Born in Osaka in 1958, Junji Sakamoto has set many of his 13 feature films, including his award-winning 1989 debut “Dotsuitarunen,” in his native Kansai. He arrived for our interview at the Takanawa Prince Hotel looking dapper in a retro-style suit that he later told me had been worn by an actor friend in a yakuza movie. Not quite 1947, but close enough. He spoke in a baritone voice that somehow seemed big for his slight frame — a good tool for the director of a heavily populated film like “Kono Yo no Soto E.”
How difficult was it to re-create the look and feel of the period?
It’s not a period I’m personally familiar with, so the big question for me was whether the film would be true to reality. No matter how many photos I looked at or books I read or documentary films I saw, I had not experienced that period myself.
I wanted to get the atmosphere right as far as possible. I wanted older people who remember those times to feel asthough they were in a time machine. I may have made mistakes on certain details, but I wanted to re-create the feel of the period accurately.
How well do you think you’ve succeeded? What have the older people who have seen it said?
Some have told me it’s like time traveling. Others said I did a good job, considering how young I am [laughs]. Nobody came out mad at all the mistakes. [laughs]
A lot of people said that jazz made them feel nostalgic — it wasn’t modern jazz but standards and swing. It really brought back the feeling of the period for them. People may have been poor then, but listening to the music of the time, including Japanese music, you get a feeling for how rich their emotional lives were.
Another thing that impressed me was how the actors, even the extras, looked to be of the period. In a lot of Japanese period dramas, the actors look plump and healthy, but in this film they looked lean and hungry. [laughs]
Mitch, the musician who played the trumpeter, lost 15 kg for the film [laughs]. Also, he’s a real jazzman, so he had the period feel for the music right.
Joe Odagiri, who played the drummer, is another real-life musician.
But the way jazz and rock drummers hold the sticks is different. Also the timing for the bass drum is different in rock and jazz, so having experience as a [rock musician] made it harder for him — he had to relearn some things.
Masato Hagiwara, who plays the lead, had no musical experience going into the film — he seems to have had it the hardest.
He practiced the sax for hours in a karaoke box [laughs]. He couldn’t practice at home — it would have been too loud.
We did a lot of work getting the sets to look period, but more important was to make the playing look real, not phony. The usual way is to shoot the hands of a pro doing the fingering and then shoot the actor’s face. We shot the actors actually playing. The music on the soundtrack is by professionals, but when we filmed the scenes [in the clubs], the actors were actually playing the instruments, not just fingering them.
You also paid a lot of attention to the process of how they learn to play jazz and finally become good at it.
In the beginning [of the film] they are playing badly. They aren’t just inexperienced — their hearts aren’t really in it. All they are thinking about is making money and becoming famous. They don’t care about the music itself.
Now that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are on their way to Iraq, the movie is not a period piece, but very timely.
I don’t feel good about that. I wish it weren’t so timely.
You started planning the film nearly two years ago.
In the summer of 2002. At that time no one in Japan had any idea what would happen in Iraq. So I didn’t make the film to be timely. Now Japanese have to think about the changes going on in the world. Before, they felt those changes had nothing to do with them. Now we’re in a period when Japan has to become involved in the world — or rather is becoming involved whether it wants to or not. That includes the Middle East, of course.
Japanese can’t easily talk about their own country. They can talk about their own lives, but not their own country. They aren’t good at political discussion. They can become emotional, but can’t easily express what they’re thinking. Koreans and Chinese can do it, though.
Japanese are often afraid of being misunderstood when they talk about politics.
So they end up being vague [laughs]. You can’t tell if they’re saying yes or no [laughs].
They’re vague because they don’t want to hurt other people, I think. That’s a plus in some ways. They may be running away [laughs], but they aren’t being malicious. They’re afraid that if they speak out, they’ll be misunderstood — and do some harm.
The characters in the film, especially the ones played by Matsuoka and Shea Whigham, butt heads, though.
The Occupation forces brought democracy to Japan and tried to teach it to the Japanese, but the Japanese equated democracy with individualism — with everyone looking out for themselves. Until then Japanese had been taught that individualism was wrong — they had to unite together as one for the common good, with everyone thinking the same way. Then suddenly democracy came in — and people thought it was all right to do whatever they wanted. They shifted from one extreme to another.
All the main Japanese characters have shadows in their pasts, in their lives.
They’re all bearing burdens of one sort or another. Music offers them a way to ease those burdens.
Did you create their stories from your research, from listening to old jazzmen and so on?
I didn’t have specific models, but in the course of doing research I found stories that I added to the mix. For example, the Odagiri character lost members of his family in the Nagasaki bombing, but he’s still playing jazz for the Americans. I actually heard a story like that — and added it to Odagiri’s character
Shea Whigham’s character lost a brother in the battle of Leyte — so it’s not just the Japanese who have these shadows.
When I was writing the script I knew what I wanted to say about the Japanese character, but I wondered how I should write about the Americans. I did research, but I wondered what the Americans who had come with the Occupation forces were thinking and feeling. I had a problem with that.
I wondered about the casting of Peter Mullan — why a Scottish actor instead of an American?
There’s a tune “Danny Boy” that has a lot of meaning for [Mullan’s] character. It was originally an Irish tune — so for that reason I wanted to use, not an American, but someone from that part of the world, from Scotland. The character is not necessarily Irish American, though.