Veteran Action Film Star Ozawa Hitoshi: “Authenticity Is the Name of the Game”Cinema
Playing the Bad Guy
Tom Cruise is the epitome of high spirits, insisting on doing his own stunts even at the ripe old age of 60. In Japan, a kindred spirit is Ozawa Hitoshi, who, coincidentally, was born just two weeks before Cruise.
Around the time Cruise was hitting the big time in The Outsiders and Risky Business, Ozawa got his start with a bit part in the hugely popular television detective series Taiyō ni hoero. He went on to make a name for himself playing delinquents in works like the popular TV drama Sukūru uōzu (School Wars) and the Bībappu haisukūru (Be-Bop High School) film series based on the manga of the same name. Over his 40-year-long career as a star of film and television, Ozawa has almost invariably played a tough guy.
“I started out playing juvenile delinquents and moved up to roles as yakuza and other gangster types,” he laughs. “There’s just no reforming me.” Ozawa insists that he is a quiet type in real life, but contends that he knew early in his career that he was better suited cast as a ruffian. “It was a lot more fun than playing a docile kid in some domestic drama. That would’ve stressed me out.”
Without much call for outlaw roles in television or ordinary films, Ozawa has primarily starred in straight-to-video releases in the vein of Nihon tōitsu, a Japanese gangster series boasting over 50 episodes. Although he has lost count of how many works he has appeared in, he estimates the number to be upwards of 500.
Out of the multitude of works Ozawa has appeared in, the 1995 gun action film Score holds special significance for him. Directed by Muroga Atsushi and produced by and starring Ozawa, it was shot on a super tight budget. Although it was Muroga’s first film for theatrical release, Score garnered critical acclaim. More than a quarter of a century later, Ozawa hopes to replicate the success he enjoyed with his latest film, Bad City.
“I wanted to know if I could pull something like Score off again,” he says, lamenting how the growing constraints of the film industry have taken the excitement out of moviemaking. “Nowadays it’s compliance-this, security-that,” he grumbles. “There’s a long list of no-nos. It really cramps my style. I mean, if you’re doing a yazuka film, it’s not like you can ask the gang boss to do up his seat belt.”
Ozawa conceived Bad City as a way to thumb his nose at the growing restrictions in the film industry. Set in a city plagued by poverty and violence, the movie starts with the brutal murder of a yakuza boss, his family, and underlings at the hands of a Korean organized crime gang. Prosecutors suspect that the hit was masterminded by Gojō Wataru, chairman of the Gojō industrial conglomerate. Gojō, a big fish who controls the underworld, was charged in another incident but declared innocent, and is now running for mayor.
A team of crack violent crime investigators is secretly formed to get to the bottom of the affair. The group’s head Torada , played by Ozawa, is in lock up as a suspect in another incident but is granted provisional release to lead the team. The movie’s plot revolves around Torada’s attempts to expose Gojō and send him to prison.
The climactic fight scene in the movie, a no-holds brawls involving over 100 actors, was done without the now-prevalent use of computer graphics and was shot without the use of stuntmen.
Ozawa points out the difficulty of shooting such a scene today: “Ordinarily, the actors’ agents would step in and say ‘You can’t do that. What if my client gets hurt? Use body doubles.’ But it’s those long uncut scenes where the guys get beaten to a pulp that bring audiences to the edge of their seats. If you use a stuntman, you have to do short takes and splice everything together later.”
Bad City was directed by Sonomura Kensuke. The 42-year-old is in demand as an action film director, a newly emerged specialty that Ozawa says reflects how the genre has changed. “The approach is completely different from when I started out,” he explains. “In the old days, a choreographer would set up the fight scenes, and the director or the cameraman handled the camera blocking. These days, an action film director handles everything.” Ozawa says that he enjoyed learning a new approach to his art, jesting that “all I needed to do was commit everything to memory during rehearsals and then go out and slash everybody up.”
Committed to Authenticity
Rising star Sakanoue Akane played the role of a newly minted detective in Bad City, bringing a breath of fresh air to the blood-and-sweat, all-male world of action films. Ozawa says she performed virtually all of her scenes without a body double, despite the physical wear and tear involved. “She got kicked, thrown around, and bloodied up, but really grew into her role. She embodied perfectly a rookie detective learning the ropes.”
Ozawa has nothing but praise for his crew, exclaiming that “everybody involved on the film worked their hearts out to realize my vision.” He praises his fellow actors in particular. “The cast fed off one another’s energy.”
Ozawa insists that he is not content merely to punch and kick, but strives for authenticity. He tells how he has developed a full repertoire of fight techniques on par with mixed martial arts fighters. For Bad City, though, he concentrated on developing his basic hitting technique, spending an entire year practicing on a sandbag to perfect his movements.
A stickler for reality, he stresses the importance of going all out to prepare for a role, saying that “it’s important to practice.” He jokes that he has gone decades without punching anyone for real out of respect for the law, but that viewers might think otherwise when watching him on screen. “In the film, if you look at me from behind, my punches look genuine.”
Action Role Model
Ozawa says he has enjoyed going to the movies since he was a little boy and was inspired to become an actor by the works of Charlie Chaplin. He was particularly impressed by Chaplin’s insistence in doing his own stunts, no matter how risky. “Chaplin used physical movement to make people laugh,” Ozawa says. “I want to make people feel emotion in the same way.”
Parts of Bad City were shot in the Philippines, and Ozawa recounts a list of harrowing exploits, including spending several nights in Manila’s infamous Smoky Mountain garbage dump. “I like places that have a menacing feeling,” he says.
Preferring to do things himself, for Bad City he wrote the script, got financial backers, and took the lead role. With a laugh he posits, “If it’d been somebody else, do you think they would’ve hired someone as old as me?”
Having come full circle as an actor, Ozawa is looking to make a fresh start in life. “I’m studying to be an archaeologist,” he declares. “Seriously. I’ve been an actor for 40 years. When I travel abroad, I want to be able to write something diferent as my occupation.” He also cites practical reasons for wanting to switch careers. “When customs officers asks me what kind of movies I’ve been in and I say gangster films, you can almost bet that I’ll get pulled aside for a full pat-down,” he laughs. “I’ve had enough of that.”
(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting and text by Matsumoto Takuya of Nippon.com. Photographs by Hanai Tomoko.)