FILMS

Prairie samurai

A Japanese epic comes to life in Alberta

JOHN HOWSE August 21 1989
FILMS

Prairie samurai

A Japanese epic comes to life in Alberta

JOHN HOWSE August 21 1989

Prairie samurai

FILMS

A Japanese epic comes to life in Alberta

Bearing black flags emblazoned with the symbol of the Shinto god of war, 200 warriors on horseback filed through a cloud of smoke toward a grassy cliff overlooking the Stoney Indian Reserve, 60 km west of Calgary. Across the cold, fast-flowing waters of the Bow River, against a blue-grey Rocky Mountain backdrop, more than 2,000 soldiers wearing red uniforms stood in military formation on the flatlands. Observing that striking scene through his viewfinder, director Haruki Kadokawa shouted “ Yoy!”— the Japanese word for “Ready!”—then roared in English “Action!” Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, playing the leader of the warriors in black, peered down at his red-costumed rivals as, overhead, a crane camera on a 40-foot track moved toward. It was recording the first filmed-in-Canada scenes of Kadokawa’s $47million samurai epic, Heaven and Earth.

Never before has a film of such magnitude been shot in Canada. The production calls for 800 horses, 2,800 extras and 4,900 costumes. Carpenters had to erect a fort and a castle with a moat on the Stoney Reserve. And at first glance, the Prairie province may seem an unusual stand-in for the Japan of the samurai warriors. But, in the course of 18 months of discussions, the Alberta economic development and trade department convinced the Jap-

anese film-makers that their province made sense. Through an interpreter, Kadokawa said that he was attracted to the setting because of its vastness and its resemblance to the Japanese battlefield of Kawanakajima, where the events depicted in the film took place in the 16th century. As well, the director added, “Few places can provide as many horses as Alberta.” For the Japanese stars and the local extras and production crews, the six-week shoot, which will end in mid-September, is proving to be a cultural exchange program on an epic scale.

But the filming did not begin until Kadokawa—himself an ordained Shinto priest— flew in four priests and leaders of the Ainu, aboriginal inhabitants of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, for an

Aug. 3 ceremony on the bat-

tlefield with Stoney Chief John Snow. Before an audience of 200 Calgary municipal officials and other invited guests, the white-robed, blackhatted Shinto priests made offerings of vegetables and Japanese rice wine to the gods at a cedar altar. Then Chief Snow, emerging from a

tepee painted with a large eagle, passed a peace pipe of sweet grass among the priests and spiritual leaders. Explained Kadokawa: “We called upon the gods of the Stoney Indians to descend from the heavens, and on the gods of the Rockies for their help in the safety of making this film.”

Heaven and Earth pits the idealistic warlord Kenshin Uesugi (Watanabe) against the pragmatic leader Shingen Takeda (Masahiko Tsugawa) who engaged in combat to unite and rule Japan. Watanabe, 30, a well-known film and TV actor in Japan who played the lead in the internationally successful contemporary comedy Tampopo, said: “The general I portray is a sharp, razor-like man. I have prayed to the gods and hope to assimilate his character. Meanwhile, my horse is teaching me how to ride.” The clashes between the warlords and their armies, all to be filmed in Alberta, take up about a quarter of the planned two-hour epic;

the rest of the movie is being shot in Japan. Kadokawa has hired a team of 50 Alberta wranglers—led by veteran movie stunt man Tommy Bews of Longview, Alta., 60 km south of Calgary—to ensure that the scenes with actors and extras on horseback run as smoothly and safely as possible. But the director quickly notes that the samurai film is “not a Japanese western.” Speaking in his trailer on the set, he told Maclean’s: “Samurai and

cowboys share the common

trait of bravery. But the distinction is clear: the samurai is part of a group, not just one individual. Also, these people do not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for their rulers.” Toyama-born Kadokawa, 47, who produced the 1980 thriller Virus, which was filmed

partly in North America—is an adventurer in his own right. He sailed an antique, engineless catamaran from Japan across the Pacific Ocean to Chile on a six-month, 10,000-mile odyssey in 1980. And, in 1992, he is preparing to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America by constructing a $3.7-million replica of Columbus’s sailing ship the Santa Maria. He plans to command it on an eight-month voyage from Barcelona to North America and Japan. The director is also president of Kadokawa Publishing, Japan’s second-largest publisher, and the author of eight books of poetry. Kadokawa said that he considers Heaven and Earth to be a poetic enterprise in its own right, adding that he believes contemporary war films are lacking in romance. “Modern war movies are just about fighting,” he said. “There is no poetry in them.”

