wanted before the snow came.
“Now we don’t have that kind of luxury – the cast is too busy and we have to coordinate around their schedules,” Yamazaki said. “I suppose we can get around all these issues with CGI, but when Kurosawa wanted three villages, he got it.”
Lee said that one of the biggest differences between now and then is that directors in Kurosawa’s age knew the films they were making would definitely be seen on a big screen. “When people tell me I saw your film on a plane, I always feel so disappointed,” Lee said. “I’m sure Kurosawa would have been very upset if someone had told him that they’d seen his movies on a plane, because that is not the way they should be seen.”
The three directors were also quizzed about the differences between Japanese and “international” films. “What do you mean by international? Hollywood, Bollywood – there are so many different kinds of films,” Lee shot back. He added that “it’s rare for Japanese films to be introduced overseas, so there is a barrier.”
Yamazaki agreed that Japanese films are not travelling widely, apart from some arthouse titles. “I’m not saying Japanese films should be accepted all over the world – we don’t have to force our way into the world – but some films should be able to travel.”
Otomo talked about how happy he was to see the positive audience reaction to Rurouni Kenshin when it opened in the Philippines. “To see people enjoying your film across borders and language, that is the ultimate joy for a filmmaker,” Otomo said. “I don’t want to give up on going to other countries. But you shouldn’t start off by trying to go global – that is what I feel.”
He added: “Rurouni Kenshin is based on a comic that is loved overseas, although I don’t understand why this period comic is popular outside Japan. I wasn’t trying to ride that wave, but it’s easier to communicate with something that people know already.”
The conversation then came back to Kurosawa, with Lee observing that he’d personally grown up on Hollywood films that he understood well enough thanks to subtitles, and that Kurosawa had similarly influenced Hollywood directors. After all, Seven Samurai was remade as the John Sturges Western The Magnificent Seven in 1960.
“What attracted Hollywood filmmakers to Kurosawa?” Lee asked. Yamazaki answered: “Kurosawa’s films transcend language.”
Otomo added that he was in Los Angeles when Kurosawa died in 1998 and was amazed that all three major US networks carried the news as a lead story. “I watched all his films when I got home and they brought tears to my eyes. There is something universal about them and at the end of his films you are sad to leave those characters and their families.”
The discussion ended with the moderator asking the three directors what they are working on next – but this seems to be the question that Japanese studios and PR firms are most determined to keep a lid on – and only Yamazaki was prepared to break with protocol: “Parasyte is about to open and I’m working out the CG for the sequel.”