“When we change our position and angle, we can see a lot more, and with better understanding.”
Movie producer Yoko Narahashi has been a significant force in Hollywood for years. Working as a casting director for high profile films such as The Last Samurai, Babel, and the upcoming The Wolverine, she introduced to western audiences many of the Asian actors we are now familiar with – Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada, among others. This year, she has focused her talents and leveraged her experience to produce and release her passion project, Emperor. The film, opening on March 8th, depicts the American investigation into Emperor Hirohito’s possible war crimes set in a crumbling post-World War II Japan.
Hollywood’s recent track record with World War II films has been spotty, especially when it depicts the Japanese. For every high profile Flags of Our Fathers there is a forgotten Come See the Paradise. Films like Pearl Harbor tend to bombastically – almost enthusiastically – miss the mark. But the hope is that with a film such as Emperor, audiences around the world will gain new insight into a period that not many people discuss, even in Japan.
Although we have not had a chance to watch the film as of this interview, Ms. Narahashi was kind enough to speak with us about her upcoming film.
So how did all of the pieces of Emperor come together?
There was an original concept that I really thought was important. I thought, ‘Wow this is going to be a real, amazing movie’ so then I got my very good friend David Klass (Writer, Kiss the Girls) and started working on it with him. And then I worked hard to get funding and luckily, amazingly, I did. Then it was just about getting a great team together – including Eugene Nomura (Producer) and Gary Foster (Producer, Sleepless in Seattle) – without whom this film would not have been possible.
I had been working as a casting director for The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, 47 Ronin, and Wolverine… and a lot of these story concepts come from the states. Now this is also an American movie, but the germ of it is from Japan. It’s about an unsung hero in history. No one knew about this man (Bonner Fellers, played by LOST’s Matthew Fox) who worked under General Douglas MacArthur. And I saw that there was an amazing message and meaning to it. At the same time, the story was close to my heart because my grandfather used to work for the Ministry of Interior, and thus the Emperor. So I had insight into that kind of life through my mother and my uncle. And it’s very special and very different. And yes, in the Imperial Family and that class, nothing is ever black and white.
Anyway it was interesting – all of these elements seemed to come together, and by a miracle, every person that came on board was full of passion. It was a tremendous passion project.
Was it difficult to convey the nuance of the Japanese culture to your creative team?
That’s interesting because some of the pillars of the production I had worked with before, and was great friends with. Gary Foster was just amazing – he’s super intelligent, a great producer and just a great human being. He really can understand everything.
Apart from that, people like Grant Major (Production Designer, Lord of the Rings Trilogy), who Eugene and I worked with on a Japanese story in New Zealand, came to Japan and studied about Japan so that part he understood a lot more. And also Ngila Dickson (Costume Designer, Lord of the Rings Trilogy), who I worked with on The Last Samurai for costumes, already had experience. For this film, I helped her in Japan, and she came and studied the Emperor’s clothes. (Both Major and Dickson won Academy Awards for their involvement in Lord of the Rings.)
So we were already in sync… and their understanding was already exquisite so that really helped. And then it was just up to us to be the bridge.
How did you come to choose director, Peter Webber for Emperor?
His amazing passion. He came all the way from London on his own, and he said he’d love to do it. And we were completely won over. He did such a beautiful job with Girl with a Pearl Earring. We had sent the script to several directors, but Peter came and he won our hearts.
Tell us about how you were able to put together such a stellar cast. Did you leverage your casting career?
I think a lot really depended on the script. Any really good film starts off with a really good script. A lot of top actors today are actually willing to read independent film scripts because that’s where a lot of the interesting stories are. So I think we really worked hard on the script to make sure it was interesting. It’s one of the reasons why Tommy (Lee Jones) read it and became interested, and same with Matthew. We were really lucky – the guys did a fantastic job. They were both amazing.
How about on the Japan side? I recognize several people from the trailer from when I was growing up and watching Japanese TV.
Well it was lovely because I know them. Most of these actors I know because of casting and some of them are dear friends. I just think every one of them really fit their character. Then again, it’s not as if I had a huge choice because of the English. And for some of the casting I really fought, and I had to persuade some people… not because they didn’t like it, but because of the Japanese system. I needed a full two months from them but actors, especially the famous ones, are often locked into busy schedules.
Tell us more about Eriko Hatsune, who plays Aya Shimada. I understand that she’s a relative newcomer, even in Japan.
