「Masters of the Japanese Cinema」 Lecture by Donald Richie

The Japan foundation Film Series Part 1
“Masters of the Japanese Cinema”
a lectured by Donald Richie

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to speak it in English as you know, and It’s going to be translated to Japanese, I’m grateful for that.
Even though Japan, of course, has a motion picture history that is the equal of any of the world, and naturally has an equal number of masters, still, all the same, the films themselves are not locally seen as they ought to be.
There are no more repertoire houses, though there’re still few in the suburbs, but places like the Namiki-za in Ginza where you used to be able to go and see all the Japanese films are, they are all gone. The National Film Center does show quite a number of films, but of course, it only has so much space and so much time, and there is only so much that they can do.
So consequently, even though there are numbers you you know the names of Mizoguchi Kenji and Gosho Heinosuke, perhaps few of you have ever had a chance to see any of their films. Maybe Ozu Yasujiro, Kurosawa Akira, maybe a few glimpses on TV or DVD, and that’s just been about it.
Yet, these films remain great experiences and their age cannot limit their appeal. The masters of the Japanese cinema deserve many more showings than they actually receive here.
For this reason, I think it is important that the Japan Foundation and the TOKYO FILMeX Committee are presenting this series. They allow us all to experience the works of Japan’s greatest directors.
What we gain from these pictures is an insight into the past itself, and a recognition that very little has changed. For example, we just saw Osaka Elegy, which is Mizoguchi’s extremely honest portrayal of what can happen to a woman caught by circumstances. And this occurred sixty-eight years ago, and yet, they now – as I stand here and as you sit there, they remain with us – both the circumstances and the attitude toward women which permitted and permits them.
But of course, the reason that we not only understand the woman’s problems but also ourselves feel them is that this film is, like any great film, it’s more than its story. That is, Mizoguchi created a work of art. That means that he has supplemented reality. That means that he has consciously produced an arrangement of sounds, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that recreates reality, that focuses it, that augments it.
So, in Osaka Elegy we experience a feeling of solidity, this is produced by the director’s gathering together of a rather limited variety of elements into particular structures, particular patterns. The story is one of a contemporary working woman facing familiar social problems. But at the same time, showing us this, the director also enlarges it to include bigger themes the dissolution of the traditional family, for example.
At the same time, Mizoguchi makes certain that we understand that this is much more than a simple story of Osaka greed and vulgarity. That is worse here is a place where affection stands little chance against a social order which is built on duplicity.
That the film is called an elegy is certainly no accident. It’s a lament over the heroine’s loss, over the destruction of the traditional things like family, and displeasure at modern Japanユs exclusive focus on the production and exchange of wealth. All of these ideas are suggested through the way in which the story is shown.
The experience of the film gives us not only an intellectual understanding of these facts of life, but also offers us an emotional comprehension of their human meanings.
This is what masters can do, and those who are watching these films, of course, know what I am talking about. So we are indeed fortunate to find this past alive in our present, and weユre grateful to those who allow us this experience.
Oddly enough, all the Japanese films, certain titles at least, are more seen outside Japan. This is because a film is besides being a work of art and an emotional experience, also a product. It is for sale and the distributor hopes to make money out of it.
The normal route for any imported or exported film is that it is acquired by a distribution company and it’s put into the theatres, as well as nowadays eventually on tape and disc. So, the rights have been bought for a number of years, usually about seven, and a number of copies of the film are handed over.
During the following years the copies are projected over and over again until they are ruined, until they fall apart. Even if they don’t fall apart, at the end of the rights period, according to contract, the prints are supposed to be returned to the source country, or to be destroyed. So, new prints are to be made only if the contract is renewed or if a different distributor shows up.
Unless this occurs, or unless a film museum or some organization has acquired a copy then the title is no longer available for viewing although nowadays VHS and DVD have made viewing possible.
