TATSUYOSHI EHARA CONTINUED! The Second Half of the Toho Actor’s Filmmaking Memories!

Actor Tatusyoshi Ehara poses for the camera. 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 half of the interview can be found here. The second part of the interview is below. 

BH: Another film with Mr. Honda as the director is Inao: Story of an Iron Arm (1959), the baseball movie. Mr. Honda was the director, and the stars were Yumi Shirakawa and Yuriko Hoshi in a small part. What do you remember about making this baseball movie?

TE: This is the story of Mr. Inao, a baseball pitcher of Seibu. We went to Fukuoka for location shooting. Ms. Hoshi made her debut in this movie. Her mother and older brother came to see the preview at Kyoritsu Hall in Tokyo. The family greeted me and everybody, and then they were waiting for Ms. Hoshi to appear onscreen. She never appeared after all because of Mr. Honda, who cut her scenes! Ms. Hoshi was worried about what would be her future at that time. We were both born in Edo (Tokyo), and Edokko people have a certain kind of character. “Your role was very small, so you have to make your debut in a leading role.” She agreed. Ms. Hoshi and I had a brother-sister relationship. Ms. Hoshi calls me “Onii-chan” or “big brother.” As a new star, she was in a difficult spot because everybody was watching her. So she relied on me. I would drive her home in Kanda all the time.

Ms. Hoshi is a very beautiful actress now, but when she was 15, her face without makeup had a lot of marks, just like the first printing of a newspaper. So I gave her the nickname “Gera.” “Gera” is a first printing! (laughs)

BH: Let’s talk about Sanjuro (1962) with Mr. Kurosawa. It was your first time working with Mr. Kurosawa.

TE: In Sanjuro, I was selected as one of the nine young samurai. But I had only one line. So mostly I had to react to other actors. That led to my role in Red Beard. In that movie, I have to say, “Are you Mr. Yasumoto?” That was the line, but the line was said at the very beginning of this movie. The first line is everything when it comes to the movies and stage shows. It is one line, but it’s at the very beginning. I had to practice for about two weeks.

In the scene at the end of Sanjuro, Mr. Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai are trying to kill each other, and then blood suddenly spurts from Mr. Nakadai. None of us nine samurai was alerted ahead of time that would happen! Everybody was stunned! It looked so real. After the filming, everybody went to the tate-shi, the professional theatrical swordfighters, to ask how they did that. We practiced together. I can still do it.

In Sanjuro, one day Mr. Kurosawa came to the studio set, saying that tsubaki, which are camellias, don’t bloom this way. These were all fake, paper flowers. There were lots of them, so perhaps some were made by a part-timer. So Mr. Kurosawa didn’t like the way these flowers were blooming.

There were lots of episodes with Mr. Kurosawa. For instance, we went to golfing together, and I was invited to a sukiyaki party. Mr. Kurosawa was very meticulous about entertaining his guests. Even if the sukiyaki is made of good meat, he would check every slice of meat by saying, “Only the surface of the meat is good, but not the inside.” So Mr. Kurosawa was picking only the good parts! (laughs) Also, when playing golf, everybody was in a competitive mode. Before we shot, we practiced a lot. “Don’t do that. We are not professionals. We are amateurs; we have to have fun. Shoot twice, and then get the better score every time.” That’s the Kurosawa rule. He didn’t like chrysanthemum flowers. As you may know, at Japanese funerals, most flowers are chrysanthemums. That’s a common rule. So everybody sent flowers for his farewell, but the assistant had to spend half a day taking out the chrysanthemums for the funeral.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How about Operation Sewer Rats (1962) with (director) Okamoto, and Mr. Natsuki, Mr. Kayama, and Mickey Curtis are in the cast.

TE: Mr. Okamoto knew that I was very athletic. So, for the very dangerous scenes that involved things like throwing grenades and jumping into windows, I was selected. Mr. Okamoto had already decided that I should do that, so there was no room for declining the offer. I didn’t play a military role, so I didn’t have to shave my head. I think Mr. Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day (1967) was probably the first Japanese film that was controlled by the budget and the guarantee of each star.

