28 June 2009

Tetsuo Nagata, cinematographer

Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata (永田 鉄男) has garnered a high profile recently due to the international success of Olivier Dahan’s biopic of Edith Piaf (La vie en rose/ La môme, 2007) starring Oscar award winning actress Marion Cotillard. Nagata won his second César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for best director of photography for La môme. His first César had been for La chambre des officiers (François Dupeyron, 2002). In 2007, Variety named him one of their ten best cinematographers of the year.

Born in Nagano 1952, Nagata moved to Tokyo in 1970 where he indulged in his passion for cinema. He was a particular fan of the films of Pier Paolo Passolini and Jean-Luc Godard. His passion for the Nouvelle Vague led to him starting a French cinema club in Tokyo.

In 1972, Nagata travelled to France where he studied at the Université de Paris VIII. Returning to Japan in 1975, he had the opportity to work as an assitant cameraman for Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩. Segawa is most renowned for his cinematography on the Hiroshi Teshigahara’s (勅使河原宏, 1927-2001) adaptation Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna/砂の女, 1964) which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar.

On his website, Nagata claims to have worked at both Toei and Toho during his years as an assisant cameraman. In an interview in inCamera in October 2008, he mentions having worked on science fiction films in the early part of his career; an experience which he contrasted with his most recent work on the science fiction film Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009). Splice is due out this fall and stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley.

Nagata returned to France in the 1980s and since his debut as a director of photographer in Michel Thibaut’s Faut pas rêver (1992), he has built an impressive career for himself as a cinematographer of feature films, music videos and commercials. He has worked twice with directors François Dupeyron (France), Jan Kounen (Netherlands), and Vincenzo Natali (Canada).

As a director of photographer, Nagata has produced both realistic as well as highly stylized work. He seems to have a particular fondness for sharply defined colours and deep blacks. The colour pallette in La vie en rose is particularly dark with greys and blues pedominating the chidhood sequences and warm colours saved for the period of her discovery on the streets of Pigalle. The scenes of Piaf performing onstage have a sepia quality about the light that shines upon her ravaged face. Although I was a bit disappointed in the script for La vie en rose (I don’t think that it truly captures the complexity of her life or the intensity of her charisma), the cinematography combined with Marion Cotillard’s performance certainly resonate long after one has seen the film. The most impressive sequence in the film is the steadicam sequence when Piaf discovers her lover has died in a plane crash.

Nagata’s only Japanese film as director of photographer thus far is Takahashi Minamoto’s 2005 romantic drama Daiteiden no yoru ni (Until the Lights Come Back) released domestically in Japan to fairly upbeat reviews. He is currently shooting Hisako Matsui’s (松井久子) biopic of the life of Léonie Gilmour: the American editor who had an affair with the writer Yone Noguchi (aka Yonejiro Noguch (i野口米次郎) and was the mother of the renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi (野口勇) and the modern dancer Ailes Gilmour. The film will star Emily Mortimer and Shidō Nakamura II (二代目中村獅童).

I am also really excited by the upcoming release of Nagata’s first film with one of my favourite French directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Amélie). Tetsuo Nagata’s penchant for deeply contrasting colours will work very well with Jeunet’s surrealistic aesthetic.

To get an idea about Tetsuo Nagata’s often dark aesthetic, check out the images and trailers he has assembled on his impressive offical website (available in English and French).


