Junji Sakamoto’s ‘Ernesto’ tells the story of a Japanese man’s role in Che’s revolution

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Contributing Writer

The Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara remains an enduring leftist icon throughout the world, including in Japan. Here, however, his visage pops up in somewhat apolitical moments — like at soccer games in support of the Urawa Reds.

A new film about Che (real name: Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna) that opens in Japan tomorrow and aims to show the deeper relationship he had with this country. “Ernesto” follows the brief friendship that blossomed between one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century and a second-generation Japanese-Bolivian named Freddy Maemura Hurtado. Che was so taken with Hurtado’s personality and medical skills (Che himself was a doctor), that he granted him full use of his first name, Ernesto. It’s a slice of political history that few Japanese are aware of — that and the fact that Che once visited this country for 12 days, in 1959.

“Ernesto” is the creation of Junji Sakamoto, who has been referred to by Japanese media as “the rebel from Osaka” because he’s rumored to have ticked off more than a few higher-ups in the industry during the course of his 28-year career. He’s also known as being one of the few successful filmmakers — aside from Takeshi Kitano — who is not dependent on the country’s rigid studio system. “Ernesto” is Sakamoto’s first international collaboration, in this case with Cuba.

“Che Guevara was wildly popular with my parents’ generation,” the 59-year-old Sakamoto tells The Japan Times. “For the Japanese, fatigued from World War II and wary of American democracy, Guevara represented another way of thinking and living. In some ways, maybe there was more political freedom back in the postwar period when Guevara was visiting. Back then it was possible to put flowers in the cemetery of the war dead in Chidorigafuchi or Yasukuni Shrine. Now it’s a heavily loaded event. The very fact that Che Guevara actually came to this country seems like a miracle now.”

Sakamoto says this while sitting next to Camilo Guevara, one of Che’s sons.

“Now that Cuba is on the brink of huge social changes, it’s a good time to rethink the concept of revolution and what it means, how it has changed since the days of the Cuban revolution,” Guevara says. “Personally, I think a revolution is a living thing. It’s volatile and sensitive and needs constant attention and dedication. I think that the Cubans pulled off a revolution that the outside world thought was impossible because they truly understood the nature of what they were trying to do.”

Sakamoto listens intently to Guevara’s words before adding his own thoughts on working in Cuba.

“I was very surprised when we were on location in Cuba,” he says. “I thought that Cuba would be like many Communist countries — that there was a privileged class and signs of corruption or social injustice. But in Havana, I didn’t see anything of the sort. The Cuban staff told me, ‘The revolution continues. We are fighting every day.’ They were really patriotic, constantly thinking of their lives in terms of how (the revolution) affected their country.”

“Ernesto” contemplates the idea of country a good deal. For Che (played by Cuban actor Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) the idea of “country” meant the whole of Latin America, which has long suffered from corrupt rulers often sponsored by American governments. In the film, Hurtado (played by Joe Odagiri, who shed 12 kilograms and learned Spanish for the role) also learns to think of Latin America as a whole. He travels to Cuba from Bolivia three years after the revolution to attend medical school, and that year the Cuban missile crisis erupts. Hurtado volunteers as a soldier and eventually encounters Che, Fidel Castro and the spirit of the revolution. The combination proves a fiercely intoxicating drug for an idealistic young man.

Later, Hurtado decides to join Che’s National Liberation Army in Bolivia, where he is then arrested and executed at the age of 25. A little over a month later Che meets the same fate at 39.

Camilo Guevara was only 5 at the time.

“People are always asking about my father and what he was like,” he says. “But memories are unreliable and I don’t wish to say anything that’s inaccurate.”

During the interview, Guevara displays a real sense of humor but never gets overly sentimental.

“I simply want to carry on the work of Che Guevara,” he says. “I also want to see what effect Cuban-U.S. relations will mean for Cuba. Naturally, I’m concerned about the new president (Donald Trump). Cuba does not hate the U.S. There is much anger but very little hatred. Che Guevara always held that hatred is the worst reason to start a revolution.”

One of the pivotal scenes in “Ernesto” is when Che cuts short his stay in Osaka to take the train down to Hiroshima, where he visits the city’s atomic bomb memorial.

He points out to a Japanese journalist who has joined him on his journey that the United States made Japan suffer and asks why the Japanese aren’t more outraged. There’s an overwhelming sadness in this moment, enhanced by the polite, confused silence that greets those words.

“Part of what I wanted to show with that scene is how the Japanese are apt to blame themselves, that the anger is often directed toward ourselves and not America,” Sakamoto says. “True, we plunged head-first into war. But no matter how you look at it, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, plus all those air raids during the war that killed millions of civilians … it was horrible. But we lost the opportunity to speak out and say it was horrible.

“Nothing can change what happened, but I felt a strong need to revisit that moment, when Che Guevara asked that question. It still haunts me.”