FILMMAKING DURING THE SHOWA ERA! A Look Back at the Golden Age of Cinema with Tatsuyoshi Ehara!

Actor Tatsuyoshi Ehara recalls his acting career. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Tatsuyoshi Ehara is a prolific Japanese actor whose career stretches all the way back to the 1940s. Born on March 26, 1937, Mr. Ehara began in entertainment as a child actor. His entry point into the world of filmmaking was at Shochiku Studios, the home of legendary auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Moving to Toho Studios in the 1950s, Mr. Ehara appeared in numerous works for some of the best directors Japan has ever produced, including Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Ishiro Honda.

A partial list of credits include: Desperado Outpost (1959), Inao: Story of an Iron Arm (1959), Sanjuro (1962), Red Beard (1965), Chushingura (1962), Ultra Q (1966), Samurai Rebellion (1967), Japan’s Longest Day (1967), Admiral Yamamoto (1968), and the long-running Young Guy series. 

On Monday, June 9, 2014, Brett Homenick and Asako Kato sat down with Mr. Ehara to discuss his lengthy acting career in an interview translated by Ms. Kato. The first part of the interview is below. The rest of the interview will be published on the blog Blossoming Japan in both English and Japanese.

Tatsuyoshi Ehara: I played a role as a child actor in the play Kane no Naru Oka in 1947, written by Kazuo Kikuta, a very famous playwright. My teacher selected me for the lead role of a play when I was in the fourth grade that was in competition for a national student theater contest. (This teacher liked plays rather than movies.) The producer of Kane no Naru Oka happened to see me in the play, so I was picked up. This play ran at the same time as Tokyo Odori (Dance), which was a stage musical by the Shochiku musical troupe.

At first, it was for a stage show played by Shochiku women, and then it was made into a movie, and I appeared in it. I was raised by my mother because my father died in the war. It was a single-mother home. My mother was a physician, and child doctor, who specialized in preventative medicine. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was also a doctor, and my cousin was a doctor. So my mother put me in Keio Junior High School, which is a prestigious private school. It’s a pun in Japanese, but I was (supposed to be) a doctor, isha, but actually I became an actor, yakusha! (laughs) At that time, I was only 15 or 16 years old. I was a young actor, and there were very few young actors, so I was asked to appear in the movies starring promising young actresses, like Ayako Wakao at Daiei and Mariko Okada at Toho. I convinced the school that I would use my long holidays to appear in movies, and so I could appear in movies.

When we had a love scene in a movie called Shishunki (a.k.a. Adolescence, 1952), Mariko Okada was 18 or 19 years old, much older than I was. I still remember this. But she advised me, “Don’t hesitate.” Ayako Wakao was also older than I was. As a young actor, I was advised by the staff members that I had to be an actor who is loved by everybody. Most beloved actors are called “-chan.” (The equivalent of calling a person named Leonard “Lenny.”) My name is Tatsuyoshi, so people started to call me Tat-chan soon after I got started in this business. Many former Toho actors still call me Tat-chan.

Brett Homenick: In the 1950s, I also know you worked with Mr. Seiji Maruyama in a film as the director and also co-starred with Chishu Ryu, who is a very famous Japanese actor. So please talk about what you remember working with Mr. Maruyama and Mr. Ryu.

TE: Seiji Maruyama directed Shishunki in which Mariko Okada starred. Chishu Ryu is the most respectable person for me. He was one of the leading players in Yasujiro Ozu’s films. When I met him at Toho, he was asking, “Have you ever done a love scene, Tat-chan?” I said, “Once or twice.” He responded enviously, “Oh, I envy you. I’ve never done that. I wish I could.”

BH: In the early days, you worked with Shochiku in Ofuna. What do you remember about working with Shochiku Studios during that time?

TE: In Shochiku’s Kyoto Studios, the interesting thing I want to point out is that there’s a Kyoto common sense. Japan’s capital used to be in Kyoto. So the staff would direct me, “Tat-chan, can you move a little closer toward the palace?” But I would have no clue in which direction I would have to move because I’m from Tokyo! Where Kyoto Palace was turned out to be the first thing I had to learn.

Speaking of Kyoto, Toshiro Mifune half-jokingly said that he wanted to appear in Toei Studios movies because there were two big stars at the studio. In Toei, all stars had their personal assistants. When the stars wanted a cigarette, it would be brought to them with a lighter and an ashtray. The stars were taken care of by the staff members. A person would also fan the star when he was hot. Three staff members would take care of one star. That never happened at Toho.

