domingo, 7 de novembro de 2010

Sadao Yamanaka: Forever New

By Sato Kimitoshi

Ozu Yasujiro spoke of Yamanaka in 1955, seventeen years after Yamanaka's death:

"I am sure that if he were alive now, he would be shooting a modern human drama, not a jidai-geki. For me, it is fascinating to imagine what his films would have been like. He was a great talent, and even his death at less than thirty years of age left us a tremendous legacy of films."

Ozu surely missed the young director, not only because he saw a great potential in his future and the great talent flowering there already, but also because they were good friends receiving a creative stimulus from each other's films. As is often the case with Japanese artists, did they form a master-disciple relationship? No! They exchanged frank opinions: Yamanaka as an assistant director, Yamanaka had established his own style. After the preview of Ozu's first sound feature, The Only Son (1936), Ozu, Yamanaka and others discussed it, drinking sake all night. The critic Kishi Matsuo recalls Yamanaka saying if he had directed the film, he would have made the last scene like this:

"A long corridor in the accommodation barracks of a silk filature factory. A mother thinks about the success that her only son has experienced in Tokyo, and how she is faced with a lonely reality. With resignation, she decides to accept this fate. Realizing that he lives in Tokyo and had one the best he can with his life, the mother has returned home to Shinshu and is cleaning this long, long corridor, singing a popular song she half-learned whilst taking care of her grandson."

It was September 1937, Ozu was 33 and already acclaimed as one of the greatest masters in Japan and Yamanaka, aged 27, was established as a director. I choose not to judge whose is the better ending, Ozu's or Yamanaka's, but what one may appreciate is that Yamanaka's version shows is poetic composition of both visual and aural elements.
Yamanaka was born in Kyoto in 1909. His father, Kisoemon, was a master fan craftsman, and Sadao was his seventh and last child. In 1925, Kisoemon died due to a brain hemorrhage; Sadao was sixteen. During his school days he developed a great love and enthusiasm for the cinema, and after writting a graduate treatise entitled "Kyoto and the Cinema Industry" he got a job working in a film studio. In 1927, he served Kintaro Inoue and others as an assistant director. If by "assistant" one means a messenger boy who runs around, Yamanaka was not a good example. And actress recalls: "His nickname was a "lamp in the daylight"... This long-jawed fella did nothing, he just stood around." Kato in Yamanaka's biography, depicts him as standing behind the camera, watching how a director shot the scene. He kept on feeding screenplays to the production company even whilst on military service. In 1931 he made his first movie, which fascinated Kishi Matsuo, a young critic who eventually become a close friend. Kishi, discovering what he saw as the genius within Yamanaka, wrote an unusually long article on his first film. In 1932 Yamanaka directed four films. Kishi also records Ozu's appraisal of his second film: "His second film. What a second film!" - The next year offered an opportunity for an encounter and Ozu and Yamanaka met and formed a close, life-long friendship.
Ozu wrote, after Inoue Kintaro had suggested he meet Yamanaka:

"Autumn in 1933. Soon after I finished "Passing Fancy" (1933) I entered infantry Unit No.33 for military in Tsu, and was trained there for fifteen days. On my return, I stopped by Kyoto. (...) At that time, Yamanaka was busy creating a new screenplay... I answered: if only Yamanaka could spare time for me... He was already a brilliant talent at the time of directing "The Life of Bangaku" (1933).
The next evening Yamanaka came to Shimokamo. He was in a kimono of a dark blue stripes, wearing wornout geta sandals. He had a dishevelled, unkempt beard and a towel was wrapped around his neck as if he was suffering from a cold. Akiyama Kosaku introduced him to me: "I am Yamanaka", he said. I was surprised to find the man proved quite different from the impression of brilliance his films had made.
We drank sake, talked about cinema and a new day dawned. Yamanaka remained taciturn, and listened to the rest of us sipping sake silently. When we departed in front of the Yasaka Shrine, Yamanaka returned home noncommittally making geta sounds as the day broke. I found him a good mixer because in spite of his busy schedule, and though he had a cold, he drank with us. Watching him walking away, I perceived a truly amicable tolerance and perseverance in his personality."

(Sadao Yamanaka on set, 1937)

