By Lalit RaoA lot has been written about Donald Richie but one thing remains to be told for sure.He might be an American in body but remains a true Japanese at heart. Donald Richie is acquainted not only with Japanese cinema but almost with everything related to Japanese culture. His knowledge of cinema goes beyond the realms of Japanese films.He is familiar with almost all aspects of Asian cinema. He is known for his frank views on cinema. It is something which will always remain at the back of his mind. Donald Richie was in New Delhi,India to receive a lifetime achievement award for Distinguished Contribution to Asian cinema. A soft spoken gentleman,Donald Richie spoke to Lalit Rao in New Delhi,India during 7th Osian Cinefan Asian Film Festival (15-24 July 2005)
Lalit Rao: We are living in an era in which young Japanese filmmakers like Shinji Aoyama, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano etc. are easily getting funds for their films. At the same time, the old established masters like Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima are having tough time obtaining finances for their films. Why is that so ?
Donald Richie: This is happening because the buyers’ market has changed in Japan. Initially when Imamura and Oshima were making their films,Japanese audience for film had sunk dramatically because of the advent of television. Everybody in Japan thought that there would not be any more films. In the 1980s,1990s, a certain kind of film became much more popular. Consequently young filmmakers were able to get funding from people who did not ordinarily fund films like whisky people,electronics people,automobile people etc. The problem is that because it has become a best selling item,the people who invest their money insist on a genre product.If there is a strong director who would fight against that,it would be Kore-eda. He refuses to make films,he does not believe in. Everybody else will make films for their sponsors. Japanese cinema is no more a directors’ cinema. It is a producers’ cinema.
Lalit Rao:You spoke of a decline in Japanese cinema.Which period were you referring to ?
Donald Richie:I suppose Japanese cinema started to decline when television made its first appearance in 1958.That year the audience for Japanese cinema started to decline.By 1960 the audience dropped by half.50% of Japanese movie goers no longer saw Japanese films.Everybody was at home watching television.One thing is for sure. People discovered soon how stupid it is to watch television. So they became tired of it. They started to watch films. Seeing a film is a social occasion.You would take your girl friend to see a film.It is very special.Then there are many “event” pictures like Spielberg’s films.In the same way in Japan,anything with “Takeshi Kitano” becomes an event.One has to go see it.It makes a lot of money this way.
Lalit Rao:Isn’t it a bit unusual especially in Oshima’s case because he got funding from Anatole Dauman of Argos films.
Donald Richie:One time,Yeah !
Lalit Rao:Why did this trend not continue in his case ?
Donald Richie: Kurosawa got his funds practically all of it from abroad.Nobody would fund expensive films during 1960s and 1970s.Now they would fund this.New expensive films being made now a days are mainly war films.They are about world war 2 japanese soldiers,sailors.This is happening because Japan is moving very rapidly.
Lalit Rao: When we talk of Japanese cinema normally the images which comes to mind are that of Mizoguchi,Ozu,Kurosawa,Kitano etc.The usual suspects if I may call so. People hardly know about Pink Eiga,Nikkatsu Roman Porn.Why is that so ?
Donald Richie:This is because these films were never exported.What happens is that when a film goes abroad,it is usually sent to a film festival.If it wins a prize,it helps the box office in the domestic country.The foreign buyers are more interested in a film which wins a prize at let us say Cannes.So these award winning films would be screened in England,U.S.A.,France etc.Pink Eiga never ran anywhere.There was no way one could get subtitled prints.One man who is very much interested in this genre …..
Lalit Rao:Koji Wakamatsu ?
Donald Richie:Yeah.I mean one critic who is very much interested in this genre is Mark Schilling. Mark helps the film festival in Udine.
Lalit Rao:Udine film festival recently did a Pink Eiga programme.
Donald Richie:Yeah ! This year they organized a programme on Nikkatsu action drama which is a very well made genre by itself.A year before that Udine film festival showed a programme of Pink Eiga films.So due to the efforts of critics like Mike Schilling many more critics are getting interested in this genre like Jasper Sharp.
