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Tokyo Movies: West Meets East

By Nick Dawson | April 19, 2010
Slide 1: Introduction
When we first chose Tokyo as a destination for FilmInFocus’ Movie City series, we thought of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s brilliant depiction of the city from a Western outsider’s point of view. In the film, Tokyo is seen as a somewhat confusing and alienating place to American visitors Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. So, taking the example of Lost in Translation, we decided to look at other films shot in Tokyo by U.S. or European directors which view the city with fresh eyes. Some titles – such as The Bad News Bears Go to Japan or Jackass: The Movie – didn’t quite make the final list of 10, but the films represented here are nevertheless diverse and fascinating in their differences. They range from a Humphrey Bogart movie from the 1940s to a Hollywood franchise threequel from the 2000s, from a pseudo-documentary film essay by erudite French filmmaker Chris Marker to one of the Toxic Avenger movies from Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma outfit.
Slide 2: Tokyo Joe (1949)
This Humphrey Bogart vehicle was the first Hollywood film to be shot in Japan following World War II. That said, only exteriors were shot by a B-unit who were dispatched to Tokyo, while the majority of the action was shot on the Columbia lot. Director Stuart Heisler’s movie seems to draw heavily on Casablanca: Bogart’s Joe Barrett returns to Tokyo to see what became of the bar he once owned there, discovers his lost love is alive but with another man, and must outsmart a local gangster who is trying to smuggle war criminals. Bogart’s gangster nemesis was played by Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who lived in France between 1937 and 1949, first working as an actor, then as a painter, and who helped the Allies during World War II as part of the French underground. Hayakawa, who also appeared in Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (also discussed in this article), became most famous as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a role for which he was Oscar-nominated.
Slide 3: House of Bamboo (1955)
While Tokyo Joe was the first U.S. movie to be filmed in Japan, Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo became the first American movie shot in its entirety there. (Hollywood always resisted the cost of location shooting if “authenticity” could be faked on a soundstage.) The movie is a loose adaptation of the 1948 noir flick The Street with No Name, with Fuller moving that film’s story (the investigation of a spate of gang robberies) to Tokyo, which is shot for full effect in glorious Technicolor and in Cinemascope. The trailer boasts how the movie shows “the wonders of Fujiyama; seething, swarming modern Tokyo; the backstreets and waterways where mystery and intrigue lurk.” However, Fuller’s attempt at realism apparently did not meet the approval of the Japanese press, with one reviewer dismissing it as "strictly a commercial item trying to sell exoticism to an American audience using Japan as a stage and a Japanese actress....Its manner of completely ignoring Japanese habits, geography and sentiment makes us feel quite awkward."
Slide 4: My Geisha (1962)
With his 1958 movie, The Barbarian and the Geisha, director John Huston supposedly aimed to make a movie that would truly represent Japan, however studio interference ruined his vision and almost made him disown the film. This quest for a realistic depiction of Japan by Hollywood helmers was gently mocked in the 1962 comedy My Geisha, directed by celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff and starring Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine plays a glamorous actress who overshadows her husband and regular big screen collaborator, director Yves Montand. When Montand decides to make a movie she cannot be the lead in, Madama Butterfly, MacLaine poses as a geisha for a joke – but then Montand fails to recognize her and casts her as the movie’s heroine! A comedy of errors, its self-mocking central conceit – that Montand wouldn’t identify his own wife – did not lessen the problematic nature of MacLaine’s performance, in particular her terrible attempt at a Japanese accent.
Slide 5: You Only Live Twice (1967)
The fifth James Bond movie took the action to Japan, where 007 sets out to get to the bottom of a scheme perpetrated by Japanese terrorists exploiting Cold War tensions by playing the Soviets and the U.S. off each other. Ian Fleming went on an extensive research trip to Japan before writing the 1964 novel, but Roald Dahl – on his first screenwriting assignment – threw out almost everything bar the title. As ever with Bond, the national stereotypes are somewhat labored, so featured prominently here are samurai swords, karate and sumo wrestling, with a memorable sumo scene shot at Ryogoku Memorial Hall, the sport’s national venue. Ironically, filming in Japan may have been too much for Bond – or at least for Sean Connery, who decided he was done with playing the secret agent. While filming You Only Live Twice, Connery was dogged by journalists, with the Japanese press corps insisting on calling him James Bond. The final straw appears to have been an incident in which Connery was photographed in a public toilet, and then the picture published in a Tokyo daily. During filming, Connery declared he was to step down as 007.
Slide 6: The Yakuza (1974)
Based on an original screenplay by brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader (with additional writing by Robert Towne), The Yakuza is notable for its in-depth understanding of Japan and its culture. Directed by Sydney Pollack, the movie stars Robert Mitchum as retired private eye Harry Kilmer, who fell for a Japanese woman and saved her and her daughter life’s while stationed in Tokyo during WWII. When an old friend's daughter is kidnapped by the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), Kilmer is asked to contact the brother of his former lover, a yakuza member, because of the giri (or lifelong debt) he owes to Kilmer. Pollack's movie stresses the strides made in Japan since the 1940s, and also the radical differences between Japanese and American culture and ideologies, as personified by the strained alliance between Kilmer and Ken (Takakura Ken), his ex-lover's brother. This particularly memorable line encapsulates these national differences: “When an American cracks up, he opens up the window and shoots up a bunch of strangers. When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself. Everything is in reverse.” Paul Schrader would make another Tokyo movie – this time as director – with the 1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Slide 7: Sans Soleil (1982)
