Tetsuo Nagata: From War to Truth

by Ariane Damain Vergallo on behalf of Ernst Leitz Wetzlar

by Ernst Leitz Wetzlar AFC newsletter n°276

[ English ] [ français ]

On August 6 and August 9, 1945, two atomic bombs codenamed "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" wiped out the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in southern Japan, instantly causing over a hundred thousand casualties. More than anything, that traumatic dual event determined Tetsuo Nagata’s destiny.
Tetsuo Nagata, mai 2017 - Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo
Tetsuo Nagata, mai 2017
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo

For its inhabitants, Japan was a sacred land to be defended at all costs. So when Japan entered World War II, the country, obsessed and terrified by the idea Americans might land on its shores, started training its young soldiers with one goal in mind: to turn them into kamikaze (suicide bombers) ready to hit when the time came. Tetsuo Nagata still remembers the awe-inspiring stories his father used to tell. After the war, the man had chosen to become a doctor and practice in a small hospital in Nagano, in the middle of a peaceful countryside.
To this day, Tetsuo Nagata says he owes his sense of wonderment to that life, so free, in the midst of nature. He remembers, as a child, scanning the unblocked horizon, and the pleasure he felt observing the subtle light changes on the snow-capped mountains.

Years later, filmmaker François Dupeyron approached Tetsuo Nagata and offered to entrust him with principal photography on La Chambre des officiers (The Officer’s Ward, 2001). The film deals with the atrocities of World War 1 as perceived through the traumatic ordeal of an officer whose face was half torn by a piece of shrapnel.
The moment the offer was made, Nagata had an almost carnal understanding of what was truly at stake here. For he instantly remembered his younger days in impoverished post-war Japan when he often saw, wandering by the temples, the monstrously disfigured war veterans that signaled their presence with the white caps they wore.
The Officer’s Ward was only Nagata’s third feature film, yet he was awarded the César (French Oscar) for Best Cinematography - quite a feat that early in one’s career. A feat he reiterated six years later when he got another César for his work on Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf biopic, La Môme (La Vie en Rose, 2007)

The speed of his ascent to the top, his tenacity and determination to make his way to that very top, a kind of uniqueness in the films he chose to work on, along with his undeniable success in the field of advertising and, simply put, the beauty of his work, contributed to his aura in cinema circles. Yet, the journey was long and arduous, punctuated by constant two-way trips between Japan and France - an indecision that could have been fatal to Tetsuo Nagata, since he always had to start all over again at the risk of losing everything.
In the 1970s, be it in Tokyo, Paris, London or New York, the young stood, laughed and entertained themselves in a freedom, madness and carelessness that owed a lot to the economic comfort of then-"developed" countries. The turning point came when, at the Alliance Française in Tokyo, Tetsuo Nagata discovered the films of the New Wave: Pierrot le fou, The 400 Blows, Breathless. The impact was such that only then did he find the courage to rebel against his father who wanted him to become a doctor.

"The New Wave touched me deeply, it was like...moral support. When one is young, one sort of dreads the prospect of having to build one’s life. I wanted to see the country that gave birth to the New Wave - France, on the other side of the horizon. I was swept away into it."

He first stayed in France and went to the University of Caen to learn French. He returned to Japan but came back to France for two years to study film at the bustling University of Vincennes-Paris VIII. After which, once again, he returned to Japan and stayed there for nine years, working on some thirty independent feature films as an assistant cameraman, notably with famous director Hiroshi Segawa (Woman in the Dunes). Work was hard, yet one year, he managed to escape for a two-week vacation in France.
By sheer luck, he had the opportunity to spend a day on the set of Roman Polanski’s Tess at the Bry-sur-Marne studios. He was mesmerized. "And touched. It was so different from Japan. I said to myself: I must work on French films."

He then decided to return to France, despite his being almost 30, knowing absolutely no one there and speaking very little French. He knew moving to France was a major and insane gamble. He began by reading as many books about cinema as he could, then started writing to cinematographers whose work he admired. Among them:
- The great Ghislain Cloquet, whom he had observed on the Tess set... and who never read his letter since he abruptly died before it arrived;
- Pierre Lhomme, who invited him to his place;
- And finally Ricardo Aronovich, who helped him by simply trusting him, an attitude for which, to this day, he is immensely grateful.

For a good ten years, he lived in a tiny maid’s room, until the good fairies of commercials gave him his chance and allowed him, within weeks, to expand and widen his range. "All of a sudden, everything fell into place, I was successful, my father was impressed and very proud."
Two years later, he got his resident card, a quintessential document that allows one to reside and, more to the point, work in France. He went from one small independent film to the other, working ten times harder than he did in Japan — "I just had to be good". Most importantly, he carefully observed the work of the various cinematographers he happened to assist as cameraman.

From those chaotic years, he has retained a sort of anxiety. That dread of the future which, as a young man, he had managed to thwart by impulsively opting for cinema and "the birth place of the Nouvelle Vague", France.

"When I make a film, I always think it will be my last one. I choose them very carefully, I want to remain consistent. But I have the feeling that if I botch one, I’ll never make another."

Tetsuo Nagata shot Mitustoshi Tanaka’s Kainan 1890 in 2015 in Japan. A beautiful story in which two countries — Turkey and Japan — thank each other a hundred years apart.
In 1890, a Turkish ship sank off the small town of Kushimoto, at the southernmost tip of Japan, and the locals saved over a hundred Turkish passengers. In 1985, when Saddam Hussein announced his intention to attack Iran, the Turkish government, in gratitude, first evacuated the Japanese residents of Tehran before it did its own citizens.

Kainan 1890 was a spectacular period piece... and a difficult one to shoot. Three Scope Super 35 cameras, numerous night scenes, legions of underwater shots, lots of slow motion, torrents of rain, and a full storm to "reconstruct" on a studio-built boat... Tetsuo Nagata wanted a mobile camera that was easy to handle and protect. So he chose to shoot in Super 35 with the Alexa and Summilux-C lenses.

"Japan is an island, it is very rainy and the atmosphere is pretty damp. There is a bit of mist in the air, the look and feel is quite unique and the Summilux-Cs capture it perfectly. They are both precise and gentle. It’s like a painting. They have a very distinct signature."

Cinema took Tetsuo Nagata to France, cinema made him stay there, his wife and three children helped him take root in that country.
He named his 21-year-old son "Kei" which, in Zen Buddhist monk parlance, means "wisdom to see the truth". Doesn’t that also ring like a motto for a man who strives for it both in his life and in his work?

(Translated from French by Henri Béhar)