HIROSE Masahiro’s essay on Japanese films

Will you have the same dream that the Japanese repeatedly have?
HIROSE Mashiro (Osaka University)
(written for the first Season of 2000)

“When a film ends, it actually begins.” Ozu Yasujiro

We cannot talk of Japanese films without mentioning Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963). His influence on the history of Japanese films is immeasurable.  Even when we talk of Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) or Oshima Nagisa we have to consider Yasujiro’s influence on them.  His habitual saying in his late years, foretelling the decline of Japanese films in the late ‘60s, was `Mizoguchi died in a good tide.’ Mizoguchi (1898-1956), who is also well known abroad for “Tales of Ugetsu” (1953), was one of Ozu’s best friends.

Ozu died of cancer in 1963 and the epitaph, which he chose for himself, was “nothing.”  Ozu began his career as part of a camera crew and was soon selected as a director when he was just 24, because he showed an extraordinary talent to analyze the cuts and their sequence.  It is still told with admiration that he was the only director through the whole history of Syochiku that could distinguish one frame in a cut.  It was actually beyond human power, because films have 24 frames a second and nobody can discern one frame of 1/24 second in a running cut. But quite a few engineers said that only Ozu had the eye to analyze a scene by the measure of one frame, and asked them to add a frame to a scene or cut a frame from it.  Ozu’s impressive magic of short cuts was built upon such his critical eye on the physical film.  Many directors had to find out and establish their own styles, different from Ozu’s, and many of them failed.  Mizoguchi’s now legendary use of long cuts and bird’s eye camera work was the result of his desperate efforts to take himself away from Ozu’s spell-binding use of short cuts and low positioned camera.  A very famous story tells of Mizoguchi’s extraordinarily long cut in the beginning of “New Tales of The Taira Clan”(1955) which made Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard jump out of their seats and cry, “No devils can’t shoot like this.”  They are said to have rushed into the projection room to check the film with their eyes.

Mizoguchi died next year in 1956, and he was one of the rare directors who succeeded in creating his own style and fame out of the spell of Ozu.  Mizoguchi and Ozu respected and loved each other, and their friendship continued until Mizoguchi’s death.  In 1998 when Kurosawa died, Yamada Yoji, who is now a most popular and celebrated director in Japan, was featured in one of the special TV programs in memory of him.  Yamada told us about a very interesting episode: Kurosawa once had invited him to his house, and then continued, ” I visited him, and was ushered to his room or study, and there I saw Mr. Kurosawa watching Mr. Ozu’s film.  I don’t remember the film’s title he was watching then, but I was a little sad to see him watching Mr. Ozu’s film, because, you know, Mr. Kurosawa’s films are very different from Mr. Ozu’s.  Mr. Kurosawa’s films are more dynamic and big scaled in picturing things or humans than Mr. Ozu’s.  Then, I felt a little sadness and thought that Mr. Kurosawa was getting old.  You see, he was more respected and praised abroad, which, I was afraid, might make him very lonely in his late years.  We don’t know the extent to which Kurosawa liked Ozu in his late days, but we can sense some of his deep affection for Ozu in his last film “Not Yet”(1993).

“Film making is simple.  Don’t think it difficult.  Take it easy.  Just shoot” Oshima Nagisa

But the 1950s were not only the golden age of Japanese films, but there emerged a dark and serious conflict between the younger directors and the older establishment, which became manifest and certain to anyone concerned with making films.  Ozu was the symbol of the older generation, and Oshima the younger.  This conflict may be summed up as one between the artist-oriented, politically radical, young university wits and the artisan-minded, politically conservative, high school old boys.  Ozu, Kurosawa, or Mizoguchi were not university graduates, and Ozu’s another habitual saying was, “I am a prostitute waiting for men under the shadow of a bridge.”  Ozu was to be elected a member of the Japan Academy of Arts for the first time as a film director in 1962, but his rather obscure and obscene identification, implying that filmmakers are not high-minded artists, became another spell Ozu put upon the younger generation.

