Thursday, September 26, 2013

Rarely Seen Gems of the Japanese Cinema : a conversation with Linda Ehrlich

I had a chance to sit down with Linda Ehrlich who is Associate Professor of Japanese, World Literature, and Cinema at Case West Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio and has published articles with the likes of Senses of Cinema and you can hear her do the commentary on the Criterion collection edition of Spirit of the Beehive . She along with John Ewing, curator of the Cleveland Cinematheque, have put together the Rarely Seen Gems of Japanese Cinema series that begins this Saturday at 5:00 with Kenji Mizoguchi's Miss Oyu(Oyusama, 1951 ). We spoke in her office on Case Western's campus.

Rubicon : Let's begin with how this collaboration and idea started and what you had to do to get these films.

Linda Ehrlich : I recall sitting with John Ewing over at the University Coffee Shop a year ago and we were talking about doing a film series of Japanese films that were difficult to see in the United States. His first choice was Miss OYU, the Kenji Mizoguchi film and then my first choice was Growing Up by Heinosuke Gosho. We also talked about the Sadao Yamanaka film Humanity and Paper Balloons as really not being available at the time, consequently, I think there is now a DVD available in the US, but at the time we started this it was not available at all. But even though there is a DVD, this is a chance to see it on the big screen.

So we just kept playing with this idea and were fortunate to get a grant from the Japanese Foundation in New York. If we had not gotten that we couldn't have done this at all. Subsequently, I asked for a little money here and there and that helped us do the poster and the radio spots, etc.

Rubicon : How did you hunt down the films once you decided what films you wanted to show?

Linda : Well that was left up to the genius of John Ewing. I would never have started this kind of project without the Cleveland Cinematheque. He has many connections and I have seen some of the streams of email messages to find these prints. Three of the prints are being shipped over from Japan. Once the series is done here, one of these prints will be going to Paris to be shown. So these aren't prints that just happen to be floating around the US in some other series. It was an ambitious project in that sense, but John was not afraid of it and once we knew we had the money, he just went and found the films. Amazingly, we can manage it even with the shipping fees which are high.

Rubicon : Let's talk about what makes each of these films so special.

Linda : Miss OYU is the first Mizoguchi film that is a collaboration with Kazou Miyagawa, the great cinematographer. For this reason alone it's worth going to see. It also has the famous art designer, Hiroshi Mizutani. The pictorial quality is what makes this film exceptional. The story is based off of a novella by Tanizaki Jun’ichirĊ and film goers will be familiar with the cinematic adaptation of another Tanizaki story, The Makioka Sisters, that was done by Kon Ichikawa. Tanizaki is always a little bit quirky but Miss Oyu is more of a romantic film. It has a star cast. However it was not very popular in Japan and is certainly not known in the United States.

Rubicon : From my perception of things, it seems like there is now more interest in Miziguchis earlier stuff, primarily his films from the 30’s, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, for example.

Linda : I really hope so because they are great. The ones that are pre-war are great. But then during WW2, there are several that are lost from that period. Then after the war he sort of played around with the new sort of democratic ideals flooding the country, and then films like Miss Oyu came. I think he is still experimental with a new style, his post war style, at this point. You get to see the beautiful arts of Kyoto and it's a quiet nostalgic film in many ways.

I was honored to meet the cinematographer Miyagawa and spend time in his house and interview him and also the screenwriter of this film.

Rubicon : Miyagawa has a very impressive career doing films all the way up until the 80’s.

Linda : I think he is definitely Japan's greatest cinematographer and one of the world's greatest cinematographers. With Miyagawa, we are talking about Rashomon, Yojimbo , Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailif, among others. He had a wonderful career and I cherished the time I had to talk to him. He was quite elderly at that point but he continued to work as long as he could. But he did develop trouble with his eyes and some of that was from shooting into the sun while doing Rashomon. He was the first to do that.

If you are familiar with any other Mizoguchi films, Miss Oyu fills in a gap that we will never be able to see again probably.

Rubicon : Lets talk about this Ozu film, Record of a Tenement Gentleman.

Linda : I would say that even people who feel well versed in Ozu should definitely come and see this film because it has a lot of the qualities of the earlier comedies like, ‘ I was born but ..’ but also has a lot of the pathos of the later Ozu films. It has a small role for Chishu Ryu who plays the father in many of Ozu’s later films. In this film he plays a fortune teller, a very unusual role for him. He sings a folk song in it which is worth the price of the ticket alone.

It's a story of a little boy who is lost and how people deal with that situation in a very impoverished post war community. I know that doesn't sound like a comedy but there are a lot of very comic aspects to it. It is a heartwarming film.

All of the films in this series are in black and white. Black and white is beautiful on a large screen. When we have to view it on the small screen, it gets muddy. That's why we have to rush to the Cinematethque to see these films because we will never see them with the same beauty again.

Rubicon : These next two directors I know nothing about and have never heard of. Could you talk about them and the films selected?

Linda : Sadao Yamanaka was a genius. We only have three of his films. He died in his late twenties. He was sent as a foot soldier into Manchuria and was killed. So he made all of his films in his early twenties. He actually made over twenty films but we don't have any of the others. People compare him to Jean Vigo who also made three masterpieces and died in his late twenties of tuberculosis.

Humanity and Paper Balloons is the film of his that is the most famous. It shows a community at the end of the 18th century. We take all of our cliches about the samurai and we throw them out the window, although the samurai figure does retain the traditional sense of dignity. But he and his wife have no money and it is about them and a group of characters in this one neighborhood interacting, some helping each other and some not. I don't know how to describe this film because it really is like a film by Jean Vigo. It is just a work of genius. Everything from the mise-en-scene to the acting to the camera work is all great . Yamanaka was not as revolutionary as Vigo but what is revolutionary about this film is its extremely humanistic portrait of the warrior.

Growing Up by Heinosuke Gosho is a film I don't think is possible to see in the United States or almost anywhere except maybe inside of an archive. It's based on a short story by a woman writer named Higuchi Ichiyo who also died quite young. It is again a beautiful portrait of a community--this time a group of children growing up in a famous pleasure district during the Meiji period. Their fate is not very hopeful - one will certainly become a geisha and another one is the son of a priest who will likely become a priest. But we are looking at a moment of time when these children have some freedom to explore their own identities.

The director, Heinosuke Gosho made the first Japanese talkie. He had a long career and we did bring a specialist on Gosho a couple years ago and we showed a Gosho film at the Cinematheque (WHERE CHIMNEYS ARE SEEN, 1953).

What’s exciting for me about these films is that if you went to Japan to see them, you would have to go to an archive like the National Film Center and that can be quite expensive. For example it could be fifty dollars for a half hour. When I was in Japan as a student working on my dissertation on Mizoguchi, I would watch about four films a day because they were very kind and they would give me a five minute break between films. So if a film was a hour and a half you could run it into the next hour if you were paying by the hour. To be able to pay ten dollars for a ticket to see films like these is just unheard of. These are irreplaceable windows into Japanese history and art.