Two historical movies by the esteemed Japanese director and prolific screenwriter Masato Harada headlined this week’s launch of the first edition of Eiga Sai—the Japanese film festival—to ever form an alliance with a local counterpart in spreading film appreciation.
It’s a symbolic partnership with Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival not only because of the film-exchange and educational goals. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and the Philippines.
Eiga Sai organizer Japan Foundation Manila (JFM), the language and cultural arm of the Japan Embassy, celebrates a milestone as well, that of its 20th anniversary, which makes the scale of the festival timely. A dozen recently released films—including three by Harada—are now featured at the festival, which has a longer screening period of six weeks and, through the team-up with Cinemalaya, eight venues spread throughout six cities in the country.
The festival opened on July 7 with “Kakekomi,” Harada’s first foray into jidaigeki, or samurai period film. The director-screenwriter was on hand to introduce his film about the so-called kakekomi, runaway wives and mistresses seeking divorce during the Tokugawa era.
Based on books by the respected Japanese author Hisashi Inoue, the movie depicts women as second-class citizens, many of them maltreated and publicly humiliated. Despite the subject matter, the story is conveyed with a sense of balance, injected with just enough humor, action and gritty swordfights.
Setting a more serious tone though still endowed with Harada’s touch of humor, the controversial film “The Emperor in August,” had its only Eiga Sai screening Friday night, July 8, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
Produced to commemorate the 70th year since the Pacific War ended, the film reveals the politics and conflicts—which all happened away from the public eye—between Emperor Hirohito and Japan’s government officials during the tail end of the war.
Based on the historical tome “Japan’s Longest Day” by Kazutoshi Hando—who interviewed people involved in the events and survived the war—the story culminates on the day before the young royal’s radio announcement of Japan’s surrender.
“I made the film with a liberal point of view,” said Harada hours before the film screening at CCP, during a round-table discussion with members of the media at Hotel Jen in Roxas Boulevard.
It’s a viewpoint that humanizes the emperor who, said the director, had not been properly portrayed in films. Hirohito wanted to end the war but, because of opposition and the Japanese monarch system (similar to British royalty, who cannot enforce decisions and has to rely on a Cabinet), he couldn’t immediately declare his country’s surrender.
Hando’s book was first adapted for cinema in 1967 but Harada said it omitted the source material’s recreation of actual conversations by the emperor and other key players.
“In the ’60s you can’t show the emperor in close-ups or [have him] played by actors, otherwise right-wing parties [would react against it],” the filmmaker explained.
The omissions frustrated Harada, whose research showed there were close, near-familial ties among Hirohito, Minister of the Army Gen. Korechika Anami and Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki. The triad shared a pacifist outlook and worked together to end the war—a fresh perspective “The Emperor in August” hopes to impart to audiences.
Harada’s longtime relationship with the film industry started even before his birth in 1949 in Numazu, Japan.
His movie-fanatic mother, even during the time she was pregnant with Masato, would often go to the cinemas. In her teens, she auditioned for an Akira Kurosawa film, hoping to be a double for a lead actress who got sick.
Harada’s mother eventually inherited an inn that provided lodgings for actors, film crew and directors like Kurosawa, so the son grew up, so to speak, among industry professionals roaming their household.
Samurai films were his favorite until he learned to read subtitles and got hooked on Westerns and war movies as well. “When I saw war movies made by American Hollywood, I was on the Allied side and Japanese soldiers were my enemies,” recalled Harada.
By age 9, he would tag along with his mom to film sets in Kyoto, which the director calls “the mecca of making jidaigeki.”
In fact, his first taste of being on an actual set was during Kurosawa’s filming of “Rashomon,” where the sight of samurai bandits on horses—actually actors in full gear—terrified the youngster.
“My mother and her friends got bored by just watching the filming [process] because it goes the same pattern, but I never got bored,” shared Harada, adding that he enjoyed meeting directors and cinematographers.
“I stayed the whole day watching, talking to crew members and actors. It was fun for me. Probably at that time I made up my mind to become a filmmaker, or that my future should be associated with something about movies.”
He started out as a journalist, serving as a film correspondent in Los Angeles and often shuttling between the US and Japan, a career that probably kicked off his now-prolific screenwriting.
“Writing is an easy thing while directing is harder,” replied Harada when asked which discipline was easier for him. “I don’t hire [other] writers because they’re too slow.”
Eventually he would work with Stanley Kubrick, who asked him to do the Japanese translation for “A Clockwork Orange.” Working with Kubrick was a fascinating experience, said Harada, who thought that the American auteur’s war film “Full Metal Jacket” “created a new type of vulgarity.”
Since then the Japanese filmmaker himself has helmed more than 20 films, taking on various themes—from studies of the human condition and the socially relevant, to jidaigeki and unexplored perspectives of Japanese history.
No wonder Harada openly admired “Ma Rosa,” the latest Cannes entry to show Philippine poverty and corruption, as directed by Brillante Mendoza, a fearless writer-director who has pushed boundaries for locally made films.
“‘Ma Rosa’ is definitely better than (2015 Palme d’Or winner) ‘Dheepan’ by Jacques Audiard,” unflinchingly declared Harada, a special guest at the opening of Cinemalaya which featured Mendoza’s film. “And definitely better than (Oscar Best Foreign Language Film) ‘Son of Saul.”
The 2016 Eiga Sai will run until Aug. 21. Screenings will be at Shangri-La Plaza Cineplex, Mandaluyong (until July 17); Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd., Pasay (Aug. 6, 9, 10, 12); Abreeza Mall Cinema, Davao (July 22-24); FDCP Cinematheque, Davao (July 26-30); SM Baguio Cinema (Aug. 11-14); FDCP Cinematheque Baguio (Aug. 15); UP Film Institute, Quezon City (Aug. 17-20); and Ayala Center Cebu Cinema (Aug. 17-21).