The release of writer-director Junji Sakamoto’s new film couldn’t be better timed.
The Japan-Cuba co-production was planned for a rollout coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian physician, author and Marxist revolutionary, and “Ernesto Medico,” the Japanese-Bolivian who fought with him and was also killed in a CIA-assisted ambush in Bolivia.
And with the ongoing North Korean missile “tests” in the Pacific, the film’s backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War-era proxy wars assumes greater contemporary resonance.
The director’s stated theme, that goals should be pursued with unwavering faith, is a message he is aiming squarely at younger audiences. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Japanese youth commonly sport t-shirts and accessories emblazoned with the iconic image of Che.
But few are aware of Guevara’s controversial exploits, and fewer still know that a Japanese had become a convert to his cause — as well as an enduring role model in Cuba, where his remains are laid to rest alongside Guevara’s.
Ernesto pays tribute to that convert, Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation immigrant who became radicalized while in Cuba pursuing medical studies.
Inspired by a novelized biography of Maemura, The Samurai of the Revolution, penned by his sister Mary, Sakamoto has created a work that is at once political history, coming-of-age story, compelling relationship drama and cautionary tale.
Realizing that he would do best to coproduce the film adaptation with a Cuban production company, he set about putting together the first Japan-Cuba coproduction since 1969. During the production process, diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were restored under President Barack Obama, and then drastically curtailed by Donald Trump.
One of Japan’s tiny handful of truly international stars, Odagiri is surely the only Japanese actor who has tackled roles in every major language but Italian. Here, he speaks entirely in Bolivian-accented Spanish.
Prior to the film’s Japanese rollout, Sakamoto and Odagiri screened a sneak preview of the Spanish-language film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, followed by a Q&A session.
About the film
Ernesto opens with a historic 1959 scene, shot in Hiroshima. Just months after the Cuban Revolution resulted in the ousting of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara (dead ringer Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) visits Japan in his role as a trade diplomat for the new communist government.
Without notifying his hosts at the Foreign Ministry, he goes to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pay his respects.
Then he turns to a Japanese journalist (Kento Nagayama) who has followed him there. “Why aren’t you angry at the Americans?” he demands. “They have done such a horrendous thing to you.” It is a question that hangs heavily over the entire film.
In 1962, Freddy Maemura Hurtado (Joe Odagiri, nearly unrecognizable as a very studious young man) arrives in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to study not only medicine but also the “spirit of liberty and equality.”
Born in Beni, Bolivia, to a well-to-do Japanese father from Kagoshima Prefecture and a Bolivian mother, he was determined from childhood to become a doctor so he could treat the poor.
Yet his classes are soon disrupted by the US naval blockade, and the school becomes a barracks for anti-aircraft artillery troops for the duration of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Maemura and his classmates are given the choice of enlisting in the fight against America’s presence, and the young physician’s radicalization begins.
Missile Crisis averted, Maemura continues his studies against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War, and is soon skillful enough to become a lab assistant.
He shares his salary with Luisa, a fellow student whom his friend has impregnated but refused to help support, and life seems good. But when civil war breaks out in Bolivia following a US-backed military coup in 1964, he decides to slip back home and joins Che Guevara’s revolutionary army there.
He visits Che, a fellow physician-turned-rebel, to tell him that he is following Castro’s advice to “follow my heart” about becoming a fighter, rather than a doctor. The guerrilla commander bestows the nom de guerre “Ernesto Medico” on him.
Two years later, when the ragtag rebels in Maemura’s troop are on the verge of starvation, his fate is forever entwined with Che’s when deep-jungle ambushes by CIA-backed Bolivian troops capture the men, and they are killed within weeks of each other.
Maemura’s remains, which were missing until 1999, are now laid to rest alongside Guevara’s in Santa Clara, Cuba. Ernesto ends with footage of Maemura family members visiting the site, to thank Freddy for “inspiring millions of revolutionary doctors with your dream.”
Junji Sakamoto: “When we took this project to [the Cuban producers], they said yes right away. We asked if there was any sensitivity with [a Japanese production] depicting this time period on film — since there are no Cuban films depicting this decade — and they kindly took it on as their own project, as well.”
Joe Odagiri: “When I decided to take this role, I told my circle of friends about it and they all said, ‘Are you playing Che?’ They probably didn’t think it was such an outrageous idea. One reason might be that I usually grow a beard and have unkempt hair. I do actually have a Che Guevara poster on my wall, and I have Che t-shirts, as well.”
Sakamoto: “It’s a fact that Che Guevara visited Hiroshima and laid flowers at the Peace Memorial cenotaph. It’s also a fact that Freddy went to Cuba for his medical studies, and not long after, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. I wanted to juxtapose these two events, and through them, to pose questions about nuclear warfare. During the crisis, Che was probably the only one who had been to Hiroshima and had memories of what nuclear warfare could do. That must have been at the back of his mind.”
Sakamoto: “I don’t think films should fictionalize events; they must be grounded in reality. We did a lot of interviews and research. I did take liberties as long as they were fact-based. Sometimes it’s necessary to take liberties in order to better depict the atmosphere or the spirit of the historical [time].”
“[Che’s lines in the Hiroshima scene] actually came from the journalist who covered the event, who had been with Che Guevara on that day. All the lines in that scene are factual, and came from the journalist, who was the only one to cover his visit, since no one really knew who he was at the time. He has passed away, but he made detailed notes about the visit. His family was kind enough to share them with me.”
Odagiri: “The way I approached the Spanish was not just to memorize the lines, but to be able to act in the language. For that, I sought the help of my [mostly Cuban] costars, who spent hours and hours with me, helping me mold this character. They each had their own visions of what Freddy would talk like in certain scenes, and they would read the dialogue for me. They showed me many possibilities, and I then discussed different approaches to each scene with the director. I’m so thankful to my costars, who I heavily relied on. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to make this character so well-defined.”
Director Junji Sakamoto won a slew of awards for his 1989 debut, Knockout. In 2000, he won the Japan Academy’s Best Director Award, among many other prizes, for Face. He was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for the reality-based thriller KT in 2002, and was in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival with Out of this World, about a Japanese jazz band playing at a club for the postwar Occupation forces. Other highlights include Children of the Dark, The Human Trust and last year’s The Projects, a hilarious, off-kilter comedy.
Joe Odagiri shot to fame in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future in 2003, and immediately began amassing acting awards, as well as a global fan base. He won Best Supporting Actor at the Japanese Academy prizes for Blood and Bones in 2004, and Best Actor for Sway in 2006. He also won a Blue Ribbon Award for his first collaboration with Junji Sakamoto, Out of this World (2004). He has been active overseas since 2006, working with such Asian directors as Kim Ki-duk, Kang Je-gyu, Nelson Yu Lik-wai and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Odagiri also has a prolific TV career, and is active as a musician and photographer.
Where it’s on
Ernesto opens in theaters across Japan on October 6. A Cuba screening is planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death on October 9. Look for it soon at international film festivals.