Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interview: Stuart Galbraith IV, author of "The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography"

Kyoto-based film historian and writer Stuart Galbraith IV should be a familiar name to anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. Chances are you've read his online reviews for DVD Talk and the Daily Yomiuri, or have cracked open an amaray or digipak and consumed his essays, interviews and commentary tracks for the Criterion Collection and others. Of course he is first and foremost a published author of several non-fiction works including his acclaimed joint biography of Mifune Toshiro and Akira Kurosawa "The Emperor of the Wolf," and now he's produced a comprehensive appraisal of one of Japan's most powerful film factories, "The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography." Stuart was kind enough to chat with Ryuganji about his experiences writing the book and his opinions on the current state of the industry.

Don Brown: How long have you been living in Japan?

Stuart Galbraith: I moved to Kyoto at the end of 2003, after visiting Japan every few years starting around 1994. My wife's Japanese, and after living in Los Angeles where we'd spend 1-3 months out of every year visiting or working in Japan, permanently moving to Kyoto quickly became more appealing and practical -- while going back to L.A. became a more difficult adjustment each time. Then coincidentally early last year, within a space of about a month, we bought a house, got a dog and my wife became pregnant, so now we're pretty well entrenched.

DB: You've written several Japanese film books to date - what were your reasons for writing a book on Toho?

SG: Westerners tend to have a very skewered view of Japanese cinema, though less so recently because so many Japanese movies are at long last being released on DVD, plus the Internet and YouTube have changed have made all of Japanese pop culture infinitely, instantly far more accessible. Yet when most people think of Toho they still think: Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Godzilla movies, and maybe jidai-geki like Hiroshi Inagaki's Chushingura or chanbara like Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom.

In fact Toho's main genre was salaryman comedies, movies starring actor-comedians such as Hisaya Morishige and Hitoshi Ueki, about the white collar workplace. Toho also did Hollywood-style musicals, film noir-type thrillers, women's dramas, spy pictures -- all kinds of movies really, yet almost none of those films have been shown in the west because of our preoccupation with samurai and swordplay cinema in the '50s through the '70s, and then with so-called "outlaw masters" like Seijun Suzuki and exploitation films like roman porno.

What I want to do with The Toho Studios Story is to present to the reader a complete picture, to put everything into context so that they can better understand the methods and the trends during one studio's history. Also and maybe most importantly, I hope the book will generate some interest in these heretofore obscure movies, so that maybe they'll start turning up at retrospectives or picked up by smaller DVD labels and western audiences can finally get a chance to see some of these wonderful things.

DB: Could you talk more about some Toho films or filmmakers that don't have much of a profile and/or haven't been released on English-friendly DVD but deserve more attention?

SG: Boy, where to start? Two filmmakers that immediately come to mind are Mikio Naruse and Shiro Toyoda. Naruse's films are finally starting to become available, but there's still so much out that that remains unreleased, and the situation is even worse with Toyoda. Or Tadashi Imai -- talk about being unjustly ignored! Early postwar directors like Hiromichi Horikawa, Zenzo Matsuyama, Senkichi Taniguchi, Seiji Maruyama -- almost nothing is available in the U.S., and that's criminal in a market where Americans have easy access to every Pokemon movie.

I'd really like to see some of Toho's comedies, musicals, documentaries, and film noir-type films released. Personally, I'm fascinated by other countries' comedy films and stars - Mexico's Cantinflas, France's Fernandel, etc. - because these films, designed mainly for domestic consumption, tend to reflect the culture and the period in which they were made, often more intimately than big prestigious or art house-targeted films. Comparing and contrasting Japanese comedies to American ones, the differences and the similarities of cultures, is endlessly fascinating I think, and I suspect Americans interested in Japanese cinema would find much to like in Toho's best "Shacho" and "Ekimae" movies, as well the later stuff with The Crazy Cats and The Drifters and the earlier films with people like Enoken, Achako & Entatsu, and Tony Tani.

Toho made some of the most interesting World War II films of any Japanese studio, both propaganda films during the war, and interesting postwar movies that walk a fine line between nostalgia and nationalism and tragedy and contriteness.

