THE LAST SAMURAI
An exclusive interview with actor Mr. Hiroshi Fujioka
Samurai is the word for a Japanese warrior class and also for a member of this class. Samurais first rose during the Japanese Middle Ages, the Heian period, in the 10th century. At that time the Japanese shogunate, a system of military rule controlled by the shogun, was formed. Under this system, the emperor ranked the highest, followed by the daimyo, shogun, samurai, peasants, craftsman and merchants. In these times, the carrying of swords or any other weapons was the privilege of samurais and those of higher rank. If people from the lower castes were found carrying arms illicitly, they were immediately beheaded.
The samurais gained their knowledge of the martial arts, their skill in the use of weapons, and their understanding of war tactics at schools and dojos. They were paid in accordance with their knowledge and their skill in handling weapons. You might think that samurais lived lives of relative ease. However, their lives as true soldiers were based on a rather shaky foundation. Shoguns often entered into disputes with the emperor and the daimyos to gain political power, and fought with other shoguns to gain power and territory. A shogun who lost a battle against another shogun also lost his territory. Samurais formed military units under the shogun to protect their master, but they also fought for themselves. Even if the samurais managed to survive a battle they had lost, they lost their master shogun and became ronins. These ronins often ended up as robbers, attacking the caravans of rich merchants travelling from town to town in order to survive.
But the stories of the glorious samurais became an enduring legend, and they became heroic figures in many Japanese films. Samurais were brave, generous, loyal and unselfish. The two famous actors Toshiro Mifune and Kinnosuke Yorozuya starred as samurais in many films, but they have since passed away. Now, Hiroshi Fujioka is the biggest samurai actor in Japan, and is also known as the Last Samurai.
Fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to meet this legendary actor in person. We were on stage together for a presentation in Tokyo. His show was the main attraction of the evening.
On the darkened stage, the Last Samurai sat silently. Only one stage light was lit, shining down on him as he looked down, apparently lost in thought. Then he placed his hands on his sheathed sword. The music gradually swelled, and the narrator’s monologue describing the strong feelings in the hero’s soul echoed throughout the theatre. The members of the audience were motionless with suspense. Then, suddenly, the samurai grabbed his sword and, after a moment of perfect silence, drew it from its sheath. What came next happened in a flash. As the samurai roared, the bundle of bamboo in front of him was cut into two. Another bundle was sliced in two with the swift backward movement, and yet another by his backhand stroke. A complex sequence of movements followed, like the dance of a mystical butterfly, slicing the sword though the bamboo bundles that had been placed behind him, cutting them up into little pieces. He sheathed his sword, but the remnants of his actions were still there. The bamboo pieces were still falling, dust was rising and the theatre rang with the echo of his shout. Then a sudden silence descended. The samurai placed his hands over his chest, bowing, enchanting the audience, who had been thrilled by his performance. They gave a thunderous round of applause. But the samurai was gone, leaving only the vibrating air as a memento of his presence.
Since then, I have formed a good friendship with this man of iron. Because we are both always on the go, we call each other from different places in the world. But I know his films and I know that he is more than just a good actor – he is also a very kind, friendly and outstanding person. At one time, I planned to invite him to Hungary, but planning something and carrying out the plan are unfortunately not the same thing: my plan came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. So, to compensate for my failure to introduce him to Hungary, I decided to hold this interview.
Master, your first demonstration recalled the image of a TV advertisement. A diaphanous silk scarf slowly falls onto the edge of a samurai sword, and its featherweight is enough to cause it to be sliced in two by the blade, which is as sharp as a razor. Tell me, are the legends about the samurai sword true?
I certainly believe that the Japanese samurai sword is the sharpest weapon in the world, but I don’t think it is possible to cut through a falling silk scarf. I think that scene used a particular film technique to exaggerate the sharpness of samurai swords. Even the sharpest sword that can be made by the world’s most elite craftsman requires a “pulling” movement to cut through something. You actually need to move the edge of the sword across the surface of the object you want to sever. I’m sorry if I disappointed you.
Does your sword have a story?
I have several swords, and all of them certainly have some sort of story to them. But I feel that one sword in particular carries the heaviest weight of history. It is a sword that has been passed down from one of my great ancestors. It is more than a hundred years old, and our family crest is engraved on its grip. My ancestors killed the enemy with this in various wars. From generation to generation, each owner of this sword carried it to protect not only himself, but his bloodline as well. Every time I hold this sword, I feel great weight in it.
