Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

 [Part 5 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 January 1998, I received another letter from Motomu Ida, the director of Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru:

 “Dear Dennis –

Thank you for your letter … I was surprised to learn, after so many years, that your mother was an American actress.  No wonder she was so good in the film.  I was told by the Nikkatsu casting department only that she was married to someone who worked at an American military base.  Had I known that she was an actress I am sure I would have asked her to appear in several more of my films.  I used to be very fond of using foreigners with Japanese subtitles on screen.  What a shame.  I can still remember her moving speech with menace in her voice.

As Nikkatsu has since gone bankrupt, there is no hope to do anything further.  I have been told that no one knows where the positives and negatives might be stored.

I am sorry to hear that your mother is not feeling well.  I wish her a speedy recovery.

Although your kind words were heartwarming, I did not do anything out of the ordinary.  I am just happy that I could be of some use …

These days I teach performers and technical staff at a film school.  After all I am getting old, you see.

Motomu Ida”

This wasn’t a complete surprise to me.  The little I’d heard about Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru led me to believe it was one of the quickie, hour-long B-movies that Nikkatsu churned out to fill the bottom half of their weekly double-bills.  The film had never been released on VHS or DVD in Japan; none of the film archives or libraries I’d contacted had ever seen a copy.

It was just a commercial little action film that came and went, and was now lost in limbo somewhere.

I never expected that if and when Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru came to light, it would turn out to be some lost classic of Japanese cinema. 

My reasons for finding it were purely selfish.  My mother was in it.

In 2001 I took my first trip to Japan traveling with my Cinematheque colleague Chris D. and my best friend Tom Abrams.  I took Xeroxed copies of the script pages for LeAnn’s movie with me and handed them out to whoever I met at film archives, film clubs etc., on the slender chance someone somewhere would have come across a print of the movie.

In Osaka we met with a wonderful guy who ran a movie theater the size of a shoe-box with a projection booth you could barely squeeze into.

Upstairs his office was filled with stacks of film prints leaning haphazardly everywhere.  It was the kind of place I recognized from film collectors in L.A.  

When I asked if he’d ever seen a print of Motomu Ida’s Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, he scrunched his face for a moment then shook his head.  No, never seen it.

I even met with someone from Nikkatsu who took the Xeroxed pages I offered, said they’d look into it, with no result.

We had lunch with Kinji Fukasaku and his son Kenta, fresh off their incredible triumph with Battle Royale (which Kenta had written).  Kinji looked great.  He was already prepping for the sequel Battle Royale II which he hoped to get into production soon. 

No one knew it then but time was running short for him, too.  He’d been secretly battling cancer for several years which had gone into remission, and then returned.

With Chris and Tom and our chanbara-loving buddy, Yoshiki, we bummed around Tokyo and Osaka, seeing as much as we could, buying as many Japanese movie posters as we could carry.  We made a midnight visit to one of Japan’s oldest movie studios with the mild-mannered head archivist, who turned out to have a very odd addiction (more on that in another blog.)

It wasn’t the Japan that LeAnn knew in 1959 any longer.

But it was killer.

I came back to the U.S. loaded down with stories and souvenirs for her.

Two months later my mother LeAnn died.  She was at home in her New York apartment with my sister Shari and younger brother Jayce.

Her last conversation was talking with Mark Toscano, then at Canyon Cinema, about her films of the Skyworks multiple-mile drops.  Right up until the end, she was still talking about the movies.  She hung up the phone and moments later she died.

She never got to see Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru again, but she did get to hear from the director, Motomu Ida, and that was something pretty amazing.

Much more important, LeAnn’s love for Japan never left her. 

She’d gone many places and done many things but Japan was always someplace special.  When she taught herself to paint in the late 1960’s, some of her first works were a copy of a fierce temple guardian she’d seen in Japan, from the 9th or 10th century, and a primitive, lovely image of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, all with Japanese features.

[Above:  LeAnn Bartok -- painter, conceptual artist, avant-garde filmmaker and actress in Japanese movies -- in New York City, late 1980's]

The last great cycle of paintings she did before her death were over 150 views of Mt. Fuji, with the mountain, golden and radiant, surrounded by her red Skyworks mile streaming overhead:

[Above:  two of LeAnn Bartok's Mt. Fuji series of paintings with close-up details]

I was beyond heartbroken, as were my two brothers and sister.  I woke up the morning after she died and the world seemed like a cold, unfamiliar place that I no longer recognized or wanted to be a part of.

I returned to Japan in March, 2002, this time with my then-girlfriend (now wife) Susan.  The sakura cherry blossoms were blooming early that year.   We had some wild adventures, culminating in a haunting, disturbing episode where we found the body of a man who’d just hanged himself, in the forest behind the cemetery in Kyoto’s Nanzenji Temple, and then led the Kyoto Homicide Squad back to where the body was hanging.

There were strange spirits in the air.

During the trip, my friend Isao Tsujimoto at the Japan Foundation had arranged for me to meet with Tadao Sato, an elegant and thoughtful man who is one of Japan’s best known and most influential film critics.  (In December 2010 he was given the 38th Japan Foundation Award for Arts & Culture in recognition of his efforts to introduce films from across Asia to Japanese audiences.)

Over coffee I told Sato the oft-repeated story of LeAnn and Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru.  In some ways I was more determined than ever to find the movie – it was a link to her past, one that she was no longer around to share with us.  Sato listened to the story with polite interest and took the Xeroxed pages of the script I offered to him.

I thought nothing more would come of it.

(Next chapter:  Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, the lost movie)

[All photos of LeAnn Bartok and artworks:  Copyright, courtesy Estate of LeAnn Bartok.]