DANYUU (ACTOR) by YAMAMOTO RYUUJI
SOMETHING LIKE AN INTRODUCTION
“After all this time, why does he write an autobiography now? Isn’t that a little incredibly boring and self-centered!” . . . is what you’re probably thinking right now.
Well, there was this wrestler named Fred Blassie. He was famous a long time ago, so you might not have heard of him.
He played the villain’s role so well the television viewers would almost die of shock! Truly scary and never told the truth about anything. In other words, he portrayed a real crazy character, but for some reason, he married a Japanese woman! I was utterly stumped – how was such a union possible? What kind of man was he, really?
Then, right before he passed away, he gave his wife his life story, which he had written for her. This kind gesture was like lifting his “crazy villain” mask and showing her the real feelings of the man beneath. I remember being greatly moved by it. But, was his book written in his pro-wrestler persona? Or was it the confessions of the real man? The afterword sounds defensive, as if the book had been full of lies: “You bums! You don’t believe me, do you?”
Ending with such abuse – maybe only half the book was his real self, I think! “Well, that’s exactly the sort of book I’d like to write,” I thought to myself.
Just like Blassie, I’m often thought of as a crazy character: “Ryuuji Yamamoto, he’s the guy who eats unko! He fucked a chicken! He’s involved with homos! A real goofball!”
“Yeah, but he also stars in (ippanna NHK TV) Taiga dramas (historical dramas) , jidaigeki (samurai films), and stuff. Who the hell IS this guy anyway?”
For all you people who think like that, I wanted to write the kind of book which would make you say, “OH, he’s THAT kind of guy. THAT’s how he thinks. I get it!” That’s one of the messages I want to get across, I suppose.
The book has another message as well – a more personal one. Excuse me for being selfish, but I’d like to speak to my daughters for a moment, if they’re reading. Both daughters live with my ex-wife, so I don’t get to see them very often. I was never there during the important times in their lives. I know what kind of man I am, but I don’t know what they really think of me. I always wanted to ask them, but on the occasions we do meet, it’s too uncomfortable to broach the subject. I have such strong feelings in my heart, but it’s as if they get caught somewhere inside me, and I can’t pull them out to express them.
Maybe someday, after I’m gone, when they are forty or fifty years old (people at that age tend to look back and re-evaluate the past ), they’ll have a chance to pick this book up and say, “Ah! So that’s the kind of man Papa was.” If that happens, writing this book was all worth it.
To all my fans and supporters, as well as my beloved daughters, I say, enough with the philosophizing and message-izing! Let’s start the show! It’s finally time to tell you about the real Ryuuji Yamamoto. Next year, I’ll turn fifty, and that means I’ll have spent thirty years in show-business. There’s no better time to explain my mad obsession with geinoukai (the show-biz world).
See if you can manage to read the whole thing!
CHAPTER ONE: THE DREAM-CRUSHING EIGA KAI (WORLD OF MOVIES)
MEMORIES OF ARAKAN SENSEI
Sorry for coming over unexpectedly. My name is Ryuuji Yamamoto.
In my life, I started off in jidaigeki (samurai dramas). Then I made pinku eiga (soft-core porn movies). Then I acted in adaruto bideo (adult video, or just ‘AV’), finally becoming an AV kantoku (director). Incidentally, I’ve appeared in commercials. Now that I think about it, I’ve done quite a lot of things!
Just within the AV realm alone, I have eaten unko(poop), done some gay films, had sex with grannies, eaten the porn star’s boogers and dandruff, even drank their gero (vomit) and menstrual blood. Truly my repertoire is staggering in its diversity, crossing so many categories! Compared to the “image” of normal AV, my works are very extreme, almost a different genre altogether. To the onlookers, I must seem a dubious, doubtful fellow: “Who is this guy? What kind of person would do that?!?”
So it’s difficult for me to pick just one job description for myself. Mostly in public, I call myself a “cult player”, but in my heart, I call myself a yakusha, (an old-fashioned word for actor that connotes more kabuki or Shakespeare than contemporary films).
“GTFO are you serious?!” you say.
Yes, really! Even when I was doing pinku eiga and AV, I never for a moment forgot my “actor spirits.” Perhaps you remember me best from being covered in unko and gero, but after that big detour, I’m now back at (mainstream) NHK TV doing taiga dramas (historical dramas) and jidaigeki (samurai films) again. But no mater what I was doing, I always felt I was a yakusha while doing it.
But I’m embarrassed to say that in public. Not, as you might imagine, because of how extreme my AV career has been. So then, why, you ask? Because of all the genius-level actors I have had the privilege of working with over the years. I don’t want to compare myself to them, it’s embarrassing! But still, deep in my heart, I believe I’m a yakusha. Or rather, I want to believe that.
I’m still trying to find out what makes a great yakusha great. My family has, for three generations, apprenticed under Arashi Kanjurou sensei.
People nowadays might not remember, but sensei was , in his time, the dominant kurama tengu (mountain demon) actor of his generation. This made him a big star in folk period dramas. My father was the manager for Kanjurou Productions, and eventually became an actor himself, thanks to sensei. Methods of expression go in and out of vogue, genres come and go, and though I have gone from ippanna (mainstream) to the extreme, one thing has not changed; my adherence to the fundamental teachings of Arashi. And what are these teachings? I think you’ll come to understand them in the course of this book.
For instance, Arashi sensei hated to be called ‘sensei’ on television. Only his seito (students, disciples) should call him that. Everyone else should call him by his nickname, Arakan (a contraction of Arashi Kanjurou- ed.). The reason, he said, is because he considered himself a humble entertainer of the common people.
Calling himself a haiyuu (formal word for actor) seemed pretentious. He wasn’t out to impress anyone. He felt that actors are just diversions for people’s free time, no better than common pop idols. As much as I can, I try to emulate Arakan’s down-to-earth attitude. He was proud just to serve the common folks.
A PRO WRESTLER OR BRUCE LEE?
When I was young, though, I only knew Arakan as some old man I’d met a few times. I didn’t have any special reverence for him. I never considered apprenticing with him, nor, truthfully, did I want to join the Daiei Kyoto Satsueisho (Great Kyoto Studio). I wanted to become a pro wrestler! I looked up to Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, as did the other boys.
I always tuned in for the replays (wrestling wasn’t broadcast live at that time – ed.) and Golden Time wrestling. It was the most gorgeous, flamboyant thing I’d ever seen. Pro wrestling’s image is kind of weak these days, now that MMA is trendy, but at that time, we’d spend all our free time at school or in the park playing “pro-wrestle go-ko” (‘pretend’).
Dad was having a rough time finding work, and we were always poor. I had two or three pals who were fairly upper-class, and was so jealous of them! I used to dream of what I’d do if I had that kind of money. “OK,” I’d say to myself, “up and at ’em! Let’s get stinking rich!” But actually I wasn’t good academically, so what else could I do to get money? Well of course – I’d become a grappler. I found a book called “How to Enter the World of Wrestling!” It talked about, “Great Tougou actually made a considerable amount of money for a long time ‘above the ring’!” It went on to explain, “’Above the ring’ refers to all the ‘unseen money’ that circulates around the games – over and above the visible ‘prize’. Whether you can pick up this invisible money or not, depends on your strength and cunning!”
So, even though I was completely the wrong age, I set about making my first wrestling character. He was a heel, and also a left-over kamikaze suicide pilot who would scatter salt in the ring and stomp his feet like a sumo. This will make me a quick buck, I was certain. My father cursed me out good for that one! I actually considered formal training but came to realize that I didn’t have the strength for it, when the strongest kid at our school came home from Wrestling Camp after three days, saying he’d gotten laughed out for being too puny! If he couldn’t do it, I’d have to pray for another way to earn my riches.
