Interview with Ninomiya Kazunari

interview - 10.28.2007 08:00

Letters from Iwo Jima, February 14th: a report of the premiere and a Valentines Day spent in the company of Clint Eastwood and Ninomiya Kazunari.

JaME presents something a little different: an interview with Kazunari Ninomiya of the Jpop group Arashi in his first major international acting role and a report of the Paris press conference for Letters from Iwo Jima.

After watching the movie at 11 am, the journalists were invited to the large hall where the press conference was going to take place.

Present at the conference were: Clint Eastwood, Tsuyoshi Ihara and Kazunari Ninomiya.

In this article we will be taken away for a moment from the world of music and into that of cinema. Rather than reproducing the interview alone with Ninomiya Kazunari, we wanted to deliver it in its context without forgetting that Ninomiya, an 'idol' member of a boyband and previously only a drama actor, is now in a major role in a serious Clint Eastwood film. That will allow those who, having appreciated the film, to understand a little of the motivations of Clint Eastwood in his work on Letters from Iwo Jima and to present a report of the questions asked to Clint Eastwood and the two Japanese actors at the press conference.

A report of the press conference:

The majority of questions were directed at Clint Eastwood.

About Letters from Iwo Jima: The film was a great opportunity to understand and approach a cultural difference. It gave an opportunity to study an intense but little known battle of the Second World War from another point of view - it makes you remember that there are always two versions of the same history and so two sides of the same battle. Clint Eastwood wanted to produce these films realistically and did the best he could to work around commercial constraints.

Letters from Iwo Jima was well-received in the USA: Eastwood was able to meet with veterans of the battle who were curious about the concept of the project because they had never had any contact with the opposing camp during the battle. In Japan, the film was a small success based on attendance at cinemas, it sold more than 13 million tickets in the first 10 days after its release.

In the USA: The journalists inquired about the reaction from the American veterans and recalled a scene in the film where the soldiers took some Japanese deserters prisoner shot them without remorse. Eastwood responded that no camp is immune from the atrocities committed during a battle. The veterans listening, however, denied taking the Japanese prisoners. Whatever one may think of the truth, it shows what war is without prejudice as to camps, neither side can claim to be truly good or bad.

Continuing on this theme, Eastwood said that he had previously had opportunities to make films which were not in the English language and despite the language barriers, when a scene is well acted emotions can traverse languages and break the barriers down. For more technological issues, he explained, interpreters were there. When it came to the choice of title, the preferred Japanese version was used.

In Japan: Eastwood said that while in the middle of preparations for Flags of our Fathers, he became intrigued by the "other camp" and began to research it via journals containing the letters that General Kuribayashi wrote from the front line. Much of what is written on the battle is from the America side, so these letters of General Kuribayashi offered a rare look from the Japanese point of view. Clint Eastwood discovered more by meeting members of an organization on Iwo Jima and studying the island from an archaeological point of view.

He met the Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, to ask for authorization to film Letters from Iwo Jima and to explain the project. Despite receiving an initial reaction of surprise, Clint Eastwood was given a favorable response to his proposed film. The Governor allowed him to make the film in Japan.

Ihara Tsuyoshi said that the Japanese were concerned whether Eastwood, an American, would be able to fully understand the Japanese point of view in the past. They were rather surprised by the result and it was asked of Ihara whether Clint Eastwood could speak any Japanese. He replied that Eastwood could not. Eastwood added that he only knew a couple of words of Japanese: “right” and “left”.

A film of a human war: Eastwood stated firmly that it is really the human side of an issue that interests him in his work. He explained that he wanted to show, through Kuriyabashi's worry for his family and his son in particular, that despite the politically charged atmosphere of war, a father is still a father no matter his nationality, language or affiliation.

A question was asked as to whether Clint Eastwood liked anti-heroes and the dichotomy between good and bad. Eastwood replied that he did. He did not wish to discuss the effects or the causes of war but he wanted to show in each camp the young people who were in the battle without giving any pretext of patriotism. He insisted on showing each side of the battle - the solders who had the same kind of parents, ideals and preoccupations - without a distinction between who was good or bad. The young combatants were willing and responded positively when asked to serve the motherland but they did not truly understand the meaning of war.

A number of people who appear in the film really existed, such as General Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi. The young boy Saigo was a character created from the experiences of those at the battle, and through him we experience the war.

Ihara Tsuyoshi and Ninomiya Kazunari were then asked the same set of questions.

Ihara Tsuyoshi: Tsuyoshi said that he was at ease with the press conference, being used to this type of thing after his experience at the festival in Berlin. He would like, however, to go to the Oscars, adding that he had never had such a chance before, but it all depended upon Clint (who responded that even he himself could not answer that question at present).

The interpreter of “Baron Nishi” told of how Ihara found it disturbing that Eastwood gave them total freedom during filming. In invoking a metaphor of the carrot and the stick he lost a lot of the audience though who did not understand the metaphor – perhaps this was due to the short time he had to translate Ihara’s words.

Along with Watanabe Ken, whom Ihara Tsuyoshi made mention of, he did not know the history of the battle of Iwo Jima well, although he had studied the battles at Okinawa, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo at school. He supposed that the battle of Iwo Jima was a forbidden topic and that the Japanese were prevented from writing about the battle in the media, as the defeat would be difficult to handle for the government.