BH: Let’s now talk about Red Beard. You’ve spoken about Red Beard quite a bit, but is there anything else from the production that you’d like to talk about?

TE: As I explained, I only had one line to say. “Are you Mr. Yasumoto?” My role was that of a Chinese medicine doctor. Mr. Yasumoto is actually played by Mr. Kayama. At that time, Dutch medicine was very prominent, and Mr. Kayama plays an expert in Dutch medicine. So my character was to be replaced by Mr. Yasumoto. That’s why I have to ask, “Are you Mr. Yasumoto?” That’s a very important line in the sense that I want to be replaced by him, but I’m also curious about this person who specializes in Dutch medicine, even though I can resign from this job as soon as he comes. There are lots of mixed feelings, so the way I say the line was extremely difficult for me, so I had to practice a lot. Without a very mixed feeling, Mr. Kurosawa wouldn’t take it, and I knew that. So I practiced a lot.

Are you familiar with Miyuki Kuwano? She is from Shochiku. Usually in Shochiku movies the actresses are wearing eyeliner, and she was wearing eyeliner when she came to see Mr. Kurosawa for costume-fitting. Ms. Kuwano’s role was one of the villagers, so she shouldn’t be wearing eyeliner. So she didn’t need it. Mr. Kurosawa didn’t like unrealistic things, so he asked her, “Does your role require that kind of makeup?” She had to abide by the Toho rules after all.

One time, Mr. Kurosawa said the open set was set up, but the shooting would not start. Actors and staff were wondering why it took such a long time. Mr. Kurosawa said, “Let the open set get weathered.” Raindrops and smears make the set look more realistic. He was that type of director.

Last year, I had a chance to see Mr. Kayama. I asked him, “Why don’t you sing and return to movies as well?” He answered, “Well, no, Red Beard is everything to me. It is the best movie I’ve ever done. If Mr. Kurosawa were still alive and making movies, then I might. But, without him, there are no good movies to make.”

BH: Another big movie that you worked on was Chushingura (1962), with Mr. (Hiroshi) Inagaki as the director. It was an all-star cast, many big Toho stars. What do you remember about making Chushingura?

TE: I also had only one cut in Chushingura. I vividly remember this one cut, “Allow me tell you this,” which is the one line I had to say. My role was the younger brother of Takuminokami Asano (played by Yuzo Kayama), the major role. After opening the paper sliding door, I say my line. That’s it. In modern times, we can open the door with one hand, but the manner at the time called for me to push a little bit first and then slide it. After entering the room, I have to ask permission to speak. In addition, I couldn’t step on the black seams of the tatami mat. After that, I have to shut the sliding door the same way. I have to do all this without even thinking about it, subconsciously. So I have to run and show the audience that I am in a big rush. I had to pay attention to all the details, but I have to do it subconsciously. Wearing the historical costume, I had to run through the corridor and show that I was in a big rush, which was very difficult for me.

BH: What do you remember about Ultra Q (1966)?

TE: In those days, movie companies were the competitors for TV productions. So, usually, movie stars are not used for TV productions. Since I was a supporting player, I was OK with TV. I appeared in the first episode of Ultra Q. Actually, I appeared in a lot of the early TV series. I appeared in the second episode of Kizudarakenotenshi (1974-75), another popular series. I played alongside an actress named Mako Midori. She was a very funny person. We clicked with each other. We were brother and sister, but if we were just regular siblings, the story would not be interesting. We decided to love each other like a man and woman and said, “Why don’t we do that?” She agreed, and it was successful. You reminded me of all these things, so I am so glad! (laughs)

I had a chance to meet a young Asahi newspaper reporter, who said to me, “I adored you in Ultra Q as the newspaper reporter, so I became a newsman myself.” I was happy to hear it. I’ve been acting as a supporting player, not as the star, but what’s good about being a supporting actor is that you have some discretion about how to act in a role and decide what type of person this character is. Leading actors have limited discretion. Usually the director has to direct the actor specifically about how to act, and what kind of facial expression he must have. But in my case there are no detailed descriptions about how my character moves or reacts to anything. I must think about it. So that’s the fun part. One time, I was into the psychology of it — what kind of person could say a line like this. So I tend to think too much about it sometimes, but it’s fun to play in supporting roles. Even if I come up with some reactions or movements or facial expressions, the director may say no, that’s not what I want. So I must always think about multiple options. That’s the fun part.

