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Sunday, March 6, 2011


'Japan's single finest film critic'

Tadao Sato has been sharing his view of movies seen through the filter of society since the 1950s. Here, he tells Edan Corkill about his extraordinary life.

Staff writer

Tadao Sato laughed an embarrassed laugh as he recalled that three years ago, in London, he had been referred to as a "legend." Though adding to his discomfort, I had to admit that in my university days I had thought of him in the same way. And I still do.

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A-lister: Tadao Sato pictured during his recent JT interview. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

For students of Japanese film, Sato's name is almost on a par with those of the great 20th-century directors Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, and also renowned actors such as Toshiro Mifune. And yet Sato has only ever been indirectly involved with the production of film.

The 80-year-old native of Niigata Prefecture in northwestern Japan is a film critic — and a particularly prolific one at that. In a career stretching back to the 1950s, he has published more than 100 books covering not only the three masters mentioned above, but many other aspects of both Japanese and American films, recent films in Asia and much, much more. It has been the numerous translations of Sato's work into English that have earned him "legendary" status abroad and set him apart from other Japanese critics.

As long-time film critic for The Japan Times, Donald Richie, wrote in the introduction to 1982's "Currents in Japanese Cinema," the first English translation of collected essays by Sato, "With this book, Japanese cinema is seen, for the first time in English, as it appears to the Japanese . . . as it appears to Tadao Sato, Japan's single finest film critic."

And yet the career that spawned such accolades very nearly wasn't. As Sato explained to The Japan Times last month, he grew up in a "militarist state as a militarist youth." In 1944, at age 14, he happily volunteered for the infamous Japanese Naval Preparatory Flight Training Program, or "Yokaren" as it was known. Had the war continued for much longer, he may well have shared the same fate as many of his fellow students who died flying kamikaze suicide missions.

As Sato returned to normal life in postwar Japan he latched onto film as he sought information about his nation's vanquishers. Then gradually, he began seeing the medium as a window through which to view deeper societal changes.

As Japan's films started garnering acclaim overseas — beginning with the award of the Golden Lion, the highest prize at the annual Venice Film Festival, to Kurosawa's "Rashomon" in 1951 — it was Sato's ability to place those films within the context of contemporary Japanese society that cemented his reputation with movie buffs abroad, who were reading him in translation. And this same ability has also won him many awards, including, just last year, the Japan Foundation Award for contributions to cultural exchange.

Sato's approach of seeing film through the filter of society still forms the foundation of his work today, which now includes not only film criticism but his presidency of the Japan Academy of Moving Images, a private film school in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, adjoining Tokyo.

The school was established by Shohei Imamura — a member of the generation of film directors that followed Kurosawa and Ozu — in 1975, and since 1996 Sato has been at the helm. (Imamura passed away in 2006.) In recent years the school has emerged as a powerhouse, with some estimating that as many as 20 percent of those now active in Japan's film industry are alumni. Both "Akunin" ("Villain") and "Jusannin no Shikaku" ("13 Assassins"), which current JT critic Mark Schilling placed at numbers one and four, respectively, on his list of 2010's best 10 Japanese films, were directed by graduates.

As of April 1, Sato will lead the school into a new phase, as it becomes the Japan Institute of Moving Images — the subtle name change only hinting at what is a major shift from it being a technical college to it becoming Japan's first four-year university dedicated to the filmic arts.

It was in the offices of the school — amid a flurry of preparatory activity for the April 1 transformation — that Sato took time to talk to The Japan Times. Punctuating even descriptions of weighty subjects with good-natured chuckles, he offered insight into what has been an extraordinary life spent with — if not on — the silver screen.

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Moving up: The current Japan Academy of Moving Images, which will be reborn on April 1 as the country's first four-year university of the filmic arts. JAPAN ACADEMY OF MOVING IMAGES

To start, I'd like to ask you something you must have been asked many times. What was the first film you saw?

I can't remember the first one I saw, but the first one that I have a memory of seeing was "King Kong." It would've been soon after it was released in Japan (1933), probably before I entered primary school.

What impression did you have of it?

I was just surprised. I remember it very well. I was so excited I was stomping in my seat.

How was film viewed in Japanese society at the time?

It was a popular form of entertainment. For children, though, each school would restrict what kinds of films you could see. You had to go with your parents or you would go with your class from school.

Was that a policy enforced by the government?

No, the schools just decided that their students should watch only what they, the school, or parents approved. Most schools were like that. They wanted to shield us from what they saw as being crude or questionable morals.

"King Kong" was OK?

I think I went to that with my parents.

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Wise words: Tadao Sato gives a lecture at the Japan Academy of Moving Images in Kawasaki, Kanegawa Prefecture, which currently supplies around 20 percent of the labor force in Japan's film industry. On April 1, the seat of learning which Sato heads will take on full-fledged university status as the Japan Institute of Moving Images. JAPAN ACADEMY OF MOVING IMAGES

What kind of films did you go and see with your school?

Mostly films that had been recommended by the Ministry of Education. There were a lot of films like that. There was Hideko Takamine — the actress who died at the end of last year — we saw her 1941 film "Uma" ("Horse," about a poor farm girl in northern Japan who raises a horse that is eventually selected for use by the army). I remember going to see lots of period dramas, including 1941's "Kawanakajima Kassen" ("The Battles of Kawanakajima," about 16th-century feudal battles fought around present-day Nagano Prefecture). We saw one film every 10 days or so.

Only Japanese films?

That's right. In the 1930s, foreign films were seen as being more sophisticated entertainment — for junior high school students and above. Of course, the majority of Japanese only really watched Japanese films.

At what point did you change from being just a filmgoer to someone who talks back — a critic?

When I was 14, I volunteered for the Yokaren. It was a period of militarism and I was a military youth. We basically trained to be pilots, but I was only there for a year or so. [Many of the tokkotai (Special Forces Units who flew the kamikaze suicide missions) were drawn from the ranks of the Yokaren.]

Anyway, the war had begun when I was in fifth grade in primary school and it continued until about second grade of junior high school. During that time, no American films were shown — it was mostly Japanese films and some German ones, too.

When we lost the war there was a great psychological confusion. There was a mood that we had to try to understand America, the American way of thinking. I remember I went to see the very first American film that was brought to Japan, which was "His Butler's Sister" (1943). It wasn't a particularly weighty film. Deanna Durbin played a young woman visiting her brother in New York. There is a scene where she is walking along the street and — because she's very beautiful — all the men turn back to look at her. And when they do that, they are sort of grinning and smiling. I was so surprised to see that.

Of course, the same thing would happen in Japan, but such an act would've been seen almost as the first step toward delinquency. In a film, the men would have been depicted as leering and shifty. But in this American film, the men seemed normal. I decided then and there that this was a culture I needed to know more about! I actually thought it might have been a good thing that we lost the war.


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