- 8 December 2003
by Jasper Sharp
Donald Richie should need no introduction to Japanophiles around the world. A long-term resident of Tokyo since he arrived in the chaos of post-war Japan, he has written numerous books on a diversity of subjects about Japanese life and culture, including his travelogue, The Inland Sea, the comprehensive Japanese Literature Reviewed, his first-person account of some of the country's most important figures of the twentieth century, Public People, Private People, and his look at fads and fashions in The Image Factory.
Of course, he is best known to Midnight Eye readers for his groundbreaking works on Japanese cinema, including books on Kurosawa and Ozu, the first ever in-depth look at Japanese cinema in The Japanese Film: Art And Industry, co-written with Joseph L. Anderson, and his more recent reappraisal, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. He was also active in the experimental filmmaking scene of the 1950s and 60s.
To celebrate the centenary of Yasujiro Ozu's birth, Jasper Sharp met up with Donald Richie in Tokyo to talk about his relationship with Ozu, and his broader life in Japan and its colourful arts scene over the past few decades.
It is now about 50 years since Ozu's heyday. What relevance do these films still have for today's generation of viewers worldwide?
Well I think that the strongest appeal of Ozu is, certainly one of the things he was most concerned with, was character. The way he worked, the kind of films that he made - the major interest was people, how they react, how they don't react. The way he made a film, for example, was that he and his fellow writer Kogo Noda would write the dialogue first, without even knowing who was going to say it. They wanted to create characters out of dialogue. Then they allocated the dialogue to the people who became the characters, and it was only later on that they decided the locations where this should happen. Usually most films are written the other way around: they get the settings and then they put the people in them and then they decide what's going to be said. Ozu's films are made completely backwards from that, so consequently there's a rightness, there's a logic, there's an inevitability, there's a reality about the character. The main thing we feel when we watch an Ozu film for the first time is that we don't want it to end. We don't want to leave these people. I've heard this from people over and over again. So since this is a universal thing, and since it never gets old-fashioned, and is the same thing we desire and look for in all films, no matter how new or old they are, I think that this is the strongest point. I don't think anyone in Japanese film could create character as well as Ozu does, and I think that through the characters the films remain alive.
Do you think Western critics or viewers sometimes have a problem seeing past the "Japanese-ness" of these pictures?
They've certainly been warned against it often enough. Maybe in a picture like Seven Samurai or Ugetsu they can't see past the surface exoticism. But Ozu is not exotic. If people look at an Andy Hardy film, they should be able to understand Ozu, shouldn't they? Ozu is home drama, but home drama pushed to the heights of art. And it is this that can be felt with Ozu. Certainly Ozu felt that he was making home drama. When he was dying of throat cancer in 1963 his producer, Shiro Kido, came to see him and one of the last things Ozu said was "Well, it looks like home drama all the way."
And he was continuously playing down the claims that people were making for his works as big artistic films. They are big artistic films but they are not artistic in the self-conscious way like a lot of art films are. It was very firmly based in his life and what he knew, and his art, which he called his "craft", existed entirely in presentation. The presentation was so arranged that it heightened the humanity of his characters. If you look at the Ozu compositions, you'll find that famously the viewpoint is down at 3 feet off the floor; the camera never moves its head, it never runs after a character. It is excessively concerned with composition. It is shown from that low angle so that the perspective won't get in the way of that composition. The lines on the tatami mat would bother him, for example. Composition was extraordinarily important and it is almost Mondriaan-like, a square abstraction, so that the people can be seen as more vagrant, more curved, more discursive, in this inhuman matrix of right angles. Then you can see the frailty of the human beings. I think this is one of the things that Ozu wants us to see.
His theme is not the Japanese family, as everyone says it is. It is the dissolution, the coming apart, of the Japanese family. All of this plays extremely well given his extraordinarily minimal demands, the fact that he makes this almost cage-like construct for people to be human in. Noticing similarities with other directors as Paul Schrader did in his book, allows him to link Ozu with Bresson and with Dreyer. And he's quite right to do so because all of these directors share this same concern. Bresson knew he was making art, and he knew he was an artist. Dreyer was a workman who had artistic aspirations. Ozu was a craftsman who pushed his craft up to the level of art. He himself famously said, "I don't know anything about this. I only know how to make tofu. I can make fried tofu, boiled tofu, stuffed tofu. Cutlets and other fancy stuff, that's for other directors." And this he truly believed. This is not affectation. It's this wonderful combination of the completely quotidian, the completely mundane, with the, well Paul Schrader called it the transcendental - something that goes beyond what is available to the eye, and which makes the reverberations of a film like Late Spring or Tokyo Story so extraordinary so long after they were made.