Asako Kato: Why do you live in Azumino, Nagano?

TE: I was raised in the center of Tokyo, Minato Ward. At that time, there was a lot of nature, even in Tokyo. I collected butterflies, and I skied in the Tokyo Tower area, and fished in Tokyo Bay. I belonged to a mountain club in college. So I really wanted to live among nature for a long time. I believe people who fight each other in the world live in countries without green, woods, and trees. So I believe that nature, animals, and plants can listen to the language of human beings. But, on the other hand, human beings cannot listen to animals, plants, and nature. At the age of 77, I believe that my responsibility is to urge human beings to get along with each other and to pay more attention to nature. That’s the theme for the rest of my life. For example, when cherry blossoms don’t bloom, I was wondering what to do. Experts say you have to talk to the tree. You have to intimidate the tree by saying that, “If you don’t bloom this next year, I’m going to cut you down.” Then they bloom. Then you should praise them saying, “You are so beautiful.” Fierce animals fight each other, especially in the same species. They may kill some of them, but if the losing party runs away, they are never chased. Only human beings would do that.

I’ve visited the United States many times, but one time I was looking at the Empire State Building, and an American started talking to me, asking if I were Japanese. I said yes. He said, “There’s something I want to ask you. What is mu?” I said, “Mu? What is mu?” He said, “It means ‘nothing’ in Buddhism.” I was wondering why this man was saying such a thing. He was a Vietnam veteran who shot someone there and watched that person fall down and die. He couldn’t get that image out of his mind. It came back for a long time, again and again. He didn’t know how to deal with it. Christianity is not helpful for dealing with this sort of problem. So one day he decided to go to a Buddhist temple in Japan. So I think it’s very sad and shocking to be killed, but killing someone is probably most shocking to the killer if the killer is a normal person.

I believe it’s related to nature. If you lived in a green area with nature and clean air, and if you can be together with nature, animals, and plants, and if you can communicate with nature, then you wouldn’t want to fight each other.

Thirty years ago I moved to Nagano Prefecture. There’s a coined word called the “I-turn.” The “I” represents going one way. A U-turn is going somewhere and back. If you were born in the countryside and come to college and work and then return to the countryside, that is a U-turn. But I took an I-turn because I was born and raised in Tokyo but went to Nagano. I live in my second house. The first one had a fireplace. Right now I have a log stove, so I have to make a real fire. But urban kids never see a real fire. These days, people don’t smoke, so they don’t even see a lighter flame. But it’s a real fire in my place.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the last few moments, I want to mention a few names, and it’s sort of like a word association. Kon Ichikawa.

TE: (in English) Cigarette! My first impression is that he would put his cigarette inside his teeth or something without using his hands, so he would smoke and talk at the same time…a famous story! He used to ask how many seconds the take lasted to a scripter.

BH: Next is Nobuo Nakagawa.

TE: He was soft-spoken and was not the type of a director who said to do this and do that. Instead, he let actors do whatever they wanted. But the actors felt some pressure to create the situation of how they act in that scene. So, without any preparation, there’s no scene. First, he would ask, “How do you want to do this?” Then he would correct it a little bit. That’s the way he directed. So it looked like he was an easy director, but he was not that easy. In order to be recognized by him, you had to prepare a lot.

BH: Momoko Kochi.

