Taku Kato, the director of Japanese film A Stranger in Shanghai, discusses making the single drama for broadcaster NHK, filming in China, and appealing to international audiences.
Set in 1921, Japanese feature-length drama A Stranger in Shanghai follows the story of writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa as he visits Shanghai as a newspaper correspondent.
Having grown up reading classic Chinese novels as a child, what Akutagawa discovers is not the utopia he had imagined. Instead, he is shocked by the military scuffles, Western and Japanese occupation and the local residents living in abject poverty. From intellectual revolutionaries to courtesans surviving in the back alleys, each encounter affects him in unexpected ways.
Based on the exploits of the real-life Akutagawa, a prominent Japanese novelist and writer of short stories, the drama is produced by NHK and distributed by NHK Enterprises.
Here, director Taku Kato, whose credits include Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, tells DQ about making the drama.
Tell us about the story of A Stranger in Shanghai.
Taku Kato: One hundred years ago, Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa visited the Chinese city of Shanghai during a period of turmoil. This was the first trip overseas for the 29-year-old writer, who had already gained renown in Japan for his novel Rashomon, which later became an Akira Kurosawa film.
Shanghai was unprecedented in world history as a city where the occidental and oriental mixed. For Akutagawa, who had been fascinated with China from a young age, every aspect of the society and people he saw there exceeded his imagination.
As he observes China during this tumultuous time, the novelist’s heart and mind gradually transform while his relationship with a deaf-mute boy deepens.
What attracted you to the project?
More than anything, it was the question, ‘What is China?’ Answering that question means more than talking about Chinese history in terms of political or military aspects; it means encountering Chinese people and culture.
Although there was a deep rift between Japan and China at the beginning of the 20th century, many Japanese people visited and wrote about China as if drawn by the magical power of the city of Shanghai. Akutagawa was one of these people.
Shanghai Yuki [A Report on the Journey of Shanghai], the travel journal that Akutagawa wrote detailing his visit to China, presents a mixture of emotions towards China — deep affection, understanding and also disappointment. That Akutagawa was able to express such emotions in this travel journal was due to his deeply held respect for Chinese culture.
Moreover, his natural genius as a novelist enabled him to depict the Chinese people with delicate precision. Distancing himself from political and military issues, Akutagawa showed China as it truly was, and I feel that his perspective then is extremely relevant for us today, 100 years later, in understanding Chinese and other cultures.
I was also very attracted to the idea of depicting China in the early 1920s using 8K ultra-high definition. Shanghai at that time was a city like a chimera. While the splendour of the Qing Dynasty still remained, the corruption of the revolutionary period was in control behind the scenes. I thought the Shanghai of 100 years ago depicted in 8K would be fresh and captivating.
Another huge attraction was the opportunity to collaborate with the Chinese filmmaking industry. Initially, I envisioned having a few more scenes in Japan, but ultimately virtually all of the scenes were shot in Shanghai.
Working with staff and actors from the Chinese filmmaking industry, which is continuing to develop, was highly stimulating and I believe we were able to create universal and valuable content through working together.
How was the project developed?
I began thinking about this project in 2010, around the time relations between Japan and China were really bad because of the Senkaku islands dispute. In Akutagawa’s time, Japan-China relations were also very tense, but I found Akutagawa’s approach of distancing himself from political aspects and focusing on Chinese culture to be highly intellectual.
Our scriptwriter, Aya Watanabe, is one of Japan’s most outstanding writers, but the question of whether a travel journal could be translated into a drama was quite a difficult one. By piecing together several of Akutagawa’s novels and essays and introducing a young deaf-mute male prostitute named Lele as a key character, Aya was able to create a story.
The script was very beautiful – the word choice, the flow of scenes – but even Aya was unable to envision how the imagery would turn out, and when she came to see the project being shot on location in Shanghai, she was startled by the imagery we were producing. Inspiring each other as we created this drama was a very enjoyable experience.
How does the series use the classic ‘fish out of water’ premise of Akutagawa arriving in China?
A sensitive person such as [the real] Akutagawa would have felt out of place when faced with rapidly advancing modernisation. He did not feel comfortable with major trends in society. We regard the estrangement between society and Akutagawa as having made him anxious, eventually leading him to choose suicide [he took his own life in 1927, aged 35].
The word ‘Stranger’ in the title of this drama naturally refers to the fact Akutagawa was a foreigner visiting China, but it also implies that he was a stranger to the times.
In Shanghai Yuki, Akutagawa describes the occidentalism appearing in Shanghai as being a “fish out of water.” In the unprecedented city of Shanghai, everything was unknown. The sense of discomfort towards the times, that something was not quite right, is an experience shared by many people today who feel anxious about the rapidly changing world and unseen world of the future.
An important theme of the project was drawing to the surface Akutagawa’s sense of distance from the times as a stranger, and lead actor Ryuhei Matsuda was able to depict this with wonderful balance.
