By Makoto Tanaka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe climax of the film “Chiri Tsubaki” (Samurai’s Promise) pits the hero Shinbei and other samurai in a battle against nine enemies on the steps of a shrine.
The sword fight goes by extremely quickly, but the moves are complicated. Such scenes are normally filmed in different cuts with changes in camera setups, but during rehearsals, director Daisaku Kimura didn’t budge from a single camera setup.
“You have no intention of moving, do you?” asked Junichi Okada, who stars as Shinbei.
“That’s right!” the director replied.
Okada had spoken casually as he approached the director, affectionately called “Daisaku-san.” In his mind, Okada said to himself, “The scene is also going to be a one-off battle.” There’s only once chance to do it, and Okada braced for the challenge.
In “Chiri Tsubaki,” a period drama based on Rin Hamuro’s novel of the same name, Shinbei strives to fulfill his late wife’s wish, risking his life to fight. Kimura insisted on “sword battles that have never been seen before” and shot scenes in one cut using multiple cameras.
In a rehearsal soon after shooting began, Kimura saw Okada using a sword as if dancing and said admiringly, “This is ‘chiri tsubaki’ (literally falling camellias).” From that time on, it was Okada’s task to fine-tune the original sword fighting scenes presented by the choreographer. The final moves were Okada’s responsibility.
Capturing the atmosphere
Having worked as a camera assistant on period dramas directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, including the “Hidden Fortress,” Kimura is a virtuoso who won the Japan Academy Film Prize for best director for his debut motion picture, “Tsurugidake: Ten no Ki” (Mt. Tsurugidake), which was released in 2009. This is the second time that Okada has worked with Kimura, who was the cinematographer on “Tsuioku” (Reminiscence), released in 2017.
In that film, Okada strove to act in a way close to what was envisioned by director Yasuo Furuhata and his film crew, known as “living legends” of Japanese cinema. But for “Chiri Tsubaki,” Okada thought: “I should be assertive because [Kimura and his crew] won’t be daunted, even if I’m aggressive. I want to hear them say, ‘This film turned out to be better than we had imagined.’”
In a scene where Okada practices sword fighting in front of a house with Sosuke Ikematsu, who plays his younger brother-in-law, Okada worked out a sword dance inspired by the image of a crane in association with the word “snow,” the director’s keyword to describe the scene.
On the day he shot a one-on-one sword battle with Hidetoshi Nishijima, who plays his close friend, Okada dared to make a slight change to the sword-fighting moves they had rehearsed for three months.
“I think Daisaku-san wants to film even the atmosphere of the scene — for example, a highly charged atmosphere in which fighters adjust the timing of their attacks,” Okada said. What happens at the time of shooting is filmed, not preestablished harmony. “It was my goal to make the scenes like jazz sessions.”
At a press conference on Aug. 27 to announce the completion of the film, Ikematsu praised Okada.
“The movie belonged to Daisaku-san,” Ikematsu said, “but Okada bore the core parts of the movie.”
Kimura also lauded Okada, saying: “In terms of speed, he exceeds Toshiro Mifune, Ken Takakura, Tatsuya Nakadai and Shintaro Katsu. Speed is key to sword fights.”
In response to being compared with such renowned actors of Japanese cinema, Okada trailed off as he humbly said, “I don’t know how to respond to that.”
Kimura then declared: “I’m not a man who tells lies. I saw these actors with my own eyes.”
Extending his ‘longevity’
Okada made his debut in the entertainment industry in 1995 as a member of the pop idol group V6. The group released such hit songs as “Music for the People” and gained popularity through hosting the variety TV show “Gakko e Ikou” (Kids Are Alright Groovy After School) broadcast on the TBS network.
Today, Okada is one of the actors sustaining Japanese cinema, having starring role after starring role in epics and high-profile movies. But around the time he debuted as a member of V6 at the age of 14, Okada thought he would return to his family home in Osaka when he turned 20 to become a schoolteacher.
“It was generally believed in the past that the longevity of idols, though extended now due to contributions by our predecessors, is six years,” Okada said. “I thought the period in which idols could be active would end someday, so at that time I seriously considered a future life plan.”
A turning point was his encounter with veteran actor Ken Ogata with whom Okada acted in “Dear Friend,” a TV drama broadcast on the TBS network in 1999. The drama depicted a heart-to-heart rapport between an old man (Ogata), who refuses to engage with society, and a young man (Okada). It was a dramatic masterpiece that won the Cultural Affairs Agency’s National Arts Festival award of excellence and other prizes.
“I thought I wanted to pursue a career as an actor, but I was not confident whether I could perform well,” Okada said.
Ogata gave him a supportive push, saying, “It suits you, so you’d better continue acting.”
Profile and career of Junichi Okada
Nov. 18, 1980: Born in Hirakata, Osaka Pref.
’95: Debuts in pop idol group V6
’97: Appears on TV variety show “Gakko e Ikou” (Kids Are Alright Groovy After School) through 2008
2002: Stars in TV series “Kisarazu Cat’s Eye”
’07-’08: Stars in TV series “SP Keishicho Keibibu Keigoka Dai-yon Gakari” (SP Security Police)
’13: Release of film “Eien no Zero” (The Eternal Zero) in which he plays lead role
’14: Plays lead role in NHK’s yearlong period drama “Gunshi Kanbei” (Strategist Kanbei)
’15: Receives Japan Academy Film Prize for best actor for “Eien no Zero” and best supporting actor for “Higurashi no Ki” (A Samurai Chronicle)