TE: She was tall and very nice. She was very well bred. She was the daughter of a college professor. She was nice, but as an actress, she was losing her position to Setsuko Hara, Yoko Sugi, and Yoko Tsukasa. But she was tall and slim and very nice. She joined Toho the same year as Akira Takarada and Yu Fujiki.

BH: Senkichi Taniguchi.

TE: He was the teacher of Kihachi Okamoto, and he was married to Kaoru Yachigusa, a very famous actress. But his first marriage was with Setsuko Wakayama, another actress. When he was asked the reason he chose her over Ms. Wakayama, his answer was, “Because she’s younger. I can absorb her young spirits.” (laughs) Ultimately, Mr. Taniguchi died, but Ms. Yachigusa is still alive, which means he was probably absorbed by Ms. Yachigusa.

BH: Kajiro Yamamoto.

TE: Mr. Yamamoto was famous for the number of cuts he takes a day. He was a very quick shooter, usually taking only half the days required. So actors are required to be well prepared on the set. From the actors’ point of view, if Mr. Yamamoto used you, then you were recognized as a talent, as an independent actor who could be used anywhere.

BH: Yumi Shirakawa.

TE: She is a typical Edokko (Edo girl). I meet her once a year at the gathering of Toho alumni. Everybody calls her Oyumi. She is the same age as I am. I think she is the daughter of a liquor shop owner from Gotanda. She took good care of her husband Mr. Nitani until he passed away.

BH: Jun Fukuda.

TE: At the time when Mr. Fukuda became a director, the whole movie industry was controlled by revenues and budgets, so he had to survive in that environment. He didn’t have a chance to do things he wanted to do because of the industry trends. So he was famous for a series of movies but not for one particular title.

BH: Setsuko Hara.

TE: She was the first real actress in Japan. She was so beautiful, and she was a big star when I joined Toho. Senior people called her Hara Set-chan. But my colleagues and I couldn’t call her that name, so we called her Hara Setsuko-san. She created that kind of atmosphere without doing anything. She was a natural-born actress. I think she was the first Japanese actress who had that aura. She has a specific image that the audience has of her, so she does not want to destroy that image. So she never attended the Toho alumni gatherings. Some people have actually seen her shopping in Kamakura, but she never makes public appearances. That’s a very professional way.

BH: Mie Hama.

TE: I sometimes see Ms. Yuriko Hoshi and Ms. Nami Tamura, but I never see Ms. Hama. I worked with Ms. Hama on three movies, and we went on location in Oshima for a commercial. She used to be a bus girl, and she was scouted for Toho and joined the studio, but being an actress was just one step in her life. So, after she got married and lived in the countryside, she never made public appearances. She was famous for her role in a 007 movie (You Only Live Twice, 1967), but in those days people had a prejudice against that kind of movie. The actresses in those films were almost naked, so it was almost like a Nikkatsu role. Some people said she should have gone to Nikkatsu. Nikkatsu specialized in a certain genre, and Nikkatsu sounds like “nikku katsu,” and “niku” is “meat” or “body”!

BH: Tadao Takashima.

TE: Mr. Takashima belonged to Shintoho, and it was one of the major studios, but it was ranked at the bottom. It was not very famous for any particular film, and the studio didn’t have movie theaters, so some people had a prejudice against it, compared with the other studios. People thought of it as a very minor studio. Mr. Takashima was doing some music-related movies and music-related works, including Arashi wo Yobu Otoko. But Shintoho didn’t have any stage theaters, so maybe I was more active in stage performances in Nichigeki and Kitano Theater where I even had a chance to sing. Toho had big stars like Ryo Ikebe and Toshiro Mifune, and there was always a kind of a seniority system. But Shintoho was relatively new, and there were no big names at Shintoho at that time.

BH: Last name: Kenji Sahara.

