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I have been programming films here for eight years, and have often wondered about the affects that programming certain films can have on film culture and how film canons can change over time. As part of this year’s Bradford International Film Festival I decided to programme some old films by a director who is completely unknown in the UK, and to then see how the films were discussed by audiences and critics.
The subject I chose was the Japanese studio director Yoshitaro Nomura. I selected five of Nomura’s films and wrote about them in the contexts of Japanese society and Japan’s film industry. Following the programme, which played at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, I was asked by the special interest publisher The Raconteur to write on Nomura’s films for a general, culturally interested readership. The Raconteur’s editors asked for an article that spoke about the ways the director used commercial cinema to incorporate themes that he saw as important and current in Japanese society – a sense that there was a kind of darkness in Japan that had been covered over in recent postwar history.
Yoshitaro Nomura has been almost unknown outside of Japan, where his films were really popular in the 1960s and 1970s. I have found it really interesting to see how the films have taken shape in people’s minds, from having almost no prior knowledge beyond press releases and the notes for the festival catalogue.
Often when we go to retrospectives of film directors or actors, those people come with a certain reputation based on what has been written before. Not so with Nomura, and the chance to introduce his work in the UK has been a great pleasure. As well as my own article for The Ractonteur there have been others by great scholars and writers.
Dr. Alexander Jacoby in Sight and Sound magazine gives this career overview, where he identifies Nomura’s disturbing 1978 drama The Demon as possibly the director’s masterpiece:
Phil Hoad in The Guardian also noted power of The Demon, and points to the fact that the film could only be the product of a particular time and place.
West Yorkshire’s own Roy Stafford wrote on each of the programme’s five films. Roy highlighted the combinations of genres in Nomura’s films.
Adam Mars-Jones of the Times Literary Supplement admires composer Yasushi Akutagawa’s scores for the films. Mars-Jones compares his work to both Bernard Herrmann and Micel Legrand, and that this combination helps the films explain how the films “can start hard-bitten and end up awash with emotion”
I think one of the best things film festivals can do it to make a case that certain less well-known things in film are interesting. There’s so much undiscovered film history to draw on, especially films from Asia – for example the cinema of China, India and Thailand all have great, less-seen pasts. I also think that a country’s commercial cinema, its thrillers, horror films, popular melodramas, can tell us a lot about that country, its neuroses, fears and hopes.
When we do look at these films it almost always results in surprise and discovery. For example, until I watched Nomura’s The Shadow Within at the ICA and chatted with some of London’s Japan experts, I would never have learned that the film’s writer, Seicho Matsumoto, once came to the UK to research Stonehenge. There’s no evidence that this master of Japanese noir ever wrote about England’s mysterious prehistoric monuments, but I reckon that’d make a pretty interesting film!
For those interested in seeing Nomura’s films but who missed them in March and April, you can find English-subtitled DVDs of The Demon and Zero Focus on Amazon.com, and several other Nomura films either on yesasia.com or dddhouse.com
We are grateful to the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation for their support for this programme.