“Heaven has abandoned us.” “Never speak a word of what we witnessed at Hakkoda…” The lines from the movie, “Mt. Hakkoda” were on people’s lips when it was released.
In 1902, the 5th Infantry Regiment were lost in a blizzard in Aomori during military training, and 199 of the 210 soldiers died in the disaster. The novel, “Death March on Mt. Hakkoda” (Jiro NITTA), upon which the movie is based, describes the events surrounding the actual incident. At the time the film was released, 6 million people went to go see it, and box office earnings hit a record 5 billion yen. “Mt. Hakkoda” reigned supreme in Japanese cinema. Daisaku KIMURA, the movie’s cinematographer, edited the film and completed the 4K digital remastering. It will air in a new satellite broadcast in December 2018. It will be used for theatrical release and the 4K Blu-ray disk.
There were over 200 cast members in the movie, including Ken TAKAKURA, Kinya KITAOJI, Rentaro MIKUNI, Ken OGATA, Komaki KURIHARA and Mariko KAGA. KIMURA attended an advanced screening on September 4 at Toho Cinemas Hibiya to speak with the moviegoers. “We cleaned up every frame so you could see the expression on each actor’s face clearly. And “Mount Hakkoda” was reborn,” he explained.
The shoot on the actual Mt. Hakkoda took place over a period of 3 years (2 winters of filming), and it was the most grueling location shoot in Japan’s film history due to its harsh environment. Owing to the blizzard and rough conditions, the lighting equipment was limited. We scanned the original film version and the color correction was edited using Pablo (Rio). It took over 6 months to complete the 4K digital remastering. This edition of the movie includes all the details that we couldn’t do with the first one. “In other words, it took 40 years, but I finally finished the movie,” KIMURA says.
For the past 10 years, KIMURA has been requesting to digitally remaster “Mt. Hakkoda” for 4K. “If I hadn’t worked on “Mt. Hakkoda”, I wouldn’t be here today,” claims KIMURA. In this issue, we bring you the part two of the “Chiri tsubaki” interview begun in our previous issue. We asked KIMURA his thoughts on “Mt. Hakkoda” and the digital remastering process.
A Life – changing Movie
If I hadn’t worked on “Mt. Hakkoda”, I wouldn’t be here today. And if I’d never met Ken TAKAKURA on “Mt. Hakkoda,” I wouldn’t be the person I am today. In that sense, that movie made my life. I got my start in the movies as an assistant cinematographer on KUROSAWA’s team, and my cinematography career began with “Mount Hakkoda.” As soon as that wrapped, I began to get offers like “Virus.” After that came my directorial debut with “Mt. Tsurugidake.” Then my life changed again, and that was with “Mt. Hakkoda.” If I hadn’t worked on it, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to make “Mt. Tsurugidake.”
Rise to Prominence with “Mt. Hakkoda”
I spent 3 years on location in Hakkoda, when I was 35 to 38, and for the time, it was unusual for a 35-year-old to be heading such a large-scale production. In 1955, each movie company had its own staff, and even at TOHO they had 60 assistant cinematographers. There were about 150 lighting assistants. There were lots of cinematographers too. That’s why for someone to go out on their own wouldn’t happen until they were over 40, at least; those were the times. So for someone to do that at age 33 was a major promotion. When I went independent on “Yaju-gari” (1973, TOHO, director: Eizo SUGAWA), I copied Godard’s “A bout de souffle” (1960, director: Jean-Luc GODARD) and shot it entirely hand-held. Since no one in Japanese cinema – and certainly not at TOHO – was doing anything like that, I stood out. In the middle of that was when I got “Mt. Hakkoda.” I accepted partly because it would be a physical challenge, but also because of Jiro MORITANI and Shinobu HASHIMOTO. The result was the title credit “Cinematography: Daisuke KIMURA.” It was the first time in the history of Japanese cinema in which the cinematographer appeared on one line in a major motion picture. These days, I direct, too, so you just need to add “cinematographer” to that line (laughs). I’m grateful to them both, but making history isn’t easy.
A trusting relationship with the director
I’ve never met a more manly director (than Shiro MORITANI). We argued a lot on the set of “Mount Hakkoda.” He’s 8 years older than me but he said stuff like, “You sonofab****!” so I gave it right back, “Shut up, you ass!” No kidding, we really fought (laughs). But the very next day, he’d be business-as-usual, nonchalant, “Daisaku, what’s the plan for today?” I was the same, “I’m thinking we could do this.” He listened to all my suggestions. He’s like that. He’s an amazing guy.
