Movie: Katen no Shiro

Released in Japan on Sept. 12, 2009, this movie is about Okabe Mataemon, a Nagoya (Atsuta)-based master carpenter who in 1576 was ordered by Japan’s leading warlord Oda Nobunaga to build Azuchi Castle on Mt. Azuchi fronting Lake Biwa. The main castle tower or donjon was to have an unprecedented five stories. It was to be the grandest and most lavish castle Japan had ever seen. Mataemon and his crew had only three years to complete the epic construction which they did. The movie shows the major and minor tribulations Mataemon and his crew went through during the construction. The movie is also unusual because it has no battle scenes despite being a samurai movie.

Being a castle fan, I really looked forward to this movie. However, I was somewhat disappointed with the quality of the acting, completeness of the story, believability, and overall visual and emotional impact. The movie does have a few outstanding scenes with what looks like thousands of people working, but they were too few and too short. Computer graphics depicting the construction of the mountaintop castle were impressive enough. But I thought there were too many story lines and characters which could not be fully developed or explained within the movie’s 139 min.

For history buffs, it might be frustrating because the movie is obviously not historically accurate since it is a work of fiction. For castle fans, the movie does not show all the major aspects of building a castle. I wish they showed more scenes of the actual construction (which sped by too quickly). Work on the stone walls, interior, moats, etc., are missing. Seeing the stones being cut and fitted onto the walls, the beams being fitted to the main pillar, the construction of the roof, moat digging, interior painting, gold leafing, etc., are all missing. So the educational value of this movie does not attain its potential.

The movie does have interesting story lines. Construction of a major castle with mostly manual labor, Mataemon the carpenter prodigy, Nobunaga’s affection for imported European goods, merchants getting rich from European trade, ninja-like assassins, and a few love stories. But the movie was too short to adequately develop them all. It tries to cover everything, but in doing so, it never really developed any story to its fullest and best potential. It might have been better to make it a TV series rather than a movie.

But I still recommend seeing this movie. It is worth seeing the few outstanding scenes that it has. The movie was filmed in Kyoto; Adogawa in Takashima where they filmed the giant boulder scene with 200 extras, Awajishima island in Hyogo for scenes atop Mt. Azuchi overlooking Lake Biwa, Kiso-Fukushima in Nagano for forest scenes, and Taiwan for the big tree scene.
It is pretty much an all-star cast headed by Nishida Toshiyuki as Mataemon, Otake Shinobu as his wife, and Ogata Naoto (who gave a fine acting performance) as a woodsman.

I have posted a detailed review and detailed summary of the movie plot for those of you who cannot understand Japanese, so you’ll know what’s going on:火天の城)

Official Web site (in Japanese only):

Canon EOS 7D on my shopping list

When I bought my EOS 50D in fall 2008, I thought it would last me for a few years. But I was wrong. I’m ready for the EOS 7D.

I wish the 7D came out last year. But this is what I always say about new D-SLRs. There’s no end to it. One key feature of the 7D is the viewfinder with 100% field of view. This is what I really want, and really miss.

The 50D’s viewfinder coverage is only about 95%. That 5% sounds minor, but it actually makes a significant difference in how it affects your composition of the shot. What you see is not what you get. I often find myself reshooting a shot after noticing that the image has too much space on one side.

The 7D’s weather-resistant construction is also very welcome. It often rains/snows in Japan, so it’s quite essential. The faster continuous shooting speed of 8 fps is nice, even though the 50D’s 6.5 fps is nothing to complain about.

I really hope the 7D will last me a few years. I cannot afford to buy a new D-SLR every year.

I also take videos, so video cameras with better image quality is always of interest to me. It’s really amazing to see how much the image quality of videos taken by compact digital cameras has improved in recent years. Everything is now HD at the 16:9 aspect ratio. It makes me want to reshoot all my old videos with a new camera.

I looked at the Lumix GH1 which is causing a lot of excitement among video enthusiasts. But I decided against buying one because of the lack of power zooming. You have to zoom manually, and since I zoom a lot while shooting videos, manual zooming won’t work for me. I think if Panasonic offers a D-SLR camera geared more for video than for still shooting, than it would be revolutionary. Right now, all D-SLRs are mainly for still shooting.

Which forces me to look at conventional video cameras. The problem with conventional camcorders is that they do not have very wide-angle lenses. Maybe 35mm or 40mm at the widest. I need a 28mm wide angle at the very least. It is possible to attach a wide-angle lens attachment to the camcorder, but it’s pricey and I wonder about the distortion. My temporary solution is the camera I just bought last month. It’s a compact digital camera with an incredible 25-300mm zoom range and takes HD (but not Full HD) videos. The image quality is quite good and I’m happy with it. I wish I had a camera like this a few years ago.

There’s no doubt that we’re witnessing a revolution in video technology and video culture with the popularity of YouTube and so many people taking and uploading video clips. Of course, the quality of the clips is another story. Most people are amateurs shooting video which often is too shakey or not good at all.

