Courtesy of Marty Gross Film Productions

Marty Gross and Seijun Suzuki

September 8, 2016

“Every Shot Means Something”: A Conversation with Marty Gross about Janus Films and Seijun Suzuki

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Marty Gross is a man of many hats in the film world. Coming to Japanese cinema in the ’70s after spending years studying pottery, Marty has written and directed documentaries, restored and licensed films and archival footage with his company Marty Gross Film Productions, conducted interviews and served as consulting producer on many projects, including Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams. All the while, Marty has continued to teach art classes in Toronto, teaching creativity to future generations of students (including myself).

More recently, Marty has worked as a freelance consulting producer with the legendary arthouse distributor Janus Films, the parent company of the Criterion collection. If you pick up a Criterion release of a Japanese film, there’s a good chance you’ll see Marty’s name in the credits. In 2005, Marty’s work for Janus brought him into contact with Seijun Suzuki, one of the most eccentric figures of Japanese film. A pop art filmmaker in the truest sense of the term, Suzuki made visually eclectic and politically subversive films under the pretense of genre entertainment, much to his studio’s chagrin. With Suzuki’s films Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill screening this week at Cornell Cinema (Thursday, September 8 and Sunday, September 11, respectively) as part of a Janus Films retrospective, I sat down with Marty to talk about his work and his memories of Seijun Suzuki.

The Sun: How did you start working with Janus Films?

Marty Gross: I knew about Janus for many years — everyone did, anyone who was a filmgoer knew Janus. I’d worked with New Cinema, the Canadian agent for Janus, and through them I met one of the founders, Saul Turrell. Much later I helped acquire some of their films for Canadian television, and I met them a few times in New York. But it never really crossed my mind that I could do any work for them, until Donald Richie [a very influential writer on Japanese cinema], who had been consulting for Criterion, recommended me. At some point around the last six or eight years of his life, he wrote very kindly to the chief producer at Criterion that I was the only person who could handle the creation of documentation and features for a Kurosawa film they were working on at the time. So we met with Peter Becker, the president of Janus, and we figured out I could do the kind of work they needed, and one thing led to another. I do not have any formal agreement with Criterion, they just call me when they need me. There are times when they’re releasing more Japanese films, there are times when they’re releasing less, but whenever they’re releasing a Japanese film they always seem to have something for me to do —interviews, documentation, rights.

Sun: Tell me about a typical project for Janus. What kind of work do you find yourself doing?

M.G.: The process starts when one of the Criterion producers contacts me and asks me if I have any documentation related to the film they’re working on. They may ask if I know anybody who could be interviewed, and if I know about that person’s health, their age, and if I know about any other documentary materials. For example, I recently worked on [the Criterion edition of] Dreams. I had worked on the film myself in the late 1980s and knew many of the people involved in it. I knew about two documentaries that had been made about Dreams, one by my friend Catherine Cadou in France, and one by the great Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, so I licensed those films on Criterion’s behalf.

So, I sometimes license films for Criterion, documentaries and features, and I also supply them with information that they may need for their Japanese releases. Right now we’re doing Tampopo, so I went to the museum dedicated to [the director] Juzo Itami, and I spent three days scanning photos, stills, booklets and flyers. So I just help them with things in Japan.

When it’s time for interviews, I start off by contacting people by phone — many of these people are very elderly. Sometimes I have to call several times, often at all hours given the time difference, other times I might ask for an introduction from somebody. Then we make a plan to interview. The Criterion producers write the questions because they feel (I think quite correctly) that they know best what their audience is interested in knowing about. After that, we translate the questions in my office, and print them out with large spaces in between the questions so the interviewees can write their replies. I transmit these to people by fax [still common in Japan] or by post. In the case of Seijun Suzuki, I was already in Japan when we finished the questions, but Suzuki lived on the other side of Tokyo. He was very anxious to see the questions, so he asked me to fax them. So I go to the office in Tokyo and stand by the fax machine, and the fax doesn’t go through, and doesn’t go through, and so on. It turns out Suzuki didn’t know how to turn on his fax machine. He needed us to wait for his wife to come home and turn on the machine for him!

After setting up the interview, I then have to find a location. The space needs to be quiet — Tokyo has a problem with noise, it’s a massive city with a lot of traffic and most Japanese offices and apartments only have single pane glass, so if there’s noise, there’s noise. We also need a large space — we usually can’t film at people’s homes because people’s homes are always too small. I shoot with a regular crew that’s been working with me since day one. The first interview we ever did was with Tatsuya Nakadai in 1995, and we’ve kept working together ever since. They’re very loyal and they’re very good. We started out on Betacam, then we moved on to HD, and now we’re delivering the films on hard drive.