Even the way he shoots, he uses a telephoto. He walks all the way over and keeps going until he practically walks past you. Ken OGATA and Rentaro MIKUNI, too. When shooting long, he comes walking towards you, but then keeps going. That’s how he shoots, and he wants to figure things out in editing later. He doesn’t give minute instructions on set.
Toughest Shoot to Date
I’ve been in the movie business a long time, but I’ve never had a tougher job than this one. There’s a phrase from the original “Mt. Hakkoda”: “take a swim in the snow.” At first I didn’t get it. When I was climbing Mt. Hakkoda, no matter how much I walked, the fresh powder kept crumbling and I couldn’t move forward. So I got on my stomach and swam. The snow in Aomori is special; it sticks to you. The snow in Hokkaido is smooth, but that snow in the northeast is unique. In Aomori and Akita, you can’t move forward in fresh snow unless you swim through it. That’s how rough it was. The hot springs at Sukayu were great, but there was no heating in the rooms and the only Buddhist vegetarian meals. I lost 10kg in 3 years. (laughs). In those conditions, I was chest-deep in a snowstorm in the middle of Lake Towada for a shoot. Why was I doing something so ridiculous? The actors were so frozen and exhausted that they couldn’t move anymore. “Okay, please go over there,” I said, but no one moved. “I’ve got to do something.” I thought.
So I went in that frozen Lake Towada. It was around -17℃ and the winds were 18m, so it actually felt more like -35℃. I grit my teeth and jumped in, shouting, “I’ll Shoot from here!” Everyone thought I’d gone crazy. Some people thought I did it because it was the only position for the camera, but it was all a performance. Really it would have been just fine shooting on the shore. But then no one would have moved (laughs).
Distance from the actors
I don’t think I could have shot it unless I’d gone that far. Frozen and exhausted. In the snow, how was I going to shoot Ken TAKAKURA and the Hirosaki 31st Infantry Regiment? That blizzard, it was the real deal. We waited for the weather to happen. While we were waiting, everyone got irritable. It was tough. We couldn’t start rolling until the blizzard came. And then when the snow started blowing around, we had to walk right into it. When we shot “Aomori 5th Infantry Regiment”, the weather conditions were worse than when the actual incident occurred.
In the beginning, I admit to thinking, “What’s the big deal about Ken TAKAKURA?” so we didn’t speak to each other much. But as the shoot continued, we became closer. I did stuff like jumping into that cold lake – yeah, it was all a performance – but I did things on set that no one else would. Those kinds of things brought us closer. The hardest thing in the movies is to motivate the actors and the crew to do what you want – that’s the challenge. If you can get that to go smoothly, then the rest isn’t so bad.
Working with equipment limitations
Back then, we didn’t have any money and we couldn’t buy down jackets. So I wore a plastic raincoat. And plastic pants. We did a lot of long shots (telephoto) and the actors couldn’t see the cameras, so we covered them in red. Sometimes we carried bamboo poles sporting red flags and hoisted them on our backs, Sengoku warrior-style. That way the actors could see the cameras in the snow, because otherwise they couldn’t see a thing. I had to think of all these little details.
We had generators on set, but it wasn’t like we could go full force with the lighting. We only had three 1kw cine king light batteries to shoot in the middle of the night on that mountain. It took everything we had just to light one actor. And with so many actors on set…. We had a 5kw generator, but it was all we could do just to get around in that weather, there was no way we could bring something like that. It was more like a documentary. I filmed it as if it were one.
The production cost at the time totaled 3 hundred million yen. We alternated winters filming the Aomori 31st Infantry Regiment and the Hirosaki 31st Infantry Regiment so it took us 3 years. It’s not surprise then that the labor costs became an issue. When we first went on location with the Hirosaki 31st Infantry Regiment, our crew numbered 11. The next year when we shot the Aomori 5th Infantry Regiment, there were 210 actors, but we only had a crew of 25. We hired 5 young people from Utarube to be our porters.
Team KUROSAWA’s influence
We set up about 10km of lights on the Tokyo set, and we used pan focus. That’s something Kurosawa would have done. The Kurosawa style is to use pan focus on everything. The focus is on everyone who’s on camera. The film we used was ASA100 so we had to use f16 for certain scenes.
