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Eugene Nomura ‘90 on producing a film that brings post-war Japan, and its iconic personalities, to life
After opening in the US in March, 2013, the much anticipated historical drama, Emperor, will be released in about 300 theaters across Japan on July 27, 2013 (as 終戦のエンペラー). A gripping tale of love and honor forged between fierce enemies of war, Emperor unfolds the story, inspired by true events, of the bold and secret moves that won the peace in the shadows of postwar Japan.
Matthew Fox joins with Academy Award® winner Tommy Lee Jones, newcomer Eriko Hatsune and award-winning Japanese star Toshiyuki Nishida to bring 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—and psychological warfare—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?
Caught between the high-wire political intrigue of his urgent mission and his own impassioned search for the mysterious school teacher (Hatsune) who first drew him to Japan, Fellers can be certain only that the tricky subterfuge about to play out will forever change the history of two nations and his heart.
ASIJ alumnus Eugene Nomura ’90, who is a producer of the film, gave us an inside look at the process behind creating this movie based on the resonant, real events of 1945, when General MacArthur took control of a shell-shocked Japan on behalf of the Allied Powers and Bonner Fellers worked covertly to investigate the Emperor’s fate while the future of the nation hung in the balance.
Eugene, a LA-based actor, starring in 笑う警官 (The Laughing Policeman) and 天気待ち (Waiting for the Sun) and a producer for such films as Tajomaru and Surely Someday, visited ASIJ on April 19 and spoke with the Japan Seminar class in the high school. The students have done a lot of research on the Occupation era and were excited to ask Eugene about everything from how he re-created post-war Tokyo for the silver screen, to his opinion on the differences between the film business in Japan and the US.
How did you get started with Emperor?
I produced this with my mother, Yoko Narahashi, who has done casting for films such as The Last Samurai, Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha, as well as upcoming movies like Wolverine and 47 Ronin.
I was inspired to make this film because we have a family connection to the story in Emperor. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was the Minister of the Interior, a position close to the Emperor. My mother heard stories as a child from her uncle about the meeting of MacArthur and the Emperor.
Even Pulitzer-prize winning authors who wrote about the meeting between the two use phrases such as “assuming that...” and “probably that...” because they can never determine what really happened—so much is unknown. We did an amazing—a ridiculous—amount of research on the subject but much of what was actually said remains a mystery.
Did you get into the industry because of your mom?
No, I actually started because of my friend at ASIJ at the time. She went to an audition where they were looking for a kid that could speak both English and Japanese and she gave them my name. When I realized I could miss school and make money, I was in.
I didn’t go to college—I was too busy acting. When I was 19, Lee Strasberg’s wife came to see a play I was in. After the performance she came backstage and said, “I want to give you a scholarship. Do you want to come to New York?” Right there I said “OK. When?” I quit my agency in Japan and three months later was in New York. Until then I had never really “studied” acting so it was a good experience.
Why did you start producing?
I wanted to change the Japanese system. For an independent film in the US, you create a company, you raise the funds, hire the crew and cast and then you start shooting. In Japan, many companies own a portion of the film. For the people who are actually making the film, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a hit or not.
By producing, I can make it so that if the movie does well, so does everyone who’s making it. I think that motivates the Japanese cast and crew to get creative and push it to the limits of what’s possible.
What exactly does a producer do?
A producer raises the funds, hires the director, hires the actors and crew and leads everyone. For Emperor there were about 500 crew and cast members. We created the script and then sent it out to agencies and they think of which directors they would like. Then we meet with the directors.
For Empeor, directors flew in from all over the world with their pitch for how they would direct the movie, having read the script. There is a romance story in this film, mixed in with the historical parts. A couple of the directors wanted to dig deeper into the controversy of the Occupation and cut out the love story. But that’s not how we envisioned it.
Our original idea behind this was based on a true story about General Bonner Fellers, who is played by Matthew Fox in the film. He first came to Japan in 1911 and when he was in college he had a relationship with a Japanese exchange student. We based the script on his personal diaries and the letters they exchanged. The letters show how he began to understand Japanese culture.
How long did it take since you had the idea for the movie until it’s actually in theaters?
About five years. It took about two years to write the script. Once we got the director everything moved pretty quickly. We shot the film from January to March, 2012 and already knew we would bring a five-minute clip to the Cannes Film Festival. The distributor bought it based on that clip and the script. We also screened it at the Toronto Film Festival and secured distribution for the US and Canada. We were really lucky and we also had a great American producer, Gary Foster, who has worked as a producer for 25 years.
Why did you choose Tommy Lee Jones to play MacArthur?
He’s an iconic American actor. We wanted someone who was a great actor and could fit into the persona of MacArthur. He also has a lot of respect for Japan and really enjoys the crew that he works with to create the popular BOSS coffee commercials. And he is loved in Japan for the alien character he plays in the commercials.
On the camera test he came walking in with the sunglasses, pipe, hat and that characteristic MacArthur attitude and instantly everyone thought “Oh my God, this is it!”
How did you cast the Japanese Emperor?
He’s a kabuki actor. The Emperor isn’t a normal guy, he’s raised in a different place, and kabuki actors are kind of like that too. When we auditioned Takataro Kataoka, he had the perfect walk. Kabuki actors are good with the way they use their bodies. He was able to expertly create Hirohito from the outside. He was able to put authenticity into the performance.
How did you choose the female lead?
We were looking for someone very good but preferably unknown. We didn’t want a star from Japan because most well-known actresses here do a lot of TV work where the acting is very indicative—rather than living the character they try to explain it. We were happy to find Eriko Hatsune at an early stage in the production. Yoko had worked with her previously in a play and she showed us a tape. When Gary, Peter and I saw it we thought “she’s brilliant!”
