Kyoto Film Festival

AbeNornes at AbeNornes at
Tue Sep 28 23:06:44 EDT 1999

On Sunday, the Kyoto International Film Festival held its closing ceremonies. 
A few of us were there, and I thought I would report on some of what was 
going on. I was not at the first festival, but those who were said it has 
become considerably smaller. However, size hardly matters if there quality is 
there (especially since you are torn in multiple directions with more and 
more violence as a festival gets big). Kyoto's programming is very 
interesting, and actually has the feeling of a festival (over?) run by film 
scholars. Basically, there is a large section of new films, nearly all of 
which will be distributed in Japanese theaters in the upcoming season. I 
heard these were filled to the gills, but I spent all of my time in smaller 

These included an Ichikawa Raizo retrospective concentrating on his Daiei 
films, a student film festival, a women's film festival, a collection of 
1930s "meiro jidaigeki" and an assortment of smaller programs. Of the latter, 
the most intriguing were the screening of a newly restored print of Murnau's 
_Faust_ and a selection of experimental animation. The latter was a very 
clever idea, as it exploited Grierson's reputation as the "father of 
documentary" to foreground his important role in "fathering" experimental 
animation by supporting Len Lye and Norman McClaren. This raises some 
interesting questions about the way film history has been written, 
particularly since there is a quiet backlash against the kind of credit 
patriarch Grierson is always given for giving life to documentary film (as an 
example, see the special issue on Grierson on the current screening the past, 
particularly the article by his former colleague). In any case, beyond short 
kaisetsu, I'm not sure the Kyoto event went any further in exploring these 
issues besides throwing the unlikely name of Grierson together with Lye and 
McClaren. I spent all my time at the meiro jidaigeki event.

This was the centerpiece of the festival, and it climaxed with a symposium 
with critic Yamane Sadao, archivist Saiki Tomonori, sociologist Tsutsui 
Kiyotada, and film scholars Tom Gunning, Bernard Eisenschitz (the restorer of 
Faust and a translator of subtitles), and KineJapan's Kato Mikiro (who also 
teaches cinema at Kyoto University). Meiro jidaigeki (明朗時代劇) were translated 
as "cheerful period films." An example that most people on KineJapan are 
familiar with is Post Worth a Million Ryo by Yamanaka Sadao, but they also 
showed Denjiro's Yaji-Kita sonno no maki, Mito Komon and a slate of Chiezo 
films including Horo Zanmai, Tabi wa aozora, and the stunning Oshidori uta 
gassen. Most of the silent films included benshi and live music. 

The basic premise of the sidebar was the curious existence of these 
"cheerful" period films in an age that is usually called a "dark valley." 
What are we to make of Makino Masahiro's Oshidori uta gassen, a film produced 
at the height of the China War in 1939. It has nothing to do with war, and 
the usual rhetoric and value system we expect of this era's cinema is out to 
lunch. Instead, it's Kataoka Chiezo, Dick Mine and Shimamura Takeshi (who has 
quite a wonderful voice, by the way) singing their way through a narrative 
that has three beautiful women chasing Chiezo. This is a musical in the 
Hollywood sense of the word. The narrative is propelled largely through song; 
whenever the music come in it takes over the actors' bodies, which dance and 
are animated to the beat. Other films have the same musical features, but 
also have something less cheerful about them at the same time. For example, 
halfway through Marune Santaro's Shunju itto-ryu, the characters start dying 
off and in what appears to be an homage to Bantsuma's Takadanobaba, Chiezo 
wildly runs and runs and runs and runs to a battlefield to help a friend 
fight a hoard of bad guys. 

In other words, the films are incredibly complicated. And so the symposium 
had an extremely difficult task ahead of itself. Perhaps too hard, and the 
panelists were coming from such disparate positions that not many answers 
were forthcoming. The most interesting part was a discussion of meaning 
making, and how audiences (and censors for that matter) might have read the 
films at the time. In a post-symposium "press conference" which was basically 
a continuation of the discussion in a smaller forum, it got even more 
interesting as questions from our KineJapan members, Peter High and Aaron 
Gerow, started raising issues about the category meiro jidai geki itself. It 
all ended just as it seemed we were going to start talking about the 
"function" of the foreigners on the panel. They were probably invited for the 
same reason that I've done the same thing for events I've organized in Japan: 
you want the chance to hear a radically different perspective from important 
scholars, and at the same time create personal and intellectual connections 
between foreign film cultures. This certainly happened at Kyoto, but it is 
also interesting to see how the foreign experts also end up with the 
uncomfortable task of talking about something they actually know little 
about. Thus, they have to take the word of the organizers that what they're 
talking about actually exists, and raises the possibility that they are there 
to valorize something that is less straightforward than it initially appears. 
This might be the reason that Gunning's responses consistently backed away 
from saying anything confidently about the films, and instead made pointed 
comments about how historians should and should not approach films, genres, 
and audiences. It occassionally felt a little like Cinema 101. I'll leave it 
at that; perhaps someone who was there could flesh it out if they want.

The last night, they showed Ichikawa Kon's new film, Dora heita, and had an 
awards ceremony. 

