Catching up with Ken Ochiai: Where Have All the Samurai Gone?

Yayoi Lena Winfrey December 3, 2014 0
Uzumasa Limelight by Ken Ochiai.

Uzumasa Limelight by Ken Ochiai.

One of my most cherished memories is going to the International District’s Kokusai Theater every Saturday afternoon with my sister as 20-somethings. There, we watched jidaigeki, or Japanese historical dramas about feudal periods that featured swordplay. On weekend evenings, we’d patronize the Toyo Cinema on Rainier Avenue for more. Obsessed with these violent films often based on real-life figures, I even convinced my sister to name her cat Wakayama Tomisaburo after the actor playing a shogun’s assassin, Itto Ogami, in the Lone Wolf with Cub series.

Even though our Issei mother thought we were crazy, she accompanied us to Toei Studios in Kyoto where we posed with actors dressed like samurai. In later years, my mother and I regularly watched Mito Komon on NHK. The weekly show, about a retired vice shogun wandering the countryside with two retainers, ran for 42 years although every episode ended identically—a boisterous sword fight that stops when one retainer displays the Tokugawa shogun mon (crest) that brings everyone to their knees.

Alas, Mito Komon is no more and neither is the glut of samurai films that were once so prevalent. Today’s Japanese audiences prefer more modern fare along with Korean soap operas. It was this trend that persuaded director Ken Ochiai to make Uzumasa Limelight, a film that honors kirareyaku—actors who are never spotlighted, but always killed by the star samurai in all those jidaigeki movies.

Playing a version of himself, Seizo Fukumoto (a kirareyaku for 55 years) fears losing his job as he ages. Inspired by a young actress who wants to learn from him, he finally comprehends his true value. I was able to speak with Ochiai, currently living in California, about his film.

Ochiai

Ken Ochiai

Yayoi L. Winfrey: When did you become interested in jidaigeki?

Ken Ochiai: In my childhood, one of my favorite moments with my grandfather was watching TV—jidaigeki dramas like Mito Komon, Abarenbo Shogun, and Toyama no Kinsan. So making this movie meant a lot to me because I knew my grandfather would be proud of me.

Winfrey: What inspired you to tackle the issue of older actors being replaced by younger ones?

Ochiai: Although I knew that this issue is happening in show biz in every country including Hollywood, to be honest, I didn’t know much about the current Japanese film industry. It was when I did the research after reading the script of Uzumasa Limelight, I realized that what has been happening in the jidaigeki industry was a lot worse that I had thought.

It was rather shocking to me to know that the industry is fading so rapidly. The two biographies of Seizo Fukumoto (of whom the film is based) were the most inspiring materials for the film. He has experienced it all—from the Golden Age of Jidaigeki where 400 samurai movies were made per year to the current situation where only four-to-five samurai movies are made per year. He’s the living proof of jidaigeki as he has been killed 50,000 times on screen.

Winfrey: Did you help stage the sword fighting scenes?

Ochiai: I very much enjoyed the collaboration with a veteran choreographer in Kyoto. We staged every fighting scene together, and I learned a lot from him. He worked on “Mito Komon” and other famous jidaigeki, and I’m honored to work with him.

Winfrey: Were those the most difficult scenes to shoot?

Ochiai: The biggest challenge for us was not shooting the movie, but convincing Mr. Fukumoto to be the lead in the film. Not only because he’s been a movie extra for 55 years, but also because he is such a humble and modest person that he didn’t believe we could make a movie with him as lead. He insisted we use a young famous star, but we were finally able to convince him when we told him that the film was to spark the interests of younger generations, and that he needed to pass the torch on to the next upcoming actors.

Winfrey: This film about the film industry is so authentic. How much of your experience as a filmmaker helped shape the characters?

Ochiai: The script was written by a writer who lives in Kyoto and knows exactly what is going on in the studios. He did tell me that the script was based on various true events that he has experienced. And we worked with local Kyoto cast and crew members that knew everything about jidaigeki. So, I can’t take too much credit for the authenticity. I was just fortunate to work with them.

Winfrey: What’s happening with your short film about two brothers interned with their Japanese American father and who escape to look for their white mother? Are you still turning “Half Kenneth” into a feature?

Ochiai: I’m still in the process of developing the script. The film is very hard to finance because it’s a period piece about the Japanese American internment. I still have my hopes up and continue trying.

Winfrey: What’s next?

Ochiai: As a matter of fact, I’m in post-production for my third feature film, “Ninja, The Monster”. The film, produced by one of three Japanese studios, Shochiku, is about ninja in the Edo period (1700) who need to protect the princess from monsters along the way to Edo. This is my first studio film, and I’m very lucky to make a jidaigeki movie.

‘Uzumasa Limelight’ opens December 5, at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle at 1501 Seventh Ave. It also screens in Portland at NW Film Center’s “Japanese Currents” Film Series on December 10 at 8:00 p.m. and again on December 13 at a 1:30 p.m. matinee in Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum at 1219 SW Park Ave. Visit nwfilm.org for more info.

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