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Q&A: Shinsuke Sato on 'Library Wars' and Futuristic Japan

Director Shinsuke SATO - P 2013
Shinsuke Sato

The director talks about his latest film, which will be at market in Cannes.

Director Shinsuke Sato’s Library Wars (Toshokan Senso) is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Hiro Arikawa that tells of a Japan in the future where books and freedom of expression are under attack from the government. The story follows the special quasi-military force that has been formed to protect libraries and the books in them. Sato (Gantz) sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about getting help from Japan’s armed forces in shooting, working in different roles and watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind every day while directing a love story.   

The Hollywood Reporter: There have been a novel, a manga, an anime series and an animated feature of Library Wars. Did you read and watch all of them before making the film?

Shinsuke Sato: I did read the novel and see them, and took a look at the manga. But I didn’t want the film to become a copy of them, so I tried to keep some distance from them. There are lots of adaptations in Japan, and Gantz was also based on anime. And anime fans are very passionate, so it’s hard not to care about that, but I tried not to be too concerned about it and make the kind of film I wanted to make.

THR: What was the most difficult part of the story to portray on film?

Sato: The novel is very complex and a lot of characters appear, but with only a couple of hours for a film, it has to be shortened and stand alone. The hardest part is writing the screenplay; once that’s done, it’s not that difficult to film. This time, Akiko Nogi wrote the screenplay, working with myself and the producer.

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THR: There’s a judo scene in the film. Did the actors do any special training for that? 

Sato: The lead actress, Nana Eikura, hadn’t done judo so she had to learn and practice just the moves for that scene. The action director, Yuji Shimomura, has a lot of experience so it went smoothly; I wasn’t worried about it but she got pretty nervous. I worked on an action film about 12 years ago with Shimomura-san, who was with a team of Japanese who had worked with Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen. I worked with them on some of the in-game movies for video games that I did for years. And thought it would be good to work with them again one day when I had a chance to do some action scenes at some point.    

THR: You had the cooperation of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) for this film. How did that come about and what exactly did they help with?

Sato: The locations, using military vehicles and [soldiers appearing as extras] were the biggest help. I also spent a lot of time talking to the JSDF to make sure the details were correct for the film. We had ex-JSDF members advising on the battle scenes and how to hold weapons. It’s really unusual to get the JSDF to work so closely with a film.     

THR: Freedom of expression is an important part of Library Wars. Is that the main message of the film?

Sato: I don’t think something like the events in the film will happen in Japan, but there are some forms of censorship everywhere and it can become a problem almost without people noticing. That’s why at the start of the film I wanted to include those news reels showing how the situation gradually developed, rather than just drop straight into that world. It’s not really a message film though, even though it does deal with censorship and freedom of expression, it’s kind of a light film. It’s quite Japanese in that way, serious issues but approached with a cute touch.

THR: You’ve worked in a lot of different roles and fields, video games, screenplays, directing TV dramas and movies. Are you able to put things that you learn in different areas?

Sato: That’s the idea anyway [laughs]. For example, in video games you often have historical Japanese figures in them, but that’s not something you get a chance to do in films; so there are things you get to experience things in different media. When you’re making films, you don’t get to watch other directors, but in TV, there are directors all over the place and you can go and take a look at how they do certain things. I noticed this time with Library Wars that there I was working in some different ways after doing TV dramas last year.   

THR: What inspired you to become a director?

Sato: My hometown is in a rural area and it was mostly the big imported films that were shown at the local theater. There were a lot of sci-fi movies, and they made me want to become a director. But there were hardly any of those kinds of films made in Japan, so it was difficult to imagine that. Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a big impression on me and it’s a film I watched over and over. I don’t know whether it influenced me but I directed a love story called Sunadokei (Sand Clock) in 2008, and I watched it every single day while I was making that film.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair