World War II 70 Years On: Yakusho Koji And Harada Masato Talk THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST

Writer; London/Tokyo (@seven_cinemas)
World War II 70 Years On: Yakusho Koji And Harada Masato Talk THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST
On this day, 70 years ago, emperor Hirohito of Japan announced his country's surrender from the Second World War. Amidst the continued political rhetoric as current prime minister Abe Shinzo and emperor Akihito deliver contrasting speeches on their country's war time actions comes the timely release of director Harada Masato's The Emperor in August

The film, written by Harada and based on a book by Hando Kazutoshi, details the events and infighting among the Imperial Cabinet as they debate on whether or not to end the war. While certain factions wish for a Decisive Battle on home soil, the emperor orders an end to the conflict, and the assorted politicians and military men must decide where their allegiances lie. One such man is Army Minister Korechika Anami, played by Harada regular Yakusho Koji, a devout military man torn between the wishes of his emperor and a desire for an honorable end in battle.

For Harada, The Emperor in August is the latest film in a career that stretches back over 35-years and includes such award winning fare as Chronicle of My Mother, Inugami, and Jubaku - Spellbound, along with box-office smash, and the director's first jidaigeki, Kakekomi released earlier this year. Yakusho Koji is one of Japan's most recognizable contemporary actors after appearances in Cure, The Eel, Eureka, 13 Assassins and foreign offerings Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel. The pair appeared at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan last week to talk about the film and history behind it. 

Q. What was the impetus for you to decide to make this particular film? 

Harada Masato (MH): In 1945 my father was 19 and he was stationed at the southern tip of Kyushu, Chiran. It was the kamikaze airbase, he was only digging trenches but I think if the war continued he would be one of the first casualties of the war so that's why for many years I kept thinking about the emperor's imperial decision. It saved my father and four years later I was born and therefore it also saved myself. Just talking about my film career, throughout my career my films are always contained the contradictory and very American ideas that if things don't work out it hardly matters. Grace and self-reliance are more valuable than gold, home and honor are most valuable of all and this film is about that. 

After Kazutoshi Hando wrote the book Japan's Longest Day the director Kihatchi Okamoto made it into a movie in 1967. Back in those days you were not allowed to shoot the emperor and have a close up of the emperor even though an actor was playing him, so he was depicted in the film only in a wide shot or from the back. Therefore it was very difficult to express, show or depict the small nuances of what was going on in the minds of the director. 

After the 21st century Aleksandr Sokurov made a movie, The Sun, and the actor Ogata Issei played the emperor, it was the first time that there was a close up of the emperor in a movie. Maybe it was because the actor Ogata was rather shy to play the emperor but he used a caricature, a stereotype, of how we saw the emperor when he'd gotten old. For example in later years, he moved his mouth quite often and used the words 'a sou' often. He kept on doing that in the film too, therefore to me the depiction of the emperor in the film was... I was not happy with it. I saw it on the release day and it seemed like the audience were rather nervous but there was not any complaints or movements from the rightwing. 

It made me feel now is the time, now the time has come that we are able to depict the emperor in a movie like Japan's Longest Day or The Emperor in August with the emperor as the main character. If I were only to show the 24-hours of that day, people would be wondering why he was not able to make that imperial decision when the war started. Mr. Hando also wrote a book called Seidan: the Imperial Decision and in that book the four months up until the end of the war is portrayed and the relationship between the prime minister Suzuki and Amani and the emperor is written about in this book. I thought that for the first time if you read both books, Japan's Longest Day and The Imperial Decision, then you'll be able to understand why it took so long to be able to make a decision. 

Q. I thought the movie was about being indecisive as all the politicians believed they had to surrender but until the very end they were debating about the wording of the emperor's letter of surrender, what they were going to write and how to express it and what kind of words to use. Was this indecisiveness part of the political system back then or a part of the Japanese culture, what do you think? 

HM: I think it's part of, well, look at this government right now. It's probably Japanese nationality because they keep on talking about the new Olympic stadium and what to do and they have cabinet meetings and they can never decide. Back in that era, within the Japanese state of mind, they did not have that feeling that they have lost the war. So they did not think of the fact that they were surrendering, they were thinking of doing the decisive battle at home and they were ready to do that. They always had that in mind. And also they made the decision by majority rule, they knew for sure they would do a coups d'├ętat. 

And then therefore they had to bring it to the imperial decision. Come to think of it they were not able to start the war with the imperial decision but they were able to end the war with it, and that's all because they had Kantaro Suzuki as the Prime Minister and Korechika Anami as Minister of War and the Emperor and it was only possible because of these three coming together. 

Q. The war started without the imperial decision and ended with the imperial decision, the emperor was not able to stop the start of the war, they were arguing to the very end because they wanted to protect the national polity, in other words, to protect the imperial system, what is your opinion of the imperial decision? 

HM: What I think about the imperial system is back in the days of the war the emperor was considered to be the head of the house, the family. I feel this way of thinking saved japan and was able to end the war. If a politician or a military man like General Tojo was leading and making the decision we would not have Japan at the moment. 

Q. Mr. Koji, it must have been very difficult to get into character for the role knowing that so much more has been found out about the war in these 70 years since the end. I wonder how did you get into the role and what kind of research did you do to prepare?

Yakusho Koji: Talking about preparing for a role, I've been acting for many years now but I'm not sure what it is all about but one thing I can say is that working with Mr. Harada, he sends a lot of research material and I started out by reading it all. 