In terms of the aesthetic then, there's nothing intrinsically Japanese about how the films look…
Certainly not when they were made, no. He was very careful. He hated locations. He liked complete control. Everything was a set. He did it because he wanted control to that extent. I mean when you compare the Ozu script with the Ozu film, there's no discrepancy. The script is a blueprint. Everything is already decided. There's not any room for spontaneity, or anything like that. It is going to be done exactly like it was in the script. So consequently he needed it to look as realistic as possible. And so, 1954, '55, '56 are there, preserved on the screen exactly as they are, forever. However, we're now in 2003, and there are no more interiors like that in Japan, and there are no more people who act like that in Japan. The youngsters don't act like that anymore. So what we have in Ozu appreciation in this country is a retro appreciation, like appreciating Andy Hardy or Doris Day or something like that. Abroad, it still doesn't look as exotic as it does to the Japanese. The kids know what it is because they've seen pictures, but where they live looks nothing like where the Ozu characters live. They don't have the tatami anymore, they don't have fusuma [paper doors]. Today these features of Japanese architecture are not included any more, and so we don't have that severity. So they can look at an Ozu film as a trip to grandpa's house.
The foreigner, unless he knows something about Japan, will still think it looks like this. So therefore the exotic factor doesn't figure in. A lot of Japanese are dismayed that Ozu should be so popular with foreigners, because if you are popular abroad it means you can't be truly Japanese, because you wouldn't be understood. So the Japanese here are the first to cast the accusation that "it's only exoticism…" But I don't think anyone in America or in Europe finds Ozu's films particularly exotic. And so it's the similarities they discover. It's very easy to discover the similarities in home dramas since homes are basically all the same and I think one of the things that is so reassuring to the foreigner about the Ozu film is how approachable it is, despite its length, despite its slowness, despite its lack of car wrecks.
You have labelled Ozu a "modernist". One thing that struck me, in terms of modern Japan, the surface details such as the costumes and the iconography seem to have changed, but the internal dynamics of the family are still very consistent with what Ozu was doing…
Well, falling apart is what he was saying, and indeed, it has fallen apart.
I found Early Spring a particularly interesting diversion in this respect, in that the portrayal of the relationships between the characters in the office environment is kept very distinct from that of the family. How does this fit into Ozu's world view?
Yes, things like that. When Ozu touches on a financial fact, crucially it has never been reformed. And so that is still going on. However, the closeness of the family that we observe in films like Early Summer, this has gone. That is why the retro-boom appeals so much in Japan. When they show Ozu films in Japan now, there are lines around the block. But there are two kinds of people. There are people that want to see them over again, and also there's young people, because they know of Ozu's reputation, and they certainly know about the modernist connection, so we can talk a little about this modernist connection now.
Remember that when Ozu started making films in the 1920s, this was the time that Europe, and consequently Japan, was becoming interested in the possibilities of the new way of observing, which is much less fussy, much less Victorian, much less Edwardian, stripped down through the age of the century of progress, the new silver bullet train in Chicago, new techniques of air resistance in design. Everything was being streamed down. Art as well, with Art Deco. Art Deco is self-conscious about its own design in the way that Ozu's films are. Ozu was very fond of Art Deco. If you look at the number of his sets, they are very Art Deco, very modernist in their design.
He didn't know anything about mainstream modernism, by which I mean James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, all the other people who were doing modernist literature. He knew mainly through what he observed about what came in from Europe and America, the kind of modernism which you could see in Japanese cafés in Ginza.
There's this idea of cutting down, of restriction, of making things coherent by making them less, an avoidance of any redundancy and this great ability to make the continuity without all the links, leaving the audience the option, or the necessity to do this. In most Ozu pictures, for example, the wedding is left out. This idea of leaving out these links and testing your audience to make the links with you, or build the bridge halfway to you, these are all attributes of modernism as a literary form. And so, for these reasons, plus a tremendous influence of European photography - that is still photography, or art photography - on Ozu who would use these still lives to make something like he'd already seen in photographic magazines, all of this gives a modernist tinge to everything he did. So there are two things; he's a traditional artist and a traditional aesthetician, because he knew Japanese aesthetics. At the same time he was a real modernist. He used the modernist visual vocabulary, and would very often take the plots of American films. A lot of his best films take their inspiration from films he had seen.
