John Williams-not to be confused with the celebrated composer of the scores for Star Wars, Jaws, and other films-is making himself known in his own right in Aichi Prefecture.
Some of Williams' favorite Japanese directors are Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Takeshi Kitano.
The independent films that the 37-year-old Williams directs are far removed from the big-budget extravaganzas that come out of Hollywood. He heads a film production team he formed with Japanese friends, called 100 Meter Films, which to date has produced six short- to medium-length movies set in Aichi. Among these is Midnight Spin (1996, 16 millimeter; 70 minutes), whose main character is a foreign hostess and which was presented at the Raindance Film Festival, where it was highly acclaimed as "a new direction in Japanese film."
Aichi Voice visited Williams in Nagoya during a rehearsal for Old Beauty, his first full-length film scheduled for release in spring 2001. Four youths playing the main character and her friends were practicing their roles prior to the start of filming at the end of July. With Williams looking on, the actors were engaged in a workshop-like rehearsal to develop their respective characters-building up their personalities and filling in their backgrounds-through impromptu acting and discussions.
The film spotlights a naive and sensitive high school girl who befriends an elderly woman and confronts difficult life choices. In addition to downtown Nagoya, the film is set in a hot spring resort in the mountains of Mikawa, in keeping with Williams' strong wishes: "I can't produce a convincing film unless I'm completely familiar with the locale." The actors and actresses that were chosen through an audition also hail from Nagoya, most of them with no prior acting experience.
"We held auditions in Tokyo and Osaka, too," Williams explains, "but quite by coincidence, all the young cast members we selected wound up being from Nagoya. They just happened to be more energetic and convincing. I'm not sure why that is, though," he said laughing.
Williams grew up in Wales, Britain, and became fascinated with the world of cinema as a boy, going to see children's matinees every weekend. He decided to become a film director at age 14 and began making independent films while studying French and German literature at Cambridge University. He planned on doing film-related work after graduation, but with the British film industry in a lull, he was unable to find a position and instead wound up as a French teacher at a London high school. Later, deciding that he wanted to experience living in another country, Williams took a job teaching English conversation in Japan in 1988 and has been living in Nagoya ever since.
In citing his reasons for choosing to live in Japan, Williams says, "I liked the films of Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa and Juzo Itami. I also worked part time at a supermarket that sold Japanese food as a student, and my curiosity was piqued by some of the 'mysterious' items like tofu and natto (fermented soybeans)."
Of course Williams' passion for making films has not abated since coming to Japan. And his friendly nature and vitality have attracted many Japanese friends with similar ambitions.
John Williams meets with the cast members of his latest film, Old Beauty.
The chief assistant director for Williams' new movie Old Beauty, Masaki Takada, is one of those who were drawn to the filmmaker's character and talents. "People who are serious about making films invariably leave Nagoya and head to Tokyo or Osaka. John, on the other hand, has developed a deep affinity for the places where he's lived and has been able to assemble the people and funds necessary to produce films from scratch. This type of energy is probably indispensable for a movie director."
With works like Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi (Fireworks) and Shohei Imamura's Unagi (The Eel) winning the Grand Prix at the Venice International and Cannes Film Festivals, respectively, in 1997, Japanese movies have suddenly been garnering international critical acclaim. While Williams says he does not dislike the movies of these directors, he thinks there are much broader possibilities: "If Japan's filmmakers don't start moving beyond cut-of-the-mill themes revolving around Tokyo, the future of Japanese cinema will be bleak. I want to show, by continuing to make movies in Nagoya, that even regionally-based pictures can be quality films."
It will be exciting come spring 2001 to see what kind of impact a Japanese film by a British director will have not just on the film industry in Japan but on the international film world.
(Photos by Edward Levinson, Text by Masuhiro Tsukada)