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Japan's 'ambassador' movies

(Page 2 of 3)



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?

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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?