A Cross-Cultural Cast
An international cast joins Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones and Eriko Hatsune in EMPEROR, including Masayoshi Haneda (47 RONIN, THE RAMEN GIRL) as Feller's right hand man in Japan, Takahashi; the leading Japanese screen star Toshiyuki Nishida (OUTRAGE 2, THE MAGIC HOUR) as Aya's Uncle Kajima; New Zealander Colin Moy (UNDER THE MOUNTAIN) as the fictional composite character Major General Richter, who vehemently opposes protecting the Emperor; Isao Natsuyagi (MY WAY) as the high palace official Sekiya, who in real life was producer Yoko Narahashi's grandfather and producer Eugene Nomura's great-grandfather; and Takataro Kataoko (BEAUTY UTSUKUSHIMONO, EMPIRE OF THE SUN) in the pivotal role of Emperor Hirohito.
Much of the Japanese casting was overseen by Narahashi and Nomura, who have experience working within the Japanese film world. "Yoko really knows a lot about the Japanese acting scene and she has very good relationships with actors, so she and Eugene were able to bring us some amazing choices," says Peter Webber. "It's one of the things I'm really excited about in EMPEROR; it will bring some wonderful Japanese actors to Western audiences for the first time."
"It was hard getting some of these actors," confesses Narahashi. "It was like trying to move mountains at times. But I wanted to make this film so much that nothing would get in the way. I would plead until no became yes."
In the case of Kataoko, who plays the Emperor, the filmmakers were won over in an early audition; only to find out he was a star Kabuki actor's son who did not want to release him from their troupe's regular shows. "Luckily, Yoko kept hanging on, telling them 'he's the guy for the film,'" recalls Nomura.
Kataoko says he was motivated by a story he is excited for people around the world to see. "It's a beautiful film based on what really happened," he says. "I'd like young people to discover this history and elder people to remember."
As for playing the Emperor, Kataoko took the opportunity very seriously. After all, for many Japanese, Emperor Hirohito was not only a monarch but the divine "son of heaven." Having become the Crown Prince at the age of 15, his life had been steeped in imperial traditions and rituals that held a sacred importance to the entire structure of the society. He had largely been a silent enigma even in Japan until August 15, 1945, when he made his first-ever public radio announcement -- telling the people the incredible news that their nation had surrendered to the Allies. Only then did the debate begin as to how much control the Emperor had over military operations and the conduct of the war . . . and whether he should be put on trial.
"As a real person we greatly revere, this role put a lot of pressure on me. I felt a lot of responsibility," says Kataoko.
Nishida, who plays Uncle Kajima, was drawn to a script that feels is unusually true to the essence of the Japanese spirit. "I was amazed by how well the script conveys the Japanese mentality," he says. "It understands our culture and offers insight into it."
Adds Haneda, who portrays Takahashi as one of Fellers' links to the feelings of the Japanese people: "There has never been a project like this in Japan. It is a movie that expresses hope."
Moy took on the challenge of bringing out another side of the Japanese Occupation -- those who believed only executions could set things right -- through the fictionalized character of General Richter. "Richter is someone who grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong and I think he's looking for some kind of righteousness," Moy explains. "That's why he feels so compelled to stand his ground."
Natsuyagi, who won the key role of the Emperor's envoy Sekiya, marvels at how the story of EMPEROR seems to represent all sides in the battle for the future. "The core of the film is how people create a new era," he summarizes. "It took two sides -- MacArthur and his associates, and the Emperor and his associates -- cooperating together for Japan to be reborn."
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