Out of the Ruins: The Design
In the years since 1945, Japan has changed dramatically, rebuilding to the point that the shattered landscape of those days is no longer recognizable as the same terrain. No matter where they shot the film, the filmmakers of EMPEROR knew they would have to start from the ground up, recreating a lost world -- and a period not seen in Hollywood films since 1956's TEAHOUSE OF AUGUST MOON starring Marlon Brando. They did so on the Pacific island of New Zealand, which offered both some unique locations and a highly skilled workforce.
Leading the effort to bring to life the noir atmosphere and romantic mood of the film were three acclaimed award-winners: Oscar-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Oscar winning production designer Grant Major and Oscar winning costume designer Ngila Dickson.
"Stuart is a world-class DP and cameraman, Ngila is a master with period and Grant did a stellar job of recreating the era," says Gary Foster. "When you get the best people, you can overcome any challenges."
The challenges were substantial at the outset. "We had to conjure an apocalyptic, bombed-out Tokyo of 1945 inside 21st Century Auckland," muses Peter Webber. In keeping with his instinct to frame the love story within a film noir, Webber wanted that world to be seen though the sharp angles, dense shadows and expressionistic landscapes that so richly reflect fear, anxiety and moral uncertainty.
He worked closely with New Zealander Stuart Dryburgh to define the look of the film, which shifts in palette. "We shot it so that 1945 is more bleak, grey and apocalyptic whereas 1941 is more sort of a real-world palette and 1935 is very vivid, like a youthful memory," he explains.
Dryburgh loved the creative challenges of the film's scope. "One of the things I enjoyed most about EMPEROR is that there is such a diversity of landscapes and storylines. I loved the dark, grittiness of it and also the beauty, especially of Eriko Hatsune playing Aya."
The vast diversity of the film became a gauntlet for Grant Major, who is best known for his work bringing the fantastical worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien to real life in Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS series. He began by poring through historic photos to immerse himself in 1945 Japan.
"The scope of what we were trying to create was huge," Major confesses," and Peter had a rich vision for the look of the film. We started with the contrasts between the massive devastation on the ground versus the worlds of MacArthur and the Emperor in the upper echelons."
To bring audiences into the chaos and danger of a shattered cityscape, Major turned a burnt-out industrial site known as Southdown into the streets of Tokyo. "Southdown had been a freezing works in the past but it had burnt to the ground about a year ago," he explains. "It was a choice location because we had these devastated, collapsed buildings and all these hauntingly twisted bits of metal to work with. We used that for several different locations and also built a bar and restaurant in this bombed-out atmosphere. And we built the exterior of Aya's apartment in there -- we found a beautiful, little cove that we managed to convert into Japanese architecture."
An old Ford factory provided another site where Majors recreated the firebombed section of Tokyo the Emperor must drive through on his way to the American Embassy.
These harrowing landscapes make a stark contrast with the grand Imperial Palace, the long-secret innards of which were re-created based on a handful of rare historic photographs. "The main scene in the Imperial Palace is in Sekiya's meeting room, where he confronts Fellers," explains Major. "Yoko sent us some special books filled with photos and we chose a certain room and recreated that as faithfully as possible. Of course, the photos were in black & white so we imagined a color scheme."
The photographs were introduced to Narahashi by the Japanese Minister of the Interior. "Even Japanese people have never seen this room before," she muses.
The interior of Aya's apartment before its destruction allowed Major to use his imagination. "I had a great time inventing this personal space that says a lot about the character," he says.
For the house of Aya's Uncle Kajima, Majors was excited to have the chance to create a more classical Japanese space. "He lives in a house that was probably built around the turn of the century," notes Major, adding, "It's been fun learning more about Japanese architecture works and all the nuances and details of it."
Among the other key sets Majors and his team created are MacArthur's offices (based on the office that remains preserved on the 6th Floor of Tokyo's Da-Ichi Insurance Building); the American Embassy in Tokyo; Ohio's Douglastown College, where Fellers first falls for Aya in the 1930s; the bunker of the Temporary Palace, where Hirohito is briefly seen during the war; and the interior of the C54 Skymaster prop plane that MacArthur and Fellers flew into Atsugi Airport, the very same base where kamikaze pilots trained.
Each of the sets had a transporting quality that impacted cast and crew. "I was spectacularly happy with the sets Grant built," Webber summarizes. "It just lifts you up in the morning when you go to work on sets full of detail, mood and atmosphere. They really help to set the tone of this world."
EMPEROR also brought Majors into collaboration again with Ngila Dickson, the Oscar-winning costume designer with whom he has worked frequently including on THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It was also a reunion for Narahashi who worked with Dickson on THE LAST SAMURAI.
"Ngila is so artistic and talented. I love her sensitivity and attention to detail," says Narahashi. "I was just dying to work with her again."
Dickson started by journeying back in time and also to Japan, learning about Japanese styles both common and imperial. "We did masses of research," she says. "Whenever you do something historical, for me it's about always knowing that whatever choices you make, you can back that up with information."
The more she learned, the more she saw Japanese influences on Western fashion. "The man in the street in 1945 Tokyo had these very high waistbands, which in our vernacular is a 50s period style. But then you go, hang on, it looks like the American soldiers picked up on this style and brought it back home. That was the beginning of that style," she muses.
She and Webber also talked at length about the feeling they wanted from the clothing, both agreeing that the film should have an almost palpable texture. "We used a lot of patterned knits for Fellers. It became an important element running throughout," she explains.
A lot of attention was also paid to the authenticity of the military uniforms, both American and Japanese, as well as to giving Aya her own sense of style as a young Japanese woman who has been to America yet deeply values her Japanese traditions.
For Webber, the way Dickson kept all the costuming authentic but full of character and devoid of cliche was a great match for his design aesthetic. "She's got an amazing eye and she really understands costuming depth," he concludes. "The experience just shines out of her and she does not suffer fools gladly. I would work with her again at the drop of a hat."
Finishing touches were put on the design by the team of Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Dimsey, whose work includes GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, KILLER ELITE, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and AUSTRALIA. Dimsey helped to generate key backgrounds including Atsugi Airfield, Tokyo Bay filled with American ships and the ruins of bombed-out Tokyo.
"We coordinated with Yoko and Eugene on a lot of historical material," says Dimsey. "We wanted it to look real and photographic but also artistic in a way that works with Peter Webber's eye."
As all of the film's elements came together, topped with a score by Alex Heffes (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, STATE OF PLAY), there was a lot of thought not only about America and Japan in 1945, but also about what Japan has been going through since the devastating tsunami of April, 2011.
"When I walked through the ruins of the tsunami, it felt similar to scenes in our movie," says Yoko Narahashi. "And yet, Japan rebuilt. I wanted to kind of make this film my dedication to the people of Japan in this tragic time. I hope this story can give people a feeling of hope, courage and energy. These events have made the film even more meaningful to me."
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