By Emi Yamada / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterFrom nice guy to rotten scoundrel, actor Tori Matsuzaka assumes a different persona in each of his films. Now, 10 years after his debut, he’s taking on a character that seems to closely mirror his own ineffable, intriguing nature — Sakazaki Iwane, a swashbuckling master swordsman who is trusting to the point of naivety.
The protagonist of the film, Iwane is a guard who lives in a humble nagaya row house in Edo. He’s a hero taken right from the pages of a popular samurai novel by Yasuhide Saeki, whose series of period novels have sold more than 65 million copies.
Directed by Katsuhide Motoki, “Inemuri Iwane” (Iwane: Sword of Serenity) is the first screen adaptation of the novel by Saeki. The cast also includes Fumino Kimura, Kyoko Yoshine, Tasuku Emoto, Yosuke Sugino, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Shosuke Tanihara, Nakamura Baijaku and Akira Emoto.
Matsuzaka used to think that heroes in period dramas were perfect in every way. But that’s not the case with Iwane.
“Normally, he’s off guard, a bit goofy and childlike. He can’t say ‘No’ to others, so he’s always getting himself into trouble. I really felt like he wasn’t a stranger,” said a smiling Matsuzaka, before adding, “You could say he’s a new type of period drama hero.”
However, a devastating past lurks behind Iwane’s friendly demeanor. He was a samurai of a domain in western Japan, but fled after killing a friend on orders and breaking up with his fiancee, the friend’s sister. After starting a new life as a guard for an exchange shop in Edo, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that rocks the Tokugawa shogunate.
“He can be kind to others because he carries pain in his heart. He can also be ruthless when protecting someone dear to him. I was drawn to this striking contrast in his personality,” said Matsuzaka.
Iwane has a peculiar style of swordsmanship. He lowers the point of his sword and wards off his opponent in a relaxed manner, like a cat curling up for a nap. Eventually, his adversary becomes impatient and lunges, and that’s when Iwane delivers the coup de grace. Matsuzaka spent many hours practicing his sword technique with the movie’s action coordinator to bring the novel’s “drowsy swordplay” to life on the big screen.
Acting by the sword
Matsuzaka donned armor for a combat scene in NHK’s annual epic historical drama “Gunshi Kanbee” (Kanbee the strategist), and managed to pull off acrobatic moves for a battle in the film “Sanada Juyushi” (Sanada 10 Braves). This time, however, he was required to square off mano a mano with opponents in intense sword fights. The actor was drilled in the art of this so-called “serene” swordsmanship” by pros at Shochiku Co.’s studio in Kyoto.
“I was overwhelmed by the passion of people who love period dramas. It was a really precious experience,” Matsuzaka said.
The agony of being slashed, the twinge of regret after conquering an opponent — his portrayal of the kaleidoscope of pain experienced by someone in a life-or-death struggle is subtle and delicate. Matsuzaka’s performance stemmed from his philosophy that “The stroke of a sword in stage combat is equivalent to a line of dialogue.”
“You talk with your opponent by crossing swords with him. I believe each combat scene is different depending on who you’re fighting,” he said.
While watching a run-through of the film, he recalled that he last played a samurai 10 years ago. “I felt [the new role] was destined to be,” he said.
Indeed, he made his debut in “Samurai Sentai Shinkenger” (2009), a tokusatsu superhero TV show in the Super Sentai Series. He played Takeru Shiba, aka Shinken Red, the leader of a superhero team and a descendant of samurai who is called “Tono” (Lord) by his teammates.
“Of course, ‘Shinkenger’ wasn’t a period drama. We used cell phones in the show. This time, I feel like I’m getting a fresh chance [to play a samurai],” said Matsuzaka.
Born in 1988, the Kanagawa Prefecture native was a university student when he applied for a modeling audition on the recommendation of a friend. He won the grand prize in the audition and was cast as Shinken Red the following year. His father was incensed when he found out about the TV gig, telling his son not to “mess around” in the world of acting. Matsuzaka snapped back that he was dead set on taking the job. He took a sabbatical from university and left home.
“It was really just a snap decision made in the heat of the moment to rebel against my father,” he said. “I had no strong desire to become an actor.”
At first, he just followed the directions of the crew on everything from where to live to when to go to the shoot. He had no idea what to do on a film set, and received his fair share of scolding for things like bringing a script with him to set and was told to leave. He constantly thought of returning to university.
Epiphany in Cambodia
His mind-set changed completely two years later when he appeared in “Bokutachi wa Sekai o Kaeru koto ga dekinai” (But, we wanna build a school in Cambodia), directed by Kenta Fukasaku. The film is based on the true story of Japanese university students who built an elementary school in Cambodia. In one scene, a local guide leads the students to a former execution site used by the Pol Pot regime. The scene was shot in one long take without dialogue, and has a documentary feel.
For Matsuzaka, Cambodia elicits a barrage of memories, from harsh realities to the smiling faces of children. “It was my first trip abroad and made a really big impact on me,” he said.
Through the experience, he realized that he could impact people through acting in a way that’s hard to put into words. The realization inspired him to fully commit himself to the profession.
He has since appeared in a number of films, TV shows and stage productions. He performed his first lead role in “Tsunagu” (Until the Break of Dawn) under the guidance of such seasoned veterans as Kirin Kiki and Tatsuya Nakadai.
Matsuzaka says his toughest experience on set was in “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi” (The Emperor in August), directed by Masato Harada. One of the actors was suddenly fired during the shoot, and Matsuzaka recalls feeling terrified thinking that he might be next.
“There aren’t many directors who can inspire you to feel such intense feelings. As someone from the so-called yutori generation [the generation of pressure-free education], I’m grateful to him for taking me to task. Sometimes taking a good beating can help you to evolve,” he said.
Matsuzaka won the Japan Academy Film Prize’s award for best actor in a supporting role for his role in the film “Koro no Chi” (The Blood of Wolves) in 2018.
He also hasn’t shied away from roles that defy his good-guy image, from an adulterer to a ruthless killer to a male prostitute. He stands head and shoulders above other actors of his generation when it comes to the wide rage of characters he takes on.
“That’s because I think hard about the kind of characters I need to play now if I want to continue working as an actor in my 30s. That’s how it’s been for the last five years. It’s like a restaurant announcing the start of a new, seasonal dish,” he said with a laugh, though his eyes were serious.
“There’s no right answer or goal for an actor. There are countless approaches and techniques, and you learn something new from someone every day that goes beyond what you thought possible. It’s still OK for me to be on a learning curve, I think,” he said.Speech