Haruki Kadokawa is the closest Japanese equivalent to fabled Hollywood moguls like Sam Goldwyn or Howard Hughes in their glory days as master promoters and unrepentant egotists.

For nearly 20 years, from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s, Kadokawa was the most powerful and notorious movie producer in Japan, known as much for his extravagances and eccentricities as his many hits, culminating in 1993’s dinosaur epic, “Rex.”

Then, in August 1993, an associate was caught smuggling cocaine into Japan and named Kadokawa as the buyer. The legal wrangles that ensued not only dominated much of Kadokawa’s life for the next decade, but also resulted in a 2 1/2-year jail stretch. In the face-conscious, scandal-shy Japanese film world, he became a non-person.

But now, after years of struggle and a battle with cancer, the prodigal supernova of Japanese cinema is back with his biggest picture in years. The World War II epic “Otokotachi no Yamato (Yamato: The Last Battle)” is a 20-billion yen roll of the dice that Kadokawa is winning. Opening on Dec. 17, “Yamato” now looks likely to reach the 6-billion yen box-office mark — making it the highest-grossing Japanese film of 2005.

The son of the founder of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing, Kadokawa became its president in 1975 and soon turned the house, best known for textbooks and intellectual tomes, into a purveyor of best-selling pop fiction.

Meanwhile, in 1976 he produced “Inagamike no Ichizoku (The Inagami Family),” a hit mystery film whose high-powered, sophisticated marketing blazed a new trail through the hidebound Japanese film business. After that, through close on two decades, Kadokawa made around 60 films, several of which he directed, including his 1982 debut “Yogoreta Eiyu (Dirty Hero)” and the 1990 samurai swashbuckler “Ten to Chi to (Heaven and Earth)” which became the third-highest grossing Japanese film ever made.

Not content with churning out box-office and critical winners one after another, and launching teenage newcomers to stardom — most famously, kewpie-doll-faced superidol Hiroko Yakushimaru — during those golden years Kadokawa also promoted himself as a modern-day Renaissance Man.

A lifelong poet, he saw his haiku and tanka verses published in legitimate poetry journals. A serious student of Japanese religion and philosophy, he also founded a Shinto shrine in Tsumagoi, Gunma Prefecture, in 1974. There, he even served as a part-time priest, leading the faithful, including his show biz friends, in shrine rituals — and, according to the tabloids, hosting drug-fueled parties afterwards.

A born adventurer, Kadokawa led a 1985 expedition that used a mini-sub to finally locate the wreck of the Yamato, the massive battleship sunk with the loss of more than 3,000 men on a suicide mission to Okinawa in the closing months of the war.

But Kadokawa also dreamed of playing a leading role on the world stage. In 1991, after bombing on Broadway with a musical adaptation of James Clavell’s novel “Shogun,” he bounced right back with the construction and launch of a full-scale replica of Christopher Columbus’s flagship the Santa Maria, which he personally piloted from Barcelona at the start of a round-the-world voyage.

Now, for “Yamato,” which portrays the lives, emotions and deaths of young sailors aboard the Imperial Japanese Navy’s biggest warship, Kadokawa’s vision has been equally grandiose. Shot on a nearly full-scale, 600-million yen mock-up in Onomichi Harbor, Hiroshima Prefecture, the film is Kadokawa’s unabashed attempt to equal the spectacle and scale of “Titanic” or “Saving Private Ryan.”

Interviewed at his office in Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho — a media company he made his base after his 1993 exit from Kadokawa Shoten — Kadokawa, sporting a natty seersucker suit, was as feisty, opinionated and stylish as ever.

With the release of “Lorelei,” “Sengoku Jietai (Samurai Commando)” and “Bokoku no Aegis (Aegis),” war movies have become trendy again. But your film “Otokotachi no Yamato” is quite different from the others.

First of all, I have my doubts as to whether the films you mentioned are really war movies . . . In any event, they’re all fiction — they have no basis in reality. “Otokotachi no Yamato” is fundamentally telling a true story. We built a replica of the battleship that is 190 meters long — the largest set of its kind ever made in Japan.

As it’s already 60 years since the end of the war, this may be the last movie of its kind. Did you see it that way, as a sort of final message to future generations?

I’ve made 66 movies altogether, but this is the first one I felt I had to make — this is not just business for me. I suppose you could say I had a mission to make this film. Of course, a movie should make money — film-making is a business, and it’s important that your movie is a hit if you intend to make another one — but this is the first time I’ve felt this strongly about a film. I’ve been in the movie business just so I could make this film. That goes not just for me, but for the director, Junya Sato, the author of the original novel, Jun Henmi, and many of the staff and cast.