When I think about Anami, there are many theories and people had there own thoughts on what kind of person he was and what his role was. But as far as I'm concerned, once the emperor made his imperial decision he gave up the thought of having a decisive battle at home and tried to end the war. But he also knew that the officers were planning a coups d'├ętat, so in a way he was caught between the emperor and the young officers and I wanted to show that in my acting. 

He was actually talking about and pushing for the decisive battle at home at the beginning and that was the time when bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but now when I think about it I'm glad that the emperor, the prime minister Suzuki and Anami worked together and were able to end the war.

Q. Why did the minister not call and let his wife know he's going to leave her (when Anami leaves to commit seppuku)? 

YK: The reason is probably if he called his wife he knew he would start crying and that's not cool! 

MH: I did not show this in the film but in actuality when Amani was offered the position of Minister of the Army, he declined repeatedly. This was something that his wife said after the war, it was in April of 1945, which was when the battles in Okinawa were at their peak. 

Since he's a military man he really wanted to fight himself, and he told his wife he would really like to go to Okinawa and die. And maybe they talked about dying back then because in this movie he does call her once but unfortunately the line is busy and they are unable to speak, but in actuality they never really called, and he never actually tried to contact her and probably he knew that his wife knows once he leaves the house, he leaves to die.

Q. In this movie the names of the places have the English words under the Japanese, so maybe this movie was made for foreign viewers too, but at the same time it's about Japan. How do you want the people abroad to see this movie?

MH: This movie is about how to end the war and as a simple message I'm sure even people abroad can understand that it is easy to start a war but very, very difficult to end one. 
I really want people overseas to watch this movie so therefore I'm applying to various film festival's abroad starting from September and come to think of it Asian directors like Wong Kar Wai, they have overseas releases in mind from the beginning so in the end credits they have the Chinese characters and the English, so I had that in mind as well. 

I realize that Herbert P. Bix's book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which I'm sure many of you have read, but unfortunately it's a distortion of the emperor's image and it's kind of based on left wing ideology and unfortunately sites like Wikipedia and other written sites on the emperor use quotations from this book and I'm not a ultra-rightist but I do feel that fact should not be overridden by ideology so I would like to start changing this. 

Q. Why do you think Anami didn't resign, if he had resigned it would have changed the whole history but he continued. Why do you think he didn't?

HM: Mr. Yakusho probably has his own answer but my answer is, if Anami had resigned then this cabinet would have fallen apart and that would have eventually led to the decisive battle at home. And there lies the reason that I really wanted to make this film because besides the depiction and portrayal of the emperor I really wanted to show the ideas that Mr. Amani had. 

As I mentioned before Hasegawa was to go to Okinawa and to fight and die and probably the reason his son went and lost his life in the battle as well so basically he was pro-fighting having a battle but as he says, there's a line in the movie that he is not working under the imperial headquarters he is working directly under the emperor so once he had accepted the position of the army he really felt that he had to follow the desires of the emperor but his heart was longing to fight. So there's that dilemma inside him and I thought the drama lies there.

I visually portrayed what was going on in his mind and his dilemma in two scenes. One is when he is using the sword and he senses the illusion of his son and he tries to hide that with his body. The other is when he is alone in the headquarters and he listens to the song 'We'll Meet Again', the song overlaps the Japanese army march song so there's that dilemma.

YK: I believe that if he had told his people there is going to be an imperial decision and the war is going to end he thought that the officers would assassinate him and if he gets killed the cabinet would fall apart and the war would not be able to end according to the desires of the emperor. When he became minster of the army the officers really believed this minister would lead us towards the final battle at home. 

Come to think about it, it was people like Mr. Anami and other high level military officers that created these young officers and the way they think. So in a way I think it was very difficult for him to be in a position where he had to cheat these officers and trick them to bring the war to an end. You've seen the movie so if you don't agree maybe as an actor I've failed!

Q. In August it seems that all the movies, TV shows and documentaries in Japan are always one sided in that Japan is the victim. What I appreciate about the movie is the rich portrait of the people in the war, the ambivalence, the ambiguity and also the indecision. We see that indecision in the governments at that time, and still in governments now. 

I wish that more of the movies and television shows had more of a balanced view of Japan from many different aspects both as a victim but also as a perpetrator, but it's always more as the victim. How do you view Japan overall in all this?

HM: I always feel that the war should not be portrayed just from a victims point of view and there is a term 'wartime atrocity' and there should be a balance but talking about myself I grew up watching American films so up until I was twelve I was on the Allied side and after that I started learning about Japanese history. 

In this movie there's a scene were the emperor is walking in the garden and he starts talking about how this war has lasted fifteen years now and it feels almost like the only war. When you think about fifteen years earlier that's when the Manchurian incident happened, and when Japan started invading China, and maybe he was sort of validating that this invasion should end when he stated that.

Q. The countries that Japan fought against were America and China, what do you think Anami, prime minster Suzuki and the emperor thought of China?

MH: To me what really matters is not what these people thought but what the director Ozu Yasujiro thought of China because he actually went there and fought. He wrote a journal, which was written in 1937. In this journal it said that all the Japanese soldiers heading to the front line always smelled of alcohol. And then two weeks after that the Nanking massacre occurred. And then after he returned to Japan he became very famous as a film director with films like Brothers and Sisters of the Today Family

Throughout his career he never really made a war film. Towards the end of his career he did make a film about the daily lives of the soldiers but he never really made a film depicting the war from the national side. I would like to follow in his steps and that's why I study him and I admire him and I try to depict his feelings. In my last scene in this film which is the emperor listening to his own recording through the radio, I feel that he's feeling the responsibility of the war and, if I may add, what went through his mind when he listened was abdication.
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.

Around the Internet