Yoko Narahashi might just be the most powerful Japanese woman in Hollywood thanks to her work in casting blockbusters such as “The Last Samurai” and “The Wolverine.” Her new film as a director, however, shuns special effects and battles, and focuses on a more intimate story.

“Hold My Hand” is a heart-warming film that was shot in just 12 days on an extremely tight budget. It’s Narahashi’s third outing as a director and follows Makoto (Jay Kabira), a man with a slight intellectual disability who sets out on a journey to Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. He meets a young woman named Reiko (Sumire Matsubara) along the way, an encounter that brings back memories of his wife, Sakura (Nanami Kameda) — and the crime he committed trying to protect her.

Playwright and actor Masayuki Imai initially penned the script as a stage production, and, despite then being diagnosed with colon cancer, he decided to turn the story into a film and cast himself as the lead. Unfortunately, he was forced to pull out due to his deteriorating health. He passed away last May.

“When Masayuki called and asked me to direct the movie, I had a feeling that something wasn’t right. But it still came as a big shock to hear the words ‘stage four cancer,’ ” Narahashi, 68, tells The Japan Times, adding that they had known each other for years and even worked together on her 1995 directorial debut, “The Winds of God.”

“To see him looking so frail was hard,” she continues. “Neither of us wanted to admit he couldn’t do it. To say that would seem like we were giving up — even a month before his death there was denial. The only thing I did say to him was, ‘Just in case.’ He knew what I meant.”

The role of Makoto was subsequently taken over by Okinawa-born actor and announcer Kabira, who Narahashi says “was like a younger brother to Imai.” The pair had worked together on a number of scripts and Kabira pays his own tribute to the late playwright with a touching, understated portrayal.

Another powerful feature of the film is the chemistry between Kabira and his effervescent costars Matsubara and Kameda. The latter is a relatively new face in the industry having studied acting in Los Angeles for the past four years. To prepare for her role as Sakura — who like Makoto has a slight disability — she stayed with six young women who have similar learning difficulties for a week. Providing one of the standout performances in the movie, the 25-year-old Kameda has a bright future ahead of her.

“(Kameda) just brought so much light and energy to the part, which the hero needed,” Narahashi says. “There’s nothing put on, it’s a natural radiance. Her English ability also means there could be opportunities abroad — it’s now about finding the right role.”

Narahashi is certainly a good woman to have on side in that regard. Known as Japan’s “gatekeeper to Hollywood,” she famously convinced director Edward Zwick to cast Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto in the 2003 epic “The Last Samurai.” The likes of Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel,” 2006) and Takamasa “Miyavi” Ichihara (“Unbroken,” 2014) also have the founding director of UPS Academy for actors to thank for their big breaks abroad.

As a casting director, Narahashi says she loves giving new actors a chance, but believes opportunities are limited in Japan because of the selection process.

“It’s archaic,” she says. “You can’t have access to actors here like you do in the States because companies are so protective and secluded. This means you’re always seeing the same old people on TV — but it’s not because they are necessarily good. I’d love to see a system in this country where you had more extensive auditions going out to everyone. Unfortunately we can’t seem to break down these barriers.”

As for Japan’s film industry, Narahashi feels that domestic interest is continuing to grow, however, as a result many filmmakers here are now “churning out” new material for the sake of it “without really knowing what they want to say or why they need to make it.”

Another issue is the lack of money.

“In America you work on films that are worth millions of dollars and then you come to Japan and it feels like you have to produce something with ¥10,” she says. “You do what you can. With this movie we didn’t have much time or money so it’s almost as if the actors were making guest appearances. They did it for Masayuki. They desperately wanted to get it right so they could honor him. I think there was a lot of magic involved.”

“Hold My Hand” opens May 28, the anniversary of Masayuki Imai’s death. For more information, visit www.teotsunaidekaerouyo.com.

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