1992 Faut pas rêver (Michel Thibaut)
1996 Le dernier chaperon rouge (赤ずきん, Jan Kounen)
1999 C’est quoi la vie? (うつくしい人生, François Dupeyron)
2000 Stand-by (Roch Stéphanik)
2001 La chambre des officiers (将校たちの部屋, François Dupeyron)
2002 Riders (スティール, Gérard Pirès)
2003 Laisse tes mains sur mes hanches (夢の中に君がいる, Chantal Lauby)
2004 Blueberry (aka Renegade, Jan Kounen)
2004 Narco (ナルコ, Tristan Aurouet/Gilles Lellouche)
2005 Animal (Roselyne Bosch)
2005 Daiteiden no yoru ni (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto)
2006 Paris, je t’aime (パリ、ジュテーム: マドレーヌ界隈(8区)
segment: 'Quartier de la Madeleine' directed by Vincenzo Natali
2007 La môme (エディット・ピアフ〜愛の讃歌〜, Olivier Dahan)
2009 Splice (Vincenzo Natali, due to be released this autumn)
2009 Micmacs à tire-larigot (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, due to be released in October)
2010 Léonie (Hisako Matsui, in production)

25 June 2009

Walking in my Mind

The Hayward Gallery in central London is currently hosting an exhibition of artists whose work “explores the inner working of the artist's imagination through dramatic, large-scale installation art.”

Walking in My Mind features the work of ten international artists. It uses both indoor and outdoor spaces, with each sculptured space representing the individual mindscape of a different artist. One important theme is the blurring of boundaries between inner and outer space.

The exhibition has been co-curated by Mami Kataoka who works as a senior curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Kataoka’s presence has ensured that three exciting Japanese artists: Yayoi Kusama, Yoshimoto Nara, and Chiharu Shiota.

Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生, b.1929)

The oldest artist in the exhibition and probably the most internationally recognized of the ten. Kusama’s work demonstrates her obsession with pattern (particularly polka dots), repetition, and accumulation. Her work has been associated with surrealism, l’art brut, and abstract expressionism. Kusama suffered severe trauma as a child and as an adult has struggled with mental health issues. These struggles are an inextricable part of her art, which to me has always demonstrated how in the souls of even the most troubled one can find things of indescribable beauty. Kusama’s work has been used in the poster art for the event (see above).

Yoshimoto Nara (奈良美智, b. 1959)

As an artist, Nara came to international recognition as a part of the 1990s J-pop art movement. Like Kusama, Nara has a minimalist aesthetic, but underneath his seemingly harmless subject matter (cute children and animals drawn or sculpted in a manga-influenced manner) lies some disturbing elements. For example, often the children have nasty expressions on their faces. At other times, there is something disturbing lurking somewhere else in the painting, drawing, or sculpture. Despite the sometimes spooky nature of his art, there is something quite magnetic about it that captures one’s attention.

Chiharu Shiota (塩田千春, b. 1972)

This young Kansai artist has a nightmarish element to her art which reminds me of the work of Fuyuko Matsui (松井冬子). Although the two women are working in two very different artistic aesthetics (Nihonga vs. modern art), both of their work succeeds in being both spellbinding and giving me a chill up my spine with its deeply macabre nature. Themes in Shiota’s work include entanglement, binding, and entrapment. I particularly enjoy the architectural elements to her installation work. Shiota has an extensive gallery of photographs of her work on her official website.

For more about this exhibit, see the Guardian’s video review of the event, or go to the Hayward’s website.

21 June 2009

Japanese women behind the scenes

At Nippon Connection in April a podium discussion was held about the current status of women in Japanese cinema. The reason for this was the sudden jump in numbers of films being presented at the festival with women at the helm as directors. Guests at the festival included Yuki Tanada with her film Ain’t No Tomorrows (俺たちに明日はないッス, 2008), animator Naomi Nagata (Animation Soup), Musabi students Ayako Shinohara (Baby Complex) and Mariko Tanji (Drown Breath) as well as producers Kanako Yoneyama, Hiroko Namba and Yukie Kito. Screenings were also held for three films from Momo Matsuri (Peach Film Festival): emerger (Aki Sato, 2008), Bunny in Hovel (月夜のバニー, Mayumi Yabe, 2009), and Csikospos (クシコスポスト, Yumiko Beppu, 2009). (The Peaches films will be screening in Toronto in August)

The podium discussion was moderated by Dr. Roland Domenig of the University of Vienna. Yukie Kito was representing women producers having presented Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata at the festival. Mayumi Yabe from Peaches represented emerging women directors. Kayoko Nakanishi represented the promotional aspect of the film industry, and Nami Asakawa gave us the perspective from the point of view of translators and subtitlers.

