One war film; two directors, two viewpoints

TOKYO Tue Feb 8, 2011 7:11pm EST

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TOKYO (Reuters) - A movie about a Japanese World War Two captain rallying his troops to hold out against overwhelming U.S. odds after the end of the Battle of Saipan sounds like a typical tale of guts, gore and a glorious end.

Yet "Oba: The Last Samurai," set for release on Friday in Japan, is far from the usual war movie. It was filmed by two separate crews of actors and directors -- one Japanese and one U.S. team side by side -- a style not used in quite this way since "Tora, Tora, Tora" in 1970.

Moreover, the two teams rarely discussed how each was making the movie, and when putting it all together, found that the Japanese style differed vastly from the American.

"There was no consultation at all about how we wanted the movie to be filmed or what kind of cuts to do," said Hideyuki Hirayama, who won the 1999 Japan Academy Prize for best director for "Begging for Love" and directed the Japanese unit, while Cellin Gluck directed the U.S. team.

Gluck, a Los Angeles-based director who also was one of the script writers, said the filming style may have helped increase the drama of the finished movie simply because working without knowing what each unit was doing was akin to what a real war situation would have been.

"Except for the scenes obviously where he (Oba) was in the Japanese camp or the Japanese are in our camp, it was (entirely separate) and it worked better that way," said Gluck, whose previous credits include the Japanese remake of "Sideways."

"Because we had our own little drama. It was sort of like a monster movie where you never see the monsters -- there's an enemy out there but we never see them."

The movie, whose title in Japanese is "Taiheiyo no Kiseki" ("Miracle of the Pacific") is based on the true story of Sakae Oba, who holed up in the mountains of Saipan after the bloody battle, which saw 43,000 Japanese soldiers killed compared to 5,000 U.S. casualties in heavy fighting on the Pacific island and on nearby Tinian.

Oba ultimately surrendered with a handful of men in December 1945, months after Japan put down its arms.

CULTURE SHOCK IN FILMING

Both Hirayama and Gluck said filming of Oba's story, which is based on a book by a U.S. Marine who'd fought against him, was "a learning experience" that at times seemed comic.

Working on the film involved occasional language issues, which was further complicated by on-location shooting in Thailand where many Thai extras were used.

Other challenges went to the heart of filmmaking style. Elements as basic as how shots were framed and how cameras moved were different in the Japanese and American camps.

The Japanese actors rehearsed numerous times before filming, whereas the U.S. unit would shoot early, when the actors were still developing the scene.

"The word was going around: 'the Americans, they just throw you to the wolves,'" Gluck said.

"What I don't understand about the Japanese system is that they rehearse it, they rehearse it until it's perfect, and then they shoot it. If you've attained perfection, how do you do it again? Why didn't you record it?"

But Hirayama shrugged off any questions about his method, saying it was simply the way he'd learned how to film.

The Japanese were also taken aback by how easily the U.S. unit solved problems, such as a window screen that complicated filming. Gluck said he astounded a Japanese actress by cutting the offending screen from the window with a pocketknife.

Filming took place under such a tight schedule that there was little time for consultation. Hirayama said he'd show Gluck rough footage of scenes the Japanese unit shot, and Gluck would do the same for him. And then, they would move on.

"That was basically the communication," Hirayama said.

In the end, the dual production style may have helped avoid the polarization of characters into good guys and bad guys, making it easier to tell the events simply as a story.

"We tried to do as good a job as we could within the confines of trying to portray both sides equally, with equal heft and equal reasons to be," Gluck said.

The movie also is scheduled for release in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and German-speaking countries.

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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