It was just then that I discovered the Burning Dragon, Mr. Bruce Lee! Of course, he’s had many revivals since, and remains popular today, but you can’t imagine what a sensation he caused when he first appeared in theaters. His fame was like an explosion that caught us all. Every kid in school had to have nunchuks. He became my new idol, alongside the wrestlers. When I told my dad I was going to Hollywood, he said, “You’re such an idiot. Can you speak English? Can you do shibai (acting)? No! It’s good to have ambitions, kid. It’s even good to try to be an actor. I tried it myself, didn’t I? But before you go to America, you have to learn the fundamentals here. If you promise to do that, I’ll introduce you to my sensei. Or did you forget your old man worked for a big star?!?” It had been a long time since I’d seen Arakan, so I agreed.
But still, I was a child, Bruce Lee was the craze of the moment, and Arakan’s jidaigeki and folksy films seemed very square in comparison. No matter how big a star Arakan was, he couldn’t use nanchuks, so who cared? “Oh, so maybe he IS very old-school. Maybe he IS unhip. Are you so cool, yourself? Are YOU so famous? Look, kid, we’re just going to ask him to give you the fundamentals. I been spoiling you so far. It’s time you went to boot camp.”
And with that, we were (reluctantly) off.
My father pleaded my case: “We share the same blood, the same love of acting!”, and formally requested that Arakan take me on as apprentice.
“Is that it?” Arakan replied. “I see. C’mere kid, look at me! You have to stay in school. You can take summer and winter break. You can work part-time. But the rest of the time, you’ll be doing what I say (lit: ‘carrying my suitcase!’) and nothing else, you hear me?” And that’s how it all started. It looked like everything in my life was about to change, but one thing remained constant: my desire to perform.
ARAKAN’S TEACHINGS : YAKUSHA ARE MERELY ENTERTAINERS
After I’d apprenticed with Arakan sensei, I figured I’d start my career small, perhaps with a few parts as an extra, and then soon some modest speaking parts. I set out to Daiei (‘Great Kyoto Studio’), where both my father and grandfather had worked. In fact, Daiei had already gone bankrupt in Showa 45, and had its assets sold to A Mr. Tokuma, who turned it into a public corporation. It was renamed Eizo Kyoto, but all the staff and actors were the same.
I longed to be a dynamic star like Bruce Lee, so I was scandalized that I got only parts as a tsuukounin (an extra – literally a ‘passing-by person’!). “Not even any lines? No part in the plot?” I complained to my father. “You’re supposed to begin as a decchi boukou (apprentice, errand boy)! And if you never worked as an extra, you’d never be grateful for speaking parts,” he explained to me.
By the way, here’s something Arakan often used to say on those morning walks when I ‘carried his luggage’: you might say it was one of his big themes. We’d pass the old-style houses that used to be common in Kyoto, without any plumbing. And, in the early morning, we’d see the night-soil men picking up the dung and sewage with their “vacuum trucks.”
Looking at the laborers at work, sensei said to me, “Jari,” (Although my name is Ryuuji, sensei called me jari, – a pebble. To sensei, I was still a snot-nosed child, who had not yet become an ishi – a rock).
“Look there, Jari.”
“Hai, vacuum cars!”
“So! Every morning early they start laboring.”
“Hmm. Compared to a fellow like me, they’re much more important.”
“No way!! What? Sensei is more important, right? You’ve been a big star ever since the War.”
“No, son. You’re quite mistaken. How can I put it? I am – well, not just me. All geinoukai (show-business) people, we’re not essential things for society. If we weren’t around, no one would suffer. But if those guys weren’t here, the house would be full of unko in no time! THAT’s an important person. If the garbage-men stop coming, society stops. THAT’s important people. They’re working for the benefit all of us. But us geinoukai, us yakusha, we’re only here to fill up the free time in between other folks’ essential labor.
“Monday through Friday, these guys are busting ass. They only get one day off a week, so that time is precious, isn’t it? One day to play pachinko, bet on the horse races, chase women, and drink sake. But nonetheless, when my new movie comes out, and they see the colorful marquee, some of them are nice enough to drop their hard-earned money on me. That’s all the value a yakusha has! “Come to my movie! Come buy my tickets! Come see me!” we shout at these busy, hard-working folks, over and over. You have to be persistent, never give up. If you think you’re above them (lit: ‘if you think like an airplane’), you can’t do it. I’ll pass away soon, but you’re going to keep being a yakusha forever. Promise me you won’t ever think like an airplane.”
That’s the fundamental attitude Arakan taught me. So, I’ve done a lot of things in my career, but there’s one thing I’ve never done: I’ve never appeared in a film which has a ram-it-down-your-throat political message, and I’ve never appeared in a film that’s pretentious and incomprehensible. Adaruto bideo (adult video), for example. They say it’s the lowest form of entertainment, and who am I to argue? But it is entertainment nonetheless. People who make it, they don’t make pretentious movies or “message” movies. They just want the viewer to enjoy himself.
In Asakusa, you can still see the pinku eiga (pink movies). There’s still a few run-down theaters with their lonely marquees. In Shinjuku too, out behind the betting parlors, there’s still a few seedy theaters, with the touts still out front, calling to customers who never come. Well, still, you have to keep calling them – that’s the tradition. Everyone plays their part. And that’s the fundamental rule I live by: entertainment! Nothing more than filler for free time, and nothing less. Do it just to make working folks happy.
I don’t want to be seen as a engekijin (theatre, Shakespeare, type actor), nor do I care if the hyouronka (critics) like me. I learned that from sensei as well. He’d say, “I want to please people who ride the one-dollar taxis. The guys who say, ’I don’t ride the limos! I ride the one-dollar taxis, the subway, the bus!’ – if THOSE guys like me, I’m a hundred times happier than if the limo people like me. If the critics like it too, that’s fine. I’m happy enough. But if the people who only have one day off a week, and they take that day and choose me, that’s a hundred times more meaningful. And if they come back next week, that’s the best feeling in the world!”
When Arakan was younger, he had a lot of experiences, it seems. During the war, the army wouldn’t take him, because he had a bum ear. He felt he failed his country, so to compensate he often went to perform for soldiers. He’d go to China during the Sino-Japanese war, and do a shibai (play) for the soldiers. At that time it must have dawned on him that there was more to life than kabuki.
You see, sensei had his roots in Kansai’s (western Japan’s) kabuki world. Kabuki is a highly hereditary profession. And the Arashi name was not a prominent one. They usually got bum parts: the womens’ roles, the wakiyaku (supporting roles). They never even got to be the chuujinzou (the hero’s main helper, the Sam Gamgee), let alone the shuyaku (main role). It was all part of the hereditary guild system, talent had nothing to do with it. So he must have been pretty resentful, and glad to break out of kabuki and do shibai instead!
After that, Mr. Makino Shouzou, who was a scout for the film industry, discovered Arakan.
“Medama (‘eyeball’) Ma-chan, the big star, just passed away suddenly – they say it was overwork,” said Makino. “And then we tried to promote Onokami Shounosuke to take ‘Eyeball’s place, but he was too smart, and went into business for himself!” In other words, the “star shortage” caused scouts like Mr. Makino to go head-hunting in the kabuki scene. They found easy pickings – now-big stars like Arakan, Kataoka Chieizo, and Hasegawa Kazuou, who were all talented but under-utilized by the rigid kabuki hierarchy.
But on the other hand, the eiga technology was very primitive: kabuki performers worked on fine stages; eiga stars performed on the dirty, muddy ground. The cameras were hand-cranked, there was no sound, so instead of the many expressive nuances of kabuki, the actors had to pantomime as if they were children. And there weren’t even man-made lights, so they could only film when the sunlight was good. To the kabuki world, film acting didn’t even seem like real acting, and the characters seemed without depth or believability. However, Arakan was offered the part of the main character in eiga, so he went. And was promptly excommunicated from the outraged kabuki world!
Eventually the eiga got sound, color, and beautiful sets. But with each advance in technology ,the demands on the yakusha became more strict and harsh. Arakan was one of the rare ones who could adapt and survive. Even today, when I’m faced with a tough choice, I ask myself, “What would sensei say if he were alive?”