Utaemon Ichikawa and Kanjuro Arashi were two big stars there, so I heard the numbers of close-up cuts they would have to take had to be exactly the same, like 30 cuts each. Have you ever heard of Kinnosuke Nakamura? He was a Toei star. When he played in historical dramas, the way he cut people was not realistic. He said he could not kill people that way. It was kind of a dance. So he wanted to act in Toho movies once where Mr. (Akira) Kurosawa and Mr. (Toshiro) Mifune were doing realistic films.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

In Sanjuro (1962), I was one of the nine samurai. The swords we were using were real instead of bamboo replicas. Near Shochiku Ofuna Studios, there’s a restaurant called Tsukigase which Keiji Sada’s wife’s family owned and operated. Have you ever heard of the young actor Kiichi Nakai? He is the son of Keiji Sada. At that time, I would have lunch at Tsukigase every day. One of the reasons I moved to Toho was the route I had to take. I was born and raised in Mita, Tokyo. So I took the train at Tamachi Station and switched at Shinagawa. Going to Ofuna was tiring. It is much easier for me to take a train from Mita to Shibuya and switch to a bus to Seijo. That’s why I went to Toho!

Originally I had no intention to become an actor. Have you ever heard of Chohko Iida? She would play the role of grandmothers or old ladies. In the Young Guy (a.k.a. Wakadaisho) series, she played another old-lady role. One day, while putting on her makeup in the dressing room, she wore a ring, which was not made of authentic jewelry. It looked real, but there was a space in the back, so I realized it was fake. So I pointed it out to her, and usually a woman might get angry, but she said, “You have to become a person who makes a fake ring look real.”

As you may know, I often talk about the vertical society in Japan. Usually the grandfather has the most power in a family, followed by parents and older siblings and teachers. Children are raised by these people. Discipline, manners, and etiquette are taught by these senior people. But, these days, everything is getting flat, so society on the whole is getting horizontal. So I’m a little concerned about that. In those days, the neighborhoods were more active, and your next-door neighbors, such as an old lady, would say something to you, like, “You shouldn’t do that,” even if your parents didn’t say such things. Those kinds of neighbors are very important for me (and, at that time, for everybody) because if they thought that something wasn’t right, they would speak up. But, these days, even if they do, they don’t speak up, and it’s a problem!

These days, in the priority seats of trains, a lot of young people sit there, using their cell phones or pretending they are sleeping, even though they notice the older people. It’s a shameful thing to see.

BH: You mentioned joining Toho after Shochiku. What were your initial impressions of Toho once you joined it?

TE: The major difference between Shochiku and Toho is, at Shochiku there are some factions like Keisuke Kinoshita’s faction, Yasujiro Ozu’s group, and other ones. They would eat lunch together in a specific restaurant, but other factions would not go to that restaurant. It was that kind of atmosphere. On the other hand, Toho Studios was much more liberated and a fun place to be. It was a more innovative, anything-goes kind of place. At that time, the top star was Toshiro Mifune. He had no assistant or manager. He drove his own car by himself. He would come very early in the morning and would clean the studio by himself. That was the impression I got. When we would do some production, on the way back we would have to dismantle large props and load equipment such as lighting fixtures onto the truck. Mr. Mifune would help us do that. So that was very impressive.

On the other hand, when Mr. Mifune was invited to Hollywood, he would do the same thing there. But the union for cleaning people was opposed to his actions!

BH: When it came to Toho contract system, please discuss the negotiation with the contracts and how that would change over time.

TE: I did not have any contract with Shochiku, so I was offered by Toho to enter into an agreement, and I accepted it. I was raised only by my mother, so I wanted to help her (half-jokingly said). Toho’s contracts were good for actors, especially for A-form (A-level) actors who have the title roles on the screen. Basically, they guarantee how many films a year the studio will offer. One film is usually for 50 days. So there’s a fixed amount of money paid annually to the actors. If the production lasts longer than 50 days, from the 51st day, actors would get paid every day, whether we act or not. Red Beard lasted a year and a half, and after 50 days, I was paid pretty well! Mr. Kurosawa advised us not to appear in any other movies, otherwise our acting styles would be different. In those days, Mr. Kurosawa said that making a movie is like being at war, which costs a lot of money. Even though the soldiers have run out of bullets, they cannot simply stop the war themselves. When we are at war, we have to continue to fight, even though we don’t have any bullets left. The same thing could be said about films. Even if we don’t have enough money, we have to continue to finish up the film. We were paid pretty lucratively, but because of that, maybe they decided not to produce such expensive films after Red Beard.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

When we shot Red Beard, there is one scene where there’s a big cabinet for the drugstore. Every drawer has herbs and Chinese medicine. Mr. Kurosawa insisted that we had to have real medicine in each one of the drawers! There’s no scene where we had to open the drawers, so the audience wouldn’t know what was in there. But Mr. Kurosawa insisted that we had to put real medicine in every drawer. Mr. Kurosawa said that the surface of the drawers would look different without the medicine. Everybody disagreed, but that’s what we did. That was at Toho.

