International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

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Michael Kerpan
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International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#1 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Jul 28, 2015 9:48 am

domino harvey wrote:I know I've mentioned the Cahiers' crew predilection for Mizoguchi, but I just revisited Rivette's list of the greatest films of all time as submitted to Sight and Sound in 1962 and I had forgotten that he ranked this film at number one!
I wonder how many Japanese films had been shown in France at the time of this list? Not sure that Ozu or Naruse's work had shown up yet. I suspect most of what had appeared was Kurosawa and Mizoguchi (and one wonders how wide an array of Mizoguchi's films had been screened).

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#2 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jul 28, 2015 12:41 pm

A good number of Mizoguchi films did find their way to France. Rivette mentions in his 1958 essay on Mizoguchi that the Cahiers writers had seen ten Mizoguchi films by that point, and more came after based on the yearly Best Of lists for the journal (not necessarily "new" films at that point but new to them, as the NBC summer ads used to say). Rivette, as you might expect, voted for many of these in his best ofs (almost all of which were placed at the top of his respective lists): the Crucified Lovers, Empress Yank Kwei Fei, Sansho, Taira Clan Saga, Ugetsu. I know Ugetsu was extremely popular with the Cahiers crew, and Mizoguchi comes up frequently in discussions of the auteur theory (not just by Rivette), dumped in with the usual suspects (Ray, Lang, &c). Based on Rivette's essay on Mizoguchi, films by Heinosuke Gosho, Tadashi Imai, Keisuke Kinoshita, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kaneto Shindo, and Satoru Yamamura also played in France, because Rivette name checks specific examples by all (and he hates Kurosawa).

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#3 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Jul 28, 2015 2:17 pm

Interesting that there's no mention of Ozu -- or Ichikawa. I assume these films showed up only in Paris ( I wonder if there was one or two particular theaters that specialized in showing Japanese movies.

I know a variety of 50s films got reviewed in the NY Times in the 50s, but the variety seems to have diminished during the course of the 60s. And, except for Japanese language movie theaters on the West Coast, most of these things may not have shown up anywhere beyond NYC.

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#4 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jul 28, 2015 2:39 pm

The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, Kagi, Nobi, and Tokyo Olympiad were all discussed by the Cahiers writers (Rivette hated Ichikawa too, he gave four of these either one star or a bullet)

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#5 Post by whaleallright » Tue Jul 28, 2015 2:57 pm

Interesting that there's no mention of Ozu -- or Ichikawa. I assume these films showed up only in Paris ( I wonder if there was one or two particular theaters that specialized in showing Japanese movies.
Ozu's films took much longer to be distributed in Europe and America than those of his major Japanese contemporaries. Tokyo Story screened at ULCA in 1956 (I believe under the title Their Voyage to Tokyo). The next year it showed at the National Film Theater in London—and won a major award from the BFI. (Several British critics placed it on their 1962 Sight & Sound ballots and specifically referenced that NFT screening.) I'm guessing it's that attention, combined with Donald Richie's advocacy, that inspired Schochiku and Toho to (finally) send Ozu's films to festivals, including Berlin, Montreal, and New York, in 1962–63.

I suspect that Ozu films were not screened in Paris in the 1950s. I've never seen any mention of Ozu in French film criticism until 1963, when 11 of his films played as part of a massive retrospective of Japanese cinema in Paris. Ozu films played in many other European cities in the next few years, thanks to a traveling retrospective organized by Donald Richie.

Several of Ozu's last films, such as Good Morning and Late Autumn, were distributed commercially in America not long after their release in Japan. I'm guessing this was strictly to theaters catering to Japanese audiences (there were several in Los Angeles), but I'd love to get more information on that. In any case, these releases got absolutely no attention from major newspapers and critics, with the exception of Variety (whose policy it was to review everything). I believe the first reference to Ozu in the New York Times—the "newspaper of record"—is in his 1963 obituary. In 1964 the Museum of Modern Art showed six of his films, including one pre-war film, I Was Born, But....—a retrospective that got minimal coverage. It wasn't until the 1972 release of Tokyo Story in New York that Ozu appreciation took off in the U.S.—when all the major critics began paying attention.


NB: I edited this a million times to add/correct details as I found them. Note that below I report on several Ozu retros in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s; it seems that the usual story, of Ozu's "discovery" in America thanks to the 1972 release of Tokyo Story at the New Yorker Theater, is only partially correct.
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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#6 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Jul 28, 2015 3:58 pm

Interesting that Rivette hated Ichikawa.

Also interesting that Richie convinced Europe to give Ozu a look in the 60s, but America kept its eyes mostly shut for another decade. What did Variety think about Good Morning?