I was impressed by the passion all four women had for the film industry in Japan. The general message seemed to be that while big name women directors have been scarce in Japan (and I might add I most countries around the world), women have come to dominate behind the scenes. Kito and Nakanishi felt that there were more women than men working as producers and promoters in Japan. Kito’s rationale for this was the fact that women make up more than 70% of film audiences. This would also explain why so many romantic comedies and dramas are produced every year in Japan. Kito also pointed out the growing number of women cinematographers, such as Akiko Ashizawa (芦澤明子, b.1951) who has become a favourite with Kiyoshi Kurosawa working on Tokyo Sonata, Sakebi (2006) and Loft (2005). Ashikawa was interviewed for the documentary Women Behind the Camera (Alexis Krasilovsky, 2007).

Since the podium discussion, I have thought a lot about women behind the scenes, so I thought that for my final contribution to the Blogathon, I would mention a number of such women that deserve more credit for the amazing body of work they have contributed to Japanese cinema history.

Kinuyo Tanaka (pictured above with Bette Davis)

The first Japanese woman to work as a director was the actress Kinuyo Tanaka (田中絹代, 1909-1977). This luminous star was a favourite of Kenji Mizoguchi (she appeared in 15 of his films!!) and appeared in over a hundred films in the course of her career. Largely due to her star status, Tanaka was given the opportunity to direct starting with Love Letter (Koibumi) in 1953. She went on to direct five more films ending with Onna bakari n yoru in 1961. Ozu, who had directed Tanaka in Equinox Flower, co-wrote her 1955 film Tsuki wa noborinu. I do hope that someone has the foresight to put her work on DVD so that it becomes more widely available outside of Cinematheque and Japan Foundation screenings.

Teruyo Nogami

Nogami (野上照代 b. 1927) was a colleague and friend of Akira Kurosawa for almost 50 years. She started out as script girl (continuity) on Rashomon (1950). By the end of his career, she had become a vital part of the team that he gathered around him for every film production. Since Kurosawa’s death in 1998, Nogami has played an important part in the shaping of Kurosawa’s legacy. In her memoir, Waiting on the Weather, she shares anecdotes about his working methods, his relationship within the Japanese filmmaking community, and his encounters over the years with great directors from around the world.

Natto Wada

Most fans of Japanese cinema know the films of Kon Ichikawa (市川崑, 1915-2008) but fewer people have heard of wife Natto Wada (和田 夏十born Yumiko Mogi 茂木由美子, 1920-1983). The two met while working at Toho. At the time, Wada, who had a university degree in English literature, was working as a translator. After the couple married, Wada collaborated with her husband on the screenplays for many of 34 as his films (mainly adaptations, but some original screenplays). Wada retired from screenwriting after Tokyo Olympiad (1965) but is said to have continued to act as her husband’s closest advisor. She sadly died much too young of breast cancer in 1983.

Animation has been a place where women have played important roles on animation teams, often working as inbetweeners and storyboard artists. Benjamin Ettinger, who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge about Japanese animators, wrote a highly informative article on the Women Behind Ghibli on his blog Anipages back in 2007. The article discusses the animation of Akiko Futaki, Atsuko Tanaka, Masako Shinohara, and Megumi Kagawa.

Ettinger also wrote a great piece about Kazuko Nakamura and Reiko Okuyama, two important female pioneers in Japanese animation
Two pioneer women animators
Reiko Okuyama passes away

There have also been a number of great husband-wife partnerships in the world of Japanese animation.:

Renzō & Sayoko Kinoshita (木下蓮三+木下小夜子), made wonderful short films together for over 20 years and founded the Hiroshima International Animation Festical. Read more about them here.

