Monday, September 3, 2007

Toronto Japanese Film Appreciation Pow-Wow Interview, Part I - 'I wanted to be able to show people the depth of Japanese cinema'

Kino-Eye: What originally drew you to Japanese cinema? Is your interest in Japanese cinema encompassed by a more general interest in Japan and Japanese culture?

Chris MaGee: I think Japanese culture and cinema has for me, like a lot of Westerners, always been there in a kind of semi-conscious way. I just remember as a kid watching the kaiju monster movies (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) on channel 29 out of Buffalo after school, or the English dubbed episodes of “Battle of the Planets”. I think that a lot of Westerners have that shadowy sense of Japan from those things; our culture makes this kind of broad distinction of Japan as the other side of the coin to our North American culture, the same, but entirely different, filled with cherry blossoms and strange street fashions, anime and high tech. In the end this isn’t wholly correct, but its part of our cultural perception, especially growing up.

As I got older Japan was always there at the back of my mind. I used to have trouble sleeping and CBC News World would have a program called “Today’s Japan” that was put together by NHK. It would air at 1:00 am every night and I got kind of hooked.

The two things that ultimately got me into Japanese cinema, though, were that I took a class in screenwriting and ended going to Japan in 2006. For the screenwriting class the instructor kept drilling us with the three act structure and how all stories come in this neat little package, and it goes all the way back to Aristotle, so how’re you going to argue with Aristotle, right? She did pause for a second or two though and mentioned that there were some exceptions to the rule, namely experimental film and Asian cinema. This light bulb went off because I really don’t like being told there’s only one way to do something, so I went off and started with Takeshi Kitano’s “Dolls” and some of Miyasaki’s films. At first it was strange, but wonderful. The pacing, editing, the basic storytelling was utterly different to what I was used to.

Then there was the trip over to Japan. My wife and I had been niggling at each other about adventure, or lack thereof in our lives, so we agreed to go big or go home. If we were going to travel then let’s go to Japan. I’d done some retreats at a Zen monastery and she has her own meditation practice, so... As part of the preparations though I wanted to learn some Japanese and what better way to get your feet wet in the language and culture than through a country’s cinema.

So, that’s the story and through that process I fell in love with Japanese cinema. I really believe that it’s definitely a falling in love situation. Let’s hope we never get divorced!

KE: Does your interest in Japanese cinema cross over into an interest in other regional cinemas?

CM: Of course Asian cinema has a strong hold too. I’m a huge fan of Tsai Ming Liang’s films and I was really impressed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Mysterious Object at Noon”. I think in Japanese and Asian cinema as a whole there is a greater acceptance of the abstract, or well maybe abstract isn’t the best word to describe it... Donald Richie makes the distinction between the West’s “representational” approach to film making, very similar to how a painting is strictly interpreted as a window or mirror of our own reality. Asian cinema works on the level of the “presentational” as he defines it. I’ve always seen that as the equivalent of abstract, thus the choice of that term. To make another comparison to painting an abstract painting is just that, a painting, and it’s not trying to be a realistic mirror of reality. When you embrace that artificiality then it opens up all these other different realities, different possibilities. I think Asian cinema does that.

One thing I found really interesting is that when I was in Japan I’d see a lot of snippets of daytime TV. I mean here if they show films in the afternoon it’s usually something terrible like “Rocky 3” or some other 80’s movie, but in Japan I would see Godard’s “Breathless” or Cocteau’s “La Belle at la BĂȘte”. What kind of impact would that have on young filmmakers? It’s a very interesting thought.

KE: What originally motivated you to found The Toronto Japanese Film Appreciation Pow-Wow?

CM: Sheer isolation. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but... Watching films isn’t really a team sport. At best you might go with one other person to a show and then grab a coffee after and do the usual “What did you think?” for an hour. With Japanese cinema though you’re in a very specific niche, so I just found myself renting and borrowing all of these films and having marathon viewing sessions alone at home. It was fantastic, kind of loading my brain with all of this, but objectively it’s a guy alone in a room. I wanted to connect with other people who loved Japanese cinema as much as I did.