At Daiei, one time Kenji Mizoguchi said that the floor in a scene was not what he wanted, so he ordered the floor to be replaced with a new one he wanted, which they did. They tore out the old floor and rebuilt it. When there were rushes of the scene, the president of Daiei came to see them, and he asked, “What’s the difference?” Mr. Mizoguchi said, “Well, you have to hear the sounds of the steps. The sound is different.” It was that kind of culture. That’s how films go; that’s how I was taught. Actors at that time were taught that way.

BH: Do you have any stories about Mr. (Masaichi) Nagata, the president of Daiei?

TE: Mr. Nagata’s nickname was “Rappa,” which is a trumpet. It means that he tends to say exaggerated things. This is probably because he would usually say everything in a loud voice in an exaggerated way. He was big shot, and I was a young man, and I only appeared in Ms. Wakao’s movies, two or three films, so I didn’t have a real chance to talk with him. But that was my impression.

Unlike today, where films are made on a fixed scheduled and fixed budget, at that time, when we’d go to the studio, we might find out that today was a day off or that maybe tomorrow would be. When I was working on Red Beard, I had a 10-month holiday! I didn’t have to go to work, so I could do something else, which in my case was driving. There was a driving contest to determine who was the best driver in Japan, and I participated in this contest. I won the Best Driver in Japan title. Because of that, I had a chance to work for Nissan, when they were producing the Bluebird car models, and then Mitsubishi. So I had a chance to take part in car races.

I taught race car driving to many different people. That led to Go, Go, Young Guy! (1967). I was driving in the long shots of the car-racing scenes in that movie. I was sort of a stunt man! Mr. (Yuzo) Kayama was there with me, so he wanted to do some spin turns. Mr. Kayama asked me to teach him how to do that. It’s very dangerous. So I asked him to promise me not to do that stunt in front of other people. He did promise me, but he started to show off in front of others!

BH: You worked with (Hibari Misora), Izumi Yukimura, and Chiemi Eri in Janken Musume (1955), Cha-Cha Musume, (1956) and that series of films. Please talk about your memories of working with Ms. Yukimura, Ms. Eri, and (Ms. Hibari Misora).

TE: In those days, the studio was trying to sell actors and actresses as trios. Hibari Misora was the youngest of that trio, but she was ranked number one of the group. She made her debut when she was young. Hibari was taken care of by her stage mother. (laughs) She made her debut when she was very young and became a star. She reportedly had no wallet or purse. Her nickname was “Ojo,” a princess, which even her mother called her. Next in age was Tonko, which came from Izumi Yukimura’s real name. Ms. Yukimura would sing American jazz. Chiemi Eri was the oldest. But Chiemi was ranked number three, and Ms. Yukimura was number two in the trio. I appeared in the Sazae-san series with Chiemi (who was starring).

BH: Personality-wise, on the set, do you remember what Ms. Yukimura, Ms. Eri, and Ms. Misora were like, making those films?

TE: Hibari was kind of a child star, so she was treated separately. But Chiemi was always together with her older brother. Chiemi married Ken Takakura. Mr. Takakura was a very serious man. So it was kind of hard for her to live with that type of person since she was more of a liberated and delightful type of person. She was a very considerate type of person. Izumi had an assistant and driver. She didn’t have any songs by herself, but she was able to sing American jazz.

BH: One of your films during that time was Waga mune ni niji wa kiezu (1957), with Ishiro Honda as the director. Of course, Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, Yoshio Tsuchiya, many famous Toho actors (appeared in it). What do you remember about this film and specifically Mr. Honda?

TE: I’m very happy that you pointed out this movie. It was a B-movie. Usually there were two films released at the same time every week. I was one of the actors in this B-movie. The A-picture was headlined by a top star at that time. I was young, and I was not the top star at that time. I had a major role in this B-movie. The A-movie was usually concerned with how much money it could make. But, with B-movies, that is not a concern at all. We were able to concentrate on producing something creative, meaningful, and of high quality.

