Documentarists of Japan # 10
Departing from the usual focus of the "Document-arists of Japan" series on film directors, this issue's interview turns the spotlight on one the essential figures in any documentary production: the producer. Kudo Mitsuru is living proof of the importance of the producer, helping give birth in his over forty-year career to many of the great films of Japanese documentary film history. He was interviewed by Documentary Box editors Aaron Gerow and Monma Takashi.
Monma Takashi: Just after the war, you entered the Ministry of Education's Social Education Bureau. What kind of work were you doing?
Kudo Mitsuru: I was in charge of what you could call adult education in the Social Education Section of the Social Education Bureau. It was an agency founded on a GHQ directive. During the war, Japan had a lot of youth and women's organizations devoted to the war effort, but after the war ended, their activities were entrusted to the Ministry of Education to begin the process of democratic education. I first did education for labor unions, but gradually got involved in youth organizations as well. This was the time, you know, when the Communist Party had been legalized and labor unions were extremely active. Unions had survived the kind of period depicted in Women's Testimony: Pioneering Women in the Labor Movement ("Onnatachi no shogen," Haneda Sumiko, 1996) and had finally been liberated. At that time, the Ministry of Education didn't complain about socialism or communism, but tried to take up the role--including the cultural facets as well--of considering which direction the movement should go. If it went with socialist leadership, that would be the end of that, so GHQ's idea, you see, was to spread out more in terms of culture. We followed that directive by offering a variety of kinds of advice regarding cultural activities. That's what GHQ was emphasizing.
But in spite of that, I rarely followed headquarters' orders and was thus transferred to the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology when it was founded. Yet even there I locked horns with some old-fashioned secretary or general-secretary and was sent back to the Ministry of Education. Since they had just formed the Audio-Visual Education Section, I was put in charge of educational broadcasting and educational films, which is how I got involved in motion pictures. By this time, it was 1951 and the Occupation era was over and there was an about-face in policy. MacArthur was recalled. The people who had joined GHQ or the CIE were all romanticists burning with the desire to create a splendid democracy in Japan . . .
Aaron Gerow: New Dealers . . .
Kudo: Yes, too classical in their thinking, but all well-intentioned. Well, they were all recalled and the bureaucratic structure centered on graduates of the Tokyo Imperial University Faculty of Law came back to life, creating a fortress of defense against Communism within the Cold War structure. When this happened, things became very uncomfortable for me, so I quit.
Gerow: Just what was the Ministry's stance towards cinema at that time?
Kudo: During the war, Japan produced an enormous amount of what are called bunka eiga or "culture films." When GHQ arrived, they sent over truckloads of film and film projectors from the U.S. because movies were considered an extremely important means of communication. They lent out projectors belonging to General Headquarters all over the nation and strongly promoted social education through 16mm films. In addition, they founded film libraries all over the country and at that point, the Ministry of Education also began making and supplying motion pictures. So the status of cinema was considerably high. Despite that, however, 16mm equipment in those days had still not come into general use--people still used 35mm. Costs were very high and it was quite difficult.
Monma: Could you talk more specifically about the films you produced while at the Ministry of Education's Audio-Visual Education Section?
Kudo: Well, I actually made films for about three years. I was only in charge of films relating to social education. That's because I thought school education films were boring.
Monma: The intended target of social education films was not just limited to schools?
Kudo: It included schools, but they were to be shown to the general public. The one that I most remember is Hani Susumu 's Children in the Classroom ("Kyoshitsu no kodomotachi," 1954).
Monma: Haneda was assistant director on that, right?
Kudo: That's right. That was the first film to be a hit. I was in charge and asked Iwanami Productions to produce it.
Gerow: So that was what occasioned your move to Iwanami?
Kudo: You could say that. You know the officials at the Ministry--well, I was an official, too--but they were all very surprised when they saw this film because it was a true documentary, quite different from Ministry of Education films up until then. This was all due to Hani Susumu's splendid talent. They still do it today, but at that time they had held a scenario contest. If I'm right, the script Hani wrote was extremely short--that is, not the kind with the image on the top row and the narration on the bottom. It was something describing how he wanted to make a film that showed how children behave at school--the children's own mirror reflection. This was done in 35mm, but we shot what was a substantial amount of film for those days. Back then, production costs amounted to about one-third of film-related expenses, so to film that much was a revolutionary way of filming. I don't know how much the bureaucrats liked it, but journalists were very surprised. Hani secured his fame just like that.
