I like Hiroshi Abe. The last time I saw him (aside from in recurrent TV advertising here in Japan) was in the 2008 reshooting of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 epic Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress) – the movie that George Lucas has admitted made such a huge impression on the shooting script for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As a samurai, General Makabe (in another role played by the late, great Toshiro Mifune) turns out to be perhaps the most fearless and honourable man alive – as well as one of the more charismatic and inspiring.
He’s got that rousing leader quality, the sort Russell Crowe delivered in Gladiator, Edward James Olmos brandishes on Battlestar Galactica, and King Hal throws about in the pages of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It’s also the kind you just didn’t get at all from Orlando Bloom in Kingdom Of Heaven nor Yuji Oda in the 2007 remake of another Kurosawa classic, Tsubaki Sanjuro. In Star Wars, General Makabe ended up necessarily spliced into the two characters handled by Harrison Ford (as Han Solo) and Alec Guiness (Obi-Wan Kenobi). And while the original Kurosawa title literally translates as “The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress”, any mention of villainy and/or camouflaged bunkers were eschewed in the title of the lacklustre 2008 incarnation with Hiroshi Abe, which opted instead for The Last Princess. Possibly they had Leia more in mind. “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece,” Kurosawa, who also co-wrote the story for The Hidden Fortress, once said. “With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film.”
In the driving seat this just-passable second time round (or the third, if you want to include Star Wars) was Shinji Higuchi, a man respected for his skills with SFX and story boarding rather than any panache as a director. Higuchi previously helmed Lorelei (2005) and Japan Sinks the following year; his choice for the role originally played by Mifune and the one that inspired Han Solo? Former model and regular TV actor Abe – himself a capable individual who unfortunately, in this case, lacked the raw charisma of either Mifune or Ford in their prime. But as I mentioned I do dig the man’s work, in everything from his TV activities to Godzilla 2000 (ゴジラ2000 ミレニアム Gojira ni-sen mireniamu, actually made in 1999). And his best role to date has been his cynical physics professor, Jiro Ueda, out to debunk things supernatural in the recurring TV series and cinema incarnations of the surreal Trick. It’s witty, pokes fun at a lot of other more dramatic TV programs and movies, has some hilarious recurring and cameo characters, and co-stars the sublime Yukie Nakama… as the hokey failed magician Naoko Yamada. So the good news is that there’s a new Trick movie upcoming in May (the release date is 8th May 2010), starring Abe, Nakama and an array of other suitably oddball characters. It’s called Gekijoban Trick: Reinouryokusha Battle Royale and is directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who did the recent 20th Century Boys movies. Here’s the trailer:
——————————– Andrez Bergen is senior editor of Impact magazine in the UK. He’s a long-term writer on Japanese pop culture, music, anime, movies and weird stuff who has covered the space since 2001. Andrez also runs Tokyo-based IF? Records, makes music as Little Nobody, writes a personal blog called JapaneseCultureGoNow!, and can be found on Twitter @andreziffy