[From January Issue 2012]
I first became interested in Japanese films in 1971 when I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. I had the good luck to see KUROSAWA Akira’s “Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)” and OZU Yasujiro’s “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story),” which made me aware that Japan made extraordinary films with extraordinary directors and actors.
MIFUNE Toshiro, SHIMURA Takashi, HARA Setsuko and RYU Chishu so perfectly embodied certain human ideals in their performances (Mifune’s boldness, Shimura’s wisdom, Hara’s selflessness, Ryu’s tolerance) that, from this limited acquaintance, I started to idealize the nation that had produced them.
When I came to Japan in 1975 I was still a great fan of Kurosawa and Ozu, but I soon realized that Shimura’s samurai leader and Hara’s war widow, who so nobly sacrificed themselves for others, were creations of another era. The young Japanese I met had more in common with their individualistic American counterparts. Many wanted to taste the pleasures of the big city or to see something of the world beyond Japan. They were willing (or resigned) to becoming the students or salarymen or housewives that society expected, but they also wanted to live for themselves, in ways an older generation might have considered selfish.
I studied Japanese for five years, but understanding Japanese films without subtitles, especially those set in earlier eras, was hard. I studied the script of Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” with my teacher, looking up unfamiliar words, but when I saw it in the theater its feudal-era language placed a veil between me and the characters.
The film that finally tore away that veil was ITAMI Juzo’s “Ososhiki” (The Funeral, 1984). This smartly observed but gentle-spirited black comedy was in a Japanese I could understand, about the sort of people I saw around me, who were humanly fallible creatures of modern society, with all its temptations and freedoms. Watching the middle-aged hero anxiously study an instructional video on proper funeral etiquette or the mourners twitch in pain from sitting too long in seiza, I not only laughed but sympathized. They were not ideals, but instead true to the Japan I had come to know.
After that I watched not only every new Itami film, but those by other directors who were saying something interestingly real (or surreal) about contemporary Japanese life, such as MORITA Yoshimitsu (“Kazoku Ge-mu/The Family Game,” 1983), OBAYASHI Nobuhiko (“Pekin Teki Suika/Beijing Watermelon,” 1989), SOMAI Shinji (“Taifu Kurabu/Typhoon Club,” 1985), TSUKAMOTO Shinya (“Tetsuo/The Iron Man,” 1989) and TAKITA Yojiro (“Kimurake no Hitobito/The Yen Family,” 1988). Kurosawa and Ozu made me fall in love with Japanese films; Itami and his contemporaries made me think they still might be worth seeing.
That was not a common view among writers about Japanese films in the English-language media in the 1980s. The consensus of these critics was that Japanese cinema was in sharp decline. Reactions to new films usually ranged from anger to mockery. I could understand the bad reviews for the latest idol film, but I also thought these critics were blinkered by their nostalgia for a Golden Age. In my opinion Kurosawa was a better director than Itami, but Itami’s better films had more to say about the realities – and absurdities – of the bubble era. That was worth celebrating.
So when I was finally given a chance to review Japanese films by “The Japan Times,” my first choice was “Bakayaro! 2: Shiawase ni Naritai/Damn! 2 I Want to be Happy” (1989), a three-part comedy anthology supervised by MORITA Yoshimitsu. Though not a great film, it had something funny and true to say about present-day Japanese, especially their frustrations, loudly expressed by the characters with the title epithet.
And by this time I better understood what they were saying and feeling, thanks to Itami and company. Classic Japanese films were my timeless inspiration, but contemporary films were – and continue to be – my education about Japan in the here-and-now.
Text: Mark SCHILLING