News and Opinion

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:

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. 

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. 

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.)

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). 

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).

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