I’ve always taken movies or videos with a conventional movie film camera or camcorder since high school. My first digital movies were taken with my first compact digital camera in 2003. Then came YouTube. I started uploading videos to YouTube in July 2006, and I’ve come a long way since then. New digital cameras improved the video quality by leaps and bounds. I can still remember Casio’s super slim digital cameras which could shoot videos, but without sound. Made no sense to me. My Canon Powershot S50 at least recorded sound as well.

At first, it was a very casual thing. I shoot a video clip, then upload it to YouTube. I was happy just to record some motion and some sound, to add some background info to my still and silent photos.

But now, I’ve become much more seasoned and sophisticated, taking videos more seriously. I now shoot to create a story or record a logical sequence of events. I also use professional and amateur video editing software to edit my videos. I try to make each video as interesting as possible. And also add annotations. If you watch my early videos on YouTube (uploaded in 2006) and my most recent videos, you can see the difference in not only the image quality, but in the content quality as well. I would have to call myself an “advanced” amateur videographer (instead of just an amateur videographer).

My problem, though, is shooting both video and stills at the same time. When I’m shooting video, I’m usually shooting stills at the same time with my D-SLR. Yes, I’m holding two cameras at the same time. That’s why in most of my videos you may hear my D-SLR taking pictures or see the flash being fired. I’m doing a pretty good job at shooting both stills and videos at the same time. I won’t tell you how I do it, but often there’s a compromise between the still shooting and video. Of course it’s hard to shoot very well with both cameras at the same time. But if one or the other is much more important, I will stop using the other camera and just concentrate on shooting stills or video. Note that in most situations, I cannot use a tripod.

But I continue to perfect my techniques for shooting both stills and videos at the same time. It is a challenge.

Update: In Feb. 2010, I sold my EOS 50D body and bought the EOS 7D body.


Almost all photographers have a dream of publishing a book of their photos. Now anyone can easily publish their own photo book using an online printing service like which I have recently tried out.

I first heard of blurb on the Webby Awards list for 2008. Some months later, I finally got around to trying them out. I also looked at similar photo book-making services at Apple, MyPublisher,, etc., but I found that blurb offered the most serious options for bookmaking via their free software.

Blurb’s bookmaking software, called BookSmart, is free for anyone to download. They have a Mac version as well which I downloaded and used.

The software is easy to use, however, it’s still quite buggy with some display and formatting problems, at least on an Intel Mac. None are catastrophic, but troublesome and time-consuming to work around. One glaring bug is the program’s inability to wrap Japanese text within the text box. If you copy Japanese text from MS Word and paste it into BookSmart, the text won’t word wrap. So what you have to do it close the book and open it again. Then it appears correctly.

The software hasn’t come of age yet and I’m sure they are working to refine it. I use a 24″ screen so I can see the entire layout and all the necessary windows. On laptop screens, it might be a hassle to keep scrolling around to see things.

I created a 40-page (20 sheets), 7-inch square book with a soft cover. My very first blurb book arrived via FedEx which took about a week after I ordered a copy. The paper quality and overall impression was good. It was quite a thin and light book, more like a booklet or thick pamphlet than a real book. The colors on the cover photo though came out very saturated (too red). The people’s faces looked sunburn. But it was within tolerable limits.

Fortunately, the photos inside the book came out fine. The text was nice as well. Most of the photos were adjusted to 300 dpi and shrunk to fit the image box on each page. A few images came from my iSight camera on the iMac and even those came out decent. If you’re a Mac user, be sure that the gamma setting is set to 2.2 instead of the default 1.8. This will make the on-screen images look darker, but it will more accurately reflect the brightness of the images printed in the book. Go to Preferences/Display/Color/Calibrate to change the gamma. I wish they told you these things when you start out making your blurb book.

My blurb book cost $12.95. Shipping to Japan costs around $12 for one copy. So the shipping cost becomes a major issue if you’re in Japan and ordering only one copy. Things get much cheaper when you order multiple copies. Even the book price is discounted by 10 percent if you order 10 or more copies. If you’re targeting mainly people in the US, shipping would be much cheaper for them.

The main advantage about designing and publishing your book by yourself is that you have total control over the design and content. BookSmart includes a variety of page formats for text and images, but they can be somewhat limiting. You can format the page anyway you like by using Photoshop for your images/text and importing it to the book.

Another major advantage is on-demand printing. It’s no problem for them to print only one copy. They print only after an order is received.

And if you see a mistake or typo in the book, you can correct it on the fly and subsequent printed copies will reflect the correction. If your book is printed by a regular publisher, any mistakes will remain in all the copies you initially print (hundreds or thousands).

But if you need to make hundreds or thousands of copies, find a publisher or a real printing company to publish the book. I’m sure it will be cheaper per book.

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