Tag Archives: NHK Enterprises

Strange lands

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.

Taku Kato

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.

Ryuhei Matsuda as Ryunosuke Akutagawa in A Stranger in Shanghai

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.

Taku Kato is also known for his work on Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

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.

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Spirit guardian

Japanese series Moribito is heading into its third and final season. Producer Kiyoshi Umibe pulls back the curtain on this stunning drama to reveal how visual effects and a stellar cast combine to bring the epic fantasy to life.

If Japanese drama is best known for recreating historical and often fantastical worlds, Moribito might be the most dazzling example yet.

The visually striking show is based on a hugely popular fantasy novel series and uses every frame of its 4K production to tell the story of heroine Balsa (played by Haruka Ayase), a skilled bodyguard and master spear-wielder who embarks on a perilous journey to protect a prince from assassination on orders of his father, the king.

Combining stunning visual effects and action sequences, Moribito brings to the screen dense forests, spectacular palaces, spirits and demons as the story plays out in an imaginary land resembling ancient Asia, where the worlds of humans and spirits combine in mysterious ways.

Season one of the series was titled Guardian of the Spirit (debuting in March 2016) and was followed by a second season called The Anguish of the Destroyers (January 2017). Due next year, third and final season Balsa’s Fate tees up a final clash between the two worlds and Balsa’s own battle with her demons.

Kiyoshi Umibe, executive producer of the show, tells DQ about making the series for Japanese broadcaster NHK and distributor NHK Enterprises.

Moribito stars Haruka Ayase as bodyguard Balsa

How have you used the source material through the series? Is it a faithful adaptation or have you added original storylines?
The original Moribito is big. There are 10 volumes of the main story plus two volumes of supplementary short stories. Season one corresponds to volume one and is more or less faithful to the original. That said, we changed the personality of the mikado [king]. In the original, he never shows his emotions, but in the drama we portray him as openly showing his hate towards disgrace and his concern about the power of Chagum [the prince]. We made this change for two reasons: to create the right tempo in the drama and to make the story easy to understand for viewers outside Japan.
For the overall project, including seasons two and three, we dramatised the story considerably. This is because we had decided at the outset, for reasons of budget and schedule, to make 22 episodes across three seasons, so we needed to significantly abridge the story. We were thus able to create an exciting drama series without losing anything that’s great about the original.

Why do you think the series has proven so popular with Japanese viewers?
The original story is superbly entertaining and all the characters – not just the main characters, Balsa and Chagum – are very appealing. Another reason is that the story and the setting have an Asian background that makes them easy to visualise. Japanese people also have a reverence for living creatures and have a cultural background in which rocks, rivers and other parts of the natural environment have been objects of religious faith. The idea of people coexisting with spirits is easy for them to accept.
Another factor is that Japan has many period dramas that have travelled internationally, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and TV drama series Kozure Okami, known in English as Lone Wolf & Cub, in which bodyguards are the protagonists. The idea of a person standing alone against power and violence resonates with people in Japan and overseas.

The show is based on books by Nahoko Uehashi

How would you describe the writing process for the series?
The process began with deciding what would go in each season. We knew in the beginning that this would be aired over a three-year period. We decided that season one would have four episodes and that seasons two and three would each have nine episodes. We decided which parts of the original to cover in each episode of each season.
Screenwriter Sumio Omori and the books’ author, Nahoko Uehashi, both took part in this process. One reason for involving Uehashi was that, towards the latter half of the original, the crown prince Chagum becomes central to the story, with Balsa taking a step back into a supporting role. We needed ideas from the original author in order to keep Balsa prominent right up to the end. Uehashi’s suggestion was to combine Yami No Moribito [Guardian of the Darkness], in which Balsa returns to the country where she was born and faces her past, and the Kambal portion of Ten To Chi No Moribito [Guardian of Heaven and Earth], in which Chagum seeks an alliance with the neighboruing country in order to protect his own country against invasion.
Making changes to Yami No Moribito, which is one of the most popular parts of the book series, took some courage. I don’t think we could have done it without the author’s advice. The resulting structure showed us how to start season three and, by extension, what to include in season two.
Once the structure of the series was settled, we had Omori write the first draft. We all exchanged opinions on that and made revisions.
Omori has written for the kind of NHK family-oriented drama serials that have 150 episodes and air almost daily for six months, as well as high-profile period costume dramas that have 50 episodes aired weekly throughout the year – so I had absolute faith in his ability to structure and write the story.
It was Omori’s idea to insert stories about Balsa’s upbringing and her past into a present-day story. This approach has the shortcoming of making the timeline hard to follow, but it has the merit of making the protagonist’s emotions and motivations easy to grasp. It was ambitious. I’m confident we succeeded.

How would you describe the visual style of the show?
Given that the series is shot in 4K, we paid particular attention to the colours of costumes. The common people wear earth tones such as dark green or light brown, while royals wear different colours depending on their position. The costumes themselves differ from one kingdom to another.

