Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination
November 8 – December 7, 2019
Inked in 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco specified the compensations and conditions Japan had to comply with following its defeat in World War II, essentially marking the nation’s first steps toward regaining sovereignty, but it also affected the cultural landscape of the country. Although a process of westernization had already begun with the presence of the United States occupying forces on Japanese soil, it accelerated through the increased exporting of its cultural products. This is also roughly the point at which Japan started to become a tourist attraction overseas, although Japanese people themselves weren’t allowed to leave the country for tourism until 1964. The country soon became a place of interest for filmmakers who were looking for new landscapes to film.
Thus was the case of 20th Century Fox production The House of Bamboo (1955), directed by Samuel Fuller and shot on location in Japan, opening with a wonderful train heist sequence with a snowy Mount Fuji serving as backdrop. Although not the first film shot in Japan by a foreigner (one only has to look at 1953’s Anatahan, directed by Josef von Sternberg as an earlier example), it was the first official American production to be shot in Tokyo, and it actively engaged with the state of the country after the enactment of the peace treaty. Shot in color and cinemascope, its film noir plot deals with the tensions caused by the presence of United States military, and the consequences of the “Treaty of mutual cooperation and security” signed right after the peace treaty.
Though Fuller’s film comments on the difference of jurisdiction between the Japanese police and the United States military police, showcasing a breathtaking final showdown in which both forces join together to defeat the head of a group of American bank robbers, it also showcases most of the problems that would confront foreign filmmakers in the future when trying to capture the essence of Japan. The House of Bamboo is, thus, a good point of entry into Japan Society’s series “Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination.” The program assembles a group of eclectic films shot in Tokyo by directors ranging from Abbas Kiarostami to Sofia Coppola to Justin Lin, most of which will be screened on 35mm.
The title of the series helps in terms of thinking through the relations between the films included. Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) carefully portrays the moment in which Japanese culture and traditions start to openly break down after the signing of the peace treaty, albeit in a fairly subdued way. But that film is also the main text from which director Wim Wenders builds his documentary/homage Tokyo-Ga (1985), which opens and closes with the opening and final scenes of Ozu’s masterpiece.
Wenders speaks in voiceover over the images shot by Ozu, describing his personal attachment to the Japanese master’s work, and telling the audience about his first trip to Japan, a trip he made in order to be closer to the work of the director who made him want to be a filmmaker. The German director’s camera tries to find the intimate moments that Ozu famously made the lifeblood of his oeuvre: work lunches in the park, walks on the sidewalk, time spent in bars and the general nightlife, etc. The images captured harmonize with the narration, particularly when Wenders explicitly mentions the types of lenses that he’s using in a given shot, referencing Ozu’s preference for 50mm lenses.
The technical aspects of both films come alive in the interviews that Wenders manages to get with both Chishū Ryū, and Yūharu Atsuta, Ozu’s perennial camera assistant and, later, cinematographer. The details of their rehearsals, how Ozu worked with the scripts, and his approach to composition, become fascinating as the subjects are overcome with emotion and passion. At times it even becomes moving, like when Yūharu Atsuta remembers Ozu and asks to be left alone because he’s crying, or when they visit the director’s grave with Chishū Ryū and we gaze at the Chinese character that serves as his epitaph: “mu,” which means void, nothingness.
Particularly interesting in the context of this series is the sequence in which Wenders stumbles upon Werner Herzog, and the latter goes on a long speech regarding the lack of new images, and how, even if exotic, he’s not finding them there. Herzog’s latest feature, Family Romance, LLC (2019) also plays in this series, and one scene happens in the same place where his encounter with Wenders occurred, a lookout building in Tokyo.
Although clearly a minor film in Herzog’s filmography, Family Romance, LLC still has some interesting elements, like the use of non-actors to meditate on the nature of performance itself. The film focuses on Yuichi Ishii, an entrepreneur who owns Family Romance, a company that creates fictional situations to help people with emotional shortcomings (in other words, the infamous “rent-a-family” businesses, though this company doesn’t stop there).
Herzog’s film has a curious style that doesn’t always gel with the material, especially with the use of consumer-level digital cameras, drones and the like. At times the images seem strictly touristic, instead of trying for an emotional involvement with the characters. They visit a robot hotel, beautiful cherry blossom parks and Buddhist temples, with events being interchangeable between them, revealing that Herzog was being truthful over 30 years ago when he met Wenders.
Throughout the film, Yuichi plans the conversations, visits the locations and performs the roles that he has to fulfill. The film mainly centers on Yuichi’s task of impersonating the father of a 12-year old girl whom she never met, having abandoned her and her mother when she was very little. It’s interesting how the tensions between the characters are in direct relation to the service that he provides: at one point he says, “We are not allowed to love or be loved”, which ends up being the emotional climax in a film that lacks many such moments.
Like Someone in Love (2012), Abbas Kiarostami’s last feature narrative film to be released in his lifetime is otherwise filled with moments of pure emotion, many of them emanating out of love, jealousy, rage and sadness. The protagonist, Akiko, works as a prostitute to pay for her studies, and is on the way to meet with her latest client, an elderly man named Takashi. In the taxi that leads her to Takashi’s place, she listens to a voicemail: her grandmother has travelled to Tokyo just to see her and has tried all day to find a moment to meet.
We see Akiko’s muted face framed within the car window being colored by the varied city lights as the taxi circles a roundabout where the grandmother said, in her last voicemail, that she’d be waiting until she had to take the train back. That gut-wrenching moment has a visual parallel with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), also playing in this series, when Bill Murray’s character, looking out from a taxi, the colored lights shining on his similarly muted face, reacts for the first time to the foreign country. It seems that there are some visual elements that are inescapable for foreign directors in Japan, wherever they come from.
Going back to Tokyo-Ga, in one of the bars with neon signs outside, Wenders meets another filmmaker, the always-elusive Chris Marker. For a brief moment we see his right eye, peering through a piece of paper, a singular glimpse of an artist that was in love with Japan, one that made arguably the definitive piece of filmmaking from a foreign point of view, the travelogue masterpiece Sans Soleil (1983), also part of this series. Although it jumps around from Iceland to San Francisco to Guinea-Bissau, the film finds its moral core and more memorable moments in its sequences filmed in Japan.
The essay film, when pertaining to the sights seen in Japan, uses the most approachable imagery of train stations, the statue of Hachiko, and other Japanese signals. But it also approaches some less bright aspects of the city, like a drunken man directing traffic in Namidabashi, or the opening images of men and women sleeping on the ferry from Hokkaido. Ultimately, it is his curious look at the life of the Japanese, the caring way in which he portrays them, and how he lets that intimacy flow, in conjunction with the entrancing narration, are what make it one of the most beautiful pieces of filmmaking ever made.