Dora heita is the script, from a Yamamoto Shugoro story, co-written by the 
Shiki no kai. This was the group that Kurosawa Akira tried to create in 1969 
to co-write and co-direct films. However, the personalities were a little too 
strong: Kinoshita Keisuke, Ichikawa Kon, Kobayashi Masaki and Kurosawa. I 
hear various reasons that the project fell apart (and this was all Ichikawa 
said in his introduction onstage). Perhaps someone out there knows more, but 
what I recall is that each ended up writing their own script and couldn't 
decide which to use. There were attempts to make the film in the subsequent 
30 years, but this year was the first time any were successful. This is a 
rather crude way to put it, but it's too bad Ichikawa was the one to survive 
of the four. I can't imagine what Kinoshita would come up with---perhaps a 
meiro jidaigeki---but this is clearly a story for Kurosawa or Kobayashi, and 
a main role for Nakadai not Yakusha Koji. The style has all the flashy 
cut-aways that Ichikawa Kon is so good at, but the dialogue scenes have the 
odd feeling of a jidaigeki Sasameyuki. The ending is the ridiculous 
culmination of an already weak subplot that looks a lot like the ending of 
Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August. 

This was one of three major films being shot in Kyoto this year. I've 
forgotten what one of them was (Fukusaku, right?) and the other is Oshima's 
Gohatto. As a matter of fact, Oshima was on hand to receive the 40th Makino 
Shozo award for lifetime achievement, joining a list of the biggest names in 
Japanese film history. 

Before going into this, I'd like to point out that during this award ceremony 
there were a couple other awards of note. One was a set of awards to 
technicians and staff members of Kyoto productions over the years. Old guys 
that are masters at their craft and rarely get credit for their 
contributions. The other is an award for the best essay of the year on 
Japanese film history. This year it went to a young student of Kato Mikiro's 
at Kyoto University, Itakura Fumiaki. Itakura wrote on Ito Daisuke, using 
primary materials at the Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan which he is helping to 
catalogue. [An aside: Aaron and I accompanied Makino Mamoru to the Kyoto 
Bunpaku to check out the Ito Daisuke Collection, whose cataloguing is nearing 
completion thanks to Itakura and other Kyodai students. I saw this collection 
some 5 or 6 years ago, and it was a mess of cardboard boxes. Now there is a 
fine list of what they've got, which includes runs of many unusual journals, 
Ito's book collection, and boxes of photographs, scenarios, budgets, 
receipts, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. It's quite a resource, so anyone out there 
looking for a book or dissertation project might want to take a trip to 
Kyoto!] Matsumoto Toshio introduced this award, and gave special mention to 
three other writers, Kitano Keisuke on Tanizaki and film, Misawa Mamie on 
colonial film in Taiwan, and Fujii Jinji on Naruse (Fujii is one of the other 
students cataloguing the Ito collection).  In any case, Kyoto Film Festival 
should be proud of awards like this, awards that thank people for a great job 
done and/or encourage them to do great jobs in the future. 

So it was quite a shock to see Oshima walk on stage. I knew he had problems, 
but few people realized how debilitated he is. He walks with the jerky motion 
of a puppet on strings, and couldn't really hold the large trophy they handed 
him so an assistant haunted the background to help him. He had a gruffer look 
than usual. But when he opened his mouth, he spoke in an absolutely booming 
voice and his mouth stretched into a wonderful smile. He drew massive 
applause when he talked about trying to rid himself of Kyoto his entire life, 
but with this award he now feels like a "Kyoto no eigajin." Afterwards, they 
held a press conference in the green room of the theater. He came in on a 
wheelchair, jerked over to his seat, and politely fielded stupid questions. 
When slightly more ambitious people asked more complicated questions, he 
basically refused to answer them. This inspired silence on the part of the 
journalists, although it might have been a sheer lack of imagination. So 
there were uncomfortable silences as he sat with a rather frightening, 
unmoving facial expression, waiting for the next question. But every time he 
answered, his face lit up and his voice boomed out with uncommon force. You 
could feel a will to conquer his own body. It was uncomfortable to 
experience. I certainly wish they had shown Gohatta instead of Dora Heita. 

Finally, a couple other notes from the Kyoto weekend:

----Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan has a handsome new book called Eiga no seishun 
that collects their interviews with various film artists with Kyoto 
connections, includeing Ushihara Kiyohiko, Inagaki Hiroshi, Kinugawa 
Teinosuke, Ito Daisuke, Arashi Kanjiro, Tanaka Kinuyo, Miyagawa Kazuo, the 
recently deceased Ichikawa Utaemon, and a few others. It's worth checking 
out: put out by Kinejun in 1998, ISBN 4-87376-216-2. 

---A student at Ritsumeikan introduced Aaron, Makino and I to a collection of 
film books that has gone unnoticed and unused, but it definitely worth 
noting. The Kyoto Furitsu Sogo Shiryokan (tel: 075-781-9101) has an 
impressive collection of Taisho/Showa shoki programs from Kyoto theaters. We 
even came across yet another Kinema Club theater, this one in the old 
capital. There are also a sprinkling of studio records, publications, and 
unusual books from the same period. 

---KineJapan members at Kyoto got together after the symposium and went out 
on the town. It was a very good time and it was good to put faces on 
electronic friends. Let's make it a tradition!  


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