June 30, 2004

The Challenges of 'Empire' Building: East Meets West in New Historical Miniseries

From 'Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire.' Left photo: Taku Miyazawa; center and right photos: Shunji Jonoshita

By Joan Owens Meyerson, Lyn Goldfarb, Deborah Ann DeSnoo

To bring history alive; to bring to life a time and place far different from our own; to involve the viewer with fascinating characters in dramatic situations; in short, to make a "good story, well told": These are the challenges we face as filmmakers who produce nonfiction history films.

To meet those challenges for Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire, filmmakers Deborah Ann DeSnoo and Lyn Goldfarb teamed up over three years ago to produce this series. The journey began even earlier with the vision of DeSnoo, who has lived in Japan for the last 20 years. She was intrigued with the great Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and the period of Japanese history that covered his almost 300-year dynasty. She shut herself in her office with 50 books and emerged a month later with a first draft proposal for a documentary miniseries.   

Goldfarb had just completed The Roman Empire in the First Century (with Margaret Koval) for Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE) and PBS as part of the Empires series. She and DeSnoo approached DDE with the idea of making the Japanese project part of this prestigious strand. DDE and PBS were interested and offered funding for development. At this point, Joan Owens Meyerson, who had previously written and produced two films on Japanese education, joined the team as co-writer with Goldfarb and DeSnoo.

After the sale was made, we faced another challenge. Greg Diefenbach, DDE's vice president of production and development, was intrigued with the exotic world of 16th, 17th and 18th century Japan, but wanted it to be understandable to the Western viewer. In other words, make it different...but not too different; exotic...but accessible. The solution to that challenge was the wealth of first-person memoirs and journals of Westerners who had explored Japan during that period. The first Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in 1543; the Christian missionaries who came shortly thereafter sent extensive letters back to the Church; later, shipwrecked English pilot William Adams––who became a trusted advisor to the Shogun––and German doctor Englebert Kaempfer both wrote their observations in journals and letters. These and other Westerners gave us an intriguing view of the Japanese.

While the story of the Westerners who came to Japan provided a entrance into the story, we did not want to tell this story solely from a Western point of view. It was also clear that this must be a story of Japan, the great Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and the dynasty he created. It was important that the viewer experience both the Westerners' perceptions of Japan and the Japanese views of the Westerners. We were fortunate to find equally good Japanese first-person accounts of the turbulent times. Now, how to weave the two strands together? How to make it dramatic? How would East meet West? The light bulb went on when we realized that Ieyasu was born in the same year that the first Westerners arrived in Japan. We had the makings of a great parallel story. 

The next challenge in writing was one common to all historical film producers: How to take a complicated 300 years of history and somehow create a three-hour film with a dramatic structure and involving through-line. We got brutal, dropping some fascinating characters who were not part of the dramatic arc, simplifying great battles, shortening political intrigues and even losing some juicy but complicated personal alliances––all without sacrificing the historical accuracy and integrity of the period.

While simplifying the subject for a Western audience, another challenge emerged: maintaining authenticity for the Japanese audience. We had the advantage of DeSnoo's many years in Japan. In addition to being very knowledgeable about Japanese history, she also knew how to delve beyond the misconceptions that most Westerners have about Japan to get to the real story. 

As we began to crack the challenge of storytelling, DeSnoo and Goldfarb were also working on visualizing that story. Although there is wonderful art work of the period, the only way to truly bring this story to life was to film extensive, elaborate (and budget-bending) re-creations. Even while the scripts were being researched and written, DeSnoo was commuting to her production office in Japan headed by producer Toshihiro Saito. Together, they finalized locations, consulted with art director Kyoko Heya, and worked with actors, set decorators, costumers, make-up artists and even wig-makers to make sure that every detail of the production would be authentic to the period.

After a year that saw four seasons, four production shoots, 55 actors, countless crew members, and one extremely gifted director of photography (Michael Chin), our story began to come alive. With the expert help of editors Gail Yasunaga and Bill Haugse and composers Dave Iwataki and Dana Kaproff, we were finally ready to start putting words, music and picture together––perhaps the greatest challenge of all. But you'll have to watch the film to see how that one turned out.

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire premieres May 26 on PBS at 8:00 p.m. (check local listings).

Joan Owens Meyerson is a former member of the IDA Board of Directors. Her credits include the Disney film Children of Japan (CINE Golden Eagle), and for PBS, Michiyo & Kelly: A Quest for Education and the National Memorial Day Concert, which will air on May 30 at 8:00  p.m. (check local listings).

Lyn Goldfarb is an Academy-Award nominated documentary filmmaker (With Babies and Banners). Her credits include The Roman Empire in the First Century, The Great War, The Great Depression and People in Motion. She is currently producing Beyond the Dream: California and the Rediscovery of America for PBS. She is a former member of the IDA Board of Directors, and a member of the WGA and DGA.


Deborah Ann DeSnoo is president of PLUG-IN, Inc., a Tokyo-based company that produces films, videos, and live theatrical entertainment. The first non-Japanese to be invited to join the Japanese Directors Association, she is also a member of the WGA and the DGA.