In recent years, many regional governments in Japan have set up “film commissions” to help production crews shoot motion pictures and TV dramas in their neighborhoods, in the hopes of attracting tourists and revitalizing local communities.

In the case of one upcoming commercial film, however, citizens, businesses and officials of Ibaraki Prefecture have taken a step further in their united efforts to promote the community through cinema. Instead of just hosting a production crew there, they have been actively involved in various aspects of filmmaking, from the selection of a movie’s theme, the director and the cast, to financing the project and mobilizing thousands of volunteers entirely from within the prefecture to work as extras or support staff.

The fruit of their labor will be unveiled in the film “Sakuradamongai no Hen” (“Sakurada Gate Incident”), which opens at 300 theaters nationwide on Oct. 16.

The 137-minute movie, to be distributed by Toei, is based on the fact-based 1990 novel of the same name by Akira Yoshimura. It chronicles the aftermath of actions taken by 17 samurai from the Mito province of present-day Ibaraki in the turbulent last years of the Edo Period (1603-1867). On one snowy morning in 1860, the young, low-ranking samurai group, out of a sense of crisis over the nation’s future, assassinated Ii Naosuke, a dictatorial tairo (the highest-ranked adviser to a shogun).

While the attack itself took place in Tokyo — outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle (which, with the succession of power to the Meiji government in 1868, has been turned over to the Imperial Family) — it has a special bearing on Mito people, as many of them believe the famous incident triggered a series of political events that eventually toppled the 260-year feudal rule by the Tokugawa family and ushered in a new, modern government in Japan.

“We wanted to show it was in Mito that bakumatsu (end of the Edo Period) changes started,” says Eisaku Kikkawa, an Ibaraki Prefectural Government official who is behind the prefecture-wide project and a key member of “Sakuradamongai no Hen” Eigaka Shien no Kai (Citizens’ Group to Support Movie-Making Related to the Sakurada Gate Incident).

The film features a number of big-name actors including Takao Osawa, who plays the role of Seki Tetsunosuke, a field commander of the attack, and Kyoko Hasegawa, who plays his wife. But unlike many other samurai dramas, such as the famous “Chushingura” story about 47 ronin samurai who similarly plotted and assassinated a high-ranking daimyo out of revenge, neither the book nor the movie of “Sakuradamongai no Hen” glorifies the historical incident, since it is, after all, a terrorist attack.

Tomoaki Yatabe, deputy secretary general of the citizens’ group, says the film depicts all characters in the story neutrally — the Mito assassins, their feudal boss Mito Nariaki and Ii.

“They all wanted to make the country better, but their approaches to achieving that goal were different,” he says. “The fact is, the low-ranking samurai in Mito didn’t have much information at hand. This is not a movie that makes Mito alone look good. This is no moralistic, good-vs.-evil story.”

Still, Kikkawa says he thinks the success of the movie will help boost the profile of the prefecture, which, according to a survey by a Tokyo-based private-sector think tank Brand Research Institute, currently ranks at the rock bottom of all the prefectures in Japan in terms of “attractiveness.”

“We have been labeled the least attractive prefecture in Japan, despite the fact we are No. 2 in the nation in agricultural output, No. 8 in industrial output, and we are the 11th most populous prefecture,” Kikkawa says. “Why? Why are we in 47th place? We happen to have a cutting-edge technology center in Tsukuba, too!”

In fact, Kikkawa, a former high-school teacher-turned-bureaucrat who is in charge of tourism and PR policies at the prefectural government, knows the answer: a lack of PR. And that’s why he came up with the idea to create a major commercial movie that highlights the pivotal role the prefecture has played in the history of Japan.

Kikkawa says he realized that films can be a powerful tool for generating interest in communities when he helped a production crew shoot “Hazan” (2004), a story based on the life of an Ibaraki-based potter.

Kikkawa and other like-minded individuals from Ibaraki then discussed what movie they should help create, eventually deciding on Yoshimura’s novel. In August 2008, the citizens of the city of Mito and other parts of Ibaraki Prefecture launched the support group, and have since organized a massive fundraising campaign, collecting a total of ¥470 million from individuals and businesses based in the prefecture to finance the film. Kikkawa’s group has also won ¥50 million in subsidies from the Cabinet Office for the film, which was chosen as a pilot project for community revitalization.

The group has received no financial support from major advertising agencies or media companies, which would normally round up a number of corporate sponsors to foot the production cost in return for copyright and future distribution rights. All of the “Sakuradamongai no Hen” copyrights will remain in the prefecture.

What is probably most unique about the film, however, is the enormous open-air set built in central Mito for the film’s production. The prefectural and city governments forked out ¥30 million each to re-create major Edo Period structures there — ranging from the mock Sakurada Gate, which looks very similar to the existing gate in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, to the red front gate of Ii’s estate. The assault took place as Ii and his entourage passed through the red gate and headed for the Sakurada Gate some 600 meters away. After the shooting was completed in February, the set was transformed into a mini-museum, Opun Roke Setto Kinen Tenjikan (Open Location Set Museum).

On a recent visit to the open-air set, which is open to tourists until the end of March, many visitors — mostly in their 60s — were marveling at the structures and poring over the numerous panels that explain the historical background of the incident. According to Kikkawa, 150,000 people have visited the open-air set so far and many more are expected to come, as major tour operators are now organizing group tours to the site.

“We want to develop Mito as a cinema-friendly city,” Kikkawa says, noting that luring more filmmakers to the prefecture would create jobs and business. “We want to be regarded as a pioneering example of ‘screen tourism’ in Japan.”

The movie “Sakuradamongai no Hen” opens Oct. 16. Opun Roke Setto Kinen Tenjikan is located 30 minutes on foot or a short bus ride from JR Mito Station. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. till March 31, 2011. Admission is ¥800 adults/¥500 children. For more information, call (029) 244-3941 or visit www.mitoppo.jp

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