Oshima and Yamada entered Syochiku in the same year, 1954.  Oshima was a graduate of Kyoto University, Yamada of Tokyo University.  But these two directors have followed totally different paths since then.  Oshima emphasized that he was the most astute, intellectual and provocative artist.  Yamada cultivated himself as the most reliable, conscientious and popular artisan.

Oshima quit Syochiku around 1960, because his poignant films went against Syochiku’s conventional policy: “Make audience laugh and weep.” Since then he has kept his own way as an independent film artist.  He has encouraged the younger generation to shoot films and has always been a kind of intellectual source to inspire young artists in any genre, two of whom were Kitano Takeshi(1948-) and Sakamoto Ryuichi(1952-) featured in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”(1983).  Sakamoto, then a member of the electric pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, soon became a celebrated actor and internationally famous musician.

Yamada, on the other hand, choosing the opposite of Oshima, remained in Syochiku and has kept its policy of “laugh and weep” to its utmost.  He was in a sense the most successful successor of Syochiku’s style.  Yamada’s 48 series of “Tora-san” have become box-office hits since 1969.  In the declining period of Japanese films in the 70s, the national popularity of “Tora-san” was a surprise and a kind of social phenomenon to be scrutinized.  In the 70s Kurosawa shot the only one film abroad, and Oshima filmed four including two problematic hard core films: “The Realm of the Senses”(1976) and “Empire of the Passion”(1978).  But Yamada filmed 22, which include very good films like “The Family”(1971), “The Village”(1975) and “The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness”(1977). We may say the decade of the 70s was the age of Yamada.

For this festival, we have chosen directors who either are under the influence of Oshima and Yamada, or under the long, shadowy but spell-binding, influence of Ozu.  All the films are a kind of love story or home drama with no violence or sex, but full of narrative variations like Kitano’s tragic theme, Ichikawa’s revenge, or Yamada’s adultery.

Very interestingly, the youngest and most hopeful director Suo (1956-) has proclaimed himself a direct descendent of Ozu. He studied Ozu at Rikkyo University under Prof. Hasumi Shigehiko, who is a most famous scholar and critic of films, especially dedicated to Ozu.  Suo made a great success in the U.S.A. by his latest film “Shall We Dance?”(1996), and we are told that a major Hollywood company will remake it soon.

Kitano, a hyper-popular comedian in Japan, was encouraged by Oshima to shoot films, and now established himself as a most important director in Japan.  Kitano may be famous (or notorious) for his violent scenes, but you will find and be surprised at his capacity to create a very moving love story with his typical stoicism. ” A Scene at the Sea” is a film of silent sentiments, but is not sentimental.

Negishi’s  “The Hours of Wedlock” is one of the forerunners of Japanese new age movies in the 80s.  Negishi pictured and narrated what other directors might have treated in a heavier or darker way.  The script, based on a novel of a female writer Higari Agata, was written marvellously by Morita Yoshimitsu, who is also a very excellent director.  The 1980s and 90s were the age when female opinions and activities have begun to play preeminent roles in any social aspect in Japan.

Negishi and Ichikawa are excellent and very sensitive at filming female mentalities and activities from the young adolescent to the mature and aged. Ichikawa’s “Tsugumi” is also based on a young female writer’s short novel and Ichikawa very poignantly and beautifully filmed a young heroine’s fired obsession for revenge for a pet dog.  The original novel was written by Yoshimoto Banana, and she has been a kind of charismatic presence among the young females in the 90s.  Her name Banana is literally “banana,” which sounds strange but implies some affinity with the heroin’s name “Tsugumi,” which literally means “thrush.”  Both of them are very unusual names, and no Japanese could imagine a decent young lady would name herself after a banana.  But Yoshimoto is unquestionably the most talented female writer since the World War II.

Will you share the same dream that Japanese repeatedly have?
Hirose Masahiro (Osaka University)
(written for the second Season of 2001)

“I am the vagabond Tora.  Remember me, please.” Kuruma Torajiro in “Tora san”.