How sharp is your sword? Have you ever cut anybody with it?
Sorry to disappoint you again, but I have never harmed a soul with my sword. However, I have cut thousands of pieces of bamboo and wood. I have even chopped a block of iron, but for that I used a special type of sword.
Tell us about your early life.
I was born on the island of Shikoku, in Ehime Prefecture, on February 19, 1946. My father, Kiichi, taught judo in the police service. My mother, who taught the tea ceremony and the art of ikebana, was a versatile woman. She also taught shamisen and koto, the traditional Japanese plucking instruments, she did exquisite embroidery, and she was an excellent cook. She had a profound influence on many young ladies in Japan. I believe she was a worthy counterpart to the male samurais.
Who taught you the science of the martial arts?
My father, as a master of the martial arts, knew all kinds of techniques to kill people. He taught students how to use swords in kendo, how to throw knives, and even techniques that were forbidden to be taught.
He introduced them to you though…
If the Japanese traditions had been followed, my older brother, who was also the first-born son, would have been the one to follow in my father’s footsteps. I still do not know why my father decided to teach me instead of my brother. His education, or rather his “training”, was hard and strict. The Japanese martial arts are usually taught in dojos, which have tatami or board floors, because Japanese martial arts are practised barefoot and we are prone to getting wounded. However, my father trained me in churches that had stone flooring and churchyards with pebbles or sandy ground. I was wounded many times just by falling on the ground. The repetitive training by my father taught me how to survive, which is a great prize.
Was your mother opposed to your father’s rigorously strict training regimen?
My father was certainly a strict man, but there was always love in his strictness. My mother, who had a nurturing type of love, had a deep understanding of my father, so she never went against him. But she herself was once extremely strict with me. To explain fully, I first need to tell you a bit about my childhood.
When I was little, I was always the target of bullying. Older kids always used to tease me and sometimes they resorted to violence, although it was not too severe. I tried to put up with it silently hiding my sadness and anger. But on one occasion they hurt my pride too deeply, so I used my martial arts technique and fought against them. One of the boys was seriously injured. When my mother found out about this fight, she was infuriated. She said “I cannot face my ancestors. What you did has brought great shame to me. If you do it once again, I will kill you, and kill myself too”. I tried to explain why I had needed to resort to violence, but when I tried to open my mouth, she said, “No is no. You’re not going to make any excuses,” and her voice filled with rage. I was shocked, but I realized how serious the situation was. I apologized from my heart, and my mother made me go to my ancestor’s grave to apologize and swear that I would never use martial arts in hate. Since then, I became aware of how terrifying it is to use martial arts in the wrong way, and I searched for ways of winning without resorting to violence.
What kind of meaning do martial arts have for Japanese people?
These days, martial arts are sometimes seen as sports. But the true meaning of the martial arts, which are referred to as “budo” in Japanese, is that they show the “way” to self-control. If the “way” of “budo” is used incorrectly, you can hurt or even kill someone. In Japan, there is a phrase “He who controls himself does not have any uncertainty within his heart. The “way” of the samurai is the way to care for the defeated and never to forget how to forgive others”. I hope that the Japanese keep these words in their hearts.
In your movies, you can be seen driving many different vehicles. It is said you can drive on land, on water and in the air. Is that true?
I have a driving licence for large motorbikes, special vehicles, and even a pilot’s licence. And I also hold a scuba diving licence.
Let’s get back to acting. How did Hiroshi Fujioka became a well-known star?
In 1970, I was lucky enough to land a part in the series Kamen Rider. It was very popular with young people because of the acrobatic stunts. We fought a lot and jumped from great heights. And it wasn’t only through special effects that we were Superman – there was an element of reality too, as we did these dangerous stunts ourselves, without using stuntmen. Perhaps that’s why we became so popular. I became a household name quite quickly.
How long was “actor’s luck” on your side?
Until the shooting of the tenth episode of the series. During the shooting of that episode, I was involved in a major motorbike accident, and the bones in my left leg were shattered. Naturally, I was very upset. I thought my career as an actor was over. Others thought the same. But I managed to recover from the accident and returned to the screen after six months. I still have metal rivets in my left leg.