Ninomiya Kazunari

How do you feel today: rather cool and professional or a little nervous?

Ninomiya Kazunari: Well, I am rather well known in Japan but for some time recently I have been abroad (promoting Iwo Jima) in front of those who don’t know me and I am not used to this, which I find bizarre.

The film has received many nominations, are you going to the Oscar Ceremony?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I would like to go but currently I am not going, unless I receive an invite from Warner!

What represents Iwo Jima for an actor and a young person like you? Have you seen Flags of our Fathers, and if so, did it change your perception of Iwo Jima?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I think that Japanese youths will go to see both films. I am speaking for them and I hope I am not wrong, although I think that as to the war, we have lost a future. When watching the film I think young people will find it very sad and it reminds us that we cannot forget this war.

Clint Eastwood is known for not doing 2 takes of a scene. How did you cope with this?

Ninomiya Kazunari: Before the beginning of the film I was apprehensive (which is not usual) but Clint was very understanding and told me “relax, relax”. But near the end he finished by telling me the same except to be more nervous and tense too; we were in a battle after all!

Did you know much of the history of Iwo Jima before the film?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I knew of the name ‘Iwo Jima’ but beyond that I had little idea of what had happened. I did not have the chance to study it at school.

The conference then ended and then we got the opportunity to speak with Ninomiya Kazunari for a private interview. But before that, here is an introduction to Ninomiya Kazunari.

When he was a little over 10 years old, Ninomiya Kazunari joined the famous agency of male idols, Johnny's Entertainment. As a 'complete' artist, "Nino" (as he is called by both fans and bandmates) sings, dances, plays the guitar and the piano, composes and writes songs and acts in dramas and film.

Arashi finished their recent tour of concerts in Japan with an additional international tour this year that took place in Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, all to great success. With no less than 8 albums and 18 singles, the members of the group are constantly near the top of the charts and have been since their debut in 1999. Their latest release, Love so Sweet, has been no exception to this rule.

The success of Arashi led to the five members being able to make three successful films together; the most recent, Kiiro Namida, premiered in April in Japan and had the chance of being presented at the Cannes Film Festival. But the career of Ninomiya does not lie solely with his group members – in his solo projects he has completed a dramatic film Ao no Honou and a number of dramas, including Stand Up!! and Yasahii Jikan. He has also starred in the comedic drama Minami-kun no Koibito, as well as the sombre tv-film Sukoshi wa, ongaeshi ga dekitakana.

Currently, Ninomiya holds the principal role in the drama Haikei Chichiue-sama as Ippei Tawara. At only 23 years old, Ninomiya Kazunari has proven his versatility with his successes in a number of fields, and the experience of acting in Letters from Iwo Jima under the direction of Clint Eastwood adds much weight to an already established acting career.


To start: France, what do you think about it?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I enjoy Paris in itself, but usually I don't like to travel. It is the same in Japan; I prefer to stay at home. But as we traveled through Paris by car both yesterday and today, we visited museums and took photos. It was a lot of fun

What encouraged you to try for the role in this film? Was it the prospect of an international career or for the chance to do something different?

Ninomiya Kazunari: At the start I heard lots of different things about the film, that it would be a Japanese producer, and then it would be Clint Eastwood...I became interested after thinking about the film and took the role, but I took it without seeing all that it would involve.

You have been very busy recently: the promotion of Letters from Iwo Jima, the work with Arashi, the drama Haikei Chichiue-sama. How did you cope with all of these? Weren't they all difficult and tiring?

Ninomiya Kazunari: Difficult hmmm...not really. I did want to go to the festival in Berlin but I also wanted to come to Paris for this premiere, but it was ok. I have lots of people around me though, and it must be difficult for them so I thank them a lot.

You manage a number of different careers: actor, singer, dancer. Which do you prefer? Have you the future intention to abandon one or to continue developing them all?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I am not apprehensive about my work and want to continue it all with a passion. Acting and singing form the best balance for me. When acting I might say "this is very difficult" or when I am singing I may say "this doesn't interest me". Although at these moments I feel a little tired and consider stopping, my passion keeps me going; creating choices, working with people - this is the best life for me.

In this film you have made good progress with your career. What is the next stage?

Ninomiya Kazunari: I was very proud when I was given the role of Saigo, and to work with Clint was a great opportunity. It was an excellent chance for me to progress further, and if I have the chance now to do new things I don’t know about, I will just continue and do my best.

We only had time for a few questions for this humble, gentle and charming actor, and we left thanking everyone.

Clint Eastwood, Tsuyoshi Ihara and Kazunari Ninomiya were present that evening at the premiere on the Champs-Elysees where the film opened at the UGC Normandie. After the screening, Ninomiya had to return swiftly to Japan to continue the marathon promotions for his drama Haikei Chichiue-sama.

Thank yous:
A big thank you to S and F of Warner France for their kindness, their patience and sympathy in helping us do this interview.
Thank you also to Ninomiya Kazunari and the Japanese team, who were all pleasant, open and attentive.
Thank you to Clint Eastwood for giving a chance to an actor who deserves it.
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