Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

[Part 6 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.]

A few months later in November, 2002, I got a message from my friend Yoshiki in Tokyo:  the long-lost Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru had just screened on Japanese television and he’d taped it for me.

I was dumbfounded … it didn’t seem quite possible.  Nearly 10 years of actively searching for the movie and here it just happened to serendipitously turn up on Japanese TV. 

Thank God for coincidence, I thought.

A few days after that Toshiko Adilman forwarded a letter to me from Mr. Ida:

“Dear Mr. Dennis:

It’s been five years since I last wrote to you, but I am Ida who directed ‘Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru.’

How is your mother?  I really would like to have a chance to see her, but it’s difficult, wouldn’t you think, given we are so far apart from each other.  Today, I have good news.

The film produced 40 years ago was broadcast this month by the Tokyo CS Channel.  It’s ‘Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru.’

In the film your mother’s performance is strong and she looks smashing.  I would like you to see it as soon as possible.”

I started crying when I read his letter.  Sometimes life is very good.

It was also very sad to read his message to LeAnn.  He didn’t know she’d passed away a year and half earlier.

Ida, too, had videotaped the film and was sending me a copy.  (As it turns out I received copies from several other friends in Japan afterwards … I guess I’d talked to a lot of people about it.)

I wrote back to him, sharing his joy at the film finally turning up again, and telling him the news of LeAnn’s death.  I told him more about her own career as a painter and filmmaker, and how she treasured her time in Japan, how she carried it with her her whole life.  I promised to send him a copy of one of LeAnn’s last Mt. Fuji paintings (I’d earlier given one to Kinji Fukasaku as a gift for all his friendship and support.)

Soon after, VHS tapes of Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru started showing up at the American Cinematheque office – first from Ida, then Yoshiki and others.

It took me a few days to actually sit down and watch the movie.  To be honest, I was a bit scared of seeing it after all this time. 

[Above:  Years of searching -- and it comes down to this.]

Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru literally translates as “You Are Being Aimed At,” or probably better, “You Are The Target.”  LeAnn always referred to it “The Man They Tried To Kill” since that was the translation on her script.  It turned out to be a tough, taut little crime movie, barely 55 minutes in length, with more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest.  Motomu Ida later told me the resemblance was no accident:  the head of the studio had apparently seen Hitchcock’s movie, then called Ida into his office and said:  “I want you to make me a North By Northwest.”

Shot in beautiful B&W Cinemascope, the movie opens with shots of Tokyo:  an elevated train track, people bustling in the streets.  The Tokyo LeAnn would’ve known in 1959.  It’s the story of a reporter, played by Yuji Odaka, who gets mistaken for an undercover policeman named “Henry Yamanaka” who’s been trying to infiltrate a Japanese crime syndicate.

Here, finally, was the elusive “Henry Yamanaka” I’d heard about so many times as a kid.

And here as well, playing one of the mob enforcers, was LeAnn’s mysterious agent:  the Turkish/Russian actor and sometime pimp, Osman “Johnny” Yusuf.  The man who claimed he was in love with her.

Watching the film, I feel like I’m looking at a lost member of the family … I only wish I could’ve met the guy.

The movie clips along at a brisk pace with the reporter getting into and out of scrapes with the mob enforcers, helping to rescue an innocent girl (Kyoko Hori) and locking horns with an enigmatic, dark-haired beauty (Hisako Tsukuba) who works for the drug bosses.

The similarities to Hitchcock’s film are apparent in a number of scenes.  Here, the reporter played by Yuji Odaka brings the police back to the house where he was drugged – just as Cary Grant does – only to be met by caretakers who claim the place is empty:

And here, mimicking the famous scene at the United Nations, Odaka is trapped in an elevator with a man who’s just been knifed – a crime he’ll be mistakenly blamed for:

For all its influences, Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru stands on its own.  Ida’s eye for composition is especially strong, framing his characters in simple, unobtrusive Widescreen shots that increasingly throw a noose around Odaka’s trapped reporter.

The only problem was, it was nearly 35 minutes into the movie … and I still hadn’t seen a sign of my mother.  I started scanning every scene for her profile – was it possible that after all these years, we’d gotten it all wrong?  That LeAnn didn’t appear in the movie after all -- or she was just some walk-on part, visible so briefly even I didn’t recognize her?

Finally in Act III, there’s a big meeting of all the syndicate underbosses at a resort in Hakone.  They all gather in one room, but the seat at the head of the table is empty, reserved for the mysterious Boss of Bosses.

The door opens, they all turn around … and my mother walks in.  Wearing a white sequined gown, with bleached blonde hair and dark eyebrows, looking like a cross between Veronica Lake and Frida Kahlo. 

Then she starts to talk – in English! – and she’s the cocktail waitress from hell, swearing and cursing and just beating the hell out of the poor underbosses for their failure to capture “Henry Yamanaka.”

Big plot twist:  Henry Yamanaka turns out to be a woman, the dark-haired beauty played by Hisako Tsukuba.  Exactly like North By Northwest where the double agent is Eva Marie Saint.

LeAnn chews scenery right and left, she shoves people around, she whips a little pistol out of the top of her stocking … She’s loud and abrasive and menacing as all get out.

In the end there’s a big shoot-out and the police burst in.  She’s hauled off to jail, still wearing her white fur wrap and string of pearls.  Still Mr. Big.

I can’t say she’s a good actress in the film – she’s way over the top in fact, screeching like some harpy from a roadside diner in an Edgar Ulmer poverty row movie.  But in her way, she’s utterly fantastic. 

If you watch Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, the thing you’re most likely to remember is that outrageous, beautiful, ballsy blonde that everyone’s afraid of.

That’s my mother, LeAnn.

A few weeks later, my friend Isao Tsujimoto from the Japan Foundation e-mailed to ask if I’d seen the movie.  When I said yes, he replied – wonderful, wonderful, our friend Tadao Sato will be so happy … he’s the one who arranged to have the film shown on Japanese TV for you.

I was dumbfounded – what was he talking about??  Of course I remembered meeting with Sato in Tokyo a few months earlier.  I’d given him some pages from the script and he’d promised to look into it – I never heard anything else and thought he’d forgotten about it.  It was just pure coincidence the movie ran on TV.

Not at all, said Isao.  Sato had called an old friend of his at Nikkatsu who researched the film and confirmed that yes, there was an original negative in storage.  When Sato explained it was for the family of an American woman who co-starred in it, his friend said I’m sorry, but the film has never come out on DVD and I could lose my job if I made you a copy.  

But what I can do, he added, is to arrange to have it shown on our own TV network, so you can tape it and send a copy to your friend in Los Angeles.

So through this incredible, roundabout way, Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru was broadcast on national television in Japan so it could be taped and sent to me.

Somewhere, LeAnn was laughing her ass off.

(Next chapter:  A lost movie that won’t stay lost)