In many cases, assistant directors propose some play or screenplay that they wrote themselves. There’s no casting involved from the beginning; it’s very free in that sense. In order to make a good movie, they could select appropriate actors for that role.

In film productions these days, I noticed that the angle they use is very flat. If you want to make the film more realistic, you should use vertical angles to give depth to the film. So many more people have to be cast to be in the shot, so it could be more costly. So they try to avoid using that kind of angle, which is more attractive as a film. I notice that these days. In the past, there would be a scene where a couple is walking along a river horizontally or a pedestrian deck in a horizontal way and not a vertical way.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

(The famous Japanese actor) Yujiro Ishihara said, “Please don’t put Kurobe no Taiyo (a.k.a. The Sands of Kurobe, 1968) onto home video, which would be shown on TV.” That’s because the screen is so small, and the audience can’t figure out what’s going on in that scene. It’s too small to see. These days, people can watch movies on their smartphones, which is tiny.

So they can’t figure out what they’re watching! In a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, you can’t see anything on a smart phone! So audiences should go to the movie theaters instead.

I don’t like TV dramas these days because if two lovers walk along the river very slowly, that means something. But, if today’s audience sees that, they’d change the channel. So all the scenes before the commercials attempt to be unpredictable to try to keep the audience from switching channels. (laughs)

When I was working on Desperado Outpost (1959), I had to speak Chinese. The Japanese language is very flat with little fluctuation or intonation. So it was very hard for me to emulate what the Chinese teacher said. But the Japanese are not able to tell the difference, so the director easily said, “Okay!” When we had a preview with a Chinese audience, what I was saying was completely incomprehensible. (laughs) So it was very difficult for Japanese to speak Chinese.

Kihat-chan (director Kihachi Okamoto) wanted to shoot the movie dividing the lines into many cuts. He usually wants to divide each line into two cuts. For example, if the line is, “I’m glad to see you today,” I’d have to say, “I’m glad to see…” That’s the whole cut! But you have to keep the same emotion in the next cut, which finishes the same sentence. So it was very hard for us actors to keep the same level of emotion.

Mr. Kurosawa was the complete opposite. (in English) One scene, one cut. Two cameras would be shooting. There would be long scenes, and if someone messed up in the middle, they’d have to do it again from scratch. So actors would tend to use up a lot of film.

Mr. Okamoto was unique in the sense that he’s always wearing all black. So other actors and the staff members were wondering if his underwear was also black! Gradually we sensed that Mr. Okamoto directed the cameraman to shoot the actors when we didn’t have lines. The other actors in the scene would be speaking to me, but my face would be in close-up. If the cut is your listening scene rather than a speaking scene, we sensed that Mr. Okamoto was beginning to trust this actor. I realized that reaction to the other actor’s line is very important. Mr. Okamoto would ask me, “Tat-chin, why don’t you jump from that cliff there?” with no hesitation. It would be a tense scene, so I couldn’t say no. So I would have to jump from the cliff. I realized that the reaction to the lines spoken by the other actor is very important.

There’s a movie called Samurai, and there’s a long recitation I have to do at the beginning of a scene. So I practiced and began reciting it in a recording room. Then Mr. Okamoto said, “No, no,” and showed me how he wanted it himself. So I had to practice again from the beginning because the way I did it was totally different from Mr. Okamoto’s understanding. Something like that would happen very often. But Mr. Okamoto was patient until the actor could do what he wanted.

The movie Desperado Outpost deals with the subject of comfort women. It’s still a big topic now, but these films did not promote war; they were anti-war. Mr. Okamoto implied in his film that war is humanity’s stupidest act. That’s what he tried to reflect in that movie. Still, some critics have argued that it’s a movie that promotes war. But Mr. Okamoto’s attitude was that only those who understand my message will get the message, so let it be.

BH: Another film that you worked on was Osorubeki hiasobi (a.k.a. Playing with Fire, 1959), with Jun Fukuda (as director), and Daisuke Kato and (Yosuke) Natsuki as the stars.

TE: My position in this movie was to support the newcomer, for example, Mr. Kayama and Nat-chan (Mr. Natsuki). When they made their debut, I was asked to be there to help them. At Toho, Nat-chan was a motorcycle freak. Nat-chan forced me to buy one, even though I never had a chance to drive it! Nat-chan was considered something like a gangster in Hachioji (Nat-chan’s hometown). It was a Honda model, but there was no cell motor. You had to kick-start it, so I did.

