The second full-day of my trip saw me go west to Himeji which is famous for its castle. At the moment its not too much to look at though and nor will it be for for the next five years as its under reconstruction and basically has a huge bag covering up the main part (below left) Luckily I saw the castle five years ago in its full glory (below right) so I wasn’t too gutted to see it in its current state. On that previous visit it was closed but I did see the inside of it this time.
If you’ve ever seen James Bond in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) then you may recognise this place as the ninja training school. I had one screenshot with me and was most surprised to see that the stone statue thing behind Sean Connery was still knocking about. It can be found in the West Bailey and needless to say I was the only person in the whole place who took an interest in this piece of concrete!
Despite being made nearly 45 years ago it was still possible to locate some of the shooting scenes which feature below and in the picture above right.
Another film to be shot at Himeji-jo was Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’ (The Shadow Warrior) in 1980 which is set in medieval times. This movie became known to me as it was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox who were convinced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to fund the remainder of the film in exchange for its international distribution rights after Toho Studios couldn’t fulfill the budget demands of the film.
Himeji-jo wasn’t actually my first stop of the day though as I took a 30 minute bus ride to Mount Shosha which needed an additional ropeway to get there. The reason for visiting this mountain was to visit the sacred and peaceful Engyoji temple which is a nice 25 minute walk away. This mountaintop temple complex gets you away from the really big crowds and the wooden auditorium of Daikodo is lovely though not as old as one may think as in true Japanese fashion it was dismantled, repaired and restored in 1959 having originally been constructed at the end of the 15th century.
I originally thought this was one of those made-for-TV kids movies; the kind of which used to be shown on BBC1 on Friday afternoons when I was a child. However, it seems I was wrong as its actually the second of four films in the franchise. As the title implies the film centres around three ‘ninja’ kids who follow their grandfather to Japan when they hear that he is in trouble and they use their skills to help defend him from his ancient enemy who want to exact revenge for a past incident where the grandfather possesses a dagger from a championship game which they feel is rightfully theirs or something like that.
Quite rare for an international production that it wasn’t filmed in Tokyo (or Osaka) although it did try to make out it was at the start of the Japan journey but in reality Nagoya filled in for the capital. Kanazawa, Koga and Hikone were other Japanese locations with the latter providing the most beautiful and spectacular backdrop for some of the films scenes.
One of the ninja kids is defeated by someone wearing a white robe who is revealed to be a girl called Miyo. This token girl appears to speak almost perfect English but in true stereotypical fashion she has trouble pronouncing certain words (“swing my bat/butt”) all in the name of cheap humour. She also provides some kick-ass love interest which is just what a film geared towards children needs!
Before all that the three ninja’s make quite an entrance at the airport as they catch a robber Crocodile Dundee style albeit with a baseball rather than a tin-can or boomerang. Inevitably there are other hilarious (?) gags involving trousers being pulled down, bowing and headbutting each other, fighting with chopsticks (whilst wearing yukata of course), baseball catch practice with eggs, bags being mixed up in true film fashion and the paper thin walls being broken.
The movie is of course aimed at children and it does a good job where thats concerned. I’m two decades older than the target audience and I still enjoyed most of the film which engages in childish slapstick humour and fart jokes (which is of course all beneath my humour level!) played out with some Home Alone-style villains.
Get beyond the whole Chinese actresses portraying Japanese geisha debacle and what you see in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (called ‘Sayuri’ in Japan) is a beautiful, colourful, gorgeous film showing the spirit of this one girl as she battles against the odds. That may sound cliched and it probably is but I like that kind of film as it requires less thinking on my part! Personally, I didn’t care that most of the actresses weren’t Japanese. They were trained in the art of being a geisha which would no doubt have been the same if local talent was cast. Its a dying art and I don’t expect they know much better just because they are the same nationality. Besides, Chinese can act better and that is a fact so get over it! They were chosen for ability rather but I can understand why Japanese people get upset about a foreigner portraying one of their own. Be that as it may, people often portray different nationalities in the Western world.
I was eagerly anticipating the film release at the end of 2005 having read Arthur Golden’s book during my break from Japan earlier that same year. Unlike the other ‘films set in Japan’ reviewed on here, ‘Memoirs…’ is very high profile so the story is already known to most. Basically, impoverished nine year old girl Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and struggles with her new family and new life, particularly the head geisha Hatsumomo who is jealous of her beauty. Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) becomes Chiyo’s new mentor and renames her Sayuri where she goes on to master the artistic and social skills which are all part of a geisha’s appeal. As WWII looms the story takes a turn which would forever change the world of geisha.
As someone who is intrigued by geisha and read a fair few books about them I still don’t really understand or see their charm like so many others do but thats probably just down to a difference in culture. I have seen ‘Memoirs….’ quite a few times and think the stars of the show are not Ken Watanabe (The Chairman), Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) or Michelle Yeoh (who I prefer in her more combat roles especially the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’) but Gong Li as Hatsumomo who delivers a master performance as the wicked witch of this Cinderella type story. The young Chiyo features for the first hour and that is the part of the story I like the most as it shows her uphill battle which the young Suzuka Ohgo performs very well. My enduring image of the movie is the one of Chiyo running through the many torii gates after she’d just met The Chairman. Together with John Williams’ superb score this is a beautiful, visually stunning moment which changes her life forever. (Watch it here.) Having said that, is it only me who thinks there’s something wrong with the idea that The Chairman set his sights on a young girl and then waits until she grows up before getting her!
Most of the movie was filmed on a specially-built village in Los Angeles but there were a few scenes made in Japan for real and those were done at a few temples in and around Kyoto. At 145 minutes the film is too long for my liking (even though I was enjoying it a lot I do recall getting restless in my seat after two hours when I saw it at the cinema) and having the actors all speaking English makes no sense. Subtitles should have been used but then I guess far fewer people would have bothered to go and watch it. Apart from that I really enjoyed it.