domingo, 23 de outubro de 2011

The Kihachi Okamoto Touch

By Christoph Terhechte

Photographs of the director at work already spark curiosity about his films. Slender, casually dressed, with alert, intelligent eyes behind big glasses, his wild hair constrained by headgear of impressive variety, he has the nonconformist presence of a star. Maybe not a rebel, but certainly a free spirit and definitely incredibly cool.
Born in 1924, Okamoto Kihachi went to study in Tokyo at age 17. Convinced he would soon be drafted into the army, he spent every free minute at the movies. At the age of 19, he completed business school and took a job as director’s assistant with the production company Toho, where he initially worked for Naruse Mikio. When World War II brought film production to a standstill, he was assigned to work in an airplane factory. His draft notice did not come until the beginning of 1945, eight months before the end of the war. Okamoto later said, “You could say it’s a miracle I survived the war at all, since statistics show that the largest number of people killed were those born, like me, in 1924.”
After 1945, Toho hired him again as a director’s assistant under Naruse, but also with Taniguchi Senkichi, Makino Masahiro, Honda Ishiro, and Kurosawa Akira, before Okamoto had his first commission, in 1958, to make the comedy All About Marriage. One year later, he was able to film his own script, and the result made him famous: Desperado Outpost cast an irreverent gaze at the war in China; his protagonists were not heroes, but corrupt officers, bandits, adventurers, and crazy people.
With the “underworld” films produced by Toho, Okamoto turned to gangster movies. The second film in the series, The Last Gunfight, lent this genre the “Kihachi touch”: hired killers perform musical numbers, and Mifune Toshiro is an easygoing police detective who stands by a vengeful former gangster and engages in fistfights as if they were sword duels.
In Procurer of Hell , inspired by film noir, Okamoto again addressed the experiences of war. The corrupt factory owner whom small-time crook Tobe tries to blackmail with revealing photos turns out to have been his sadistic commanding officer on the front. And when the infernal blackmailer pair lies dying on the pavement at the end, it is no coincidence that Okamoto’s staging recalls a battlefield.
A popular genre of this time was the “salariman” comedies that reflected the new, Western lifestyle of the middle class. Okamoto left his stamp on these as well: in The Elegant Life of Mr.Everyman, not just with daring choreography and a montage that made original use of freeze frames. Once again, he used every opportunity to point to the wounds of the war. His son watching an American Western on television is already enough to rouse war memories in the hero. Okamoto used historical footage, satirical flashbacks, and even a sequence in the style of silent movies to point to war traumas.
Warring Clans and Samurai Assassin then fused elements from Westerns with the “chanbara” genre. Kurosawa had just shown how this could be done, and Kobayashi and Shinoda, too, turned upside down the lofty image of the edo era, which had been conserved in the “jidaigeki”. The honorable samurai were replaced by murderous, sinister characters who bring only suffering and death. Of course, the criticism was aimed not only at the Tokugawa period, which had vanished 100 years earlier, but more or less directly at every form of militarism. Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, a frighteningly dark adaptation of the popular novel Daibosatsu toge by Nakazato Kaizan, is considered a masterpiece of this trend.
Although all earlier film versions of this material, always in the form of a trilogy, had been box office successes, Toho abandoned the plan of a sequel even before the film arrived at Japanese cinemas. This may indeed be the only work by Okamoto that was more successful in the West than in Japan.

(Kiru, 1968)

Okamoto returned to the “jidaigeki” again in 1968 with Kill, which is reminiscent of the Spaghetti Westerns of Leone and Corbucci. A year later, he cast Mifune Toshiro as Red Lion, who, with revolutionary ardor, champions the threatened farmers in the confused times when the Meiji empire replaced the shogunate. In 1970, in his signature role Yojinbo, Mifune then encountered Katsu Shintaro’s legendary Zatoichi. Zatoichi Meets Yojinbo was followed by more genre mixtures, for example the late, American-made work East Meets West, which follows a samurai through the Wild West.
A chronology of the events that ended World War II on August 15, 1945 appeared in Japan in 1965 under the title Japan’s Longest Day. The executives of Toho Productions decided to turn it into a representative docudrama for the company’s 35th birthday. With Okamoto directing, Mifune Toshiro in the role of War Minister Anami and Ryu Chishu as Prime Minister Suzuki head an illustrious troupe of Toho stars. Despite its length and the constraints of the prestige production, the film did more than illustrate the thesis that Japan’s worst enemy at the time was not America, but Japan itself. With The Emperor and the General, Okamoto also created an extremely suspenseful drama about a power struggle whose outcome was not clear until the end.
And yet the director was never happy with the result. The film presented the official history of the capitulation, not the perspective from which he himself experienced the end of the war. Just one year later, Okamoto tried to interest his production company in his own script, but Toho rejected it. And so Human Bullet (also known under its original title, Nikudan) became Okamoto’s first film for the independent Art Theatre Guild, shot with 16mm film material and a minimal budget. The hero of the satirical work is a 21-year-old soldier who bobs alone in the Pacific in a barrel with a torpedo attached, ready for his kamikaze mission. In fantasized flashbacks, we plunge into the world of his emotions and also encounter Ryu Chishu again, this time in the role of a bookseller left crippled by the war.
“Watching the two films together gives you a complete picture,” Okamoto said in an interview with an American film critic.
Okamoto Kihachi died on february 19, 2005. The forum is showing nine of Okamoto’s 39 films; that can hardly give a complete picture of his oeuvre, but it provides an inkling of what the “Kihachi touch” is: originality, elegance, a wealth of ideas, and a lack of respect for cinematic conventions – the work of a nonconformist.

