Saito Koichi

The Asahi reports this morning that the film director, Saito Koichi, passed away on November 28th or pneumonia. He was 80 years old. 

Saito-kantoku was one of the more unique directors in Japanese film history who deserves more attention than he has gotten. First, after studying at Rikkyo and then the Tokyo College of Photography (now Tokyo Polytechnic University), he started out as a still photographer,  at Oizumu Eiga (one of the precursors of Toei) and then at Nikkatsu. He was one of the unsung figures who defined the Nikkatsu Action style: many of the cool stills you see of the Nikkatsu films that are finally getting released outside Japan were shot by him. He also did stills on films by directors such as Imai Tadashi, Imamura Shohei and Ichikawa Kon. He would be a central figure for anyone writing a history of Japanese stills photography (a history which should be written some day), and a fascinating case where stills began to effect the style of the films themselves. 

Saito-kantoku has a quite cool, modern visual sense, so when he decided to direct his own film, gathering enough money to make Tsubuyaki no Jo in 1967, the result was an urban, pop masterpiece that resembled more Richard Lester's Beatles than anything in Japanese film, albeit with more pathos. He and perhaps Obayashi Nobuhiko (in his 1960s experimental films) were arguably the first to really adapt that kind of commercial 1960s visual sense to Japanese film. Saito then utilized that sense in a series of "Group Sounds" films at Shochiku in the late 1960s, which are all quite interesting to watch, especially Chiisana sunakku, based on the Purple Shadows' hit. 

Often focusing on rootless young people, his interest shifted in the early 1970s to those urban youth venturing to the countryside to escape the city or to find themselves. One could link him to a kind of "Discover Japan" ethos in the 1970s (and anyone researching Discover Japan should look at his work), but one that at that point is more critical, given how these young people rarely succeed in their quest for an original Japan. Films such as Yakusoku, Tabi no omosa, and Tsugaru jongarabushi were critically celebrated, with Tsugaru getting the number one spot in the KineJun poll

I'm afraid his later films sometimes did fall into nostalgic representations of an original rural life. Like his youthful protagonists heading into the countryside, his pop urban style became more and more defined by aestheticization of the rural. But it is his brilliant work from 1967 to the mid-1970s that strongly deserves a second look. He was big enough at the time that KineJun featured him in one its Sekai no eiga sakka books.

Saito-kantoku was one of the first Japanese directors I got to know personally. When I arrived in Japan in 1992, I was a regular attendee of the Asagaya Eigamura run by the critic Shirai Yoshio. One of the directors Shirai liked and often presented was Saito-kantoku, who came personally to talk about his films and drink with us afterwards. At that time, none of his Group Sounds films were available for rental, but it was the clout of Saito-kantoku and Shirai-san that got us prints of those. I think it was that activity that eventually convinced Shochiku to release some of those on video and helped build up the Group Sounds boom. Saito-kantoku was always an amiable and polite gentleman, who would spend hours talking with us youngsters until the wee hours of the morning. 

He will be missed.

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