Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

[Part 2 in the story of my mother LeAnn Bartok’s lost career in Japanese movies in 1959-1960 – and the search to find some trace of it over thirty years later.]

Living alone in Tokyo, barely able to pay the rent, my mother LeAnn felt disoriented, stranded.  She looked into working as a nurse but her lack of Japanese, and the low nurses’ pay, forced her to look for better-paying work.  She wound up teaching English to future Toyota executives, who treated her like a member of the family; during the brutal student riots in 1960 she remembered several of her pupils coming to class bruised and bloodied.  Despite high anti-American sentiment in Japan at the time -- students were protesting the country’s entry into a security treaty with the U.S. – she never personally saw any sign of prejudice. 

[Above:  modeling photo of LeAnn taken at Tokyo steakhouse in 1959; this was apparently used in a Toyota sales brochure]

To this day I look at movies shot in Japan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and try to imagine what it looked like then.  The Tokyo my mother would’ve known.  I’ve been there several times myself, but it’s changed so radically.  One night out walking with my friend Isao Tsujimoto he stopped and pointed at an enormous row of buildings:  “when I was young those were nothing but empty lots,” he said, trying to remember the city that was lost and would never return.

Years later, after LeAnn had trained herself to become a painter and avant-garde filmmaker, random memories of that long-past time in Tokyo would come floating by, like pages ripped from a diary and tossed in the stream …

A photographer noticed her on the street – she would’ve stood out, a young American woman in Tokyo – and hustled her to take a picture.  

Through him she met the man who was instrumental in getting her into the movies:  Osman “Johnny” Yusuf.

If you look him up on IMDB you’ll find more than half-a-dozen screen names including “Johnny Osman,” “Yusef Toruko” and more.  Fitting for a guy who worked as a part-time agent, actor and pimp.

 Details are fuzzy on Yusuf:  he was apparently born in Turkey, although he told my mother he was a “white Russian.”  It could be true:  his birthdate is listed as 1920, perhaps his family escaped from Russia to Turkey and he kept referring to himself by the mother country.  (My friend, the director Hubert Cornfield, was born in Istanbul but insisted his family was Greek, not Turkish, even though they’d left Greece many decades earlier.)

You can spot Yusuf briefly in any number of Japanese monster movies including Mothra, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Battle In Outer Space and Son Of Godzilla, sometimes playing a submarine crewman or innocent bystander.  Many years later when LeAnn was watching one of the Godzilla films with my brother Jayce she suddenly exclaimed, “Look, there’s my agent – he’s the one with the ray-gun.”

Yusuf took an immediate shine to LeAnn – she later claimed he was “in love with her,” although whether this was romantic or just paternal/friendly I never learned – and introduced her to his contacts at the Japanese studios.

Yusuf was apparently a good man to know in Tokyo, if you were a man:  in addition to working as an actor and agent, he’d occasionally field late-night phone calls from executives who’d noticed some attractive Japanese starlet on screen.

If the actress was hungry enough – and pay in Japanese movies, then as now, was pretty weak – she’d agree to a date.  As in Hollywood, young girls were easy prey.

Maybe because she was American, maybe because he nursed a secret crush on her – but Yusuf apparently never tried to rope my mother into his sideline prostitution business.   She knew what he was up to, but she still liked the guy.  I like the guy too, in a strange way.  He sounds a bit like Ben Gazzara in Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack.

The Japanese film industry in the early 1960’s could almost rival Hollywood in sheer volume and variety.  The major studios – Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Daiei, Shochiku and smaller distributors – were churning out hundreds and hundreds of pictures a year.  Almost as important, they controlled vast chunks of Tokyo real estate where they shot their yakuza crime films, chanbara wandering gambler movies and more.  (Over a decade later, when the Japanese film industry more or less imploded in the mid-1970’s, several studios survived by becoming, essentially, real estate companies.)

It was a great time to be in the movies, in Japan in 1960.  She wound up working for Nikkatsu and Toho studios.

And there the details of her story ended, more or less.

There were other memories, here and there: 

Vague recollections of various acting jobs.  A lunch one day with Toshiro Mifune.  How she got a part in a movie injecting a man with a needle because she was a trained nurse.  How they bleached her hair so badly in another it began to fall out and they frantically rubbed fish oil into her scalp to save it.

But just bits and pieces.  No names of film titles or directors she worked with, no paper trail to follow (not surprising:  now as then, many Japanese film deals are done by handshake, with no formal contract.)

Except for one movie:  Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, a Nikkatsu film from 1960 directed by Motomu Ida.

[Above:  original speed poster for Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru.]

For some reason LeAnn saved the first two pages of the script for Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, translated into English with the film’s title at the top. 

Maybe she saved it because it was one of her bigger film parts:  she remembered playing the boss of a narcotics gang.  Carrying a pistol in her stockings.  Smacking the hell out of people.

One of the characters in it was named “Henry Yamanaka,” that much she remembered clearly.  I heard the name “Henry Yamanaka” growing up so often I thought he was a real person.

Not long after making Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru she got pregnant.  (The bad joke around my family growing up was that my sister had “Made in Japan” stamped on her feet.) 

LeAnn left Tokyo and returned to the states, where she would re-emerge a decade later as her own unique breed of cowboy-hat wearing, mile-length streamer throwing avant-garde filmmaker.

(Next chapter:  Trying to pick up the trail 30 years later.)

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