Tadao Sato: ‘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.

by Edan Corkill

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.

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.

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.

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. Diana Darbin 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.

And so you started watching a lot of films?

That’s right. I started watching films seriously. Prior to that I had thought of film as just entertainment.

I saw a lot of American films. In comparison, Japanese films seemed so miserable — the stories and the style, too. The U.S. films depicted worlds that were like a dream. They had electricity and refrigerators in every house! It didn’t seem possible that Japan would ever be like that.

I also became interested in films from other countries, particularly from Mexico — and their worlds seemed a little more familiar. In those films, by people like Emilio Fernandez, I discovered a world that was even poorer than what I knew in Japan. And yet, they seemed so appealing. The Mexicans were poor, but they seemed so cool. [The "Mexican" films were distributed in Japan by U.S. distributors.]

When you start comparing films like that, from different countries, then your way of seeing naturally tends toward a kind of comparative studies. I started comparing Japan and other countries through their films.

And you started writing?

Yes, there were magazines back then that would offer space to people who wanted to write about film. I wrote for several, including Shiso no Kagaku, which had no limit on its word-counts. My essay on Japanese yakuza films, which was published in 1952, around the time the U.S. Occupation ended, was received well. From then on, I started to get requests to write for magazines.

Were you doing other work at the time?

I came back from Yokaren training and joined the Niigata Government Railway School, which was for training future employees of the Japanese National Railways. After that, I entered JNR, but was fired almost immediately. There was a lot of restructuring back then — to stem inflation. I think about 100,000 public employees were laid off. It was a tough time.

Was that at the end of the 1940s?

It was 1949, I think. I got fired and then started working at a telephone-repair factory.

When did you have time to watch films?

I was watching films every day. After the war, I went to night school to finish high school and I decided I could afford to skip school every second night, so that was when I went to see films. I was working, so I had enough money. I was about 20 years old at the time, and I was really expending all my energies on film — watching and writing.

That was when I wrote the essay in Shiso no Kagaku. At the time, yakuza films were seen as mass entertainment, but I wrote that they were of key social significance. And that was well received.

How were yakuza films significant?

What I wrote was later republished as a book, “Hasegawa Shin Ron” (“Theory of Shin Hasegawa”; 1975). Hasegawa was the person who started the boom in yakuza films, or ninkyo (chivalry) films, as they are known. He was a scriptwriter, and his scripts often followed the pattern of the wanderer who kills someone and then heads out on a journey, an escape. I wrote that those films actually have their origin in American westerns from the 1910s and ’20s. At that point, no one had really realized such connections existed.

Of course, if you go back further, those westerns were influenced by tales of knights in the Middle Ages that had been imported from England and Europe.

The really important thing about these stories when they appeared in Japan was that they contained hitherto unheard-of types of relationships with female characters. There was initially no concept of placing a woman on a pedestal in Japan — and likewise in other Confucian and Buddhist societies. In Japan, the ultimate allegiance of great men — samurai and so on — was always to their master. But, in yakuza films, there was a concept of “worship of the woman,” if you like. It’s not so much worship as seeing the potential motivation for men to be led astray — as the source of the original sin, that sort of idea.

In yakuza films, you will see a man kill his adversary. They’ll say to each other that they personally have no grudge against each other, but that they are the instruments of gangs at war, and then the vanquished man, as he is dying, will say, I trust your humanity and I have a favor to ask of you. I want you to protect my wife and child. The story develops and then, eventually, the victorious yakuza takes on the woman and child and escapes with them and then has to fight against the real bad guys, who were often his own gang leaders. The film “Kutsukake Tokijiro” (1929) really set this trend in motion, and in that, the yakuza ends up falling in love with the widow and prioritizing her welfare.

Everyone looked at yakuza films as low-level entertainment, but in the midst of Japan’s process of modernization, there needed to be equality between men and women. For that to happen, it needed to be made clear that unhappy women were more often than not made that way by men. “Kutsukake Tokijiro” did that.

So, I realized that you could theorize on these social changes through film. I think I made people realize that this kind of academic study was important. And of course my theory wasn’t entirely original. I got hints from lots of different sources, lots of different texts that others had written.

