From “Empire of the Sun” to “The Last Samurai,” and from “Memoirs of a Geisha” to “Babel” — when Hollywood film directors have turned their cameras to the Land of the Rising Sun, there is one person they have insisted on having by their side: Yoko Narahashi, a casting agent, producer, sometimes director and, in recent years, all-round interpreter of Japan for U.S. movies.
The daughter of a diplomat — and granddaughter of a one-time steward to Emperor Hirohito — Narahashi’s upbringing in the 1950s and early 1960s was an extraordinarily diverse montage of settings, from schools in Ottawa and Montreal to home in Tokyo and stays at the kind of posh mountain retreats where the remnants of Japan’s aristocracy continued to frolic.
Bitten by the acting bug in her early 20s, Narahashi jetted off for New York in 1967 to study at the renowned Neighborhood Playhouse — known then for its ensemble-based, improvisational, Meisner technique of acting and for its long list of famous alumni — the most recent of whom then included Steve McQueen and Diane Keaton.
After returning to Japan in the early 1970s, Narahashi embarked on a career that included education and theatrical directing. In 1974, she co-founded the Model Language Studio, which teaches English through drama and now operates 33 schools nationwide. In 1977, she directed “Hair” for Model Production, a theater company specializing in English-language stagings.
By that time, Narahashi was married to Johnny Nomura, the music producer behind the popular band Godiego (though the couple were afterwards divorced). Narahashi acted as stage producer for the band and also penned the lyrics for many of its songs. One 1978 ballad is so famous that many Japan Times readers can probably recite it from heart: the theme song for the television program “Monkey” (“Saiyuki” in Japanese), which was exported to the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s and ’80s, where it garnered legions of fans — this writer among them.
Narahashi’s first Hollywood job was as an assistant on Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun,” from 1987. Since then she has become somewhat of a specialist casting agent for Japanese actors. It was she who launched the Hollywood career of Ken Watanabe, for example, placing him opposite Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai” after sensing an untapped charisma in the then-television star. Actress Rinko Kikuchi’s lauded turn as a deaf-mute schoolgirl in 2006’s “Babel” was also the result of a Narahashi casting call.
In addition, Narahashi has directed films herself — most notably 1995’s “Wings of God,” a tale about two New York-based comedians who, after being sent back in time to a school for kamikaze pilots, try to convince their comrades that their suicidal missions will be in vain.
With characters whose dual perspectives on the war mirrored her own — from both North America and Japan — the film was a very personal endeavor for the director. In her latest film project — where she is executive producer rather than director — she continues the same introspective journey.
Titled “Emperor” and starring Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, this explores the process by which the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers during the postwar Occupation of Japan, and his staff — notably Brigadier General Bonner Fellers — came to the decision not to put Emperor Hirohito on trial for war crimes.
The subject matter is highly relevant — and potentially controversial — in light of current moves within Japan’s ruling party to alter the postwar Constitution that MacArthur’s staff ultimately penned.
More importantly, however, it is a story to which Narahashi feels a very close personal connection. After all, it was her own grandfather, Teizaburo Sekiya — the steward to Emperor Hirohito — who is thought to have played a role in shaping Fellers’ opinion.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Japan Times, Narahashi explains that what prompted her to make the new film was a desire to add to the historical record the kind of firsthand and personal perspectives on Emperor Hirohito that she gleaned through her family and the stories they told.
You’ve had a hand in many Hollywood depictions of Japan — and not just as a casting director. How would you describe your involvement in such films?
With “Empire of the Sun,” I was just kind of an assistant, but I was able to sit with Mr. (Steven) Spielberg and I could see how he cast. That was very interesting.
Other than that, I’ve been doing a lot of casting work, but the casting system in Japan is very different from in the United States, so it’s not so easy for an American agent to go to a Japanese manager and strike a deal. Thus I tend to need to “translate” the business practices, as well as the language.
With “The Last Samurai,” I think it was really the first time for Hollywood to go that far in depicting Japan — basically, the only Westerner in the cast was Tom (Cruise). I had to help him with his Japanese-language dialogue. I also cast Ken Watanabe in the role of (the samurai) Katsumoto and helped him with his English-language dialogue. Then there were about 500 Japanese extras, so I occasionally had to do pep talks or whatever.
What is it like working as an intermediary between a Western director and a Japanese actor?
With “Babel,” at one point the director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) was taking a lot of long shots of Rinko, and she was giving her all of every take, so by the time he got to the close-up, she just didn’t have enough left in her. And Alejandro couldn’t wait, so he was like, “What shall we do?” So I’d sit her down and make her relax a little bit, because she hadn’t really ever acted that full-on before. That kind of thing is quite common.
Tell me about the casting process itself.