How did you prepare for production?
For the sets, our Japanese production designer drew images. Based on these, the sets were created jointly with the design team in China.
For character styling, Chinese staff created both costumes and make-up based on images drawn by our character visual director.
With regard to direction, scripts were prepared with Japanese and Chinese text printed side-by-side. Sketches and shot lists were written in, but we did not use storyboards. However, I don’t think many of the staff actually looked at these scripts.
As is almost always the case when working with an international team, the staff were able to instantly gauge the aim and level of production from the images appearing on the monitor. This is an interesting aspect of producing projects with a multinational team.
Where was the series filmed? How did you recreate 1920s Shanghai?
All of the Chinese scenes were filmed at two studios in Shanghai over a 16-day period. The Japanese scenes were shot in Tokyo in one day.
The Shanghai studios have streetscapes and buildings from various periods, which we decorated to suit our needs. Our production designer is Japanese but graduated from a Chinese university and has a very deep understanding and respect for Chinese culture, so was able to recreate Shanghai in 1921 working in cooperation with the Chinese team.
We referred to a great deal of historical material. Japanese and Chinese researchers kindly provided us with photographs and material relating to the relevant period and answered any questions we had.
We also intentionally incorporated many furnishings and clothing designs evocative of the Qing Dynasty. It was important to show the contrast between the Chinese culture that Akutagawa loved and Westernisation, so we took especial care in balancing this mixture.
How did you work with the actors on set? Did it involve lots of preparation or rehearsals?
A major part of directing is arranging art and lighting crew as well as extras and other peripheral staff so that the actors can move naturally. Within the worldview presented by the director, it is the actors who possess the skills to constantly enthral and surprise us.
Naturally, I provide direction with regard to the story flow, but the performances created are entirely the work of the actors. If you are not satisfied by an actor’s performance, it is the worldview presented by the director that is at fault.
The reason that all the scenes for this drama were shot at studios was that this made it possible for us to create a certain worldview. The main character, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, always walked the streets of Shanghai as a stranger, while Takashi Okabe, in the role of Shiro Murata, blends into the Shanghai streetscape with astonishing acting skills – despite the fact that he cannot speak Chinese and had not even been to China before filming this drama.
Virtually all of the Chinese actors were selected through auditions. They used their own imagination and skills to weave performances based on the script within the worldview created by the sets. We used a filming style of rehearsing each scene first, followed by actual filming. The costumes provided by our character visual director were also tremendously helpful in assisting the actors to immerse themselves into their characters.
Watching through the monitors, even the Japanese staff who don’t speak Chinese were deeply impressed by the Chinese actors’ expressive abilities. The characters of Lele, the deaf-mute boy, and Yulan actually have no lines. The fact Japanese viewers are also able to deeply empathise with these two characters’ feelings is because of these actors’ extraordinary expressive abilities.
What was the biggest challenge you faced making the series?
The drama was filmed almost entirely in China, and in 8K at that, and everything was a first-time experience for us. In that sense, we too were ‘strangers.’
I have filmed dramas in Europe numerous times, but if a team comprising people from different cultures can create imagery together, they can gain mutual understanding and give birth to new creativity as while inspiring and stimulating each other.
However, for this project, the number of Chinese staff was much higher than the number of Japanese staff – 200 Chinese staff to 30 Japanese. I thought it would be overwhelming, but the filming process was enjoyable throughout.
Why will the story appeal to viewers?
Akutagawa’s Shanghai Yuki is a travel journal, so the drama tells the story of a journey. The irresistible feeling of excitement and stimulation at crossing borders and encountering different cultures is something that has probably been preprogrammed into humankind.
Akutagawa the traveller discovered small things and endeavoured to imagine what lay deep within different cultures. This is surely something everyone has experienced.
China, in the past and today, is a mysterious country. One of the attractions of this drama is that it enables viewers to experience China from a traveller’s perspective. The Communist Party of China led by Xi Jinping today was born 100 years ago in the home of a young man called Li Renjie (Li Hanjun), whom Akutagawa met.
How is Japanese drama evolving towards international audiences?
I am always tremendously inspired by dramas from outside Japan. Producing dramas that translate internationally is probably about creating stories featuring issues with which people across national borders can identify, while emphasising the unique characteristics of each region.
International award-winning films Parasite and Shoplifters depict cultural aspects and customs particular to South Korea and Japan respectively, but these stories are set against backgrounds of social disparity and division — problems common throughout the world.
In Japanese drama production, however, there are few producers taking on the challenge of such genres. Although there are constrictions imposed by budgets and client orientation, more than anything, I think there is a lack of awareness with regard to connecting with international markets.
From the start, A Stranger in Shanghai was intended for broadcasting on NHK World Japan, because the subject matter was of interest to people around the world and was depicted from a uniquely Japanese perspective. If this drama does draw the interest of viewers around the world, it is because China is a subject that draws the interest and curiosity of the world.