By Tsutomu Yamazaki (in Itami Juzo no Eiga, 2007)
Translated by Steve Schlossstein
Translated by Steve Schlossstein
I appeared in Itami Juzo’s first three pictures – The Funeral, Tampopo, and A Taxing Woman. But after we made The Quiet Life (Shizukana Seikatsu), I worked in no more of his films.
Which is not to say that I left Itami-san as a result of personal arguments or quarrels – not at all. As proof empirical of this, he still kept coming as a spectator to see me act on stage, and when we would go drinking together after one of my performances, he would often spend the night at my house or I at his. Itami would never gossip about me behind my back; he was not that sort of person.
But after Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman), I never appeared in any of his films again, even The Quiet Life, one of his last. I suppose that was because given his role as producer and director and mine as a performing actor, our interpretative approaches seemed to be increasingly in conflict. For myself, as a stage actor, I was used to creating or capturing the roles I played by “imagining” or “photographing” a character in my mind. In stage productions, you rely on your fellow actors for inspiration, too, in addition to the director and his staff. Like the weather, they’re always changing. Which is to say, you never know what the hell is going to happen. But conversely, as a result of all this unpredictable chaos on stage, as a dramatic actor you gradually realize that things you’re not really conscious of will happen too.
So as an actor, I came to expect this volatile “brew” and even looked forward to it. Even in the most scrupulously cared-for garden you will see weeds growing in the most unexpected places, and I think you should take pleasure in that unexpected growth. That’s always been a kind of symbolic ideal for me and for my acting: expect the unexpected.
But Itami-san was the kind of gardener who would plan scrupulously and fastidiously to plant a tree here, a shrub there, and a flowering plant over there. With absolutely no weeds! And he would work with all his might to follow that plan to perfection, in order to create his own kind of perfect garden. As a director, then, he would always oppose the slightest effort or even the most harmless interference with his plan.
For example, “Yama-san,” he would say to me, “in this next scene, I want you to laugh slightly, just enough to create the hint of a small crow’s foot at the corner of your eye.” This was the kind of micromanagement Itami-san tended to have as a director.
Even from my first starring role for him, in The Funeral, this tendency of his was apparent. It became even stronger and more dominant as he made his next two films, Tampopo and A Taxing Woman, in which I also starred. There was simply no place for weeds to grow at all in his garden. (Laughter.) As an actor, I found his technique increasingly suffocating and I think Itami-san himself gradually understood how I felt.
But you know, as one element in the relationship between actor and director, I don’t think that’s necessarily unusual or bad. Both have their preferences and predilections. Must have them. The best work often comes from this kind of creative tension between actor and director, tension between their opposing styles. Moreover, as a professional actor I don’t think you can ever have the kind of relationship where one actor’s performance in every one of his films is consistently good. Nor should all films be solely based on input from the actors. Creative tension is healthy. It’s inevitable.
Up to that time, I had performed primarily as a stage actor and had never been in a film before. I was putting all of my energy into my stage work and I didn’t even hold the film industry in very high regard – never thought positively or constructively of it, really. Still, in response to Itami-san’s personal plea, I decided on the spur of the moment to collaborate with him.
I made the decision personally, as an accomplished actor, because I wanted to work with Itami-san on his first-ever film. In truth, just prior to his call, about a dozen thick tomes on film landed with a thud on my doorstep, sent over to me by Itami himself. I had to wonder if they were in fact a premonition, an omen of some sort issued by an oracle. (Laughter.) But I was impressed by his bizarre cleverness.
Shortly afterward, I remember receiving a highly original script for a new production called An Autumn of Sadness. It was a script about an apparent story that was no real story at all, but after I read the script through a couple of times I thought, “This could really be interesting.” It was just a hunch, nothing more. It was a “story” about a real event that happened in a real place that gave it a sense of “reality fiction” that was Itami’s own idea, and I thought it seemed pretty cool.
Thus the importance, I think, of using what happens spontaneously when you shoot a film. Since The Funeral was Itami-san’s first work as director, everybody working with him was at the point of really just fumbling or groping around, while as veterans on the set, I and some of the other experienced actors were wondering how this crew was going to deal with us while we were just standing around one day on the set waiting. Itami-san hoofed over to where I was standing to consult with me about what his staff should be doing for us veterans, as if he wanted to scold them all. His true spirit was revealed here because it became patently clear that whatever happened on the set, he wanted this movie to be successful. I remember quite clearly thinking about this afterward. He made a substantial effort every day to remind us that he was committed to making this film a success.
