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Japan Auteur Yamada Sticks to Exploring the Human Condition After 90 Films

Yoji Yamada has directed 90 films, including “Tora-san,” which tops the Guinness World Records for the longest-running movie series starring the same actor. In each of the 48 installments, beginning in 1969, the hero peddler with a heart of gold falls in love but doesn’t get the girl.

He has just finished directing a Kabuki play, a Japanese musical theater form dating back four centuries, except re-scripted and directed Yamada-style. It’s stamped with his characteristic voice of compassion for the underdog that has never wavered throughout his seven-decade career.

“You must explore what it means to be human. You must be interested in people, their existence, how they live,” said Yamada, 92, looking frail but sprightly with a shock of white hair.

“Every human being has something shining inside, like a pearl, that bit of goodness,” he told The Associated Press at an office near Tokyo’s Kabukiza theater, where his “Bunshichi Mottoi Monogatari” plays through the end of this month.

Yamada acknowledged his directing approach is similar to Western-style “method acting.” His actors must start out by simply existing when they stand before a camera, Yamada said softly, pausing to reflect before answering each question.

Actors who think they are good are the ones he finds the most difficult. They start to act when they simply need to just be.

Kabuki has until recently starred only men. Yamada said the actors tended to be theatrical, and not very method, but he has written new scenes and lines, added a woman to the cast, and focused on the women characters to more fully depict the story of Chobe, a skilled plasterer craftsman who has succumbed to gambling.

Chobe has sold or pawned off just about everything in his tattered home and is reduced to his underwear.

His daughter offers herself to a brothel to pay off his debts. The owner hands Chobe the money for her, but scolds him to do better, promising his daughter will be a maid, and not a prostitute, as long as he pays back the money in a year.

Walking home at night, hugging the coins, Chobe runs into a man who is about to jump off a bridge. He has just lost his employer’s money and is determined to kill himself to atone for his mistake.

Chobe gives his money to the young man, saying human life is more precious than money.

It’s a heart-warming story about how even a loser can have heroic moments and do the right thing. The classic, originally scripted by Encho Sanyutei, an Edo-style “rakugo” storyteller, and performed countless times by Kabuki legends, has the audience laughing, clapping and crying.

Yamada’s version resonates with the same human story he’s told so many times with his films.

His cinematic portfolio spans a surprisingly wide variety of genres, including “The Twilight Samurai,” nominated for an Oscar; his recent “It’s a Flickering Life,” a tribute to filmmaking set in a humble movie house; and “The Yellow Handkerchief,” a sentimental love story about an escaped convict that’s a perennial favorite among Japanese.

With his focus on comedy and mass entertainment, Yamada has diverged from the path of the highly acclaimed “Nouvelle Vague,” or Japanese New Wave, which includes directors such as Nagisa Oshima of “In the Realm of the Senses” and Masahiro Shinoda, who directed “Ballad of Orin” — works that focused on the darker themes of sexuality and social brutality.

He brushes off the suggestion that the world may be finally ready to reassess Yamada, who has shunned blood-splattering gore and X-rated scenes as vehemently as he has stayed away from spectacular action and car chases.

His favorite Western filmmakers are Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Sian Heder and Alexander Payne. He would love to work with Payne and other Hollywood artists, he says with a smile.

In his later years, Yamada has embraced the filmmaking of Yasujiro Ozu, whose distinctly subdued style Yamada in his youth used to feel was lacking.

Now, he thinks of Ryu Chishu, cast often in Ozu as well as Yamada films, as the perfect actor.

The creative process in filmmaking takes patience, like a hen warming its eggs, according to Yamada, alluding to the teachings of Mansaku Itami, an auteur who preceded him.

When the chicken is born, it just happens, absent of any gimmick or clever planning. All one does is wait.

Yamada is working on a theatrical adaptation of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” which explores family ties and urban alienation through a rural couple’s visit to their adult children.

He doesn’t know yet what his next film will be. But Yamada knows for sure what it won’t be.

“Jets zooming above, and Tom Cruise looking good — I’m not interested,” he said.

“Being human is what counts. I don’t care a hoot about the Titanic sinking.”

Source: The Japan News