Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

[Part 4 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.]

In June 1997, the Cinematheque presented a sold-out screening at the DGA of the 1973 yakuza epic Battles Without Honor & Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai.)  It was an amazing reception for a film that had been virtually unknown in the U.S. for almost 25 years.

After the screening William Friedkin interviewed the director of the film, a legendary helmer of that most hardboiled of all Japanese film genres.  A hard man to impress, even he was astonished at the turn-out.  “What are all these people doing here?” Kinji wondered aloud.

[Above, right:  Kinji Fukasaku, one of Japan's greatest filmmakers, with Toshiko Adilman on the streets of Tokyo]

Kinji Fukasaku was in his late 60’s at the time.  White haired, eyes usually hidden behind enormous sunglasses.  Extremely articulate to the point of being long-winded (I’ll never know how his great friend and translator, Toshiko Adilman, managed to keep up with him during Q&A’s.)  He inspired a kind of fierce loyalty and devotion from his inner circle of friends. 

I nicknamed him “oyabun” after the term of respect given mob bosses in his movies.

[Above:  poster for Kinji's 1976 Yakuza No Hakaba (Yakuza Graveyard)]

[Above:  Kinji's 1971 Bakuto Gaijin Botai (Gamblers In Okinawa)]

Kinji was apparently in the waning years of his career at the time, the period when directors start appearing regularly at retrospectives, start thinking of writing their autobiographies.  He’d been directing movies since 1961 – coincidentally right around the time LeAnn was working in Tokyo – and his glory years of brilliant, subversive films like Black Lizard, Under The Fluttering Military Flag, Graveyard Of Honor & Humanity, and especially his awe-inspiring Battles Without Honor & Humanity cycle, were seemingly decades behind him.

Few could anticipate that Kinji would roar back, like a wounded wolf waiting for the chance to strike, with the most ferocious and incendiary Japanese movie of the past decade:  Battle Royale.

It would prove to be his swan song, a summing up of all the explosive anger and violence and distrust for authority that runs through his movies.  A huge screw-you in the face of good taste.

It was the last masterpiece of a great warrior and artist.

Kinji, it turns out, was president of the Japanese Directors Guild at the time.  A good friend to have when you’re looking for lost movies.  He was interested by the story of LeAnn’s career in Japanese movies … He’d never met her or heard of her, that would be too much to expect.  But I think he liked the idea of an American woman very, very far from home, appearing in low-budget Japanese crime movies.  It appealed to his outlaw sensibility.

 He offered to help.

I should say, he and Toshiko Adilman offered to help.  Toshiko was one of Kinji’s most trusted friends, his translator and right-hand woman since they met in 1980 making Virus, his costly, ill-fated sci-fi epic.  During shooting on Virus, the ship he and Toshiko were on hit a reef and they were stranded on Antarctic ice until being rescued by the Chilean navy.  She laughs about it now.  Toshiko is one tough hombre, a truly remarkable woman who wound up being the go-between and translator for Kinji and several other key players in this story.  I can’t thank her enough.

In October 1997, a few months after I met Kinji, I received a message from him via Toshiko:

He had managed to locate the director of the film LeAnn appeared in, Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, a man named Motomu Ida who was still alive and in very good health.

[Above:  Motomu Ida in 2004 in his office at the New Culture School, Tokyo] 

It was the first really positive news I’d had in my search for some trace of my mother’s Japanese film career.

Ida sent a short message in Japanese, translated as follows:

With it, he included a photo of his own copy of the film's poster:

LeAnn’s name was right there on the poster, 4th billed, written phonetically as "Lyn Barutooku."

As Toshiko later pointed out, Kinji himself had actually borrowed the photograph of the poster from Mr. Ida and arranged to have a copy made for us.

LeAnn and I were both frankly astonished to hear Ida was still alive and that he remembered working with her nearly 40 years earlier.

I wrote back to him a few weeks later:

“Dear Mr. Ida:

I want to personally thank you for your amazing kindness in providing a photograph of the poster for my mother, and writing a note about your memories of her … I hand-delivered it to her a few days ago during the Christmas holidays – she lives in New York City now where she works as a painter.  She was overjoyed to see the faces of actors that she appeared with so long ago, and to read your letter – it brought back many wonderful memories of when she worked as an actress at Toho and Nikkatsu … She was one of the few American actresses living in Japan at the time and she’s always been very proud of her work in your film.

When I was a child growing up, my mother would often speak about Kimi Wa Nerawareteiu, or 'The Man They Tried To Kill' as she called it.  She remembered carrying a gun and a knife in the film, and trying to corrupt the hero of the film.  To be honest, I was always proud of the fact that my mother played such a shady character in a Japanese film – you may not realize it, but your film a great impact on my family, even though none of us had ever seen it!

I’d also like to apologize for the delay in writing back to you – my mother’s been ill for some time and confined to her apartment in New York.  I wanted to deliver the materials to her myself to see her reaction before I wrote back.

Again, I can’t thank you enough … you’ve made both me and my mother very happy.”

I’ve since learned quite a bit more about Ida and his career; he remains a criminally-unknown director outside of Japan. 

 According to the Dictionary of Japanese Film Directors, Ida was born September 3, 1922 in Oe-machi, Kasa-gun, Kyoto Prefecture, and studied Japanese literature at St. Paul University.  He began working in films as an A.D. in the mid-1940’s under director Keigo Kimura at Daiei’s Kyoto Studio; about eight years later he moved over to Nikkatsu where he worked with directors Hiroshi Noguchi and Isamu Kosugi.

He directed his first feature Tokyo Wa Koibito (Tokyo, My Sweetheart) in 1958, and was known mainly for lower-budgeted (“B- and C-class”) mystery/action films starring actors such as Michitaro Mizushima, Yuji Odaka and Hideaki Nitani. 

By today’s standards he was incredibly prolific, directing between 5 and 6 films a year.  In 1960, the year he directed Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, he also directed:  Devil’s Sigh, A Seductress Without A Shadow, A Man Who Threw Away A Shadow, A Bullet Mark That Disappeared, Bastard and Go To Hell.

The titles alone tell you all you need to know.  Like any number of underrated American directors – William Witney, for example – here was a guy who knew how to turn out tough, hard-hitting little movies that got to the point and wasted no time.

[Left:  Poster for Motomu Ida's 1964 film Kenkajo (Thrown Down The Gauntlet)]

According to the Dictionary, his best-known movies were “Ikite Iru Okami (Live Wolf) – the sad story of a man and woman who lived in the pleasure quarters in mid-Meiji era … Bakuha Sanbyo Mae (Before The Blast) – a full-fledged spy/action film … Tokyo Onna Chizu (Women’s Tokyo Map) – a story of hooligans which was a fore-runner to Nikkatsu’s action movies … and Yoru No Saizensen – Onnagiri (Front Line In The Night:  Girl Hunt).”

[A huge thanks to Toshiko Adilman for her translation of the above.]

It goes without saying that these movies are almost completely unknown in the U.S., even to hardcore Japanese film buffs.  Just another example of how we’ve barely scratched the surface of the vast pool of movies made in Japan in the post-war years.

After directing over 50 feature films, in the late 1960’s Ida moved into television, where he directed approximately 150 more episodes – by his tally nearly 200 film and TV works all together.  A simply staggering number that brings to mind directors of the early silent years; no director working today could ever post such numbers.

The amazingly good news was that Motomu Ida was alive and well.  But what about finding a copy of Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, the film itself?

[Special thanks to Marc Walkow and Stuart Galbraith for their invaluable help in research for this article.]

(Next chapter:  On the trail of the lost movie)