What was it like to work with Bernardo Bertolucci on a film as epic and ambitious as The Last Emperor?
I first met Bernardo at Cannes when I was there for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Oshima introduced me to him at a party, and he was talking on and on about this movie he was producing, which was The Last Emperor. Then, after some years, I got a phone call. Then a script was sent to me, and I was told to go to China immediately … but as an actor. When I read the script I saw that my character, Amakasu, commits hara-kiri. That didn’t sit well with me. It was symbolic of this traditionalist Japanese stereotype that I don’t really like. It was kind of inconceivable for someone [as modern as] him at the time to commit suicide by seppuku. I thought it wasn’t right for the film, which was trying to be a historical tale. Amakasu is a fascinating character because, although he’s a fascistic military person well-known for killing anarchists, he lives in Paris before going to Manchukuo. Also, in the film, his office is decorated with a very futurist and modernist design. I was able to talk this through and finally convince Bernardo to change the sword to a gun.
During the shooting, there were a lot of Chinese-American actors, coming from California mainly, but they were working inside the actual Forbidden City. They had these traditional Chinese hairstyles, these long queues, and this hairstyle was so strange for someone to have after the revolution in Chinese society. So the Chinese people thought they looked like ghosts from the old world and really hated watching those guys walk around in the palace. It was so funny.
When shooting was done in China, we did interior shooting at Cinecittà. I saw Marcello Mastroianni there, walking in the yard with a cigar—it was unreal. After shooting was done and a few months passed, I got a phone call from the producer about doing the music for the film.
You hadn’t planned on that originally?
No. I said, “Well, how long do I have?” And he said one week. One week for this giant, epic film! I asked for two weeks. Of course I was complaining, but one time Bertolucci had said, “Well, Ennio Morricone did it,” so I had to do it. I wrote forty-five music cues in one week. I found Chinese musicians around Tokyo and recorded them and then I brought everything to London. Just after arriving, I played the music for Bertolucci, the editor, and some other Italian crew members. I played a piece called “Rain” and they started holding each other and crying “Bellissimo! Bellissimo! Molto bellissimo!” This is the pleasure of working with Italian people. That is the reason I can’t stop working with people like Bertolucci.
I imagine the process changes from director to director, but do you enjoy immersing yourself in someone else’s creative universe when scoring a film?
To me, it’s always a struggle to work on film music because each filmmaker is very different and it’s almost impossible to satisfy someone completely by writing music. But I keep coming back because, as when I worked with the Italians, it can be the ultimate pleasure. It’s also good for me and for my music because it forces me to learn new things, like North African music for The Sheltering Sky, Chinese music for The Last Emperor, or Celtic music for Wuthering Heights. Each time is like a little journey into an unknown culture.
"asian men were seen as threats" but isn't black men also seen as threats? Why one is fetishezed while the another is not?
I’m not sure what you mean by which one is fetishized and which one is not but I think that black men are fetishized in many ways whereas Asian men are desexualized in many ways. I’m not going to speak over black men so I can’t answer anything regarding their issues. Black men, please feel free to add any input.
TL;DR: So as you can see, it’s not that Chinese men were physically threatening to white men but rather they were threatening on a much deeper and wider scale. Chinese men were a threat to white men’s economic stability, wealth, power, status, and even marriage with white women. And we all know there’s nothing more fragile than the white male ego, especially when he thinks he’s entitled to everything. So what better way to destroy the images of Chinese men (and eventually all Asian men) by making us completely devoid of sexuality?
Note: This is probably one of the most cishet posts I’ve ever written and I definitely apologize for my privilege and especially to followers and readers who aren’t lmao.