BH: During this time, you were also in a trio with Akira Kubo and Akira Takarada. What were Toho’s plans for this trio?

TE: Mr. Kubo was a star at that time. Mr. Takarada was from Manchuria. Both were stars, so they couldn’t star in a film together. So that’s why I was brought in. That made the trio. Mr. Kubo’s roles were usually very serious, so he couldn’t do anything ridiculous in his private life. Mr. Kubo once admitted to me, “You always get to play a bad guy, so I envy you!” He was tired of always being the leading man.

A great interview! Shaking hands with Mr. Ehara following the Q&A. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the early 1960s, you worked on Daigaku no Wakadaisho (a.k.a. University Young Guy, 1961) with Mr. Yuzo Kayama. So please talk about the introduction to Mr. Kayama and how that relationship started.

TE: I met with Mr. Kayama in a college PE class, which was actually a skiing class in Shiga Kogen Ski Area. I was born in March, and Mr. Kayama was born in April, so even though we were born in the same year (1937), in Japan the cut-off date is usually April 1. So, in that sense, Mr. Kayama is one year younger than I am. But we happened to meet in this skiing class, and at that time I was already an actor and had worked together with Mr. Kayama’s father, Mr. Ken Uehara. So Mr. Kayama introduced himself by his real name: “Hi, my name is Ikehata.” I asked him, “Are you going to be an actor as well?” He replied, “No, I’m not interested in becoming an actor. I’m very into designing ships. So that’s what I want to do — design boats.” However, when I was in the shooting in Hakuba for a movie called Daigaku no Sanzoku-tachi (1960), Mr. Kayama just came up to me and said, “I’m going to be an actor.” He had just graduated from college. I asked him, “Why didn’t you become a designer of boats?” He answered, “You can’t make much money as a salaryman, so I’m going to make some money as an actor, and then I can design ships.” His stage name is Yuzo Kayama, and the kanji characters in his name are “ka” (from Kaga Domain or modern-day Ishikawa Prefecture — a very wealthy area) and “yama” (from Mount Fuji). “Yu” is hero, and “zo” comes from the founder of Toho, Ichizo Kobayashi.

Mr. Kayama’s father, Ken Uehara, was a big star, but he was a frugal man. He didn’t spend much money in his everyday life like a star. One day, Mr. Hiroshi Koizumi got Mr. Uehara’s used car, but the car didn’t have a clock. Mr. Koizumi asked, “Why doesn’t this car have a clock?” Mr. Uehara answered, “You have a watch on your wrist.” (laughs) He was that type of person. I presumed that Mr. Kayama was raised by Mr. Uehara in a very strict way, not in a rich way.

Translator Asako Kato (left) poses with Ms. Michie Tsukui (center) and Mr. Ehara at English Avenue. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Yoko Kozakura is his mother, and she is a very interesting person. One time, she went to Hawaii for skiing. At the Immigration counter, she was asked, “Why are you carrying skis?” She answered, “You live in Hawaii, but you don’t know there is a skiing area in the mountains.” Mr. Kayama was asked to be a guarantor of his uncle’s hotel, and they became heavily in debt afterward. He had a very hard time to pay off that debt. There is an actress named Megumi Matsumoto, a B-form actress, and they were married. They started out in a very shabby apartment, but they became very successful after all. But without his wife, there is no Mr. Kayama. Mr. Kayama is a composer, so I asked him, “Why don’t you create something for your wife?” Finally he recently did that for her. But every time Mr. Kayama wants to start something new, his wife would ask me, “Tat-chan, you should say something to him.” Mr. Kayama is a very good skier, and he was selected for the National Athletic Meet. Because his relatives operated a hotel in Iwappara (a skiing resort), the lift was free. That’s why he became a very good skier. That’s what I said, but Mr. Kayama said, “Don’t say that!”

Mr. Natsuki’s mother was a great mother. She was very well-mannered and very well bred. Every time I called, his mother answered the phone with a very, very polite greeting. Their real name is Akusawa. “Thank you very much for taking care of my son, Tamotsu, all the time.” Every time a girlfriend would call him, his mother would say exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Mr. Natsuki was very popular among girls, but all the girls were intimidated and scared away by his mother. That’s why he ended up being a bachelor. One time Mr. Natsuki asked me, “What are you driving?” I replied, “I’m driving a light car.” Mr. Natsuki envied me because he wanted to drive a Wagon R, but his manager told him not to drive a car like that because, for a movie star, it’s not good to drive such a car! (laughs) So he didn’t have a chance to drive the car he wanted. He had to maintain his image.

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