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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2001

Just please don't ask 'why?'

The first questions John Williams is always asked about "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (Firefly Dreams)" are the "whys": Why are you in Japan? Why did you shoot a film using only Japanese actors? The answers, Williams says, don't come easy, "because I never imagined I would end up making a film here."

Filmmaker John Williams

Williams came to Nagoya in 1989 with the intention of staying for two or three years writing scripts and then heading back to Britain, but like many expats he found one reason after another to put off the plane trip home.

One was an application to New York University's film school. Williams was accepted but had to postpone his studies. He reapplied the following year, only to be rejected. In the meantime he was making 8mm films and videos and becoming interested in the plight of Sri Lankans in Nagoya applying for asylum in Japan as political refugees. He ended up going to Sri Lanka four times to shoot a documentary about the ongoing civil war that had forced the Sri Lankans to leave their homes.

"It was very critical of the Japanese government's indifference to the killing that was going on there," he says. "It was a tendentious documentary, actually."

Williams then made a short narrative film based on the life of a Sri Lankan friend, and, seeing the more positive audience reaction, felt that fiction suited his talents better than bare fact.

"Fiction has the ability to change people, too, but in more subtle ways and without being didactic," he explains.

By this time, he had been in Japan eight years, and rather than try the film school route again, he decided to make his own "graduation film": a 70-minute 16mm mini-feature that emptied his bank account but gave him invaluable experience. Thinking of it as calling card, he shopped it around to producers -- and hit a stone wall of indifference. "Looking back at it, it was a case study of how not to make a film," he says ruefully.

But several of his friends had a more positive reaction, and two even offered to underwrite his next project. "When people said that, I thought it reflected a kind of faith in my ability to do something better," the director says.

Vowing that his next film would be a full-length 35mm feature with professional actors and crew, Williams at first thought of making a violent thriller. But realizing he really wasn't the B-movie type, he decided to go with his script for what eventually became "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu."

Putting that script on the screen required three years and 22 rewrites -- 15 in English and seven in Japanese. During this process, Williams pared the number of plot lines from eight to three at the suggestion of his cinematographer, Yoshinobu Hayano. "It was a really complicated story," he says. "[Hayano] pulled me up short on that."

Meanwhile, Williams was raising financing the typical indie way -- tapping every friend and friend of a friend. "It was a lot easier than I thought it would be," he recalls. "The people who invested in it had a look at the script and said this is a story we want to put our money into."

What they had invested in was a film that echoes the classics of Japanese cinema, particularly the work of Yasujiro Ozu -- a resemblance Williams does not deny, though on first exposure he was not an immediate admirer of the filmmaker.

"I didn't really get Ozu before I came to Japan," he explains. "I'd been reading how Ozu was mysterious -- the Orientalist approach to Ozu. It wasn't until I rewatched 'Ohayo (Good Morning),' about six years after I came to Japan, that I thought, 'Hey, this guy is really funny. He just observes people in everyday situations and everything that looks like Oriental mystery to the Western critic is just Japanese reality cut in a tasteful way.' Once having got over that barrier, I thought that Ozu was the Mike Leigh of Japan of his period."

New Japanese indie films, though another influence, often leave him less excited. "I get very frustrated with the very minimalist, no-dialogue films," he says.

Their makers, he notes, "seem to copy Takeshi Kitano," whose stripped-down, chilled-out films about dirty heroes with a death wish have made him the most critically acclaimed Japanese director of his generation, especially abroad.

"There seems to be a whole slew of youngish independent filmmakers doing these dead films," he says. "Nothing happens. People sit around, then suddenly something happens and there's this explosion of violence. It seems they've just slavishly followed their master. That said, Kitano's 'Kids Return' is one of my favorite Japanese films of the last decade."

Williams is, by his own admission, more of an individualist, even to the point of butting heads with his staff. One example was the casting of Maho Ukai in the lead role of Naomi. After first negotiating with a talent, who turned down the part because it would require two months of work during her school summer holiday, Williams held an audition, at which Ukai appeared.

"I was quite taken with her, but the cameraman and two producers -- everyone, in fact -- picked another girl, who was very attractive."

Over their objections, Williams cast Ukai, whom he felt was a better actress with a more natural presence. "Everyone was pissed off at me," he said, laughing. "They were convinced it was the wrong decision."

They changed their minds later, however, when they saw Ukai on the screen.

He also resisted subtle pressures to turn the film into a Japanese TV drama, with "actors making faces and looking like they're acting." In contrast to the usual Japanese approach to directing actors -- i.e., little or no rehearsal, especially on the set -- Williams would spend an entire day rehearsing the longer scenes and engage his actors in improv exercises just before shooting, a practice almost unheard of in Japan.

"Too often actors here decide what they're going to do before they go on camera -- there's no sense of discovery," he explained. "I used improv to help them explore the possibilities."

In going against the local grain, however, Williams has found success abroad. Screened in competition at this year's Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu" ranked high in the audience awards poll and was selected for special mention by the NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema) jury "for a humane approach to a traditional Asian theme from the standpoint of a non-Asian director."

The questions from the largely Czech audience, however, were much the same as the ones Williams had heard from the Japanese: How did you make a Japanese film? How did you understand?

"It seems there's a perception of Japanese culture as being impenetrable and mysterious, and of Japanese people as being unemotional," Williams said. "I had to say 'No, no, that's a stereotype.' "

A simple lesson, seemingly, but one non-Japanese filmmakers have had trouble learning -- all but Williams, that is.

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