The usual process is that a casting director reads the script very early on, even before any actors. Like with Edward (Zwick, director of “The Last Samurai”), he was still revising the script when I first read it. I waited about half a year after that before I met him at the end of the year, and I said, “Please don’t give up, I think this is wonderful.” Then, in February, he emailed me and said, “We got Tom!!!” — with the exclamation marks — and that was that. Then we could make the movie.
Once I read a script, I form an image in my mind, but of course, I also have to talk to the director and the director has certain images, too. I have to really listen to what the director wants, but at the same time think, well that’s fine, but perhaps I can propose this or that as well.
Do you notice there are differences in the concepts of handsomeness or female beauty between yourself, as a Japanese, and a Western director?
There is a certain difference. With the men, the Japanese tend to like men who are not supermasculine. They tend to like people who are gentler, softer, a little more neutral. And this is particularly true of the younger generations. Whereas in the States, I think if you have a main character, they tend to be a little more, you know, Gerald Butler (best known for starring as a very muscular King Leonidas in “300,” based on the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. between Sparta and the Persian Empire).
With women, definitely, the requirement of sexual appeal is different. A very interesting thing I heard once: They tried to sell Barbie dolls in Japan, but the breasts were too big and they didn’t sell. They made the breasts smaller, and then they sold. I could understand that.
If you’re physically endowed, then Japanese tend to pigeonhole you as “the sexy woman,” not “the intelligent woman.” Whereas, in the States there are just certain physical qualities that they really like.
I wanted to ask you about the casting of the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi to star in “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005). Was it a lack of sex appeal on the part of Japanese actresses that resulted in that decision?
Rob Marshall, the director, had a certain image in his head. He loved the book and he wanted to make the movie. But he had been to Kyoto and seen the geisha makeup, and he thought, “No, I don’t think it’s that pretty.” So he made adjustments — and hence the full red lipstick and the kimonos that were more curvy and revealing.
In other words, Rob did know what the reality was, but he made a conscious decision to diverge from that. I just thought, well it’s a fantasy; we have to take it that way. And, of course, film is an artistic medium and the director is the artist. You need to respect that.
So the nationality of the actress was not an issue for Rob. What about language? When I saw that Zhang would star in the film, it occurred to me that maybe her English was better than that of most Japanese actresses.
Yes, there is an element of that. There is also an element of aggressiveness to actually get the part. You know, in Japan it is seen as a virtue to not be seen as aggressive — to not be out there saying, “I want this part!” But that’s the kind of thing that many directors in the States expect.
That’s not to say that Japanese actresses are not aggressive or strong-willed. They could be, but they restrain themselves as they are used to working here in Japan.
Is that something that is frustrating for you? Do you want to see more Japanese working in Hollywood, like yourself?
Let’s put it this way. Just as a principle: Why live on one island for all of your life? Life is so amazing. I have been blessed with the ability to travel and meet different cultures ever since I was small. My father was a diplomat, so all around me I’ve always had diversity — people from South Africa, India, Ireland, Scotland, all over. And I thought, you know, this is the way the world is supposed to be: We are all friends.
That is my basic principle, and so, why not get out there? Right now I keep on hearing that Japan is very introverted. That is unfortunate.
And is this true in the film world, too? Do you find Japanese actors are unwilling to try to make it overseas?
Well, no, there are actors who have begun to realize that being in an American film is not just a pipe dream.
But, at the same time those actors have to be realistic. I mean, if you don’t have the language then it is going to be very difficult. I don’t just mean a few words — you have to have the ability, the guts, to really express yourself and to make yourself understood.
What other qualities are necessary to make it overseas?
You know, when we do start looking at Japanese actors, there is always one question the directors ask: Who is going to sell tickets in Japan? Of course I know who the most bankable stars are, and I always have to include such people in auditions. But the interesting thing is that the director will usually choose someone else — they will ultimately prioritize the person who they like, or who they feel most suits the part.
For me, that is very satisfying — a great way to till the ground here. Sure, I need to present the kind of actors who will sell tickets, but I also go out and find other people who I think are best-suited for the roles. Ken Watanabe was one of those. I mean, when I included him in the “Last Samurai” auditions, he was still considered a television actor. And yet I felt he was a perfect fit for the role. Ed agreed, and he did a great job.
It’s unfortunate, but the whole system in Japan is not built in a way that gives talented actors like that a chance. That is what I like best about my work: I am able to work outside the usual domestic channels and just seek out people on the basis of their talent and their suitability for the roles.
Speaking of making it overseas, there is one thing I would like to confirm with you: Did you really write the lyrics for the theme song to “Monkey,” which must be one of the most successful Japanese television programs ever exported?
Yes, I did!
“Born from an egg on a mountaintop …”
Yes! You know, I didn’t know that program had been so popular in Australia and New Zealand. So when I go to New Zealand for film shoots, the crew often discover that I was the lyricist and they are like, “Oh my god!” They all know that program.
It was really popular in the ’80s.