In fact, sensei wanted to do poruno at one point!
Kamiya Tatsumi, a maker of roman poruno asked Arakan to participate in a film, but Arakan’s jimusho boss refused the request. “Who do you think you are? You’re Arakan! Arakan doesn’t do poruno!” Sensei told me, “Why did he refuse it? I wanted to do it. Every era has its own form of entertainment, and today’s society demands roman poruno. I’d like to try it one time, just to see what it’s like. I’ve had a long career, but there are two things I’ve never done: kaijuu eiga (Godzilla type films) and poruno.”
Sensei was kokishin ousei (open-minded and curious about everything).
IF ARAKAN SENSEI DID ERO FILMS. .. ?
There’s an art to getting undressed, too! Or so I was taught. You only make a profit if you get naked correctly.
Sensei really liked film star Yumi Kaoru. “I’d like to marry her or something,” he was fond of saying. At Touhou Takarazuka Gekijo studio, he co-starred with her, but during a television interview to promote the movie,she talked about her other movie – which was out at the same time. And they briefly flashed a glimpse of the movie poster – featuring her naked back. So when sensei saw the real poster at a theatre, he flew into a rage and tore it to pieces!
I’m sure you’re saying, “Wha–?” because you’re shocked that he’d get that mad about her nudity. That’s not the reason, though! “There’s an art to disrobing! Yumi is already famous for taking her kimono off in the bath in every movie! They don’t need to put it on a poster! Why would people go see the movie if she’s giving it away for free on the poster? It don’t matter how beautiful she is – what good is she if she can’t get them to come in the theater?”
Another time, sensei appeared in ORANGE ROAD EXPRESS, the directorial debut of Oomori Ikki. In it, he kissed Okada Yoshiko – his first on-screen kiss (remember, he usually played tengu, the mountain demons – ed.). During the television interview to promote Orange Road Express, the emcee asked Arakan “Is this your first kiss?” but Arakan simply said, “It’s a secret!”
This was always his policy: make people wait to get to the theater to find out if the rumors are true, that way they’ll enjoy the suspense more. The fact that they have to buy tickets doesn’t hurt, either. But either way, Arakan was very systematic and scrupulous about how he promoted himself.
I’m usually called a “cult” kantoku (director), but I think everything should have fashions, even AV (adult video). I think today’s adaruto bideo is merely trying to cater to the trends of the times, beyond that there’s nothing fashionable about it. So, it’s up to me to bring some fashionability to AV, I think.
I want to make movies where people say, “That’s very Yamamoto Ryuuji-ish!” or “Oh, that film is done in Yamamoto style!” Of course I’ve made some failures as well, but overall the goal is to become the King of Invention. That’s why I tend to do some extreme things: I don’t want to do the same thing twice. Adaruto bideo is on the extreme edge of today’s “video culture.” We’re supposed to be extreme to the extent that we overturn or change the norms of ‘major’ culture. For example, we don’t even need actresses anymore.
“Let’s not use any broads for this one, a’ight?”
“You mean just dudes?”
“Wha’d I just say?”
“That’s pretty homo!”
“Hey! What about a 2-chome (Tokyo’s biggest gay neighborhood) version of Johnny’s (boy bands)?”
“That’s not gonna work. They don’t like those pretty-boy swimming-suit models over there. Instead, well, what if we got some greasy old construction workers, have ‘em lick each other all over?”
“Fuck that, that’s just nasty!”
That’s what a pitch meeting sounds like nowadays.
You have to really argue with bosses, pass through some hardships, but in the end you can create something new. Only by going that far would sensei find my videos interesting. . . at least I hope he’d approve. . . !
A MYSTERIOUS MESSAGE FROM THE BIG STAR HASEGAWA KAZUOU
Well, that was quite a detour, wasn’t it? Let’s pick up my life story where we left off. . .
Even though my father was a student of the great Arashi sensei, at that time he couldn’t get any good roles. The reason? He looked just like Arashi! It would have been too confusing. In Arashi’s main series, he played a kurama tengu (mountain demon) who always rode a white horse wearing a mask. So, my father would do these dangerous horse scenes. With the fukumen (mask) on, even when the camera did a close-up, no one could tell the difference.
Also, father was a fukikae youin (an over-dubber; literally ‘breath exchanger’): When Arashi did not speak his lines clearly, father would re-record his lines. In other words, he was used as Arashi’s handyman. But father was a proper actor, and he deserved to have proper parts.
Sometimes a kantoku called Hasegawa Kazuou would take pity on Dad and give him some actual roles. Hasegawa was an exceptional beauty, the most handsome man in jidaigeki from before the war until the post-war period. In fact, people used to call him Mr. Nimaime (literally “second from the top”, referring to the kabuki custom of giving top billing to the main character, giving second billing to the handsome actor, and third billing to the comic relief . Is that pedantic enough for you? –ed.).
At that time, Hasegawa sensei was working on a samurai drama called Zenigata Heiji, and he was casting the sanmaime (third-billing) role of Gara-pachi, the wacky sidekick. He gave that role to dad, but traditionally the gara-pachi role went to a mid-level star, so the studio boss complained. “Who is this tengu fukikae (demon overdubber) and why is he getting sanmaime in a real movie? This is going to be bad for business!” Hasegawa – incredibly – told the boss that if he was going to fire dad, could he please fire Hasegawa as well? And that’s how dad got the part.
From then on, he was in the quite uneasy position of being dangled between two mentors (Hasegawa and Arashi), yet enjoying the complete trust of neither. In the end, he quit acting altogether and became a urakata (prop man – literally ‘behind-the-scenes’) and an instructor of tate (movie swordfights). So, it was because of those experiences that dad was able to introduce me to Hasegawa. Hasegawa was working on a shibai called Banzuiin Inchoube’e, but he’d come down with diabetes, lost a lot of weight, and was bed-ridden when we were first introduced.
“Oh, you came to see me! Come here, young man,” he said, and shook my hand. And that’s when he spoke the words that blew my mind: “Well, now. Listen to me. If you’re going to be an actor, let me give you one theme. The butai (stage) is your mother. The eiga (movie) is your father. If you can figure that out, you’ll be successful. It’ll take a long time, but you can’t quit. Even me, at my age, I’m still living according to this theme.”
Honestly, I still have no idea what he meant!
Some years will go by, and I’ll think I finally figured it out, but then realize I got it all wrong: “Hasegawa came from kabuki originally, so kabuki is the parent who gave birth to him – the mother. He didn’t become a star until he switched to eiga , so eiga is like the parent who raised him – the father. But, wait, no, that can’t be it. . . ”
As I get older and accumulate more experiences, I keep thinking about Hasegawa’s riddle, hoping this next time I’ll get it: “The butai has its own type of kindness and strictness, like the love of a mother. The eiga has different kindnessess and and strictnesses, like the love of a father.”
That much I have figured out, at least, so at least I’m a little closer to the answer than I was 20 years ago! At any rate, I’m grateful and moved by Hasegawa for giving me such powerful, if cryptic, advice.
After that fateful meeting, more time passed, and Hasegawa, after a full life, passed away. By that time, I was already doing poruno, and I heard of his passing while on the rokebasu ( ‘location bus’ – the bus that carries crew and actors around the studio lots). The other studio staff had never worked with Hasegawa, and their only comment was, “He died? I didn’t even know he was still alive!”
I was the only person to fold my hands in prayer for him.
I thought, “Again I am wracked by the news of the death of a mentor. Again I have no choice but to persevere in this cold show-biz world. But I’ll make it someday, because I was lucky enough to receive advice from two titans of Japanese eiga history.”
Therefore, even if I eat the unko, it’s ok.
“What? That was a bit out of the blue,” you say!