After this you started to appear in historical movies as well. What do you think is the most important part of your success?
Luckily for me, I always have played heroes, the “good guys”. Of course, I have to fight against criticism. In 1984, we were shooting the Sci-Fi film “Ghost Warrior” in Hollywood. I could feel that my fellow actors thought of samurais as mere butchers, who killed anyone without reason. They spoke to me without much respect – one of them even addressed mw with “Hey, Jap”. But I didn’t care what they thought of me. I think the true nature of the samurai world is a spiritual calling.
Another reason for my success, I think, is the fact that I was given roles of prominent historical figures. I took the part of Oda Nobunaga, also known as Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the most important samurais, who enforced the new social system, as well as Yagyu Gude in the samurai serial “The wolf protecting its cub”.
You have a reputation for being very versatile. How many faces does Hiroshi Fujioka have?
In the first place, I am an actor and I also make films. Secondly, as a master of martial arts, I try to protect the disappearing Japanese tradition. Thirdly, I do volunteer work by travelling around the world with shows and on tours. I have even been to more than ten politically volatile countries, even Kosovo during its difficult period.
Some years ago, you led an expedition to the jungle. Wasn’t that extremely dangerous?
The jungle teemed with predators, poisonous snakes and insects. Sometimes we heard really frightening sounds. There wasn’t a dull moment. It was dangerous during daylight hours, but even more so at night, because we were more vulnerable inside our tents. One member of my expedition team was stung by a poisonous scorpion, another got malaria, and a third developed a very high fever and lost consciousness for two days. Being the leader, I was responsible for their safety and for the safety of the film crew as well, and I had to ensure the success of the shooting besides. I could feel that death was always near, but I had to bring them back alive. You can imagine that it was a pretty tense time.
Has your life been touched by tragedy at all?
Nothing tragic, rather something a little bit comical. I once visited a city for a casual shopping. It was not long after the trip to the jungle and, as I mentioned before, I was very uptight because of the many dangers we’d been exposed to. As I was walking through a department store, I felt great tension in the air. By the time I realized what was happening, several security guards were running after me. They had sensed the atmosphere I carried with me and felt threatened by it. They encircled me, thinking that I was a dangerous criminal. As soon as I was aware of the situation, I calmed myself down, releasing the tension that I held, and I smiled at one of the security guards. All the security guards immediately relaxed, and a peaceful atmosphere filled the department store once again.
When I am in Japan, I know when to be tense and when to be relaxed, so I can unconsciously control the atmosphere I project. But when I am away, I am always nervous about my surroundings, so the atmosphere around me is like that of a battlefield. From this experience of being chased by security guards, I became more aware of myself, and I realized that there are many things I still don’t know about and need to train myself for.
What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?
So far I have written seven books about samurai honor, the warnings addressed to young people and the shooting of my films. This year I published the eighth one, the Bushido nyumon, namely the school of samurai honor.
I spend a lot of time travelling to talk about and share the samurai spirit. Some time in the future, I want to create a true samurai movie. I not only want to illustrate the life of a samurai – I want to explain the reasons why there are people like that, what they live for and where they are going.
I’ve got a surprise up my sleeve, but I would not like to let it out in advance.
What are your impressions of Hungary?
Unfortunately I have not been there yet. I know that Hungary is a great center of culture and science. We owe several inventions to the Hungarians. They have wonderful buildings and a rich musical tradition, their actors are excellent and the historical movies are masterpieces. I especially like the scenes on horseback, because I also like riding in my own films. The slanted shooting of arrows while riding at full speed is an ancient tradition in Japan, too, called yabusame. Also this connects us and our difficult histories.
Are you planning a Hungarian show or film shooting?
Although I have always wanted to go there, unfortunately it is not in my plans for the near future. If I have the opportunity, I will definitely make time to get there. I would be glad if I could introduce my knowledge of swordplay there, too, and a Hungarian-Japanese movie would certainly be a big success.
Finally, let me ask you a personal question. In your breast pocket, I always see these specially-shaped ballpoint pens. Are these family souvenirs?
They look like innocent pens, don’t they? However, they are more than that. They are lethal weapons. I travel around the world a lot and I go to even the most dangerous places without a bodyguard. If someone were to try to take my life, I would dispatch him or her with one of these. This is a part of my father’s heritage, and it is a tactical weapon whose secrets I cannot share.