Ozu never used fade-outs or dissolves in his later films, so I'm interested in Ozu's celebrated scene transitions, where he moves between scenes by use of exterior shots such as factory smoke stacks, laundry hanging on washing lines, trains, etc. Are these merely to establish the new location, or can we read some more editorial comment into these?
In the literature they've been regarded in certain ways. In some places they are near the location of the next place you're going to. It could be a gas tank or it could be a clothing line or something like that, and then you move in. These are transitions. These are copulatives, like "and" or "or". And in the language of cinema these move you in without losing you. And his motion is always from the outer location first, and then the next scene is, for example the smoke stacks, which we know is very near the location where we're going. And then you see the back yard, with the roof where the father is going to be. And then you go inside the house… So these are stepping stones. Ozu uses them almost invariably.
All directors have to face the problems of how they have to reticulate space, not only the space within their own frame, but certainly the space outside of it. Someone like Renoir decided that they could do this best by insisting that there was something outside of the frame, so a lot of a Renoir picture occurs outside the frame and we don't see it. Ozu does not do that, but he is extremely careful about the space he shows us, making sure that we never get lost. He has other indications of this. Music is almost never used over dialogue. Instead we wait till we get to a bridge, and then we have the hymn, tune or whatever it is, until the bridge is over. These are discrete units which act as bridges. This is similar to the way a Japanese garden is made. We have a "scene" in a Japanese Edo-period scenic garden, and then you move along and you see the old scene juxtaposed with the new scene, which gives a new meaning to the both of them. Then there's another bridge between another corner; there's the one you're going to see, and this is juxtaposed with the one you've just seen, everything changing and shifting. I don't know if he thought of this as a metaphor, but this is how things were made and I think this is one of the reasons why he did this. So I think his concerns are spatial and they're also narratological.
A large proportion of Ozu's films are actually silent…
Ozu was the last major director to switch to sound, in 1936. He was actually very conservative in some ways. Technically he was very conservative. He didn't like the idea of sound very much. A lot of directors didn't, but he was actually in a position to hold off against it. His first sound film, The Only Son, was a technical disaster, and the problem with the film now is that you just can't hear the dialogue. Colour also he fought against. He wouldn't make his first colour picture till 1958. Also he fought against the different size screens, such as widescreen. "That's nothing but toilet paper" he said.
It seems strange that his sound films are so dialogue driven, and how famed Ozu and his scriptwriter Kogo Noda were for the care and attention they spent on the script.
Well, it certainly seemed backwards to Hollywood to make a movie like that, and it is certainly not very cost efficient, but on the other hand, he didn't have to worry about that. He had a very trusting studio, who believed in every one of his films, because they would always make money. And if he wanted to, he could take a year to make a picture, taking 9 months to write the script with his crony. At the end of shooting Tokyo Story he said "103 days, and 43 bottles of saké". He got plastered everyday, writing back and forth with Noda, and making sure he was completely satisfied with the end script. There's an inner logic that is really quite wonderful about the Ozu dialogue. I don't know of anything, except in the work of the great playwrights, that has that quality, where you can actually follow the ideas as they are being formed. I just published the new translation of the script for Tokyo Story. Just read Tokyo Story - don't read it for the story. Read it for the ideas. Just watch where they open up from - nothing. There is never any inconsistency with the dialogue. Only the very finest dialogue is like that. By finest, I mean, dialogue that wants to push the narration forward, and I don't mean Shakespeare, who was very bad in this respect. I mean someone like Labiche, who will allow the listener to follow the logic of the thinking . The French were very good at that.
How much of Ozu's silent work remains in existence?
I'm not sure of the exact numbers offhand, but they keep discovering reels that were mislabelled in the can, or were believed to be lost, so even since my book on Ozu was published [in 1974], the situation has changed. At the end of the new publication of Tokyo Story, I have a complete filmography as it is now. These silent films are mostly available. The first seven or eight are gone, forever, but around the ninth or tenth you start to have bits of them and before very long it gets complete, but there are some wartime films that are gone, and some pre-war films that are gone.
