FILM STUDIES: Kurosawa, Mizoguchi ... and Nintendo Game Boy

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The Independent Culture
I've set myself a task this coming Wednesday. It seemed modest at first, but now the more I think about it, the more alarmed I become. For I have volunteered to go into my son's fourth-grade class and "introduce" the nine-to-10-year olds to Japanese cinema. You see, this year they've been looking at things Japanese - they went to an art exhibition; they saw Madame Butterfly at the Opera - and I thought they ought to know that Japan is, or has been, a great force in film-making. How will I do that? I would show them one of the battle scenes from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

"Excuse me," said my editor. "I think you need to explain that."

"Seven Samurai?" I said. "It's a classic."

"But it's what? Nearly 50 years old? Just give it a little setting, can't you?"

"Seven Samurai,1952. Black and white ... "

"Will those kids sit still for that?" my editor asked.

"Look," I said, "it's full of horses and sword-play, decapitations, some of the greatest action stuff ever done. They'll love it."

"Hmmm," she said. And her "hmmm" is like the morning in Murmansk.

"I could say it inspired the American western, The Magnificent Seven. Steve McQueen?"

She brightened a little, but I wasn't reassured. You see, here's the bizarre thing, the point that really urged me to visit the class. This same year, my son and most of his friends have become obsessed with a Game Boy called Pokemon ...

"What's a Game Boy?" asked my editor.

"What?" I cried. "What are shoes and shirts?"

"I don't have children," she said.

"Game Boy is a kind of pocket TV set, with cartridges for the different games. Pokemon is the rage game, and it's derived from a TV cartoon series the kids watch. And it's Japanese," I said, in triumph. "In our house, we call it Pearl 2."

"This isn't going to get anti-Japanese, is it?" she asked.

On the contrary. All I want to do is open these kids to the possibility that Japan once had a great film culture. Wonderful silent films. Great interest in the supernatural. The samurai. But fascinating modern stories, too. I'll come clean - what I'd really like to do is show them some Kurosawa, and then just write "Ozu" and "Mizoguchi" on the board, and say those two are even greater.

"I thought Mizoguchi made cars," said my editor.

She's been under a lot of pressure. There was that week when everyone died, and Yehudi Menuhin on a Friday. If you're a Sunday paper, dying on a Friday is downright aggressive.

"Kenji Mizoguchi," I said, slowly and very patiently, "is one of the greatest film-makers of all time. Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff, Yang Kwei Fei - "

"Here," she said. "Read this." And she slapped down an old copy of the Times, folded to display an article by a smart young reporter who had gone out into the West End just a few nights after Stanley Kubrick died. All he'd done was ask people waiting to go in to see a picture who Kubrick was. Of course, there was still yards of stuff on him in most of the papers. And hardly a soul had heard of him. Or could name his films. At The Thin Red Line, no one knew who Terrence Malick was.

"And they'll know no more when they come out," I added.

"That's not the point," she said.

"What is the point?" I said. I'm a sucker for these routines.

"The point may be that there is no point."

"You don't mean that," I said.

"I don't want to," she sighed.

It was getting to be an old refrain, and its load leaves me more scared of those kids I have to talk to on Wednesday. Do I dare talk camera style? Ozu's withdrawn point of view? Mizoguchi and the tracking shot? Or will they be playing Pokemon all the time in their fierce little electronic minds?

But here's the point. Once upon a time, the movies were a sensation that people went to see because they couldn't believe their eyes. Because their relationship with reality was changing, and somehow the picture show was the model for it. They saw magic tricks, decapitations and naked ladies - or 1905's version of them. Things they'd only dreamed of before. They loved it.

Then, gradually, they saw that pictures had people - pretty girls, rugged guys. They liked those people, and the people became stars. Then, later still, that stardom began to be shared with directors. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, say, there was a whole process of education in which directors defined the medium.

No more. We are back to images again, machine driven. It's all a version of Pokemon. And the show is made as anonymously as the great cathedrals.

"So, what are you going to do on Wednesday?" said my editor.

"Maybe I could take along a samurai sword," I wondered.

"Thomson-san," she said, and bowed and shuffled away.