‘It Was a Wonderful Nightmare’
By Richard Chamberlain
I read James Clavell’s novel “Shogun” about three years ago and knew it would be a fantastic story for television. And I discovered the part of a lifetime: Pilot Major John Blackthorne. “Shogun” is the story of Blackthorne’s sail from Holland to Japan in the year 1600, and his astonishing adventures in that fabulous country. James Clavell drew the character of Blackthorne from the life of William Adams, a sea captain who, blown off course by storms, was the first Englishman in Japan, and who helped establish an English trading company there.
I asked my agents to investigate. They discovered that “Shogun” was indeed going to be filmed, but that I was at the end of a long line of actors being considered for Blackthorne. Well, to shorten a very long tale, I guess I just out-waited everybody else. During the year and a half it took to get the production organized, I kept pursuing the part. Finally there was only one actor left in line ahead of me: Sean Connery. Good fortune intervened and Mr. Connery accepted another film, leaving the part open. Blackthorne was at last mine.
Even today, Japan is vastly different from America. To the tourist in Japan, these differences, rooted in an ancient and exotic culture, are romantic and fascinating. To a Westerner working in Japan, these differences, if not studied and understood, can portend frustration and disaster. Take, for example, our worst encounter with the Great Language Barrier. It occurred while shooting the sea battles in Nagashima.
The scene we were filming involved me (Blackthorne) and Lord Toranaga escaping from the evil Lord Ishido by outfoxing Ishido’s army on shore and then sailing off into the night aboard Toranaga’s galley. Ishido, however, had planted five fishing boats full of archers at the mouth of the harbor to stop us. Seeing the danger, I ordered 15 samurai with muskets to the bow of the galley. At my command of “Now!” the samurai were to fire at the fishing boats and blast our way to safety.
The scene was to be shot in the bay at night. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to shoot, only a half hour of darkness remained. Everyone was tense because of the delays (shooting time costs about $85 per minute), and Jerry London, our director, was desperate to get the shot before sunrise.
Finally, Jerry shouted “Action” from the camera barge, and our galley sailed toward the enemy fishing boats. Suddenly I realized that we hadn’t discussed when to fire the muskets. So I yelled across to him, “Jerry, when do you want me to say now?” All the samurai understood was now, and they began firing their muskets long before we were in range of the enemy boats. Jerry shouted, “No, no, no!” from the camera barge, but that just sounded like more nows, and the samurai kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. The inevitable dawn peeked over the mountains, and another battle was lost at Communications Gap.
The islands of Japan were densely populated centuries before Europe had any need to spill over into America. And until recently, Japan remained isolated from the rest of the world. Today Japan is still astonishingly homogeneous, racially and culturally. And the Japanese have developed, over their centuries of crowding, rituals of courtesy and indirection that at least give them psychological space.
Ritualized courtesy and avoidance of confrontation are hardly American traits. We revere clear thinking and direct attacks on problems. But our bluff forcefulness seems neurotic and provocative to the Japanese, who have always leaned more toward a subtle sensitivity to each other’s feelings.
Unfortunately, the Shogun company began production in Tokyo without time to educate itself fully about the ways of the Japanese. There were tremendous and costly problems as a result, and a schism developed between the American “side” and the Japanese “side” that could have been avoided.
Because many of our crew and actors were Japanese, Jerry London and his assistants had to work through interpreters. One of our biggest mistakes was to hire women for the job. They were expert, but it seemed that they were giving the orders. And Japanese men do not take orders from women - at least not in public.
Another problem for which we were unprepared involved the working arrangements of Japanese actors. They often take three or four jobs at once. This unique practice meant that Shogun’s producers could schedule each Japanese actor only on specific days. So whenever filming was delayed by weather or other difficulties, all the Japanese actors had to be rescheduled and their contracts renegotiated; often the entire shooting schedule had to be reworked.
Still another source of frustration was the Japanese avoidance of the word no. Their centuries of overcrowding have made them phobic about confrontation, and confrontation is most easily sidestepped by never saying no. We were mystified to find that work wasn’t done and equipment wasn’t delivered when it seemed to have been promised. I suspect that the Japanese may use different shadings of “yes,” some of which might suggest “no” to other Japanese - but such subtleties were beyond us.
Our first weeks of shooting in Tokyo were for me an uneasy time of adjustment to the enormous task of playing Blackthorne, who appears in almost every scene of this 12-hour epic. We all began to settle in during the storm sequences, which we filmed in a giant outdoor tank at Toho Studios. Full-sized replicas of our ships were built in the tank, and for two weeks we acted our scenes while the film crew sprayed us with freezing “rain.” The ships bobbed and tipped precariously on ancient machinery, and huge wave machines transformed the tank into a raging sea. After a few nights of suffering, we actors discovered the medicinal effects of Japanese brandy. From then on, we felt better.
Following the Tokyo work, the Shogun company moved to Nagashima, a small seaside town unused to tourists, for the sailing and harbor sequences. The people of Nagashima were very friendly and immensely curious about us gai-jins (foreigners). Autograph mania swept the town, and the children asked everyone, actors, crew, and even visiting relatives, to sign everything: jeans, shirts, skin and occasionally autograph books.
In Nagashima I first worked with our two great Japanese stars: Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada. Mifune, world-famous for his samurai films, plays Lord Toranaga. He is a gentle man off-camera. But the moment he dons his samurai attire he becomes superhuman, almost a force of nature.
Yoko Shimada won the part of Lady Mariko after an intensive talent search throughout Japan. She is an important star there, and crowds gathered just to glimpse her. Lady Mariko risks becoming Blackthorne’s lover in spite of her warrior husband and other dangers. Yoko played her perfectly, despite having to act in a foreign language.
We spent the last 10 weeks shooting in and around Kyoto. The tremendous earthquake in Shogun was shot just outside Kyoto in an eerie valley etched with deep, naturally eroded trenches. Our special-effects man, Bob Dawson, covered these trenches with a layer of dirt supported by pole which, when blasted with gunpowder charges, was supposed to cave in, giving the effect of quake fissures splitting the earth and swallowing up samurai, tents and horses.
Seven cameras were set up to photograph this spectacular event. After meticulous rehearsals, the cameras rolled and the charges were exploded, but nothing happened; no fissures appeared. Rain the night before had solidified the dirt so that it wouldn’t cave in.
The company moved to a nearby spot to shoot another scene, while Dawson and three of his assistants climbed down into the trenches to prepare for a second try at making the earthquake. But just as we were about ready to start filming, we heard cries. One of the trenches had collapsed on Dawson and his men.
Pandemonium. Real life had invaded the set and nobody knew what to do. Shouting Americans and Japanese ran around in chaos. Finally, our cinematographer, Andy Laszlo, managed to take charge and begin rescue operations. The trapped men were freed after an hour of careful digging.
A week later, Toshiro Mifune was thrown and injured by a particularly rambunctious horse, and the Japanese began to fear that evil spirits were jinxing the location. They called in a priest, who blessed the land with sacred sake. He said the accidents had happened because Dawson’s men had killed a snake and had angered the area’s Kami, or nature spirits. So it seems that in Japan extreme courtesy is due not only to one’s fellow humans, but to the fauna as well.
I find it difficult to generalize about the long Shogun experience, there were so many contradictions. It was a wonderful nightmare, fascinating and tedious, painful and funny. But if it’s true that the best films are made with the greatest difficulty, then Shogun should be a knockout.
© 1980 Richard Chamberlain