Monday, February 23, 2009

Yojiro Takita: From pinku eiga to Oscar winner

by Chris MaGee

Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Inagaki, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Hayao Miyazaki, these are all legendary names in Japanese cinema and all have been honoured by receiving Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the case of Kurosawa and Miyasaki both of their names are widely known and anyone who is interested in Japanese film history will immediately recognize Inagaki and Kinugasa for their pioneering works, but where does Yojiro Takita fit in to this group? With his win for Shochiku's "Departures (Okuribito)" last night the 54-year-old director secured himself a place in Japanese cinema history by being the first filmmaker from Japan in over five decades to take home the award for Best Foreign Language Film. The last time Japan was winning honourary Best Foreign Language Film awards was in 1954 for Kinugasa's "Jigokumon" and in 1955 for Inagaki's "Samurai 1: The Legend of Musashi Miyamoto"; but today many people out there find themselves asking, "Who is Yojiro Takita?"

Takita was born in Takaoka City, Toyoma Prefecture on December 4th, 1955. Immediately after graduating from Toyama Prefectural Takaoka Trade High School the 19-year-old joined pinku eiga production company Shishi Productions as an assitant director working under such established pink filmmakers such as Shinya Yamamoto, Mamoru Watanabe and Hiroshi Ono. It wasn't until 1981 that Takita made his directorial debut with "Chikan onna kyoushi (Female Teacher Molestor)". Yes you heard that right. For all of you who may have found this article through a Google search and aren't familiar with how the Japanese film industry works it's common for mainstream feature film directors to start out making 60-minute softcore porn films called pinku eiga. "Tokyo Sonata" director Kiysohi Kurosawa started this way and so did festival favorite Ryuichi Hiroki; in fact Takita would spend the next five years making nothing but pinku eiga with various titles like "Za kinbaku (The Tighly Bound)" and "Chikan densha: Momoe no oshiri (Molestor Train: Peach Buttocks)". Then in 1986 he made his debut with his first mainstream feature "Kommiku zasshi nanka iranai! (To Heck with Comic Books!)", a satiric look at scandal reporting in the Japanese media starring Yuya Uchida and Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. "Kommiku" also garnered Takita his first taste of critical praise, winning Best Film and Best Actor at the Hochi Film Awards that year and then Best Actor again for Uchida in 1987 at the venerable Kinema Junpo Awards.

Never really what could be considered an auteur filmmaker Takita went on to make a wide variety of films, from the magical sword and sorcery action flick "Onmyoji" to the jidai-geki "When the Last Sword is Drawn" (trailer below) which won Best Film at the 2004 Japanese Academy Awards. It was this critical praise and creative flexibility that made him the perfect choice for Shochiku when they were looking for someone to helm the Kundo Koyama penned script based of the Shinmon Aoki book they had about an unemployed cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who answers an add for a company called Depatures thinking that it's for a travel agency, but soon discovers that it's for a job at a funeral home. You can see from the the "Thank You Cam" footage from last night's Oscars just how happy and proud Takita is of his film and its cast. It's certainly been a long road for the former pinku eiga director and as he said in his acceptance speech "This is a new departure for me, and I will... we will be back. I hope.” Let's hope that will turn out to be true, if not for a return trip for Takita to the Academy Awards then another worthy Japanese director sometime very soon.

Takita's next film will be an adaptation on Takao Yaguchi's popular fishing manga "Tsurikichi Sanpei" starring Kenta Suga and Yu Kashii.

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003)

Departures (Okuribito) (2008)

Backstage "Thank You Cam" w/ Yojiro Tokita and cast

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