News and Opinion Archive October 2009

Muraki Yoshiro

The Asahi reports that Muraki Yoshiro, Kurosawa Akira's primary art director, died of heart failure on October 26. He was 85 years old. He entered the art department at Toho in 1946 and first worked as an assistant on Drunken Angel in 1948. From Record of a Living Being (1955) on, he was the art director on all of Kurosawa's films except Dersu Uzala. He also worked with such directors as Moritani Shiro, Ichikawa Kon, and Koizumi Takashi, as well on such hit Toho films as the "Shacho" and the "Nippon ichi" series. He was nominated for an Academy Award four times for Yojimbo (for costume design), Tora! Tora! Tora!, Kagemusha, and Ran, and received the Order of the Purple Ribbon (Shiju Hosho) in 1994.

There hasn't been a lot of research in English about art direction and production design in Japanese cinema, but Muraki is one figure, along with Kimura Takeo, Ikawa Norimichi, Nishioka Yoshinobu, Naito Akira, Nakamura Kimihiko and Sakaguchi Takeharu, about whom there are books in Japanese. 

Yale, for instance, has these books:

Muraki Yoshiro no eiga bijutsu: kikigaki Kurosawa eiga no dezain / Tanno Tatsuya hen.

Tokyo no wasuremono: Kurosawa eiga no bijutsu kantoku ga egaita Showa / Muraki Yoshiro, Muraki Shinobu [cho] ; Hamano Yasuki hen. 

They are worth checking out.

Tokyo International Film Festival 2009

Back when I was writing for the Daily Yomiuri, I found myself imitating a broken record when writing about the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). Each year I would complain about the commercialized programming (where decisions about what was shown seemed to have been made by film distributors, not independent programmers) and the lack of a good retrospective section. The last was particularly infuriating for me, a film historian. It is usually the responsibility of a major international film festival to celebrate not just new movies, but the lesser known works that laid the foundation for what exists - or could have existed - today. Almost all the major film festivals do that, especially in countries with rich film histories, but the TIFF does not. After the early-1990s, when the TIFF had great retros in conjunction with the National Film Center, I saw the Japanese retrospectives get worse and worse until they were completely eliminated a few years ago. The TIFF has utterly abandoned its vital responsibility to celebrate and promote the rich historical culture of Japanese film, and given it over to Tokyo FilmEx, which is a much smaller festival. 

The main reason this has happened is because the TIFF is no longer a film festival, it is a "contents" market, so things like culture and history frankly do not matter. One can object to this on artistic grounds, but I also think this is also bad business. Most of those in the industry and the government these days think that "contents" denote products made only in the last few years. But the Japanese film industry was not only one of the most celebrated but also definitely the most productive movie business in the world for many decades in the twentieth century and thus has an enormous back catalog of films of quality and interest. This huge treasure is now mostly worthless because many in the industry and the government can't look beyond the short term and do what is necessary in the long term to build interest in - and thus market value in - these older works. When colleagues at the National Film Center report that barely anyone under 50 comes to see old movies there anymore, or when friends at Japanese universities report that almost none of their students have ever seen a classic Japanese film, I think that's partially the result of years of industry and government neglect in promoting the cinematic heritage. The lack of a retrospective at the TIFF, by far the most publicized festival in Japan, is just another example of Japan shooting itself in the foot and ruining the value (in multiple senses of the term) of its movie history.

Putting these thoughts aside, I did try to catch whatever recent Japanese films I could at TIFF 2009, in my first visit to the festival since 2006. I thus concentrated on the Japanese Eyes section (especially since it was not easy for the press to catch the special invitation films). I'm afraid I can't report that things have gotten better. It was nice to see a challenging independent film like Tochka (Matsumura Hiroyuki, 2008) being screened there - a provocative contemplation of looking and the problem of the trace that unfortunately should have been shot on film - but If Blessed (Masakiku araba; Okachimachi Kite, 2008) should never have been shown: it was one of the worst films in recent memory - a total failure in terms of believability and an insult to anyone who knows a little about Christianity (though it was nice to see Ono Machiko, the girl in Kawase Naomi's Suzaku, in the starring role). Our Brief Eternity (Fukushima Takuya, 2009) had a fascinating premise (what would happen to the world if we all forgot the one we love most?) and likable leads, but like many of the other works it suffered from poor execution and facile symbolism. Simplistic symbols also hampered Acacia (Tsuji Jinsei, 2008), the only Japanese film in the Competition: Antonio Inoki was not bad in the lead, but Tsuji can neither direct child actors nor save a story from cloying sentimentality in the way Kitano just barely managed to do in Kikujiro. The documentary Jungle-House Three-Farts (Janguru hausu suri-gasu: Hayashiya Sanpei; Mizutani Toshiyuki, 2009) was a serviceable introduction to the great rakugo and TV comedian Hayashiya Sanpei, but it did little digging either in terms of interviews or footage. A documentary I liked a lot more, Live Tape, by Matsue Tetsuaki, won the top prize for the section, and is worth a separate review (check back later), even though it had its own problems.