Well, let me put it like this: it’s good if the audience thinks, “Ah, I’m better than Yamamoto Ryuuji.” It’s good if they compare themselves to me and come out the winner. Helping people feel good about themselves is all part of entertainment. And that humility is what I learned from these great men: we’re just entertainers, not stars. We’re just filling in the free time of the important people, the laborers, who will go back to work the next day feeling perhaps a little more joyful for having seen us.
JOINING DAIEI KYOTO STUDIOS – SLIPPING OFF THE BIG ICE CLIFF OF LIFE
Well, at any rate, I received a job with a movie company: Daiei Kyoto studios. At first, I thought I’d be getting parts with serifu (lines), and a chance for my face to be seen on screen. But, since I was a new hire, I only got parts of nameless tsuukounin (extras.).
Jidaigeki television shows are based on traveling, so it’s customary to start each show with the stars ‘coming on stage’ in a new town, where extras dressed as serfs mill about in the background, as the narrator explains what happened last week. One of those milling serfs was me – and only seen from the back, to boot!
“Oh, so it’s THAT sort of industry,” I realized. My dreams were shattered into smithereens. Never mind becoming a star – I was a long long way off from even getting a bit part! To make matters even worse, there was a veritable mountain of us extras, all trying to get promoted. It was like rock climbing! An, “Oh! How can I climb to the top of this giant mountain of people?” kind of feeling.
There was nothing to do but shrug your shoulders and try to make a go of it. It was like I had to re-learn all the fundamentals all over again, this time in the real world. And if you slip up, you’ll fall right off the mountain! I resolved to try, but I was doubtful that I’d succeed.
We have a saying: 石の上に三年 (ishi no ue ni san nen), meaning, “You can only sit on a rock for three years.” I resolved that if I couldn’t persuade them to promote me in three years, I’d simply walk away. If I couldn’t even clear the first stage of the business, I’d have to admit it was because of my own weak points.
Right before I started elementary school, my father was in a Takada eiga . He fell off his horse during filming and ruptured his spleen. For a week he lay at death’s door, and survived only by luck. I resolved I’d never do any horse-riding scenes, but tried my best at anything else. After three years, I thought, “See what I did? I did everything they asked of me, but still I didn’t receive any good roles.”
Still, I decided to stay with it for one more year, though my chances were slim: Even if I did quit, what else was I qualified to do? It was too much to think about. In that fourth year, I’d not only have to develop my skills, I’d also have to work on developing connections to powerful people.
YOU’LL NEVER BE A STAR . . . THE DREAM-CRUSHING SATSUEISHO SYSTEM
As the months turned to years, I slowly began to understand the mechanics of the dream-crushing satsueisho (studio) system – the reasons why, try as I might – I’d never become a star. In the old days of the gosha kyoutei cartel (literally, the ‘five company pact’), stars were chosen by the company president, apprenticed within the company, and kept for life, since the company had invested so much in them. But at the time I entered the business, the gosha kyoutei had fallen to the level of ‘rental studios’, (instead of making their own movies, they had to lease their equipment and studio lots to Tokyo TV and ad companies just to get by. In other words, the West-coast, movie-based studios were exploited mercilessly by the East-coast TV and advertising conglomerates– ed. ).
And the non-famous ‘oobeya’ yakusha (actors who got bit parts. More than extras but not as important as supporting characters (oobeya literally means: ‘big room people’, referring to the fact that they had to sleep in one communal room, since they were not important enough to get their own bedroom) who were left over from the gosha kyoutei era had a very wretched existence. They got hardest hit by the transition.
Let me explain: in television, you are paid by how much audience share you can draw. If people tune in specifically to see you, the company who sponsors your show will bring you to kansai (west Japan) to shoot a movie at the satsueisho, to further raise your – and their – profile. These sponsor companies are all based in Tokyo (east Japan). And all the wakiyaku (supporting actors) – in the movies, and all the “regulars” on TV shows, the guests on variety shows . . .they all had to come from the same jimusho (agency) as the star – that’s how the agency got paid. So those guys all came from Tokyo too!
When it came to the small parts, such as “samurai A” or “Farmer B,C, and D”, the Tokyo agencies didn’t want to pay the hotel or shinkansen money for these parts, so these roles went to us kansai oobeya guys. If you were the most talented tsuukounin (extra) in the world, you could maybe advance to being Farmer B,C, or D, but no farther than that.
It was just like the Japanese salarimen system: if you went to such-and-such a college, you could get hired at this prestigious firm, but if you went to a mid-prestige college, you’d get hired at a lower-ranked firm, and if you went to trade-school, you’d go to work for such-and-such a blue-collar firm. Talent didn’t really enter into it. Your role was decided from the beginning, without exception.
As of this writing, the Japanese eiga industry is over 100 years old. And yet, can you name one person from Kyoto, who started as an oobeya or tsuukounin and was promoted to a star? Maybe if you go back to old times, Kawatani Takuzou did it, but who else? No one! And poor Kawatani’s already dead.
If you’re from kansai, you have to belong to Yoshimoto Productions or Shouchiku Productions to be a star. If not, forget it. No one’s ever going to get big from any of the Kyoto satsueisho that actually film the movies and TV shows.
That’s the dream-crushing system.
There’s lots of times it’s made me so angry. . . all the times that a ‘star’ – who knows nothing about shibai –– comes to Kyoto to take a starring role . . . all because he is connected to some trendy Tokyo production company. And my boss would ask me to teach HIM: “Yamamoto! This guy just made his debut as a pop singer last month, and now they want him to be a jidaigeki star. He’s never done chanbara (sword-fighting) in his life, so you’ll have to teach him. You’re about the same age, so it should be fine. Just get it done!”
“I’m already busy, and now you want me to baby-sit this new guy? Do I have to?”
“He doesn’t know what a jidaigeki is, he can’t put on a kimono by himself either, so teach him that stuff too while you’re at it, wise guy!”
It’s enough to make you mad.
Just around that time, I heard about an announcement that Eizo Kyoto Inc. was holding auditions for a new jidaigeki television drama. I heard the report before most people, and I wanted to go. But my boss said, “Yamamoto! What are you doing? Do you seriously think Eizo Kyoto is going to make you a regular? You were never meant for that!” I was like, “Wha…?”
Apparently, I was only important for jidaigeki when it was time for swordfight scenes. When the hero yells “Deae! Deae! (‘Charge!’),” and the masses of soldiers run forth, that was my place: in the masses.
“Kid!” the boss said, “If you go, we’ll be in trouble! We couldn’t do those scenes without you!” by which he meant, they’d have to hire someone outside the company, which would cost slightly more. Besides, since I was young and hard-working, I was useful for the kirareyaku (redshirt) roles, it seems.
What’s more, even when it was time to audition for a new part, the kantoku would say, “Are you free, kid?” “Yeah, I’m free”, I’d respond. To which he’d reply, “OK, do some zatsumu for us (be a gofer).” “Are you joking?!?”
But that’s the way they treated us. And there were guys living this life, that had been living it since the Taisho (pre-war) era. And the conditions just kept getting worse. I didn’t want to be one of those old guys, still a kyoutsuunin, still a zatsumu, after five years, after ten years. No way. I had dreams. I wanted to be like Bruce Lee, who died a star! I didn’t want my career to end here.
But what could I do? I was really worried. At last, I resolved to take my chances as a free-lance actor. Even though it meant giving up my salary, I had to try.
AMAZING TECHNIQUES I’VE STOLEN FROM SHOWBIZ GIANTS . . .TRIAL-BY-FIRE LEARNING!
Well, in spite of everything, I can’t say the first four years were a total waste. I learned a lot. For example, my father told me, “Don’t linger in the rakuya (waiting room – where salaried extras hang out and wait for casting calls).” Dad was like my big brother at school, so to speak. I learned a lot from him. “If you hang around the rakuya, you’ll be surrounded by the same old burn-outs with no ambition, reciting the same complaints, day in and day out, and it’ll really drag you down. ‘This producer sucks, that kantoku sucks,’ over and over. A real hope-draining waste of your time!
