Risa Okamoto, Producer/Director
Although I’m Japanese, samurai have never been much more than characters in movies to me: historical figures governed by a set of rules so foreign, it’s hard to believe we spoke the same language. I knew we were shooting a segment on the ancient samurai art of mounted archery, but in spite of all the research, I had no idea what to expect.
We arrived at the stables of Shimogamo Shrine prepared to be on our best behavior. We were warned beforehand that one wrong move, and they would withdraw their permission for us to film. Tensions were already running high, as the riders were preparing for a big event – a mounted archery competition, where they would ride at over 60 km/h, while shooting arrows at three targets spread out over 400 meters.
We were told to wait for the ‘young teacher,’ to give our official greetings and get his blessings to film. Kiyomoto Ogasawara is essentially the heir to the mounted archery throne – next in line to inherit the family tradition that belongs only to the Ogasawara clan. The Ogasawaras were known for teaching mounted archery to Japan’s finest shoguns, refining the warrior art into a highly specialized skill. The Ogasawara name still carries weight to this day. People spoke of the young heir in hushed tones of awe… he seemed to be a cross between a rock star and a religious figure.
There was a change in the air the minute he entered the fray. While the other riders fussed and fumbled, he seemed to float. He moved slowly, surveying the scene with absolute composure. He was handsome, quietly confident, and at 31, he already had the weighty presence of a patriarch. People twice his age called him “teacher” without hesitation. You could almost feel the 800 years of family history he carried on his shoulders.
He was the first rider of the competition. When he took off from the starting line, I was awestruck. I’d heard about how impressive he was, but I wasn’t prepared for this: the sheer speed at which his horse galloped, contrasting with the absolute stillness of his body, seemingly suspended just above the saddle. And as his horse galloped full tilt, he swiftly and smoothly drew his bow, effortlessly hitting one target after another. With barely three seconds between firings, he hardly even looked at the targets. He made something that takes a lifetime to master look like a walk in the park.
Once the applause died down, the riders that followed gave the crowd a reality check. Few arrows actually hit the targets – if I recall, only one other rider managed to hit all three. Most fumbled their way through, reminding the spectators that the feat that Ogasawara made look so easy was actually close to impossible.
Ok, so samurai warriors don’t exist in the 21st century. But this shoot brought the world of ancient samurai a little closer to home… and the glimpse I got was nothing short of breathtaking.
Dominic Young, Assistant Producer
With reserved mannerisms and indirect speaking, Japan is renown for its complex array of etiquette and formalities. Nowhere is this more so than in Kyoto, the seat of the ancient capital, where Japanese culture was refined over the course of a thousand years. As we sought to capture the essence of this city and its inhabitants, this very "Kyoto-ness" threw up challenges to our filming efforts.
Even among the Japanese, Kyoto-ites have the reputation for putting on affectations. A story I once heard tells of how Kyoto hosts may press a visitor to stay for a meal, but later, after the guest has eaten and departed, they will disparage the individual’s upbringing for failing to catch that the invitation wasn’t real—it was, in fact, a way for the hosts to excuse themselves. Gauging the truth between what’s said and what’s not may be familiar territory to locals, but it’s a minefield for outsiders.
We quickly found out what it means to film in Kyoto, at a complex of vermillion structures on the banks of the crystal Kamo River. The Shimogamo Shrine, a World Heritage site, is the setting for an age-old archery ritual where targets are shot at from atop speeding horses, as an offering to the animistic gods of Shintoism. We were keen to capture this event as an example of Kyoto’s living tradition, and to tell the story of the modern folk who uphold this centuries-old practice.
It had taken several face-to-face meetings with members of the Ogasawara archery school to be given permission to film them. We finally got a “yes,” and when the day came, hoped to capture a great scene full of the high emotions and camaraderie that might transpire behind the scenes of such an event. But this being Kyoto, reality was rather different to what we expected.
In true Japanese fashion, the archers did not veer an inch from displaying anything but proper, hushed solemnity. Even when a rider toppled off his horse, the ensuing drama was muted. While television thrives on hyperbole, proper conduct to the Japanese is all about stoicism, understatement, and deference to others—in short, the exact opposite of the conventional recipe for program making. Not only were there no overt displays of emotion, there was hardly any conversation between participants at all.
In the end, we had to do as the Kyoto-ites do—to focus on little details and read between the lines—in order to capture a sense of what was going on. The resulting program may not be as ostentatious as shows filmed in other parts of the world, but it will be a reflection of Kyoto’s proud spirit.