How did you get involved in this project?

For me personally, the start of this project was 20 years ago, when we discovered the Yamato (on the seabed between Nagasaki and Okinawa). At first we didn’t know where it had sunk . . . the memories of the survivors were vague. By that time, 40 years had passed since the end of the war. It was pretty tough on the survivors and the relatives of the dead, especially the widows, since they didn’t know where their husbands had died. There were no bones left, you see.

Before going to war, Japanese soldiers would cut their hair and nails and make a keepsake. But there were no keepsakes from the Yamato. Instead, relatives just got a piece of paper from the Navy saying that their husband or son was dead. The Navy didn’t tell them anything, and they hadn’t known that the Yamato was making a suicide attack on Okinawa. Once they knew that their husband or son had died on the Yamato, they were extremely eager to find out where the ship had gone down. That concern motivated my search.

How did you manage to locate the wreck?

At the request of Jun Henmi, the author of a book on the Yamato, I started to look. I didn’t know exactly where to go, but I had a hunch where the wreck might be and so I had the boat go there. Then I had the boat stop and we sent a mini-sub down 350 meters to the seabed to search. We found the bow of the Yamato relatively quickly. That was on April 30, 1985. The next day, we lowered the mini-sub at a different spot and saw, right in front of our eyes on the seabed, a 46-cm shell from one of the guns. After going forward a while we found the ship, broken into two parts from explosions. We were able to determine that it really was the Yamato from the chrysanthemum seal on the bow. We were in what you call in English the Black Current (Kuroshio), but 50 meters ahead of us the black current became blue. We saw the chrysanthemum seal surrounded by blue water. I was so moved I got goose bumps. That was 20 years ago. At that time I was not thinking of making a film about the Yamato . . . just finding it was a miracle. Better people than me had tried and failed to find it. I think I was guided by the spirits of the Yamato’s dead.

How was it making the film?

Not only Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, who composed the theme song, but many of the people involved in the film felt that they were guided by the spirits of the Yamato dead. The film is not only about the sailors on board the Yamato, though. The Pacific War began on Dec. 8, 1941, or by American time, Dec. 7. On Dec. 16, the Yamato was completed. So the Yamato was launched together with the Pacific War and sank in 1945, together with the end of the war. There’s a big significance in that. That is why the Yamato is so symbolic. “Yamato” means “Japan” in Japanese. In other words, a ship named after the country was sunk, and that tragedy has had a big impact on the souls of the Japanese people. Those facts have influenced my making of the film. To be more precise, they compelled me to make it.

Will young people who don’t know much about the war understand the symbolism you spoke of? Is your film a message to them?

Of course. Toei is the distributor. Toei has made a number of war movies, and the audiences for them have been mostly older people. Toei intended them for older audiences from the planning stage. I’m different. Young people in their teens and 20s keep the film business going, and I want them to see this film. I think they’ll support it. But Toei didn’t believe me when I told them that. At the beginning of July, Toei conducted a survey . . . [and they found that] more than 60 percent of respondents between the ages of 15 and 25 said they wanted to see the film. The corresponding numbers for people in their 30s and 40s were lower, and not so great for those in their 50s and 60s either. In other words, the core audience for this film is young people. I find it really interesting that the group I most want to see the film is the group that most wants to see it. That age group knows that Japan and America fought, but not much more. Some will ask you who won the war. (laughs) It’s not hard to understand — looking at Japan today, it’s hard to believe we lost.

The Yamato has quickly become a symbol of the war’s end, 60 years ago. Why did that happen?

Because I made a film. Now there’s a Yamato boom. A Yamato Museum opened in Kure in April, and in its first three months it had 400,000 visitors. I had the Yamato set built in Onomichi [a port on the Inland Sea] in Hiroshima Prefecture. We opened our Yamato set to the general public, charging 500 yen per person. Most of the visitors have been couples in their 20s and 30s. A lot of women have come. It has become part of a sightseeing course — people see the Hiroshima Atomic Dome, the one-tenth-scale model of the battleship in the Yamato Museum and our set in Onomichi. Travel agencies are even making package tours centered around this course.

Are you going to let the set stand?

Yes, we’ll let it stand for the moment, but we have to do something with it by next May. It was built for a film — it’s not permanent. We used 600 tons of steel girders, but we didn’t use only steel like the builders of the real Yamato. We used wood for the decks and to make the ship’s outer shell. To make the set permanent, we’d have to rebuild it with steel, but that costs money we can’t afford, so we’ll tear it down in May.

The Yamato set may be the last of its kind. Most filmmakers today would make that sort of set on computers.