How did you re-create 1945 Japan?
We filmed mostly in New Zealand with just two days in Japan. But in fact, Emperor was the first feature length film to ever film at the Imperial Palace. But we couldn’t re-create 1945 Japan here because Japan is not very film-friendly. They won’t block off streets for you and bureaucracy gets in the way. I know because I act here. Tokyo is a big city now and everything is changing, everything is new. It’s hard to build the broken-down 1945 Japan here. So we recreated it in New Zealand. We found a burnt down factory that we used as the back lot. We turned about six places in the factory into different locations in our movie.
What has the reaction to the film been in the US?
We did a screening for the American Legion in Washington, DC, including a 92-year- old veteran who was with MacArthur in the Philippines and another veteran who worked with him in GHQ in Tokyo. Some of them had a different point of view. Our film starts with the real footage from the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The reaction of one of the veterans was “We didn’t start the war.” However, we were trying to bring the viewer into 1945 Japan. Our story is about the end of war. It’s about sustainable peace.
We also did a screening for the Japanese American Society in LA and they had an issue with the lack of Japanese-Americans in the story, since they had such important roles as translators at GHQ at the time. Obviously their’s is a whole other story to be told, and one that’s truly fascinating.
These screenings were interesting because they brought up a lot of discussion— including talk about current situations around the world. What happens after a war? So in many ways I think we’re doing a good deed. The movie is ultimately about peace.
Was there a difference in thinking for creating the Japanese trailer?
The Japanese trailer starts with the Emperor, but in the US version we put more emphasis on MacArthur.
Did you have any concerns about screening this in Japan?
At first everyone was worried. But I think we balanced the story really well between the American and Japanese side, with respect for both. And we didn’t make any judgments about the Emperor. The story is about trying to understand different cultures. I don’t actually think it will bring up any issues. The Japanese distributor, Shochiku, started screening it in April to select groups including about 400 newspaper writers and TV producers and we’ve had positive feedback.
One of the surprising things from the pre-screenings we did in Japan was that the older men were the most moved—more so than the women—they were teary-eyed. I think there’s something deep down inside people that comes to the surface when they relive this era in history. It was a different reaction from what we had in the States.
Has the possible reaction of the nationalists in Japan been a concern for you?
Actually, I had visited a right wing organization in Yoyogi- Uehara when I was younger for a different project. I was researching for a role I was playing of an extremely right wing character in a yakuza film. I mentioned that I was interested in doing a film about the story in Emperor and they said, “Well, you better do it right.” But I think both the left and the right, when they see this film they’ll understand why we made it.
Most producers must have to put a lot of trust in the translator when subtitling their film, but were you able to check the subtitles for the Japanese release?
Shochiku was nice enough to show us the subtitles in advance. We requested a few small changes, but the translation was very well done. Perhaps because the subject involved the Emperor, they were very, very careful.
Japanese cinema is highly regarded throughout the world and movies like Departures and Spirited Away have won Oscars, and yet very few films make it overseas. Why do you think that is?
In Japan, films aren’t really an international industry yet. They are mainly aimed at domestic audiences. And of course, films are in Japanese which is a language understood by such a small population in the world and limited mostly to this island.
Do you think it’s hard for Asian actors to make it in Hollywood?
I can see some Chinese and Korean actors who are on the edge of making it big soon. But in the case of Japanese actors, many of them don’t have the opportunity to study English from a young age. They don’t have the advantage of attending a school like ASIJ. But I think that will all start to change. I’ve noticed an increase in the last ten years of the actors studying English and becoming more international, which will be good for Japan’s future. Good luck, Japanese actors!
It looks like most of the summer blockbusters this year are sequels or remakes of some kind. Do you think that Hollywood is getting less creative and just going for a “sure thing”?
In a sense, Hollywood hasn’t lost its creativity because people come from all over the world with new ideas every year. I wouldn’t say these blockbusters are any less creative, but it is a business and it makes sense to go for a sure thing. On the other hand, independent films are doing better. For example, The King’s Speech, a little independent film, captured a lot of interest. For an independent film like Emperor, we raised the funds and we maintained full creative control.
What do you think of movies in 3D?
I think it depends on the film. Emperor wouldn’t have worked in 3D—no one wants MacArthur jumping out at them. It takes a lot more time to shoot in 3D—the camera is different, there’s a lot of digital work—and of course it costs more money. But sometimes it’s worth it for something fantastical like Life of Pi.
What’s the next project you would like to do?
There’s a story from my father’s side of the family that I am working on turning into a film. My grandfather ran a company called the Nomura Organization in Romania, and was actually a spy during WWII. My grandfather married a Romanian woman and thus my father was born in Bucharest. My family came back to Japan in 1946 and I’m interested in going deeper into that history. But after one more historical movie I guess I should do some comedy or something!
Do you still stay in touch with people from ASIJ?
I really loved this school. It’s all these different students from all these different cultures and yet their relationships are so strong that they keep going after we’ve parted. I enjoyed catching up with friends and former teachers like Mid Squier (FF 1969- 2004) at the LA Alumni Reception in February. I think there are about 30 alumni from the Class of ’90 in the San Francisco area and it’s like they’re still living the ASIJ life. I’ve kept in touch with Ken Sasaki, Sandy Watt, Zeno Leinfelder and Jinly Zee—we’re like family. When we meet it’s just like the days when we were hanging out in Tokyo.
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.
Steve Dornbach (FF ’09–’12) reflects on 50 years of Daruma, ASIJ’s literary magazine