Monma: The film from the year before, The Bride's Farm Clothes ("Yome no noragi," Morinaga Kenjiro) was also for the Ministry.
Kudo: Yeah, it was something the Ministry contracted out for and Iwanami Productions produced. I was in charge. Usually when officialdom contracts out, they start with a scenario competition. But the officials don't have the power to decide. They commission a committee of specialists involved in film and education to pick a script, get an estimate, and place the contract. When everything has been filmed and the rushes put together, they look at it one more time. If it's all right, they give permission for completion. Then, finally, we watch it with the committee and if there are no problems, the film is completed. In the meantime, the bureaucrats don't do a thing.
If I did this today, I'd really be hated, but I was someone who did go out on location. What I did for both The Bride's Farm Clothes and Children in the Classroom was considerably different than the way things had been done up until then, so I encountered that much friction. But I'm not the kind to buckle under. In terms of doing what I wanted to do, these two films were, to me, my first two productions.
Gerow: When you moved to Iwanami Productions, the source of the contracts changed from the government to corporations, which were mostly ordering PR films.
Kudo: There is something called the Public Servants Law which made it such that I couldn't immediately switch to Iwanami. But even though my job was film production, since my duties were more officially budget management and related work, I explained the situation to the Ministry and then joined Iwanami as a contract employee: I wasn't a full time employee but contracted for each movie. At Iwanami Productions, I ended up not making a single PR film. Why? Well, when I joined a production, I usually made the sponsors mad (laughs). The company also probably knew that this was not the best area for me.
Gerow: What upset the sponsors?
Kudo: It's probably still the case today as well, but there are times you make sponsored films knowing that the sponsor will come out with a loss. Today, you have equipment today like 8mm video, so the sponsor gets the illusion they can do it all by themselves. They get serious all of a sudden and want to make the same kind of PR film that they had seen somewhere before.
For instance, I was once asked to make a film about a housing project being built in Matsudo, but when I went there to take a look, the site was just a big thicket. Well, they were going to build a town there, so they asked me to make a film about building a community. In the end, there was going to be a splendid four-story housing complex constructed there. It may seem like a rabbit's hut today, but that was a big project in those days. Well, they told me to make a film like the one on Sakuma Dam. Hell if this would ever look like Sakuma Dam ("Sakuma Damu," Takamura Takeji, 1954)! So I told them to try something different, but they became very displeased. When I returned to the office, I was told I didn't need to make this film and was taken off the project. I felt relieved. The fact is that there were people better than me at making something like Sakuma Dam while taking the wishes of the sponsors into account. Maybe my way of talking was out of line.
Well, the first big job I did for the Ministry of Education at Iwanami was Horyuji (1958). The film Beauty of the Ancients ("Kodai no bi," Haneda Sumiko, 1958) was also a job I got from the Ministry while at Iwanami. Unlike today, film in that era was more prized socially and as a result budgets were bigger. That's why we could do a really good job with preparations, location hunting, and script selection. Even though we were only making a 20-minute film, we'd go searching in the Tokyo National Museum, the Kyoto Museum, the Nara Museum, and even private collectors. We could do that thorough a job. Thus in those days, there was an understanding about films like this. For Horyuji, we spent about a week at Horyuji Temple making detailed observations and even doing film tests. That place has a special set of colors: the red of Horyuji, the color of the earthen walls, the color when the sky is clear, the color when it's wet. We had the leeway to stay in Nara and investigate.
Gerow: When critics or historians speak about the 1950s at Iwanami, they usually discuss directors like Hani, Kuroki, and Tsuchimoto . But at that time at Iwanami Productions, what kind of role did producers play? What input did they have in what ended up on screen?
Kudo: Well, I was contracted by the film, but there were two film cameramen there, Oguchi Teizo and the now-departed Yoshino Seiji, who took charge of everything in production at Iwanami. One of the two would without fail look at the rushes that had been filmed and give orders. However, that place for a long time had the policy of never putting the names of the producer or staff in the title credits. Still, in reality, Yoshino, who was a former feature film cameraman at Toho, did that kind of job with Oguchi, who had been at Nakaya Ukichiro's laboratory. There was probably only a single person like me below them. Usually, the director would consult with producers like Yoshino or Oguchi and then proceed with the plan. I was there as an extra man.
Monma: In those days, what was the main way of releasing these kinds of films?
