Yoji Yamada had just finished greeting the audience at the premiere of “Kaabee (Kabei: Our Mother)” at Tokyo’s Marunouchi Piccadilly Theater when he sat down with The Japan Times.
At 77, he was slower of step and whiter of hair than when this interviewer first met him on the set of a “Tora-san” movie in 1991, but one thing had not changed: his distinctive, pleasantly nasal voice, obscured only slightly by a cold.
Yamada was in a mood to celebrate: “Kaabee,” his 80th film as a director (his first was released in 1961), had been selected for the Competition section of the 58th Berlin International Film Festival (Feb. 7-17).
This is not Yamada’s first such honor — three of his previous films have screened in the Berlin Competition. Also, his 2002 period drama “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Nonetheless, Yamada is still best known in Japan for his 1969-96 film series “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” (better known as “Tora-san”) about a wandering peddler played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, who is forever falling in love but never gets the girl.
Based on a memoir by Teruyo Nogami, a script supervisor for Akira Kurosawa for more than four decades, “Kaabee” is a family drama set in Tokyo in 1940-41, when war clouds were darkening and freedom of expression was vanishing.
In the opening scene the father, a scholar of German literature, is arrested on the charge of shisohan (a “thought” crime).
The mother, played by Sayuri Yoshinaga, then has to raise her two young daughters, Teruyo and Hatsuko, on her own, though her art-student sister (Reiko Dan) and her husband’s bumbling-but-dedicated former student (Tadanobu Asano) rally to her side.
“Kaabee” is set in the early 1940s, but its themes, including the suppression of dissent, still have relevance today. Was that your main reason for wanting to make this film?
What attracted me first was the childhood memoir by Teruyo Nogami. Her father was actually arrested under the Peace Preservation Law (which had the goal of clamping down on communists, labor activists and opponents of Japan’s militarism) and spent time in jail. That’s what Japan was like in 1940 and 1941, but Japanese today don’t know this. I wanted to rekindle their memories. Those were frightening times, when Japan started the Pacific War with an unstoppable wave.
Can we say the same frightening, out-of-control forces that started that war are absent from Japan today? In 1945 we made what was supposed to be a strong commitment to peace. But now (certain forces) are trying to change the “peace Constitution.”
Japan should have remained the one country in the world with no military and a prohibition against war (in the Constitution). Now Japan is going along with America and the Bush administration. I have doubts about whether that’s right.
I imagine that the audience in Berlin will understand this theme.
Yes, in the 1930s and 1940s Germany went through similar experiences. We were both fascist countries. It must have been scary to oppose Hitler at that time, so I think the German audience will understand that aspect.
I’ve seen a lot of Japanese movies about the war, but yours is something different — you focus on one family instead of combatants.
There aren’t many films about that specific time. The movies made in the 1940s had to pass military censors, so they don’t express any reality. The movies made after 1945 are also lacking in that they don’t portray the lives of ordinary people during wartime.
I heard comments that Sayuri Yoshinaga, at 62, was too old to play the mother, but she brings a sense of realism to the role. She makes you believe that she really could have been that sort of mother in that period.
I think that’s because Sayuri-san is always youthful.
She is especially good with the children — there seems to be a real bond.
Yes, her character really is a very kind person. Also, she herself is a woman that Japanese people look up to. She has a special place in the hearts of the Japanese. If you ask who could take Yoshinaga’s place in that respect, you’d be stuck for an answer — she’s that kind of figure.
The children also look and act true to the period — they look innocent and seem naive compared to today’s children. Was that in your mind when you were casting?
No, but the crew and actors made a natural transition to that time period. It’s not like you can explain to children and they’ll understand. I think it was a natural process.
It’s the same with period drama. I worked with the actors and crew to imagine what the period was like. The actual information to hand might be slim — what they ate, what they wore, the words they used and so on, so we imagined together. Or we would look at photographs and such. That sort of effort naturally created an image of 1940s Japan that everybody could share — that kind of thing is really crucial. I did something similar in making “Tasogare Seibei.”
Did you have to give a lot acting directions to the children?
It’s hard to direct children, to extract what’s good from a child’s character. When I read Nogami’s “Kaabee,” a movie popped into my head — George Stevens’ “I Remember Mama” (1948). I really liked that movie and thought I’d like to make something like that, where a little girl narrates her memories of her mother.
Did you talk with Nogami about her own memories of the period?
Yes, we had a lot of discussions. I had a lot to ask her especially about the period (of the film). There were a lot of things only Nogami would have known, such as how her father was arrested. Of course, she wrote about it, but I needed more detail. I wanted to know how she took a boxed lunch to her father in prison.
I asked for descriptions of other things too, such as her memories of family life, what kind of clothes she wore, whether she wore traditional geta (wooden sandals) or shoes, what she did with her friends. The staff involved with the visuals also asked her a lot of questions.
Your casting of Tadanobu Asano was against type. He usually plays violent or troubled characters, such as his role in the Academy Award nominated “Mongol,” but in your film, he’s the nerdy comic relief.
That was quite an adventure, quite a challenge for me, because he had never played a role like that before. He had always had the beard and long hair, so I asked him if he would shave his beard and cut his hair. He’d had that look for a long time, but he said, “I’ll do it, I’ll cut my hair” (laughs). He plays a very serious but clumsy character, good-hearted but not very smart.
The look of “Kaabee” is also different from the usual film set in that period. Certain scenes reminded me of the Dutch master painter Rembrandt.
That was in the back of my mind — the subdued colors and lighting. I focused on that.
What message would you like people to take away from the film?
When the war ended in 1945, Japan was the loser and there was an international trial. Then (former Prime Minister Hideki) Tojo and other Class-A war criminals were hanged. But in Japan the police had been rounding up people who were opposed to the war and killing them without trial. About 60,000 people were arrested.
In Germany, those who cooperated with the Nazis were tried in German courts, separately from the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In Japan we didn’t have that. The husband in “Kaabee” is basically killed by the police, but the killers weren’t put on trial. They brazenly returned to the police force.
Japan made a wonderful postwar Constitution, but no amends have been made for past wrongs. In Germany, the Nazi collaborators were made to pay for what they did; in Japan, a war criminal could became prime minister, such as Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of our recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe. There’s something strange about that.