But – and not just limited to one occurrence of trying to keep our energy up – by the time we finished rehearsals and got around to shooting, we did so many takes every day that we constantly found ourselves nibbling or snacking so we wouldn’t collapse. Except for one person: Itami-san. The director was putting every bit of his energy into the effort and I could tell he was getting physically weaker by the day. He would say to us – “Hey – our bodies are not the key thing here” – or warn us, saying “No, no, if we’re making a film that’s this interesting, our stomachs just don’t get empty.” But it looked to me as if Itami-san had seriously charged himself with the task of not eating.
The most memorable impression I had was at the time of our first screening (preview). Itami-san was sitting right next to me. He was very nervous and worried about how the audience was going to react to the film. His face had turned as pale as rice paper – milky- blue, almost drained of color. And I was thinking, if this film doesn’t succeed – and we really had no clue at that point – my career would be finished! I’ll never work again! (Laughter.) But as the film rolled and the audience started to laugh, we both heaved a huge sigh of relief. By the way, I often had occasion to show Itami’s films to foreigners, and they laughed from beginning to end whenever I showed them The Funeral. From these types of experiences, I deduced that Itami-san’s “touch” or “feel” was really a lot closer to that of Westerners than it was even to us Japanese. I thought he had a very good feel for Western sensibilities deep in his own heart.
Itami-san started phoning me on Thursday or Friday every week after The Funeral was finally released. Our discussions were high-spirited and full of energy. “Come riding with me,” he would say. “I want to practice riding my motorcycle.” Me, I had no interest in motorbikes, so I naturally declined. But the following week, he would call and invite me again. “How about it?” he would ask. “Want to join me this week? Got the spirit yet?” (Laughter.)
This went on for about two months until he rode over to my place one day and I saw for the first time that his “motorcycle” was no real Harley – it was just a little scooter that any old lady might ride! “It’s really practical, Yama-san,” he said. “For making tight turns on the narrow roads in the city.” I thought, what a strange and marvelous character this guy was. But since Itami-san was only three years older than I [born in 1933, Yama in 1936], it was probably very natural for him to think of me as a “playmate.”
Next I produced a little stage play called Pizarro, written by the British playwright Peter Schaffer [who also wrote Equus and Amadeus]. It was a story of brutality, greed, and lust, centered on the 16th century Spanish conqueror of the Incas in Peru. [Released in 1970 as a German film with the title The Royal Hunt of the Sun, starring Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer.] It ran for about a month at the Parco Theatre in Tokyo in July 1985. I showed the script to Itami-san and asked him to translate it into Japanese. It was about that time that we had started meeting together more frequently.
After he finished translating the Schaffer script for me, he would come to the theatre nearly every other day to watch me working on the stage. We had a long series of conversations together, often eating and drinking late into the night. On one such occasion, he suddenly said to me, “Yama-san, I have four new films I want to do! One is a story just about eating. [This eventually became Tampopo.] One is about money [that became A Taxing Woman]. One is about criminals [A Taxing Woman II], and one is a tough urban adventure [Minbo no Onna, The Art of Japanese Extortion].
I told him we could probably find a British producer to combine all four of these stories into one. “We could have a criminal antagonist eating onigiri [sticky rice balls] while climbing a mountain and losing his wallet,” I joked, not too keen on his ideas. But he was really eager to do the four films separately. And sure enough, the first of this quartet that we made was Tampopo. And because these were his own ideas, I had no doubt he had already started drafting the other three scripts.
Because Itami-san was so intensely focused on the whole process of making this film, you could say he was the “real deal” – honmono [viz. peerless]. If you ask me what makes a stage play work, I think that focus on process is the most difficult of all. Timing (and audience reaction) are much different with stage plays than with film, so when you’re “fighting” on stage, you really don’t fight. But Itami-san didn’t quite get the fight timing right in this film. He would say to me, in the manner of a martial arts coach, “Since [the actor] Yasuoka is your adversary in the story, you should just go ahead and slug him!”
In our next film together, Marusa on Onna (A Taxing Woman), the lead character, a yakuza [mafia] fraudster I played named Gondo, was lame. He walked with a limp. That wasn’t actually written into Itami’s script. I added it to the character myself. In the stage production of Pizarro that I did earlier, my character had a limp. When I first tried to incorporate the same element into Gondo’s character, Itami-san was furious – because he hadn’t written it into the script himself! But he relented when he saw how well Gondo’s limp meshed with the music – it really was a perfect fit. He liked it then, and told me to keep it. But when we got to the money-counting scene, when Gondo reveals how many billions of yen he has stashed away through his various frauds, I did that little spontaneous dance for joy almost without thinking because Gondo was so fabulously rich and it just seemed natural for me as a stage actor to do that. That little dance step subsequently became somewhat popular with young Japanese as a kind of “jazz dance.” (Laughter.)