Uruma Delvi (うるまでるび) is the pseudonym of a husband and wife team who specializes in Flash animation. Their animated short, Bottom-Biting Bug, was a cult hit a couple of years ago. Read more about them here. Or check out their website here.

Shinzo & Yukie Yuki (行信三+ゆきゆきえ) have worked at Toei as art directors and background artists for years. Most recently, they worked on the background art for Cassern Sins. Read about it at anipages.

Writing this post made me think of Keiko McDonald and what a tragedy it was that she passed away last September. When she died she was working on a book about Japanese Women Filmmakers. I do hope that someone picks up the torch and finishes her book because much, much more needs to be written about the history of Japanese Women and Cinema.


I have started a wiki called Japanese Women Behind the Scenes with the aim of gathering more information in English about Japanese women directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, producers, etc.  If you would like to join this project, please click here for more information.

September 2010

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

19 June 2009

Tricky Women 2010: Call for Film Submissions

The Tricky Women Animation Festival has just announced that the 2010 festival will take place in Vienna 4th - 8th March, 2010. Many Japanese animators have screened films at this festival. Most notably, Maya Yonesho, who has worked as an artist-in-residence at Tricky Women. At this year's festival, the director of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, Sayoko Kinoshita, put together a selection of contemporary animation by Japanese women (see programme here). It looks like the festival falls on my daughter's birthday again next year, but I would love to attend at least some of it if I can.

This is a great opportunity for women animators to promote their work and to network with other artists. The festival also produces DVDs of the best films from each year.

Some excerpts from the e-mail the festival sent out:

Tricky Women is the first and only festival of animated film that is dedicated exclusively to animation by women.
Ø The festival offers an international competition of animated short films realised by female artists and produced in 2008 or 2009.

The deadline for applications for the preliminary selection is 30th October, 2009.


Tricky Women Award of the City of Vienna worth 4,000 Euro
Synchro Film & Video Material Prize worth 1,500 Euro
Hubert Sielecki Award worth 500 Euro (for Austrian animation)
Audience Award

Tricky Women Festival

Museumsplatz 1
quartier21 / MQ
1070 Wien

fon: +43 1 990 46 63
fax: +43 1 990 46 64

The entry form and more details about the festival are available on the Tricky Women website.

18 June 2009

My Favourite Japanese Art Animators

For those of you who don’t know already, since discovering an art exhibit by Tomoyasu Murata in on Hongo Dori in 2006 (the photo above is of my kids watching the installation in the front display window) I have developed a huge passion for Japanese Art Animation. My love of avant-garde and experimental animation in general dates back to my discovery of Norman McLaren’s work at the central library in my hometown when I was a teenager (hurray for the NFB! You can watch some of his films online on their website). There is a kind of circularity in this because it was a screening of McLaren’s work in Japan in the 1950s that brought the term “animation” into the Japanese vocabulary and inspired a generation of innovative animators in Japan. Before that, animated films were referred to as “manga eiga” (literally: cartoon movies).

It is hard for me to whittle down a list of “favourites” because there are so many different styles of art animation and it’s hard to judge one against the other. What follows are a selection of artists whose work excites and inspires me.

Animators who got their start in the 1960s & 1970s:

Taku Furukawa (古川タク, b. 1941)

He first worked under Yōji Kuri (久里洋二, b. 1928), then founded his own studio in 1970. Furukawa’s films range from his tribute to the 19th century optical amusement, the Phenakistoscope, to a humorous modern revision of Ozu’s Tokyo Story called Jyōkyō Monogatari (1999). Furukawa mentors young artists as a lecturer and vice-president of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. He holds regularly exhibitions of his art at galleries as well as publishing manga and picture books for children. Would live to find a DVD of his (& his contemporaries) Minna no Uta work.