So the films are available. In fact, these days they are even more available because Shochiku has just released four boxes of DVDs of them.
They didn't put any subtitles on them, did they?
"You idiots! What are you doing?!", I told the company, and they said "Well, our people don't really want that." I said, "You don't know who your people are. You could sell this all over the world." And anyway, nobody listened.
However, the rights to all the Ozu titles were bought by Criterion, so they have already issued a splendid new edition of Tokyo Story. They are coming over here to talk to me about The Story of Floating Weeds, the 1934 silent film which they are releasing repackaged with the 1959 remake. They're going to release all the Ozu pictures one by one, so they will all be made available at some point.
You met Ozu on several occasions before he died. What was he like as a person?
I didn't know him closely. I met him at parties. He was a big party person. He loved to drink. He would never assert himself. He would never even stand up and make announcements, he'd prefer sitting down someplace. He would talk to anyone who would talk to him, but he was a very private person. I mean, I don't think anyone got really close to him as a soul-mate.
The one time I was really with him one-to-one was on the set of Late Spring. I was there when they were filming the inn sequence, so I could watch him work, and he was all about work. In meeting with journalists, for example, you got the feeling that this was a man who was all about work. There's a lot of people like that. John Ford was like that. If it's not about work then he's not interested. Kurosawa was the epitome of that. You couldn't talk to Kurosawa about anything except the next picture. There was no small talk at all. I was writing my book on Kurosawa and I wanted him to talk about the older films. He was very vague and not interested in the slightest.
I think Ozu was fairly like that, because he never tried to evaluate anything that he'd done, even from the security of his success. He was sort of like an indulgent father with his children. He was always worried about the next one coming up. He was a true craftsman. I think craftsmen feel about their work like that. So what was he like as person? How would I know…
It's funny that Ozu's films were all about family, but he lived with his mother all his life. He never married at all.
Well, all the better to watch families then, maybe. He didn't have to endure them. But it's absolutely true. He lived with his mother, and in fact she died only two or three years before he did. He was never romantically linked. He had a lot of girl friends, but I think they treated him in a fairly avuncular manner - Uncle Ozu. I don't think anyone put her legs together when he came in the room. There's a lot of great creators like this. I don't know this, but I've heard that there was something vaguely asexual about Ozu. They're very common, people like that. They are so into their work that they don't concern themselves with that. Whatever fun they get from sex has already been sublimated into their work. I know several people like that. I don't mean that he didn't have an emotional life but it wasn't on that level. He had very, very close friends. He used to hang around with literary people. His cameraman he was very close to. A couple of actresses - he was obviously very close to Setsuko Hara. He led a very active social life.
When did the West become aware of Ozu's films?
I think it was in 1958 when an enterprising entrepreneur had a screening in London of "Their First Trip To Tokyo" as it was called then, or Tokyo Story. This excited interest in certain film critics and so the reputation started then, and it stopped right then, because nothing happened after that. The next chance Europe had to see Ozu was my doing. I talked Shochiku into letting me take five Ozu films to the Berlin Film Festival in 1963. And then at the festival they were seen by a number of people who hadn't seen them before, and they were all sold, which was an encouragement. This allowed me to make a much larger retrospective so I took them to other festivals, and that's how it all started.
From the first he was very popular. The critics took much longer to warm up to him. They didn't know what he was doing. It's quite possible to look at Ozu and see a melodrama, and only a melodrama. It's also possible to look at something like Glenmorangie whiskey and see nothing but a bottle. It depends how you look at it.
So at this time people started paying attention. Then books started coming out. Noel Burch's book To The Distant Observer paid a lot of attention to Ozu. Then came my book on Ozu, then came David Bordwell's book, which was very good indeed, and from then on he was pretty much critically set. But when he died in 1963, all of this was unknown.
As far as his contemporaries went, was anyone doing the same sort of thing as Ozu?