Palm of the Hand Stories (Tenohira no shosetsu; Tsubokawa Takushi, et al., 2009) was actually the film I wanted to see most, since "The Man Who Does Not Laugh" (Warawanu otoko) is one of the four short stories it adapts from Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari's famous collection. That story refers to Kawabata's experience helping make Kinugasa Teinosuke's A Page of Madness, and I actually talk about it in reference to the mask scene in my book on the film. The adaptation seemed typical, however, of both the TIFF and contemporary Japan's attitude towards its film history. The movie succeeded with a kind of surface Taisho romanticism, but utterly erased the real trace of cinema from "The Man Who Does Not Laugh" by completely excising the movie background from the narrative. Then the next story, "Mr. Thank You" (Arigato-san), seemed oblivious to the important fact this is also the source of one of the masterpieces of 1930s Japanese cinema: Shimizu Hiroshi's Mr. Thank You (Arigato-san, 1936 - read Jasper Sharp's review of this film). (FilmEx, at least, will be showing some Shimizu as part of their Nippon Modern retro this year.) The third, "Japanese Anna" (Nihonjin Anna), finally threw in some cinema, as the characters move in and out of a movie, but in again a typical fashion: one that remains ignorant of real film history (not even having a benshi present at a silent film screening, for instance). 

Perhaps this is nitpicking, ignoring a director's freedom of interpretation, but I can't help but feeling that Japan may be enacting in a peculiar way the narrative from Our Brief Eternity: forgetting of its cinematic history - perhaps Japan's real loved one - and suffering the consequences through superficial if not poor filmmaking. In Our Brief Eternity, forgetting leads to the world nearly falling apart. Is this what we will see with Japan's film world?

Minamida Yoko

The wideshows this morning were replete with stories on the death of the actress Minamida Yoko. She passed away on the 21st of a subarachnoid hemorrhage at the age of 76. Minamida entered Daiei in 1951 and first came to fame appearing in the "Seiten" (sex book) series with Wakao Ayako. She moved to Nikkatsu in 1955, the same year she appeared in Season of the Sun (Taiyo no kisetsu), the first of the sun tribe or taiyozoku films that brought Ishihara Yujiro to fame. But her co-star in that film was Nagato Hiroyuki, whom she eventually married in 1961. 

This brought her into the royal family of Japanese cinema, since Nagato's grandfather was Makino Shozo, the "father" of Japanese cinema (who discovered many of the great jidaigeki stars such as Onoe Matsunosuke and Bando Tsumasaburo); his parents, Sawamura Kunitaro (who appears in The Pot Worth a Million Ryo, and is the brother of Kato Daisuke, of Kurosawa fame) and Makino Tomoko, an actress in her own right; his uncle, the great jidaigeki and yakuza film director Makino Masahiro; and his brother, the actor Tsugawa Masahiko, who appeared in the next taiyozoku film, Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1957) and has recently been directing films using the name Makino Masahiko. 

The Japanese Wikipedia has a quite extensive diagram of the Makino family tree, which has even more famous people than I mentioned, including the man who brought us Amuro Namie and Speed.

Minamida's relationship with Nagato tended to overshadow her acting career, even though she appeared in a wide variety of films, my favorite being Kawashima Yuzo's Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (Bakumatsu taiyoden, 1957). She also was a major star on television, both in dramas and variety shows such as Music Fair, which she co-hosted with Nagato for 16 years, and Quiz Derby

She once published a book about taking care of her bedridden father-in-law, so it was perhaps ironic that when she started suffering from dementia around 2005, Nagato took care of her. This became the subject of a television documentary and other media.

