Last month on November 2, Associated-Rediffusion screened ‘The Two Faces of Japan’, a documentary about a country where ancient traditions are blended with modern innovations.
The programme, which included the last interview with Inejiro Asanuma before the former leader of the opposition was assassinated, was widely praised. Here reg courtney-browne, the researcher on the programme who speaks Japanese, describes the unit’s adventures in Japan and shows why it was ‘mutsukashii’ (most difficult).
Twenty-eight jet propelled and virtually sleepless hours after we left London Airport on August 17, Cyril Bennett and I teetered down the gangway at Haneda Airport, rumpled, red-eyed and unshaven. Flash bulbs flared out of the darkness and, half-blind, we told a newspaper reporter who we thought we were. According to my watch it was one o’clock in the afternoon. By Tokyo time, said Peter Morley who had arrived some days earlier and was there to meet us, it was ten o’clock at night – ample time, he observed, to discuss various pressing matters.
In the car on the way to the hotel, Cyril commented on the fantastic neon galaxy of Tokyo’s Ginza area; I noted extensive changes in the city’s skyline – large buildings and an overhead motorway which hadn’t been there during a previous visit two years before. Peter advised us not to get too enchanted with all this. There were still significant gaps in Japan’s westernisation. For example, he’d found it impossible to buy the small cigars he favours.
I had recommended staying at the Marunouchi Hotel because, to me, it has always been a reasonably tranquil spot in the coca-cola cacophony of modern Tokyo. It retains something of the aura it accumulated when it was a British hotel under the Occupation. But Tokyo and, indeed, all of Japan is in the throes of a building boom and, in particular, a hotel-building boom.
Sharp at seven o’clock the next morning and every morning thereafter, the chatter of riveting machines and the drone of the young lady in the building contractor’s office over the loud-speaker system (‘Nakagawa-san, please report at the office’, ‘Tamura-san, please meet Matsungaga-san at the east entrance’) reminded us that the old Marunouchi was working on its quota of the 6,000 additional hotel rooms being built in readiness for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
One of our first and most important tasks was to arrange for a filmed interview with Prime Minister Ikeda and it was here that my colleagues got their first taste of what is known as the ‘Sa! Mutsukashii!’ Matters of magnitude are never finalised during office hours. In our initial visit to the Press and Information section of the Foreign Office, routine business such as letters of authority, beautifully done in brush work and impressively scaled, were quickly and efficiently settled by section chief Wada and his assistants.
The matter of the interview with Mr Ikeda was put off until we met next evening at the ‘Snow-Moon-Flower’ tea-house. There, taking off our shoes at the entrance, we were led by gorgeously kimono-ed serving wenches to the room where our hosts already sat on the thick, yielding tatami matting. We joined them around the low, lacquer table and the girls – completely uninhibited by problems of language – chatted gaily, laughed at our feeblest sallies, and kept dispensing sake from small vase-shaped pots into thimble-sized cups.
Several pots later and after various courses of raw fish, pickles and other exotic delicacies, Mr Wada signalled the girls to withdraw. I nudged Peter Morley in the ribs to indicate that now was the time to bring up the Prime Minister business.
The first response from Mr Wada and his companions was a hissing intake of breath and the inevitable: ‘Sa! Mutsukashii!’ (Ah, most difficult!). The Prime Minister was unusually busy; he had not yet given any interviews for foreign films or television; there was an election under way. The whole thing was, he repeated, mutsukashii.
Eventually Mr Wada conceded that he would try and with this assurance I was satisfied, even if my colleagues were not, that we would get our interview. However, try as we might in the ensuing days, we could get absolutely nothing more substantial than this. For two long weeks, until we finally got a firm date, the Ikeda interview hung over our shooting schedule like a samurai sword of Damocles.
The fact is, that to a Japanese, acceptance of a responsibility goes far beyond the occidental concept of the phrase. Once he has agreed to do something, he cannot fail without great loss of face. He is, therefore, understandably chary of taking on commitments without mature thought and this applies in matters as great as interviews with statesmen and as small as telling you the time.
On the other hand, he will never be so unthinkably discourteous as to give an outright refusal or say he doesn’t know. The combination can be frustrating, to put it mildly.
Fortunately, the time lag was not so great in making subsequent arrangements although the pattern was invariably the same. To my great relief, Peter and Cyril, in a commendably short time, achieved an admirable, if occasionally precarious balance between supernatural patience and impending nervous breakdown. It was just as well. The nursing homes of the world and, in particular, the United States are littered with men who have tried to get quick decisions out of the Japanese.
We returned from our reconnaissance trip through Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kobe and back to Tokyo, having survived suicidally-minded and aptly named kamikaze taxi-drivers, a typhoon that killed 63 people and pinned us down for one whole precious day, and the tail-end of the longest and hottest summer for 50 years.
Cyril Bennett retired to his room and remained incommunicado, sustained by chicken sandwiches and pints of black coffee, to emerge four days later, pale and twitching but triumphant with a script. By the time that Deborah Chesshire, our unit manager, Rosemary Winckley, production assistant, and Charlie Squires, film editor, arrived on September 8, we had managed to set up most of our shooting and had hammered out a schedule.
On the 10th, with one hired Arriflex, a crew of three, plus Miss Shiba (‘Cherry’) our invaluable general assistant, we set out southwards again. Deborah Chesshirc accompanied us on the first leg of the trip before returning to Tokyo to do lone battle with Oriental bureaucracy, customs men, and Japanese foreign exchange controls, drinking gallons of green tea in the process.
In Tokyo, too, we left the indomitable Charlie Squires with various unresolved problems – including the language one – and hoped for the best. Not that we need have worried.