“You should hang around the important people – big stars, kantoku, producers. Sure they’ll bully you or kick you a little: ‘Massage my feet! Rub my back! Buy me some food!’ But in the end, when there’s an audition, it’s your name they’ll remember. And when you ask them for advice, they can’t refuse. If you just stick with the other no-hopers, you’ll never catch a break. Stay beside the great kantoku, and you’ll learn about enshutsu (directing). Stay beside the big stars, and you’ll learn about naengi (famous acting techniques). Seeing in person is better than any textbook!”
So, I was always following the stars around, and it turned out just as dad said. “Observe when I do it like this!” “You must truly feel it!” “Change your style of shibai like this!” Today’s aspiring actors can’t get training like that anymore.
Same with butai (theatrical, as opposed to film) training – Sayama Shunji told me, “You got to stand in the wings of the stage and really feel what the actors are performing, kid. I’ll give you that one tip!” And after I watched and felt the performance, I’d try to mane (imitate) it: “That actor, at this scene, he did it like so.” And after imitating the technique, I’d mix it with my own “essence” to form my own method of expression. Like they say, shibai (acting) begins with mane (imitation). But don’t forget: shibai never ENDS with mane. You always have to add your own personal flavor, otherwise you’re just a fake. If you just copy a successful haiyuu, you’re just a monomane (celebrity impersonator; someone who does impressions) and not a haiyuu yourself.
THE POWER OF KATSU SHINTAROU’S AURA: HE CAN EVEN TELL THE KANTOKU “NG!”
Of all the people I’ve learned from, the most exceptional was Katsu Shintarou. He was really something – I’ll soon be fifty years old, but I’ve still never seen anyone who could outdo him. Besides Arakan-sensei of course! Sensei was, a wonderful human, the kind of person I’d like to be. I didn’t know Katsu as a person, but as an actor, he was the kind of yakusha I’d long to be, although it’s an impossible dream!
From the moment I first encountered him, he projected an aura of incredible power. I’ll never forget it – it was in the stairway of the satsueisho, and he went past me in full kyonshi (Chinese zombie) makeup, face black as night, and it was terrifying! He would even criticize kantoku, telling them NG (from the English ‘no good’!)! I’d never seen anyone get away with that, I was shocked. Katsu was not only the shuen (star), but also his production company had hired the kantoku, which might have had something to do with it.
As I remember it, we were working on a movie called New Zatou Ichi, directed by a man with a very high-pitched voice. And he’d cue every scene by saying, in this shrill whine, “Yooooi! Staaaart!”
So one day, he said “Yooooi! Staaaart!” and Katsu, instead of starting, stopped the entire scene by whirling on the kantoku with a ferocious glare. “Hey, Mr. XXX!”
“You’re NG!” replied Katsu, shocking the cameramen and light-men.
“You ass, XXX, do you even know what scene you’re cueing?”
”Well, yes, I do know – it’s a sad scene. The saddest one in the film.”
“You don’t know a damn thing! It’s a sad scene, yet you cue it by yelling Yooooi, Staaart, in your high voice? As if it were a fucking pep rally? Asshole!!!! We yakusha are living things, not machines! We need to feel the proper emotions in order to express them! We don’t need to hear Yoooi, staaart! In a high-pitched voice! Do you have any idea how much that disrupts the fucking mood?!? Now try saying ‘Yoi, staaart!” again like you’re really sad!”
“OK, I understand.” (in a small voice) “Yoi, start!”
“No, no, no! NG! Do it again!”
There’s no one in today’s industry that could get away with that, I’ll bet you. Katsu made that kantoku say “Yoi, start!” over and over until he cried.
“Ah, XXX, come over here,” Katsu said. And he put his arm around the kantoku. “XXX, listen to me well. Since it’s a sad scene, you shouldn’t be using the phrase ‘Yoi, start’ to begin with.”
Now broken, the kantoku just looked at the ground and replied, “What should I say?”
THE CRAZY CHIVALRY OF KATSU SHINTAROU
I have some more Katsu stories! Katsu was directing one of the scenes of a TV series called ZATOU ICHI. He was in the editing room, and suddenly his voice rang out over the satsueisho PA: “Ah, ahhh!!! All personnel assemble at the shouchakuro (the waste burning grounds).”
Now what on earth was this about, we wondered, as we rushed there. This was back in the days of 15mm analog film, and it looked as if Katsu had just finished editing: he was there at the waste-burning grounds, on – of all things – a bicycle-drawn cart full of 15mm out-takes.
“Ahh! Everyone!!!! Thank you for coming. It was only because of your diligent cooperation that I was able to complete my filming and editing. Everyone worked so hard! But I have some bad news –I have to throw out most of the film. It’s not about what’s good or what’s bad. It’s about the shaku (time limit) of the show! This magnificent production, on which you gave your blood, sweat, and tears – we had to cut many scenes, and it’s these scenes on the trailer behind me. You all put a piece of your soul in this sakuhin (product), and I couldn’t bear to destroy it without giving it a proper funeral!
“It’s like a still-born child! The tragic baby who perished before even seeing its first beautiful sunrise! Send this part of your souls off to the afterlife with me! Please put your hands together and pray, pray, prayyyy!!” And, as the film went up in smoke, Katsu continued yelling, “Thank you! You worked so hard! Thank you!”
Anyway, I thought it was very cool!
Another time, we heard Katsu’s voice on the PA again, calling us for another of his impromptu assemblies: “Ah! Ah!!! After lunch, meet on the A1 Set!”
The A1 was, they said, the deepest set in all of Asia at that time. From the front to the back, it was huge! It turns out that Katsu had – back when I was a child – starred in an eiga series called NOTORIOUS with the actor Tamiya Jirou. The whole series was shot in A1. And it turned out that Mr. Tamiya had taken his own life in Tokyo that very day.
Thus: “I’m sure you’ve already heard from the TV news or from the jimusho (studio office) that Mr. Tamiya has committed suicide. That’s why I have called you here today. I’m sure you knew that too! Here is the set where we filmed Notorious. Hey, you! Bring the shamisen!”
And then, Katsu began to play the shudaika (theme song) of Notorious on the shamisen. “Everyone close your eyes and think of Mr. Tamiya.” After he’d finished, he said, “Yo! Watch closely! Hey, you (Tamiya)! I know you’re looking down from Heaven. We’ll do our best here on earth, but before you know it, we’ll be joining you!”
I thought that was really cool as well. You might find it kind of affected, and perhaps it was, but it was suitable for the occasion. You won’t find anyone like Katsu nowadays!
TAKE THE NEW-SCHOOL TATE (SWORD-FIGHT SCENES) CHALLENGE. . . .BUT IS IT REALLY INNOVATIVE?
I have another Katsu story – this one involving chanbara (sword fighting). Katsu suddenly decided that the industry’s chanbara furitsuke (choreography) was too old-fashioned.
Everyone asked him, “Well, how should we do it now? Have you decided?”
“That’s a good question, people. It’s gonna be a big, sudden change in the industry! The new style furitsuke is. . . . no furitsuke! Just improvise!” he replied.
“Isn’t that risky? If we make a mistake, won’t the kantoku get mad at us?”, we asked him. “Just do it!”, he retorted.
We didn’t know what to do. So the more senior actors yelled at the more junior actors, “You! You do the tate!” and the juniors, in turn, made the most junior actors do it. Finally, upon realizing that I was at the end of the line, they stopped: “No, Yamamoto’ll never be able to do it! It looks like us more experienced guys have no choice. . .” “What’s the matter?” said Katsu, “You scared?” he said, and demanded that shooting resume at once.
Now, three or four of the better swordsmen stepped forward and attacked Katsu simultaneously.
Katsu: “Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa – You’re not allowed to do that!”
“Well, that’s why we were saying we need some planning – at least an order in which to attack!”
“Huh! You got a point. . . My ‘new style’ tate is too advanced even for me!”