Kihachiro Kawamoto (川本喜八郎, b. 1925)

Kawamoto’s puppet animation brings together European puppet animation (he studied under Jiri Trnka in the 1960s) with bunraku traditions (Japanese puppet theatre). He is best known in Japan for the elaborate television puppet dramas he did in the 1980s and best known outside of Japan for his short film work. Kawamoto inherited the presidency of the Japan Animation Association from Osamu Tezuka and has been very active in the past decade organizing the Winter Days (2003) project as well as his spectacular feature film Book of the Dead.

Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita (木下蓮三/ 木下小夜子)

Renzō Kinoshita’s films probe questions about what it means to be Japanese and how Japan is seen from the outside world. His 1979 anti-war film Pica-don depicts the Hiroshima bombing from the perspective of the ordinary citizens going about their everyday life. His wife Sayoko collaborated on his films as producer, scriptwriter and animator. Together they founded the Hiroshima International Film Festival which has become an important place for Japanese animators to have their work shown and to see work by artists from abroad. Sayoko has continued this work after Renzo passed away in 1997.

Tadanari Okamoto (岡本忠成, 1932-1990)

Influenced by Czech puppet animation, Okamoto became a pioneer in Japanese puppet animation. An award-winning filmmaker, he is famous for using a different medium for each of his films including relief puppets, cut-outs, cel animation, and more. Read more about this amazing artist at Anipages.

The younger generation:

Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰, b. 1974)

An award-winning Tokyo-based artist, Murata produces a wide variety of art including stop-motion animation, cel animation, installations, manga, photography and paintings.

Meike Seike (清家美佳, b. 1975)

A Kansai-based animator who has a distinctive visual style achieved by scanning real objects (leaves, photographs) and colouring and animating them on the computer. Her films are deeply allusive and concern a wide range of feminist themes. Her work featured on the Image Forum Thinking and Drawing program.

Tabaimo (束芋, b. 1975)

Internationally renowned artist Tabaimo incorporates elements of animation into her installations, which often include collaborations with dancers and other performance artists.

Naoyuki Tsuji (辻直之, b.1972)

Instantly recognizable for his pencil and charcoal cel animation aesthetic, Tsuji is also known for his illustrations, short manga and outdoor installations. Since 1999, Tsuji and Takumi Terakami have hosted a guerilla art exhibition called Scrap Festival which features sculptures and installations throughout the city of Yokohama.

Atsushi Wada (和田淳, b. 1980)

Wada has a unique style of drawing human figures that distinguishes him from other animators. His rather conservative looking male protagonists are put in unusual circumstances. Meaning is made in these thought-provoking films through subtleties of character movement and symbolism that are often absurd in nature.

Kōji Yamamura (山村浩二, b. 1964)

Perhaps the best known art animator of his generation, Yamamura’s films have received numerous awards world-wide. He has dabbled with various styles of animation, but is best known for his distinctive multi-planed aesthetic. His films range from accessible themes for children to the surreal. His best film to date would have to be Kafuka Inaka Isha.

Maya Yoneshō (米正万也, 1965)

Influenced by the work of Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger, and Taku Furukawa, Yonesho spends part of each year in Europe and is known for used found objects in her animation. Here's an article I wrote about her after exchanging e-mails with her last year.

Takashi Ishida (石田尚志, b. 1972)

An active artist on the international art scene, Ishida makes animated films, video installations, and collaborative art. His art explores the limits of the screen and questions of space, form, and perspective. One of my favourite works by him is Umi no Eiga.

Mami Kosemura (小瀬村真美, b. 1975)

Both a scholar and an artist, Kosemura’s “moving paintings” come out of both Nihonga and Yōga (Western art) traditions. The subtlety of movement in her work raises interesting questions about the relationship between art and time.

I hope that you will check out some of the websites of this artists because their work is truly amazing! Other links in this entry will lead you to previous articles I have written about the artsits.


My Favourite Animators (Mainstream)

Isao Takahata (高畑勲, b. 1935)

Takahata’s films have the power to move audiences in unexpected ways. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is, along with Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) and the Kinoshitas’ film Pica-don (1979), one of the most powerful anti-war films that I have ever seen. On the other end of the spectrum, I have rarely laughed as much during a feature length animated film as I did while watching My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999). I also love Pom Poko, not to mention his work on television series in the 1970s (Anne of Green Gables and Heidi!).

Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎駿, b. 1941)

Little can be said about Miyazaki that has not already been said. I love all his films. If pushed to pick a favourite, I would have to say Tonari no Totoro (1988). Miyazaki’s young female protagonists stand head and shoulders above the female characters that inhabit most anime. They are strong and heroic.

Atsuko Ishizuka (いしづか あつこ, b. 1981)

Tsuki no Waltz (2004) surely rates as one of the best Minna no Uta animations of all time, and demonstrates why Madhouse snapped Ishizuka up so quickly after her graduation from art college. I have enjoyed her work in Nana (2006-7) and Mōryō no Hako (2008), but I am really itching for Madhouse to give her the opportunity to direct her own feature. Or to give her some time to do short animation on the side. Sigh, one can always dream.

Rintaro (りんたろう, b. 1941)

Love love love LOVE Galaxy Express 999 and Metropolis. Although I am not the biggest fan of 3DCG, with Rintaro at the helm I am quite excited about seeing Yona Yona Penguin when it finally comes out. The trailer looks fantastic!

Satoshi Kon (今敏, b. 1963)

Kon is from a place dear to my heart, Kushiro in Hokkaido. He seems unafraid to try new things and to push the boundaries of where animated features have gone in the past. He can be surreal, like in Paprika (2006), but he can also create a heart-wrenching drama with wide appeal like Tokyo Godfathers (2003).

Osamu Kobayashi (小林治, 1945)

Kobayashi is an innovator. I particularly enjoy his method of montaging photos with mainstream style anime. His use of colour is also a real treat to watch. Although he may have had some differences of aesthetic opinion with manga-ka Ai Yazawa, I love what he did with Paradise Kiss (2005), though I wish they’d stretched it 24 episodes instead of squishing the story into 12 episodes. Kobayashi’s work on Mahoutsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora (Someday’s Dreamers, 2008) is also excellent.

Coming Tomorrow: MY FAVOURITE ART ANIMATORS (for a short list see the links of filmmaking artists in my sidebar)

17 June 2009

My Favourite Japanese Directors

Following on Nippon Cinema's and Wildgrounds' contributions to the Japanese Cinema Blogathon (June 15th – 21st), I thought I’d also make a list of some of my favourite directors. I say ‘some’ because I like a wide range of directors and making lists is not so easy for me. This list will comprise non-animators and I will do a list of my favourite animators in a separate entry.

So here it goes, in the order in which they popped into my head:

Yasujiro Ozu (小津安二郎, 1903-1963)

I love Ozu’s films for the delicate way in which he teases out the complexities of relationships within families and communities. I sigh whenever I here someone call him “the most Japanese of all Japanese directors” or old-fashioned because I think that his themes are universal and can be understood across cultures and generations. He is one of a very few directors where one could capture a still of any shot in any of his film and immediately identify it as an Ozu film by the framing and set design.

Nagisa Oshima (大島渚, b. 1932)

Oshima’s films can be very challenging to watch because the situations are often disturbing or upsetting. I admire Oshima for his uncompromising efforts to confront his audiences with difficult truths about the society in which they live. My favourite Oshima film is Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for the way that it reveals the parallels between two colonialist empires (Britain and Japan) underneath the superficial differences that most people see.

Shohei Imamura (今村昌平1926-2006)

The emotional depth and visual beauty of Imamura’s films never ceases to amaze me. The most powerful film of his that I have seen is Black Rain (黒い雨, 1989) about the bombing of Hiroshima.