Miyagawa Kazuo, the legendary cinematographer, wrote in his autobiography that the pair recognized each other not only as filmmakers, but as soul mates. Yamanaka always asked Miyagawa to buy him a new toothbrush and towel whenever he wanted to go to Tokyo and meet Ozu, and when Yamanaka finally moved to work for Toho in Tokyo, Miyagawa also tried to quit Nikkatsu to accompany him. Miyagawa, who had worked as an assistant cameraman on a subunit for Yamanaka considered the director shared similar camera tastes with Ozu as both preferred a stable low camera position.
It should be also pointed out that Ozu mentions "The Life of Bangaku" as a very decisive movie for the 22-year-old Shindo Kaneto, who saw it in his hometown of Onomichi, where Ozu, in 1953, was to shoot important sequences of "Tokyo Story". Shindo entered the picture house as someone with no real goal in life, and left it with an ambition for cinema. It follows that both Ozu and Shindo love the lost film "The Life of Bangaku". The audience and critics appreciated it highly, but the severest criticism came from the director himself who insisted he should have rearranged the sequence drastically; the first scene should have been the last of the film. Yamanaka stated further: "It was too faithful to the original story." Another witness, Yahiro Fuji, Yamanaka's colleague and scriptwritter says the novelist who wrote the original Bangaku story should have been furious "... because Yamanaka drastically changed it for the film". And, Yahiro adds with a smile: " Yamanaka always ignored the original stories." Japanese viewers received unexpected, almost shocking surprises from his films because they intimately knew the original tales they were based on. Sazen was a strange hero, whereas Yamanaka's Sazen is not. Shinza, in the kabuki play, receives applause by making a spectacular protest like a displaying peacock wooing its mate; Yamanaka's Shinza is a rascal who tries to live up to his own life principles. The director always give us a fresh interpretation of the characters' actions, emotions and intentions within the boundaries of a jidai-geki scenario. We find people in his films to be just as our neighbours are in this modern world.
According to Nogami Teruyo, Kurosawa Akira's assistant and script supervisor, the young Kurosawa, who, at this point had just started out an assistant director, visited Yamanaka during the filming of Humanity and Paper Balloons. Kurosawa found Yamanaka and his crew patiently waiting for a suitable form of clouds to come into view before they would start cameras rolling.
Yamanaka was a free spirit like Kurosawa, though they had quite different artistic backgrounds. Kurosawa movies always remind us of his intensive reading of Russian literature: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; whilst Yamanaka's background is founded in his deep love for Japanese folklore traditions manifested in such traditional forms as kabuki and kodan. Just as minstrels existed in Medieval Europe, so were kodan orators popular in Japan, even up to the period when Yamanaka was alive. Both instructed people about spiritual traditions their ancestors passed down through generations in a vivid oral representation. We may even see a link to Andrei Tarkosky as they both shared a common love for the same Japanese spiritual traditions.
Yamanaka, deeply rooted in folk wisdom, expressed himself in a modern sophistication. His characters behave independently to the feudal system although, helplessly, they are bound to it. When they crush eachother, their human aspirations inevitably lead them to tragedy, as in Humanity and Paper Baloons, whereas in The Million Ryo Pot (1935) people remain indifferent to money and power to protect themselves from catastrophe.
His artful use of small items convinces us of his adept knowledge of materialistic tendencies. One can speculate he overcam the unfavorable effects of materialism though his love of sports such as rugby, football and baseball. These were new sports for Japan at the time, and Yamanaka belonged to the rugby club at school and frequented the ballparks after he moved to Tokyo. In a discussion with Mizoguchi Kenji and others, a friend teased him by saying that Yamanaka only knew the places in Tokyo where ballparks were.
On April 1, 1937, Yamanaka moved to Tokyo with a firm resolution to seek out new cultural impulses. Ozu has already written in his diary on January 3, 1937:

"Yamanaka sent a postcard saying: from now on we have to go up to Tokyo as the teacher in "The Only Son" said. I may cook pork cutlets in P.C.L. but I can't resist the desire to live and work in Tokyo."

At a further meeting, by chance, in China, in 1938, Ozu found Yamanaka to be writting a notebook on movie-making; this inspired Ozu to start writting his own battlefield diary.
Yamanaka's friend, Mimura Shintaro, wrote the original screenplay of Humanity and Paper Baloons, but alhtough he remained almost consistently faithful to Mimura's dialogue, Yamanaka ignored the original optimistic atmosphere, and its kabuki settings. In Mimura's scenario the underlying mood is a pleasant one where the poor live in the corners of society just as in Renoir's The Lower Depths (1936), but Yamanaka chose an encompassing, pessimistic tone as if he had foreseen his own tragic death. For instance, in Mimura's story the kidnapped girl falls in love with Shinza, and Shinza himself confesses his affection toward her in the end. And Unno, in Mimura's version, is a Ronin who appears, as a single man, to enjoy poverty.
Both the episodes in which the pipe is stolen from rhe blind man and the kidnapping deal struck between Shinza and the landlord are credited as Mimura's inventions; they highlight the continuous struggle for survival and the interdependency of the poor. Yamanaka's further added a sequence where Shinza, before he carries out the duel, makes sure that the umbrella he has acquired returned to its rightful owner. Spirit and loyality within this poorest of social strata hasn't been abandoned but is corrupted by law-breaking and the need to survive, or is delicate and fragile, ready to be snuffed out by those who hold power.
Nakamura Kanemon, who played Shinza, writes:

"At the end of the film a paper balloon, blown by the wind, ends up floating in the ditch of the Nagaya tenement. Yamanaka admits he was inspired by the money blowing in the air in the last scene of Pension Mimosas (1935) by Jacques Feyder; Yamanaka's favorite director. Shooting that sequence was extremely difficult, for the open ditch soon dried out in the scorching heat, and the crew had to leep on feeding it water all the time."

On August, 1937, when Humanity and Paper Balloons was being screened in Tokyo, he received news of his own draft.
One of Yamanaka's diary entries on 7 October, 1937 reads:

"Finally we leave.
Saw a woman running with a baby on her back in a hurry beside the soldiers.
Turmoil at the station.
Marched the Motomachi street after arriving in Kobe.
A difference in complexion between those who cried banzai at the front of Kyoto Station and those in Kobe.
Tragedy of those who exclaim banzai; tragedy of those who receive banzai cries.
Maybe a comedy."

Throughout his brief but productive life, Yamanaka appeared detached from the world and events around him, yet, within this reserved distance, as this diary entry shows, he was always mapping out, even during wartime, inspirations and ideas for films. Tragically, with his life cut short, these films would never come to fruition.

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