By Mark Schilling
Yoji Yamada is the most consistently successful director in Japanese films; nearly all
of the 48 installments of his epic Tora-san series (all of which he scripted and all of
which but two he directed himself) were hits for the Shochiku studio. He had never
directed a period drama, however, until The Twilight Samurai -- a 2001 film starring
Hiroyuki Sanada that was screened in competition in Berlin and nominated for a Best
Foreign Film Oscar.
Like The Twilight Samurai, his new film The Hidden Blade is about a low-ranking
samurai faced with dilemmas of the heart and conscience, based on the fiction of
Shuhei Fujisawa. Set at the end of feudal era, when Japan was about to be flooded
with Western technology and culture, the story is relevant, Yamada believes, to what
Japanese are experiencing today. "We are facing the same uncertainty about the
future. What is going to happen to the country? I have the feeling that we may be
heading for economic collapse."
Also, though The Twilight Samurai was well received by audiences around the world,
winning raves reviews and festival prizes, Yamada sees himself as a thoroughly
domestic filmmaker. "I think it's strange to make films just for the sake of festival
awards," he commented. "I make mine for the Japanese audience, period."
What he wants most to make now is a film that "makes people laugh until their sides
hurt." But a great comedy, he believes, requires a star like Kiyoshi Atsumi, who
played the wandering peddler Tora-san. "He was a comic genius -- you don't train
someone like that, you find him. One look at his face and you wanted to laugh."
The jury chairman of the Tokyo Film Festival last year, he is now in the position of
being one of the judged: "I don't like it, to be honest -- I just hope the audience enjoys
the film." He is, however, glad to be returning to Berlin. "The Potsdamer Platz is a
great place to hold a festival -- it generates a lot of energy," he says. "There's nothing
like it in Tokyo, unfortunately."