Minamida was one of my more favorite actresses: bright, quick, strong and witty, if a bit melodramatic at times. She is definitely worth another look.

Kato Kazuhiko

The big news yesterday in Japan seems to be that the musician and producer Kato Kazuhiko was found dead yesterday in a hotel at Karuizawa of an apparent suicide. He was 62. 

I mention this on a film blog because, even though Kato started out in the folk boom of the late 1960s as a member of the Folk Crusaders, that was also the beginning of a long association with film. It was the Folk Crusaders who were the stars of Oshima Nagisa's Three Resurrected Drunkards (Kaette kita yopparai), a film named after the Crusader's big hit (that movie is thus generically a "kayo eiga" or pop song film). The Crusaders soon broke up and Kato formed other bands such as the Sadistic Mika Band and had other big hits such as "Ano subarashii ai o mo ichido" (which has appeared in a lot of movies), but he also started working as a songwriter and music producer and provided music for films. The most famous recent example of the latter is Izutsu Kazuyuki's Patchigi, which not only uses Kato's music, but is somewhat based on Kato's experience, when a member of the Crusaders, of trying to release a single of the North Korean folk song "Imujingawa" (that's the Japanese title), but having the company refuse the release for political reasons. (The Crusader's next hit, "Kanashikute yarekirenai" is apparently "Imujingawa" with the melody in reverse and rearranged.)

Here is the Folk Crusaders performing "Imujingawa" (Kato is the tall one playing guitar):

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2009

This was my first visit to the YIDFF in six years. I used be a coordinator at the Festival (programming New Asian Currents), edited their journal Documentary Box, and did a ton of other jobs for them. Since moving to Yale, however, I've had to hold the fort (and take care of my son) while my wife, who was also a coordinator at the YIDFF, went to the festivals in 2005 and 2007. I actually had to take care of our progeny (some say the first child born of the Festival) the last time I went in 2003 as well, so this year was the first time I really had time to see a lot of films, even if I couldn't stay for the entire festival.

It was nice to see many familiar faces, but my impression - and that of others I talked to - was that this was not the good old YIDFF. In some ways, this is inevitable: the Festival, which had been fully funded by Yamagata City, now must find money on its own as an NPO, and this big change has been accompanied by transformations in programming and programmers. It seems to be relying more on events/screenings organized by outside organizations like J-Pitch, and trying to gear itself more towards the hometown crowd. These are not necessarily bad things. Some of the J-Pitch talks were interesting, and the Films about Yamagata section featured Honda Ishiro, the director of Godzilla who not only came from Yamagata, but also directed documentaries as well. (Yamagata has always challenged the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and thus screening a fantasy film like War of the Gargantuas is not unusual.) The Directors Guild of Japan also sponsored an award for the first time (and gave me the chance to talk to Negishi Kichitaro and Kaneko Shusuke for the first time). 

But in general it seemed that the level of programming was not up to the usual YIDFF level. The film that won the top award, Encirclement, may have been on an important topic (neo-liberalism), but it did not challenge the art of documentary in the way many previous films did (unless you call a wall-to-wall interview documentary that would be no different as a written essay a challenge to the existence of documentary). Japan - A Story of Love and Hate, which won two awards and was a crowd favorite because it was filmed in Yamagata, was to me just another case of foreign stereotyping of Japan: a consternated British director, complaining at the beginning that Japanese are too unfriendly and won't open up to him, finally finds someone (named Naoki) who will tell him what he wants to hear and mistakes that for the truth about Japan. The relationship between Naoki and his girlfriend can be compelling, but the director, Sean McAllister, never questions his own approach to Japan. The producer of that film, NHK's Kotani Ryota, who gave an information-filled J-Pitch talk, still praised this film for its understanding of Japan, but I'm afraid that showed just how much NHK sees itself as either facilitating foreign confirmation of the Japanese nation or, as with the Asian films they produce, enabling Japan to be the parental facilitator of Asian directors discovering a true Asian spirit unsullied by the West (which is an example of the imperialism of multiculturalism roundly criticized by Koichi Iwabuchi and others). 

