This is the original English transcript of a conversation with director Bernard Rose which was part of an interview article published on February 22 by French speaking media outlet Blog Fascinant Japon to celebrate the third anniversary of the theatrical release of Samurai Marathon : Bernard Rose, un anglais au pays des samourai.
If memory serves me right, producer Jeremy Thomas suggested you could go to Japan and film Samurai Marathon with a Japanese team and cast. Could you remind our readers of the project’s premises?
Jeremy Thomas had made a number of films with Nakazawa Toshiaki (’13 Assassins’ being the best known). Nakazawa suggested Samurai Marathon to Jeremy as a coproduction, which he had already developed as a screenplay by Saito Hiroshi from the novel by Dobashi Akihiro. Jeremy had the idea that a western director could bring something different to the genre and asked me if I would be interested in taking it on.
The idea of making a Samurai movie in Japan was impossible to refuse, so I went to Tokyo to meet with Nakazawa and Yamagishi Kikumi who run Sedic productions. We took a trip up to Shonai where Sedic have a standing set of a Samurai village and scouted the amazing ancient forests in that region.
I then returned to Los Angeles to do my own version of the screenplay; I tried to retain the humor that Saito had brought to it, very much wanting to make a film in the style of Yojimbo or Hidden Fortress, that combine action and humor but are also serious in their own way.
My way into the story became the arrival of Comodore Perry, which was always the motivation for the story, but became a larger framing device. I also added the Princess Yuki story, which was very different in the original, but seemed a great echo of the eponymous Yuki Hime from Hidden Fortress (and also of course, by default Princess Leia in Star Wars). When I had finished my draft I returned to Tokyo and worked on the screenplay with Yamagishi, obviously to put it back into Japanese but also to give it a feminine perspective.
Samourai Marathon has a stellar cast with either young popular stars such as Sato ‘Kenshin’ Takeru or Nana Komatsu as well as older and seasoned actors –Hiroki Hasegawa, Naoto Takenaka– even small supporting roles – Junko Abe for instance- are ‘names’. How come you got such a dream team?
The cast was very much put together by Zushi Kensuke, one of the producers and Anjo Yasuko, who was a brilliant casting director who very sadly passed away at the end of the production. The film is a genuine ensemble and so once we had Sato Takeru and Komatsu Nana in the leads, the other actors were keen to join. It was a pleasure to have so many talented actors, and I was very impressed by the complete lack of ego and willingness to do anything that they all displayed.
Japanese movies are often wrapped in a month and most comedians have tight schedules. How long did it take to shoot Samurai Marathon? Did you have to adapt to local conditions or was the process made easier with the actors’ different agencies?
We shot the film in a month, which was not a problem for me as I am very fast! We were blessed with three different typhoons that blew through, bringing some serious rainfall. This was put to use in the final sequences of the film, where all the rain is real. I don’t like to work long hours either, which was a novelty for the Japanese crew, who are used to punishing schedules. So we all had a great time and I was most impressed by the standard and dedication of the crew.
What are the most important differences when working with Japanese actors, compared to Western actors?
The similarities would be easier to discuss; in the end it’s always the same problems. With actors of the caliber on my show, all I really had to do was get out of their way and make life easier for them when necessary. The language barrier was also easier to deal with than you might imagine.
I had a very good translator, Christian Storms, who did simultaneous translations into an earpiece while we were shooting, so I always knew what was going on, and it enabled the actors to talk to me while keeping eye contact and without waiting. I learnt enough basic conversational Japanese to reply, at least with the simple movie commands, so communication was pretty smooth.
The film was shot in the beautiful Yamagata prefecture, in between takes did you have the time to visit a bit?
We shot in the 2000 year old forest leading up to the big shrine and had complete control of the Sedic backlot and village, so I felt very satisfied with the landscape and environs around Shonai. I didn’t really do much sight seeing beyond that, but got to know that area very well. The beauty of the region is undeniable, and I think we captured it.
Anecdotes? What are your best and your worst memories from the shooting?
It really was a great time, and I would struggle to find anything negative to say about the experience.
Some reviewers wrote that the film was not a typical ‘jidai geki’ in as far as it introduced elements of modernity, I read it was both a tribute and a parody. How do you see it now, 3 years after?
It was always my intention to combine comedy and action, and also to pay homage to Kurosawa Akira. I love that Kurosawa was inspired by the westerns of John Ford, and in turn inspired the westerns of Sergio Leone. I think there has always been a dialogue between the Jidai Geki and the Western, and I thought for me to make an actual Japanese production, as opposed to a western film set in Japan, could be something different. It was a unique experience and I am very grateful for it.
One of the highlights of the Samurai Marathon post release period surely was the U.S. premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival where your lead actress Komatsu Nana received the Rising Asian Star Award. You attended too, how was the NY experience?
It was lovely to have Nana in New York – she is a true star and is only just starting…
if a new proposal comes out, will you have another go in Japan?
What’s in store for you these days? Any new project(s)?
I have a new film completed called Traveling Light, set in Los Angeles in May 2020, it is about some strange happenings at the start of the pandemic. The film stars Tony Todd, Danny Huston, Stephen Dorff, Olivia d’Abo and Matthew Jacobs. Jeremy Thomas was the executive producer.
Many thanks to director Bernard Rose for his time and kindness.