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Notes and Thoughts

Mr.Goto Goes on Location of Oshima's New Film
: Gohatto
Taro Goto

Much recovered from the cerebral infarction he suffered in February 1996, director Oshima Nagisa is currently at work on his first feature film since Max Mon Amour(1986). The project is called Gohatto, a jidai-geki(period film); hence, shooting is reportedly taking place just about entirely in Kyoto, on location in the various temples, shrines, and other cultural remnants of the ancient capital as well as in Kyoto Shochiku Studios. I recently enjoyed the privilege of spending a day visiting the production unit filming on location at Chion-in Temple. Here, I would like to offer my brief observations and thoughts from that day.
May 18, 1999. I arrive at the steps before the main gate of Chion-in Temple at nine a.m. with Christy Burks, a fellow foreign exchange student (she from New York University, I from the University of California at Berkeley) here to study film. We are soon joined by Kato Mikiro sensei (Associate Professor of Film Studies at Kyoto University), who helped arrange for the visit, and Assistant Producer Yamamoto Ichiro, our liaison. The enormous main gate which hulks over our heads is said to be the largest wooden gate in Japan, and I wonder if this impressive structure will be included in the filming, but Yamamoto-san informs us while leading us up the stone steps that the filming will take place exclusively in a hallway by the temple further up ahead. I later discover that those very steps were often used as substitutes for the steps leading up to Hikone Castle or Himeji Castle in older jidai-geki films. Today, filming is rarely allowed on Chion-in Temple grounds. Unlike in the past when the inevitable wear and tear on the structures were tolerated due to the need for money to maintain the sites, the tourism industry in recent years provides ample revenue for most of the popular temples and shrines in Kyoto. It seems that Oshimafs name helped to make an exception for this film.

The crew is already there, preparing the said hallway and the vicinity for filming while bewildered tourists and school children look on. The hallway connects the main temple structure to an adjacent building, elevated some ten feet above the ground, roofed, with beautiful wooden pillars lining the sides. It is a rare, open-aired corridor that also features uguisu-bari (gnightingale floorsh), which emit distinctive birdlike sounds when walked upon to help give warning of intruders. The two scenes to be shot today will take place entirely on this corridor.

Gohatto will be the latest filmic addition to the Shinsen-gumi saga, a story almost as popular in Japan as the Chushingura (gThe Loyal 47 Roninh) legend. The Shinsen-gumi was a band of mercenary samurai formed by the Tokugawa Shogunate toward the end of the Edo era to maintain military control against patriots in Kyoto who sought to overthrow the Shogunate and to restore the Emperorfs power. Countless numbers of novels, films, and TV serials have portrayed the various episodes surrounding the Shinsen-gumi, and it appears that Gohatto itself will be an adaptation of Shinsen-gumi Keppuuroku, a novel by Shiba Ryotaro. However, Oshima is focusing primarily on a single chapter, gMaegami no Sozaburo,h which depicts the upheaval caused by the arrival of a new member, a beautifully handsome youth whose presence begins to arouse homoerotic tension amongst the ranks, leading to violence and casualties. The first scene today has the youth, Kano Sozaburo, passing a henchman, Yamazaki, whom he fears may be attracted to him, and exchanging ambivalent glances. In fact, Yamazaki had received orders to take Kano to the red-light district to gbreak him inh with a female prostitute in hopes of ending the bizarre turmoil. In the second scene, Kano approaches Yamazaki in the same corridor and decides to take him up on the earlier invitation.

Soon after we exchange quick greetings with Oshima, who has arrived in a taxi and is then ushered away in his wheelchair, I spot Matsuda Ryuhei, 15 year-old son of the late Matsuda Yusaku, flirting with some makeup women in the distance. In this, his acting debut, he is playing the lead role of Kano. Indeed, his face is nothing less than gbeautifully handsome,h and with the white makeup enhancing the feminine countenance, it crosses my mind that he may one day make a fine onna-gata (male actors playing female roles in Kabuki theatre). The most striking feature, however, is the piercing gaze from his sharp eyes. The strength of that feature alone may justify Oshimafs decision to entrust such a crucial role to someone with absolutely no acting experience.

Nearby, comedian Tommies Masa, who plays Yamazaki, jokes around with some extras, all clad in formal Shinsen-gumi attire. The costumes are designed by Wada Emi, who has won an Oscar for her work in Kurosawafs Ran. The black outfit and angular forms, reportedly inspired by Nazi uniforms, accentuate the masculinity of the institution that stands in stark contrast to Kanofs femininity. Even to amateur eyes like mine, it seems quite obvious that these costumes are far from a realistic rendition of what the Shinsen-gumi actually wore, which suggests to me a deliberate attempt to evoke a visual relationship with the Nazis and their persecution of homosexuals. The term Gohatto, moreover, refers to strict penal codes by which Shinsen-gumi members were bound, punishable by death. Today, the word is colloquially used to refer to bans and taboos.
Clearly, this film is positioning itself to be a jidai-geki unlike any other. That, of course, should be no surprise given Oshimafs penchant for subverting anything dominant or conventional.

A question arises: Will jidai-geki ever be the same?

