Yoji Yamada (1): The Beginning of His Career

With the passing of Kaneto Shindo, Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima, the retirement of Masahiro Shinoda and Kiju Yoshida, Yoji Yamada, born in 1931 but still active, is now the doyen of Japanese cinema. At the turn of century, his Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004) set off a Yamada boom in Japan.

Before that, some Japanese critics only saw him as a mass-producer of the very successful Tora-San series and Free and Easy series. His status as a box office winner wasn't contested, but his status as a master was. But now, even international critics recognize the humanism of Yamada's movies qualify him as an artist. This series of Yamada is an attempt to summarize his mammoth output for the common reader.

Tora San, Our Lovable Tramp
Tora San, Our Lovable Tramp

I don't wish to start with the very beginning, but at the moment when Yamada entered the movie business. He graduated in 1954 with a law degree from University of Tokyo. He tried his hand in different sectors, then applied at Shochiku to be an assistant director. The rest is history? No, he was rejected. But 1954 was a watershed year as the oldest Japanese studio Nikkatsu resumed production. Nikkatsu snatched many crew staff from the major studios, including the then unknown Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. They were both assistant directors at Shochiku but expected a better career at Nikkatsu.

The first Shochiku assistant director to join Nikkatsu was Katsumi Nishikawa. He advised Nikkatsu to sign on Shochiku's rejected applicants as well. So Yamada was invited to take the admission test and offered an assistant director post. But Shochiku had to refill its depleted staff and gave Yamada an offer as well. At the film club of his university, Yamada made the acquaintance of director Satsuo Yamamoto. Yamamoto told Yamada that either studio would be fine, so Yamada had to ponder for himself. He decided to join Shochiku because his interviewer, director Hideo Oba, impressed him very much.

Kirio Urayama also applied at Nikkatsu after failing to get in Shochiku. But his Nikkatsu test results weren't good enough. He only got to join Nikkatsu because Yamada joined Shochiku. At Nikkatsu, Urayama went on to make his directing debut Foundry Town in 1962. Some years later, Urayama quipped that Yamada's fateful decision not only made Urayama's film career possible, but the stardom of Sayuri Yoshinaga wouldn't have happened if Yamada joined Nikkatsu. Yoshinaga have been stuck in minor roles until Foundry Town made her a big star.

Yamada's crooked path into Shochiku seems to be a foretaste of his directing career as a late bloomer, the bench warmer who turned the game around. Nagisa Oshima also joined Shochiku in 1954 as an assistant director. Contrary to Yamada, Oshima was talented and flamboyant. In 1959, Shiro Kido, president of Shochiku, granted an early promotion to Oshima, allowing him to make his debut film A Street of Love and Hope (1959). Oshima's second film Cruel Story of Youth (1960) kicked off what was known as Shochiku New Wave. But the proud Oshima was unable to realize his anti-establishment ideals and left Shochiku in 1961.

Yamada wasn't part of Shochiku New Wave and only got to make his debut in 1961. His progress at Shochiku was steady and he eventually made the smash hit Tora San: Our Lovable Tramp in 1969. The executives of Shochiku were initially against making this film, a spin-off of a TV series created by Yamada. But Kido gave his approval and he was right. It became a long-running series, resulting in 48 films in 26 years, still a Guinness record. The Tora San series contributed a very sizable income during the summer and New Year seasons. The Japanese film industry had been under decline since the 1960s, and major studios like Daiei and Nikkatsu went bankrupt in the 1970s. It's not an exaggeration to claim that Yamada was a major force to help Shochiku stay afloat during these difficult years.

Assistant Director and Screenwriter

After the war, the teenage Yamada and his family expatriated from Manchuria and lived in poverty. As a high-school student Yamada had to make money for his family and paid his way for his university degree. He felt that he was in heaven when he saw that rice was in unlimited supply at the studio canteen. He married in 1955, his wife wasn't in the movie business. This marriage lasted for 53 years until she passed away.

Strangers Upstairs
Strangers Upstairs

As assistant directors, Oshima and Kurosawa spent much of their leisure time writing scripts, in the view of becoming a director. Yamada also wrote scripts, but just to supplement his meagre pay. In 1955 his script Bee Larvae was awarded Best Screenplay by The New Directors Association of Japan. The prize money was 80000 yen, a lot to Yamada as his salary is just 12000 or 13000 yen. In 1957 Bee Larvae was made into a 50-minute educational film by Daiei. It never saw commercial release and no video or DVD is commercially available.

Yamada had been an assistant to Yuzo Kawashima and Minoru Shibuya, but he had the closest relationship to Yoshitaro Nomura. According to Yamada, Nomura had a very sharp mind and an excellent technique. Nomura was able to determine how best to shoot a certain film and whether it was worth going over budget. Nomura asked Yamada to co-write scripts with him and Nomura's A Salary of 13000 Yen was the first film scripted by Yamada (co-scripted with Nomura) to be shown commercially. It was also the first time when Yamada's name appear on the movie credits.

When Yamada started to train himself as a screenwriter, he decided that acting was to be the basis of a movie script. Therefore he spent a year sitting in the Shakespeare rehearsals by theatre director Yoshi Hijikata. He took the train to Hijikata's studio after work. Yamada also learned a great deal with renowned screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. Nomura's adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto novel Zero Focus (1961) was co-written by Hashimoto and Yamada. But the working process, to be precise, was that Nomura sent Yamada to Hashimoto's residence to be his assistant. Yamada was to tidy up or rewrite Hashimoto's work. Yamada greatly benefitted from this work and he regarded Hashimoto as his mentor.