By the time we returned he had contrived, completely unaided (a) to get himself invited to tea at Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s livelier suburbs, (b) to get involved in a colourful and gay shrine festival and drenched with water by lighthearted young lady celebrants, (c) to have become a figure of affectionate awe among the not so well physically endowed Japanese with whom he worked, and (d) to acquire a young lady cutting room assistant named Ayako.
Travelling overnight, we arrived at Hiroshima at six o’clock on a Sunday morning in weather well in keeping with the city’s melancholy associations. Heavy rain, mist and leaden skies persisted for the two and a half days we were there. Except for the bomb-gutted dome of the International Trade and Exhibition Hall, left standing as a monument, and the Heiwa Korakucn (Peace Park) with its mass grave, an entirely new city has risen from the atomic desert I first saw 15 years ago.
Yet the human toll continues. That morning we talked and drank thick green tea in the austerely beautiful living room of Dr Hachiya, an international expert on the effects of radiation and himself one of the original bomb-victims. Next day, while filming some of the one thousand outpatients and three hundred in-patients at the Hiroshima Atomic Hospital, news came through that the doctor had suffered a brain haemorrhage and was gravely ill.
On this morning, too, three people, a housewife, a middle-aged business-man and a 16-year-old girl reported at the out-patients departments with symptoms of the dread radiation sickness. It was a relief in the afternoon to film some – at times it seemed like all – of Hiroshima’s lusty youngsters, most of them with extraordinarily ingratiating personalities and all anxious to be photographed.
They took especially to the English oba-chan (auntie) otherwise Rosemary Winckley and I don’t think it was entirely because of the large quantities of candy she had been shrewd enough to bring along for the occasion.
Next to Osaka, the Manchester of the East, noisy, grimy and teeming, where we shot our housewife sequence. Here, while manipulating the camera in Mrs Yamaoka’s small living room, the crew broke a total of 35 panes of glass, all of them admittedly small and contained in one sliding glass door. Nevertheless, Peter Morley insists that this must be a record of some sort.
At the sprawling Kanebo Textile Mills, a brisk little man named Kimoto, who had originally been maddeningly ‘Sa! Mutsukashii!’ over our request to film there, now laid on everything we required with almost frightening efficiency.
We wanted crowd shots of girl workers leaving the factory and returning to their dormitories? What a pity we hadn’t been there at 7 a.m. (At 7 a.m. we had been doing crowd scenes at Osaka Station!) Never mind. A shift would be finishing at four o’clock.
And off we went with Mr Kimoto who explained on the way that the girls were recruited from remote country areas (‘much easier to handle than the local girls’). Arriving at the gate, flanked by a watchman’s post called, appropriately enough, a guard room, we found that Mr Kimoto had obligingly ordered the gate to be locked.
Inside, about 500 girls in uniform white blouses and black slacks waited chattering and giggling while we set up the camera. At a signal from Mr Kimoto, the gate was opened and the girls flocked out. Excellent from our point of view. But I recall commenting to Cyril Bennett that a bunch of Lancashire mill-girls might have got rather terse under similar circumstances.
In the port city of Kobe, we finished a trying day’s shooting in the twentieth-century bedlam of the great Kawasaki Dockyards (‘It used to take us four months to build a 46,000-ton ship; we have now got it down to two and a half months’) to find that in just under an hour we were due to set up in the seventeenth-century elegance of the Hanakuma ‘gay quarter’. There, in the ‘Shin-tatsumi’ tea-house, with two authentic geisha-san practising their traditional coquetries, we recorded a typical Japanese business conference.
Compared with some ports I have known, Kobe is relatively genteel. However, there were a couple of occasions when certain of the citizenry objected to our activities. It will be some time before Peter Morley forgets the anxious moments when he was surrounded by a mob of unfriendly and extremely unrefined characters in the docks area who showed a shocking lack of respect for the written official injunction we carried that all sections of the community should co-operate with us.
Only a division of opinion saved an ugly situation from getting worse. One school of thought wanted to smash the camera; another, led by a moody, tattooed individual, favoured making a start on the tall foreigner. In the ensuing debate, Peter and the unit withdrew, shaken but intact.
This was an especially sombre day for Peter Morley. That evening, the suspicion that the second cameraman was a cheerful bungler was confirmed. Almost an entire night’s interior filming had to be re-shot because he had loaded a magazine with Plus-X instead of Tri-X. There was no question that he would have to go and, as soon as we returned to Tokyo, Peter so informed the people who had supplied the crew. That, in most countries, would have been that.
But this, it appeared, was also ‘Sa! Mutsukashii!’ The offending member, it transpired, had not been engaged with the rest of the crew but was an employee of the firm that supplied the Arriflex. If he went, so must the Arriflex – the only one in Japan. A typical Oriental compromise was arrived at. An additional second-cameraman was engaged while the original one remained, amiably incompetent to the last. In short, he kept his face and we kept the Arriflex.
By a combination of providence and nerve-straining vigilance on Peter’s part, only one other major disaster occurred, the double-exposure of a 400-ft. roll of film. Certain Associated-Rediffusion cameramen would have been gratified and even touched if they could have heard Peter Morley invoking their names during some of his more fraught moments.
Back in Tokyo at the end of September, after several seven-day weeks, long hours, and never getting entirely away from the job, our neuroses were definitely beginning to show. With the really vital stuff in the can and authority from London for further shooting time if we needed it, Peter wisely decreed a day and a half off – for the crew only!
Tension was substantially reduced and the rest of the shooting was uneventful, comparatively leisurely, and in the case of filming in the distaff side of a communal bathhouse, quite diverting.
At the time of writing, I haven’t had the heart to ask my colleagues what their outstanding impressions of Japan were. But, at a guess, I would say that it will be many a long day before they forget the fratricidal frenzy and complete cluelessness of the Japanese taxi-drivers. And, of course, ‘Sa! Mutsukashii!’