Lalit Rao:The gentleman who runs midnighteye website ?
Donald Richie: Yeah,Jasper Sharp also has affiliations with various film festivals.He is picking up these neglected films.This means that now a days the companies which were involved in distribution of films are releasing DVDs.For example-Criterion.It has released 5 Seijun Suzuki DVDs.This is the way these minority pictures are getting into a majority market.
Lalit Rao:Do you mean to say that Seijun Suzuki made some of these Pink Eiga films ?
Donald Richie:Yes,I do!
Lalit Rao:These Pink Eiga films were completely ignored in the past.So,I would like to know from you why at this particular point of time there is a sudden interest in Pink Eiga. ?
Donald Richie:There was no way for people to see them.Pink Eiga films were never exported.
Lalit Rao:So these films had limited domestic release.
Donald Richie:Yeah that is correct.One could see Pink Eiga in 1960s or 1970s.Now you can’t see it anymore because they discovered that cinemas screening these films do not make money.Nobody goes to watch these films because now you have the internet which is the real thing.Pink in Japan means cover up.
Lalit Rao:I believe even today there are a lot of porno films made in Japan.
Donald Richie:Yeah but they are not being made for an audience.They are being made for tapes and DVDs.These films are made in two versions.Covered up for Japan and no cover for Los Angeles,New York etc. to be used on internet.There is a lot of Japanese porn.We are no longer talking about films.
Lalit Rao:One way Pink Eiga films cannot be ignored,is it due to the fact that many of Japanese cinema’s established directors started their careers making these films.For example-Kohei Oguri ?
Donald Richie:This is because they no longer had film schools.The studio system had collapsed.One established director could not teach another one.So there was no way one could learn filmmaking.
Lalit Rao:Couldn’t they have worked as assistant directors ?
Donald Richie: The Japanese film industry had collapsed.It is like Hollywood.Hollywood has collapsed.One sees an MGM film.MGM doesn’t make films.It buys films.Shochiku doesn’t make films.It buys films and shows them as products.They are film distributors.
Lalit Rao:As an expert on Ozu,I would like to ask you a question.Hou Hsiao Hsien has made a film (Café Lumiere) dedicated to Ozu.Now a days numerous seminars are organized on Ozu.Almost every film festival talks about Ozu.What is Ozu’s relevance in contemporary world cinema ?
Donald Richie:There is a very deep connection.Ozu,among other things,was a modernist. To be a modernist is to subscribe to a certain minimal.Less is more kind of aesthetic which may have started in 1930s with people like Lubitsch.This has now become a major avant garde tendency.So we have people like Jim Jarmusch,Hou Hsiao Hsien,Coen brothers who are doing the same kind of thing.All of these filmmakers have been influenced by Ozu
Lalit Rao: Kiarostami too !
Donald Richie:Yeah.That is true.His influence comes in a number of ways.Firstly it is cinema pure because it is only cinema.That is all it wants to do.The other thing is that it comes as a designed trend where you get rid of complications,the commercial image.“Anime” is so full of details that we don’t know where to look.You could call it modernism.Most people now call it post modernism because it sort of cannibalizes itself.It fits the zeitgeist.I think that this is one of the reasons.
Lalit Rao:As an expert on Japanese cinema living in Japan,I would like to know how is Japanese cinema promoted within Japan especially at various film festivals like Tokyo, Osaka,Yamagata etc.?
Donald Richie:Everybody has now discovered that one of the best ways to promote a film is to send it to a film festival.This way many people get to see it.If it wins a prize,one can release it in cinema.There are many film festivals in Japan.Serious film festivals who are interested in films not as a product are few.For example-a film festival which is interested in cinematic quality is Locarno.I don’t think Cannes is a serious film festival.This should be the model for Japan.There is only one film festival in Japan which is of that high caliber.That film festival is Filmex.
