The Girl in the Book
It all began, like most encounters with Japanese Cinema in the West, with Donald Richie.
Many years ago, probably in the 1980s, I bought a coffee-table book by Mr. Richie – the great American popularizer of Japanese film – titled The Japanese Movie (1966, revised 1982). (This book is not to be confused with the classic text The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, co-written by Richie and Joseph L. Anderson and originally published in 1959.) This large-format book consists of a fascinating set of photos, mostly production stills, which together form a chronological record of the whole history of Japanese cinema from its beginnings to the early 1980s, when the revised version was first published. The pictures are accompanied by extensive commentary from Richie, not just about the movies themselves, but about the film industry and about Japanese culture and customs in general. Of course, some of the films described in the book I had already seen or at least knew something about. Most of them, however, were totally unknown to me at the time.
In the latter category was a film released in 1939 called Earth (Tsuchi). I’m not sure if I was struck at the time by the coincidence of its English-language title being the same as that of Dovzhenko’s classic 1930 Soviet film.
What definitely did catch my interest was a photo Richie had included, showing a young Japanese girl in peasant clothes, standing in a bamboo forest, staring at something in the distance with… what? Dread? Anxiety? Wonder? The picture was mysterious, but that face moved me somehow: it was one of the most poignant images of innocence I’d ever seen. (I later learned that the actress in the photo was Kazami Akiko, who, at the time I purchased the book, was very much alive and was still working in films, many decades after Earth was first released.)1
Just as significant was the fact that Richie gave two whole pages to a very laudatory description of this movie. (Most of the other films he profiled were given a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph.) He described Earth as “one of the finest films of the decade” of the 1930s.
I had never even heard of the film’s director. His name was given as “Tomu Uchida,” in Western name order. I filed away the names of both film and director in my mental filing cabinet (a notoriously unreliable storage facility) and moved on.
To digress for a moment, I particularly valued books such as Richie’s because I don’t believe that our knowledge of cinema should be limited to the “greatest hits.” Although Kurosawa Akira is my favorite director, I find it very unfortunate that after all these years, Kurosawa and, possibly, Miyazaki Hayao, the famous animator, are still the only Japanese directors who have become, beyond the limited audience for non-English language art house films, household names. Even in the case of Kurosawa, of all his movies, only a few – Rashomon, Seven Samurai and, maybe, Ran – are almost universally recognized.
And beyond Kurosawa, and aside from some monster movies like Godzilla, some particularly popular anime titles and a few “J-horror” works, only a handful of other Japanese works can truly be considered part of Western mass culture. These include Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and perhaps one or two others. Yet Japanese Cinema is so rich, and its creative artists so endlessly fascinating, that I can only feel sad for those who have never been moved to explore it beyond the superficial level of a few recognized classics. I’ve seen over 400 Japanese films, and still feel that I’ve only scratched the surface.
A Slight Obsession
To return to my subject… many years, and many Japanese movies, after first encountering Uchida Tomu in Mr. Richie’s book, I’d read so much about him that I became absolutely determined to track down at least some of his films if I possibly could. That was a very big “if” at the time. The esteem in which this filmmaker has always been held in his native land seemed to exist in inverse proportion to knowledge about – and availability of – his films in the West. (Even now, of all his films, only four have received more than 200 votes on the Internet Movie Database: A Fugitive from the Past, A Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji, Hero of the Red-Light District and the first film in the five-part Miyamoto Musashi series.) I particularly wanted to see what some people regarded as his masterpiece: the 1965 crime thriller A Fugitive from the Past (Kiga kaikyō, literally: “The Hunger Straits”), a film that has often been compared to another film I love, Kurosawa Akira’s suspenseful and disturbing 1963 thriller, High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku).
Then one day, the film popped up unexpectedly on YouTube… with subtitles. It was everything I’d hoped for: a movie of epic scope, yet intimate and character-driven. In other words, a peculiarly Japanese masterpiece. And though the similarities to High and Low were obvious, Fugitive had its own very different themes and vision, as well as its own rhythm and tone. The performances by Mikune Rentarō and Hidari Sachiko were as good as any I’d ever seen by those great actors, if not better. And a lifetime of watching crime films hadn’t quite prepared me for either the intensity or the strangeness of this Buddhist noir.
