Mirror Images: Japan special

Anne no Nikki
Anno no Nikki, a Japanese animated version of the Anne Frank Diary

The weekly survey of arts and culture, “Mirror Images”, spotlights Japan, with an animated film version of the Diary of Anne Frank, the popular all girl rock group Shonen Knife and the gay boom in Japanese cinema.

Producer: David Swatling

Broadcast: July 31, 1995


This is Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service. “Mirror Images”, the weekly survey of arts and culture, hosted by David Swatling.

Today we spotlight Japan, as we hear about an animated film version of the Diary of Anne Frank, the popular all girl rock group Shonen Knife and the gay boom in Japanese cinema.

Dear Kitty, there’s nothing much to report I’m afraid. Day in and day out, we’re forced to follow the same routine. It’s so boring, and we’re all getting on each other’s nerves. Daddy says we’ll get used to it. But I don’t see how anybody could get used to it.

In the 50 years since it was written, the Diary of Anne Frank has been presented in many forms, but perhaps the most unique is an animated film version produced in Japan, which recently had its world premiere in Amsterdam. Producer Sara Oraki (sp?) has made more than 50 films in Japan, many with strong anti-war themes. So when Takinori Yoshimoto (sp?) approached him with the idea of an educational film about Anne Frank for Japanese children, Mr. Oraki saw the possibility of reaching a much wider audience.

The story of Anne Frank as well as her book is known by many, many Japanese people, virtually all Japanese people in fact know the difficult times she had during the war. This being the case, I thought that 50 years after the war was the proper time to make a film of this book so that children, young people, and adults could be reminded of the plight of Anne Frank and the terrible tragedies that occur when discrimination, particularly racial discrimination, is allowed to set foot in a country. I felt that animation was the best medium to communicate the story of Anne Frank to children, not only in Japan but around the world, the best medium to bring out those dramatic and other elements  in the story. So animation I felt would best serve my goals.

 Now children, I want each of you to take a candle and keep it by your bedside at all times. The candle is a symbol. It reminds us that through the strength of our spirit, we Jews will endure and we will survive.

Today is a beautiful day. It’s a chance to get the washing done.

The film begins in June of 1942 when 13-year-old Anne receives a diary for her birthday, one month before she and her family are forced into hiding by the Nazis. In a secret annex behind an office building on an Amsterdam canal, the Frank family and four others share extremely cramped quarters for two years, facing hunger, boredom and the threat of discovery before their secret is betrayed to the Gestapo. It’s unusual material for animation, and according to Mr. Oraki, it presented unusual difficulties.

As is well known, animation is a very good for making films which are either fantastic or comical. But there are very few serious dramas being made in animated films. This being the case, I think my main difficulty was in trying to convey to the staff – the animators and so on, people who would actually make this film, get down to the nitty gritty of making it – the possible techniques that could be used to convey the messages of this film and the import of the film. It was hard enough to have them understand the story and what it meant, them being out of the European context and that of the context of the period as well. Needless to say, Amsterdam for Japanese people is a very faraway place, and yet I felt that if we didn’t capture the true atmosphere of Amsterdam in the film, we would fail to realise what we wanted to in the film. In addition, Anne loved Amsterdam, and therefore Amsterdam had to be one of the heroes of this film. So I took the staff, the main staff, to Holland about a year and a half ago and tried to inculcate into them the sensibilities of the place itself. And they did a lot of research there on the history, the recent history and so on. So I felt that they had to have a real feeling for Amsterdam in order for this film to succeed.

Which it does beautifully on at least two levels: visually and musically. Some 110,000 individual illustrations were drawn and coloured by 1300 artists from Japan, Korea and China, using specially blended colours to create just the right atmosphere and taking a year and a half to complete. The music was composed by Britain’s Michael Nyman, well known for his score to the film The Piano, including two songs with lyrics by American Roger Pulvers, who wrote the scenario and also served as Mr.Oraki’s translator. One particularly haunting melody is sharply contrasted with the monotony of daily life shared by Anne, her family and the others in the secret annex.

The lyrics to “If at the sound of a wish” represent the voice of Anne herself and her longings and her yearnings because I feel she was a very optimistic person despite the circumstances. And as a contrast to the everyday boring details of life, let alone life in confinement, I felt it would emphasise how wonderful and how positive, optimistic and joyous Anne’s spirit was, that if only we could do this, then life would be better. And I think that’s what we get from young people. I have four children myself, and that’s what I get from my children. When I look at the condition of the world today, I get hope from them.