(Dai-Bosatsu Toge, 1966)

(Peter B. High, “An Interview with Kihachi Okamoto”. WideAngle 1, no. 4, 1977)

Question: Though you’re also known as a director of samurai films, I’d like to concentrate on your war films. Why have you made so many?
Okamoto Kihachi: I certainly don’t make them out of any nostalgia. I spent three and a half terrible years as a soldier. Yet, even if modern gadgetry shortens future wars to a matter of days, the basic experience of men at war is universal. It will never change.

Question: The emotional tone of your answer suggests that you feel a sense of mission in making this kind of film. Is that true?
O.K.: No, nothing so pretentious as a “sense of mission”. My real drive comes from more private concerns.

Question: Your war films seem to fall into two categories: those large, epic productions you did for Toho like Gekido no showashi Okinawa kessen (The Battle of Okinawa, 1971) and the low-budget, personal ones financed by yourself, like Human Bullet and Tokkan (Battle Cry, 1975).
O.K.: Yes, the ones at Toho were expensive for the time, about uS$400,000. The budget for my personally financed films was one tenth of that. Of course, Japanese cinema simply can’t compete with the budgets of American films like The Longest Day. We’re forced to suggest entire battle scenes by showing small parts of the whole. Okinawa kessen is a good example, since the entire Japanese Army had to be represented by 15 actors and the American side by another 15 so even at Toho I was restricted to a rather puny scale. In Human Bullet I worked with only one character and in Tokkan, I had two. I was trying to convey the whole by portraying a mere part. So actually the budget in Japan doesn’t make very much difference after all.

Question: Did Toho lay down any rules or guidelines about how you should portray the war?
O.K.: No, there really weren’t any at all. They simply wanted to insure a financial success or rather, avoid losing money on a flop. That was their sole concern. The company made the big decisions about the kind of film to be made. Once in production, I had a fairly free hand. Of course, as time went on, their decisions became a real headache. Kiru (KILL, 1968), the samurai film with Mifune, was my last Toho film where I was free to choose the subject myself. After 1968, all my films were dictated totally by the company hierarchy. Both Human Bullet and Tokkan were written while I was still a director for Toho. I submitted both these scripts and negotiated with Toho about Human Bullet for three years. Needless to say, nothing happened and I ended up financing it myself. The same for Tokkan. financing films on my own was a nightmare, but emotionally liberating.

(Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi, 1967)

Question: So you were never instructed to avoid implying anyone’s war-guilt, or ordered to portray the war in a less than candid manner?
O.K.: No, not really. Well, I recall one restriction. When I made Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, I was told I couldn’t show the emperor on screen because the Keeper of the Privy Seal had sent instructions forbidding it. Of course, if I’d felt that it was aesthetically necessary to show him, I would have quit the project. Still, my purpose was to make a faithful depiction of the events during those 24 hours leading up to Japan’s decision to surrender: Having actors portray government officials was no problem because most are dead now and their faces are no longer familiar. But everyone knows the emperor’s face, right? using an actor for the emperor would have ruined the effect I was aiming for. My biggest problem was portraying the emperor through long shots, or by showing only his hands or his back. frankly, I’m still not sure I did the right thing.

Question: Was the problem simply that the emperor was still alive?
O.K.: Precisely. If it’d been emperor Meiji, it would have caused hardly a ripple. But the present emperor is a different matter entirely. right after the war, the emperor, who had long been considered a god, reverted to being a mortal human being, a citizen among citizens, and a familiar one at that. But now there’s a tendency to place a distance between him and the people again. So, strangely enough, if I’d made the film a bit earlier, I probably could have put him on screen.

Question: Was the company afraid of public outrage?
O.K.: To some extent, yes. It probably wouldn’t have amounted too much, but the company made the rule anyway.

Question: If you had made Japan’s Longest Day by yourself, would it have turned out differently?
O.K.: Actually, the issue goes deeper than that. If I’d been in complete control, my real problem would have been with the theme itself. I’d rather do a film about the opening days of the war than about the final days.

Question: But wouldn’t doing a film about the beginning of the war inevitably put you in the position of implicating someone with war-responsibility?
O.K.: I suppose so. But that’s not necessarily an ideological problem. for example, at the beginning of the war, the emperor couldn’t control the events which led us into conflict. But in the final phase, he did press for a decision to prevent the total extinction of Japan. Without his decisive action, I myself might not be alive today. So, you might say it’s the tale of how I personally survived the war. Still, this in no way explains how the war began. I believe the roots of the war can be uncovered only by looking all the way back to the period of a hundred years ago.

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