Oh yes. In a way, everyone was. If you look at Japanese films in the 1930s, you'll see an almost excessive amount of modernist concerns. At the Filmex festival this year there's a retrospective of Ozu's great friend and contemporary Hiroshi Shimizu. If you look at a film like Japanese Girls at The Harbour (1933), and look at how things are framed, then you can see this is a known accent of the period. A number of directors where using this modernist accent, this dialect. Shimizu is the one we think of mainly, but there's others: Heinosuke Gosho, and a lot of lesser known directors for example. But no one carried it to the extremes of Ozu, mainly because nobody could. The producers would get in the way and say things like, "No, no. We've got to have a theme song at the end." Ozu never had this problem because his company liked him the way he was, and they knew that the audiences liked his films the way they were. He had a freedom that was only rivalled by Mizoguchi at Daiei. Most directors have to make compromises all the time. That's why the idea of the "auteur theory" is nonsense. I mean, we do have auteurs like Ozu and Mizoguchi, but try and name another. Even Kurosawa finally decided to quit Toho in order to make the movies he wanted to make, along with people such as Oshima, and all those others who escaped.
Western writing has tended to look at the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema through three directors; Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Do you think the focus on those three has detracted from other worthy candidates?
Absolutely. For my money, the almost equally great director is Mikio Naruse. At least Naruse, when he's great, is great. He didn't have this immunity that was granted to the other greats. He had to make an awful lot of crap, which he knew was crap when he was making them. But the ones he could make as he wanted to are sublime. He's much darker. If you read my book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, I go into this a lot. I do think this has attracted attention from a lot of great directors. Shiro Toyoda - he's absolutely forgotten, but he was a very, very fine director. But it's so easy to become a brand name, and that's what these people have become in the West.
You must be one of the longest serving expats in Tokyo at the moment.
I think I am. I've been here since 1947. There are probably one or two people who've been here longer than I have. I'm 79 now. I'll be 80 next spring. I consider myself living in Tokyo, not in Japan.
When and how did you first come here?
During the Pacific War I had been in what was called Maritime Service, or the Merchant Marine, which meant I didn't have to carry a gun around and kill people. I simply had to move necessities like chocolate bars and toilet paper around. It was dangerous enough though. I lost my ship a couple of times. But anyway, when that was over, returning to Ohio was the only thing that was staring me in the face, which was what I had providentially already escaped from. I looked around and discovered that the government, what was then called Foreign Service, were looking for people to locate abroad in the two Occupied Zones, Germany and Japan. I got them to accept me on the grounds that I was a champion typist. I came here on a very, very low civil ranking (2, with 1 being the very lowest) and was set to work typing lists of inventories. I was a good typist, but I wasn't particularly fond of it. As soon as I could I tried to get myself reassigned, and I wrote a few articles for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. I wanted to find a role as some sort of reviewer, or cultural expert, and so I started learning Japanese.
What was the Japanese people's feeling towards the Americans in this immediate post-War period?
The people who first came in 1945 were expecting people with bamboo spears and things, but instead when they arrived they found that somehow everyone had managed to get hold of an American flag and was waving it at them as they drove by. I certainly never witnessed anything untoward at all. The Japanese reaction was what I think Bush hoped that the Iraqi reaction would be, and was disappointed when he didn't get it. The average Japanese had gone through a very bad 7 years, with an increasingly dictatorial government that everyone had got thoroughly sick of, and also they had discovered that the old way of doing things didn't work. The old model didn't work, and they needed a new one, and you know what the Japanese feel about new models. And so everybody wanted to be a part of this new model, and everyone was more conciliatory than you could imagine. I'd meet people who I'd believe in all sincerity when they said "I'm just glad we lost the war. How awful it would have been if we won it." I thought it was pretty strange, but then I realised afterwards they were right.
Would you have predicted that Tokyo would have developed along the lines that it did?
I knew it would start from nothing. It was a burnt-out plain. There were no buildings in this part of town [the interview was conducted in the Yurakucho Denki building, overlooking Yurakucho - JS]. The Sanshin building was up, but very little else, so I knew all these buildings would go up, but I had no idea that the buildings would go up this high. And I had no idea that it would turn into Blade Runner.
What has been for you the most interesting period of living in Japan?
I think in any country if you're an expatriate, the first 5-10 years are the most exciting. This is when you are learning the most, and when you're most open to things that are new and are putting things together. Then after that you consolidate things and find out if you are right or wrong and are still forming various opinions, but it doesn't have the same jolt as did the first encounters, and it couldn't have. It is really like the difference between an infatuation, an engagement and a marriage. I've been married to Japan for a long time. But the wonderful thing about Japan is it is so self-conscious that you can never take it for granted. I learn new things everyday, and so the subject is always in front of me, and I'm an observer. The world is going to be surprised to find out how much I've been observing when my new book comes out. They are finally going to publish The Japan Journals 1947-2004. I keep a lot of journals and this is not all of them. It's 1600 pages, which you can't bind in one book, so I had to cut it down to 400 pages. They're leaving out more than half of it, but nonetheless, this will be the answer to your question…
Would you say your primary interest has been film?