A little while after viewing that film online, I saw, as part of a series about the Japanese musical at New York’s Japan Society, another Uchida movie filmed a decade earlier, Twilight Saloon (Tasogare sakaba, 1955). This film painted a satirical yet sympathetic portrait of the denizens of a Tokyo beer hall, presented as a microcosm of mid-1950s Japan. Again, I was floored.
I felt as if I were watching the first Robert Altman movie. The narrative never focused for long on any one character, but flitted, butterfly-like, from one character’s story to another’s, while the director masterfully employed his camera to fully exploit the spatial and dramatic possibilities of the film’s one gigantic set. It was a completely studio-bound work, but unlike many Hollywood studio pictures of that era, it didn’t feel claustrophobic: it was clearly never meant to be anything but cinema. And the frequent musical interludes were perfectly integrated into the action. The audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, which I discovered later was the standard reaction movie fans give to most of Uchida’s movies… if they’re exposed to them.
But the most amazing thing about the two films was that I couldn’t find any common characteristics between them, except for the quality of the performances and the director’s consistent visual inventiveness. Indeed, the two works were almost polar opposites: the first, an epic saga that spanned a decade of Japanese history and ranged geographically from Tokyo to the far north of Japan; the second taking place during one evening in a single room. Certainly, they were radically different in tone: the first, a dark, tragic drama of fate; the second, a satire with flashes of quiet hope amid the literal and figurative gloom of its setting.
This sense of the strange unrelatedness between different works by this filmmaker has been my consistent experience with Uchida Tomu’s movies as I’ve discovered them. This was especially true after I attended the big Uchida retrospective – the largest ever mounted outside Japan – at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in the Fall of 2016. It was not simply that Uchida seemed to have a wider range of style and subject matter than any other Japanese director I’d ever encountered, Kurosawa included. I felt as if I was watching the work of half a dozen moviemakers. It seemed almost as if, whenever he began a new project, Uchida would ask himself what cinema is supposed to accomplish and would, almost every time, come up with a different answer… a surprising answer.
I was so impressed that, as a result of viewing the MOMA retrospective, I published a long review of a number of Uchida films. That article appeared on the excellent World Cinema Paradise website.
In another article I wrote for the same website, a review of some silent films by Ozu Yasujirō, I cited Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” to make a point about Japanese directors of Ozu’s generation – the very first generation of great Japanese filmmakers, which also included Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio. These artists tended to be what Berlin called “hedgehogs,” pursuing, with greater and greater refinement, a limited set of subjects and stylistic approaches.
However, the major directors of the following generation – for example, Kurosawa Akira, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ichikawa Kon and Kobayashi Masaki – tended to be “foxes,” self-consciously exploring a very wide range of subjects and creative approaches. Uchida was chronologically part of the first generation, as he was the exact same age as Mizoguchi and slightly older than Ozu and Naruse. Yet he was creatively and spiritually akin to that second generation, as protean and unpredictable as they were… perhaps even more so.
Because of his dramatic power, impressive creative range, consistent intelligence and stylistic inventiveness, I rank Uchida in my personal list of Japanese directors whose work I know well as the sixth-best, after Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kobayashi, in that order.2 Of course, it stands to reason that, if Uchida is one of the half-dozen best Japanese moviemakers, he would also, necessarily, be one of the greatest moviemakers, period.
(Continued on Page 2)
- Ms. Kazami continued working in films and television well into the 21st Century: the final film in which she appeared, Hameln, was released in 2013, when she was in her nineties. She died in 2016, at the age of 95.
- Note that these are solely my personal preferences: I would never dream of trying to create any kind of canon or hierarchy of Japanese filmmakers, as Andrew Sarris did for the cinema of the United States with his book The American Cinema. My goal is simply to get people thinking and talking about this director.