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Japan columnist Bryan Hartzheim pays tribute to three fallen Japanese film icons the only way he knows how -- with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
A Barrel of Slippery Eels
In the span of a couple weeks, Japanese cinema lost three notable employees from its ranks: actors Takahiro Tamura (d. May 16) and Masumi Okada (d. May 29), and writer/director Shohei Imamura (d. May 30). In the case of the latter two, it was a matter of a couple days and the difference between throat and stomach cancer. Very big blows to Japanese cinema, but be honest -- youíve probably heard of no more than one of these figures.
Out of the three, Tamura is arguably the least known and yet has appeared in more films than Okada and Imamura dipped their hands in combined. He was born in 1928 as the son of Tsumasaburo Bando, a fine actor of mostly samurai films. Bando was the star of Hiroshi Inagaki and Masahiro Makinoís Takadanobaba Duel, a film nearly impossible to find now due to age. That was back when Japanese studios still bankrolled the samurai flick as regularly as the Hollywood western, and to give you an impression of how much things have changed, Takadanobaba is now an urban stop a couple stations from Shinjuku famous for its college town atmosphere and dozens of good ramen shops.
Anyway, Tamura has been in over 90 films that you havenít heard of, and of the ones you have, you might not remember him. Heís in Tora, Tora, Tora, for example, and heís one of the generals or lieutenants of the Japanese army, I believe, but which one I just canít place my finger on. He started out like his father, working studio samurai pics, and getting starting gigs in smaller film and TV dramas when those films became impossible to finance. Tamuraís last starring role was in Muddy River, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1981, but since that he scaled down his appearances for smaller roles. Muddy River is supposedly typical of the sort of melodramas Tamura plied his trade in.
If youíre reading this, you might be thinking, letís get to the guy Iíve heard of, and if youíre Japanese, you probably wonít be thinking of the guy who did Unagi. Most Japanese know that movie, but most donít care to know who guided it. Japan is a country whose popular faces are faces, not filmographies. Some may have heard of Imamura, but when he passed away in late May, everyone was talking about the other movie guy who died of cancer, Masumi Okada.
If you want to know about Okada, you can't really look him up in IMDb. You'd find out the basic biographical data: he was born in 1935 in Nice to a Japanese father and Danish mother, making him a fond fellow hapa like myself. But if you want to get a good picture of him, you can start by watching Takumi Furukawa and Yujiro Ishihara's Season of the Sun. He doesn't have much of a part, and the film belongs to Ishihara's petulant James Dean-like persona, but Okada is cast perfectly as a gyrating bandmaster crooning at the sultry nightclub Ishihara and actress Yoko Minamida dance with each other in. There's a certain bored sexuality to the mood of the place, a sensual but indifferent atmosphere that Okada, simultaneously clutching his microphone while casting suggestive glances at every patron of the club, creates himself. You get the feeling that Okada could get any girl in the club, but the fact to him is neither here nor there. That's a large part of Okada right there: the reputation of a playboy in the shell of a lot of other roles.
You tend to get noticed here when you're on TV. Takeshi Kitano isn't a celebrity for Sonatine; he's a household name for "Beat" Takeshi, the comedy show host and leader of his own troupe of prime-time players. Okada was a comedian and a singer, a TV game show host and a Master of Ceremonies. For that last one he was particularly excellent; his roles in films are essentially the same: poorly acted. But he had a reputation as a great MC, witty and charismatic and charming, with an ability to effortlessly make a crowd of different types meeting for the first time mingle and make a party charged. He was your Japanese Bob Hope.
You wouldn't necessarily get this from his films. He wasn't very versatile, and he usually was miscast in whatever film he was in, playing doctors or professors or ambassadors or other largely intellectual roles. He wasn't made so much for the movies, but he had enough talents to make it work in the other fields. Strangely enough, the one who grew up in movies, Imamura, initially despised them, or at least what he felt was the Japanese rigidity in making movies.
Imamura started under Ozu at Shochiku Studios, but soon grew impatient with the director's diagrammed camera and rigid direction of actors. To Imamura, there was no fundamental change in the Japanese people following World War II. The Japanese, to him, were somehow closer to their animal instincts than most any other culture, and they "hadn't changed in thousands of years!" Imamura had little experience working with foreigners outside of the hired American goons he staffed to be both symbolic and literal swine in his Pigs and Battleships, but he felt strongly about this sentiment. He claimed to be baffled by the international prestige, commenting smugly in an interview that he really didn't know what foreign audiences could glean from his films, which he believed hinged on a specific Japanese consciousness or understanding of the culture.