I had directed her once in a theater play, and had her audition for the film. I wasn’t sure about her at first – you never are. But when she auditioned I said, ‘Oh my goodness here she is.’ Then I showed it to Gary and to Peter and they immediately fell in love with her. She has this amazing, beautiful sensitivity. She’s not pushing, she’s not trying to prove anything, and it feels like she’s of that time.
We didn’t want the typical – someone sweet and humble and kind of cute. Her character has inner strength, as someone who went to study abroad as early as she did. She went all by herself, and she’s kind of a pioneer in a way. But we also had to remember that this was also the time when a woman would walk three paces behind a man. So she still had to have humility and femininity, and the grace of a Japanese woman at that time. It’s a combination and she had both.
In the context of World War II movies, how does Emperor stand out?
I think it is a subject matter that some Japanese people would not want to deal with. But at the same time it is something we have to look at, especially at this time. I think we have a very balanced view of this subject, as we did a lot of research. There is very little that is left of that time in terms of information. People can say this, and say that, but where did they get this information? A lot of it is destroyed really. And in the Japanese history books, hardly anything is written about this time.
I think it’s important to open it up to everyone. And I think Emperor gives a balanced outlook from both the West and East. We were not just victims, but also the aggressor. We’re not putting the blame on just one person… and at the same time, as Peter said, it is relevant to today as an example. MacArthur and Fellers brought peace to a conquered country. It’s not like Iraq or Afghanistan. A lot of American soldiers in Japan, their lives were saved because there was peace.
Finally, it’s really a message for healing and rebuilding. Because we think about the tragedy in Japan now, and the radiation – people are trying to forget about it but it’s going to be there for a while. Hopefully the Japanese people will see this and get some energy. If we could rebuild as we did then, we can do it again.
What do you hope American audiences take away from the film?
I think it’s, ‘oh, I never knew that’. I once did a play and movie about Kamikaze pilots. There’s one way to look at it from an American side. I wanted to bring it from the other side, and show that they were sons like anybody else. When we change our position and angle, we can see a lot more, and with better understanding. A lot of people work on assumptions, and a lot of people see things just one way. But hopefully with this film, people can consider ‘ah, there are other aspects to these things that happened in history.’
What kind of advice can you give to aspiring Asian talent, whether they are actors, writers, directors, or producers?
You know, this might sound a little childish in a way, but I simply believed in this project. There was nothing that could shake my belief or rattle it. It was just there. ‘I’m going to make this movie. It has to be made’.
I think you really have to find something like that, something that you can put your belief in. For anyone going to try to make a movie, regardless of who you are, if it’s a really fantastic script then people are going to look at it in this country. Now it shouldn’t be just about a tiny thing – it should have a universal theme, a message that anybody can relate to. But first and foremost, it’s the script. Really work hard to make that script good. Get opinions and get help. Don’t be timid about it. You have to be open to criticism and be willing to make it better.
If it’s really good, then people start to get involved and people want to help you.
Any recommendations for our readers who would like to visit Japan?
Try the Kagurazaka area (in Tokyo). It’s great. It’s like a little Kyoto, where writers go and lock themselves up in a little inn and write. Cobblestones, narrow roads, and great restaurants. It’s so much fun there.
———- Interview by Nobi Nakanishi
Yoko Narahashi is a director, producer, lyricist and writer who received her formal education in Canada and acting training at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. The Winds of God was the first feature film she directed, for which she received the Japan Film Critics Award for Best New Director. She then went on to found the United Performers’ Studio, a production (film, theatre, TV and video) and management company for professional actors. The company now focuses mainly on casting and production work for international film and television. In 1998, she also founded UPS Academy, an acting school with an emphasis on method acting. Some of Yoko’s more prominent casting and producing credits include Babel, The Last Samurai, and Memoirs of a Geisha. In 1974 Yoko established the Model Language Studio, which was the first language school in Japan to teach English through drama.
A gripping tale of love and honor forged between fierce enemies of war, Emperor tells the story, inspired by true events, of the bold and secret moves that won the peace in the shadows of post-war Japan. Starring Academy Award-winner Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, and newcomer Eriko Hatsune, Emperor brings to life the American occupation of Japan in the perilous and unpredictable days just after Emperor Hirohito’s World War II surrender. As General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) suddenly finds himself the de facto ruler of a foreign nation, he assigns an expert in Japanese culture – General Bonner Fellers (Fox), to covertly investigate the looming question hanging over the country: should the Japanese Emperor, worshiped by his people but accused of war crimes, be punished or saved?