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The Expert's Eye
JStyle caught up with Roger Pulvers near his home on Sydney's North Shore to probe his thoughts on the international impact of Japanese cinema. Roger writes a weekly column, Counterpoint, for The Japan Times where he critiques various social, cultural, linguistic and media-related issues faced by modern-day Japan. The eloquent and engaging man who gave the Japanese Film Festival-featured movie The Face of Jizo its English title and translated the original play into English, was happy to share these anecdotes and observations with us.

Roger Pulvers (author, playwright and theatre director)
Roger was born in New York in 1944. He studied at UCLA and Harvard Graduate School before doing post-graduate studies in Warsaw and Paris. He relocated to Japan in 1967 and has published more than 25 books in both English and Japanese. His plays have been performed in Australia, Japan and the US and he was assistant director on the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Roger became an Australian citizen in 1976.
Roger's role in the making of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence
"I befriended Nagisa Oshima in 1981 at a retrospective of his films put on by the Australian Film Institute. When he came to Australia I went around the country with him as his interpreter. He gave me a script that he had which was based on Laurens van der Post's story The Seed and the Sower. He said he was making it into a film and I read it and was very moved by it.
"In April 1982 he wrote to me and asked me to be his assistant director. We filmed the movie in the Cook Islands in August and September 1982 and we did some scenes in Auckland as well. I interpreted for Oshima and the foreign actors, trying to solve all sorts of major and minor problems. It was an initiation-by-fire into a very trying and demanding role.
"I can look at the film and know that just outside the frame I'm crouching there always worried that my foot was going to get in the frame. It was just an amazing experience."

A background of Japanese cinema
"The Japanese have had a vibrant cinema scene for almost 100 years but pre-war Japanese cinema, as good as it was, with great directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Shiro Toyota and so on, only had only a minimal impact on the outside world. For a number of reasons; obviously Japan was considered an exotic culture, the visual cinema language in particular and the way a narrative was constructed and presented were very non-Hollywood. If anything, it was closer to German and French cinema of the pre-war period. At the time Japan was a country of 100 million people and cinema was very popular so they did not actually need success overseas to pay for production costs. However after the war Japanese cinema was reborn in two ways; some of the pre-war directors started making films again, the most notable being Ozu and Mizoguchi, and a new crop of film directors, the most famous of whom was Akira Kurosawa, began to work with the established studios like Shochiku, Toho and so on.
"From the early '50s these films began to garner particular acclaim in Europe but not in America. In America they were, and to a certain extent still are with few exceptions, art films. Americans don't like subtitled films - something which made foreign cinema a minor market in the US. But in Europe, Kenji Mizoguchi won the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion for Ugetsu (1953), a film based on the classic, Ugetsu Monogatari. In addition, Kurosawa's Rashomon made a huge impact on European audiences. However the films of Ozu didn't become popular outside of Japan until after his death in 1963. But here we are talking about non-Hollywood modes of narration and of creating character and Japanese scenes and historical themes exotic to Western audiences.
"Even when the setting is in modern Japan, it was very hard, and still is to an extent, for Western audiences to see past these manners and trappings of culture. Let's face it, Western audiences are hung up on these things and think of Japan as a bizarre location. This can be seen in what are essentially 'Western hang-up' films like Memoirs of a Geisha. But the cinematic brilliance of Kurosawa in particular stunned European audiences and had an effect on a lot of young European and American directors, Steven Spielberg being only one of many.
"Kurosawa was a visual artist who had a painterly approach to film composition. He was a graphic artist in his own right, and when he did a storyboard of a film he actually drew or painted almost every scene. If you look at the framing and the presentation of each scene you will see a tremendous artistic integrity; that it's not just people standing around talking and it's not an artificial compositional thing either. Each scene builds dramatically and visually to the next to make up a whole. It's like going through a huge art gallery of paintings by Rembrandt or by one such artist and each one is stunning but it just builds up an incredible impression until you come out with the whole sense of having seen a unified work of art. There are not many directors who can do this. He was appreciated mostly in the West for his period dramas but he was a master of recreating contemporary Japan as well."

