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Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2000


A supporting player on center-stage

Films that pay homage to celebrated directors and actors are a venerable cinematic tradition, but when Kaneto Shindo made a film to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Kindai Eiga Kyokai production company, he paid homage not to another famous filmmaking name, but to Taiji Tonoyama, a character actor known to one and all as "Tai-chan."

Though he appeared in more than 250 films, including many of Shindo's best, Tai-chan considered himself a sanmon yakusha; i.e., a journeyman, with no delusions about his own ability. He was a colorful type, who drank to excess (liver cancer finally killed him) and loved to excess (he shuttled back and forth between his common-law wife and his much-younger mistress for decades), but contributed a distinctive presence to Japanese cinema. (Shindo, who entered the movie business in 1934, rose to the top of the screenwriting ranks in the 1940s and is still going strong at the age of 88, remains a distinctive presence in his own right.)

Kaneto has filmed "Sanmon Yakusha" as a semi-documentary celebrating not only Tonoyama's personality and career, but the history of his Kindai Eiga Kyokai production company, which he started in 1951 with director Kimasaburo Yoshimura and leading actress and wife Nobuko Otowa. Clips of the real Tonoyama performing in "Hadaka no Shima (Island)" "Onibaba" and other Shindo films are interspersed with scenes of Naoto Takenaka playing Tonoyama, while Otowa, who worked with Tonoyama on many films, provides sharp-tongued, but affectionate, onscreen commentary, as though she were talking to Tai-chan himself.

Shindo, however, did not originally intend the film as an anniversary commemoration.

"I had been thinking about making the film for a long time before that," he said, in an interview conducted last May on the set at Nikkatsu Studio. "I did the research, but I found it hard to write the script. For one thing it was about the life of a character actor who played supporting roles. There are many of them, not only here but in Hollywood as well, who do this kind of work their whole lives. Though they may not be the stars, I feel that theirs is the most important role in the drama -- they provide invaluable support to the leading actors.

"Tonoyama was a representative of that type of actor. He lived in the shadows, on the same level as the common people, but he was still an important figure. He was an important member of Kindai Eiga Kyokai and an important actor in my films, so I wanted to make a movie about him. Also, in filming his life, I thought I could tell the story of our company and of independent filmmaking in Japan."

"Sanmon Yakusha" also features the last performance of Otowa, one of the leading actresses of her generation, who died of cancer in 1994. Shindo filmed her reminiscences of Tonoyama long before he was able to begin principal photography with the rest of the cast.

"I have clips of representative films in which Otowa and Tonoyama appear, scenes of Otowa talking about Tonoyama, and scenes of Naoto Takenaka playing Tonoyama, with another actress playing Otowa," he explained. "I thought this three-layer structure would be interesting. It's the kind of thing you can only do in films, so I wanted to try it . . .

"The footage I took of Otowa, especially, is very precious to me now. I shot it six years ago and I've been wanting to use it ever since. But seeing it now, to put it bluntly, is like seeing a ghost."

A veteran scriptwriter, who has worked with many of Japan's top directors, including Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and Kinji Fukasaku , Shindo admitted to fudging the facts in writing the story of Tonoyama's life with his lover of nearly four decades, Kimie, played by Keiko Oginome.

"I made it all up -- the interesting parts, the funny parts, the laughter and the tears, wondering all the while if things like this had really happened," he admitted. "The film is a product of my imagination, though some of it was based on what Tonoyama told me and on what I observed being with him for 40 years. I knew a lot about his personal life, but this is not in any way a documentary film."

In a career than spans five decades, Shindo has witnessed significant changes in the conditions of his own job.

"It can't be helped," he says. "As you get older your ideas about films change, but film is still film -- it's not a novel, it's not a play. You can do things with film that you can't do with any other medium, such as shooting the reminiscences of someone like Otowa and, after she has died, using them in a new film -- in effect bringing her back to life. The expressive range of film is limitless.

"In American films they are using technological techniques to show us travel into space or super-realistic violence and all kinds of other things, but I don't think the potential of film is limited to that. I feel that it also has the potential to take us into the inner recesses of the human heart. So there's no reason to be content with what we have now -- there's so much more that film can do.

"As a director, it's important to be curious, especially when you're young, but if all you have is curiosity, your films are going to be shallow, you end up saying nothing. You have to direct that curiosity toward expressing the truth as you see it. If you can combine humanism and curiosity then you can make good films."

Kaneto is also not about to put any limits on his own career, even as he approaches his 10th decade.

"Why do old folks like me still make films?" he asks. "We don't have any curiosity or youth, so we're good for nothing, aren't we? But in the process of getting old, you suffer setbacks and disappointments -- and that's important. Everyone suffers setbacks at one time or other -- everyone. The more serious you are about what you're doing, the more setbacks you suffer. You hit a wall.

"Some people don't get up after they hit that wall -- they sink and disappear. But by the time you're in your 80s you've gotten over several walls and that experience is your treasure."

As well as courage and a strong will, Shindo emphasizes the importance of an inquiring mind.

"A lot of directors make good films when they're young and then can never equal their early success, like Orson Welles with 'Citizen Kane,' " he said. "Their talent goes sour. They may become technically skilled, but their technique has something rotten about it.

"On the other hand, some directors get older, but their films get younger. Those are the real youths -- it has everything to do with heart, nothing with age . . . If you've still got the curiosity and the feeling and the vision, you can still make films. But if you're a tired old man, forget about it."

"Sanmon Yakusha" is playing at Theater Shinjuku and other theaters.

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