Moribito’s third and final season will hit screens next year

Did you have to find ways to make each of the story’s kingdoms unique?
Uehashi is an ethnologist and the kingdoms in the novels reflect knowledge she gained through fieldwork. We took inspiration for the countries and regions from the detailed depictions in the novels and made changes to ensure they were not the same as any countries that actually exist. We envisioned each kingdom as encompassing a vast area with many ethnic groups. Specifically, we envisioned Shin-Yogo as being something like East Asia, Kambal as being like the mountainous nations in and around the Himalayas, Sangal as being similar to the maritime nations in Southeast Asia, Rota as being like the prairie countries of Central Asia and Talsh as resembling the Roman or Ottoman empires.
Shin-Yogo is a mixture of the natural environment of Japan and the cultures of the Korean Peninsula and China.

What does Haruka Ayase bring to the series and how has it challenged her as an actor?
Haruka is one of Japan’s most popular actresses and has played many comical parts. For our series, she turned into a cool bodyguard and performed in hard action scenes. This transformation surprised viewers. She is physically very capable, performing most of her action scenes without using a stunt double. I think the intensity brought out a real toughness in her. Also, shooting three seasons over three years brought out a depth in the portrayal of five years in the lives of Balsa and Chagum.

What are the challenges of making a fantasy drama? Are these unique to the genre?
When it comes to fantasy, Japanese viewers are familiar with European and American productions – especially Hollywood movies – and are comfortable watching productions where Europeans or Americans play characters from the spirit world. However, they’re not used to watching Japanese actors play characters with non-Japanese names in Japanese-language stories about the spirit world. Partly for this reason, we made sure to give the series an Asian taste, as opposed to a narrowly Japanese identity, but at the same time we had to make sure it was something different from existing Asian countries. This meant we had the hard task of creating a new culture, including modes of behaviour, from scratch, and it was difficult. Notably, the Japanese have a habit of bowing when they greet people – getting the extras to stop bowing took some time.

The Japanese drama takes place in a world occupied by both humans and spirits

What has been the biggest challenge filming this series?
One of the goals of this production was to take a new look at Asia from the perspective of fantasy. The biggest challenge was to create an Asia, and create a new culture, that nobody had ever seen before. We needed advanced VFX to give the series the same sense of scale as the original. Making a fantasy drama in 4K was ambitious in the first place, but HDR became the trend in 4K while we were shooting. So we had to decide on a big change of technical direction. Getting to grips with a new technology on the fly was hard, but 4K HDR made the series more attractive in terms of colouring. We’re very pleased with the results.

Where is the series filmed and how do you use real locations in the show?
We shot about 30% on location and about 70% on set. We shot many scenes in a studio, while some town scenes were shot on an open-air set. Most town scenes were filmed on a set we built in a studio. For forest scenes, we wanted virgin forest, so we shot in various places across Japan.

Why is this the concluding part of the Moribito series? Could you continue for longer?
<SPOILER ALERT> We are being faithful to the original by showing Balsa, who has lived her life as a fighter, until she lays down her spear. In other words, the story of Balsa the bodyguard is complete. There are parts of the book series that we left out of the drama but, now that Balsa is free of her duty as a bodyguard, any dramatisation of them would be a spin-off.

The show airs on NHK in Japan

How would you describe the state of Japanese drama? What new stories are being told?
For a while nearly all Japanese dramas were adapted dramas based on written stories, but now we’re seeing more and more original creations. Also, some appealing dramas are being made with contemporary themes. In Japan, manga (along with novels) is a deeply rooted form of culture. Manga stories with surprising settings are being created almost daily. Uehashi is among these manga writers. She is working on themes such as gene manipulation and viruses, and I think there is still great potential for stories and dramas.

There are lots of strong female characters leading series around the world. Is this the same in Japan, with Moribito as one example?
In Japan, too, there are many dramas with female protagonists. Dramas in which strong women are the protagonists are very popular. This may be because women are a big proportion of TV viewers who watch dramas. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is watched by men and women of all ages.

What trends are there in Japanese drama now?
Detective stories and suspense series remain popular. Also popular are family-oriented dramas that NHK makes about the successes of modern women.

What are you working on next?
A big project such as Moribito is the kind of challenge that only comes along once in 10 years, so we were excited to be able to work on this project. We are also thrilled that this series has been nominated for an International Emmy for Best Drama Series. Now that the show is coming to its finale, the staff, including me, will return to our routines in our respective fields of expertise. I will be making a drama aimed at children, others on artistic dramas, family-oriented dramas, historical dramas and so on.

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Runaway success

Two women are on the run in Japanese drama Runaway Women. DQ hears about this emotional thriller from its director and its executive producer.

Hiroshi Kurosaki
Hiroshi Kurosaki

Japanese drama Runaway Women follows the story of a woman called Rieko who has served eight years in prison after being falsely convicted of murder.

