From tomorrow, the Japanese Film Festival is back in Adelaide. CityMag got to interview director Keishi Otomo. It was awesome.
One on one: Director Keishi Otomo
The Adelaide leg of the 18th Japanese Film Festival begins tomorrow. It’s all dreadfully exciting, and while a dozen Japanese films will screen at the Mercury Cinema over the next two weeks, surely the most intriguing is the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy.
The Japanese Film Festival opens in Adelaide this Friday, October 12 and concludes on October 19, check the Mercury Cinema website for screening details.
The Australian premiere of Ruroni Kenshin – The Legend Ends, the final instalment of Keishi Otomo’s trilogy, will be held concurrently in Canberra and Adelaide on October 18.
The series’ final instalment, Rurouni Kenshin – The Legend Ends, will have its Australian premiere concurrently in Canberra and Adelaide on October 18th. CityMag was lucky enough to speak with the trilogy’s director, the renowned Keishi Otomo, about adaptation, anachronism, bushidō, and his love of Western superheroes.
Rurouni Kenshin was originally a black and white Japanese manga, written by Nobuhiro Watsuki, that ran in the pages of legendary manga anthology Weekly Shōnen Jump between 1994 and 1999. It concerned the trials and tribulations of its eponymous protagonist, Himura Kenshin, as he struggled to atone for his violent past as an assassin. With seventy million copies of the manga in circulation as of this year, and the anime adaptation (known as Samurai X in the United States) spanning three seasons, ninety-five episodes and three animated feature films, it was no surprise when a live-action adaptation was announced in 2011. The first film in the trilogy was a commercial and critical success (Kotaku’s Richard Eisenbeis referred to it as “The single best Japanese live-action adaptation I have ever seen”) and two sequels were announced in mid-2013.
Keishi Otomo, director and screenwriter on that first film, then went on to direct both sequels; Rurouni Kenshin – Kyoto Inferno and the aforementioned The Legend Ends. Adapting a black and white manga to a full-colour, live action movie is no easy task; sequential art’s similarity to a storyboard may lends itself to film adaptation, but Rurouni Kenshin’s more outrageous characters and plotpoints could prove difficult to express on screen. Keishi explained that part of the films’ success has been due to a knowledge of what must be left on the page.
“Firstly, giving life to cartoon characters was difficult. If I just made the original story into a live action film, it would merely become a cosplay film,” he says. “I went through a lot of trial and error when writing the scripts for the films.”
Keishi highlights the initial conflict between his vision for a realistic film and some of the characters’ costumes as a major issue. In the first film, for example, Keishi found a way to introduce Kenshin’s trademark red clothing by having another character force him into wearing it. “Kenshin’s scarlet coloured kimono is intended to emphasise the lead character and to create a distinctive look,” he says. “On the other hand, when you think about it, Kenshin is trying to hide from society. Such a person would never choose to wear such an eye-catching scarlet kimono.”
This process of injecting a new level of realism into the series extended to the action scenes as well. “Even if Kenshin has superhuman like movement, he is still a human samurai. He is neither infused with spider genes like Spiderman, uses the full advantages of civilisation like Iron Man or Batman, nor is he from the planet Krypton like Superman. His sword technique and skill are a result of his talent and individual training over a long period of time,” Keishi said. “In the end, I decided to let the actors practice as much as possible and add their emotions to the action scenes, rather than having stunt people play a larger part.”
In order to realistically portray the codes and values of the samurai, Keishi sought out a less than contemporary source. Bushido: The Soul of Japan was written by Japanese philosopher, educator and diplomat Inazo Nitobe in 1900. Inazo would have been 16 during the events of Rurouni Kenshin, so his use as an inspiration for the trilogy seems highly appropriate. “In the book, there’s a statement, ‘The best won victory is that obtained without shedding of blood,'” says Keishi. “The book Nitobe wrote has been very useful in order to understand the feelings of the samurai characters who lived in the same era as Kenshin.”
The period in question, the Meiji Restoration, was a time of huge social upheaval in Japan’s history. The traditional hierarchy system (which had divided Japanese society into samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants) had been dismantled, and Japan’s samurai found that carrying their traditional weapons in public was now illegal.
“The majority of people appreciated the benefits of such changes. However, those who used to be samurai no longer had vested interests, leading them to struggle to live their lives,” says Keishi. “The film takes place a year after the calming of a rebellion against the national government, instigated and inflamed by a group of samurai throughout local regions of Japan.”
That inherent conflict between two opposing ideologies is also at the core of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. As hard as Kenshin fights to leave his violent past behind, there is always an enemy prepared to return Japan to a state of constant warfare.
“Kenshin’s philosophy of protecting important people and not killing others seems to overlap with the concept of Japan’s pursuit of prosperity after World War II; advocating a pacifist Constitution, not possessing weapons and renouncing the war,” says Keishi. “Facing the new era is not about progress or retreat. The film reflects the philosophical foundations of the two assassins, who have chosen different paths in their lives, and our way of life in the modern era.”
With such a strong intellectual understanding of the subject matter driving Keishi’s work on the films, it’s no surprise the first two instalments of the trilogy have been met with critical and popular acclaim, and it seems inevitable that the final chapter’s Australian premiere will draw a similar reaction.