The crew is scrambling to prepare the lighting setup with an elaborateness rarely seen in Japanese location filming. The
director of photography is Kurita Toyomichi, known for his work with Alan Rudolph and most recently with Robert Altman in Cookiefs Fortune. Gohatto is his first jidai-geki, and he appears to be doing things his own way. Flood lamps are positioned to bounce light off the enormous white cloths which are put up along the corridor, resulting in diffused lighting to create a soft image, in contrast with the sharper lighting usually found in traditional jidai-geki. Rumors are that further additions will be made in post-production to transform the image even more.

Kurosawa Akira allegedly lamented that his was the last generation with the ability to make true jidai-geki films. Indeed, the historical nature of jidai-geki films calls for a tremendous amount of specialized skills and knowledge, accumulated and passed down from generation to generation. Who will be inheriting these in todayfs bleak Japanese film industry? It should be noted that the Gohatto team essentially includes three directors in addition to Oshima: Sai Yoichi (director of All Under the Moon and chief assistant director of Oshimafs In the Realm of the Senses) plays the leader of the Shinsen-gumi, and Kitano Takeshi (director of Sonatine, Kids Return, Hana-bi, and most recently, Kikujiro no Natsu) plays his lieutenant, while Narita Yusuke (director of Abunai Deka Forever) serves as assistant director. It should be interesting to see how this collaboration influences their future works as well as whether they will take a shot at jidai-geki themselves. How will the genre be interpolated?

In any case, it is likely that the conditions surrounding location filming in Kyoto will play a part in determining the parameters
of what will be shown in jidai-geki films, quite literally. As I peep over Oshimafs shoulders to take a look at the monitor, I find that the shot has been carefully composed to frame the fringes with the ceiling, floor, and pillars, effectively cutting out most of the outside scenery in which tourists are milling about, gawking at the spectacle. gThis is such a filmic space,h mutters Kato sensei, surveying the layout of the temple complex. gItfs unfortunate that they canft show more of it.h With the intrusion of signposts and electric lines into what used to be pristine sites of preserved history, the camera is forced to retreat into small, isolated spaces which are then pieced together to create a continuous diegesis in post-production. In Gohatto, scenes from various temples throughout Kyoto, together with this corridor scene at Chion-in Temple, will collectively represent the single temple at which the Shinsen-gumi reside in the film. No matter how effective the illusion, I cannot help but think that this must severely limit the mobility and scope of the shots. The more the scenery of Kyoto changes, the more the jidai-geki will be confined to studio sets and closed spaces. Apparently, there was tourist bedlam when the team was on location one weekend afternoon in Arashiyama (one of the most popular spots in Kyoto) to shoot a scene in which Shinsen-gumi members discover a dead body.

Even more remarkable is the extent of aural intrusion. With the lighting setup ready to go and the actors on standby, the team awaits an OK from the sound recordist. gOne sec,h he says. gGongs in the distance.h The actors remain frozen, the boom held steady above them, while staff members keep the curious tourists at bay. As soon as the gong stops, however, a plane roars overhead. gLetfs wait for this plane,h says the recordist. Yet even before the plane is gone, a procession of chanting Buddhists arrive at the scene (Chion-in is the head temple of the Jodo [gpure landh] sect of Buddhism) and traverse the frame, seemingly oblivious to the filming. No sooner is the procession past when a helicopter begins hovering in the sky. The recordist laughs at the ridiculous fortune, while I begin to feel sorry for the boom operator whose arms are starting to quiver. When silence mercifully returns, the OK sign is relayed from the recordist to the assistant director, who in turn indicates to Oshima that everything is ready. At Oshimafs resounding shout and the ensuing slate, action begins: gInspector Yamazaki, will you take me to Shimabara?h asks Kano, a faint blush on his white cheeks. gI am off duty tonight.h

Fortunately for Shochiku, Oshima seems to follow a personal policy of limiting most shots to one or two takes. (Can anyone boast a lower shooting ratio?) Though the frequency of noise interference would prohibit the luxury of taking shots over and over anyway, Oshimafs economy and efficiency at the helm is a sight to behold. With most of the significant aspects of the filming concretized in pre-production as far as he is concerned, Oshima is spare with his words, seldom giving out directions. The assistant director appears to be doing much of the nuts and bolts work, as I catch Oshima in his directorfs chair dozing for a moment. When the setup is ready, however, he leans forward, eyes glued to the monitor, eager to begin action. Most shots are accepted after the first take, occasionally needing a second take with minor adjustments. To be honest, Matsudafs acting seems rather shaky, but then again, Oshima has never been very particular about acting. In fact, the one-take rule appears to raise the tension amongst the crew when the camera rolls, demanding absolute focus for each take because there will probably not be another.

In the end, I am left with a feeling of excitement. Oshima is back in the directorfs chair. He is being supported by an all-star team. And above all, a large-scale jidai-geki production is back in Kyoto, however unorthodox it may be. Kato sensei mentions that in the mid-50s, the local newspaper in Kyoto used to run a daily column that listed the time and place of the various filming locations in the region that day, allowing residents and tourists to enjoy a sort of engagement with films in a way different from simply watching them on screen. They were able to observe the filmmaking process and, perhaps, participate in the creative activity. Watching the samurais playing with school children, I am reminded of how fun all this can be, how fun it should always be.
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