Following her release, Rieko searches for a former friend who betrayed her but is forced to flee when she becomes involved with a young woman, Mio, who actually is a killer. A strange bond then develops between the two, leading to both of them being pursued by Detective Sakuma.

Produced by broadcaster NHK, the six-part series aired in January and February this year and is distributed by NHK Enterprises.

 Yuki Uchida
Yuki Uchida

Here director Hiroshi Kurosaki and executive producer Yuki Uchida take DQ inside this “road movie” that explores how two women come together when the world is seemingly against them.

DQ: What attracted you to the project?
Yuki Uchida: It started with a question: why do people commit crime? But as well as trying to create a story about crime, we delved into the essential elements of the human soul such as solitude, hatred, redemption and love.

Hiroshi Kurosaki: We decided to create the ultimate love story in today’s Japan. By love, we mean not just romance but also feeling for another person in a broader sense. We thought it would mirror modern society. I sat down with screenwriter Toshio Kamata and producers Kazuki Nakayama and Yuki to write an original story. In the end we came up with a tale not about love between a man and a woman but about a strong bond between two women.

What are the major themes of the series?
HK: It is about how human beings hold a destructive impulse in their hearts. In Japan there are many cases of murder and violence without any motive. It can be hard to trust people’s hearts – we wanted to depict a bond that could overcome such doubts.

YU: Everyone harbours burning anger and dark emotions. But at the same time, they yearn to be loved and also to give love.

Runaway Women
Runaway Women stars Miki Mizuno and Riisa Naka

What was the origin of the story and what was the writing process like?
YU: It began with murder and crime itself. But as we were developing the plot, we saw a lot of news coverage of murders committed by the mentally ill and acts of terrorism. So we ended up trying to focus more on people’s inner aspects.

HK: We spent nearly two years forming the plot, during which terrorist attacks occurred around the globe. Footage flooding the internet reshaped the concept of violence in visual media. We rewrote the story from depicting extreme violence to zeroing in on solitude and hunger.

How did the writers and director work together to create the style and tone of the show?
HK: We all shared a respect for the women in the story, and throughout filming we tried to beautifully depict how they strived to move forward with their lives.

YU: The script showed unconventional characters doing and saying things that defied prediction. By moving away from pre-established harmony and not making things too easy to understand, we were able to maintain a distinctive world.

Who are the leading cast members and what qualities do they bring to the characters?
YU: The leads are Miki Mizuno [Rieko], Riisa Naka [Mio] and Kenichi Endo [Detective Sakuma]. Mizuno and Naka had tough jobs, playing someone who has just been released from prison after a wrongful conviction and a psychotic killer respectively. They were in 100% shape both physically and emotionally for the long filming schedule. Endo depicted a man who has a complex, swaying mind despite standing on the side of justice as a detective. All three actively made suggestions to shape their characters.

HK: They threw away their usual star appearances and delved into the characters. Again and again, they fulfilled our wish for them to capture the emotions that seep out from deep inside. They are great actors – and both Mizuno and Naka lost weight for their roles. All three have altered the perceptions viewers will have had of them from their previous performances.

The drama was shot partly in locations that seemed 'detached from the real world'
The drama was shot partly in locations that seemed ‘detached from the real world’

Where was Runaway Women filmed and how did the locations influence the drama?
HK: It was filmed in Kyushu, [an island in] southern Japan. We wanted to place the women on the run not in a cold and dark place but in the south, flooded with light. We felt it was meaningful to have them walk with their heads held high in bright sunlight. We were always aware of the light when filming.

YU: In many cases we shot on location in Nagasaki [which is located on Kyushu]. It is a unique place with indented coastlines and hills that come up to the sea as well as urban zones that cling to the hillside, former naval ports, a US navy base and fishing villages. We believe we captured the feeling of women running in places that seem detached from the real world.

What were the biggest challenges during the production?
YU: It was a road movie and it was a big challenge to shoot in so many different places within a limited time span.

HK: We focused on the moments when the leading characters walked and ran. So we did a lot of long takes using handheld cameras to follow the actors everywhere. In some scenes, an actor and cameraman would keep on running for hundreds of metres. The crew would do warm-up exercises like athletes before each scene began!

How does Runaway Women compare to other NHK dramas and Japanese drama in general?
HK: We captured the beautiful and colourful landscapes of Japan, allowing viewers to see what the country is like today. In recent years, Japanese channels have been under pressure because [of a fear that] viewers will not tune in unless programmes are easy to understand. Sometimes I feel this has gone too far – human emotions are complex and cannot be understood easily. We dared to tread in different terrain, depicting emotions carefully and turning out a new form of entertainment.

YU: It is different because many scenes were shot on location, in places other than Tokyo. Also, it is not a drama where the leading characters are good people – but they will strike viewers as real people.

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