Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

[The final chapter 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 after finally seeing the long-missing Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru, I e-mailed my friend Chris Marker, the legendary French director of La Jetee, Sans Soleil and The Last Bolshevik.  Chris has a long, rich association with Japan – there’s even a tiny bar in Tokyo called “La Jetee” that’s dedicated to him and his movies – so I thought he’d get a kick out of the saga of LeAnn and finding one of her Japanese B-movies. 

After I told him the whole story, he e-mailed back:

“My, my, if that ain’t the greatest story since the Man Who Would Be King … And what a script it could beget:  ‘The case of the lost movie’!  … If you could join to the package a copy of the tape [of ‘Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru’] that would make my day, my week, my year … And having a mother who’s able to carry a pistol hidden in her stockings surely helps to build one’s character.  (My Russian grandmother knew how to roll a cigarette on her boot single-handed, which isn’t bad, but you can’t compare.)”

I sent him a copy of the movie, and he sent back this wonderful little artwork incorporating an image of LeAnn from Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru and his beloved cat, Guillaume-en-egypte:

The image continued to bounce around in mysterious and unpredictable ways.  

Once the genie is out of the bottle it’s impossible to contain.

Jump cut to: 

I’m lying in bed, it’s 2008.  I’m watching Seijun Suzuki’s landmark 1963 crime movie Youth Of The Beast.  It’s close to midnight, my wife and son are both asleep.

It’s nearly half an hour into the movie … I’m starting to get drowsy too … Without warning, Jo Shishido – he of the huge, chipmunk cheeks – bursts into the office of a movie theater holding a rifle.

Suddenly I hear a voice, crying out … I’ve heard it somewhere before, this voice.

In fact I’ve heard it thousands of times.  It’s LeAnn’s voice, calling from half a lifetime away.

I bolt upright like I’ve been shot with electricity.  There on-screen, looming larger than life behind Shishido and the others, is the ghostly B&W image of my mother’s face.

It’s her once more, in a scene from Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru made three years earlier.

The same studio, Nikkatsu, had made both films.  They needed to show a movie projecting in the theater during the gun battle -- and for some reason, someone decided to pick this particular scene with LeAnn.

It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?  You go looking for something, and then you find it -- or it finds you.

And then it keeps finding you, over and over.

In late 2002, as Kinji and his son Kenta were preparing to begin shooting Battle Royale II, Toshiko e-mailed to tell me that Kinji was dying of cancer and didn’t know if he’d be able to finish production.

In fact Kinji was only able to complete a few days of shooting when he grew too weak to continue.

Kinji Fukasaku died on January 12, 2003.  Toshiko e-mailed the sad news:

“Kinji left us about an hour ago, shortly after 1 AM Sunday, Japan time.  He couldn’t pull a miracle for himself, Kenta and all of us.

I am tempted to shout ‘Baka!’ (which means “idiot!”)  He didn’t have to die now if he were more prudent, but who is to say how one should live one’s life also.”

[Fond farewells -- our last dinner with Kinji Fukasaku in the Ginza district.  
Top photo, left to right:  Kenta Fukasaku, Susan Gold, Kinji.
Bottom photo:  Isao Tsujimoto (far left), Toshiko Adilman (far right)]

Toshiko’s husband, Sid Adilman, one of the best-loved film journalists in Canada, died several years later after a long illness … My last memory of Sid is sitting in his bedroom as we watched Kinji’s Virus, the movie that brought Toshiko and Kinji together for the first time, and Sid laughing his ass off at how silly it all was.

Flash forward again, or maybe sideways … Linear time has little meaning now:

I’m standing on the chilly rooftop of Toei Studios in Tokyo, as a Shinto priest conducts a blessing ceremony for the movie I’m there to produce, a segment of the film Trapped Ashes – inspired, in fact, by the haunting memories of the hanged man my wife and I had discovered in Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto.

It’s nearly 47 years since LeAnn came to Tokyo and wound up making movies.  And here I am, following her footsteps.

Our last day of shooting wrapped up at nearly 5:00 AM – ironically at the same soundstages where Kinji had made the very first Battles Without Honor & Humanity, and where his son Kenta was currently prepping his new movie.

The wheel turns, and turns.

I went back to the hotel and collapsed, exhausted.  Two hours later I shook myself out of my stupor, showered, and climbed on a train.  It took me an hour outside Tokyo, where I was met in the cold morning rain by my buddy Yoshiki.

I was there to see an old family friend.  One I’d never met before.

Yoshiki got on the phone and made a call.

A few minutes later we walked to a nearby coffee shop.  A slight, elderly man with glasses came up to us carrying an umbrella, and smiled broadly.

“I’m Motomu Ida,” he said.  “I directed Kimi Wa Nerawareteiru.”

An enormous thank you for all their tremendous help and encouragement over the years to:  Toshiko Adilman; Kinji Fukasaku; Motomu Ida; Isao Tsujimoto; Tadao Sato; Susan Gold; Shari Bartok; Jayce Bartok; Yoshiki Hayashi; Tiffany Bartok; Chris D.; Chris Marker; Stuart Galbraith; Marc Walkow; Christian Storms; Tom Abrams.