You know, I wrote a song for my daughter, Lyena, when she was a child (she’s now an actress). Anyway, one day, my son (Eugene Nomura, a producer and actor) says to me, “Mum, you know you wrote that song for Lyena — why didn’t you do one for me when I was young?” And I said, “But I did. Didn’t you know that you were Monkey?” That song was actually about him. He was my monkey — the “funkiest monkey that ever did pop!”
Please tell me about the new film, “Emperor.” You’ve said that the starting point was when you were told about the story of Bonner Fellers, who advised MacArthur that the Emperor should not be put on trial. Was it just a coincidence that the same tale also happened to involve your grandfather?
Yes, I heard about this project and, looking it over, I realized that my grandfather was involved. So I spoke to my uncle, who is now 103, and he said, “Yes, I knew Fellers.”
But at the same time I also thought, here is an American soldier who no one in the United States knows, who actually helped change the course of history in Japan. Oh my god, this is unbelievable! This is a story that should be told.
Did you ever meet your grandfather?
No. Well, he died when I was 3 years old or something. But I had pictures of him in his formal uniform.
There was another reason I wanted to explore this topic, which is those books about the Emperor that have got Pulitzer Prizes in the U.S. One is by (Herbert P.) Bix (“Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan”) and one is by (John W.) Dower (“Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II”).
When I read those books, they struck me as all very logical. The information, the facts are all laid out — and yet I feel there is something wrong. You know, I had been to the resort house of the Emperor when I was small, with my mother. And having watched my mother, too — the way she talks and acts; she went to the Peers School (aka Gakushuin, a school in Mejiro, Tokyo, for children of the upper classes), and her friends were all cousins of the Emperor.
There is a certain sense to that whole world and I don’t think it has much to do with logic. I don’t think you can judge the Imperial family just by the historical material that is available. In any case, most of the historical material is destroyed. So, if somebody who has seen the film says to me, “You’re wrong on this or that” — well, were they there at the time? How could we really know?
That is why this movie does not profess to say whether the Emperor was innocent or guilty. We’re just saying what happened afterward, and how Fellers and MacArthur helped bring about a peaceful surrender, which was very meaningful.
In the film, the focus is very much on how that peaceful resolution was found, and the Emperor’s role in that process. But the Emperor’s responsibility for the war as a whole is something that is still a raw nerve for some elderly Japanese. For example, I’ve heard it said that the Emperor’s decision not to clearly take responsibility himself for the war continues to be the cause of many problems in contemporary Japan. Some say the reason why there isn’t a public process to find out where the blame really lies for things like the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis is because of the precedent the Emperor set. What do you think about that?
Hmm. I don’t think we have to see the Emperor as the core of it. I feel there is, within the national trait, a tendency when something bad happens to skirt around it — like, for example, if you have a bad habit, or something, then I would deliberately not tell you. But that comes from a need to have to live together peacefully on this confined island. I think ultimately that is the root of it. It starts off with a certain degree of discreetness or politeness, but it can end up as being hypocrisy or lying.
You know, Japan really has to be open about things, including the war. We know that war brings out the worst in people. We know that terrible things are done. Look at Iraq nowadays. We know this, so there is nothing wrong with acknowledging what happened in the past and for that knowledge to be held up as the reason that such things never to be repeated. That is the whole point.
I think we should bring these things out into the open and then try to work on a clean slate. But, there is a lot that is still very fuzzy. That’s what I would do if I was a diplomat. You have to go out there and look at the proof, and if there is proof then you have to say sorry.
Do you think that, with regard to the Emperor’s role, it’s just not possible to get beyond that “fuzziness”?
There are two stories that I’d like to share with you. One is from my uncle and the second from my mother. They are just oral stories, so there is no proof or anything. The first is about when the Emperor had his famous private discussion with MacArthur (during their first meeting, at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, on Sept. 27, 1945).
MacArthur was Christian, right? When he spoke to the Emperor, he was apparently surprised to find a person in this distant island country who spoke like Jesus. You know, the Emperor told MacArthur, essentially, you can put me on the cross, but please save my people. MacArthur was so moved that, according to my grandfather, there was a stain on his khaki shirt, from a teardrop.
We didn’t put this in the movie, but it is a story I heard.
The other story I heard from my mother, who escaped from Tokyo as the aerial bombing intensified. It was early 1945, and her father — my grandfather — stayed in Tokyo, working close to the Emperor. My mother was in the country and she remembered seeing the cherry blossoms — she had a strong impression of them — and at that time a messenger came from her father saying that the Emperor wanted to surrender, so she could go back to Tokyo now.
You say that was at cherry-blossom time — several months before the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan eventually surrendered?
In April, yes. So something happened between April and August, but I believe that what my grandfather told my mother would have been true; that it was the Emperor’s wish to end the war at that time. Why he couldn’t follow through on that — because of conflict with the militarists, or something, I don’t know.
You won’t find this story in any history books. But it is in my heart.