TE: Mr. Sahara used to have the stage name Tadashi Ishihara. But when Shintaro Ishihara came in, he had to work together with him at Toho in a film, so Mr. Sahara had to change his stage name. Toho wanted to promote Shintaro Ishihara. So at that time Mr. Sahara was kind of angry. He was a good-looking actor. He wanted to be a supporting actor, but he failed to become a supporting player. Mr. Takarada, Mr. Hirata, and Mr. Ikebe had the starring roles, so Mr. Sahara found it difficult to find his position because he was too good-looking to become a supporting actor. Yu Fujiki was a supporting actor and a fencer as well. (laughs) Mr. Fujiki had his position, and other actors had their position, but Mr. Sahara didn’t have a specific position. But he’s a very nice person and has no biases whatsoever. I really like him, and we share very similar things in common. That’s the image I have.

BH: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to mention, or final comments for the interview?

TE: After I won the Best Driver contest, I started to work for the automobile industry. I was also a skier, and I started to work for the sports industry, writing for sports magazines and newspapers. I have contributed articles to a magazine called Sports Supplies Magazine for more than 25 years. So I write articles about sports. I was a designer for Liberty Bell, which is a very famous skiwear in Japan. Liberty Bell is a U.S. company headquartered in Seattle. A Japanese company wanted to use its name to market skiwear in Japan, but the designs should be specifically for the Japanese, and I was a designer. This company has the best-selling skiwear in Japan.

Ever since I’ve been engaged in planning and consulting work, I’ve always said I was 10 years ahead of the times. So it’s very hard for the market to catch up. Recently, I’ve maybe only been a few years ahead of the curve. So, for anything new and innovative, companies come to me. So there are always a number of projects I have to work on.

The thing I’ve noticed recently is that people tend to choose something cheap instead of high quality. People are actually proud of how little they pay for things like clothes, not how good the quality is. My work starts with the question: What is a human being? Right now, everything is handled digitally, so it’s black and white, or 0 and 1. But there are lots of shades in between, especially in the human mind. So I want to remind people of that. Elderly people know that especially well, and there’s some market for that as well. So that’s the area I’m working in now.

Originally, the Japanese character is indecisive. American people tend to think, “I don’t know what he’s thinking – yes or no.” But the younger generation is becoming like Westerners or Americans, in that things should be decided very quickly. But still, some younger-generation Japanese have inherited that national personality, so Japanese subconsciously understand that we live in an ambiguous world and that there are many different answers between yes and no. I’d like you to know that the world of ambiguity is important for us.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

So, if you don’t want to agree with this or that, which could hurt someone, there is a middle ground. I worry about choosing one out of two. There are a lot of things in between. If you propose something and ask if I am interested, I would reply, “Let me think,” or, “I’m trying to think about it.” Eventually the answer could be no, but you don’t say no instantly. Your efforts should be considered. You came up with this idea, and you think that this could be a good business. So that’s why you are here, to propose it. That’s why I don’t say no instantly. It’s a little different from being indecisive, but there’s caring or consideration toward you, which I have to show you. It’s very difficult to explain, but that’s why the Japanese language is affirmative or negative at the very end, not at the beginning. The very basic rule is: Don’t hurt other people.

There are a lot of projects in the pipeline, but one of them is a water-fueled car. H2O consists of hydrogen and oxygen, both of which are combustible. So it could power a car. Japan is surrounded by seawater, but we have the technology to change the seawater into real water, so we have lots of natural resources. In cell phones, there is an extremely delicate gold thread distribution inside. That technology, which is number one in the world, was created by a woman in Ota Ward, Tokyo. There are a lot of precision-industry factories in Ota Ward. Ball bearing technology is one of them.

It’s been a while since I appeared in a famous movie. Being in the film industry means that actors are usually recognizable. So there’s a good and bad about it. I think nobody knows me anymore, but the other day I took a taxi ride, and the driver was watching me in the rearview mirror. He started to ask, “Are you…?” I said, “Well, yes.” “I am a big movie fan, so I saw lots of your movies.” When I was at Toho, I was taught that a movie star cannot take change or ask for a receipt. Naturally, I said, “Keep the change.” The driver was impressed! But these days the young talent wants change and a receipt with no price on it. So I was saved! (laughs)

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