In Japan we have a very long tradition of making films in which vagabonds, dropouts, or sometimes outlaws are cast as heroes.  For a long time they have been popular on screen, TV, or in literature.  Today Kitano Takeshi (Beat Takeshi) is a leading comedian who represents those characters and has kept creating them in his own films or in his novels.  This season’s theme of Japanese Film Festival is about “them.”

Firstly Kitano depicts two high school boys who, apparently dropouts in school, get interested and keenly involved in boxing.  The two boys see and experience many things, both good or bad, then at last get frustrated and return to nothing– what they were initially.  This film is memorable because it was shot after Kitano recovered from a serious motorcycle accident, which he later remembered as a suicide attempt in his essay.  He had been obsessed with the theme of death in his own films, but this film ends with some hope, unlike last season’s “A scene at the Sea.” The kids return to school, not in a desperate or hopeless state, but with positive self-assurance.

The second “Knock Out” and the third “Kishiwada Bad Boys” are Osaka films. Osaka is the second biggest city in Japan, but its culture is very different from Tokyo’s.  People are more frank, outspoken and proud of being dropouts.  We hope you will enjoy the Western Japanese humour in these films.

The fourth is special this season. “All Under the Moon” is a light, but critically poignant comedy written, directed and produced by three Korean Japanese.  As is well known, we have a long history of the suppression of the Korean Japanese population in Japanese society for over 60 years.  The hero is a young Korean Japanese working in Tokyo as a taxi driver.  But the hero isn’t greatly concerned with his own people’s destiny or his own.  Living nonchalantly with petty Japanese colleagues, he meets and falls in love with a girl who came from the Philippines to make money working as a bar hostess.  They know they are not only outsiders in Japanese society but are dropouts even in their own societies. Their love sometimes appears very vulgar, selfish and fleeting.  But as the film progresses, we understand their love is frank, honest and sincere, because they hesitantly and awkwardly come to accept and reshape their identities and lives.

The last is again “Tora san.”  We hope you will enjoy the most loved dropout in Japanese film history.

(The below was written for the third Season of 2002)

This year we present for the first time the screen work of Somai Shinji (1948-2001) who sadly died of lung cancer last autumn.  ”Ah, Spring” is one of his masterpieces;  it is a uniquely shot drama of an elite “salaried man” family into which the long lost father suddenly interudes.   The father is a vagabond, a Tora-san in Yamada’s films, a ghost clad in shabby kimono who orders his son to, “Remember me.”  The father, being obtrusively demanding, represents the pre-modern, undisciplined past of Japan after W.W.II who disturbs the seeming harmony of the family.  But his grandson loves him because the old man knows what he wants to know, and there grows a warm relationship between them. We are impressed with Somai’s unique method of one scene one cut and use of long shots, filming them into the surrounding natural scenery with the changing seasons of the year.  Those who are familiar with Kurosawa’s films will rocognise Yamazaki Tsutomu as the old bum and find him an excellent comedian.  Somai is distinctive for his shooting style (known as “the Somai style” in the USA) and was selected the best director of the 1980s by Cinema Journal in Japan.  This film won the Award by the International Film Critics Federation at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival.

We have two more powerful films, Kitano’s “Hana-Bi (Flower-Fire)” and Hirayama’s “Begging for Love.”  Both films were screened in 1998 and instantly acclaimed as excellent works, but most Japanese critics selected “Begging for Love” as the best film of the year.  ”Begging for Love” is a painful story of a family, or rather of a woman and her daughter after W.W.II.  The woman doesn’t know how to love her daughter, or how to behave like a mother while the daughter finds it difficult to love such a mother.  The mother monstrously abuses her daughter, seemingly without any cause.  It is a stunning experience to see the film repeat the mother’s physical and verbal violence towards her daughter insistently.  The daughter is helpless, sad and miserable, but she is not as innocent as she looks.  She may grow up to be a tougher woman with more vital energy (or monstrosity) within her.  The film is a complex drama between two women, filled with gruesome episodes or traumatic memories.  The performance of Harada Mieko, who doubles as the mother and the grown-up daughter, is astounding.  You will be glued to never leave your seat until the last minute. Harada won almost all film awards in Japan and the film got the International Critics Prize at the 1998 Montreal Film Festival.