John Wate brings authentic Japanese culture to ‘Samurai Headhunters’ documentary

Whenever John Wate steps onto a film set, puts his eye to a camera lens, and starts making a movie, he is living his dream. Directing is a pleasure he can’t compare to anything else; it allows him to be in tune with what is happening in front of him, and all his senses go into overdrive. He spends every day doing what he truly loves, and this passion translates directly into his beautiful work.

For this German native, making a good movie is all about the research. He always aims to find the perfect story and the right characters, with the singular goal of leaving an impression on his audience. With his work on the Smithsonian’s Epic Warrior Women film series and movies like Samurai Warrior Queens, he does just that, showcasing why he is an industry-leading director in his country.

“I would say as a director you are a storyteller, and the way you have lived and seen the world will organically shape how you tell your stories. I found that the world is a treasure trove that has so much to offer in terms of stories and characters. Once I find that ‘one thing’ that interests me, I can start digging and I usually find gold,” said Wate.

Wate has spent many years directing masterful films and television series, including the TV movie Samurai Headhunters in 2013, that allowed him to explore a unique part of world history. It is a documentary on the dark and brutal side of the samurai warrior clans featuring the life of peasant Masa who is forced into the ruthless world of the samurai.

For over a thousand years, the samurai have been celebrated as an aristocratic warrior class. Exceptionally skilled and loyal until death, their very name has become a byword for honor and dignity. This film reveals the unknown dark side of the samurai – a fascinating tale of greed, treachery, extreme cruelty and violent death. Based on newly discovered samurai war manuals, Samurai Headhunters reconstructs the life of a young peasant farmer who is press-ganged into a warlord’s army. Driven by his love for a village girl of noble birth, young Masa quickly rises through the ranks from simple foot soldier to venerated samurai commander. But his reward is to be one of betrayal, lies and finally forced suicide by his fellow samurai. Interwoven with this dramatic story, two British historians track down remarkable new evidence from ancient war manuals that show the true, dark world of the samurai. The drama documentary also features a living samurai master and his students, as well as CG animation, stunning re-enactments, original costumes and historic locations.

“Everyone knows the samurai as loyal, courageous fighters with a strong moral code – but not many people know that this is only part of the story. During the almost 200 years of civil war in Japan the samurai got rewarded for their deeds in battle, which often meant for the number of heads they had taken. The film explores the unknown dark side of the samurai, how they cheated, lied and murdered to gain favors and advance their careers, the forbidden love between warriors, the atrocities of samurai warfare, and the danger to rise to fame in such an environment. I found all these facts about the dark side of the samurai as grizzly as they were fascinating,” said Wate.

After great success with his previous film, Ninja Shadow Warriors, Wate teamed up once again with Urban Canyons Producer Sebastian Peiter and together with researcher Anthony Cummins, they researched and built the concept for the film. Living in Japan at the time, Wate not only had extensive experience, but he also had direct links to the famous Japanese film studios in Kyoto, and through all his previous other documentaries had direct access to Japanese cultural icons, such as sword masters, swordsmiths or traditional armourers. He was the ideal director for the job.

“You need to have a feeling for Japanese manners and that what they say is not always what they mean. I think a lot of the fascination for the samurai comes from the exotic mixture of stoic readiness, their manners and proper conduct in life and in battle. But if you want to show that, you have to know HOW they did certain things and why. You can’t just use a Western blue-print to invent what the character would do. At that time I lived in Japan, I spoke the language and understood their manners and hints, like that a certain gesture can reveal the opposite of what has been said. The timing, the tempo or movement of people speaking at formal gatherings. These are all subtle things that can build an authentic exotic flavor that is fun to watch,” he said.

Samurai Headhunters has been extremely popular since its release. It has aired in over thirty countries, not only on television channels but also various exhibitions about the samurai culture. It is currently showing in the prestigious Kunsthalle Munich, a German national art museum.

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