Berlin: Yoji Yamada on How War Memories Influence His Filmmaking (Q&A)

The Berlin vet discusses his competition entry "The  Little  House," why he wouldn't want to make "Saving  Private  Ryan" and the one genre he still dreams of tackling.

Through a career that has spanned six decades and more than 60 movies, Yoji Yamada has gone from being regarded as a journeyman director cranking out formulaic comedies to an internationally acclaimed festival favorite (he’s been in the Berlin competition six times). His Tora-san films about the travails of a traveling salesman, of which he wrote and directed 46, comprise the longest-running series in cinematic history. But it was his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor) between 2002 and 2006 that brought him worldwide attention, including a foreign-language Oscar nomination. The 82-year-old director’s latest, The Little House, examines the secret loves and lives of a middle-class Tokyo family against the backdrop of World War II.

Yamada talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his early influences, his own wartime memories and why people should never forget the horrors of combat.

Your recent films are very focused on the family. Is there a particular reason for that?

That’s a tough one. I think maybe it’s because the place where I learned about film, the old Shochiku studio at Ofuna — which doesn’t exist anymore — was traditionally where home dramas and family dramas were made by directors like Mikio Naruse and the maestro Yasujiro Ozu. I studied there; that’s where I was brought up. I guess that’s the reason. So, even if I’m portraying war, I have absolutely no interest in making a film like Saving Private Ryan, with big explosions, the army coming up the beaches, planes dropping bombs, blood everywhere and people dying. It’s the same as Yasujiro Ozu. What I’m interested in portraying is the sadness of a mother when her son is sent off to war, or the tears when a lover is going to war. Akira Kurosawa liked to make that kind of epic-style film at [Japanese studio] Toho, with 50 or 100 horses charging across the screen; horses and all that just seem like a big headache.

How important was Ozu to your filmmaking?

Yasujiro Ozu was my sensei. During World War II he was in Singapore when Japan captured it in 1942. At the cinema there, Ozu watched a lot of American films every day, like Gone With the Wind and Disney’s Fantasia. That was the first time he’d seen color films, and he thought, “We’re at war with a country like this, we’re definitely going to lose.” He also thought that if he tried to make films like that, on that kind of scale, he would lose there too. Being Ozu’s disciple, I also think there’s no way that Japanese films could be made with those huge sets, like with a big house burning down. But inside a little Japanese house, with paper screens and a family around a small table on a tatami floor: With a film like that, we wouldn’t have to lose. Recently I saw Gravity, and thought, “Wow, you can make a film like that.” But I’m not interested in doing it.

There are scenes in Little House of people marching off to war and shouting “banzai, banzai” when war is declared, thinking it would be over quickly. Is there a message there for people in East Asia today, with all the friction between Japan, China and Korea?

The Japanese prime minister recently visited the Yasukuni Shrine [a controversial memorial to Japan’s wartime dead, including war criminals], which the Chinese foreign minister compared to visiting Nazi graves. The prime minister really shouldn’t do that; Japanese politicians need to study and learn about history. Three million Japanese died in World War II, and there were tens of millions dead around the world. In China, more than 10 million were killed by the Japanese army. None of it should ever be allowed to happen again, including the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; things must be solved by negotiation.

You were born in 1931. What are your memories of the war?

When I was young, everyone thought America and Britain were terrible countries and we couldn’t lose to them. And we were being told by the news­papers we were winning all the time, even though we were losing. The biggest nonsense was when it got to 1945 and the U.S. Army was going to land in Japan, we were supposed to fight down to the last person with bamboo spears. I started to realize this was ridiculous; I was going to die too, but if everybody died, there would be no Japanese left.

Are you concerned that as time passes people will forget about what happened in the war?       

Yes, it’s a problem everywhere, in America too. I didn’t think Obama was going to go to war, but it just doesn’t seem to stop. And when my generation goes, there’ll be nobody left to tell people about it. Japanese politicians now, like the prime minister, were born after the war.

Do your memories of growing up during the war still influence your filmmaking?

Yes, they’re expressed in The Little House; like the fall of Nanking, I remember as a child thinking the war with China was over and people shouting “banzai.” Of course it wasn’t over. And then food starting to run short from 1944 onward, as you see in the film. I remember being hungry for most of my youth. My stomach was never full, not until I joined Shochiku.

You’ve achieved a lot during a long career. Is there anything left you still want to do?

To make a comedy that would make you laugh so much that your stomach hurts; that’s my dream. It’s hard though. You know straightaway if it works or not because audiences either laugh or they don’t.