Obituary: Masahiro Makino

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The Independent Online
Masahiro Makino, film director: born Kyoto 29 February 1908; died Tokyo 29 October 1993.

AS IN Britain the arts in Japan often run in families, indeed in dynasties. To have famous ancestors in the worlds of drama, literature, painting and music provides a head start for aspiring Japanese actors, singers, potters, novelists and haiku poets.

Such was the good fortune of Masahiro Makino. His father, Shozo Makino is now regarded as the founder of the Japanese film industry and its first really creative director. He ran the Sembonza Theatre in Kyoto before founding the Yokota Film Company. He discovered Japan's first movie star, Matsunosuke Onoe, and they worked together in the new art of katsudo shashin, or moving pictures.

Shozo's first son Masahiro appeared in many of his father's movies. He started acting even before he started school. His father at first allowed him to go to school only on rainy days, when exterior shooting was impossible.

Masahiro soon became an assistant director to his father, while still playng all kinds of parts, along with his brothers and sisters. In one movie, Masahiro and his sister were billed as young lovers. He also began writing scenarios, and the first one on a modern theme, Aoi Me no Ningyo ('Blue-Eyed Doll') was directed almost entirely by Masahiro when the director fell ill. He was only 18. This was the start of a career spanning 50 years during which he turned out 260 movies.

Masahiro Makino soon became noted for the speed at which he worked, on any subject and in any conditions. His versatility allowed him to adapt himself to every type of story - chambara or sword-fight movies, fantasy, operetta, musical comedy, gangster dramas and historical epics. He was equally at home with 'art melodrama' intended for the growing audiences of young women fans, using scenarios adapted from popular novels. He worked with great Toho stars like Setsuko Hara, Takako Irie and Hideko Takamine. Movies in those days were always made in a hurry, and Makino often had to do with makeshift plots and dialogue that was ranting clap-trap. But his quick shooting, with many 'first takes', lent his best work a brash freshness allied to exhilarating dash and flourish. He employed all kinds of actors, from kabuki to cabaret, and the special rhythm of his shooting style, alternating languid sentimental sequences with rapid action and farcical humour, earned his work the nickname 'Makino Rhythm'.

During the late 1920s and the 1930s the film industry flourished in Japan, and though Makino was never among the first-class directors like Mizoguchi, Kinugasa and Kurosawa, he was highly respected. One of his finest films, Ronin-gai ('Street of Masterless Samurai'), was elected first of the top 10 movies of 1928 by the influential Kinema Jumpo magazine. But, because of Japan's growing militarism and nationalistic fervour, even this popular movie was severely censored by the authorities.

Inevitably, during the Pacific War, Makino and other directors including Kurosawa were forced to make propaganda movies discrediting the enemy. Makino's Ahen Senso ('The Opium War') attacked the British in the First Chinese War, and was a great hit in 1943. In 1944, he made Fuchinkan Gekichin ('The Unsinkable Battleship Sunk'), in which he showed life in an aerial torpedo factory, following all stages in the making of a torpedo until its successful launching against an American warship. During the Occupation, Makino made movies for women like Machiboke no Onna ('A Woman Kept Waiting in Vain', 1947), while Mizoguchi made Josei no Shori ('Women's Victory') about the new breed of women lawyers pursuing careers in the courts formerly dominated by sea.

In 1950 Makino directed the second part of Re Mizelaburu ('Les Miserables') in an attempt to conquer foreign markets, but it was not a success, though it starred Sessue Hayakawa as Jean Valjean.

When I first arrived in Sendai in the late 1950s, I spent many happy days and nights in sometimes decrepit movie theatres watching Makino movies, always exciting, fast- action, visually striking tales of lonely warriors in brilliantly choreographed sword fights. There were series like 'A Ruffian in Love' and 'The Black-Masked Liberator'. But one of my favourites was the 1953 production, often revived, of Tange Sazen - the name of a typical 'masterless samurai' lone hero who had lost his right eye and right arm yet still goes on fighting for the honour of winning precious swords for a collector who shows no appreciation, thus forcing Tange Sazen to set off once more on a solitary journey to nowhere.

Because the Japanese are group- orientated, they are fascinated by loners like Tange Sanzen, misfits and outsiders who belong nowhere in the tightly structured society of Japan. Makino provided his audiences with the dream of being 'different' in a world where exceptions are very rarely different.

(Photograph omitted)