Kudo: In the end, the films made for the Ministry of Education were distributed to each of the prefectures using the Ministry budget. 16mm had made its way to most of the recipient institutions by then, so that meant showing them in 16mm for purposes of education or social education. Films like Horyuji were used a lot in schools.
Monma: I heard that Zoo Diary ("Dobutsuen nikki," 1957) was released at Nikkatsu movie theaters.
Kudo: That was a project that Hani Susumu and I came up with when we were doing a lot of work together. Even today, Hani goes to Africa to get close to animals; it was from that time what he started having a strong interest in wildlife. So the two of us submitted that proposal to the company. Iwanami had money left over from making PR movies, so they gave it the OK. That was really filmed in a very leisurely manner, with just Hani and a few cameramen.
Monma: It was not made on order?
Kudo: That's right. It was self-produced by Iwanami. And as it was, I wasn't that suited for PR films, so the process of holing ourselves up in Ueno Zoo and shooting was really quite fun. Since we had actually made the film, it was shown at Nikkatsu theaters alongside a fiction film. Double features were quite prominent in those days, so it was one of the two.
Monma: It was one of the features? Not a short?
Kudo: It was about an hour long. During the war, when the air raids got bad, you know they had to kill all the zoo animals. So there was a strong sense of relief expressed in the film that peace had arrived. I think that's what impressed most everyone about the film.
Monma: It was not necessarily a children's film?
Kudo: We made it as a film for a general audience, so there was none of that "Mr. Elephant" stuff. The focus was, in the end, on the interaction between the animals and the keepers. It being Hani, however, he did think up a story. A lion cub this small, when he grew to be a certain size, got sent off to a foreign zoo--I think it was Peking. The film ended with the sending off of that lion. In that sense, there was an introduction, development, and conclusion, but since they were animals, it was a documentary in the end.
Gerow: In 1958, you started producing films on a freelance basis. What started you off in that direction?
Kudo: Before that, I made a film called Children Who Draw Pictures ("E o kaku kodomotachi," 1956) which also started off as an independently produced work with just Hani and me at the beginning. But then Taito Pfizer--Taito Pharmaceuticals, I think--heard that we were making a film and gave us their support with •500,000. We thought we could then film it bit by bit, but Iwanami came in and said they could make it into a film. This was still when I was at the Ministry of Education. But even then, it was a box-office smash.
Monma: That also opened at Nikkatsu theaters.
Kudo: Yes. This was a project of Hani's centered on how one can understand the mental state of children by factors such as their color sense when they draw pictures.
Monma: So it was a color film?
Kudo: No, we couldn't shoot it all in color. At that time, only the parts with the drawings were in color. When each print was made, we connected the color and monochrome sections in order. By the time it was done, I had quit the Ministry and signed a contract with Iwanami. Iwanami only hired new college graduates as full-time employees, so the veterans were all on contract. Cameramen, directors--a lot of the top people in Japan were there, including Segawa Jun'ichi. Even though I was not a veteran, I joined in. And it was like they all taught me about motion pictures.
At the time of Horyuji, the now-deceased Segawa and I did all that we wanted to do and went extremely over budget. The now-departed Yashiro Akio was in charge of the music and wrote a huge orchestration, using three harps. Photography was also done on a grand scale and thus cost a lot of money. In the end, I was setting a bad example inside the company, so after all that, I resigned amicably. Then just when I was doing a few projects and pretending to direct a bit, commercial films were starting up in Japan--TV commercials. I got a call from a fellow from Dentsu, the advertising agency, whom I had met at the educational broadcasting station during my Ministry of Education days. Commercials were all on radio up until then, but now they were going to make them on film and I took in some of that work. And since a company structure was necessary, I started Fuji Productions.
Monma: That was the formative period for TV commercials.
Kudo: Its infancy. Everything was done in 35mm. I started by giving a lecture to everyone at Dentsu which included basics like, "Motion pictures are composed of 24 frames per second." Well, like with a fire battalion, you can't fire fires or make commercials without structural flexibility. For cameramen, I could rely on friends, but for assistant directors and assistants, I had to train them at my own expense. I hired new college grads and taught them as we went along. At tops there were more than a dozen, so I got my full of the pains of paying a monthly payroll.
Monma: What was the money like for TV commercials in those days?