But I am a “practice-less” actor – I prefer to act spontaneously rather than to rehearse relentlessly every little tic my character may have on stage. Itami-san recognized this when we shot The Funeral, telling the cast to practice in front of a mirror the moves that came so naturally to me as a stage actor. Itami-san himself wrote this up in his notes to the film [subsequently published as Diary of The Funeral], but I don’t think he really practiced it seriously as a director himself.
At that time, Itami-san would sometimes say to me, “Good, good! Keep it, we’ll use it when we shoot!” But on other occasions he would often say, “No, no, Yama-san! I don’t think you should do that.” He also invited a real dance instructor to his house to show us how we should move during a scene [The Funeral was shot on location at Itami’s home], and the guy was really good. So we incorporated much of what he taught us and made some really memorable scenes as a result. But I think my creation of Gondo’s character in Marusa, particularly incorporating the limp and borrowing from Itami’s dance instructor, helped Itami develop the reputation as a really successful director.
Well, whatever you say, the job of a film director is really hard. As an artist, he’s not just drawing with a pencil, he has to “paint” with a motion picture camera. And he’s got twice as many “pencils” in the form of all the people he’s got to work with. Looking at his own wonderful pencil sketches in two of his diaries – Tedium in Europe and It’s the Women! – they never even come close to imitating (the complexity or beauty of) what he has done with film.
Once Itami-san was asked by the editors of a popular magazine to read a draft manuscript for one of their articles. He agreed to look at it but said at the time that “this thing called a manuscript, you know, if you don’t create a ‘hook’ in the first 200 kanji [ideographs] to catch and hold your readers, they’ll get bored, give up and go away.” And I said to him, “You know, it’s exactly the same with acting and film. Even with serious drama, you’ve got to have a little variation – like humor [what we call comic relief] – mixed in with it in order to relax the tension. Otherwise you will lose your audience and won’t be able to hold them.” When I said this, he concurred with a stubborn nod.
On the other hand, there were occasions when he would ask for my opinion or comments on one of his scripts. Take The Invalid, for example [released as The Last Dance]. Itami-san called me one day, having just finished writing the screenplay in longhand and asked me to look it over. Those were the days when he was fully candid with me – taking me into his confidence – and he thought that the dialogue spoken by the doctor to the dying patient in an effort to persuade him to abandon the thought of dying somehow just didn’t work. [Itami had himself just completed a long period of hospitalization after a yakuza gang had attacked him with knives.] The dialogue wasn’t right; it didn’t satisfy him. He said it wasn’t persuasive, that he just couldn’t write the words that captured the logic of a dying patient’s spirit. That was the real Itami – he was that kind of a person, always troubled or worried if something wasn’t exactly right – and that memory of him lives with me to this day.
I no longer remember the reason why Itami’s film Shizukana Seikatsu (The Quiet Life) came out – I wasn’t in it – but when I read the script I said, “Right.” (Naruhodo.) It was powerfully written, I remember thinking at the time. By the way, as background, Itami was as usual convinced that he himself really couldn’t write skillfully enough, and that would become one of his peculiar personality traits.
But he would often say, “Well, if Yama-san thinks it’s ok, then it must be ok.” He was not being sarcastic or cynical. So I guess in a way I helped him write a little more freely and less encumbered because of the frequent feedback he sought from me.
Still, whenever there was a scene with a long speech (by one of the characters), it would reveal the true Itami because the acting in such a scene was trifling if not non-existent! (Laughter.) I remember such occasions well. But they were some of my most pleasant interactions with Itami as we worked out our differences together. What was really super about him was that he not only talked the talk, he actually walked the walk [genko-itchi, agreement of speech and conduct].
Whether it’s a stage play or a film, if a production doesn’t resonate with the audience – in effect, become a “social event”– then we really can’t say it’s successful. By that definition, all three of Itami-san’s first films – The Funeral, Tampopo, and A Taxing Woman – were not only successful, they became true catchwords, all of them. They all became truly “real” events.
When Itami was still in his thirties, I think he was already aware of this. His sentiments were already down on paper, in his various diaries. His personal musings gave birth to many of the scenes in his films and we all learned a lot from them. But for me, as an actor, I was really nothing more than an empty vessel into which Itami was able to pour his ideas. That was an essential part of his true greatness.
Whether he was riding a scooter or writing scripts or cooking in his kitchen, Itami-san was a man of passion, and his passions distinguished him, put him head-and-shoulders above his peers. I was proud to have been one of his “empty vessels.” He put his whole body and soul [zenshin-zenrei] into his work. His work was incredibly beautiful and his films were the real fruits of his success.