No, it's not been film. We all have ideas of ourselves, as you know. I've always thought of myself as a writer, and if I'm a film person, it's only because I've written about film. I've also made a number of films, but I don't think of myself as a filmmaker. I think of myself as a writer who happens to also write about films. But I have also written many other books about many other aspects of life in Japan. My subject has been Japan. My interest in Japan is - in a literal sense of course, but in sort of a metaphorical sense - that I'm using the idea of the outsider, the foreigner, as my own vehicle as well. He flourishes here because he knows he can't join. I live in a ghetto. I live in a social class of one member, and if you are not gregarious, like Ozu or like I am, then you rejoice in your freedom. You don't have to give a shit about what people think about where you came from. You are not allowed to go down and mingle with the crowd in the place that you're in, so you're like in this place on a mountaintop, where you can see perfectly in all directions, and yet the light catches the crags and the peaks, and there's this wonderful view. It's the view that keeps me inspired. It helps that Japan is the only place that is so self-conscious. Japan is terminally self-conscious, and that helps to mediate my focus.
In what ways would you say it's self-conscious?
Look around! For the kids everything is "abunai" [watch out], "yabai" [bad]. They don't know how to talk to each other. They don't look at each other. I mean, they've found salvation in the palm of their hand with text messaging and mobile phones. It's the most self-conscious country in the world. And it's a shame. It wasn't that way at all. When I first came here it was still very Third World, people were extremely curious, very Elizabethan, very robust. It's depressing to see now. This is a way of controlling, and I think this was the way it was in 1762 [the height of the Edo period - JS]. This is the way people were controlled - cut down their interests. People are excessively concerned about what other people are thinking, and I can observe all that. Have you read my new book? Another new book… The Image Factory. This is about all this. This is something which has kept my interest going. Since I'm not a member, since I'm not a part, this gives me the freedom of opinion and a way to form my own logical connections. For me it's an ideal state.
So your writing on Japan is obviously not aimed at Japanese readers.
No it's not. Japanese readers are very much in two minds about me. I've only had two or three books translated. My aims are much more international. For somebody like me, I write to make a pattern in the carpet. I write to make sense of things.
You mentioned you made a few films yourself, and they ran in Image Forum here in Tokyo a few years ago. Can you tell me something about them?
During the 1950s and 60s I made a number of what you would call Experimental Films or Underground Films. They're all 8mm or 16mm films. I only made one on 35mm. These are very personal films. They are to the feature film as poetry is to literature. They are very lyrical, they're very short. The longest one is 50 minutes. Usually they're all about 20-25 minutes. They don't have any dialogue at all. They all have meticulous soundtracks, but no dialogue. They get screened about once a year. They'll be put on DVD soon. You can see the Japan of the 1950s very clearly in them. I'm really an aesthetician, so these films are aesthetic exercises. I'm very interested in aesthetics, which again is another part of this country. It aestheticises everything. It aestheticises violence, love…
Were you operating in any broader filmmaking movement at the time?
No. They were completely for myself. In fact, this movement had not yet started here. I was one of the few people to introduce the whole concept of the Experimental Film. So in fact the first ones they had seen were by me, the ones I made in Ohio. I showed them here. They had a modest impact. People like Oshima have written about the effect they had on him, also Hani and a couple of different directors. They didn't emulate me but they learnt more about the genre, and then they got to see films by a few other directors later. So little by little the genre grew. It grew and withered. There was a big explosion in the 60s, but it doesn't exist any more. Then out of this came a number of directors. Kobayashi was one, Oshima, Kiju Yoshida, Shinoda. So I made films when I was back in Ohio, but this was something I thought of as playing, and writing as something I do for real.
Who has been the most interesting person you have met since you've been here?
