Nicolas Bornoff, who died of cancer in London on Oct. 30, was my predecessor as a film critic at The Japan Times, starting in the late 1970s and continuing for nine years. His style, in contrast to fellow reviewer Andy Adams’ slangy journalese, aimed for the elevated and authoritative, which made me, as a frequent reader, imagine him as professorial and tweedy. It also made me want to argue with him when we disagreed about films, which was fairly often. (I had a similarly distant and contentious relationship with my then idol, Pauline Kael.)
In 1984, I started to write occasionally for The Japan Times myself, and in 1985, I joined a team the newspaper sent to cover the Summer Universiade — the college student version of the Olympics — in Kobe. Nick was the only other non-Japanese in the group — and turned out to be totally different from my image of him.
Born in 1949 in London to parents of Anglo-French backgrounds (with an opera-singing Jewish grandfather in the mix), Nick grew up bilingual in English and French. After being expelled from one British prep school, he managed to graduate from another, more progressive academy — and ended up in France, studying filmmaking under critic Noel Burch. He was also adept at drawing, particularly caricatures (as I later had occasion to observe while we were out drinking).
But when Nick arrived in Japan, in 1978, he earned his living with his typewriter, first as an ad copywriter, then as a freelance writer and critic.
In person, he was affable, unpretentious and, far from tweedy, had the look of a recovering rock ‘n’ roll dandy. Imagine a Keith Richards acolyte who had dialed back on the intake of drink and drugs, but still had a thing for fab leather boots. Once we established that we were both born the same year — he in September, I in August — and had survived similar hippie-era rites of passage, we became, for our week in Kobe, boon companions.
While our colleagues stayed, salaryman-style, in our cramped office until well after dark — and long after Nick’s and my last deadline for the day — we ventured out to explore Kobe’s nightlife.
At this time, Nick was gathering material for what was to be his first and by far most famous book — “Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan” (1991). An enthusiastic and dedicated student of the Japanese way of sex, from rural fertility festivals to Kabukicho strip shows, Nick regaled me with tales of his various adventures, most hilariously the “audience participation” segments of the strip shows, in which customers, usually inebriated, would vie to have sex with the performer on the revolving stage. He had, he said, never seen an amateur successfully complete the act that the pros performed nightly on stage, though he also thought the pros’ sexual acrobatics were more sleight of hand than the real thing. Maybe, I thought, he had been reviewing too many movies.
We never found such a sex show in Kobe, but we did end up at a bar where Nick, seeing a poster of Koji Tsuruta on the wall, waxed eloquent about his love of the yakuza movie icon to the astonished mama-san and her staff in somewhat shaky Japanese. I realized that his movie education was more extensive than my own — and became determined to see Tsuruta’s films myself. (I ended up writing a book about not only Tsuruta, but the entire yakuza genre — and should have dedicated it to Nick.)
We also found a karaoke bar where the effusively friendly master performed a series of enka and gunka (military) songs in costume on a spangly, brightly-lit stage he called “my Las Vegas.” By now inebriated himself, Nick began to show me how the yakuza performed their infamous rite of contrition: Slicing off a portion of their pinkie finger, the number of joints depending on the severity of their offense to the gang code.
But just as he was pantomiming a finger slice using a butter knife, he noticed a grizzled-looking fellow at the next table giving him a quizzical look — and saw that he was missing the little finger of his left hand. Nick went into a paroxysm of bows and “gomen nasai”s — until the man explained that he was a cook who had lost the finger in an accident. I should have been laughing my head off, but like Nick I was anxiously wondering if our new friend was actually a gangster being kind to two ignorant foreigners.
I met Nick occasionally after our Kobe stay, until he left Japan to return to Britain in 1991. Shortly before his departure, he told me over a meal in an izakaya that his diabetes was a big reason for the move. He needed, he said, a quieter life — and fewer temptations — than he could find in Tokyo. (Typically, he was saying this with a beer glass in front of him.)
After this, Nick kept writing about Japan, including a travel guide for National Geographic and a photo book, “Things Japanese,” with photographer Michael Freeman. He remained best known, however, for “Pink Samurai,” while his work for The Japan Times came to be regarded as a footnote.
This was inevitable — his book, written with a clear, sardonic eye and a wealth of detail, is still sold, while his film reviews are buried in the newspaper’s archive. It is also too bad, since he was one of the few writing about Japanese films in English in that period. Though not Japanese cinema’s peak, the 1970s and 1980s were also not quite the desolate valley they are sometimes made out to be. Sex trade expert he certainly was, but Nick was also a cineaste with strong opinions and a distinctive voice. I’d like to hear it again.