I think cross-cultural films are also extremely interesting, international co-productions with Toho, or Toho films shot on location abroad. Susumu Hani's Bwana Toshi, for instance, about a Japanese man in Tanganyika (and played by Tora-san himself, Kiyoshi Atsumi), was a big critical and commercial success here in Japan but it hasn't been seen in the U.S. probably since the mid-1960s when it played the "sukiyaki circuit."

DB: What aspects and themes did you focus on?

SG: Well, it's a reference book, basically a filmography, so I wanted to include the kind of information not normally available (or incorrect) on resources like the Internet Movie Database, and to present it in such a way that, in addition to looking up individual titles, readers can also leaf through it page-by-page and note gradual technological changes, the rise and fall of different actors, directors, and genres, and so forth.That's why the films are presented chronologically; it's really amazing what you can learn just by examining a single year of Toho's long history.

DB: How long did it take to write, from inception to completion?

SG: That's a difficult question to answer because I actually started working on it way back around 1998, about the time Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! was released. The project was put on hold during most of 1999-2001 while I was writing The Emperor and the Wolf, then it got sidetracked again as it went through several different book designers and there were other delays. Actually, to give you some idea, when I first started writing it I was saving it on old-style floppies and printing out pages on a daisy-wheel printer! And every few years I had to go and bring it up to date -- the finished book is complete through the end of 2007 -- and the last bit of work I did on it was early this spring, so in a sense you could say it was 10 years in the making!

DB: Were you commissioned by the studio, or was it your idea?

SG: Toho had absolutely nothing to do with the book. At one point I toyed with the idea of selling them a significant piece of it in exchange for the use of lots of photos. I'd have liked to have included one still for every entry in the book - several thousand in other words. But I've also seen the extreme frustration many colleagues of mine have gone through -- Steve Ryfle on his Godzilla book on now his documentary on Toho's special effects films, for instance -- and I don't have his incredible patience and tolerance for such arbitrary idiocy.

DB: Toho are notorious for being very protective of their properties.

SG: I don't think anywhere in the world there's a company quite as perversely self-defeating as Toho, though to some degree this attitude is industry-wide. In Toho International's case, they've got obscenely expensive digs in Century City, a big office in some of the priciest real estate in Tokyo -- I was in their older offices before they moved, but that was huge --and high-priced attorneys on retainer in L.A. I suspect they have to justify all those salaries somehow, yet one suspects the money generated from American sales is disproportionately small. I mean, how money can U.S. DVD rights on The War in Space really generate? But if they can sue Subway Sandwiches for a gazillion dollars they look like they're at least protecting their company's interests, even if most of these lawsuits over the years have been pretty ridiculous.

Incidentally, there's a stark contrast between these front office types and the folks actually in the trenches making the movies. Toho's ever-shrinking studio is some distance away in Setagaya, and many of the older directors, actors and the like I've interviewed over the years live or lived nearby. They were always, without fail, extremely courteous and generous with their time, and always happy to help foreign researchers. It's the front office - people that really had nothing to do with the production of these films we love - that's so meddlesome.

The sad thing is Toho and the other studios are really shooting themselves in the foot. For several years I tried launching my own boutique DVD label, hoping to release some of the very same films I've described, basically movies 50-60 years old probably no westerner ever even inquired about before, and which in most cases their international departments never even bothered trying to sell abroad. I met with representatives from Shochiku, Kokusai Hoei (keepers of the Shintoho library), Toho and others but they all made outrageous demands on the most obscure of movies, as if we were negotiating the rights to Star Wars instead of some obscure Tony Tani comedy three people in the U.S. have vaguely heard of.

I kept trying to explain that the titles I was asking about required the kind of special nurturing someone like myself could provide, but even so you're still talking about DVDs that would in all likelihood sell less than 5,000 units apiece -- actually, probably closer to 1,500 units. Adding insult to injury, on top of the obscene licensing fees some also charge a separate rate, several thousand dollars as I recall, to access their video masters, even though big American companies routinely provide those for free or at cost to licensees. I know. I worked at MGM and was involved in exactly that.

What this means is that only a few companies with deep pockets like Sony or Janus Films can afford to deal with companies like Toho, and that they aren't likely to take chances with marginal titles, even ones of exceptional interest to classic Japanese film fans.