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#7 Post by whaleallright » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:03 pm

I can't seem to find the Variety review of Good Morning (maybe it went under a different title?) but here's an excerpt of their review of Late Summer (a.k.a. The End of Summer), not based on an American commercial screening but on its 1962 screening at the Berlin Film Festival:
A sincere and sensitively made picture, "Late Summer" is a fair example of the stylish pictures coming out of Japan. It is tastefully and artistically directed. Though it is not without merit, this pix will probably have only limited appeal to Western audiences....
In a gentle way, the story unfolds leisurely as the characters come vividly to life.... Film has been professionally lensed in Afgacolor, and the acting is universally good. The two stars, Ganjiro Nakamura as the man, and Setsuko Hara as the widowed daughter, make a particularly fine impression.

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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#8 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:15 pm

Here's what I find in Variety: MoMA did a run of Ozu films in the first week of June, 1964: I Was Born, But…, Late Spring, Tokyo Story, Early Spring, Good Morning, and Late Autumn. Good Morning then ran at the New Yorker Theatre in 1966, but apparently bombed. It was brought back to the theater a year later for a series of bombs distributed by beloved by Daniel Talbot which also included Visconti's La Terra Trema, Kurosawa's The Idiot and The Bad Sleep Well, and Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning. Talbot is quoted in the notes for the series on Good Morning: "We admire Ozu's work, and this film in particular. It was not too well received when we premiered it a few years ago, but we recommend it highly."

No official review, though.

The April 26, 1972 issue has a full page ad for Tokyo Story touting it as "the longest running film in the history of the New Yorker Theatre." "6 weeks and still going strong." They also advertise as available for distribution Late Spring and The End of Summer and as coming soon An Autumn Afternoon, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Late Autumn, Early Spring, Equinox Flower, and I Was Born, But….

Richie's book was published in the US in 1974.
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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#9 Post by whaleallright » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:26 pm

Thanks for that info!

I'm finding more stuff as I search around. For example, in June 1964, the Kabuki Theater in Los Angeles showed An Autumn Afternoon in a double-bill with Kurosawa's Scandal. Ozu's film actually did get a superlative, sensitive, and fairly lengthy write-up in the Los Angeles Times by Kevin Thomas (June 23, 1964, p. C9). He calls the film a "masterpiece," describes Ozu as "the least known of the top Japanese directors (and the most honored in his own country)," and notes that the premiere is "a major event for anyone who enjoys good films." He also complains about the generic title and compares the film's sensitivity to everyday speech to Paddy Chayefsky. Some of the perceptive notes in Thomas's review suggest to me that he was familiar with Donald Richie's writings on Ozu. Either that, or Thomas was paying unusual attention to Japanese film criticism and had seen a number of Ozu's pre-war films (unlikely).

A few months later, in November 1964, the same theater was showing an Ozu retrospective with: Late Autumn, Twilight in Tokyo (Tokyo Twilight, I presume), Equinox Flower, and Tea and Rice (Flavor of Green Tea over Rice?):

Image

Also, the film of Ozu's last script, directed after his death by Minoru Shibuya, was likewise screened at the Kabuki theater in 1965, and reviewed favorably by Thomas. So Los Angeles audiences would have had numerous opportunities to discover Ozu in the mid-1960s.

I'm sure more stuff will turn up.
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Re: International Japanese film distribution in the 50s & 60

#10 Post by whaleallright » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:43 pm

No official review, though.
Actually, Howard Thompson reviewed Good Morning in the New York Times on Feb. 2, 1966: "[A] cozy but tepid little study of middle-class neighbors in the contemporary suburbs of Tokyo. At times, by comparison, Hollywood's Hardy Family films seem avant-garde." Later he describes it as "pleasant, thin fluff." [-X

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Re: International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#11 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:44 pm

The first mention of Ozu I can find in Variety is a short blurb about submissions to the 1962 Berlin FIlm Festival. Ozu had two films showing, Early Spring and Late Summer (listed in the blurb as A Fulfilled Life, a title I've never seen applied to that film before).

The first mention I find of Mizoguchi is from June 8, 1949, a brief mention of him serving as the head of the Japan Film Directors Association. Nothing else until a review of Ugetsu from September 9, 1953 (viewed at the Venice Film Festival). The first paragraph is "Recent Japanese participation in film fetes has made them aware of Occidental film tastes, and their big films are now being made with a more direct story line and greater movement. This, plus the brilliant thesping, direction and technical qualities should make this of curio appeal for arty houses in the U.S."

Oharu has a capsule review in the April 22, 1964 issue noting its U.S. premiere on April 20 at the Toho Cinema (formerly the D. W. Griffith Theatre, formerly the Bijou Theatre) "12 years after it was shown at the Venice Film Festival." "Blessed with fine imagery and thesping but too slow for general run. Lensing is excellent…editing is weak." Box office was "light" according to April 29th's issue: $3,900. Seven Samurai took its place at the theater after one week and took in $5,500, which Variety noted "was surprisingly good…for this oldie."