You can say he was outrageous, or unreasonable, but he was the kind of man who would try anything just to see if he could do it. I don’t know if he was a genius or crazy, but he’d call out, “No daihon (script)!!” –he didn’t even want any sort of plan. Just relied on guts and talent. Even when there was a daihon, he’d change it if he came up with better serifu (lines).
I remember one time – I had a bit part in a Katsu movie, and so when I wasn’t ‘on’, I’d always ‘study’ by hanging out backstage watching him work. He was playing the famous blind samurai Zatouichi.
In this particular scene, Zatouichi is approached by several youjinbou (literally ‘bodyguards’, but in this case more like mercenaries), who came to take his life. The lead youjinbou said, “Hey! Anma (anma – literally ‘masseuse’ – was a common term of abuse for the visually impaired, since massage is one of the only jobs such people were allowed to have in feudal times)! You’ve been breaking the law, haven’t you? Your crimes are so great, we can’t let you live!”
Zatouichi then realized that these men were not police, but hired killers, and uttered what was to become his famous catch-phrase: “Just tell me how much they paid you – I want to know how highly they value my life!” “It’s worth 3 ryou!” said the lead youjinbou, and charged with his sword raised. And after Zatouichi killed five or six of them, he said, “3 ryou isn’t enough!” That exit-line was scripted, but everything up until that was all ad-libbed!
Another scene- same series – Zatouichi was approached by yet another would-be assassin, who said, “Oi! Your road ends here, blind man. You take another step, you’ll fall in Sanzu no kawa (the river Styx, gateway to the underworld).” Another classic line – another ad-lib! I suppose you could say this improvisation is the legacy of old-school shibai.
Another example – after Zatouichi killed who-knows-how-many men in a single battle, one of the guys played dead, knowing Zatouichi couldn’t see him. But Zatouichi had super-human hearing and feeling, so he kicked sand all over the battlefield, until the sand hit the would-be ambusher in the eye. “Ah!” the guy was supposed to say, whereupon Zatouichi was supposed to finish him, too. But,“No, no!” Yelled Katsu, “That’s lame.” “What should I say then?” inquired the other actor. “You should say, ‘I got something in my eye!’ . . . and then I’ll stab you in the eye!” They were always playing around like that, changing things on the spot. No one could do it like Katsu.
I have plenty more Katsu stories, but I’ll stop here. Otherwise I’d never be able to finish the book!
The final point of this chapter is, I have been truly blessed to work with so many amazing people. People like Arakan, Mr. Hasegawa, and Katsu. I learned what makes a great haiyuu . Also that’s why I’m embarrassedwhen I say I consider myself a haiyuu – I’m not in their caliber. Their skills were too great, their presence too overwhelming. So I’d never say I personally am a haiyuu .
. . .Of course, we Japanese are very humble people.
THE LIFESTYLE OF THE OOBEYA YAKUSHA.
Yakusha don’t have a normal life. Perhaps, like they say, you have to be a little weird to become a haiyuu in the first place. But even so, at all three Kyoto companies (Daiei, Touei, and Matsutake) I worked at, some of the big names were tondemonai (off the hook). Of course there were small actors, who – wanting to make an impression on the directors and stars – would horrendously over-act with hilarious consequences, and other people who had personality disorders to begin with. Some of these incidents are pathetic, and others are sublime, but either way I’ll be using initials instead of names from here on.
For instance, there was a yakusha named K, who worked with me at Daiei and then transferred to Touei at the same time as I. One winter, during shooting, K was at the stove, furiously re-using the half-burnt charcoals which had fallen around it. The heat was intense, but this guy was picking them up with his bare hands! And then he put them in his mouth. Another time, Takahashi Hideki was taking his smoking-break near the stove, and K. saw his chance to impress a big star.
“Takahashi-san! Let me light that for you.” And with that, K. took a still-red-hot charcoal piece from the stove in his hand, and held it up to Takahashi’s cigarette. Takahashi was surprised: “Isn’t that hot?” K replied, “It’s totally fine. My skin is really thick. Want to see me put it in my mouth?”
“Are you nuts? No, no, that’s fine. Just give me a light, thanks.” Having lit his cigarette, Takahashi walked away. Just as he was turning the corner, K yelled, “Hoooooottttttt!!” With his hand and his face bright red, he yelled in a huge voice, “My name is K., Mr. Takahashi! Nice to meet you!”
Another story involves a Mr. Matsutake – let’s call him M.
M. was working on jidaigeki movies, which meant he had to wear a chonmage katsura ( samurai hairdo wig). But he didn’t want to bother with the “fake bald wig” one wore under one’s chonmage, so he simply shaved the top of his head like (famously male-pattern-baldness-having comedian) Yokoyama Nokku.
But on the other hand – it was very quick for him to put on and take off his chonmage katsura! “What, bitch? All I ever do is jidaigeki anyways, so who cares?” he’d say. But eventually, he got fired due to problems with alcohol. He came back to the set one night, blathering drunk complaints: “Assholes! Fire me? You think that’s funny, do you? You can’t fire me because I quit!”
“Be quiet! We’re shooting now!”
“Shut the fuck up! Asshole, don’t you get it – I came here to interrupt!”
“Lay off the booze and we might have some work for you. But for now you have to go home.”
Sure enough, he came back later, sober and begging: “Please give me another chance!”, as he threw himself on the ground, sobbing.
And then even though he’d quit, he showed up again, head freshly male-pattern-baldness-shaved, ready to work hard as always.
And then there was the case of Mr. C., who usually played the role of a tsubofuri (literally, “cup shaker” ; the kind of yakuza who ran the gambling games in which dice are shaken in a – you guessed it – cup). He really enjoyed getting the fake gang irezumi (tattoos) for the film – so much so that one time he refused to wash them off afterwards. “I’m going to go home like this!” he said.
On the way home, he ran into some chinpira (hoodlums) on Togetsu Bridge, in Arashiyama. He decided to stay ‘in character,’ shoving one aside and saying, “Asshole! Apologize! You know who the fuck I am??” His kohai (junior partner), who had been walking behind him, decided to play along: “Let’s teach these punks a lesson!” Being yakusha, they were very on-cue when they threw the first punch, but in the end they got really bokoboko (beat the fuck down).
And then there was a stuntman, who would supplement his income by diving in front of cars for the lawsuit money! This kind of fraud was known as atariya (literally: collision specialist). Of course he knew how to get hit safely, and he also had the engi (acting skills) to pull off being in agony. Supposedly, for a time he did sham marriages (to foreigners = money in exchange for their marriage visa – ed.). After that, he quit being a yakusha altogether, and got married to a beautiful stylist, and had three children. He seemed quite happy enough.
Then , three years later, I received a phone call from his wife. “Yamamoto, my husband has killed himself.” When I asked her the reason, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” But later, I heard from friends in Kyoto that he regretted leaving show-business. And when he told his wife he wanted to go back, she said she’d leave him if he ever did. In the end, I guess, he couldn’t bear to live apart from his yakusha life.
THE WAY THAT OOBEYA DIE
There was another guy who was pretty much the exact opposite: Mr. A, who lived a very earnest and no-nonsense life. A. worked for Touei studio, but for a brief moment he worked for Takakura Ken
on an eiga called “Fuyu no Hana” (flowers of winter). Mr. A was a huge fan of Wakayama Tomisaburou, and asked to become Wakayama’s apprentice. Wakayama came calling soon after. “Hey kid! You want to study under me, eh? I heard you’re a yakuza. Take your shirt off.” And that’s how Mr. A got caught. “No way, kid. You have irezumi (gang tattoos) – I can’t have disciples that are connected to those guys.”
“I understand,” said Mr. A. He then went to get a soldering gun- used for repairing the metal armatures of the katsura (wigs) and used it to burn out his irezumi.
“Mr. Wakayama, please look!” he said. Wakayama was surprised, as you can imagine, and said, “Well, I see! I’ll take you as my disciple.”
