Director Masato Harada receives the Special Director’s Award for Sekigahara. Photo credit: Yosh Inoue.
TORONTO — There were three major moments in Japanese history that changed the trajectory of Japan. When Japan surrendered in 1945, the Meiji Restoration period in 1868 and in 1600, the battle of Sekigahara.
The latter of these moments is what Japanese director Masato Harada decided to focus on in his battle epic, Sekigahara. The battle of Sekigahara was fought between the Army of the East, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Army of the West, led by Ishida Mitsunari. The Army of the West won the battle, which led to the political unification of Japan and the Tokugawa shogunate the next 260 years.
Director Masato Harada sat down with Nikkei Voice while he was in Toronto to present the Canadian premiere of Sekigahara at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on June 16.
Drawn to Ishida, Harada decided to focus on his character’s idealism he had established. The losing side of the battle is a perspective and story that is often looked at, explains Harada.
“I feel like Ishida Mitsunari is a totally misunderstood character, like how I am misunderstood by some of the Japanese. We fought the same kind of battle, a mental battle against society, and so I sympathize with his character,” says Harada. “And that’s one of the major aspects for why I wanted to make this movie.”
If Ishida had won the battle and took power, the national characteristics of Japan would be completely different, explains Harada.
The 68 year old director holds a unique position as a director, he has lived and worked extensively in the United States and Europe, as well as Japan. He has had the opportunity to observe his home country from a distance. Much of his work has contained strong statements of social commentary on Japan.
As well, influences from great cinema of both Japan and America can be seen in Harada’s films, including Sekigahara. For example, the opening of the film echoes Francis Ford Coppola’s famous film, The Godfather. Opening with a wedding, each of the major characters are introduced in bits and pieces, who Ishida will meet as the story begins to unfolds. As well, Seven Samurai, from Akira Kurosawa contains some of the best battle sequences in cinematic history, says Harada. He turned to the film for inspiration on costume design and to create believable battle scenes.
Harada has directed 23 films, and describes himself as an old school director. His distinct style is deeply influenced by his mentor, director Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, Scarface, His Girl Friday). After meeting Hawks in Spain, their friendship continued, and Harada interviewed him for several hours in his home in Palm Springs. Recording the interview, Harada has said he still refers the tape for guidance.
“Howard Hawks always respected strong female characters,” says Harada.
Unlike the book, written by Ryotaro Shiba, which Sekigahara is based off of, Harada wanted to focus on the influences and actions of women during the Sekigahara battle. While researching the battle, Harada discovered that Ishida’s right hand general, Sakon Shima’s wife, Hanano was an accomplished doctor. During the battle, Hanano and her sons worked on the front lines as a hospital doctor, and had to escape the battlefield when the Army of the East lost the battle.
“I wanted to show that discovery of the history from the losing side, and that’s one of the most important elements of this movie,” says Harada. “Just don’t use any clichéd images of women from that era, but somebody new and somebody strong, but somebody real at the same time.”
Harada based other female characters, like ninja Hatsume, off some of the characters in Shiba’s short stories about the 16th and 17th centuries. Stories of characters that are unknown draw Harada in, he explains. They are stories he wants to teach his audiences, to open their minds on stories that they think they already know.
Harada was awarded the Special Director’s Award at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on June 13 for Sekigahara, and stayed after the film screening to answer audience questions.