Right. People often ask why we built the set. But building a set and then adding CG, or making everything with CG, are totally different. Also, the actors’ performances and the depth of the images are completely different. If we’d just used CG [for the ship], we’d have shot “Yamato” in a studio. If we’d done that, the film would have had no depth.

But when the actors boarded the ship we had built, they felt as though they were really taking part in a war. They all felt that way. Their expressions changed — their whole consciousness changed. Before they started working on this film the actors, including the two leads — Takashi Sorimachi and Shidou Nakamura — said there was no way they would ever want to fight in a war. But at the press conference announcing the completion of the film, they said they would go to war to protect their families — they all said that.

In a war, both the winners and the losers are trying to protect their families, their communities, their countries. While trying to protect these things, they’re killing each other — that’s what war is. It’s a tragedy for both sides. I want to say that clearly in the film — that both the winners and losers are victims.

You said you wanted this film to be seen by 10 million people in Japan. What about abroad, particularly Asia? As you probably know, “Bokoku no Aegis (Aegis)” got some negative coverage in South Korea and elsewhere for its supposedly nationalistic message. Are you concerned that your film might get the same kind of treatment?

What is the message of “Bokoku no Aegis”? What is it trying to say? One of my haiku has more of a message: “Nippon ni Beigun ga iru atsusa kan (The heat of the American army in Japan).” It means that the American army is heat. It’s a reference to summer, to the fact that Japan is not independent. In other words, the American army is like a force of nature. In the film “Bokoku no Aegis,” the Japanese government borrows the power of the U.S. military to sink the Aegis (a hijacked Japanese warship). But what exactly are they trying to say? If you don’t read the novel [the film is based on], you don’t know.

In “Yamato,” however, I am trying, through this drama of life and death, to talk about self-sacrifice, about risking your life for the things you love. That’s the theme of the film.

I borrowed the stage of war for this drama of life and death, but in making it I was guided by the spirits of those who died on the Yamato. They wanted me to tell the truth about them . . . and about what parents everywhere all say in that situation — “don’t die.” That phrase was used in the TV commercial for the film. These were also the words that I wanted Toei to write into my film — this was something I felt very strongly about. They appear in the film, but they are spoken before the war. What went on aboard the Yamato, only those who walked its decks can say.

Losing is the ultimate eye-opener. Japan is no longer moving forward — it relies too much on rails that have already been laid and has forgotten how to make new types of progress. What is going to save us — our sense of duty? Or are we going to finally wake up? We are hoping for someone to lead the way, someone who has a fresh outlook for Japan. That is a motif of the film. When you lose you wake up — and Japan needs to wake up.

So this is not just business for you — the film comes from the gut, so to speak.

That’s right — this film is me, you might say. My feelings are reflected in the film, from start to finish. The director shares them, as does the whole cast and crew — we all felt that the dead were guiding us as we made this film. . . . I had to make this film. Now, though, I’m going to make films for myself.

Do your own experiences over the past decades influence your work now? You were the biggest producer in Japan, but then you found yourself in prison.

Yes those experiences have influenced the way I live. I don’t know how they are reflected in the film, but my outlook on life has changed. I’ve been fighting a battle for 12 years now. I was judged and condemned by the Japanese legal system. Until then I had dedicated myself to Japan — then I was judged and condemned.

My anger at that injustice is extremely strong. For the rest of my life, I will be an enemy of the Japanese government. That’s different from my love for Japan, because Japan and the Japanese government are different. I’ll hate the Japanese government all my life, but I love Japan, the country. That’s why I write haiku now — because I love Japanese culture, but I loathe the Japanese government.

That sort of message appears in the film — it comes from the last 12 years of my life. I’m saying: “Don’t trust the government.” You may go off to die in a war, but don’t trust the government.

So you’re still a problem child.

I’m a delinquent. (laughs) I’m a lifelong delinquent. In any era, it’s the delinquents who give birth to culture. When you forget that, you lose sight of the meaning of culture. The people who create culture are always problem children in a sense.

How much of that spirit still exists in Japan today?

It’s gone, from education and everywhere else. Everyone has the same values and the same face. There are more and more people who can’t see their own faces — the age doesn’t matter. Everyone has the same face, everyone is in the same mold.

You’re involved with publishing and various other businesses. How does filmmaking fit into all of this? Do you want to get back to where you were in the 1980s?

Not really. I don’t have that sense of mission any more. When I was in prison I realized that having a sense of mission, a sense of justice, are all bullshit. That sort of thing doesn’t really exist.

What I understood was that human beings are born to enjoy life. More than knowing it instinctively, I came to understand it. You might say I learned it on my own. There’s nothing more interesting than the business of movies as a life game. I have a sense of life as a game. (laughs)

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