Japan's 'ambassador' movies
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''?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.