A Welshman who moved to Nagoya in 1988 and has been based in Japan ever since, John Williams is the rare foreigner who has worked in the Japanese film industry in not only the usual facilitator roles, as line producer and translator, but has also directed his own well-regarded films here. His first Japanese-language feature, 2001’s “Ichiban Utsukushi Natsu (Firefly Dreams),” earned him a Best New Director nomination from the Directors Guild of Japan, while winning him accolades abroad.
His latest, “Sado Tenpesuto (Sado Tempest),” which combines the title Shakespearian play with punk rock and noh theater, had an unusual gestation and difficult birth. Invited to Sado, a rugged island in the Japan Sea famous for its celebrity exiles (including Emperor Juntoku [1197-1242] and noh dramatist Zeami Motokiyo [1363-1443]), Williams was flummoxed when a member of the local film commission asked him to shoot footage of an endangered bird. “I was like, ‘No, not really,’ ” Williams says with a laugh.
Instead he was fascinated by an abandoned temple falling into ruins. “It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” he enthuses in an interview in his office at Sophia University, where he teaches film and translation. Williams began mentally flashing “horror movie,” but after touring a mysterious primeval forest on Sado, he thought of William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” “because it was a magical forest, a magical island,” he explains. Then, on the way back to the mainland on the ferry, he had an image of a rock musician exiled to Sado in the present day: “It just came to me, I just saw it, a policeman taking this rock musician to the island, ha ha, and the musician is called Juntoku.”
After winning the support of the Film Commission Sado Island (“They said, ‘That’s kind of wacky, but OK, go ahead,’ ” he recalls) and recruiting the four-man punk ensemble Jitterbug as his exiles (“I wanted a band with a real ferocious something about them,” he says), Williams finally began shooting on Sado — five days before March 11, 2011.
When the earthquake struck, he kept filming (“We didn’t have any choice”), but after the shoot wrapped, he struggled for a year and a half to finish postproduction. Money that he had been counting on, he explains, “went to earthquake assistance, which was completely right, but it put a hole in our budget.”
In the course of the film’s long development process, Williams changed his vision from a fairly straightforward adaptation of the play, with Japanese (or rather Sado-esque) elements, to, as he puts it, “a version of ‘The Tempest’ where everything goes wrong, … in which everything that is hidden in the play has actually come to pass. So it’s like ‘The Tempest’ turned upside down. It’s like a collage, a remix.”
When Williams took “Sado Tempest” to the Raindance Film Festival in London last September, he found that far from regarding his “remix” as a desecration of a monument of English literature, the local audience and critics applauded it.
“In Britain, as soon as you say it’s a weird version of ‘The Tempest,’ people just go with that,” Williams comments. “So actually it got very positive press. One review said, ‘I was dreading this film because I’ve seen so many bad versions of Shakespeare, but I was very pleasantly surprised, because it’s imaginative and very faithful whilst not being faithful.’ “
In Japan, the younger audience Williams is targeting knows little about either “The Tempest” or the Zeami Noh play he references, but he professes unconcern. “The young people we’ve showed it to so far don’t know anything about this (cultural) stuff, but they enjoyed the weird trip to the island, the music and the manga-esque kind of universe,” he explains.
He says Japanese viewers have also told him it reminds them of everything from the postapocalyptic manga “Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)” to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Kafka-esque 1964 drama “Suna no Onna (The Woman in the Dunes)” — reactions that leave him mostly pleased but occasionally nonplussed.
“Everybody who knows Japanese cinema and has seen this says, ‘Oh, you must have seen all these ’60s and ’70s films,’ ” he comments with a rueful smile. “It’s funny because I haven’t.”