Kudo: Good--much better than you'd expect. Even composers and cameramen get paid differently when they do TV commercials. For instance, you'd get the same production budget for a commercial as you did for a film short twenty or thirty minutes long. But even if you got that much, there were a lot of indirect expenses and operating costs were high, so it was pretty tough going. By the time I started Jiyu Kobo ("Free Studio"), I had directed several hundred commercials, but almost all were with me doubling as producer and director. There were only a few where I asked someone from outside to direct.
Gerow: Between 1958 and 1981, Fuji Productions made not only TV commercials, but also documentaries like Chua Swee Rin, Exchange Student ("Ryugakusei Chua Sui Rin") in 1965.
Kudo: I started that on a proposal Tsuchimoto Noriaki brought in. It was an independently produced film, so Tsuchimoto, Segawa, and the other staff all worked without pay. I provided equipment, production fees, and everything of that kind.
Gerow: So you were the only sponsor?
Kudo: I did it purely as a company project. In exchange, as I think you know, we don't charge a rental fee. It cost money to make the print, but since it was mostly made on people's contributions, we don't ask for a rental fee.
Monma: Did you go out on location?
Kudo: Me? I mostly stayed in the office and just kept on endlessly supplying film. In those days, 35mm was still the main production format, so there was not much good 16mm equipment. Segawa had only ever worked with large cameras and had never operated anything like a Bolex before. When he first picked it up, he made a big fuss: "I can't see a damn thing!" The assistant took a look and it turned out he was peeping through the lens and not the viewfinder (laughs)! It was also decided to do the music live, so the classical musician Tamura Takuo did it only using a timpani. That was quite moving.
Monma: One other film you made in your Fuji Production days was Mothers ("Hahatachi," 1967).
Kudo: That was a PR film for Prima Ham. Dentsu told me the company wanted to make something socially appealing for its anniversary. So I brought them together with Matsumoto Toshio .
Gerow: Was that the first time you had worked with Matsumoto?
Kudo: I had known him before then. The way he talks is pretty academic, but he said there was no way he was going to make a film about "How Ham Is Made." So since it's housewives who buy ham and since housewives are mothers, we ended up shooting something called "Mothers." All we had was that intention. I probably only remember Togawa Naoki, but there was a planning committee made up of several distinguished gentlemen and that's where we submitted our proposal, written on only two small pages. We said then that this film would definitely be a masterpiece, that since Matsumoto Toshio was a genius and Suzuki Tatsuo was an excellent cameraman, if you sent it abroad, it would without a doubt win a grand prize. And it passed.
When you make a film, you usually get one third of the budget upon signing the contact, one third when you start filming, and then the last third when it's done. In those days, you were prohibited from carrying abroad more than $500. So since there was no way five people could do work abroad on only $2500, I bought up black market dollars and sent them off on location. We told the company it would be New York, Africa, and Paris, but since I had work to do, I couldn't go. So I asked Terayama Shuji , who was going to do the narration, to go along. If I'm correct, that was Terayama's first trip abroad, so he had a lot of fun. Many people in New York, Africa, and Paris took care of them. Last they went to Vietnam, posing as tourists. They filmed Vietnam when it was still at war. Up until then, it had been one continual battle between Matsumoto and myself. But Terayama couldn't get into Vietnam because he was on some blacklist due to his anti-war activities. So he came back a bit early. When I met him and asked how things were going, he just said, "Perfectly! Everything's going OK." After that, the crew returned. The plane arrived at night and there was this group practically in rags like they had been taken prisoner or something. I looked for Matsumoto and called out to him. And what do you think he replied? "I was only one day late!"
Well, when the film was finished the response was really good. Still, with shots like the one of a mother cradling her dead baby in her arms, the people at Dentsu were pretty worried. But I persisted to the end, arguing that everyone dies at some time, and we didn't cut a single shot. It was extremely well received and when they submitted it to the Venice Film Festival, it won the grand prize. I was thrilled. In those days, there were some really good short films. It seems Dentsu was absolutely stunned when it won and went flying to the sponsors to tell them about it.
Monma: How long was the shoot?
Kudo: Forty odd days, including traveling days.
Gerow: Next you produced Matsumoto's feature fiction film, Parade of Roses ("Bara no soretsu," 1969).
Kudo: Well, to explain how that came about: first, Matsumoto had a desire to make a feature film, but there were absolutely no chances of doing that, though at that time, the independent production and distribution group ATG was doing a lot of things. And just when we were thinking about making the film, a job at the 1970 Osaka World Expo luckily came our way.
Monma: The Textile Hall?