I think also there's a proprietary attitude by the Japanese toward their own cinema, a feeling by some Japanese that, for instance, foreigners can never truly understand Ozu, that movies like that are really for their consumption alone, and not the world's. Here in Japan, you can routinely buy DVDs of Hollywood movies for under 1,000 yen while most Japanese DVDs are ludicrously expensive, usually 4,800 to 6,000 yen apiece. I asked Donald Richie once why he thought Japanese home video labels almost never provide English subtitles on their DVDs, and he had a very interesting answer: "Battaa kusai" ("stinks like butter"). In other words, by putting English subtitles on the disc, you ran the risk of "tainting" it with the whiff of Americaness, a foreigner accessibility, therefore somehow making it less purely "Japanese." I tend to agree with Donald Richie.

DB: The book appears to be a very comprehensive record of the studio's activities - how did you go about researching it?

SG: In retrospect it's kind of interesting. When I started on it back in 1998, my only real options were to go to Japan and buy Japanese-language cinema reference books, while in Los Angeles, at USC's Cinema-Television Library with a friend named Tony Sol, I photocopied virtually every review and advertisement for a Toho movie in the pages of Kinema Jumpo since its inception. I also relied on picture files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library and my own private collection of studio magazines and UniJapan booklets. Back then I could read a very limited amount of Kanji, mostly common names like Yamada, Tanaka, Yasuda, etc., but relied heavily on my Japanese translators.

Now, ten years later, I'd say about 90% percent of all that information is readily available, at least in Japanese, on websites like Kinema Jumpo's MovieWalker and the Japanese Movie Database. I'm well over the hump of my second "Studios Story" book now and I'm amazed that I've been able to compile the same kind of information probably 10 times faster. And because of both my improved Japanese, such as it is (it's still pretty terrible!), and thanks to the Internet, many difficult-to-read Japanese names are accompanied by hiragana readings, so I can do a much larger percentage of the work myself.

DB: Did you experience any difficulties in writing and researching the book?

SG: The biggest problems with a project like this are things like trying to nail down Japanese names definitively. The producer commonly known as Tomoyuki Tanaka is usually called "Yuko Tanaka" by those that knew him, actor Akira Takarada for instance, because the characters for Tomoyuki can also be read as "Yuko." Which is correct? Oftentimes, there's no way to know for sure short of knocking on the door of the family home and asking their spouse or children.

On some of the older films, even my native Japanese translators couldn't read the title of the movie because the Kanji characters had fallen out of use in the years since, and they'd have to spend several hours on a single title trying to figure out how it was read and what it meant. Other titles didn't translate easily to English. My favorite example of this is a comedy called Showa hitoketa shacho tai futaketa shacho - Getsu Getsu Ka Sui Moku Kin Kin. That translates as "First Decade Showa Company President vs. Second Decade Showa Company President - Monday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Friday," but do you leave a title like that alone or attempt to simplify it and make it more understandable to readers (such as translating the last part as "Open Seven Days a Week"), even if you have to change the meaning a little? I pretty much invariably opted for the more complete and direct translation approach, but these are issues that cropped up all the time.

DB: Toho is still the largest and most successful Japanese film studio, but how has their position in the industry changed, especially in light of the current influence of television companies?

SG: Toho is virtually out of the business of making movies. Back in the late-1950s and early-'60s, they were producing upwards of a hundred movies every year. Nowadays they're making only one or two fully in-house productions while owning small pieces of maybe a dozen others, mostly in distribution fees. The New Face system of training and building up young actors, the same system that gave rise to Toshiro Mifune and lots of other stars is long gone, which is why filmmakers are turning to TV non-talent and J-Pop stars like the guys from SMAP. There's no nurturing of filmmakers like Kurosawa and Okamoto who rose up through companies' apprentice programs. That's why there aren't many good films being made in Japan by people under the age of 70.

DB: Is that possibly a matter of personal taste? Could you possibly name any films or filmmakers by younger directors that you feel are worthy of praise?