That's a difficult question. There's so many people. I studied with Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966), the great Zen scholar. I sat under him. He was fascinating. Hmmm. Usually film directors aren't that interesting. They're usually concerned with getting what they want to do. Writers…
Oh yes, I knew Mishima very well. I guess you could call him fascinating. He was a little bit transparent for me. Now he of course appears in my Journals. I just wrote up what we did together, which is okay. I was commissioned to do a small book on him, but I noticed it wasn't going so well. Journals are one thing, but memoirs are different. You actually have to sit down and think about what you're writing, and I noticed I have a tendency to, not exactly lie, but gingerbread things over. Kawabata was fascinating. I just wish my Japanese had been good enough to appreciate it when I first met him.
How about the current Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara?
I never got along so well with him, mainly because very early on he identified me as a friend of Mishima's. He was so jealous of him. Even now if you meet Ishihara, as a foreign journalist here did the other day, the first thing that he brings up is Mishima. The man's been dead since 1970! Since I was identified with Mishima, I never had much to do with him. I knew his brother better [former matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara]. Mifune was fascinating. I loved Mifune. You should read my book Public People, Private People. I talk about all these people.
The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, first published in 1959, was the first book about Japanese cinema. Can you tell me a little about the co-writer Joseph L. Anderson?
He was here married to a Japanese girl and he was very interested in film and broadcasting. He and I met in 1955 or something, and both he and I were interested in the same thing, so we thought let's get together and write something. So originally it was going to be a little article for Films in Review, then it was going to be a big article for Sight and Sound, and eventually it expanded and ended up as this book. So I wrote the book with him. He did the reading research with his wife's help. I did all the spoken Japanese stuff, talking to directors and stuff. Then we pooled our efforts, and I did all the writing because Joe was in America at that point. In fact, he never came back. And he went on to a very interesting career. He was the manager of a radio station in Boston. I think he's retired now. Nevertheless we knew that without each other, it would never have been that grand. In fact, we would never have found a publisher.
What do you think about the "trends" of Japanese film viewing in the West, or how Japan is perceived in America through cinema? For example, the popularity of anime, Kitano, sex films etc?
Well all of this is coloured by the attitude of the First World towards the Third World, which presumes a lot of things. Since Japan was at war with America, politically, there is still this looking down. "Oh, isn't that incredible. That's so darling", things like that. This still continues. They also have the admiration of the frivolous Japan, such as Hello Kitty, Doraemon. It's simply an extension of 150 years ago when people, Americans again, were labelling Japanese people as childlike and calling this place Topsy Turvy Land, and Douglas McArthur was saying that Japanese people had the emotional age of 14. This tendency to juvenalise a politically inert opponent is one of taming them, so I think the new interest in Kitano and Miike, and the new violence is so condescending that I can't believe there's any real appreciation, because the frivolity of this suits the new frivolity at work in America. But I don't think it represents any real feeling any more than the Kung Fu boom, or the Zen boom, the Dharma bum boom, or any of the other booms. They're fads. I think America is just as given to victimisation by fads as Japan is. There's a lot more real problems there than Japan has. The attitude of America to most other countries is one of condescension. It's always been that way. There's always been that high moral stance. Even Henry James. It can't help it. Maybe it's some sort of manifest destiny or something. Nonetheless, I don't find its evaluation of Japan particularly realistic.
What about the individual viewers' appreciation these films, though?
That's an entirely different matter. Your original question was framed in terms of countries, and that's the only answer. If you asked in terms of individual people, then we find individual reactions which are perfectly valid.
Oh, I just wish they were more original. Neither one of them can possibly write character. The perfect example of this kind of film is Reservoir Dogs. They've taken the ball and run, and they've run a long way. But I don't - and Tarantino too - I don't find any kind of verity to what they communicate. I don't find the kind of sincerity that I would find in a director I like more. Nor the kind of dedication that I think is necessary, which a lot of other directors did have. But nowadays you can't do that, because if you show your sincerity then you become 'wet'. There's this penchant for mindless, decadent, frivolity…
Do you still see any filmmakers in Japan who represent this kind of dedication which you mention?
What direction do you think Japanese filmmaking is going to go in now?