The Toho Cinema was Toho's second cinema in the US, opening January 22, 1963. They also had the La Brea in LA, which opened some time in 1961 or 1962 and which also had a Toho-owned Japanese restaurant in it called Cherry Blossom.
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Re: International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#12 Post by whaleallright » Tue Jul 28, 2015 5:02 pm

Last update for the moment: in 1966, the Nuart Theater in L.A. had an Ozu retrospective, with only a bit of overlap with the Kabuki's earlier retro:

Image

And the very next year, the Vagabond Theater in L.A. had yet another Ozu retro, drawing from the same batch of films in the previous two. I figure I'd best show this ad in context:

Image

Seems unlikely that all these retros would have taken place without some public support. In other words, there was a bit of an Ozu craze in L.A. in the mid-1960s. Thomas deserves a lot of credit for consistently championing Ozu in the L.A. Times throughout the 1960s.

Additionally, End of Summer and Floating Weeds were screened at the New Yorker in 1970–1971. And the 3-Penny in Chicago (which I attended as a kid) showed Early Autumn as part of a festival of Japanese films in 1970. There's certainly more where that came from.

Indeed, it seems the successful release of Tokyo Story was the culmination of a decade of critics and programmers championing Ozu and taking chances on his films, rather than a sudden arrival as it's sometimes been described.
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Re: 664 The Life of Oharu

#13 Post by zedz » Tue Jul 28, 2015 5:14 pm

jonah.77 wrote:
Interesting that there's no mention of Ozu -- or Ichikawa. I assume these films showed up only in Paris ( I wonder if there was one or two particular theaters that specialized in showing Japanese movies.
Ozu's films took much longer to be distributed in Europe and America than those of his major Japanese contemporaries. Tokyo Story screened at ULCA in 1956 (I believe under the title Their Voyage to Tokyo). The next year it showed at the National Film Theater in London—and won a major award from the BFI. (Several British critics placed it on their 1962 Sight & Sound ballots and specifically referenced that NFT screening.) I'm guessing it's that attention, combined with Donald Richie's advocacy, that inspired Schochiku and Toho to (finally) send Ozu's films to festivals, including Berlin, Montreal, and New York, in 1962–63.

I suspect that Ozu films were not screened in Paris in the 1950s. I've never seen any mention of Ozu in French film criticism until 1963, when 11 of his films played as part of a massive retrospective of Japanese cinema in Paris. Ozu films played in many other European cities in the next few years, thanks to a traveling retrospective organized by Donald Richie.

Several of Ozu's last films, such as Good Morning and Late Autumn, were distributed commercially in America not long after their release in Japan. I'm guessing this was strictly to theaters catering to Japanese audiences (there were several in Los Angeles), but I'd love to get more information on that. In any case, these releases got absolutely no attention from major newspapers and critics, with the exception of Variety (whose policy it was to review everything). I believe the first reference to Ozu in the New York Times—the "newspaper of record"—is in his 1963 obituary. In 1964 the Museum of Modern Art showed six of his films, including one pre-war film, I Was Born, But....—a retrospective that got minimal coverage. It wasn't until the 1972 release of Tokyo Story in New York that Ozu appreciation took off in the U.S.—when all the major critics began paying attention.


(Edited to add some details and fix a million typos.)
That's my understanding as well: Ozu really only came into prominence in the US in the 70s, though that MoMA season began to put him on the critical map. It's very rare to find any mention of him in a general, or even semi-specialized film text published before the 70s.

Mizoguchi was a Japanese international superstar along with Kurosawa back in the 50s, and for largely the same reasons: major international festival exposure, specifically at Venice. The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff all won prizes at venice and entered the international arthouse canon almost immediately, alongside warhorses like Rashomon, The Seventh Seal and La Strada.

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Re: International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#14 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Jul 28, 2015 5:33 pm

Thanks to all our researchers. Fascinating info -- that is not really built into the standard narrative of Ozu's reception in the US.

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Re: International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#15 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Jul 28, 2015 8:33 pm

Partly the quirks of the Japanese studio and distribution system seem to have affected availability. Daiei had almost no captive theaters, so it made the biggest push for Western distribution, hoping (rightly) that winning awards in Europe would get films enough prestige to get them into Japanese theaters. Toho, which owned tons of a theater, but made similar films, wanted in on the action -- and jumped in as quickly as it could. Shochiku (Ozu's studio) had lots of theaters too -- but did not produce the kind of artsy, orientalist fare that Western festivals were eating up/

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Re: International Japanese film screenings in the 50s & 60s

#16 Post by movielocke » Wed Jul 29, 2015 2:15 am

There was a massive/complete mizoguchi retrospective in the us in the early seventies, I came across the retrospective pamphlet while shelving stuff in the stacks when I was in college. I was amazed at it at the time because it had so many titles I'd never heard of (this was a while ago when there were only about eight or nine mizoguchi films you could find with English subs on video).

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