Japanese cinema in the U.S. market
"The first Japanese film that was a commercial success in the US to my knowledge was Godzilla in 1954. I saw it as a child and because it was dubbed into English, it wasn't until I subsequently arrived in Japan that I realised it was a Japanese film; I thought it was an American film! There were art-house successes like Kurosawa's films but otherwise I don't think there were any Japanese films that were a commercial success in the US."

The new generation of Japanese filmmakers
"In the early '60s there was a new generation of post-war filmmakers; the most well-known being Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Yoji Yamada and Shohei Imamura. These filmmakers started to make films about much more contemporary issues and Japanese life in the post-war period. Oshima's films were about alienated youth and the war experience, Shinoda made all sorts of films including some about gangsters, Yoji Yamada took up with the Otoko wa tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) film series among others, and Imamura made black comedies and films about war as well.
"Since then, Oshima has been incapacitated by a stroke, and Imamura has passed away. Yamada is very active. His latest film, a samurai period piece titled Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun), showed at the Tokyo International Film Festival held at the end of October. He recently told me that he is in preproduction for another film, set in Japan during the war, which he plans to shoot early next year. Shinoda's latest film is Spy Sorge (2003), about the famous wartime spy, Richard Sorge.
"Takeshi Kitano stands out among the next generation of filmmakers. As Beat Takeshi, he was a wildly popular comedian on television, making his entry into serious film as an actor in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Subsequently, Kitano went on to make a number of films, some of them rather violent, which have received acclaim at Japanese and foreign film festivals. Masayuki Suo also took the Japanese film world by storm, particularly with his comedy-of-manners nerd movie, Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992) and Shall We Dance? (1996), both of which were released in Australia. Shall We Dance? was, for its time, the highest grossing foreign movie in US history and in 2004 was remade as an American movie."

Remakes of Japanese films by Hollywood
"Hollywood has been stealing, in the best sense, ideas and stories from all over the world for decades, for a century. So it's not only Japanese films that they are remaking. Americans are very good at taking somebody else's ideas, repackaging them and selling them to the world. They did it with pizza and now they're doing it with coffee!
"I think they have picked up mainly on the horror genre and there is a confluence of B-minus cinema that goes on in both America and Japan. There's a kind of preference in a certain layer of the cinema-going public that goes for this sort of film. Even though The Seven Samurai was taken up as The Magnificent Seven, I don't see this as a particularly American passion for things Japanese. One huge example which is often overlooked is The Lion King. The story of The Lion King is based on the manga and anime called Kimba the White Lion originally created by Osamu Tezuka of Astro Boy fame. Tezuka and his estate were apparently so respectful of Disney that when Disney approached them for the story, it is said they gave it to them, which to my mind is a crime against humanism."

Hollywood's take on Japan
"I've already mentioned Memoirs of a Geisha, which feeds on the Western urge to see Japan as an exotic setting. Ever since the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Westerners have longed for the quaint and 'vanishing' Japan. If Japan has been vanishing little by little for the past 150 years, I'm surprised that there's anything left of the place at all! As for Lost in Translation, Japan was in this film a mere backdrop of bizarre images and two-dimensional cameos for the 'real' drama that exists in the lives of sensitive Americans.

"I'd like to say that Hollywood has come a long way in some senses, but it has come nowhere as far as Japan is concerned. Hollywood is still discovering the Japan of 150 years ago. That's why the Japan Film Festival is so important; because it's Japan on its own terms."

Roger's Favourite Japanese Films
1. Ikiru (To Live, 1952), directed by Akira Kurosawa. A modern story about a man suffering from stomach cancer.
2. Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. A story set after the war about a widower and his young daughter.
3. Sen to Chihiro no Kami-kakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), directed by Hayao Miyazaki. An animated film about greed and passion, set in the most unusual public bathhouse in the world.

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