In the case of Japanese film’s titled prints, these are not only sold through commercial distribution channels, but they are also circulated for museums and university showings by the Japan Foundation, by the Kawakita Foundation and others. They have usually acquired, that is, they bought a print from original company, a titled print, and have agreed to show it only abroad.
The reason for this, the only showing abroad the titled print, is that the original producing company (Toho, for example) fears that if a print is shown in Japan outside customary distribution venues it will attract Japanese viewers who will not be paying admission directory into the company. Even if the film showing is free it is still thought that potential customers are lost. Though this logic is shaky, this ban has been permanent for quite numbers of years now.
Perhaps, the question I am asked most often by both foreigners and Japanese is why subtitled Japanese films cannot be shown in this country. There have been several exceptions, for example, the Japan Foundation office in Kyoto had a very successful series of Japanese films for numbers of years, but the stipulation was that only foreigners could come and see them, and no Japanese could, so they were forced to limit these showings.
In my own organizing of the film showings of titled films, here in Japan, I have sometimes been denied the use of a titled print even for educational or membership audiences. The reason was always the same the producing company objected. If I could get their permission then I might use the print, but of course getting this permission was never very easy.
On the other hand, these titled prints, permission granted, could be readily shown overseas since the foreign audience was not considered large enough to represent any appreciable financial loss. It is for this reason that titled prints of Japanese films are often to be encountered abroad and almost never here.
Now, however, for the very first time, permission has been granted to show titled prints to a mixed foreign-Japanese audience today. Anyone is free now to buy a ticket and to attend.
This is a great step forward in the dissemination of titled Japanese prints in Japan. It means that such films may now be screened in the director’s own country, to be appreciated by both local audiences the Japanese and the foreign.
This initial choice of six films being shown over this weekend has, of course, been conditioned by those producing companies who’re willing to agree. There have been hold-outs but several of the large majors, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, have agreed. It is due to their generosity that such screenings as this become possible. One hopes that they may long continue.
These local audiences the Japanese and the foreign, thatユs all of you here today are actually identical of course, and any such arbitrary division, between Japanese/foreign and so forth, is almost entirely based upon financial considerations.
Though there has long been loose talk about the peculiarities of things Japanese and the inability of the foreigner to even understand much less appreciate them, this kind of observation is based only upon a nationユs need to appear unique to itself.
Hence one used to hear Kurosawa’s worldwide reputation being explained as due to the director’s ‘foreign’ or Western outlook the inference being that if foreigners could understand and appreciate something, then it could not possibly be Japanese. Few things angered Kurosawa more than this kind of criticism. He often indicated this. He made his films in Japan and his primary audience was Japanese, but at the same time, of course, he was making films for everyone and everyone was his audience.
I remember, forty years ago now, having to argue long and hard with a production company to be allowed to show five Ozu films in Europe. They told me that foreigners could not conceivably understand Ozu because he was so utterly Japanese. This is not so, and it was demonstrated that not only the Europeans attend but they also demonstrated their favorite and they bought their rights of all five films. Yet when I returned from my trip I was told by the head of the company that this was a fluke, that the European audiences were attracted only by exoticism, that they could not have understood a thing.
Such mistaken interpretation of that is, of course, now much less heard. Japan no longer needs to identify itself though some sort of fancied opposition to other countries. And one of the most potent movers, I think, for this welcome change has been cinema itself.
I think there is no more immediate indication of the basic identity of being human than going to the movies. You not only learn of ways of other people’s. You also learn to empathize with them. Because, though people may think differently about different things, they usually feel the same about everything.
This is one of the great lessons of cinema. It makes this fact apparent, instantly and permanently. The greater the art, the deeper the lesson.
The masters of the Japanese film speak to us directly, just as do the masters of the French, the Italian, the Russian or the American film. But over and above these national accents, they speak to us in more universal terms.
This handful of titled films that have been shown here, they indicate to us the great power of the cinema – its ability to allow us to connect ourselves with others, the opportunity for empathy which it offers, its suggestion that our differences are less than we thought.
Thank you very much.