Kudo: Yes, I was producer of the Textile Hall. Matsumoto relayed me an offer from an advertising agency based in Kyoto: there was going to be a Textile Hall at the Expo and was I interested in planning it? At first, it was just about us doing the visuals. Basically, the land where the pavilion called the Textile Hall would be built was secured with money from a Textile Hall Association made up of all the textile companies. In the end, I ended up doing it.
Matsumoto and I selected the staff, and we asked Yokoo Tadanori , who's still active today, to act as total designer, Matsumoto to do the films, and Yuasa Joji and the now-departed Akiyama Kuniharu to direct the music, including sound effects. I got to know Akiyama then and he helped me out a lot after that. I did a lot of arranging, such as asking Aoi Studio to handle the technology. However, when I gathered together the staff, finalized the plan, and decided what film to make, it was only going to be about 10 minutes long. I was spending all my time at meetings in Osaka and Matsumoto had barely anything to do. But for us, we were getting money like it was falling from heaven and had time to do other work, so we decided to forget about this pay and use it to make one film, after consulting with ATG.
Gerow: So, in the end, the Expo paid for it?
Kudo: Yeah, they paid for nearly the entire film. But Matsumoto tends to use up a lot of money, so we ran out part-way through and I had to add about 1,500,000 yen.
Monma: It was completed in the year before the Expo?
Monma: Was it the only fiction film you've made?
Kudo: The only one I've done.
Gerow: What was it like?
Kudo: It was a really good experience, including the production structure up until release. In the end, it showed in a small house. I went to sit around at the ATG Theater on the first day of the release and at the start there were few customers. The manager told me that their most of their audience came at the last minute and that I shouldn't worry. And then before I knew it, it suddenly sold out. I was thrilled. So in the end we didn't go in the red. Still, I learned how little you make in exhibition.
Monma: Did you visit the set a lot?
Kudo: Yes, I often went to the set--and quarreled a lot. So from the second time on, Matsumoto stopped asking me for things because I made such a fuss. But he himself can be too stoic and straightforward. In a strange way, it's not good that he's so talented. He's a perfectionist. His Dogra Magra ("Dogura magura," 1988) is excessively good but has no spice. The actors were good and the story solid, but it fell apart somewhere.
Monma: He constructs everything tightly.
Kudo: Once he gets his head full of something, he won't accept anything that doesn't follow that. His works have a high level of perfection, but as films, they leave no room for us to get inside. They're all covered up. But there's no use in saying that now.
Gerow: Anyway, when that was done and the Expo was over, did you return to making commercials until producing The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms ("Usuzumi no sakura") in 1978?
Kudo: Yes, I did. It was hard to make a living. I had to cut the number of employees at Fuji Productions at that time. Everyone was getting older and the people there from the start were capable enough to do it elsewhere. If they had the chance, I wanted them to go off on their own. But there were still a lot of them around at the time we filmed The Cherry Tree. Haneda was still an Iwanami employee, but since she wanted to shoot this so much, I went to ask them to let her film it as long as it didn't interfere with her work and they gave us their OK.
Gerow: Was that also made with Fuji Pro money?
Kudo: Yes, it was an independently produced film from the start. However, we had to spend two years shooting it to get all the four seasons. Filming was off when other jobs got in the way in the schedule, so it took two years and a lot of time to complete it.
Monma: So you started filming around 1975 or 1976?
Kudo: Yes. It took a long time and everyone helped us. For instance, there were times when Haneda was free but Nishio Kiyoshi, an Iwanami cameraman, was not, so we had to plead with Segawa Jun'ichi. Well, it seems Segawa was still struggling with the Bolex, but he took some very good images.
Gerow: After that, you and Haneda became a permanent combination. What brought about Jiyu Kobo?
Kudo: It was really tiring doing both commercials and PR films, so when I happened to meet a Dentsu employee who wanted to work with Fuji Productions, I passed the whole thing on to him. So there were finally only one or two staff left. If I could do documentaries by myself, it had to be that size. I worked hard and filmed a lot of PR films, like for a Mitsubishi concrete pump or power shovel. Since I directed them all, they were cheap to make. In general, we made money that way and filmed our films using that.
Gerow: So as with Fuji Productions, here you were also collecting funds yourself?