Chris Marker's seminal film essay plays with the documentary form as it focuses on Japan and Guinea-Bisseau, places the film's female narrator terms “two extreme poles of survival.” Marker's movie is made up of documentary footage shot by the (fictional) cameraman Sandor Krasna and sent to the narrator, along with clips from movies (such as Vertigo) and excerpts from Japanese TV shows and commercials.  Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his essay written for the Criterion Collection release of Sans Soleil, describes Marker’s vision of Tokyo as a place that "consists of relatively marginalized activities having to do with animals, death, and video and TV images." One of the most compelling images Marker finds of Tokyo is the temple dedicated to cats, where we see a couple praying for their lost pet, kneeling in front of an arresting array of porcelain felines. Describing the city's transportation system, Marker (through Krasna) poetically writes: "Tokyo is a city crisscrossed by trains, tied together with electric wire she shows her veins." A few years later, another major European filmmaker, Wim Wenders, would also make a Tokyo-centric travelogue with Tokyo-Ga (1985), a documentary about the filmmaker’s 1983 journey to the Japanese capital to pay tribute to directing great Yasujiro Ozu.
Slide 8: The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989)
Five years on from the surprise success of The Toxic Avenger (1984), the eponymous mutant superhero from Tromaville, New Jersey returned to the big screen for his second outing, and this time found a battle to fight in Tokyo, of all places. Directed by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, who also co-helmed the original movie, the sequel sees Toxie (Ron Fazio) travel to Japan in search of his father, but inevitably finds evil to “mop up” while he is in Tokyo. Like You Only Live Twice before it, the film does not shy away from Japanese stereotypes, so Toxie follows in Bond's footsteps by coming into contact with sumo wrestlers and ninjas - and, of course, dispatching them with relative ease. As this is a genre movie made by lovers of genre movies, there is also an affectionate homage to Godzilla, while cult, envelope-pushing writer and manga artist Go Nagai has a cameo. Another gore- and fun-filled sequel, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, was also released in 1989, after the originally conceived follow-up to the first Toxie movie ran four hours so had to be split into two films.
Slide 9: Flirt (1995)
After making the 23-minute film Flirt in 1993, Hal Hartley created a feature version of the movie which incorporated the original, New York-set short in addition to reworkings of the same story set in Berlin and Tokyo. The tale told in each was about a flirt who is trying to decide which of two lovers to commit to, and features Hartley regulars Martin Donovan, Bill Sage and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Yewell and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Hartley and his real-life wife Miho Nikaidoh playing versions of themselves in Tokyo. (The movie cleverly ends with Hartley about to leave Tokyo with a canister of film marked Flirt.) Hartley subtly reworks the New York script in the Berlin and Tokyo sections, and for Tokyo created a much less verbal and more visual telling of the story. Writing about this in the introduction to his screenplay for Flirt, Hartley says, “A safe generalization about Japan is that the way things appear is important. From packages to the way one says hello, presentation is everything. I saw the possibility of a comedy of errors firmly anchored in how things appear.”
Slide 10: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
After two hit movies, stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker had both departed the Fast and Furious franchise so a change of location was called for in order to spice up the action. With a whole different set of characters, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift followed new hero Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), car-mad delinquent who flees the U.S. in order to escape jail and goes to live with his father, a naval officer stationed in Japan. Tokyo, it turns out, is a colorful, vibrant city where all the natives speak in English (because subtitles are confusing) and there is a flourishing underground drift racing culture. There are cameos from Vin Diesel, kung fu movie legend Sonny Chiba and real-life drift racers Keiichi Tsuchiya (aka the “Drift King”) and Rhys Millen. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was directed by Justin Lin, who would go on to helm the subsequent Fast & Furious (2009), the fourth film in the franchise, and is currently slated to make Fast Five in 2011.
Slide 11: Tokyo! (2008)

Portmanteau movies based around cities became a recent trend because of films like Paris, Je T’Aime (2007) and New York, I Love You (2009), so it wasn’t a huge surprise that Japan’s capital city became a cinematic target for multiple filmmakers in Tokyo!. Interestingly, the three directors presenting their take on this eastern metropolis were not Japanese but foreigners offering an outsider’s perspective: two Frenchmen – the offbeat, wildly creative Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and former enfant terrible of Gallic cinema Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) – and Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean director of The Host. Each presents Tokyo differently: in Gondry’s “Interior Design,” it is a large, alienating place for an unemployed new arrival to the city; in Carax’s “Merde,” it is the backdrop for a subterranean, half-human creature called Merde (French for “shit”) to go on the rampage; and in Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo,” it is distant and terrifying for the protagonist, a “hikkomori” (or “shut-in”) who for over tens years has been too terrified to leave his apartment. Those paying careful attention during the U.S. trailer for the movie will have noticed that the song used to promote the movie was “Be Good” by the appropriately titled Tokyo Police Club.

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