Japan's 'ambassador' movies

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Japanese movies have enriched world cinema for decades, from the epics of Kurosawa to the sensitive dramas of Mizoguchi and the delicate inner landscapes of Ozu. Where would we be without ''Rashomon'' and ''Gate of Hell,'' or ''Yojimbo'' and ''The Seven Samurai''?

In addition to these mainstream films, moreover, Japan has created a body of movie poetry - ''experimental'' cinema based on personal expression rather than box-office ambitions. Like similar works in the United States and many other countries, these films have a growing audience of admirers who reach far beyond national borders. Indeed, experimental movies are often used as ambassadors of goodwill, traveling abroad to share the personal and artistic views of their native lands.

In the latest instance of ''ambassadorial cinema'' Japan has sent a provocative package of experimental films to the United States, where they are now touring - introduced by their curator, Donald Richie - to a number of American cities, from Pittsburgh and Chicago to Minneapolis and Honolulu. After the tour ends on Feb. 10, the films will continue to be shown widely in the United States and abroad. Supported by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and organized by the American Federation of Arts, the programs (comprising 20 films) cover a lot of ground, from the early-'60s surrealism of ''X'' by Shuntaro Tanikawa and Toru Takemitsu to the early-'80s technodazzle of ''Spacy'' by Takashi Ito.

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The films were selected by Mr. Richie, who chose them after viewing some 2, 000 works spanning the whole 20 years of Japanese experimental film. A resident of Tokyo for the past 35 years, except for a couple of breaks -- including a stint as curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art -- the American-born Richie is widely recognized as an outstanding expert on all aspects of Japanese cinema, which he discussed in a recent interview with the Monitor.

Why are Japanese experimental films of particular interest to Americans?

There are two good reasons. First, they give us a chance to hear voices we might not hear otherwise. Second, they offer a picture of Japan that's different from the usual one of leading automobile producer, rival of the American economy , and all that.

The interesting thing about any experimental art is that it's prophetic. It's like the antennae of the lobster, giving a clue to the direction art is taking. In the past decade or two film has been a very active area. If you want to get an idea of the artistic climate in Japan, you could begin by looking here.

American film and culture have had an enormous influence on Japan in recent years. What have the Japanese done with these influences, and what can Americans learn from this about themselves?

Japan would be inundated if it took over everything that pours in from the West. But it has always borrowed from other countries and improved on the models. Today, the American influence is so immense it can only be compared to the Chinese influence in the past, which turned Japan into the country we know today. So the interesting question is: Which aspects have the Japanese chosen to enter the stream of their culture, and why?

And the answer is. . . .

They've chosen things they know already and which came from them in the first place. For example, the idea of structure being visible, of form and content being the same. That's a very American concept now, but it goes back a long way in Japan, too. Though young Japanese are not very cognizant of their culture these days, they have unwittingly chosen American concepts that fit them already. They do the same thing in fashion.

What have they taken from Americans in the film area?

Ideas on space, time, emptiness, and length. These are home ground for the Japanese.

Take the film ''Heliography,'' which is an elegant theorem about the sun rising and setting. The man who made that had seen a lot of American films, and he used Western ideas. At the same time, though, it's something he knows very well: a haiku. He takes two opposites, morning and evening, and puts them together. And that's what a haiku is all about. So in using his American influences, he has also been saying something extremely Japanese at the same time. And this is true of a number of these films. This is how the Japanese pick and choose, how they make their civilization.

Why don't we see much Japanese film in the United States these days, aside from an occasional popular item like ''Kagemusha'' or ''Dersu Uzala'' from Kurosawa?

The reasons are almost entirely economic. All the investment has gone into tremendous Japanese movie companies with enormous overhead and no audience, which are trying to woo viewers with nonsense products.

They aren't smart enough or well enough financed to make good, small pictures. If they did, they would survive. But the banks won't lend money, and there are no private theaters. Everything is in the hands of the great dinosaur movie companies, and they are committed to 104 films each year -- a double bill every week -- which is far too many for them to handle. Meanwhile, to change this would throw too many people out of work. The only reason the industry continues is that it's very diversified. What it loses at the movies, it makes up from its department-store pocket or some other pocket.

Few high-quality films are being produced in Japan, then?

From the major companies, that's right. Anything in the past ten years that's any good is independently made. This is a new phenomenon that's come along. All the best directors have left the companies, or been kicked out, and now these filmmakers -- Oshima, Shinoda, Ichikawa, and others - usually manage to scrape together enough money to make one film per year. These get distributed according to the vagueries of the system, and these are the pictures that get abroad. But not all of them. I know of four extremely good films that have no distributors abroad. The best film of the year has no distributor at all, because it was made by a woman, so the big studios won't touch it.

That seems an incredible situation in this day and age.