Conditions on the 3,500acre film site, however, are less than idyllic. Last week, the filming of a battle scene in blazing sunlight and 30°C temperatures took its toll.

The Canadian production crews pleaded with the director to send them home. “You better shut her down,” a squad leader advised Kadokawa over a walkie-talkie.

“People are going down—we are carrying them into the woods.” But, with more than 2,600 paid extras in place and hundreds of horses lining the plains, Kadokawa was determined to get his shot of the two opposing armies before bringing the afternoon’s film-

ing to an early close. By the time that the director ended the filming at 2:45 p.m., 41 extras had fainted or succumbed to dizziness in the heat.

The language barrier poses other problems. “I work in Japanese through an aide who then tells an interpreter who passes on the order to the Canadian staff who finally tell the extras what to do,” said Kadokawa. “Sometimes I say ‘A’ and it becomes ‘C’ by the time it gets to the extras.” But the film-makers are trying to improve communications: each day, the Englishspeaking participants receive a one-page bulletin on basic language tips (“ ‘arigato’ means ‘thank you’ ”) and aspects of Japanese culture.

For many Albertan participants, the film is a welcome introduction to the world of moviemaking. Most of the 2,800 extras receive $75 a day, plus a $20-per-day bonus if they complete their contract. Mounted extras, who had to pass a demanding equestrian proficiency test, will receive $125 daily. Each morning, they board buses at 7 a.m. in the University of Calgary parking lot and eat a boxed breakfast during the 50-minute trip to the location. Upon arrival, they dress in the cavernous Goodstoney Rodeo Arena, where their costumes of red-and-black polyester and plastic hang in six 250-foot rows. Then, they either walk or travel by bus to the set, where shooting can go on until as late as 6 p.m. “It is excellent because I can make $1,630 if I hang in here,” said Jason Joly, 17, a Calgary Central Memorial Grade 12 student. “It is hot and uncomfortable o under all this plastic and breastplate. But it a sure beats working indoors at Kentucky Fried 5 Chicken.”

" More than 300 of the extras are members of £ the three bands living on the reserve that form g the Stoney tribe. Said John Snow Jr., 26, son of o the Stoney chief: “We negotiated employment “■ as part of the package that rented our lands.” He estimates that the six-week venture will pump $1.2 million into the reserve. “Besides,” he added, wryly making reference to the longstanding differences between natives and the federal government, “maybe we can get some ideas from all these battles for our strategy in dealing with Ottawa.”

For Canadian production supervisor Doug MacLeod, the toughest challenge is keeping his army of young extras intact. “Canadian kids are not used to samurai films,” he said. “We are teaching them to move, fall and die like samurai warriors. And nobody before has tried to keep so many for so long. Most film-makers hire dressed extras for a couple of days: we have them for up to 30 days.” have them for up to 30 days.”

Last week, after Kadokawa viewed rushes of Heaven and Earth at a Calgary movie theatre, it seemed that the director’s offerings to the gods had paid off. “Excellent, spectactular,” he said. Martin Erlichman, a veteran Los Angeles-based producer who visited the Heaven and Earth shoot and who will be producing a film for Kadokawa in the future, was also impressed by the venture. “We have not seen anything like this since Cleopatra,” said Erlichman, referring to the 1963 Hollywood spectacular. “Cecil B. DeMille is up there watching.” But, so far, only scenes showing the approach of the two armies had been shot: the real test will come over the next few weeks, when the actual combat scenes take place.

JOHN HOWSE on the Stoney Indian Reserve