But Mr. A couldn’t make a living doing only yakusha, and so his wife also had a job: she ran a small snack (sexy-lady-run members-only bar) in Kyoto.
One day, Mr. A. felt he had a chance at an audition. So he took the producer and the kantoku of the movie to his wife’s snack, and asked her to let them drink for free. “Well, just this once, if you really think it’ll help you get back on your feet.” But once turned into twice and pretty soon they were coming in all the time, always for free. Finally the wife lost her temper at A. : “Not only are you unable to earn money as an actor, you’re driving me out of business too! Paying customers can’t come in my fucking bar because those two assholes are always taking up seats, drinking for free. I’ve had enough! You’re nothing but a nuisance to me! How about you die?”
It seems they’d been having these quarrels for a good ten years, each time Mr. A. would promise to find more jobs, but he never could catch a break. As far as his wife was concerned, A’s efforts – however great- didn’t pay the rent, so who cared?
After one particularly bad fight, when he’d been told “You’re honestly worse than nothing. You should really just kill yourself and be done with it.” He thought, “Hmm, maybe I really am a worthless bum. Maybe I am nothing but trouble to those around me. I should kill myself.” And, like a yakuza who vows to yubi tsumeru (cut off his pinky tip), there was no turning back. He found a keg of gas for the stove at his wife’s shop, and poured it over his head, and set himself ablaze. What a way to die.
THE LIFESTYLE OF THE OOBEYA YAKUSHA, CONTINUED!
Speaking of heroic, let’s return to Mr. K. Allow me to talk about some further adventures of his.
One time on location, waiting for the rokebus, he told me, “Anyone can climb the rock walls of Hikone Castle. But me, I bet I can do it upside down, going up feet first! How much do you want to bet I can’t do it?” So of course I bet him, and of course he fell and broke his leg. The tricky part was: could he claim the accident was a workplace injury on his insurance?
Another time, he was running as fast as he could to dive into a lake, cut his leg, and got tetanus. On top of that, he can’t keep a beat to save his life. Overall, a very strange man.
Another time, actress Harada Migiko was shooting her debut movie, NEW ZATOUICHI. But there was a problem: she always had a very dark vibe, in person as well as on screen, that didn’t go with the mood of the film. So then K. said, “Harada-san, you look sad. Check out what I’m going to do, and I’m sure you’ll crack a smile!” K. then picked up a living swamp crab – about 6cm across- and popped it in his mouth. “AAAAAH IT HURTSSSSSSS!!!” As you’d expect, Harada laughed. Not only that, but this stunt was witnessed by a lot of people. It became industry gossip, and soon K. began getting some really good roles. It just goes to show, you never know what will make the bosses remember your name.
Finally, K. got a great role on a documentary-travel-show much like the famous GAMATA KOUSHIN KYOKU (Parade Song of Gamata)
where he’d go to different real places and do stunts. He was really riding a wave of success!
For some reason, Wakayama – although he terrified most of us – took a real liking to K., almost as if he was a mascot. K. would always pick him up at the station when he came from Tokyo, and he’d say, “Mr. K! You’re always the one picking me up. Are they giving you enough acting work down at the studio?” Lots of big stars were looking out for K. But even so, there were often periods when the studio didn’t have any work for K, and the only way to get by was to work a day job.
Or sometimes he’d just play pachinko. Of course, eventually there came a time when his gambling luck ran out. And then a toritate (literally: ‘stand and take’, in other words a debt collector) started coming around the satsueisho, causing problems: “Where is he? Tell him he better have my money!”. The toritate was making it too hot for K., and so one day K just disappeared.
Apparently he went back to his home-town of Saijo and worked as a day-laborer, staying in different flop-house hotels every night. One time, in the Salvation Army cafeteria, the TV was playing a jidaigeki drama, and K. couldn’t help but say, “I used to do those shows! Look, I knew him, I knew that guy too!”
A man stood up and said, “You think you’re so great? You fuckin’ bragger! You and your bullshit stories want to fight me?” The man was some kind of huge construction worker, and beat old K. to death.
Dying from suicide, hopelessness, beaten to death, or whereabouts unknown, the oobeya yakusha always end up in a bad way. In this life, you make one false step, one step off the path, and you’ll suffer for it til your dying day. The last days of oobeya are honestly really sad, sad things. Compared to them, I’m lucky. But not one of us ever climbed up to become a star. That’s sad, but it’s life.
THE BIG PRODUCTION CALLED ‘SHOGUN’: WHY DID I DECIDE TO BE A STUNTMAN?
Here’s another story from my oobeya days: some Hollywood Americans came to film a ‘mini-series’ called SHOGUN. It seemed to be based on the life of Miura Anjin – ( Miura Anjin is the Japanese name for the real-life explorer William Adams. To make matters even more confusing, the name of Adams’ fictional counterpart in Shogun was John Blackthorne. I’m just going to go with ‘Blackthorne’ from here on – ed.)
The Americans’ satsuei (shooting) was tremendously long and expensive – six whole months! Two in Tokyo, two in Nagashima, and two in Kyoto, at our own Daiei studios. At that time, my oyakata (mentor) was a man named Miyama Shinhachi, a teacher of tate (sword-fighting). Since the Americans didn’t know Japanese tate, Miyama had been assigned the job of “co-choreographer” with a Mr. Wilder, who had worked on Batman. However, there were so many extras in the battle scenes, even Miyama couldn’t handle it all, so around six of us oobeya helped choreograph the guys in the background!
In one of the final scenes, Shimada Yoko sacrifices her own life to help Blackthorne escape: as Blackthorne flees down a side street, Shimata’s character shuts a huge gate so the pursuers can’t get through. Frustrated, they haul in a taihou (cannon) and blow the gateway down. Shimada’s character dies, crushed under the gate.
The stuntman for that scene was Shishido Taisen. I was Shishido’s deshi, too. And he gave me simple stunts to do. The money was good, and besides, his other deshi were on strike, so no one came. That’s why he’d asked me, even though I’d no experience. It sounds bad now, but in spite of the strike, I said OK without a second thought.
Then came this new stunt, which seemed to be far different than the easy ones. Jerry London, the kantoku, went to the set, and looked at the gate. It was huge, heavy, and ornate – like the gate at the shopping street of Asakusa Temple. And he said, “OK, let’s have the cannon not only knock this giant gate down, but blow it several dozen meters in the air, why not. We’ll shoot the death scene tomorrow. ”
As you might expect, I was pretty scared! “Shishido, you didn’t tell me this stunt was so dangerous!” “Well, they didn’t tell me either, kid!” he replied. What’s more, to simulate the effect of the cannons, the foreigners were talking about using chains to haul the gate down on top of me!
“That’s crazy! I can’t do that!”
“I’m asking you, kid. There’s no one else who can pull it off. We need you!”
“Ok, I’ll do it for Hollywood! I won’t fail, nor give any thought to my own safety.”
“Don’t get carried away, kid! Just do your best, is all.”
“Make me do it! I’ll tell them ‘yes, yes!’ I’ll never say ‘no!’ Anyhow, ‘yes’ is the only English I know, so how can I refuse?”
I admit my sarcasm might have been excessive.
The day of the shooting, some of my rival oobeya were there: “Hey, Yamamoto, check out that ambulance! Look over there!” “What? Did someone get hurt?” “That’s for you, idiot! No one thinks you’ll make it!” “Yeah, you’re gonna die for sure! And not a minute too soon, if you axe me!” They seriously came to see me die! Even my friends, when they saw me at the mess hall, said, “How can you eat at a time like this?” or, “Are you ok? I’ll come with you for support.”
When we got to the set, I was in drag as Shimada. The Hollywood staff said, “You don’t look like her.” “Damn straight I don’t – I’m a man!! If you don’t like it, do the stunt yourself!” They didn’t understand my Japanese, of course, so I have no idea what they made of my response. At any rate, it was not the time for a candid discussion.