Despite the fact that 50 years have passed since the end of the war, the tragedies that happened at that time, that are described in the book, are repeated over and over again. Despite Anne’s message and her hope, peace does not reign in the world and there is still discrimination and persecution as there was before. So I felt that if someone doesn’t do something, then Anne’s message will vanish, and it has to be repeated over and over again, particularly for the young people. So the re-issuing of the book that has just come out recently and this animation film may serve as a reminder of what went before. When the war ended, I was in my third year of middle school. I am one year younger than Anne Frank myself. So this particular story and these particular events come at a time which was most sensitive for me, for my personality, the most vulnerable time for me. Of course, after the war, we had peace, and in some countries we still have peace, but peace is not something which comes as a matter of course. Peace is something which can disappear at any time, and we have to keep repeating that message.

“Miep, can I ask you a question?” “Of course.” “Miep, I don’t understand why you are helping us. If they catch you, you could be send off to a camp too.” “I’m helping you Anne because you are my friends. Is that all? Yes. You and your family are good people, and our two families have been friends for many years. I can’t just stand by and let people such as yourself be treated so horribly. It would be unthinkable. And in any case, one shouldn’t need any reason to help people in need.” “Oh Miep, thank you! You know, they call me Miss Chatterbox, but right now I don’t know what to say to you except God bless you.”

A touching scene from the animated film “The Diary of Anne Frank”, the Japanese version opening this month in Tokyo.

Just as this film takes its subject from the West, Japanese pop music is heavily influenced by Western pop, but rarely does it cross over to Western listeners. One big exception is the all-girl group Shonen Knife, and since they hit it big in Europe a couple of seasons ago, others are following suit. But they were the first in a long time, as Ishma van Dikwal (sp?) reported for Mirror Images.

When an English DJ heard that song, Ue o Muite Aurko by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, he liked it by he had problems pronouncing it. So he called it the more tongue friendly “Sukiyaki”. After extensive airplay, this song made it to the top of almost every major pop chart, peaking at number one of the Billboard Top 100. That was in the summer of 1963 and that is the last time any Japanese artist crossed over in such a big way. This is a situation that may be changing thanks to Michie Nakatani and sister Atsuko and Naoko Yamano from Osaka, who call themselves Shonen Knife.

The band has a cult status in America, where over 30 bands, including Sonic Youth and that other all-girl band L7 recorded “Every band has a Shonen Knife that loves them”, an album with Shonen Knife songs. The girls have been together since they left school in 1982 play to a very enthusiastic audience in Amsterdam recently. I asked bass guitarist Michie how they got together and what made them decide to form a band.

The three of us really like late 70’s punk, new wave movement. …And we also like the Beatles a lot. But when we started Shonen Knife, we didn’t think of anything. We just wanted to start something interesting, something creative, and we really liked music a lot, so we said let’s have a band. Let’s start a band. So we didn’t actually know that we would keep playing music for such a long time, but somehow we are still playing and I think we will be playing. Q: Why did you choose to sing in English instead of Japanese? Shonen Knife sings in Japanese in Japan. But since we made a contract with Creation in Europe, we thought maybe it’s better for us to sing something in English because at least more people can understand what we want to say. I think music is important but also lyrics is important to us. Q: What are you trying to say in your lyrics? Is there a message you are trying to put across to the people?  To tell the truth, we don’t have any strong opinions. But, for example, we are interested in ecological problems right now. So we are writing several songs about ecological problems for the next album. But our policy is not to tell anyone what to do, what to think. We want everyone to think whatever they want to think. So we just give everyone some ideas, just talk about the problems and the audience can think what they want to do.

To date, praise has not led to chart success, at least  not internationally. But Nirvana asked the group to support them on their Never Mind tour in 1992. This resulted in a lot more people getting to know the band and their music. The girls gave up their regular jobs to become fulltime musicians last year, but they don’t plan to move from their home city.

