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The Warlord and the Wimp

In this excerpt from his Japan Journals, Donald Richie learns what separated leaders from losers

 

The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie, who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the December 1995 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from Japan Journals 1947-2004 by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press, 2004). Donald Richie’s first visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time, he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents, recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years, and when asked about times in the ‘90s, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”

 

Hideyoshi Toyotomi, warlord, unifier of Japan, advanced upon Gaspar Coelho, Superior of Jesuit Mission to Japan. Coelho was being shown around Osaka Castle–or rather around the Shochiku Ofuna Film Studio, where the great gold assembly room of the castle had been recreated.

The famous actor of stage and screen, Tsutomu Yamazaki, was Hideyoshi, in full kimono, all scarlet and gold. Coelho, all in black, in habit and hat, surrounded by his equally black-robed acolytes, was myself—put into the picture as a sign of favor, or perhaps amusement, by director Hiroshi Teshigahara.

The film was Rikyu, a historical drama about the conflict between political Hideyoshi and aesthetic Sen no Rikyu. The scene in which we were now engaged was to show the warlord being political—enlisting the foreign aid of the Jesuits. He had just completed a speech welcoming us and hinting that when he had conquered Korea and China we might follow and make them all Christians. Then he advanced toward me.

I had earlier decided, having studied my single line in Portuguese, how to interpret my role. Knowing that Hideyoshi was later going to expel the Jesuits, I decided to be as politically canny as the warlord himself. It would be a duel of equals–Gaspar standing up to the warlord. I would be stern and use my single line to lash out–then I would retire with dignity and when shown the gold (in the next sequence) would be coldly attentive, nothing more. In front of the mirror I looked sternly at my reflection and delivered my Portuguese line with a cold smile.

In the great gold assembly room, Hideyoshi had brought out all of his foreign presents to impress his foreign guests; that is, the Shochiku prop department had brought out whatever it could find in the way of regal treasure. There was a Louis XV table and–a bit late–a Victorian loveseat, a Viking helmet, a stuffed polar bear and lots of Persian carpets.

“Hey, man,” said one of my Portuguese acolytes, sitting behind me on the tatami. “The polar bear no good. They no got polar bear back then.”

“They got polar bear,” said the Japanese prop-man, also in English.

“And the rugs, man,” continued my acolyte. “They no Persian. They Syrian. They lousy.”

The acolytes, chosen for their Latin looks, were actually Iranian, drawn from the large group otherwise idle in Tokyo and they all knew about carpets.

Hideyoshi stomped in and at once began his speech. Coelho’s interpreter, Luis Frois (the actor Ken Frankel) was supposed to be whispering the Portuguese equivalent into my ear, but since neither of us knew the language, he babbled and I nodded.

Then came my line: A Correia e a China não querem a guerra! “Neither Korea nor China have, in my opinion, any desire of war.” These were the words with which I would lash the barbarian upstart.

Or would have, had I been able to get them out. But Yamazaki had advanced so suddenly upon me that I forgot the last half. My delivery was consequently less than confident. This was just the rehearsal, however, so I turned to the single native Portuguese on the set and asked if he could simplify my sentence.

“It’s pretty simple already,” he said, scratch- ing his head. Then: “Well, maybe Correia e a China querrem pas.”

Again Hideyoshi made his appearance and again delivered his speech. Yamakazi–criminal in Kurosawa’s High and Low, comic truck driver in Itami’s Tanpopo, Richard III and Oscar Wilde on stage–is not a big man, but he is an imposing one. He is also a master of the techniques of acting and here I was sitting on the tatami, clutching my line as he advanced on me.

I backed off as best I could, hat wob-bling, and tentatively delivered my truncated Portuguese. Then Hideyoshi said if I wanted anything I could approach him through Rikyu here. This personage bowed and my hat fell off. It was still, however, a rehearsal.

“Why does he do that?” I whispered to Ken.“Come at me like that.”

“It is his conception of the role. Notice how he does it? It’s fantastic. You see, he wants to express that Hideyoshi is really powerful, but if you just act like you’re powerful then nothing comes across.

“An actor has to have a vehicle,” Ken went on. “And Yamazaki has chosen impatience. That governs every move, and makes his advancing on you necessary. He has to treat you this way. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“It’s just marvelous, what he’s doing.”

To this opinion I did not respond, and now came the first take. Teshigahara and his crew were at one side, a long shot, the camera then dollying in for a medium shot of the two protagonists. There would stand the blustering warlord and there would sit, immobile as stone, the worldly priest, outstaring the warlord with his steely gaze.

Hiroshi told the camera to start, the set hushed, Yamazaki shouted impatiently and then advanced so swiftly and stood so close that I had to move back, difficult when kneeling on tatami, and as I looked up in surprise I knew that a steely gaze was impossible.

And instantly, like any actor, I knew how to play my part. It all, just as they said, came together. I was a pious old fraud. Why hadn’tI seen that before?

After the scene was taken there was an interval. I was sitting next to Rikyu, played by Rentaro Mikuni. I asked what I looked like.

“Fine. The hat is nice.”

“No, I meant my acting.”

“Oh,” he said, and then after some thought, “Well, I think that playing the role in a comic fashion is certainly among the possibilities.”

Comic? I had not known that I was comic. Gaspar Coelho might well have been a pious old fraud but his being comic was far from my recently enlarged conception. I turned to Ken.

“Actors play off each other,” he said. “They create right then and there. That is what you and Yamazaki did.”

Well that is what Yamazaki had done.

“Hey, man. You funny.” said the Persian behind me.

We were to take the scene again. I wondered if Hideyoshi had really browbeat Gaspar in such a manner. If he did, maybe the Jesuit–peace at any price–had caved in. Maybe his single line was not defiance but a nervous defense.

And I suddenly thought of Japanese television where the foreign guest is almost invariably made a fool of, or makes a fool of himself. When I sternly refused whatever such TV offers came my way, here I was in a filmed historical spectacular–doing the same thing.

The warlord advanced and I whined my line, then fell back when he moved still closer. This time Yamazaki wanted to shake hands, improvised some dialogue as well. I dropped my rosary and looked up meekly from under my hat.

“Cut,” said Teshigahara, then made a thumbs-up sign and gave me a big smile.

“Hey man, you natural comic,” said the Persian.

I straightened my hat, picked up my rosary and said savagely: “I am not.”

But the die was cast, as they said back in 1585, and when everyone moved to the storehouse where all the gold was kept, I tripped over my habit, was stuck dumb at all the treasure, raised my hand to heaven, then bent forward to greedily touch. And all without any direction at all. I might not have become Coelho but I had become someone.

Afterward, when my mustache was being removed and my surplice folded, I said to Yamazaki as the entire top of his head, samurai pate and all, was being lifted off: “You did that!”

“No.” he said. “You did it. Or maybe we did it.”

“Is that what acting is like?”

“Yes,” said this fine actor.

“I thought it was more friendly,” I said.

“Nothing personal,” said Yamazaki, smiling. “Hideyoshi was that kind of person.”

“And Coelho, was he what I made of him?”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t make any difference. The main thing is that he didn’t want to become important and that Hideyoshi did.”

tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is first honorable visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes. Mr. Richie passed away in 2013.



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