“When film came to Japan, the country had only allowed foreign imports for a few decades. The nation’s culture—which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming—was still its own.”
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
It’s been a while since I took a screenwriting road trip and today seems like a good day to do so. Yesterday I mentioned Louie Psihoyos and his Oscar-winning documentary The Cove which was shot in Japan so that seems like a fitting place to head.
My knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited but I know enough to say they have a long eclectic love affair with movies. From Godzilla to Kurosawa covers a lot of ground.
I imagine as a kid the Godzilla films were the first I ever saw that were made in Japan. Kurosawa I starting watching while in film school. In fact, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon are pretty much the go to films that he made that are considered all-time cinema classics. Later via Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film I became familiar with Yasujiro Ozu (Toyko Story, An Autumn Afternoon).
More recently (though I confess to never having seen any of his film) Academy Award-winner Hayo Miyazaki (Porco Rosso, Princess Monoke, Spirited Away) is considered by some Japan’s top director and his anime the best ever. (These days more than half of the films produced in Japan are anime.) I’m sure I’m leaving out many of the top filmmakers in Japan, but this is just meant as an overview to show films and screenwriting done far from Hollywood.
One film I did see just over the weekend that I would consider one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years is Okuribito (Departures) directed by Yojiro Takita and staring Masahiro Motoki. At the Academy Awards in 2009 it won best foreign film. The script was the first feature film written by Kundo Koyama (known for his work as a TV writer) loosely based on Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by Aoki Shinmon.
If I know little about Japanese cinema, I know even less about Buddhism and its rituals. (And I don’t know if the traditions in the movie were even rooted in Buddhism, but I know they were foreign to me.) But as an American and a Christian I found that Departures deals with the passage of physical death in a beautiful way that I wish was practiced here.
In western cultures we sterilize death. We’re told someone has died a few days later there is a service and that’s it. In fact, when my father died years ago I was at a TV studio in Florida getting ready to direct a program when I was informed of the news. To the man I had known a lifetime, had visited two weeks prior, and spoken to on the phone the day before–that was it, he was gone. I never saw his body, he was cremated, and then a while later there was a service at a military cemetery in Clearwater. Like most funerals or memorial services I’ve been to the whole thing seems like an abrupt ending to life, and impersonal.
The film Departures shows a culture and a tradition that I have never seen before in Western culture. A tradition rooted in respect and honor which seems to be the basis for many Japanese films. It’s a film that shows a tradition where time is stopped to reflect on the passing of a life in a way that is personal and meaningful. A time to say goodbye. A time to reflect on your own life.
And for all I know it may be a passing tradition in Japan itself as families become more fragmented, hurried and westernized.
So I was curious to find out a little more about this film and found this quote by the director;
“Because it deals with the very tricky subject of death he and the producers at the time weren’t sure how to go about making a film out of this. It probably took about 15 years since the idea was first conceived to the completion of the film. It was a producer at an independent production company who felt strongly that this film should be made. Many of us are around the same age, and we got to a certain point in our lives when death was slowly creeping up to become a factor around us with the people that we knew. And death, of course, is something that many of us around the world, of course, tend to avoid as a subject matter altogether. We don’t like to think about it. But we felt at this point, we really should face it head-on and do something with that subject matter…But in the process of making the film, and looking at how we honor those who’ve passed I came to realize that the film is ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who’ve passed and how we look at and confront out own lives and the act of living.”
From an interview on the Departures DVD
If you haven’t seen the film, here are a couple quotes from critics;
“The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead.”
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer
“The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
As it turns out, I have read that the topic of death is somewhat taboo in Japan so the filmmakers didn’t know if anyone would want to see this film. But it did very well in the box office in Japan and then won an Academy Award here in the states which were nice payoffs for the 15 year journey they took to get the film made.
So yeah, there is some good stuff happening east of L.A….even far-east of L.A.
P.S. In the forward of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Yakuza) writes of the book’s author, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.” (And for what it’s worth Richie—this expert on Japanese films who has lived in Japan since 1947— is originally from Lima, Ohio.) His commentaries can be found on the The Criterion Collection of many DVDs of Ozu and Kurosawa’s films.
Scott W. Smith