Keishi Otomo on Capturing the Samurai Spirit in “The Legend & Butterfly”

Keishi Otomo is no stranger to making Jidaigeki, Japanese period dramas. He has directed many in his prolific career, though he is probably best known for the “Rurouni Kenshinlive-action films. The franchise adapts Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic manga of the same name across five films: “Rurouni Kenshin”, “Kyoto Inferno”, “The Legend Ends”, “The Final” and “The Beginning.” With Takeru Satoh starring as the former assassin who has vowed never to kill again.

Now the director returns to the genre in “The Legend & Butterfly, where he tackles one of the country’s most iconic leaders: Oda Nobunaga. Starring Takuya Kimura as Nobunaga and Haruka Ayase as the daimyo’s wife Nohime, the epic historical film follows their romance from its infancy to its final act. The film had its international premiere at the 25th Udine Far East Film Festival, where View of the Arts had the pleasure to speak to the filmmaker about his powerful new drama as well as his work on the Rurouni Kenshin saga.

Oda Nobunaga’s story is legendary, but you chose to retell history through his relationship with Nohime. Why were you keen to approach the film in this way?

Keishi Otomo: I have to say that up to now the history of Nobunaga was told through the eyes of men, and so you would have, for instance, everybody that was working for Nobunaga who thought that he was a very hard and frightening boss. The same applied to his enemies; they would think that he was an extremely frightening person, so everything was written from the point of view of a man. But, in this case, we have Nohime, his wife, so there was the possibility to show him from the point of view of a woman. Because sometimes you have great people who, when they go back home, are very lazy and not very keen to do anything. So, in this case this was the possibility to create a new setting, a new setup where you would have the point of view of a woman to tell the story of a man, that’s why.

This story is beautifully told but it is especially powerful because of how fierce Nohime is as a character. How did you and Haruka Ayase work together to bring her to life?

Keishi Otomo: Nohime was the daughter of Dosan Saito. Dosan Saito was a very distinguished warlord, and she was his daughter, but let’s say that she was not his daughter, what if she was born a boy? In that case perhaps it wouldn’t have been Nobunaga, but Nohime who got to unify Japan. She was supposed to be a woman of extreme talent, perhaps she learned about fighting, all the techniques, and horse riding, and so on. So, I had to ask Ayase Haruka to prepare accordingly, preparing for what could be in the fight scene, the horse riding scenes, and everything that was needed. I needed Ayase-san to learn all the possible talents of Nohime, and so when I spoke to her the first time, I explained to her the kind of preparation that was needed. 

Let’s talk about the ending and that moment of hope you gave the characters when you divert away from historical facts. Why were you interested in doing this in the film?

Keishi Otomo: As storytellers what we must do is surprise viewers because, you know, everyone in Japan knows perfectly well how Oda Nobunaga died and so I wanted to betray, in a very good sense, everybody’s expectations. This is why I decided to give this twist to the story, to do something that was innovative with this different idea. It was a trick that was used in the last scene just to show this element of surprise, because if you just go with the flow of normal history everybody will get bored. So, you have to give them something that is different, that is surprising, and you might see this movie as a tragedy perhaps, but it’s actually a moment of love between a man and a woman. Think about it, at the very end when they are on the verge of death they see the same dream, they have the same dream. Who would know that anything like that could happen, usually one of the two dies first and the second one is left alone for the rest of their lives. In their case, what happened is that they are just on the verge of death. They see that dream and then they pass away. So, as a couple, I think we could say that they achieved a very high moment of happiness, of good retribution. So that’s a possible interpretation. That was the message that I wanted to give at first glance: It looks like a tragedy but if you look at it more closely it’s a love story. It’s a happy ending, and that is what I would like the viewers to perceive, to perceive it as a love story.

The film is set over many years, was there any part of Oda Nobunaga and Nohime’s story that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

Keishi Otomo: There are no historical records of Nohime and so, because of that, everything that we depicted about their relationship is not based on true records. I’m very satisfied with the way we depicted the two and their relationship, so it’s not like I wanted to put any other historical event into the story, because the story is well-developed as it is in terms of their relationship. Of course, there are some scenes that I decided not to put in the final edit, but that’s because I think that it’s better off that way.

I’d love to also talk about “Rurouni Kenshin,” as a fan of the manga I always wondered – why did you choose not to include Aoshi (played by Yusuke Iseya) from the very first film?

Keishi Otomo: There are five movies in Rurouni Kenshin, and, you know, when you make a movie based on a manga it’s difficult because it’s just one work at a time. So, what happens is that in the original story, you have as many characters as you want, but for a movie that’s too much. Usually with a two-hour movie you can have, let’s say, about 6 people. But in a manga, there’s no such limitation. But the thing again is that in a movie you cannot just introduce eight, 10 people at a time because their character development is going to be too shallow, too short. I would have liked to have used Aoshi as well, but unfortunately, that was not possible because from the very beginning, you have Sanosuke (Munetaka Aoki), Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Kaoru (Emi Takei), Megumi (Yu Aoi), and then the enemies Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa) and Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa). We already have 6 people together with Kenshin. I have received some criticism from fans about Aoshi, and I always tell them that I’m sorry. But, again, there are some limitations of what I could do, because if I had put Aoshi in the story I would have given so little time to him that it would be, in a different way, a betrayal to the viewers. So, I decided from the very beginning that [the film] was better off without him.

You adapted Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga beautifully over the years, what would you say was your favourite moment to recreate from the original franchise?

Keishi Otomo: What I wanted from the very start was to make the movie “The Beginning”. There are so many things that I like from the original that I would have liked to make a movie of but in “The Beginning” you have Tomoe and Kenshin, and their love story. There was something really beautiful about that relationship that made me want to talk about it, especially of the Sakabato (Kenshin’s backwards blade) and the reason why he decided not to kill people anymore. That was very interesting and, again, in the movie there is Tomoe, and their love story was something I really wanted to talk about. I decided to, in the fifth film, try a different approach to the rest of the franchise so that after you see the fifth film you can go back to the first one [because the fifth film ends with the scene that opens the first film].  In the first part, you see little pieces of the story and in the fifth part all the secrets are revealed, and it took ten years to do. The first film was released in 2011 and the fifth came out in 2021, so it took 10 years [for me] to complete the story.

Written by Roxy Simons

Questions by Roxy Simons

Interviewed by Sanja Struna for View of the Arts

Featured image © View of the Arts

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, and art, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.

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