Kudo: We made our own money and filmed by ourselves. With a film like Getting Old with a Sense of Security ("Anshin shite oiru tame ni," 1990), you need a considerable amount of money in a short time. The bank's not going to lend it to you, so in the end people you know support you for non-business reasons. It may not have to win a grand prize, but it's no good if it doesn't do well. So we pay everyone back one by one.
Monma: At that time, while producing Haneda's directorial works on the one hand, you were doing films on the nomadic equestrian people in co-production with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kudo: Well, I've always liked history. The main questions for me were not superstitions like those the Japanese have that they are a homogeneous race, but rather "Where did the Japanese come from" and "What is Japanese culture"? In thinking about that, I felt that the idea of an ancient land of equestrian people as the source was the most appropriate. I had happened to be in the good favor of Professor Egami Namio and decided to film using his book, A Theory of the Conquest by an Equestrian People, as the script.
Following the order by which the nomadic tribes came, we'd start with Scythia and Mongolia, then Xiongnu (Hun) and türk¨t--all from before the birth of Christ to the 8th century. Then Koguryo in today's North Korea and Silla and Paikche in today's South Korea. Then Yamato, or Japan. Finally, we'd make a condensed version. By letter, I negotiated with each of the countries, asking if the following terms were OK: that for each film, each country would own the copyright and screening rights for their own versions, say in Russian or in Mongolian. The Japanese side would cover all production expenses and have the rights for the condensed version, the English versions, and what was left over. The proposed budget up to and including the condensed version was about 450 million yen, with each film restricted to one hour in length.
North Korea was in much better shape than it is today, but Professor Egami was worried if they would take part in our project. In time, when he was invited to North Korea, he talked with them about the plan and they got excited. Not just that, they said that they also wanted to film the "Mongolia," "Xiongnu," "türk¨t," and "Scythia" parts themselves. At that time, as a socialist nation they were doing work through barter. I talked it over with Professor Egami and we thought this wasn't a bad idea: although it wasn't impossible, it would have taken about a year to negotiate with the Russians if we were doing it by ourselves. All the North Korean film technology was provided by Moscow--old equipment, but still in good shape. So we let them do "Scythia," "Xiongnu," "türk¨t," and "Koguryo."
While three of the films were being shot--"Scythia," "Mongolia," and "Koguryo"--we tried to put together the 450 million yen in Japan. At the time there was a boom in interest in ancient history and companies like IBM and All Japan Airlines would hand out tens of millions of yen for just lecture series or special courses on the topic. But since North Korea was involved, they all turned me down. IBM was particularly hopeless. The fact North Korea joined in first completely backfired. So it was extremely difficult to pay costs. And then conditions became worse and worse, with Kim Il-Sung dying and whatnot.
Monma: So those three films are currently in hiatus?
Kudo: I still want to do them. "Scythia" is very interesting. They filmed it in the Soviet Union, something they could do because they were fellow socialist nations.
Monma: So was the reason you've enjoyed history for a long time because of your interest in Asia?
Kudo: Yes, the Asian way of thinking about things, a perspective that is still used today to think about the world.
Monma: After that, you produced the Japanese version of A Heroic Page from the History of the Haruha River Region.
Kudo: It seems that was made by Mongolian Kino before it fell apart. The guy who held the rights to it, you see, said he wanted to sell it in Japan. I wrote a letter of inquiry and then suddenly one day the man himself shows up at Narita Airport with the film in hand. Mongolians are quite something (laughs)! So I took a look at it and it was pretty good and thus made a Japanese version.
Monma: I'd like to know a little more about of the actual conditions behind producing Haneda's films. For instance, how do you reach an agreement on the selection of topics or approach?
Kudo: It's unexpectedly smooth and reasonable. For instance, in the case of Ode to Hayachine ("Hayachine no fu," 1982), she'd studied a lot more than me about sacred kagura dance as a performing art. And since I always demand something that connecs it with society, I emphasized that she should film more of their everyday life. I'm more the one who wants to capture the kind of people who, while living in extremely harsh social conditions, have still kept on practicing kagura. We've never had a big disagreement over the theme or other matters.
Monma: Do all the proposals come from Haneda?
Kudo: I'd be in trouble if she filmed everything she wanted to film. I decide what is possible, what specifically can be done. But few proposals come from my end. After all, Haneda has very little interest in the land of equestrian people or with Haruha River. In the end, the things I do independently become separate. Heck, I didn't even like kagura.
Monma: So that was a project Haneda put forward?