Imamura's oeuvre endorses the advice Henry James dispensed to critics and the art of criticism, namely, to allow the writer his donnee before evaluating his work. It's not hard to dissect Imamura's thesis on a simply empirical level; one doesn't have to be a cultural anthropologist to glean that the Japanese, or any decent civilization for that matter, are concerned with social appearances. An attention to quiet dignity and grace amidst the wailing and whining public hysteria of our media-centered society isn't necessarily a deplorable idea. Imamura made riveting cinema, regardless. I haven't seen enough of his 20 feature-length films to make enough of a fair assessment, but the man was clearly a director in the sense that while he might have claimed to have operated on a single idea, he still made pictures as varied as Akira Kurosawa. Vengeance is Mine is a rather pointless film, if you ask me, but its depiction of the unmitigated evil of a serial killer is as far removed from Unagi as you can get.
What I admire most in all of the Imamura films I've seen is their remarkable pacing. The man can start a film with a husband brutally stabbing his adulterous wife to death with a monster-sized knife, and then make the rest of his picture a romantic comedy. Black Rain isn't a great achievement, but how Imamura manages to transition from shots of charred babies and melting flesh to bits of slapstick and ironic wordplay is a beautiful thing indeed.
There was that desultory period in the late '50s and early '60s, where it was pretty much Kurosawa and Kaneta Shindo working the ranks, though the former couldn't even get his pictures financed. Imamura helped form the Japanese New Wave with Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Seijun Suzuki, and a few others during this period. These weren't the same pioneers as the French; Imamura idolized Kurosawa, but he pretty much explicitly expresses disdain for much of the cinematic discipline that came before. He directly addresses as much in his version of The Ballad of Narayama, a Japanese folktale originally adapted to the screen by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1958. The Kinoshita version is brief and deliberate and works wonderfully at creating a slowly building agony. Nature is part of a handsome backdrop to the grief of small human dramas. Not so in the Imamura version. Imamura loved highlighting the carnal appetites of our relationships. Shindo did as much, but there was a specific nausea toward this breakdown of civilization in films like Onibaba. Imamura relished it; in his films, the line between civilization and barbarity is thinner than you would imagine, but to him, this was okay. His Ballad is long and full of fucking and fighting, but it's a new and rare contribution: a remake that is a complete re-interpretation of an older story and film, but remains a fantastic piece of moviemaking. He had a rare gift: both an ear and an eye for the absurd, and he could make the crudities of life somewhat serene and digestible, even with his frequent violent strokes.
Off the set, Imamura reportedly disdained Ozu's overly formal relationship with actors, but Ozu was fond of Chishu Ryu and the two had a friendly non-working relationship. Ozu's lack of social graces weren't so much a stigma toward his actors -- whom he respected but felt he had to rein in to achieve his desired result -- but rather an affection toward his mother, whom he stayed with until her death.
But if you listen to Imamura in interviews, you'd think he was the next Robert Altman. After Imamura's death, Koji Yakusho offered up a quote that the director was "a treasure" of Japanese cinema. Yakusho gets top billing currently in nearly every film he's a part of because of his start with Imamura, so I find Mitsuko Baisho's clear, unsentimental lines here to be of more use, considering Baisho worked with Imamura on more films than any other actress:
"Well, he was a good director, and he liked to try and get a lot out of us. It was tough. I remember he would scream at us and walk off the set. But I believe he was still a good man. He wanted to get the best out of us to get the best out of his films."
For all of that animal instinct and carnal appetite, it appears he was as controlling behind the lens as any demanding director. It's probably of no comfort to Imamura that he might end up being linked to other Japanese directors through elements of perfectionism, but there you have it. Baisho provides post-obitum a unique contribution to the argument of art: careful technique and composition don't dictate the randomness of life, but they certainly shape great product. Imamura's work was inspired by animal cravings, but it wasn't shaped by them. His art ironically proves the example, not the exception.
Date Posted: 7/13/2006