Lalit Rao:In Tokyo.
Donald Richie: Yeah.It is Tokyo’s second film festival.The International Tokyo Film Festival is too heavily compromised by business.The films which they show are films which already have titles in Japanese.These films are going to be shown one week after the festival is over.This is just a display for the coming product.People who think about films don’t pay much attention to Tokyo International Film Festival.Everybody goes to attend Filmex.
Lalit Rao:What is Japanese government especially ministry of culture doing to promote Japanese cinema ?
Donald Richie:The Japanese government keeps talking about it.Now the government wants to create the film schools.What a disaster ! If the government gets into anything ! You know what the Indian government does to Indian cinema.Any governments which gets into film business wants to make commercially viable films.I don’t have any great hopes.One good thing that has happened is that Japanese ministry of culture has managed to get some money.It has now become somewhat independent of the major government in film work.It has shown new south Korean cinema.The government money has gone into the showing of these films.They have invited Tony Ryans who has done a big event on Korean avant garde films in Tokyo with Japanese money.This is extremely interesting.This is brand new.This is something which is just happening.
Lalit Rao:A lot of Japanese directors have the feeling that their films are uniquely Japanese in nature.They believe that their films have a certain amount of japanness in them because of that foreigners would not be able to understand them.Why do they have this sort of feeling especially Mizoguchi ?
Donald Richie:That is true.Mizoguchi never thought of about being Japanese.He was much more innocent back then.Ozu never tried to be Japanese.Ozu thought that he was International.He thought of himself as a modernist.He liked Lubitsch,Laurel & Hardy. He thought that he was making that kind of films.
Lalit Rao:Ozu was a big fan of King Vidor.
Donald Richie:I am sure he must have seen a lot of King Vidor films.What really influenced him were the bluebird films,the early comedies.These Japanese filmmakers did not intend to be spokesmen for Japan.Kurosawa said that he only makes films for younger Japanese. He never made films for foreigners.I do not know a single Japanese director who makes films for foreigners.I don’t think that they think about foreign markets which is one of their problems.Sometimes you hear of Japanese directors going abroad particularly now a days.This does not mean anything.
Lalit Rao:According to you in real terms,when did west first take note of Japanese cinema ?
Donald Richie:The 1st Japanese film shown abroad was in 1928.It was called “Crossroads”. It was shown in Berlin.Murnau saw it.Eisenstein was in Germany at that time.He saw it. They did not like it but they saw it.In 1934,in U.S.A.,a Naruse film “Kimiko” was shown.It got fantastic reviews.However,it took “Rashomon” in 1950 to make western world take serious note of Japanese cinema.
Lalit Rao:So “Rashomon” was a real trendsetter ?
Donald Richie:Yeah.Rashomon was a real trendsetter.Rashomon got the whole world talking about Japanese cinema.Oh,here is the cinema no one has ever heard of.After that Japanese films were sent to various film festivals.Ugetsu won a prize,Life of Oharu,Gates of hell won a prize.All of a sudden the sun rose on the new Japanese cinema.
Lalit Rao:Do you think the current situation of Japanese cinema is really pathetic ? Is there still some hope for new,young filmmakers ?
Donald Richie: Well, as always it is all very commercial.All of the “manga” films,all of these “anime” films tend to make a lot of money.They also tend to cost a lot of money.The films that are “chic” like Kitano cannot make any money. There are films by “Miike” which are shocking. There are films by “Aoyama” which are trendy.
Lalit Rao:Miike makes a film every 2 months.
Donald Richie:Everyone.He makes films to order.He is a craftsman.Somebody says I want a film like that.He will make it.One of the things which matter is that the distribution system for Japanese films within Japan is very bad.America has a hegemony of practically all cinemas.Right now,in every neighbourhood at least 2 cinemas would be showing Star Wars.The American hegemony means that there are no cinemas left for Japanese cinema unless it is a Toho handkerchief film or a Shochiku action film.
