Film

Kengo Kora and the perfect period drama sword fight

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

‘Game of Thrones” star Sean Bean is well-known for dying in almost everything he stars in. If you had to find a Japanese equivalent, though, it would certainly be Kengo Kora.

Since his 2006 big-screen debut, the Kumamoto native has featured in around 50 films, averaging almost four a year. Notable titles include box-office hit “Shin Godzilla,” Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel “Norwegian Wood” (“Noruwei no Mori”) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s award-winning “Shoplifters” (“Manbiki Kazoku”).

Showing no signs of slowing down, the 31-year-old’s latest role is a star turn in “Love’s Twisting Path” (“Tajuro Jun Aiki”), a film by sword-fighting maestro Sadao Nakajima. The beautifully shot period drama, which opens nationwide next month, is set in Kyoto during the final years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) as the bloody battle between pro-emperor activists and supporters of the Tokugawa regime draws to a close.

“It’s a movie that explores the idea of why a person would hold a katana (sword) and what it means to take someone’s life with it,” Kora tells The Japan Times. “It isn’t particularly violent, the focus is more on the psychological aspect of holding a sword. I feel this is something that hasn’t really been explored by many recent historical dramas.

“Often when you watch those kinds of films, the fight scenes are too fast and, therefore, look unrealistic. A typical katana is very heavy, so it’s not easy to cut through people from left to right. People don’t just drop dead either. In my opinion, Tajuro’s story is more believable and profound as it goes in much deeper than other chambara jidaigeki (sword-fighting period dramas) and asks pertinent questions about why these fights are taking place.”

Kora plays the title character Tajuro Kiyokawa, a destitute ronin who has fled from the Choshu Domain in Yamaguchi Prefecture to make a new life in Kyoto as a painter. He moves in next door to a tavern run by a young woman named Otoyo. She becomes his love interest after he helps her out by disposing of violent, unruly customers.

Enjoying the quiet life, the movie’s hero has no desire to return to the battlefield despite the pleas of his half-brother Kazuma, who feels the artist’s katana skills are required for his group, the sonno-joi movement, to overcome the shogunate’s military forces. After refusing on several occasions, Tajuro is eventually dragged into the conflict.

“I found the role quite tough,” says Kora. “There’s a heavy emphasis on sword-fighting and it can be difficult to express feelings through those kinds of scenes. That said, I’m very interested in the philosophy of Bushido. I’ve studied the most famous book on the subject, Nitobe Inazo’s ‘Bushido: The Soul of Japan,’ though I prefer ‘Hagakure’ by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, which was written earlier. Reading them, I could get a good understanding of Tajuro’s thought process.”

Having someone like Nakajima to call upon for advice was also a huge help. The 84-year-old filmmaker is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the subject of sword-fighting in film, and in 2015 directed the documentary “Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay.” A fan of many of his films such as “Yakuza Hooligans” (“Yakuza Gurentai”), and the “Nihon no Don” series, Kora was excited about the prospect of working with the esteemed director, however, at the same time was also a little anxious.

“I’d watched many of Nakajima’s movies from the past and had this distorted image of him because of his more anarchic, edgier pieces of work,” says Kora. “He was actually the friendliest, most energetic person on set even though he’s in his 80s. What pleased me most was his directing style, which was unambiguous and to the point. Rather than complicating things, he would make a brief comment, and I would adjust things based on that. He’s an amazing filmmaker.”

Through the years, Kora has had the good fortune to have worked with and learned from some of Japan’s most esteemed directors such as Kore-eda, the late Yukio Ninagawa, and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata in his last-ever film “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (“Kaguya Hime no Monogatari”).

It was the movies of Kaizo Hayashi that first piqued Kora’s interest in acting, particularly his noir trilogy “Maiku Hama Private Eye.”

“My hero was Masatoshi Nagase, who played Maiku Hama,” says Kora. “His performance, and the movie, in general, had a big impact on my life. At elementary school, I wrote down that I wanted to work in photochemistry and discover Atlantis. That changed to acting after watching Hayashi’s movies. The editor of a magazine I was working at part-time during my high school days knew about that ambition. He put me in touch with the agency I’m still with today. That’s when things really started for me.”

Kora made his on-screen debut in the 2005 high school TV drama “Gokusen,” followed a year later by his first film appearance as swimmer Sho Sugimoto in “The Summer of Stickleback.” After that, the offers just kept coming, though many of the characters in the films and dramas he appeared in failed to survive until the end credits.

“I lost count of the number of times I died, committed suicide or killed someone in a movie during my teens and early 20s,” says Kora. “At the time, I think those parts twisted my personality somewhat. Overseas, there is a mentor who helps actors after they’ve played that kind of role. In Japan, there’s nobody to do that so it’s all on you. It was hard but I think those experiences helped me become the person I am today.”

In recent years Kora has managed to stay alive on screen more than previously. Now an established star in Japan, he believes his performances have evolved as he’s gotten older.

“As actors, we’re constantly learning,” he says. “I love my profession and feel I can find joy in any role I take on. It’s important that I continue challenging myself by playing a wide range of characters, such as Tajuro, that take me out of my comfort zone.”

“Love’s Twisting Path” opens in cinemas nationwide on April 12.