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Japan's 'ambassador' movies

(Page 3 of 3)

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.

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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 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. . ."