The same way, I think, as in all countries, because the age of film is just about over, and everything is going digital in one form or another. This means there's a change in the venues where you watch film. I think the age of theatres, as such, will continue in the same way that trains and stamps continue, but the major lines of communication are quite different now. Trains are used for cargo and stamps are used for snail mail. And I think theatres are going to be there in order to go see Meg Ryan. We always need arenas to put people into, but I think the economy of film is changing so swiftly. Already in Japan now half the movies made go directly to the tube, in one form or another, or directly to DVD. It used to be thought that some form of a theatrical release beforehand was respectable or you could get the reviewers to come. But the reviewers in this country - no one ever reviews anything. And as for the respectability, well, who cares when you look at most Shinjuku cinemas nowadays.
I think Miike's new film [One Missed Call - JS] is going to get a theatrical release, but a very limited one. The one before, Gozu, went straight to video. So we have a situation that a film can be successful without a mass audience, and I think this is going to happen more and more. As more and more films pile up, eventually you'll be able to acquire yourself any film ever made, so the new ones are going to have to try harder.
And the new ones will have various ways of attracting attention. Right now its very primitive. We have Matrix Unloaded, or whatever it's called, where the budget for the advertising seems just as large as the film. Gladiator too. It costs as much to publicize as to make.
So as far as new film goes, almost everything is up for grabs. Sensation will continue to sell, but how many cars can you wreck and still interest people? We have young people yawning through the most spectacular car effects now.
Do you think there are any stories left to tell in Japan?
I think there are always enough stories left to tell, but there aren't enough people left to find them. The way people look for stories, like the way Hollywood looks for stories, through the stories bin of its own and other countries and then applies for foreign rights, that surely means poverty of some kind or another. Stories will always be written like that, but the talent of discovering exactly what it is that really appeals to you and then going out and making it, that's going to be just as rare as it always was. But the end problem is always going to be whether there will be anywhere for these films to get exhibited.
Outside of the world of film, what do you think about the future of Japan?
I'm no futurologist. I have no idea. I can make a few guesses. Every country has its own pattern of behaviour, and though you can't tell what they are going to do, maybe you can tell how they are going to do it. The pattern in Japan is to put up with something for as long as you can possibly can, and then doing something about it. Run amok, or do something. At the same time you have a very large class who never get their things in order until the last possible minute. This happened during the Olympics. It happened during World War 2. This is a pattern which comes from the fact that you can't ever get everyone pointed in the same direction in this country. It's very difficult because everyone is so busy guarding his own turf that they are not interested in the larger concerns. Whatever it is, it will move to the point of crisis, the edge of the precipice, and only then, if then, it will move back. I think you can say that with some confidence.
Otherwise, since one generation builds on another, how can you build upon this new generation, because a new generation has emerged untaught by the old one. There's no social skills whatsoever. They're all "furitas" [free arbeiters - see Tokyo Trash Baby review - JS]. They know perfectly well that what their fathers believed in was nonsense. They don't want that kind of life anyway, and they would much prefer to be taken care of. And so we have a lot of parasites, living at home being taken care of by very close-minded parents who had failed in their parental duties anyway. So what are these people's kids going to be like? Is it going to be one step down?
Then there's such a thing as the Theory of Civilizations where you start small, get big, then crumble - Spengler's "The Decline of the West". And if you follow Spengler you start in Sumeria and go west. Then you get to Egypt, then you get to Greece, then you get Rome, Europe, America. Then you loop over and you next get to Japan, but Japan crumbled pretty quickly, and now China looms, so you're almost back to the beginning again. So you can always tell what the signs of so-called "decadence" are. You can see Japan is exhibiting a lot of these signs. One of the more famous which has been pointed out as a sign of economic decadence is "Affectation of the Proletariat". Here we have all these kids with trainers, clodhopper boots, and lumberjack shirts and they've never cut down a tree. And they carefully cut their jeans and make holes to feign poverty. There's this peculiar affectation, and the proletariat has never existed here, so it's sort of a romantic ideal. The problem is that nowadays the proletariat does exist, so these kids who carefully use safety pins but still wear Chanel walk down the street past people who really need safety pins and are lying in the gutter, and aren't wearing anything like Chanel. The irony touches nobody. So this I think is decadent. If we were Rome now, we would be about the period of Petronius writing the Satyricon. So if one believes in that particular concept of rise and fall, then yes, it's only right to believe that Japan has just had its own very brief season in the sun.
But you can never tell. Everything is based on money anyway, so there may be something taking place where Japan suddenly gets rich again. And with it the kind of excess that we saw in the 1970s might come back. Other than that, I don't think you can profitably look in the future with any degree of likelihood.