Friday, January 21, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

[Part 3 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.]

I came to Los Angeles in 1992 and wound up working at the non-profit American Cinematheque, then screening at the Directors Guild theater on Sunset Blvd.  At the time the Cinematheque was screening mainly classic Hollywood films.

Not long after a guy walked into my office carrying two shopping bags.  He was a solitary, intense-looking character:  bushy black eyebrows and the dead-calm, disinterested stare of a professional hitman.

He asked if I was interested in showing any overlooked Japanese movies.  The bags were filled with home-made VHS tapes from his enormous personal collection, films by then-unsung genre masters like Kinji Fukasaku, Hideo Gosha, Kihachi Okamoto, Tai Kato.

[Above:  image from Japanese 2-sheet poster for Kinji Fukasaku's subversive Black Rose Mansion (1969)] 

Chris D. remains one of the most fascinatings guys I’ve met out in L.A.  Punk rock singer and founder of The Flesheaters … indie director, writer, and actor as well as poet and lyricist (the recent anthology “A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die”) … He’s also, for the purposes of this story, a walking library on Japanese cinema from the 1950’s & 1960’s to today.  His book of essays and interviews “Outlaw Masters Of Japanese Film” is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject.

[Above:  Chris D. and our good friend Yoshiki Hayashi, who was enormously helpful in the hunt for LeAnn's films, in Tokyo in 2001]

Chris's love, and his knowledge, of these movies has a kind of incandescent, almost religious, fervor to it.  He’s a dark preacher thundering on about films with titles like Go Go Second Time Virgin, The Age Of Assassins and Graveyard Of Honor & Humanity.

Guided by Chris’s expertise – and partly inspired by my own unusual family connection to Japanese movies – the Cinematheque started screening dozens of unseen Japanese genre films in its annual Outlaw Masters of Modern Japanese Film series.

Our partner in crime was another man who’d prove instrumental in learning more about my mother LeAnn’s brief career in Japanese films:  Isao Tsujimoto, then Director of the Japan Foundation’s L.A. office.

A spry, extremely cultured man with a mischievous wit, Isao turned out to nurse a secret passion for the same kind of subversive Japanese genre films Chris and I loved.  He remembered camping out in movie theaters in Japan in the late 1960’s as a student to see the latest yakuza films.  “As students we felt a kind of kinship with the yakuza anti-heroes,” he recalled.  “They were outcasts and rebels like us.”  It was Isao in fact who came up with the “Outlaw Masters” moniker.

[Left to right:  Isao Tsujimoto of the Japan Foundation, Susan Gold -- and the man who'd play a key role in the hunt for LeAnn's lost movie] 

Isao used his considerable influence to strike new 35 mm. prints of previously unseen films like Koji Wakamatsu’s scandalous Go Go Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy Of The Angels.  (Wakamatsu remains persona non grata with the U.S. State Department, unable to travel to America, as we found out when we tried to bring him in for one of our series.)

From me, Isao and Chris both heard the story of my mother LeAnn’s time in Japan and the few tantalizing details I had about her film career.  We made some inquiries -- but Nikkatsu’s Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru from 1960 turned out to be beyond obscure. 

It was completely unknown.  No one we met had ever heard of or seen it.

During this time my mother LeAnn’s health grew progressively worse from asthma she’d developed in the late 1970’s and from the onset of adult diabetes.  She lived in Manhattan with my older sister Shari and younger brother Jayce, and we stayed in touch through almost daily phone calls.  Money was always a huge worry.

LeAnn and Shari practically begged me to help find a copy of one of her Japanese movies; it was a formative period in LeAnn's life that had obviously influenced and inspired her as a filmmaker and artist.

[Above:  LeAnn Bartok during performance art event at the Annual New York Avant- Garde Art Festival at the Passenger Ship Terminal in New York in the early 1980's]

Still, I had no success in finding a copy of Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru or any other movie she made in Japan in 1959-1960. 

It felt frustrating:  my job was to ferret out lost and overlooked movies, I was essentially a film detective – and here I couldn’t find any trace of LeAnn’s film career.  Not even a still photo.  What kind of a son was I?

I knew on some level that time was running short for her.  She’d been taking doses of steroids to control her asthma since the late 1970’s – as we later learned these can have serious side effects including a weakened heart and periods of deep depression.  The diabetes only made a bad situation worse.  But it’s hard to confront these things when it’s your own parent.

I loved my mother deeply, and struggled as a child growing up to understand and appreciate her work as an artist …

It was difficult and all right at the same time, to borrow a phrase from one of her favorite writers, the great New York poet Frank O’Hara.  I could feel utterly helpless at her titanic fits of temper.  Ashamed and useless at her weeks-long bouts of illness and labored breathing, frustrated that I couldn’t do anything to help.  So I’d retreat into the false safety of my own world of movies and vinyl records.

I know now that it’s almost impossible for someone on the outside to understand what it’s like to live with chronic illness on a daily basis.

Only slowly could I get some distance and really begin to see her as an artist.  As a kid growing up, it was just what she did.  There were paintings everywhere in our house, we leaned against them watching TV … there was a Bolex camera and editing bench in the basement.  My brothers and sister and I ran around the desert, laughing, helping her gather the fallen streamers from her mile-length drops.  We thought it was fun.

[Above:  poem by LeAnn Bartok circa 1976]

Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh in the 1970’s, I was sometimes even embarrassed by her strangeness, her refusal to fit in:  Why did she have to throw art out of airplanes?  Why did she drive around in a van wearing a black cowboy hat like a female trucker?

I was a kid, what did I know?  I knew she was different. 

Ironically there’s a famous saying in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”  My mother was definitely the nail that sticks out.

(Next chapter:  Kinji Fukasaku, yakuza master)

[All photos, artwork and text by LeAnn Bartok:  Copyright, courtesy of Estate of LeAnn Bartok]

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.)