Kon Ichikawa (市川崑, 1915-2008)

While many may find his films depressing or bleak, it is truly remarkable what a wide variety of films Ichikawa made during his long career. Tokyo Olympiad ranks in my books as the best sports documentary of all time. I have a double reason for liking this film as my Aunt Marian has a brief cameo in the film. During a sequence about heartbreak at the Olympics, she can be seen being carried off the track in a stretcher after taking her infamous tumble during the hurdles. When I asked her about it, she said that her strongest memory of the Tokyo Olympics was of the kind generosity of the Japanese, who felt so bad for the Canadian girl who knocked herself unconscious when she tripped on the hurdles that they filled her hospital room with gifts.

Akira Kurosawa (黒沢明, 1910-1998)

Who doesn’t like Kurosawa? It goes without saying that the man was a genius. My favourite Kurosawa film is Ikiru (生きる, 1952).

And of the young generation filmmakers, my faves are:

Naomi Kawase (河瀨直美, b. 1969)

Her beautiful, contemplative films are a sheer pleasure to watch. I wish that I lived closer to Cannes so that I could see her films the moment they debut in Europe.

Nobuhiro Yamashita (山下敦弘, b. 1976)
There are very few directors that make excellent films about the lives of children and teenagers without falling into the traps of making the kids stereotypes, superficial or too grown up. Abbas Kiarostami is one such director, and Yamashita is another. Linda Linda Linda (2005) and A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007) are two of the most delightful films about young people that I have seen in the past five year.

Koki Mitani (三谷幸喜, b. 1961)

I think I like Mitani’s films because I also love old Hollywood films, and like a Hollywood film from the golden age, Mitani’s films are invariably big production numbers, like Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997) and The Uchōten Hotel (2006). His films are often choreographed (both cast and camera) like a Busby Berkley movie and full of laughs.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (黒沢清, b. 1955)

I am not normally a fan of the J-horror genre (or any horror genre for that matter), but I find Kurosawa’s films riveting. The reasons for this are not just his masterful cinematographic techniques, but also his repeated use of the actor Kōji Yakusho (橋本広司), on whom I have admittedly had a wee crush since I saw first him in Shall we Dance? back in 1996.

Chris Marker's AK: Akira Kurosawa (A.K. ドキュメント黒澤明, 1985)

Like the film Ran itself, Chris Marker’s documentary, which he shot during the on location production of Kurosawa’s 1985 epic, is a kind of an intellectual exercise. In the process of looking up information about the making of this documentary, I discovered that fans of Kurosawa had blasted Chris Marker’s directorial efforts on the comments pages of imdb. One person suggests that it’s an example of “how to make a very good film out of somebody else’s masterpiece” while another calls it a “making of at its worst.” I paid these comments little heed until discovering that the New York Times review by the late Vincent Canby also blasted AK as being “singularly superficial.”

Imdb users can be excused for not “getting” AK, I think, because the film is currently packaged as an extra on DVDs of Ran (Criterion and Universal). The film was made before the advent of DVDs and as such it is not a “making of” in its current context and could therefore disappoint viewers’ expectations. Although it may not have been devised as a DVD extra, Ran and AK share the same producers: Serge Silberman, who produced films for Jean-Pierrre Melville & Luis Buñuel among others, and Masato Hara, who is perhaps best known as the producer of Hideo Nakata’s Ring movies. Despite this, judging from the film itself I’m pretty sure that Chris Marker was given a free hand with AK, because it bears the imprint of his directorial style: a self-reflexive, poetic exploration of a topic.

Unike the imdb crowd, Vincent Canby should have known better than to dismiss Marker’s film so cynically as “not good enough”, as he at least saw the film in the context of art cinema back in 1986. He had reviewed the films of the French New Wave and American independent cinema in the 60s and 70s and had particularly championed directors like Fassbinder and Woody Allen. For its debut in New York the film showed at Film Forum and was paired with Agnès Varda’s short film Ulysse (1982), which Canby also suggested was pretentious and, “oblique” and “self-absorbed.” In Canby’s defense, he was reviewing films in a time when journalists saw a screening once, then had to rely on their notes. This could result in snap judgments and occasional errors – such as his pointing out that AK introduces seven men as the “seven samurai” who have dedicatedly worked for Kurosawa over the years. The seven actually included one woman, of course, Kurosawa’s script girl and assistant Teruyo Nogami.