Your criticism has always been characterized by its strong awareness of developments in Japanese society. And when non-Japanese began reading your criticism, they commended it for that very reason. At about this same time, in the 1950s, foreigners started looking at Japanese films and writing criticism, too. Donald Richie, who worked for our newspaper, was one of the most famous examples. If they saw your criticism as being strongly aware of Japanese society, how did you see their criticism?

There were some big differences. A lot of those critics would look at the films of Yasujiro Ozu and say that they sensed the influence of Zen. I wasn’t sure about that! When foreigners look at Japanese films and try to pinpoint characteristics then they end up identifying them as Zen. But in Japan, of course, Zen is by no means the main form of Buddhism. In Japan, the main form of Buddhism is Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School of Buddhism). The ambiguity of the Japanese, the side that doesn’t try to solve problems through logic, but through emotional reactions — that is all from Jodo Shinshu. This is something that is so fundamental that we don’t really need to explain. I wouldn’t explain it.

But then you hear foreigners talking about how this and that is Zen, and how wonderful Zen is. You know how Zen was used in the war? Zen is what they used when they sent pilots out in the tokkotai. They needed the pilots to reach a spiritual state where it no longer matters if they are alive or dead. That’s what Zen is — a theory that erases the difference between life and death. So for people like me, who experienced the war, Zen is a bitter enemy. Not that I was really placed in that particular situation myself, but I was close. So, my feelings toward Zen are complex.

How do you reconcile that difference of understanding? For example, with a classic film such as Ozu’s “Tokyo Monogatari” (“Tokyo Story”), both you and foreign viewers would likely agree that the film is wonderful, but would you be reaching that conclusion for different reasons?

Hmm, well, I don’t think you should use terms like “Zen” in describing such films. Nevertheless, the films do depict a kind of resignation, an acceptance, and that is certainly related to Buddhism. But, what’s more important than that philosophy is Ozu’s all-pervading formalism — the idea of creating beautiful forms on the screen.

Ozu was interested in making his actors sit properly, sit as straight as possible, and also getting their seated postures to look nice in their surroundings: the style of the room, the spatial relationship with the other persons. Should they be seated opposite each other? No, they should be seated alongside each other. They should be looking in the same direction — that will make a more perfect picture.

And his films are famous for being shot from low angles.

That’s right. The difficult thing with Japanese film is that 99 percent of it began from imitation of American films. Even Ozu saw hundreds of American films in his youth. But there was one thing that Japanese directors couldn’t imitate from American films — and that was how they should depict the tatami-mat lifestyle.

These days, of course, Japanese have stopped sitting on tatami mats as much as they used to, so this problem is less relevant, but 50 years ago, life at home was essentially spent seated on tatami mats.

If you were in the West, then you would be on chairs and you would stand and walk around and come back again. There would be infinite variations if you wanted to film that. In Japan, if you are filming two people sitting on a tatami mat and talking, and then one person stands up, then they will go out of the top of the frame. This was always considered a problem in Japan. Basically, once people sit down to have a conversation, then the director has to leave them there until the conversation is over. They can’t move. That’s the reason that Japanese films of this period tend to be static.

Japanese filmmakers were essentially imitating Western filmmakers, but there were many differences in the circumstances they faced — such as with depictions of romance, and also this idea of different lifestyles. I saw it as my job to highlight these points.

It must have been pleasing to see your criticism translated into English and spread around the world. In one book, Donald Richie is quoted saying you’re the finest Japanese critic of Japanese film.

Ah, yes. Three years ago I was invited by the Japan Foundation to give a lecture in London, and someone wrote that they were happy to meet the “legendary” Tadao Sato! I’m a legend, it seems! I think most of them know me from that book, which I actually wrote about 40 years ago. But it’s good that they realized that there was a critic in Japan whose work was different from the kind of thing they were writing.

When you were young and working on film criticism, were there any directors with whom you were particularly close?

Hmm, well, I’ve spoken about Mizoguchi and Ozu today, but actually, the generation that emerged a few years after I began writing film criticism was the generation of Yasuzo Masumura, Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima. They were a brand-new generation, emerging in the late 1950s — the postwar generation.

Were they about the same generation as yourself?