They told me let’s take a commemorative photo before the stunt. The shuyaku (main character), Richard Chamberlain, told me ‘Good luck.” My senpai (senior colleagues) gathered around and said, “Kid, do you understand why we’re taking a picture?”
It began to dawn on me as I answered: “Because. . . I might die. And you want something to remember me by.” I began to be really frightened; the immanence of death became real. Shishido was looking at me with a strict face, saying “Do it, kid! Show some balls!” and gave the cue.
Well, why not? I was surrounded by friends who would try to rescue me if things went awry. But the Hollywood staff chased my friends off, saying “Get out of here, it’s too dangerous for you!” How was that supposed to make ME feel?
THE BIG STUNT: GAMBLING WITH MY LIFE!
Now it was finally time for the actual shot. There’s no way to escape now, so the only way to get through it is to decide, right here, to do it now, no matter what. My now-somewhat-near friends were issued semi-transparent safety masks, but I could still make out their faces, and they could still sort of see me. The kantoku said, “OK, your character is a woman, so die ladylike as hard as you possibly can.”
Three cameras swung in my direction, a fire was lit close to me, and with a huge DONNN!!! the explosives went off, simulating the cannonball. I tried to find reassurance in the old proverb, “It is in great disasters that people find their hidden strengths.” Fearing for my life, I broke character and put one shoulder to the column of the gate, propping it up. Just in case.
On top of that, one of the chains must have come detached, because the gate started falling diagonally. I hoped the director would say “Cut!” at this point, but all he said was, “More fire! More fire!” and, “Mister Yamamoto! Don’t move!”
Then the American staff ran into the scene and started splashing more gasoline around. The flames shot even higher and made a huge roaring sound. I felt drops of gasoline splash my face. What the–? This must be another example of a “great disaster”, I figured.
The gate continued to lean crazily. If I moved at all, I’d be crushed for real. If I’d had any space to move, I’m sure I would have tried to escape! And still, he was saying, “More fire!” instead of “Cut!”
If he doesn’t cut soon, I’m a dead man for sure.
When he finally yelled ‘Cut!’, they opened the gate, and couldn’t find me. “Where is Yamamoto?!?” the kantoku screamed. When they finally found me, all he said was, “Oh, he’s not hurt bad.” What the hell did he mean by that? What is the value of human life to this man?
Shishido came and said, “Yamamoto! Are you okay? Thank god!” But I was irritated by his insincere, after-the-fact concern. The doctor and nurses came over, and asked if I was okay. They seemed disappointed when I said yes!
“Are you sure?”
Was absolutely everyone so convinced I’d die? And they made me do it anyway? I really can’t forgive them!
But, in the end, my ‘guarantee money’ for the stunt was a pretty huge sum. Or so it was said, anyway. They paid the money to Shishido who only gave me, his deshi, a very very small portion of it.
Speaking of expenses, it seems that the Americans didn’t know about our umeame (rainy season), so they paid for us to sit around Monday through Friday while it poured, and then when it finally cleared up on Saturday, our contract said that it was a holiday, so we didn’t shoot then, either! A whole week without any shots! I can’t even imagine how many million yen wasted, yet the American’s didn’t bat an eye. What was the budget for this monster TV program?!?
And yet, when I did a potentially lethal stunt, I get a few thousand yen? There’s nothing to say, but “What a dreadful world!”
ME, I THINK I’LL GIVE TOKYO A TRY!
That’s how life went: you hustle hard, you risk your life doing Shogun stunts, and not only do you not get any good gigs, but if you died suddenly, you’d have absolutely nothing to show for it.
Even the satsueisho was in trouble – as their down-time between movie shoots increased, they’d started selling their property to make ends meet. They’d even started asking their off-set staff (administrators, salespeople) if they wouldn’t mind retiring early (unthinkable in ‘70s Japan’s lifetime employment system – ed.) What’s more, there were strikes, and so on.
“If this is the future, forget it!” I said to myself. “Even if I go to the other two big Kyoto satsueisho, it’s pretty much the same problems.” I began to think there was no option but to give up and go to Tokyo. I considered the Tokyo situation: I had some friends and acquaintances there that could ask for help, but none of them had friends in the industry, and without connections, nothing was possible at all.
As if to illustrate the importance of connections, Arakan had passed away while I was in Kyoto, and so a lot of industry people who had been nice to me until now turned suddenly cold. The man whose life had had such an overwhelming impact on mine, in death he had a proportionately negative impact.
I asked my dad for advice. “Well, a woman named Mori Mitsuko should be going to Arakan sensei’s funeral, so you should meet with her,” he said. I was related by blood to Arakan’s father, but Ms. Mori was related to his mother’s ancestors. But, Arakan’s father was actually his step-father, so although Mori and I shared distant family ties, there were no blood ties at all. However, Mori sometimes visited father’s jimusho, which was enough reason for him to introduce me to her.
She said, “Right now, I’m busy azukaru (lit. ‘to hold on to something for somebody’, but in show-biz, it means, to groom a young actor for stardom: to take charge of their training, publicity, and introduce them around town to industry people) an actress named Mizusawa Aki to be our next star, so I’d have no time to be your manager. Also, our jimusho doesn’t do any jidaigeki, so your training would be wasted on us: we only do variety shows and talk shows.”
Her words were polite, but her meaning was unmistakable: “Forget it.”
I was really in trouble now, but then I realized: Arakan had passed away, but his jimusho was still around. I decided to call on them in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. They told me, “Ah, we do owe Arakan-sensei for all his work for us. But, we’re not the kind of jimusho that invests in azukaru (grooming). We only make contracts with established yakusha who are already profitable.”
I turned around and went back to Kyoto. Soon, I gave Arakan’s jimusho a phone call: “I’d like to have another meeting. Please consider it. I’ll do anything!” This time they replied, “Well, look. Come to Tokyo and do some auditions for the local TV companies. Go to as many as you can, and if you get the part, we’ll manage you. Any role is ok. I’m sure someplace is auditioning right now.” As it turned out, NHK was auditioning or a young peoples’ drama series. “Hey, kid, why don’t you try out for that?”
I went to the audition, but I was still on “oobeya time” so I showed up early – before they were even open! Even the audition organizers were surprised, and naturally my ticket number was 001. When my number was called, I launched right into an impromptu speech: “I’ll do anything for NHK! I’ll do ooudogu (large props), I’ll do souji (cleaning up). Please give me a break. I’ve been having a really hard time recently!” and so forth.
By the time I noticed that the audition daihon (script) was on the table, my time was already up! “But you amuse us!” they said, “At least we’ll remember your name!” I phoned Arakan’s jimusho and explained that I never got a chance to read from the daihon, and they said, “Oh, that’s a mess. You’ll never get that part now!”
But then, a few days later, I received a phone call: “Mr. Yamamoto, ukatteru! (you got the part!) Good work, kid. Come to Tokyo right away; we have TV to shoot.”
The drama was called ORETACHI NATSUKI TO KOSHIEN (Us and Natsuki’s High-school Baseball), about a team that – controversially – had begun to include girl players! My role was that of a sexist, bully coach: “That catcher’s a girl! Is this still baseball?” and so on. The jimusho thought it would be funnier if I did the part in kansaiben (kansai accent). Up until now, I’d never had any speaking parts with any accent – I was always a tsuukounin. It was a big step forward for me. My hard work and troubles were finally paying off.
So I headed off to live in Tokyo. I assumed that, like a soldier after the war, I’d eventually return to Kyoto to retire. Tokyo is fine for now: I finally got a manager, a good part, and after I become a star, I can return to Kyoto in triumph. In the past, I’d only had kirareyaku (victim), and now I was playing a bully! Before, I was an oobeya (literally: everyone sleeping in the same big room), but from now, I’d get my own private room. I was burning with high expectations. Even though I had no evidence . . . .2 comments Tags: danyuu —