For me, AK is the kind of film that improves upon repeat screenings and whose real delights are discovered by the patient and observant spectator. Chris Marker is renowned for his avoidance of conventional narrative forms, so one must approach AK with an open mind. He belongs to a generation of documentary filmmakers who rejected the ‘objective’ documentary voice in favour of a more subjective voice. In fact, I hesitate to call AK a documentary as it is much more of a poetic essay that explores the themes of Ran in relation to Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The film also pays homage to both Kurosawa’s methods as a writer and director.

The film foregrounds at the very beginning the fact that the film is a construct by using a first person narrator and opening with a shot of a television and a hand holding a tape recorder against a red backdrop. As the tape recorder plays, we hear the voice of Kurosawa talking about his methods. It is pretty clear that Marker is using this technique to show that although we will be hearing Kurosawa’s voice throughout the film, his words and images are being edited by someone else. The film returns to this red scene throughout the film to show images from Kurosawa’s past films and personal history.

Marker divides AK into eleven sections separated by title cards in Japanese, English, and French. The introductory section is followed by Battle, Patience, Faithfulness, Speed, Horses, Rain, Lacquer & Gold, Fire, Fog, and Chaos. Canby saw these sections as ploys to “upgrade his footage,” yet if you read the film as a poetic essay, then it only makes sense to divide the film up into thematic sections. All of the title cards represent not only themes within the film Ran, but themes and motifs that Marker has noticed throughout Kurosawa’s oeuvre.

The true delight of Chris Marker’s AK is in the framing of the documentary footage his crew took on location. Wonderful scenes that capture true spirit of a film shoot: the waiting, the attention to finicky details about costumes and sets, and the weather. In fact, as the title cards Patience, Rain, and Fog suggest, Chris Marker’s film could have easily had the same title as Teruyo Nogami’s collection of anecdotes about working with Kurosawa called: Waiting on the Weather. In fact, I would highly recommend reading Nogami first then watching AK second as they truly complement each other.

Some of my favourite moments in AK include the contrast of extras in historical costume framed by modern-day cars, Kurosawa patiently reining in Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance, and the wonderful image of composer Tōru Takemitsu exploring the set in the fog. There is also a loving tribute to Fumio Yanoguchi who, the narrator tells us, passed away during the editing of AK. Over an image of the great sound engineer sitting with his recording devices, Marker plays some of the sounds Yanoguchi had captured to add texture to the soundtrack of the film. Yanoguchi had worked on twelve films with Kurosawa starting with Stray Dog in 1949. He also did the sound for a couple of the Godzilla movies. They must have been a pretty tight group of friends and colleagues because the director of the Godzilla movies, Ishirō Honda, is a constant presence in AK standing behind AK and offering him advice when needed.

With AK, Chris Marker has created a poignant homage to not just Kurosawa, but to the entire team working with him on Ran. My only reservation in my praise for the film is the use of an English narrator. I know that most of Chris Markers films, such as La Jetée and Sans Soleil, were released with English narrators. I can only guess, because Chris Marker provides little information and gives few interviews, that he makes this choice for aesthetic reasons such as the subtitles detracting from the image. With AK, the narration has been written by Marker, and is delivered in the first person, suggesting that it is the filmmaker’s voice that we are hearing. I have never heard Marker interviewed, but I would imagine that his English has a French not an American accent. The narrator is also not given credit, but Vincent Camby’s review says that Robert Kramer is the voice that we hear. Kramer (1939-1999) was an American actor-director who made most of his films in France because, like Woody Allen, he had trouble finding funding in the States. While the narrator does a very capable job, I think it would have had a stronger impact if it had been the voice of the elusive Chris Marker himself.

Let me know what you think. I'd also be interested in hearing from any French readers if the French version of this film is narrated by Chris Marker himself.

Ran / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009


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