Lalit Rao:Handkerchief film means a tear jerker ?
Donald Richie:Yeah a tear jerker.Yochi Sai’s film “Blood and Bones” got distribution only because it had Shochiku money in it.The other film by Yoichi Sai like “All under the moon” was shown only in one cinema.It played for several weeks but it was screened in only one cinema.In main districts Japanese films are usually shown only in 1 cinema unless they are on a chain.So there is much demand for these cinemas.For example-“The buried tree” by Kohei Oguri.It is being shown in only 1 cinema in Shinjuku.This is Oguri.His films have not been shown nationally.You cannot see his films in Kyoto,in small towns as there are no cinemas.The distribution for independent films is extremely bad which is unfortunate because there is no audience for such films.
Lalit Rao:Since past few years a new trend has developed within Japanese cinema.It concerns Japanese animation.Why do think Japanese animation is getting more and more popular at different film festivals all over the world ?
Donald Richie:One of the things that has happened is that animation is much more inexpensive now.Before nobody could really afford to make animation films as it was very expensive.They would send these films to Manila,Singapore etc.It is cheaper to make a “Manga” film,an “Anime” film than to make a regular film.Everybody can make something now.Japanese people ever since 17th century have been extremely fond of caricature. They are extremely fond of making action simplified.In the old days when it was expensive to make such films,they would change the action only 3 frames.The boom in “Manga” books and the boom in “Anime” collided and made this new trend.This is leveling out now.The one film which made a lot of money is “Swept away”.But the next one “House of moving castle” did not make that much money.Miyazaki says that he is not going to make any more films.He says that he is going to stop making films.He says that everytime.There is another trend which is different from disneyfied fairy tale anime like “Akira”,“Ghost in the shell”.
Lalit Rao:Mamoru Oshii !
Donald Richie:Yeah that’s right.These films are much more dark,much more futuristic,more more Ridley Scott.I don’t know whether such films will continue or not.Japan is a land of fashions and fads.The things don’t last very long in Japan.I think that the new portable handsets will change the shape of films too.To what direction,I don’t have any idea.
Lalit Rao:Since funding of films is not readily available,have the Japanese filmmakers taken to DV mode in a big manner ?
Donald Richie:I don’t think that they are so much interested in technique.The DV cam is a little bit too clunky for them.It is not quite up to the cutting edge.What they do use all the times are new video cameras,plain video cameras,big ones.I think that all new Japanese films are being made this way.Young people in Japan are making more films than ever.Every high school in Japan has a film club.There are film festivals like PIA which sponsors a lot of these young filmmakers.There are a lot of young cineastes,contests and events.Many people are making a lot of amateur films than they used to do.It is so simple.It is so inexpensive.This means that Japanese cinema is going to get a lot of new directors and a lot of different kinds of directors than we have now.
Lalit Rao:Lastly,I wish to know about the state of film criticism in Japan.Are there a lot of film magazines in Japan ?
Donald Richie:The state of film criticism in Japan has been fairly lamentable.There isn’t any film criticism in the english sense of the word.It has never been in Japan.I don’t know about other Asian countries.In Japan,there are reviewers who usually parrot whatever the producers say.Thoughtful critics have no place to publish.Japanese newspapers don’t carry thoughtful criticism.We don’t really have thoughtful film magazines in Japan except for Kinema Junpo which is not all that thoughtful now.
LR:Is Kinema Junpo a film journal ?
DR: Yeah it appears every month.We have people like Hiroshi Komatsu,Tadao Sato.These people publish but not where the public would read them.The people who would be ones to be telling us about Japanese film trends are only publishing in a very slow media.It is in a hardcover book form which people cannot afford to buy.Nobody really cares to read them.In U.S.A.,a critic like Pauline Kael whatever her limitations were,was read nationwide.She was very serious.Tadao Sato has no readers like that.Nor do I ! There is a very specialized audience for these books.That is why the general public is not informed.Moreover,the general public is not interested.