Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Elephant boy

Yuya Yagira, the young star of the Japanese drama Nobody Knows, for which he won the best actor nod at Cannes last year, has been in Thailand, making his next film. The movie is about a boy who has developed an empathy for elephants, and in order to make the film, the crew came to Thailand. The Bangkok Post was on the scene.

Yagira comes across as a rather quiet teenager, his shyness accentuated by those deep, mournful eyes, which struck a chord to many cinema-goers.

This undeniable appeal is probably the reason why he's landed himself a role in another touching drama called Little Randy and Shining Boy, due to be released in Japan around May. The movie was inspired by the real-life story of Tetsumu Sakamoto, a boy born into a Japanese family with an animal-import business. Painfully withdrawn, Tetsumu had major problems socialising with his peers. Then one day he encountered elephants for the first time and realised that he had the ability to communicate with them.

"Elephants are forced to come to Japan. They try their best to heal the human spirit but they have to live and die in small concrete pens,'' the boy wrote at some later point.

After he graduated from primary school, Tetsumu's parents agreed to send him to Thailand to be trained as a mahout. And the task of portraying this latter-day Dr Doolittle is Yagira's latest cinematic challenge. The young actor was recently in Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai for a location shoot.

"One, two, three, down," he orders in broken Thai. Wanpen, the two-year-old female elephant he's been working with the whole day, responds to the awkward command and kneels, lowering her enormous bulk to the ground. She then lifts her trunk to support the teenager as he climbs down from her back. They've practised the manoeuvre umpteen times already so it goes off relatively smoothly. Up on her back again Yagira gives every appearance of being the professional mahout, controlling Wanpen skilfully, showing no sign of discouragement or exhaustion.

After the training session ends, he rewards the animal by hand-feeding her some bananas.

The interview gets off to a slow start, the actor initially coming across as nearly as painfully shy as the character he's playing. "I'm enjoying this very much,'' he allows.

So what attracted him to the film?

Well, the story is so inspiring. I almost cried after reading the script.''

For this is ultimately a tragic story. Tetsumu Sakamoto's dream was to find a place where elephants could live out the last years of their lives after they had become too old to work. But before he got a chance to put the plan into action he was killed in a car accident. He was only 20 years old.

Sayuri, his mother, later set up an elephant camp in Japan in remembrance of her son. It now houses nine elephants and Tetsumu's younger brother, Taka-aki, has become a mahout [an elephant handler]. Now the same age as Tetsumu was when he died, Taka-aki is helping to train Yagira for the elephant-handling scenes. His mother, now 50, has travelled to Chiang Mai to act as a consultant for Little Randy and Shining Boy.

"This is the story of a hero. Tetsumu was a real hero with a big heart," said Chunsaku Kawake, best known in his native Japan for directing TV drama series. This, his cinematic debut, is being co-produced by Fuji TV and Toho Film.

"We plan to use Thailand as a base location to produce more projects -- such as a samurai film and an action film -- in the near future," said producer Hiroyoshi Koiwai.

"Professional teams. Superb service. All the standard equipment. We can get everything we want here," he added.

The Japanese title of the film could be literally translated as The Boy From a Star, a reference, perhaps, to a belief in life after death. Well, if that is the case, perhaps Tetsumu is looking down on us now, proud that his dream of an elephant refuge has materialised but also pleased, perhaps, that his life, short as it was, has inspired a full-length feature film.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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