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Reviewed by:
  • My Life as a Filmmaker by Yamamoto Satsuo
  • Hiroshi Kitamura (bio)
My Life as a Filmmaker. By Yamamoto Satsuo; translated by Chia-ning Chang. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2017. xx, 259 pages. $75.00, cloth; $29.95, paper; $29.95, E-book.

In recent decades, Japanese film and media scholars have expanded their scope of inquiry beyond canonical auteurs (namely Kurosawa Akira, Ozu Yasujirō, Mizoguchi Kenji) and their touted works (Rashōmon, Tōkyō monogatari [Tokyo Story], Sanshō dayū [Sansho the Bailiff]), but some directors have fallen through the cracks. The author of the present volume, Yamamoto Satsuo, is one such figure. In his distinguished career spanning [End Page 457] nearly five decades, this Kyushu-born director (hence the name "Satsuo") became known in Japan as a left-wing and shakaiha (social school) filmmaker who grappled with serious political and socioeconomic issues—from Japan's aggression in World War II, gang intimidation in cities, and working-class exploitation in factories and fields, to political corruption at the highest levels of government. Yet while yielding over 50 feature films—some of them instant classics—this prolific director has been a relative unknown in the West. In My Life as a Filmmaker, his English-language publication translated by Chia-ning Chang, Yamamoto provides a self-retrospection of his life and filmmaking. An informative and revealing autobiography, it also offers insight into the larger historical contours of Japan before, during, and after World War II.

Yamamoto begins by reminiscing about his foray into the film business. Born in a family with six children, he took interest in cinema by way of his mother—an avid movie fan. He began to notice the "reality of social contradictions" (p. 65) during his teenage years. In high school (First Waseda High School) and college (Waseda University), Yamamoto dabbled in theatrical acting while immersing himself in Marx, proletarian literature, and Soviet cinema. A stage performance to protest military training led to his removal from college. Soon after, Yamamoto joined Shōchiku as an assistant director in 1933 and subsequently moved to PCL (soon to become Tōhō).

In recounting his experiences as a nascent filmmaker, Yamamoto underscores the challenges he faced in pursuing his politics. First of all, as a junior employee in the studio system, he did not possess the power to choose his own projects. More crucially, his progressive beliefs countered Japan's imperial agendas. As the specter of fascism and war grew in the late 1930s, Yamamoto was forced to produce films that toed the official line. The era, which ended with his conscription into the Japanese army, left him "hopelessly demoralized in both spirit and creativity" (p. 100). During the occupation, Yamamoto was urged to take his time to recover from what might have been a form of kyodatsu fatigue, but he actively took part in the budding workers' movement in Tōhō. After three heated labor disputes, Yamamoto resigned from the studio and made Bōryoku no machi (Town of violence), a film based on a real-life struggle of citizens and journalists who risked their lives to protect free speech in a gang-controlled city.

As the book vividly illustrates, the commercial success of Bōryoku no machi launched Yamamoto's career as an independent filmmaker. In the 1950s, Yamamoto ran the New Star Film Company and the Independent Film Studio/Central Film Studio to engage in projects that addressed social problems. Working tirelessly alongside the likes of Imai Tadashi, Kamei Fumio, Shindō Kaneto, and Yoshimura Kōzaburō, Yamamoto successfully completed a body of memorable films, such as Shinkū chitai (The vacuum [End Page 458] zone) (which exposed the brutality of the Japanese military), Niguruma no uta (Song of the cart-pullers) (a crowdfunded production on the plight of farm life), and Matsukawa jiken (The Matsukawa incident) (a reinterpretation of the infamous trial waged against a group of union workers over a mysterious train accident). In the early 1960s, Yamamoto returned to mainstream filmmaking but maintained his critical edge. In Shiroi kyotō (The great white tower), for instance, he dramatized the ugly institutional politics that unfolded in a prestigious hospital. Shōnin no isu (The witness's...


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