In 1962, the duo once again tackled another Matsumoto novel for Nomura. It was Castle of Sand, but the script wasn't made into a movie until 1974 and it was considered a classic. Yet another Matsumoto novel, Flags of Mist, was made into movie by Yamada in 1965. But the film was solely scripted by Hashimoto and this was the only time when Yamada didn't have writing credits on a movie directed by him.

The tag "Shochiku New Wave" was dubbed by Japanese media in the wake of Cruel Story of Youth. Following the example of Oshima, Osamu Takahashi, Masahiro Shinoda, Kiju Yoshida, Tsutomu Tamura and Eitaro Morikawa were also allowed to make their directorial debuts in 1960. These directors, collectively grouped as Shochiku New Wave, set out to depict the realistic side of Japan's youth and society during the era. And this was obviously an act of defiance against Shochiku's trademarks of "Ofuna-style" or "feminist movies". Yet a political assassination carried out by a right-wing student prompted an early withdrawal of Oshima's Night and Fog of Japan from distribution. Frustrated, Oshima left Shochiku in 1961. And other directors failed to deliver the box office hits as predicted by Kido. So Kido decided to halt his reforms. 1961 also saw a decrease in production for Shochiku. With the exception of Shinoda, other directors of Shochiku New Wave were almost deprived of the chance to direct.

Strangers Upstairs

Still, on the recommendation of Nomura, Yamada was allowed to make his first film as director in 1961. Strangers Upstairs, just as Oshima's debut Street of Love and Hope, is a "Sister Picture" (SP), a term coined by Shochiku for its 60-minute feature that opened a double feature screening. SP was essentially an exam piece to see if an assistant director was ready to go further. The reason why it was called "Sister" instead of "Brother" was the feminism of Shochiku.

Strangers Upstairs
Strangers Upstairs

Yamada's debut was an adaptation of Kyo Takigawa's mystery novel. Salaryman Hamuro borrows money from his older brother so as to build his own 2-storey house. Hamuro lives on the ground floor with his newly-wedded wife and leases the upper floor so as to repay his debts. The first tenants are a young couple who fail to pay the rent for months. The husband claims to be blacklisted for taking part in demonstrations. After kicking them out by force does Hamuro finds out that these couple never intend to pay rent and has done it several times. Next come the Kurushima couple. They are very generous, perhaps too much so, and lends money to Hamuro to install a bathing shed to the house. (In the old days it was very common for the Japanese not to have their own bathrooms. They'd then go to bathhouses.) Not only that, but an extra 200,000 yen loan to Hamuro for him to pay off his brother. Mr. Kurushima says he's a columnist on international diplomacy but in fact, he's an insurance salesman on the run for embezzlement.

On being informed of such a chance, Yamada told Nomura he'd like his debut to be a family comedy. Nomura gave this novel to him and the film was co-written by the two. As the SP was never the main attraction, the box office takings meant nothing in terms of the SP's success, and critics might not pay much attention either. The studio executives would see for themselves if the SP was good enough. Although a newspaper considered Strangers Upstairs, as a debut film, to be above average but the executives weren't impressed. In hindsight Yamada wished he could be more daring then.

If we take this film together with Oshima's Shochiku films, it isn't hard to notice the rules-abiding and conformism of Strangers Upstairs. In 1960 Oshima was still lauding the ANPO demonstrators but in 1961, such protestor (let's say he really is one) is a good-for-nothing. Hamuro lives a steady life of a white-collar office worker, he gets married and has his own house. While Tora San's blue-collar Hiroshi and Sakura only get their own house in the 26th film of the series.

Hamuro is a yes-man to his supervisor. The film opens with an unexpected shower. Hamuro lends his umbrella to his supervisor without realizing that his wife has already lent hers to their tenant. Mr. and Mrs. Hamuro have to get home in rain and mud and the supervisor even forgets about the umbrella. Later on, Hamuro is requested to give an alibi: the supervisor is apparently cheating his wife. All these haven't provoked a sense of disgust or defiance on Hamuro's part. When Mrs. Hamuro approaches the supervisor for a loan so as to pay back the Kurushimas, the supervisor makes advance to her. Mrs. Hamuro says no and when she's about to tell her husband about it, Mr. Hamuro is once again taken out for more alibis.

Probably it was a mistake to adapt a mystery novel into a comedy. Strangers Upstairs is neither cheerful nor tense. Some lines could have been funny but the execution isn't. Compared with Yamada's works before Tora San, this debut clearly lacks a reliable cast of comedy performers. But we shouldn't ignore the fact that low-budget SPs weren't just the testing ground for new directors but new actors as well. For instance, Mrs. Hamuro was the first lead role of actress Kyoko Aoi.

Throughout the years, the famous film critic Tadao Sato have been championing Oshima and belittling Yamada. Sato sees Strangers Upstairs as a reactionary film against the revolutionary Shochiku New Wave. True, Street of Love and Hope was warmly received at its release but Kido actually loathed it. To him it was too "inclinated", which meant "red". On the other hand Strangers Upstairs is so much closer to the warmth and optimism of the "Ofuna-style". Despite its being a failure, Yamada got to make a steady rise on Shochiku's echelon throughout the 1960s. Then he proved himself, perhaps without intending so, to be the worthy successor to the "Ofuna-style" of Kido's dreams. To be continued.

See also: Yoji Yamada (2): The Blue Collar Awareness of Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood


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