More than paper cuts: Fighting book censorship in futuristic Japan

By Tay Yek KeakMovies - 26 September 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 2:32 PM

More than paper cuts: Fighting book censorship in futuristic Japan

Imagine this crazy, jolting scene: A group of avid book-readers are browsing peacefully among the shelves at a bookstore in Japan. 

Suddenly, a bunch of gun-toting government thugs barge in and proceed to shoot everyone in sight and burn down the place.

It is a violent outcome, and it happens in the world of far-out Japanese fiction. 

Specifically, it is from ‘Library Wars’, based on an original series of novels by Hiro Arikawa.

It sets up the premise of how government censorship is being challenged by a sanctioned group of armed librarians.  

The Betterment Squad from the government goes around confiscating so-called “undesirable” literature and publications through brute force, going to war with the Library Defence, a military organisation set up by the same authorities, armed with the right to rescue any book and claim it for safekeeping at the library.

Library Wars
A still from 'Library Wars'

Joining the Library Defence is a wide-eyed girl, Iku Kasahara (Nana Eikura), who pines for her “prince”, a mysterious hero who saved a book of hers from the bullies.

Japanese director Shinsuke Sato, who previously directed the action thrillers ‘Gantz I and II’, tells inSing in an email interview what it was like taking ‘Library Wars’ out of the pages of a book to the big screen.   

‘Library Wars’ began as a novel series, then a manga, then an anime series and an anime movie, and now a live-action film.  How difficult was it to make this story with live actors, real sets and action scenes instead of using just drawings and animation?

In our real world, the Library Defence team obviously doesn’t exist. I had to create a parallel world where its reality is plausible. The difficulty was finding film locations and staging the battle scenes.

In Japan, we have to work around a tight budget. We searched many locations for that sense of reality and fantasy. What was important was the look and tone – I avoided dark and heavy tones whenever the freedom to read was taken away in the film. I used bright, hopeful colours instead. I did this to present a positive youth drama instead of a bleak film about suppression.   

There are two parts to the movie. One is the awkward attraction between Library Defence rookie, Iku Kasahara and the instructor Atsushi Dojo. The other is the battle between Library Defence and the Betterment Squad. Which aspect was more important to you? 

Both are equally important. When it came to the complexity of the story, the battle scenes set the tempo and mood. When it came to the script and details, that attraction between Iku and Dojo is more important.

You have a woman – the mistake-prone but spunky Iku – as the central character.  Do you think this story is geared towards women in that books are seen as a more “feminine” pursuit? 

Well, I’m a man. I put in more effort in creating the battle scenes. On the other hand, yes, I’ve been told that this film is geared towards women.

The interesting thing is the author Hiro Arikawa, scriptwriter Aikiko Nogi and producer Tamako Tsujimoto are all female. So with the main lead being a woman too, the female viewpoint is stronger than usual here.

I think if there are more action films angled towards women in future, ‘Library Wars’ would be up there in that category. 

You got the co-operation of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) to make this film. Tell us about that.

Yes. It took some time to obtain permission from the JSDF. As the ideology of protecting the books and the freedom to read is similar to the Self-Defence Forces’ mission of protecting the country and her land, we received the go-ahead. 

The land and air forces helped us with locations, research, vehicles and helicopters, provided soldiers as extras and even trained us too. Many actors who played Library Defence soldiers underwent short-term basic training with the JSDF.

Which is your favourite scene? 

My favourite scenes are the ones just before the fights begin when the Betterment Squad soldiers present their Library Defence opponents with a proper and orderly declaration of battle. Those scenes are able to heighten further the intention of the film.  

In my opinion, they portrayed also a warning of increasing conflicts in the world. The colour tones I used in those scenes reflected the calm before the storm. 

Library Wars
A photo of the set of 'Library Wars'

Do you read many books yourself and what would you do if somebody forbids you from reading one in a bookshop?

I like books and I read a lot during my school days just like everyone else, I presume. If the freedom to read is restricted, I would probably join a party or an organisation opposing this rule like Library Defence. If that doesn’t work out, I would probably move to live in a place with no such restriction.

What is your opinion on real-life freedom-of-information advocates such as renegade CIA secrets leaker, Edward Snowden, and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange?  In ‘Library Wars’, Iku called the man who saved her book her “prince”.  Do you think they are “princes” and heroes? 

I think people such as Snowden who suppress their feelings to hide the top secrets of the organisation they work in will carry out such actions in the long run. No matter which place tries to defend freedom, it will still resort to suppression in some form to a certain degree.  

When too much suppression occurs and causes alarm, then an opposing force is needed to prevent the situation from getting out of control.

However, a country holds greater significance than any organisation. And such actions to expose secrets can be harmful and unforgivable to the country.  

In that sense, for the sake of the country, if the actions carried out by the leakers condemn the country, I don’t think that is a form of bravery.

Do you see films as entertainment or an opportunity to send a message like in ‘Library Wars’?

When I see the films of directors I like, such as Eric Rohmer and Steven Spielberg, I’m most attracted to the art and excitement of their movies more than the characters and plots. As a director, I discuss things throughout with my producers, writers and crew.  But I have my own thoughts and my own ideas. Based on that, I find my filming style.    

‘Library Wars’ is exclusively showing at Filmgarde cinemas