Acting like true professionals
The author is a deputy popular culture team editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“This was the first time I participated in a Korean film. It was a great experience,” wrote Japanese actor Hiroyuki Ikeuchi on his Instagram on Aug. 9 after appearing in “The Battle: Roar to Victory.” He posted a picture of himself posing with Korean actors on set and wrote, “I was amazed by Korean staffs and actors. Thank you all.”
“The Battle: Roar to Victory,” released on Aug. 7, is a movie about the Independence Army in Manchuria fighting off Japanese forces in the valley of death in 1920. With the latest Korea-Japan discord, the spectacular battle scenes and emotional story in the movie attracted 2.5 million viewers as of Aug. 13. Japanese actors playing Japanese soldiers have been praised for their realistic acting. Kazuki Kitamura and Ikeuchi played a general and first lieutenant of a cold-blooded unit, while Kotaro Daigo took the role of young soldier Yukio, who is captured by the Independence Army. Director Won Shin-yeon said that he cautiously offered the roles to the Japanese actors and was surprised many were willing to audition.
It is not the first time that Japanese actors have played leading roles in Korean movies. Joe Odagiri starred in director Kang Je-gyu’s 2001 movie “My Way,” and Ryohei Otani appeared in “Admiral: Roaring Currents” in 2014, viewed by 17 million people. They played soldiers dealing with an internal struggle after interacting with Korean characters.
However, the Japanese characters in “The Battle” are cruel imperialists who massacre civilians and torture captives. A right-wing Japanese weekly magazine criticized Kitamura for appearing in the movie and selling out his country. But Kitamura stood by his belief that an actor should play any role to his best. Director Won’s wish that Japanese actors playing the roles of Japanese soldiers would add life and value to the movie came true.
While it is common now, the practice of Japanese actors playing Japanese rolls in Korean moves has only been going on for about 20 years. With the phased opening of Japanese pop culture in 1998, Japanese movies were released in Korea and Japanese actors could appear in Korean movies. Film critic Kim Jong-won said that until the 1980s, Japanese characters had little presence in Korean cinema, and if they did appear, the roles were played by Koreans, with Japanese dubbing. So unsurprisingly, these characters hardly came across as believable.
In “The Battle: Roar to Victory,” Japanese soldiers are typical and plain villains in a war narrative. The Japanese actors’ professionalism gave life to these characters, regardless of the historical baggage that comes with them. Enjoying the victory of the Independence Army in the film and feeling proud is a one-dimensional response. The reality is more complex than the movie as life goes on after the ending credits.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 15, Page 24