The battle of Samurai that defined Japan's future. Photo: 2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights

Leave it to master storyteller Masato Harada to delve into one of Japanese history’s watershed episodes, and to emerge with a powerful reinterpretation that overturns our conventional understanding of its key players, the oft-derided bureaucrat-turned-warrior Mitsunari Ishida and the celebrated first-shogun-to-be Ieyasu Tokogawa.

In Harada’s hands, their fateful conflict has been transformed into a war between justice for the greater good and absolute power for the chosen few.

The writer-director of acclaimed films from Kamikaze Taxi and Bounce Ko Gals to Chronicle of My Mother and The Emperor in August, he is known for his rare ability to fuse social criticism with world-class entertainment. Sekigahara is no exception.

Harada had wanted to adapt Ryotaro Shiba’s 3-volume, 1,500-page novel of the same name for 25 years. As his filmography expanded, his approach to the story also evolved. Although he’d initially imagined different characters as the protagonists of the sprawling narrative, he eventually decided to put Mitsunari at the center of his film.

Photo: 2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights

“Many people hated him [for his single-minded pursuit of justice], including me,” Harada admits about the character.

But long before Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers, “he created his motto ‘One for all, all for one’ and his thinking process is really contemporary and up to date. If you see the political situation and how Japan is moving, in every which way, justice is lost. Mitsunari had principles that never wavered. In today’s Japan, we could use 10,000 Mitsunaris.”

The battle of Sekigahara, fought on a single day in 1600, is considered a defining moment in Japan’s future. Lasting just six hours, with forces estimated to number over 150,000 (30,000 of whom would not survive) its outcome brought to an end the centuries-long Warring States period.

The battle of Sekigahara, fought on a single day in 1600, is considered a defining moment in Japan’s future.

Lasting just six hours, with forces estimated to number over 150,000 (30,000 of whom would not survive) its outcome brought to an end the centuries-long Warring States period.

By 1603, the victor ushered in the peace, stability and growth that would last throughout the 260 years of the Edo period.

For such a historically decisive battle, it’s surprising that Sekigahara has never been mounted on screen before.

This may be partially due to budgeting and logistics constraints. In the past, Akira Kurosawa was able to rally 1,000 extras and 200 horses for his Palm d’Or-winning Kagemusha, with its climactic Battle of Nagashino.

But he was infamous for cost overruns, and his later Ran, shot on a similar scale, was the most expensive film in Japanese history.

Amply aided by today’s computer graphic wizardry, but on a far smaller budget than either Kurosawa or Hollywood would require, Masato Harada has managed to create battle scenes in Sekigahara that deploy several hundred extras and just 30 horses to convincingly epic-scale effect.

Photo: 2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights

Prior to the Japanese rollout of the film on August 26, Harada and star Takehiro Hira screened a sneak preview of the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, followed by a Q&A session. Both men spent many years in the US, and answered all questions in English.

About the film

Directing just his second jidaigeki period drama (after 2015’s Kakekomi), Harada populates Sekigahara with a teeming assortment of historic characters and enough political intrigue, Machiavellian maneuvering and exciting ninja action for an entire miniseries.

But his focus is resolutely on the motives and strategies of the two men whose forces would meet for the final showdown in a foggy Gifu valley: Mitsunari Ishida and Ieyasu Tokugawa.

Shortly after the film opens, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Kenichi Takito), the samurai who had completed the unification process begun by Nobunaga Oda, is on his deathbed.

His devoted acolyte, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), vows to protect Hideyoshi’s 5-year-old heir until he is old enough to rule, but the cunning, power-hungry Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho, never better) has other ideas.

Hideyoshi’s hold on western Japan has been weakened by a series of costly invasions of Korea, while Ieyasu has become the largest landowner in eastern Japan.

Photo: 2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights

With Hideyoshi now gone, he begins consolidating his expanded power base, forging alliances with notable daimyo (feudal lord) families and hatching plots to undermine Toyotomi clan rule.

Mitsunari cannot compete with Ieyasu’s record as a military general, but he won’t stand by as the older man gains dangerous ground.

Stolid but determined to persist in his belief that justice alone can triumph over chaos, he enlists the help of Sakon Shima (Takehiro Hira, in a star-making performance), the “most honorable samurai in the land,” and the two set about rallying support.

He also begins to rely on intelligence reports from the comely ninja Hatsume (Kasumi Arimura), whom he had saved from death and soon falls in love with.

But she goes on an errand for him just as Ieyasu is gathering his troops. Mitsunari’s Western Army outnumbers his rival’s Eastern Army and victory should be assured. But fate intervenes in unforeseen ways.

The Q&A

Masato Harada: “The first time I dealt with many actors and characters was Jubaku: Spellbound in 1999. I always wanted to make a film like Seven Samurai; I was really impressed by that kind of scale — 100 speaking roles and everybody feels real. The only problem I had was how to minimize the number of characters in Mr. Shiba’s book, because there are probably 500 speaking parts. I decided to concentrate on Mitsunari and his family drama.

Masato Harada, Director of Sekigahara. Photo: Mance Thompson

“The Emperor in August has about 1,600 cuts. Sekigahara has 2,615 shots. About 1,000 shots use CG, including creating the big belly for Ieyasu. Today’s technology made it possible for me to make this film.

“The casting of Sakon Shima [Mitsunari’s valiant right-hand warrior] was really difficult, because he’s such a well-known character, and everybody’s favorite. When I started casting, everybody suggested typecasting ideas for Shima: Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, all the superstars. But I had Junichi Okada, who’s perfect for Mitsunari in terms of his size, his athleticism. So I needed challenging casting for Shima, a new star in the making for Japanese audiences to discover. Nobody believed that Takehiro Hira [then 41] could play [60-year-old] Shima. But Tatsuya Nakadai played the ronin in Harakiri when he was 28, and his character was in his 50s. I thought, if Nakadai could do that, why couldn’t Takehiro?”

Takehiro Hira: “In comparison to [Harada’s] 25 years of preparation, I only had a few months to prepare. But the director gave me a lot of hints as to how to approach the role, not so much from the text itself, but the external appearance.

Takehiro Hira. Photo: Koichi Mori

“He gave me Shima’s characteristics early in the rehearsal period [facial scars, wild brows, pronounced limp]. It was my first time to play an older person, so it was a trial-and-error process at first. But somehow, it felt natural as the shoot continued.

“Filmmakers have forgotten how important females were in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were strong, and they’ve been neglected characters. As I researched, I discovered that Ieyasu actually used one of his concubines as an adviser, and Mitsunari had female warriors. So I wanted to depict those new facts. And always, my wife is stronger than me.”

Profiles:

Writer-director Masato Harada is Japan’s first bilingual, bicultural filmmaker, and had directed a range of compelling, award-winning films both at home and in North America. His last film, The Emperor in August (2015), won Japan Academy Prizes for both Best Screenplay and Best Director. He is currently directing Killing for the Prosecution, a modern-day thriller starring Kazunari Ninomiya and Takuya Kimura.

After his commanding performance as Sakon Shima, the honorable samurai, Takehiro Hira is sure to become a familiar face to international filmgoers. While he has appeared in three films for Takashi Miike (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Lesson of the Evil and Ace Attorney), among other titles, he is better known for his extensive stage and television work in Japan, including his roles on NHK taiga dramas “Atsuhime” and “Sanada Maru.”

Where it’s on:

Sekigahara opens across Japan on August 26. Look for it at festivals in Asia and elsewhere.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.