As I listen during these interviews, I always think about what material Criterion’s going to need for inserts. If, say, Seijun Suzuki mentions Nikkatsu Studios, I need to make sure I have a picture of Nikkatsu Studios, if he mentions his art director, I need a picture of the art director. I try to anticipate what kind of documents we’re going to need, and I ask people to bring memorabilia from the productions all the time — still photographs, snapshots of themselves working on the set, annotated scripts. We figure it’s more valuable to the viewer to see pictures of, say, actors taking a cigarette break than excerpts from the movie they’ve just seen. So, when we finish the interview, we film or scan documents that relate to the subject. Not everyone keeps things, but usually they have at least a script with their annotations. Some directors sketch in their scripts, do storyboards, some don’t, it varies. After that the producer at Criterion takes over and edits the interview at their office, and a company in California handles the translation. Sometimes they consult me, but I’m only involved in checking for accuracy at that point, spelling of names and credits, that sort of thing.

Gross and actor Jo Shishido

Courtesy of Marty Gross Film Productions

Gross and actor Jo Shishido

Sun: What was your first encounter with Seijun Suzuki’s films? What was your initial impression?

M.G.: I’d actually never seen Suzuki’s films before I worked on the Criterion editions of them, but I had a very strong impression of him even before then — he’s an iconoclast in filmmaking and a political iconoclast. Watching his films for the first time was a sort of confirmation. Suzuki’s films are very much like the man himself — quick, skillful, without hesitation. Part of it was the studio system he worked under — Nikkatsu liked to churn out movies fast — but he always finds ways to work in individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. All of his movies have a tremendous energy, and nothing is wasted: Every shot means something, every shot is beautifully composed. It’s really classical studio filmmaking but with a personal stamp.

Sun: For the 2011 Criterion editions of Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, you interviewed Suzuki, one of the last interviews he has done to date. How did that come about?

M.G.: In 2005, I had interviewed Suzuki in a producer’s office for Story of a Prostitute and Gate of Flesh. In the interim I had spoken to him after he had been awarded the Kawakita prize, and he was very friendly. So Suzuki remembered me, which made the later interview easier to set up. For Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill we interviewed Suzuki in his apartment with the assistance of Masami Kuzuu, the art director of Branded to Kill. We also interviewed Kuzuu and Jo Shishido, the star of Branded to Kill. We had some difficulties – Suzuki’s a very old man, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and we were supposed to interview him on a muggy summer day in a tiny room. Fortunately, Suzuki has a much younger wife, a fan of his work, who was able to help us a great deal with the set-up and arrangements for the interview.

Sun: How did your meeting with Suzuki go? What did you think of the man?

M.G.: Suzuki’s a very pithy man, very direct. He’s not impatient, but he prefers to keep his answers simple. For example, we asked Suzuki about the color choices in Tokyo Drifter, why one scene’s in black and white while the rest of the movie’s in such vivid color, and Suzuki replied “I thought the audiences would like to see a movie in color.” For Story of a Prostitute, we asked him why he made that film after Gate of Flesh, and he said simply “That film was an adaptation, and Nikkatsu gave me the book and said ‘This is the next one.’” Criterion wants filmmakers to talk about the philosophy behind their work, and Suzuki would always skirt around that in such a way that you can’t ask the question again. It’s not that he’s necessarily modest, I think he knows his place in film history. He’s a professional, and not much willing to talk film aesthetics. Akira Kurosawa is very much the same way in his interviews.

I remember when I was at Suzuki’s apartment I asked him if I could borrow the original scripts of the films to scan for source material to include in the feature. He hands me the scripts without hesitation, and I told him I’d have them sent back in two days by courier. In the end I needed an extra day with the scripts and I forgot to let him know, and later that day I got a phone call from him. He announced himself very formally, in his distinctive voice — “This is Film Director Suzuki Seijun! I would like my scripts to be returned” — and I told him I’d have them sent the next day. The following morning I get another call from him with the same introduction — “This is Film Director Suzuki Seijun! Have you sent me the scripts?” I said I had, and teased him, “You know, you don’t have to tell me you’re a filmmaker every time you call, I’m aware that you make movies!” He laughed.

Sun: Is there anything in particular our readers should look for when they go see Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill?

M.G.: Well, as I said before they’re very energetic films, very lively films, but you should also watch for political subtext in the films. The 1960s in Japan was still the postwar period, a time of rebuilding. For the first time there were all these popular influences everywhere — jazz, American movies. The use of 16mm projection within the film in Branded to Kill is very inventive — I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like that in that period of Japanese film. So Suzuki’s films exemplify the 1960s, the most lively period in Japanese history, and attitudes that have largely been aged out of the culture today.
Sun: To close out this interview, are there any exciting projects you’re working on at the moment you’d be able to tell us about?

M.G.: Well, Dreams is done now and I am currently working on Janus Films’ theatrical release of Tampopo. Over the summer I interviewed the Japanese swordplay master Yoshimitsu Katsuse for the Lone Wolf and Cub collection. That was an interesting project because he’s not involved in filmmaking himself, but the art he practices is very unique and he brought a different understanding of Japanese swordsmanship as displayed in the films. Aside from all this, I’m producing my own work, The Film Compendium on the Japanese Folk Craft (Mingei) Movement right now, and I’ve been traveling to all sorts of different places to gather information and materials for it. I’ll be working on another project with Criterion for later this year as well, but I can’t talk about it yet because they haven’t officially announced it. I have a great deal of respect for Criterion and the work that they do, and I’m proud to be a contributor.

Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]