We live in Osaka because it’s the same where we live. We have to travel all the time. So if we live in the States, we have to travel to Europe. Then we should stay in Osaka because there we have our family there and we know where to go for shopping. Q: And don’t you find it a bit difficult being women to be in the music business for such a long time? I haven’t found that it’s difficult for women to be in a band. I think I am a woman and also a Japanese woman. I think it might sound strange but I am a musician before a woman, so it doesn’t matter and I basically don’t care how other people think of me. Q: And how are you looked upon in Japan as an all-girl band or a woman band rather? There are many all-girls bands in Japan. Most of them are very well organised by record companies. So I think Shonen Knife’s case is very special. We still live in Osaka. It’s a very unusual thing because Tokyo is the central part of music industrial scene. So basically everyone has to live in Tokyo to be a professional musician. But we said, no we don’t want to move. It’s ridiculous to move just for that reason. We want to be ourselves. We want to create our music, our growth. Q: In your own environment. Yes.

Shonen Knife’s “I Want Eat Choco-bars” from their CD “We are very happy you came”. Women take a rather different role in our last feature from Japan, but to understand, we need a brief Japanese lesson. Okama means rice pot, but it’s also slang for homosexual. Okoge refers to the brown layer of rice that sticks to the bottom on the pot, but it also describes women who are friends with gay men. Okoge is the name of a film by 59-year-old Tokyo-based director Takahiro Nakajima.

Okoge was the first real gay film in Japan. I wanted to draw the interest of the general audience. They’re not going to be interested in a hard-core gay film just centring on gays. That wouldn’t appeal to anyone except gays, and maybe not even them. So I broke it down into a two-step process. I put a woman in the film with whom people could identify. When I was thinking of different storylines, I thought this would suit the average viewer best. Basically, it’s about the gay world but there’s tension created in the film, once the woman is introduced into the story. That was the trick I used. The tension is what makes the movie interesting.

The young woman in Okoge is Sayako who offers her apartment to her friends Goh and Toshi as a love’s nest. But the two men’s happiness ends when Toshi returns to his wife who threatens to make his homosexuality public. According to Nakajima, it’s not an unusual problem in Japan.

I think there are a lot of homosexuals in Japan who haven’t come out. And because of social pressures, they decide to get married and raise a family. Either they can’t deal with their own homosexuality, or they weren’t aware of it when they were young. However, in Japan, once you are married, you often go for a month without having sex with your wife or in some instances for as long as five years. It’s not uncommon, but you are still a family. So, on the one hand, they keep up their social responsibilities, and on the other, they can pursue their real interests.

Not the most politically correct solution in terms of Western gays, nor are some of the other complications in the film. Goh falls in love with Korihara who, as it turns out, hates gays. Pretty Sayako tries to intervene, but she is raped by Korihara and becomes pregnant. Now, if it all sounds pretty tragic, that’s not what Nakajima intended nor how the film is perceived in Japan.

I don’t think it’s a tragedy. I think it’s optimistic, and people should view it as a comedy. Besides in most love relationships, there’s some tragedy. So, of course, there’s some tragedy in my films as well. But, for example, one of the strange and comic elements is that Korihara, the straight guy, gets a little taste of the gay world but decides not to enter it. He sticks with women because he’s sure he likes women. But the fact that he doubted himself for a moment is comic, not tragic. As a filmmaker, I like to extract the weirdness from life and put it on the screen. It makes for some very interesting images. The film is not played for laughs, but audiences see the humorous side. I don’t believe in tragedy as such. Life is comical and people should be able to laugh at it.

Today, gay themes are popping up so much in Japanese films that some are calling it a gay boom with enough material to supply yearly gay and lesbian film festivals in Tokyo. But funding and distribution still remain a problem, as when Nakajima made Okoge, which screened at numerous international festivals before being seen in Japan.

Many gay films have been made overseas. The first big success here was Ian Forster’s “Maurice”. But what you find in Japan is that the audience is mainly young girls who see the love between two men as being pure. What I wanted to do was present the Japanese gay scene, to show the difference, so it’s not just foreign films showing that aspect of life and hopefully to help people to accept the gay scene in Japan. However, the big movie theatre corporations wouldn’t show my film, and I had to go to great lengths to get it seen somewhere. Finally, a theatre in one of the big amusement centres here agreed to a trial screening. The whole staff got involved in promoting the film, especially the women who made it their personal goal to bring it to as large an audience as possible. Gradually the film became know, and today, three years later, it’s a big hit in video rentals. Now gay themes can be seen in TV dramas. People talk about a gay boom in Japanese film. And I think Okoge may have started that.

“Love Song” by Japanese pop group Chage and Aske brings us to the end today. My thanks to Eric Beauchemin for gathering material and to John Hille for the technical production. Till next time, I’m David Swatling,  saying “so long”.