Kurosawa valued the image. He put a lot of energy into the technical side of things. He’d been experimenting with the technicalities of imagery since he was young. He’d always liked the telephoto. His telephoto use was extreme on “Yojimbo” (1961, Toho, dir. Akira Kurosawa) onwards. I was the “focus guy” on that set. I found myself shooting people using an 800mm. (Kurosawa) didn’t say anything, but now I think of it, there was something about the mood. In short, he loved the mood that the telephoto created. A wide lens feels clean, but it’s different. If you’re going with the same size, the telephoto gives you a lot more room to breathe. That’s what it is. That fastidiousness comes out in the art. It makes sense why he was always looking through the camera.
Around that time, Toho had a technical lab and they made a 200mm master lens. It’s similar to the current Angenieux 250mm zoom. It’s the closest size. I always said, “Bring me my lens!” and I attached that 200mm. “Ah, that’s it.” I remember those days.
Revitalizing “Mt. Hakkoda” with 4K
I personally don’t use digital cameras, but I do lots of work with digital. I don’t make a big deal about it, though. One day, “Mt. Hakkoda” was being sold on DVD, and no one told me about it. I have no idea why, and I still don’t know. There are some corrections that need to be done if you’re converting something to DVD or BD. They only need to ask me and I’ll do it. “Mt. Hakkoda” is the only movie I’ve made where they’ve done something without my input. I’d been asking TOHO if I could digitally remaster this for 4K for the past 10 years now. This time, a Japanese film broadcasting company that operates a channel exclusively for Japanese movies was in charge, and it became a collaboration among Hashimoto Productions, TOHO, and Shinano Digital Media Net.
The scanning and scratch & dirt removal took about half a year in all. When film begins to deteriorate, small white spots begin to appear. During editing, you cut the negatives, and that makes it look choppy. I cleaned all of that up. The scanning alone took a month. I used Pablo for 3 weeks and fixed everything frame by frame. With this, you can select part of the picture and brighten a face in the shadows thanks to 4K remastering. The movie is 40 years old, so the negatives had discolored, but I was able to correct all that, too.
With film movies, the entire image is color-corrected and the density fixed. To ensure that the snow won’t be blown out, you use a certain aperture. The light was hitting the lead and one or two others, but it wasn’t hitting the other actors. That’s why some actors in the movie must have felt like they didn’t get much screen time. Thanks to 4K digital remastering, I could adjust each person’s face using Pablo. If even just some light was on them, I was able to correct it so you can now see their faces.
Some people say it’s worth remastering a movie like “Mt. Hakkoda” for 4K. Everyone goes on about “4K, 4K” and I’ve seen lots of things that’ve been converted to 4K, but I hardly tell the difference. But “Mt. Hakkoda.” is noticeable. It wasn’t a simple transfer. In a way, I reworked the whole thing. It took 40 years, but in a sense, I feel like it was finally completed. All that I’d wanted to do the first time with this movie, I finally completed with the 4K remastered version.
The mood of Japanese cinema and its connection to the screen
The projection screen. On “Avatar” (2009) James CAMERON brought us 3D. One of his conditions in making the movie was that he wanted to do a 3D version. All the main theaters have silver screens, which have a high reflection ratio and directionality, and if you’re sitting near the center, there is plenty of light. But on the periphery, the light level drops significantly. It’s for this reason that I refuse to use a silver screen.
Now movie theaters and distribution agencies employ a meter, but before that they didn’t have a box office meter. I borrowed a meter when I went around Japan. This summer on “Chiri Tsubaki” I checked the theaters in all 47 prefectures of Japan, and of the places that had a silver screen in their main theater, where there was a small white screen I had them open up 2 at once. They wanted to show the movie at big theaters whenever possible, but I asked them not to show it at theaters with a silver screen.
The white screen is the most suited to Japanese movies. These days you don’t have a projectionist in the theater anymore, so you don’t make adjustments. After you watch a 3D movie, try watching a Japanese movie. They’ve all got hot spots. Japanese movies go up to 14fL (=48 candela). If it goes above that, it’s the same as having hot spots. If you have a pearlescent screen, then it should be around 13fL. This is because it has a high gain. What I’m talking about here is “mood.” Many people value “mood” in Japanese movies. I’m particular about it, too, so I can’t help but notice.