A full two years before Tom Cruise donned armor to play ''Samurai'''s Capt. Nathan Algren, production designer Lilly Kilvert was busy conceiving her vision of 1870s Japan. Kilvert (Hart's War) did extensive research -- everything from history books to watching Kurosawa movies -- before supervising the construction of sets in Japan, New Zealand, and Los Angeles. For the Ginza district, built on the Warner Bros. lot for a Tokyo street scene, Kilvert needed to convey the mix of global styles that descended on Japan in the late 1800s. The designer consulted old photographs that she happened upon in Paris and paid as much attention to the shoji-screened windows of the wooden homes as she did to the telegraph wires that crisscrossed the sky. ''One of the things we wanted to do was to say this is a culture in transformation,'' she says. Thus, an antique rickshaw wheels past a huge, white-cement grand hotel. ''Even now, if you go to Kyoto, you'll see an enormous modern building right next to a wooden shrine,'' Kilvert notes. ''It was about contrast, juxtaposition.''
The traditional banners bear images of chrysanthemums, the flower of the imperial house.
This shop sign reads ''Money Exchange,'' while the freestanding placard on the left is for rickshaw rentals: ''Fast and Safe.''
INSIDE THE IMPERIAL THRONE ROOM
''This set had to be transformed into two other sets,'' says Kilvert. So the 100-foot-long structure was built like a giant puzzle, with walls that could be easily moved and reconfigured. The flooring created a different problem: how to remain true to a culture that restricts people from walking on tatami mats in shoes while not wasting screen time showing actors untying laces. ''I found one sentence in a book that said when Westerners came they rolled out carpets,'' says Kilvert. ''You don't want Tom Cruise to come on the set and be taking off his shoes!''