As present (and misinterpreted) as ninjas are in global pop culture references, few of us probably consider the origin of these warriors. Yoshihiro Nakamura has found a way to share new perspectives to their tales, tying their existence to what has become modern Japan in his new film Shinobi no Kuni. Fresh off projects like The Magnificent Nine and The Snow White Murder Case, Nakamura brings his unique eye to ninja lore, injecting humour, heart, and incredible action into the film.
Mumon (Satoshi Ohno) is the self-proclaimed “greatest ninja in Iga,” and his reputation often precedes him in skirmishes with fellow Iga ninja–along with timely dust storms that help shield his presence. When the son of warlord Oda Nobunaga begins to prod at Iga’s borders, eager to invade, the Council of Twelve decides to fight back. The only problem is: who’s going to pay all of Iga’s ninja to do the fighting? After all, Mumon’s got to take some money home to his wife Okuni (a chillingly poised Satomi Ishihara), or he might never be able to re-enter his house.
I spoke with director Nakamura during his visit to the Toronto Japanese Film Festival about the film, and his experiences working with a large and talented cast.
Has this Toronto screening been an exciting experience so far?
Yoshihiro Nakamura: We’re looking forward to it.
What was it like working with the cast? I know you had quite a big cast for this film, and a big production. Did you do any one-on-one work with them in preparation for the film?
Nakamura: We have a very good cast so it was easy for me. I thought I would have to use stuntmen for the action scenes but a lot of the cast were actually good with doing the action scenes, so I didn’t have to use as many stuntmen as I thought I had to. The cast were actually doing a lot of the action scenes by themselves.
Was there a particular scene that was the most memorable for you to film?
Nakamura: Towards the end, there’s a one-on-one fight scene with a 120-centimeter range. It’s about seven minutes on the screen, but it took three days to shoot the entire scene.
Do you have any interesting memories with your cast members, specifically Ohno [Satoshi], Ishihara [Satomi], or Chinen [Yuri]?
Nakamura: So many. Chinen [had] entered showbiz because he liked Ohno, so even in other scenes, he could tell there was admiration for Ohno from Chinen.
Like a bit of a fan himself.
Nakamura: Yes, he was a fan of Ohno and that’s why he’d entered showbiz. He wanted to be like Ohno.
Ohno Satoshi has done some historical era plays, and I found it intriguing that he’s now going into historical films with Shinobi no Kuni.
Nakamura: When I was talking with the Johnny’s [Entertainment] producer, we were talking about the film in pre-production, Ohno’s producer brought footage from some theatrical plays that Ohno had done. The producer was kind of bragging about how much Ohno could move, but for my film, Ohno had to move ten times faster.
What do you think of the international response so far? The film has been screened in Shanghai, and will soon be screened in New York [next month].
Nakamura: For the Shanghai Film Festival, most of the audience were fans of Ohno. When Ohno appeared on the screen, everyone screamed.
For younger filmmakers, what’s a piece of advice you would give them?
Nakamura: The key is don’t tell anyone what you think the most important aspect of the film is until it’s all done. Just keep it to yourself. Don’t tell anyone.