Deserter as hero
The film directorial debut of writer Roger Pulvers explores the heroism of men in war who chose not to fight
In a prolific career that has taken him from the US to Russia to Poland to Japan and beyond, American-bred Australian Roger Pulvers has been known primarily as an award-winning author, translator, journalist, playwright, theater director and educator.
Despite having famously served as Nagisa Oshima’s assistant on Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), and as co-writer of Takashi Koizumi’s Best Wishes for Tomorrow (2008), he has notched most of his achievements in realms other than film. Until now.
Prior to the world premiere of his directorial debut, Star Sand, on April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival, Pulvers and his two stars gave a sneak preview of their film at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, followed by a Q&A session.
About the film
An Okinawa-set mystery tale with a powerful message about compassion and quiet acts of heroism during wartime, Star Sand jumps nimbly between three distinctly different eras — April 1945, 1958 and 2016.
It opens during the horrific Battle of Okinawa on a tiny speck of land remote from the main theater of action. Sixteen-year-old Hiromi (Lisa Oda) has recently arrived on the island, while her father goes to work in a Nagasaki factory and her Japanese-American mother stays in Los Angeles.
Out hunting for star sand one day (tiny, star-shaped marine protozoa), she comes upon two men in a cave. One is Takayasu, a Japanese deserter (Shinnosuke Mitsushima); the other is an ailing American deserter named Bob (Brandon McClelland).
Hiromi helps nurse Bob back to health, and brings food to the two men, who pledge never to commit an act of violence again. All is well until Takayasu’s brother, a fanatical soldier (Takahiro Miura), discovers the trio and vows to kill them.
Eventually, three of the four people in the cave will perish; we do not learn their identities until a modern-day university student in Tokyo reads a diary discovered in the cave in 1958, and goes on a quest to uncover its startling secret.
Based on Pulvers’ novel of the same name, published in both Japanese and English, Star Sand features A-list actors, on-location shooting in Okinawa and a theme song written by Oscar winner Ryuichi Sakamoto.
By bravely recasting war’s so-called cowards as the real heroes — the “true messengers of peace,” as he puts it, Pulvers’ first feature film is a poignant reminder that, even in periods of hatred and brutality, there is also the chance for hope.
Roger Pulvers: “I would have liked to make a movie a long time ago. I had a plan in 1990, but the asset bubble burst and I couldn’t. [Later, I] began thinking about making a movie about a deserter, making a hero out of a deserter.
“I think that in times of intense warfare, it is heroic not to fight. [With the 2003 invasion of Iraq] I remembered Vietnam, and I was very angry. So I wrote Star Sand.”
Lisa Oda: “I was delighted to be offered the part of Hiromi, and couldn’t believe my good luck. Actually, I was so nervous because I have not had much acting experience.
“Also, I really didn’t know about the wartime history of Japan. The biggest problem was how to be Hiromi with the right emotional responses. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to everyone’s guidance, I was able to [play the role]. I’m grateful for the chance to be part of Star Sand.”
Shinnosuke Mitsushima: “When I met Roger, he showed me a photo of an island, and I knew right away that it was Iejima, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood.
“Being from Okinawa, you hear a lot more war stories and wartime experiences, and we see people who still have bullets in their bodies and older people who have lost limbs.
“The war is part of our being. So I worried about taking the role, since it would mean that I would have to face my identity as an Okinawan and shoulder the sentiments of my ancestors.
“Also, my grandfather is an American, so I would not have been born if it weren’t for World War II. But I was taken with Roger’s passion. Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Pulvers: “I knew from the very beginning that if I didn’t get Lisa to play Hiromi, no one else could. I think there are many among you tonight who will agree that she’s quite miraculous.
“As for [Mitsushima], I thought there wouldn’t be a chance to get him in my movie. But when he saw that photo of Iejima and recognized it immediately, I put my dibs on him. It’s probably the first time a director’s gotten an actor just by showing one photograph.”
Mitsushima: “The character I play doesn’t have a lot of lines, [but] he’s the symbol of how Roger sees the Japanese — the conflicts, the strengths, the love for their families.
“I could prepare for that on my own physically, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence of the character without having many, many discussions with the director. He knows twice as much as [the younger actors] do about Japan and Japanese history.”
Roger Pulvers first came to Japan in 1967, and has published more than 50 books in English and Japanese. Among other awards, Roger has received the Miyazawa Kenji Prize in 2008, the Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature in 2013 and the Inoue Yasushi Prize in 2015. In 2009, he also received a Bunkacho Award for contributing to the propagation of Japanese culture overseas.
Lisa Oda has had an active modeling career since 2012. In 2016, she made her memorable screen debut as the young woman who holds the key to a grisly crime in The Top Secret: Murder in Mind, directed by Keishi Ohtomo. She currently appears in the NHK TV drama Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.
Shinnosuke Mitsushima won the Hochi Film Newcomers’ Award for his role in Koji Wakamatsu’s 11:25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate, about Yukio Mishima, in 2012. He is also starring this year in Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Land of Ninjas and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder.
Where it’s on
World premiere: April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival
Theatrical run: From June 21 in Okinawa; August 4 in Tokyo
Look for it at international festivals in Australia and elsewhere.
(In the first part of a series on Japan cinema, Karen Severns previews film about to go on release in the country combined with an exclusive Q&A session with directors and actors.)