Kudo: Yes. She'd been studying a kagura dance she had seen over ten years before. She said she really wanted to film it, but I gave a rather noncommittal answer. So she took me to the area in time for the summer festival. That's how I learned how interesting the social situation of the kagura was, and that the locals really do it themselves but have a high level of technique. So we ended up filming it.
Monma: That sounds like the tale behind making Kabuki Actor Kataoka Nizaemon ("Kabuki yakusha Kataoka Nizaemon," 1992-1994). I heard that you weren't interested in Kabuki at first.
Kudo: Yes, but then I met Nizaemon and felt how great he was, how much I wanted to film him. In other words, film the human being himself. I really think it was good that we did film him.
Gerow: While long, the films on Nizaemon did have a clear audience. What did you do about screening some of the health care films?
Kudo: The only one on health care and welfare I really did was Getting Old with a Sense of Security, but that was at a time when a term like "care for the elderly" (rojin kea) was not yet in common use. In order to spread knowledge of such concepts directly imported from abroad, I determined that you couldn't take in the whole issue just filming that town. That's how it became a very long movie: two and a half hours of nothing but health and welfare. In a country as backwards in health and welfare as Japan, people without the passion and patience to sit through a two-and-a-half hour film just couldn't handle it. So making it two and a half hours was a way of selecting the audience. We did worry since it was so long, but it was a big hit. With the money we made on rentals and screenings, we shot the versions on Northern Europe (1992) and Australia (1993) which are even today being screened or bought by university or school libraries. There are still a significant number of the 3000 cities, towns, and villages in Japan that have still not achieved the level of six years ago shown in the film.
Monma: So you made that kind of film as a part of your form of social reform activism?
Kudo: I can't write well and I can't make speeches in front of people. This was my message. So were the films about the equestrian nomads.
Monma: It's something you want people to know?
Kudo: Yes, that comes first.
Gerow: In the end, of all the films you have made, what do you think is your kind of documentary?
Kudo: You might be surprised, but it's Kabuki Actor Kataoka Nizaemon. "Man is a wondrous thing" may be a hackneyed expression, but Nizaemon tirelessly pursued one thing for over 80 years. I saw his very last stage performance in Kyoto.
Gerow: This'll be the last question, but looking back over your career, have there been any changes in the job of producer today compared to, say, the 1950s or 1960s?
Kudo: These days I've mostly been working with Haneda, so I can't really offer a general opinion, but in the end it's the same. Conditions are difficult in any era. Then there's the fact that the status of cinema is low compared to that of other media. For instance, there are times we're invited to screen at a community culture hall and they actually ask, "Can you show it for free?" It upsets me when they say things like that which assume culture films are cheap and free.
Although I think it's producers that are most lacking in the film world right now, producing is the funnest thing in making movies. It's a bit like gambling, but you meet a lot of talented people.
Honestly, part of the reason you work like hell is because you want to see the film yourself. Nevertheless, it seems there's few people who want to be producers. With fiction film, they sell the star, or the director, or sometimes the cameraman. There's only one reserved seat in cinema and that's the director's not the producer's. Do you remember when David Putnam , the producer of The Killing Fields , came to the first Tokyo Film Festival? At that time, he took part in a symposium and as a producer seemed a bit uncomfortable. The audience also found it hard to ask questions of a producer. The questions lose their focus. If it's a director, he can talk about his own work and answer questions, but since the producer encompasses everything else, it's less clear. That's why it's OK to have one reserved seat for each film. But if no one wants to be a producer because of that, you can't make any more films. What can a producer be pleased about? Only that the film got an audience, that people enjoyed it, and that he could present his own message. Even if the film departments of those schools turn out lots of talented filmmakers every year, they can't make films unless there are producers, can they? In the case of documentaries, all that's left are the debts, so few people want to be a producer.
Translated by Aaron Gerow
Born in 1924. Worked in the Social Education Bureau at the Ministry of Education from 1946 until he became a producer at Iwanami Productions in 1956. Went freelance in 1958, forming Fuji Productions to produce, direct, and write documentary and industrial films as well as television commercials. Formed Jiyu Kobo in 1981 where he continues his production activities.
Major films as a producer include Children Who Draw Pictures (1956), Chua Swee Lin, Exchange Student (1965), Mothers (1965), Funeral of Roses (1969), The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (1978), Getting Old with a Sense of Security (1990), Kabuki Actor Kataoka Nizaemon (1992-1994), Community Welfare that Residents Choose (1997), and many others.