Around about the same generation, yes. By the time they arrived on the scene, Ozu and Mizoguchi had come to represent Japanese traditional film style — their work actually seemed old and stuffy. Those three directors tried something new, and they were aggressive and boisterous and came to be seen as the “avant garde.” They actually had more in common with young directors from overseas than they did with Ozu and Mizoguchi. They wanted to reinvent art and culture, making something new, something that might not necessarily be popular with the public.

I wrote lots of texts applauding their work, and I kind of became a champion of this young generation. But, at that same time, I also wrote my book on Ozu and saying how wonderful the traditional film was. I betrayed my own generation! Not that they ever accused me of that. Later on it was Imamura who asked me to take over as president of the Japan Academy of Moving Images, so they can’t have been too upset. I think they realized that they had to try to transcend Ozu and Mizoguchi; they had to try to better them. But ultimately I think they realized the value of what those predecessors had done.

Please tell me about the academy, which you now head.

This school was first opened in 1975 as a two-year college. That was the time that the film industry in Japan really was at a low point because of the arrival of television. Almost all film companies stopped hiring new graduates. And as the situation became worse for film companies, good-quality filmmakers were released and could be hired as teachers at the school. So at the school, they brought in directors, scriptwriters, cameramen, sound people, editors — all the people who had actually been involved in making films — as teachers and then brought in all the young students who could no longer get into the big studios.

Of course, there were and there are other universities teaching film — the biggest is Nihon University. But at universities there tends to be priority given to theory over practice. Our school was different. And I think it has had good results. We now provide a large portion of the people who actually work in film in Japan — some people say as much as 20 percent.

Why turn it into a university?

Gradually the level of education has risen. You can’t have film just having a technical college while every other field has a university. We had been thinking about this for a while, and Imamura was keen to do it, too. But it takes money to make a university. You need land. It just so happened that a primary school would become available due to the merger of two schools. We were offered that land and decided to take it.

What’s the purpose of the university? Are you aiming to just create technically savvy people who can work at TV studios, or maybe at new online ventures, or — if they’re lucky — on films? Or are you dedicated to nurturing the next great auteur director, someone who will make films that will be acclaimed around the world?

Our graduates go all over the place. Yes, of course, a lot go into TV work and there are new opportunities opening up for people with such skills. But, for us, film remains at the center.

Nowadays, film itself is becoming rare, but at this school, we mainly shoot on 16mm film rather than digitally. We intend to keep using it for as long as it’s available.

There are lots of advantages to teaching on “real” film — like learning on film gives you a better understanding of lighting. I think we see it as: If you can make a film using film, then you can do anything — you can work in TV or anything else.

The other reason that teaching filmmaking is important is that all types of motion pictures are ultimately narratives. You are telling a story through the film medium. One thing we do is to make sure that every student, regardless of whether they want to be a director or a cameraman or an editor, writes their own screenplay. That gives everyone a thorough grounding in the notion that we need to tell stories through the medium.

Have you produced any directors to rival Kurosawa and Ozu?

I’m not sure that Japan has done that yet. But there are films being made today that are of the kind that could never have been made back then. It is much freer now. Back then, you couldn’t really make a film unless you had a big-name star on board.

Nowadays, there are people making films that depict the lives and emotions of common people. Even students can make films these days. It’s a very interesting age. A lot of very good documentaries are being made, too.

The students have gained the ability to depict their own fears and concerns in documentary films. That sort of thing is very good to see.

Do you enjoy working with young people?

You know, I’ve come to realize something. The fears of immature youngsters can only be depicted on film by immature youngsters! People had always thought that works of art were most likely to be made by older directors, fully matured, who could draw on long experience.

But the fact is that the concerns of young people really can only be captured properly by young people. You can get really raw expression from them. And it has such diversity of subject matter.

Are you encouraging them to look close to home for subject matter?

Well, it goes back to the screenplay. When you make the screenplay, the first thing you have to think about is the theme. And to be able to think about a theme then you need to be able to think about society. That’s what we’re doing, too.

When we become a university, we will be adding courses in subjects such as foreign languages, psychology, sociology and philosophy. The lecturers will also know to address those subjects in a way that is useful for students trying to make films.

It sounds like you will be producing graduates who are a lot like you — in that they can find the same sorts of connections between society and film as you did between yakuza films and Japanese notions of romance.

Ah, yes, maybe. That might come in the history course, though!