Behind the scenes is where he preferred to be

by Rob Schwartz

“I founded the school in the first place because my father taught me I should do something for young people when I reached the age of 50.’
– Shohei Imamura (in an interview with a former student in 1994)

Shohei Imamura called me into his office on one of my first days of work at the Japan Academy of the Moving Image (Nihon Eiga Gakko in Japanese). He wanted to know about my impressions of the school, whether I had the resources I needed to do my work, and what my thoughts were on various subjects from film to world culture. I felt it was a bit odd being asked the latter questions by someone I considered such an intellectual powerhouse and also a giant of the filmmaking world. But that was Imamura-sensei. He always exhibited a keen sense of curiosity about everybody around him, regardless of social stature or background (this orientation was echoed in his films, which often center around hustlers, thieves, prostitutes, pornographers and others living on the margins of society). He listened attentively to my likely not-very-deep opinions, and when I walked out the door I was struck with the feeling that he really appreciated me stopping by.

In my five-and-a-half years at the academy, Imamura was always a reassuring presence. He was a small man and, although he was not overweight, he always seemed somehow rotund. His features had a softness about them that mirrored the kindness of his character. Students, studio technicians and faculty would rush around, but the gentle figure of Imamura would amble unhurriedly to his classes and other functions. Despite the fact that he was battling diabetes, he seemed somehow solid, steadfast and meditative. It truly seemed like it was his contemplative state, rather than any health concerns, that led to him shuffling so leisurely down the corridors.

A couple of stories from the school, the first from before my time, illustrate the character of the man. Since Imamura always made films from a very personal point of view, their box office success was an open question. He, his production company and the academy were never flush with money and often struggled mightily. The original site of the film school, founded by Imamura in 1975, was in Yokohama, but staff felt that the facilities there were not up to the standards they needed. When Imamura’s “Narayama Bushiko (The Ballad of Narayama)” hit theaters in 1983, the film was a major money earner, boosted by its Palme d’Or at Cannes. Instead of Imamura keeping his well-deserved profits for himself, he immediately poured the money into building a custom-made facility for the school in Shin-Yurigaoka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the new incarnation was opened in 1986.

The second story took place during my time at the school and relates to Imamura’s second Palme d’Or in 1997. Everybody at the school was astonished; no one expected another top prize. The school was immediately gripped by an outpouring of joy: It was as if the hometown baseball team had won the World Series. The students’ affection for their mentor was immense, and they swiftly fashioned a homemade congratulatory banner and hung it over the front of the building. Amid this celebration, Imamura was placid. He clearly appreciated the congratulations, but one could see he invested more in his human relationships, as well as the ideas for his films, than in any awards. Rob Schwartz is a freelance journalist in Tokyo. He worked at the Japan Academy of the Moving Image from 1989 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1998.