Also, I wanted to be able to show people the depth of Japanese cinema. I can’t begin to count the number of people who join the group and the first comment they make is, “I Love Japanese cinema! My favorite films are ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Ichi the Killer’!” Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those films, but I think the group’s job is to say, “Okay, then if you love ‘Battle Royale’ did you know about Fukasaku’s yakuza films from the 70’s, or for ‘Ichi the Killer’ maybe you’d like a film like Teruo Ishii’s ‘Screwed’.”

One thing that has bothered me in a way is that many (but not all) people are drawn to Japanese cinema now through the “extreme cinema” tag; very violent, provocative genre stuff. Any way to get into another country’s cinema is good, but I think that there are a lot of people who just get to that and stop exploring and assume that Japanese cinema means school kids killing each other on an island or Tadanobu Asano with his face held together with safety pins. It’s like basing your view on Hollywood cinema on Rosebud and a lightsaber. Those are just two arbitrary books ends. There’s so, so, so much more. So, that’s the main purpose of the J-Film Pow-Wow now. To let people know that.

KE: On your group's site, you have a note of appreciation from Midnight Eye's co-founder Jasper Sharp. How did you come into contact with him?

CM: I had a momentary spasm of courage and emailed Midnight Eye telling them about the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and he was nice enough to get back to me. I think that’s what brought him on Facebook, so hopefully we’ll see a Midnight Eye presence there soon. Midnight Eye was one of the sites that really fed the fire for me, so I’ve been very flattered that he and I have struck up a nice acquaintance and got to bond over our love of the director Akira Ogata who did a couple films, “Boy’s Choir” and “The Milkwoman”. He was very open to writing that little blurb for the group too. Very nice guy.

KE: How frequently do you hold your screenings? How do you decide which films to screen? What has the attendance rate been like?

As of right now not very frequently at all, but that will hopefully change. I’ve tried setting things up in the past and I’d like to continue to do so in the future because the response was pretty good, but there are a lot of difficulties that you have to deal with, the two main things being what to screen and the legalities involved. You could pull together a really nice roster of films to show, but then how do you arrange the screenings with the distributors? It gets complex and potentially very expensive. The screenings we have hosted have been self financed, so...

One way that I’m managing to keep Japanese films on the big screen in Toronto is that I’m on the committee that is co-programming this year’s season of movie nights run by the Canada Japan Society. The season runs from September until June usually on the third Friday of each month. We’ll have quite a diverse bunch of films this year, starting off with Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda, Linda, Linda” in September and then I believe we have some Kitano, Miike, Iwai, and other directors represented as well. The final details are getting hammered out.

I’d really like to have the Pow-Wow have its own screening series though, but the difficulty with that is that there’s a very small community of folks who show Japanese film in Toronto and there’s kind of an unwritten rule not to step on each other’s toes. I mean Cinematheque takes care of the classics (Ozu, Kurosawa, etc.), the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Don Mills has their family friendly contemporary films, and then at the Canada Japan Society the mandate is to showcase contemporary films that might be geared to the over 18 set. At the end of the day what’s left? A lot have people have told me that if we showed anime films we’d get a ton of people out, but that’s not the thrust of the group and Thomas Silver over at UTARPA, the U of T Japanese Animation Group is doing a fine job of that already. I’d say that my dream series would be a lot of the lesser known films and use the series as a way of showcasing those. You’d hope that you could get a few bodies out to see more obscure stuff like Nagisa Oshima’s “Sing a Song of Sex” or Keisuke Kinoshita’s “Carmen Comes Home”.

KE: Do you primarily spread word of your screenings through Facebook?

CM: Right now yes, although I’ve put up some posters in some key locations around the city. It seems that most people find out about us through Facebook though.

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