Japan is a primitive culture -- in both good senses and bad ones -- with an enormous technological superstructure. The Japanese are good businessmen in many ways, but they aren't what the Americans would call visionary. If this woman's film goes abroad, and wins prizes, then it can be shown in Japan, though probably as a foreign picture.

How about Japanese television? You have said there is a huge gap between the sophisticated technology and how it's used.

The Japanese always believe that if you have superior hardware and technique -- whether you're doing ink painting, judo, or whatever -- the rest will take care of itself. In many areas, that's true: You're so good that the ''inner'' becomes apparent in the ''outer.'' But in television and film this hasn't worked , partly because these are group activities. So you have an astonishingly high-quality picture, devoted to programming of stupifying banality.

Are there rumblings of discontent over this?

There are never rumblings in Japan, and there haven't been since the 16th century. There could be -- it's an extraordinarily free country -- but people just aren't in the habit. Nobody rocks the boat in Japan, and if they do, it's to lull rather than to upset.

Why?

One reason is that the Japanese have never had it so good, compared with the traditional poverty of their country. . . . The nation has been demoralized by two of the greatest treasures known to man, affluence and time. Everyone has time now, and they don't know how to use it. The same goes for money. Everybody is extremely happy about it -- being bourgeois is the big virtue -- but I think the spiritual costs have been heavy.

How do Japanese artists feel about this?

I've discussed it with Kurosawa. He chides me for blaming the troubles of the movie business on economics. He says we won't have a lot of new Kurosawas and instant Ozus even if the film industry improves economically. Rather, he says there's been a qualitative change in the Japanese, in the wrong directions.

What's his outlook on this situation?

He believes that a lot of Japan's traditional strengths will return, but not right now. And he wants films like ''Kagemusha'' to insist on the importance of this. He wants to reach young people and fill their heads with what they ought to know about the old values, in modern guise. He wants them to believe there's more to life than carrying a Gucci bag and eating a Big Mac.

What sort of movies are people watching in Japan these days?

The exploitation films make money, and the chewing-gum pictures like ''Star Wars.'' They also go for hype films that spend two-thirds of the budget on publicity -- though that's wearing thin. There's a market for official culture, like ''Kagemusha,'' at least part of the time. And there's a vocal minority audience for some very challenging films, especially Visconti in the long uncut versions. Japanese culture traditionally likes art where the creator builds half the bridge -- Antonioni, say -- and you build the other half.

On the other hand, they didn't like ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' because they didn't realize it was actually a nostalgia film, about an attitude toward youth and the past. The famous ''2001'' was also a flop, because the Japanese don't like to be baffled like Americans do. The Japanese are more pragmatic, and they like everything explained. When they show ''The Spirit of St. Louis'' -- with Jimmy Stewart as Lindbergh flying his plane -- they label the sights he sees from the cockpit!

Are there many spectators for experimental films, like the ones you've brought to the United States?

It's alive and thriving on an unformed, spontaneous level. There's a huge student audience in high schools and colleges, for instance. And there's a place called the Image Forum in Tokyo which keeps an archive, and is creating its own growing audience.

What are the main characteristics of Japanese experimental film?

The interest is almost entirely aesthetic. In the 1970s American experimental film went off into politics. Not so in Japan. The films are all aesthetic exercises.

And that's fitting for a land where, until the present, everyone could write a haiku. To this day, everyone can sing and draw and speak in public. There is none of the coyness Americans have about these talents. They are just tools -- and when a new tool like film comes along, everybody is interested.ing of a movie by Andy Warhol.

Do you feel the films in this series are inherently Japanese?

Yes, there are certain clues to the nationality of any work of art, if you know how to look. You can go by how the work is ordered, for instance. Americans have certain way of ordering experience, and so do the Japanese.

You have said that Japanese films like to work in the open, with little hidden depth - the ostensible is the real. Is this true of the commercial movies , too?

Sure. There are no hidden depths in Kurosawa, no basic assumptions you must discover. The attitude and the morality are downright ostentatious. Japanese film is medieval in this sense: It's right there on the surface. The artist doesn't want to make you delve and dig down. A book like ''Moby Dick'' is a Japanese impossibility.

In place of this depth the Japanese have allusion. In classical Japanese poetry, every other line is a quotation from something else. The films are extremely allusive, too. The works of Mizoguchi, for example, are full of this allusive tradition. Instead of depth, there is a lateral movement. That way, you take some known quality and revivify it.

Even samurai movies have this iconographic vocabulary. If you see happy lovers and then cherry blossoms, it usually means they'll come to a bad end. If it's lovers and then a river, it means life is like a stream, and they will stay together with a little bit of tears and a little laughter.

These asides are meant to inform us through a known vocabulary, and that's all there is to it. That's what I mean when I say things are on the surface. You don't have to deduce anything. Yet the effect, even for us Westerners, can be as profound as anything you can imagine. . ."

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