SG: Partly it's a matter of taste, but when something like Japan's dumb rip-off of The Matrix, Returner, gets four major Japanese Academy Award nominations, it's a sign that expectations have been significantly lowered. Yeah, there are filmmakers out there that I like: Shunji Iwai, Junji Sakamoto, Kokki Mitani, Hirokazu Kore'eda. But I don't think they're necessarily as consistent or as groundbreaking as the great Japanese filmmakers working in the 1930s-1960s, when there was this great big orgy of incredible films and filmmakers. What I meant by that statement was, particularly 10 or 15 years ago, for me the most interesting films were being made by veterans like Imamura, Shinoda, Shindo, Kon Ichikawa and Yoji Yamada. Of course, most of these guys are gone now. And another thing: where the ordinary Japanese program picture of the '50s and '60s was extremely well made for what it was, the same kind of comfort food cinema Japan cranks out today tends to be miserably bad, almost unwatchable. Of course, it could be a matter of taste, and that I'm hardly in the targeted demographic for stuff like Umizaru 2.

DB: How would you characterise Toho in comparison with the other film studios operating today?

SG: As I discuss in the book, big companies like Toho are now huge conglomerates that make most of their money managing subsidiary companies. Toho has their hands in all kinds of things: nursing homes, pet stores, home improvement centers - you name it.

At this point there's really only Toho, Shochiku, and Toei. They're all pretty out of step with contemporary Japan, though Toei maybe less so, just as they've been since the early '70s. Director Yoji Yamada is about the only glue holding Shochiku together; I had to think of what will happen to the company after he's gone; probably it and Toho will become virtually indistinguishable, while Toei might maintain its gangster reputation for another decade.

DB: What about the revived Nikkatsu? They seem to be in a much better position than in recent years.

SG: Maybe, but I don't think its successes are any indication of a major revival of studio-based production. Of course, we haven't discussed anime - and that's the real international success story, and I don't see peaking anytime soon. In fact, I'm amazed U.S. rights to characters like Doraemon and Anpanman haven't been snapped up yet - or have they? I can see each of those becoming monstrously successful with American pre-schoolers.

DB: If television companies continue to be successful in producing commercial films, can what's left of the big four studios continue to justify their existence?

SG: Good question! I guess now primarily they're all trying to find new venues for their film libraries -- probably with Blu-ray and down-loadable movies in a big way over the next few years -- while generating additional income renting out studio space and equipment.

DB: What drives you to keep writing about Japanese cinema? I imagine the amount of personal investment is disproportionate to the financial return at least, so how do you keep motivated?

SG: It is pretty disproportionate, and what motivates me has changed over the years. When I first started writing about Japanese cinema almost 20 years ago, there was a fair amount of film theory-style literary analysis of directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi, but almost nothing in English about the nuts and bolts of the Japanese film industry other than the seminal Donald Richie/Joseph Anderson book The Japanese Film - Art & Industry, and virtually nothing about genre films.

To say that's changed in the years since would be an understatement. There are lots of good people out there -- Chris D, Markus Nornes, Patrick Macias -- who're exhaustively exploring areas of Japanese film that were pretty much virgin territory 20 years ago. Really, now there are so many people writing about Japanese film in books, magazines, and on-line that I really don't feel the sense of urgent obligation I once did.

I'd still like to write biographies or do genre studies, but those projects require time and money to research properly - and there aren't any publishers left offering advances so that the writer can at least break even on the deal. So I'm sort of semi-retired from the field, though I enjoy tinkering with these filmography books for the sheer enjoyment of it, and because it's new and useful information for people who enjoy Japanese cinema.

DB: Do you have any other books or projects on the horizon?

SG: Taschen is still planning to release a book I did that originally was called Cinema Nippon but which has since been retitled Japanese Cinema. It's one of their typically picture-filled coffee table-type books that's being designed by Paul Duncan, who handles many of the cinema history titles. Last I heard, it's released has been pushed back to early 2009.

In the meantime, I'm still plugging away at more "Studio Story" projects. I'd like to finish all of the major studios -- Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Toei, Shintoho, and Daiei -- and maybe a separate volume of major independents like Art Theater Guild within 7-8 years. We'll see.


  1. Good interview. Writing a book like that without any support from the studio it's about -- impressive dedication.

    Shinoda and Shindo are still active in the industry.

  2. nice idea for a book, a series. too expensive though, however informative and worthwhile it may be...

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