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Copyright 2004




John Williams: Stimulating images of Japan

THE JAPANESE cinema which one sees today is vastly different from that which one saw yesterday.

Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa were highly influenced by Hollywood, though each ultimately developed his own style and method, basing his story or theme or plot on the culture of his land and its people.

Most young directors today make a conscious effort to steer away from the path that the earlier generation of film-makers took. A striking difference is the slower pace that one sees nowadays, with a liberal dose of single-scene, single cut or one-take one shot technique. The narrative style is also vastly different, though subjects remain essentially Japanese.

Probably, there is no real reason for this approach, except perhaps the desire to do something novel. Often, a work can fall flat with its languid leisurely speed, unless, of course the movie-maker has something enormously interesting to grip your attention.

One young director who does not quite fit into the so-called Japanese New Wave (some call it ``New'' New Wave, since there already was one earlier in the 1960s with men like Oshima, Yoshida and Shinoda pioneering it) is John Williams. An Englishman by birth, he has been living in Japan for about 12 years now, having picked up the language and even the nuances of society. Twelve years may not be enough to learn completely about a culture, but Williams' attempt at capturing a small part of it through his camera looks stimulating in a way.

His picture, the first in fact, ``Firefly Dreams,'' is largely autobiographical. His own observations and relationships have been woven into the script. His grandfather's little infidelity, for instance, finds an echo in the old character, Mrs. Koide (superbly played by Yoshie Minami, who once worked with masters like Ozu and Kurosawa).

``My grandfather died of lung cancer when I was 15. He told me from his deathbed about an affair he had had with a woman in Germany. He was a sailor,'' Williams tells me during an interview in Tokyo (August 2001).

``I was at an age when I was not really interested in these affairs of the heart. I was a little disturbed. I did not know why he was telling me about these private things...''

Even the film's protagonist, Noami (portrayed by Maho Ukai), resembled someone Williams had met in Nagoya, Japan. ``I had met this girl, who was 17 and she was having problems with her parents, who were on the verge of splitting.''

The third motivating force was an old woman at Yamagata in northern Japan, ``who described to me about her experiences during World War II. The factory where she worked was bombed and she faced terrible times.''

Williams used all these encounters to form his own impressions, and create on celluloid a very simple story of a bored schoolgirl, who finds solace in the company of an old woman, on the brink of losing her memory.

Against the scenic backdrop of a mountainous region in Japan, Williams freezes his tale. ``I have been attracted by a very poetic kind of cinema,'' he avers. ``I have grown up believing that cinema is not all about explaining things. My kind of cinema may tell a tale, but not necessarily in a literary or the conventional Hollywood style.

``I do like Hollywood classics, but not the giant junk culture that Hollywood produces these days. I find that very hollow, because it is not clear what it wants to say, except perhaps to advertise itself.'' Which by itself can be repetitive and over explanatory.

So, Williams does not get into this elaborate affair of unravelling every single action, every single scene. A lot is unsaid, unspoken, merely to be felt and understood.

He adds, ``Of course, I do not, at the same time, want to do the dead kind of cinema which some Japanese directors specialise in. A classic example of this can be Shinji Aoyama's `Eurekha', where nothing seems to be happening for over four hours!''

This is far removed from the cinema ``I understand. I do not see any need to move away from the traditional approach.

There is nothing wrong with it. I do not think that you can achieve a national cinematic style by experimenting with movie style.''

Also, this British director feels that some of the Japanese creations miss the point completely. They shy away from showing emotions, mistakenly believing that this is how Japanese really are.

But this is a fallacy. Look at their puppet theatre. It is extremely emotional. Look at their Kabuki. It is full of action and drama. Look at Kurosawa and Ozu.

Walk down any street in Tokyo. The young are smiling, laughing, joking and even shouting. They have even begun to kiss and pet in public. To assume that Japanese is synonymous with ``expressionless'', therefore, is a travesty of truth.

Williams has a point. And his idea works splendidly on the screen.

Despite watching ``Firefly Dreams'' the first time without English subtitles, I could comprehend just about everything. There was the right degree of emoting, and there were the right details without giving away too much, a fact that helped the viewer to analyse by himself.

This is how cinema should be. Williams has certainly made one that closely follows this definition, and the conversations on the screen might have been in Japanese, but the images provided enough clues for me to feel a deep sense of satisfaction at having watched and understood something pleasant.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated November 9 2001)

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