I didn't encounter a new Japanese film that really bowled me over, even though there were a number I missed. Works such as Nagai Park Elegy, The Memory of Being Here, and Memory of Spider and Moth were definitely promising, but I felt the filmmakers still had to think more about their stance towards filmmaking and how to present that in their work. While I was glad to see Takamine Go's Puppet Shaman Star, since I wrote about him in Censoring History, the Islands program did not show the impact of previous YIDFF sidebars.

Actually, the best "Japanese" works tended to be older ones, such as Memories of Agano, the opening film dedicated to its deceased director, Sato Makoto; and the Natco films shown as part of the Films about Yamagata section. The latter featured "educational" films made by the Civil Information and Education Section (CIE) of GHQ that were sent around Japan during the Occupation and shown on Natco projectors. It was great to learn "Discussion Techniques," especially since CIE's authoritarian sense of discussion (all groups must have a discussion leader or they will turn into a violent mob!) seemed to mirror both GHQ policy and the documentary form ruled by an omniscient, third-person narrator. 

Finally, the best event was not even an official one: the talk (photo below) about Tsuchimoto Noriaki that was held on Monday night at Komian, the old warehouse that functions as the social spot each night at the YIDFF. Yamane Sadao, Ueno Koshi, Suzuki Hitoshi, Suwa Nobuhiro, Ishizaka Kenji, Nakamura Hideyuki, and Fujii Jinshi had a largely productive, if somewhat overly academic discussion (there were some complaints concerning that) about the great documentarist's focus on labor and the body, the road and the dissolution of the boundaries between art and reality, and a fluid and mobile textuality that intimately involved a known audience.

It was great being at Yamagata again. I just hope the Festival eventually rebuilds itself at the end of its great transformation.


Jujiro and Other Cut-Rate Japanese DVDs

Sorry again for the lapse in reports. I came down with the flu (yes, THAT flu) and then headed off to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (I'll report on that later).

I returned to find a package from Amazon that I thought I should report on.

As some of you may know, cut rate DVDs (usually priced at about 1000 yen, instead of the usual 4000-5000 yen) have been appearing in Japan for the last few years, most of which try to take advantage of the fact that films made before 1954 are technically public domain. Some have been the subject of court cases, as especially producers of Kurosawa's films have successfully argued in court that at least his films are still protected by copyright.

Still, many other films are coming out on these labels, though most are unknown, unacclaimed works that may interest only diehard fans or those who like the genre (there are a lot of jidaigeki). But perhaps to avoid the problems experienced with the court cases, some companies have recently been putting out really old films, including silent works in a market where the majors have mostly ignored silent films except by famous directors (such as the recent Criterion box on Ozu Yasujiro).

I was thus extremely surprised to see that Kinugasa Teinosuke's Jujiro (Crossroads, 1928) has recently been put out on DVD by one of these cut-rate labels, Disk Plan, in their Nihon Meisaku Gekijo series. I have of course been hoping that Kinugasa's A Page of Madness would come out on DVD since I wrote a book on the film, but progress on that has been slow (I recently found out that it looks like I might have to personally step in to get the ball rolling).

I bought a copy of Jujiro to check it out and, thankfully, the visuals are pretty good for the price (1000 yen). It is 74 minutes in length, which means they probably did at silent speed. There is no music, no menu, no chapters, and of course no subtitles, but given that this has never even come out officially on VHS (unlike Page of Madness, which came out on VHS in the USA about 20 years ago - that's likely the source for the bootleg VHS tapes and DVDs being sold on the net), it was amazing to see this. I wonder where they got the print. 

I also bought the DVD of Onoe Matsunosuke's Yaji Kita (1922) from the same company. That is much the same as Jujiro (though with few intertitles - as was the style at Nikkatsu in those years - the story is largely incomprehensible). Given that little of any Mattchan's films exist, let alone have come out on DVD, this was also a find.

Disk Plan has especially been putting out DVDs of silent films, some of which have also come out on regular labels for much more. But be careful: sometimes the prints they are using are quite different and the running time can be half of what exists elsewhere.

Some people on the net report some cases of bad DVD pressing, but my copies worked fine.

One list of such films is here.

I bought my copies through (for those of you who can't read Japanese, you can try this link to their English page). You may be able to find them elsewhere. You can also apparently get them on the street in places like Akihabara.

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