It’s been a long while since the Korean Wave first washed through the Japanese entertainment industry and altered the landscape forever. Not a day goes by without a Korean star making an appearance in the Japanese media. DVD rental stores devote huge sections of floor space to hanryū productions.
It seems, however, that this adoration is one-sided; plenty of Korean performers find raging success in Japan, while their Japanese counterparts are rarely invited to work on the peninsula. Full-fledged collaborations are practically unheard of. And this is why “Michi — Hakuji no Hito (Takumi: The Man Beyond Borders)” is a bit of an eyebrow raiser.
Directed by Banmei Takahashi, it’s a biopic of Takumi Asakawa (played here by Hisashi Yoshizawa), a Japanese forestry expert and bureaucrat who first went to Korea in 1914 to prevent the Japanese Imperial government from devastating the nation’s timber resources. It’s a touchy subject all around: Asakawa deliberately went against Japan’s imperialist/colonialist policies; in the process, he made many friends among the Korean populace but was alienated from the Japanese community.
“I think it was especially hard for Asakawa because he grew up in the Japanese educational system — which doesn’t allow for much individualism, even now,” Yoshizawa tells The Japan Times. “But for a Japanese man of the early 20th century to have the mindset to throw out concerns for worldly success or wealth or just staying out of trouble to secure his future … It was hard for me to wrap my mind around it.”
Asakawa also fell in love with Korean porcelain, which he felt was a metaphor for all that was beautiful about the country. When riots broke out in Keijo (old Seoul) demanding Korea’s independence from Japan, Asakawa expressed his solidarity with the Koreans by discarding his suit and donning a traditional jeogori garment. The film charts his earnest wish for assimilation as well as his initially rocky political collaboration with Yee Chung Rim (Bae Soo Bin), a Korean bureaucrat turned activist. This later morphed into a solid bond that defined Asakawa’s political and professional stance in Korea.
Yoshizawa says of the Korean-Japanese collaboration: “It couldn’t have come at a better time. In another era, this sort of film wouldn’t have been possible, because everything about it is so sensitive. But the hanryū boom laid out the groundwork for something like this to happen.”
“But I wouldn’t describe this as a political film,” adds Bae. “It deals with issues that the two countries have more or less avoided until now. Rather, I think it affords a good opportunity to get in touch with a different era and to renew one’s convictions that history should not be repeated.”
On the set as during our interview, Yoshizawa and Bae shared an easy rapport, communicating with one another in English — a very rare thing to see, at least among Japanese actors.
“I think Japanese actors should learn to speak in other languages,” says Yoshizawa. “Otherwise it’s hard to get out of the confines of the home field, hard to see what’s going on in the world, and hard to expand your horizons as an actor.”
He says he was struck by the way Asakawa not only embraced Korean culture, but went out of his way to adopt the language and speak like a native.
Bae agrees. “I imagine a lot of people in Keijo were impressed by Asakawa,” he says. “In those days, few Koreans had the time or funds to nurture traditional culture, and here was this Japanese, working for the Imperial government, but who spoke like a Korean and professed to be in love with Korean porcelain. It was probably like, ‘Wow! What a guy!’ “
“I think the first and biggest step for him was that he got out of Japan and saw another country,” ponders Yoshizawa. “His mind opened up to new possibilities. I understand that very well, because my own mind opened up when I went over to Korea to work with Bae and everyone else. I realized I had been swimming around in a very small tank.”
“It was hard on anyone trying to be different in 1914,” says Bae. “Both Asakawa and Yee had to do battle to protect the things they loved. But I also think they were the sort of men who knew how to listen to their hearts, and base their actions on what they thought was true, or sincere. In that sense, the two were destined to meet.”