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Obituaries: Nagaharu Yodogawa

NAGAHARU YODOGAWA was known to his vast Japanese public as a devoted servant of the cinema. From 1962 to the week of his death, he never missed a single appearance on the Televi Asahi Sunday Western Movie Theatre.

Those Sunday evening talks about the world of films were a cultural institution. Yodogawa was a beloved national figure whose opinions were widely respected. He could at times be a severe critic in his writings and lectures, but when he addressed the television public he chatted in an intimate way, using simple language and avoiding all jargon. I remember with affection the smiling, homely face of a small, white-haired old man and his pleasant voice, with its fluty overtones. The whole nation would hang on his words, waiting for his trademark signing-off, a triple farewell: "Sayonara, sayonara, sayonara."

Yodogawa had an unusual childhood. Born in 1909, he was brought up in a geisha agency in the entertainment district of Shinkaichi in the port city of Kobe. It was run by his father, and it was a prosperous concern. Yodogawa lived there surrounded by women, including his two sisters; a younger brother committed suicide at an early age. His family was passionately addicted to movie-going, and from the age of three Yodogawa accompanied them several times a week to the local cinema. When he turned seven, he started going to the movies alone every day, seeing nine or 10 films a week.

Even his birth was cinematic. In the last stages of pregnancy, his mother had gone to the movie house, and, during the performance, felt the first labour pains and had to be whisked off home in a rickshaw to give birth to her first son. "He must have wanted to see the movie," she joked later.

Yodogawa was constantly surrounded by women practising the traditional arts - music, dance, tea ceremony and so on. He was a close observer of their mannerisms, their make-up, their sumptuous kimonos and hair-styles. He could soon imitate their walk and their delicate gestures, and experimented with their cosmetics. It was a strange education for a boy, but one that was to serve him well in his reviews.

He also knew the darker side of feminine nature from an early age, which is perhaps why he was that rare phenomenon, a Japanese male who never married. "I am married to the movies," he said. "That is my punishment for not taking a wife."

Yodogawa was later to claim that in his long lifetime he had seen 100 million movies - megalomaniac cinematic licence. Among the early films he saw again and again were the masterpieces of D.W. Griffith and the early Italian peplum Cabiria (1914). Cecil B. De Mille's The Cheat (1915), starring the director's new discovery Sessue Hayakawa, who became a star overnight in his portrayal of a wicked husband, was never shown in Japan, because the Japanese felt he had betrayed their culture. But Yodogawa admired Hayakawa's later movies: as De Mille had been, he was fascinated by the actor's face.

Other early movies he loved were Erich Von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1921) and Greed (1923). But his favourite of all was Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919). Lubitsch was another director he adored, for The Marriage Circle (1924), with Adolf Menjou and Monte Blue, and his version of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), for its thrilling dramatic confrontations and social manners.

Yodogawa was educated at Kobe High School. On graduation, he started work as a journalist for the magazine Eiga Sekai ("Movie World"). He went on to work in the advertising department of branches of United Artists in Osaka and Tokyo. One of the first movies he handled was John Ford's The Covered Wagon, a few years after its first (1922) screening in the United States. It was the beginning of his long devotion to foreign movies. Another was Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) with Ivor Novello. The film's dark mood was not appreciated in Japan - one of the reasons Yodogawa did not care much for British movies (with the exception of Alexander Korda's 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII).

After the Second World War, he became Chief Editor of Eiga no Tomo ("Film Friend"), a post he held for 20 years before turning to freelancing on radio and television and writing columns and books on all aspects of the film. One of his books was an early defence of homosexual themes in film. He gently advised audiences "not to be frightened" of them, but to appreciate their courageous, independent spirit.

Open-mouthed kisses had long been a feature of old erotic woodcut prints. But the Japanese were not accustomed to seeing such passionate kisses on the screen. So Yodogawa gently urged them to watch carefully when Van Johnson kissed Elizabeth Taylor with open lips in Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), and soon all the Japanese were practising such osculations.

Yodogawa accumulated an immense store of arcane knowledge about the movies, for he had an excellent memory and loved pointing out small details like the brand of china used in hotel scenes or the way people got in and out of taxis. He could speak with an authoritative voice about silent films like those of Mizoguchi which had disappeared for ever. He grew to hate modern Japanese movies. He said: "It is because I love film so much that I hate those incompetent and uninteresting new movies." But recently, when Takeshi Kitano's new style of film-making began to attract attention, Yodogawa paid him the ultimate compliment in calling the director of Hanabi "the true successor to Kurosawa".

He and Akira Kurosawa were lifelong friends. At a time when "the Emperor's" reputation was at a low ebb, he was given an Academy Award for his life's work. Yodogawa then angrily denounced the Japanese public for not appreciating the great master. Kurosawa's death in September this year was a great shock to him - he felt it foreshadowed his own demise. He went to the funeral in a wheelchair. It was attended by 10,000 mourners, and, in accordance with Japanese tradition, each mourner contributed money: in this case, the sum suggested was the price of a cinema ticket, 1,800 yen.

In the last years of Yodogawa's life, all the silent movies he had loved so much in his youth began to be reissued on video. He felt it was like being born again. When he saw again, after so many years, the old Lubitsch films, he broke down and wept.

Yodogawa loved silent movies more than the talkies, and much more than today's noisy SFX monstrosities of tedium. "That's not film!" he declared. He said silent movies were so easy to understand, even without Japanese captions, for they showed real life.

Even the worst movies, he said, were worth watching - the passion of a true cinephile - for there was always one small redeeming feature or a brief shot that stood out among so much dross. He pointed out the virtues of old stars like Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford who represented for him the ideals of courage, humour and beauty unequalled in the present day.

He often visited Hollywood. When he visited Marlene Dietrich in her hotel room, he found her ironing a pair of purple trousers cut in manly style, with a buttoned fly - very daring in those prudish times. When she went to the lavatory, he peeped inside her refrigerator, expecting to find champagne and caviar, but there was only half a boiled egg - the sort of intimate detail his fans loved to hear.

Enthusiasm and the capacity to enjoy films were Yodogawa's great assets. He can even be seen playing the small part of a rice-dealer in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), putting all his heart into it. He was no intellectual, but he had that precious gift of the simple common touch amounting to genius that was so much admired by more academic cinema specialists. Among them was the fine scholar and critic Shigehiko Haumi, who paid tribute to Yodogawa's universal touch: "We usually watch films with the intellect, but Yodogawa watched them with every fibre of his being."

Yodogawa lived the last eight years of his life in the Zen Nikku Hotel in Tokyo. He knew he had not long to live, and always kept enough cash for his funeral on the bedside table. He had first checked the capacity of the lift to make sure it could accommodate his coffin.

To the very last, he went to press screenings, sitting in the front row in his wheelchair. His dream was to fall asleep and at the end of the screening he imagined an attendant coming to wake him up, only to find he was dead. Unfortunately, his movie-house dream was not to be realised. He died in hospital.

Nagaharu Yodogawa, film critic: born Kobe, Japan 12 April 1909; died Tokyo 11 November 1998.