Sunday, 17 June 2012

Chapter 3. The Ogasawara Maru

             By seven o'clock the next morning, still buoyed by yesterday’s successful interview and meeting with Akira Suzuki, we had made the short walk from the hotel to the quay where the Ogasawara Maru was moored. Despite the cool morning air the sun was beginning to burn the tips of our noses. The sky was a deep blue and a slight haze hung over Tokyo Bay, bathing the futuristic skyscrapers and distant docks in a transparent azure mist, portending the humidity which we had already experienced the day before on our arrival. The Rainbow Bridge spanned the bay in a long ribbon of steel and cable. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes, like tiny specks of shinning colour sparkled in the early sunshine as they traversed from one side to the other in both directions.
            The terminal was already full of people and queues had formed for embarkation.  I went into the departure hall with the coupons I had been given by the agents who organised the trip and exchanged them for two tickets. Included with the tickets were two talons with numbers on them – 97 and 98. As yet I had no idea what they were for or what they related to because I was too preoccupied with the thought of what was ahead of us. I came out of the hall and handed Natasha her ticket and we took our places in one of the four queues which had formed behind metal signs or wooden boards (I can’t exactly remember which) with information and numbers written on them in Japanese. We stood around for about five minutes. Next to us in our queue were two European guys, other than us they were the only Europeans about to board. Natasha was starting to worry that maybe we weren’t in the right queue and said to me in Russian.

“Ask one of them if we’re in the right queue, they’re bound to speak English”

We were still finding our bearings after the long flight so I leaned over our luggage and in English asked one of them if it mattered which queue we were in.

“I don’t think so” was the answer in very good polite English but in an accent which I couldn’t quite make out. I had the impression he wasn’t particularly interested in engaging in a lengthy conversation with us but that is often normal when travelling and I sometimes feel like that myself. Years of travel in unusual settings has made me cautious and I tend to be careful with strangers in unknown surroundings. In Japan I didn’t feel like that however. There is no sensation of danger or aggression in Tokyo. The city is a thriving busy metropolis but unlike other large capital cities there is a feeling of calm and people quietly going about their own business.

 By about eight o'clock the queues began to shuffle forward and up ahead I could see passengers entering the covered outbuilding which led out onto the quay. Once through the outbuilding we had our first glimpse of the vessel which was about to take us a thousand miles out into the ocean. It was a white medium sized ship in excellent condition. Not as big as I thought it would be but not a small vessel. The style was unlike the huge ferries which ply the English Channel or the Irish Sea between France and England and Ireland and England and which are like floating shopping centres.
            This looked more of a straight forward working vessel. We moved on forward to the walkway which led up into the ship and in a few moments were being ushered by uniformed personnel through the various corridors towards the bow. Every so often there appeared another person in uniform who checked the numbered talons which we had with a smile, urging us on forward. As we walked through from one salon to another I began to notice one or two things.  Firstly each salon was divided into two sections of raised podiums about six or seven inches off the ground and with a space for walking through the middle.
Rows of blankets and a brick like pillow at the head of each set of bedding were set out at close intervals with perhaps less than a foot separating them with numbered pieces of paper sitting on those which had not yet been claimed. At regular intervals small chrome dishes were set in between the rows of bedding and I wondered what they were for. 

People were already settling down into their places and securing their baggage. I was momentarily distracted by this but soon waved Natasha forward so that we could quickly get to our cabin. We went past the toilets which were remarkably clean and well resourced, with washing and showering facilities in keeping with the overall condition of the vessel, which one could describe as immaculate. On the one hand this was extremely reassuring and on the other for some reason I had a feeling of disquiet and presentiment. But we carried on forward in search of our cabin until we came to the very end of the ship, the bow end and there was no where further to go. I looked at our talons,  with the numbers number 97 and 98 printed on them and looked down at the bedding right in front of us and there on two empty places were the numbers 97 and 98 placed neatly on the blankets. I asked a Japanese sailor where  the cabins were located and showed him the talons we had been given. “This is your place” he gave me to understand. We had been expecting to have a cabin. Thirty hours is long voyage on any ship and I thought I had booked a cabin for two. Natasha was in shock at the prospect of sleeping on the hard floor with a brick for a pillow and she made it quite clear that she had expected a cabin and wanted a cabin had no intention of camping down with fifty to a hundred strangers. I went off to the purser to try and get us a cabin. He explained that there were two classes; first class and second class and we had tickets for 2nd class. First class passengers had cabins. If I wanted to upgrade, it was some astronomical sum which I could afford but clearly had not built into my budget. I returned to Natasha who was standing dumbly in the same place I had   left her and in the same pose of paralysis. I started to explain the situation but Natasha’s shock and disbelief was starting to turn to mild outrage when I told her how much it was going to cost. “I expected a cabin, why didn’t they explain to us in Moscow that we would have to sleep on the floor for thirty hours, I wanted a cabin”. We were very tired and had banked on having a comfortable cabin to sleep off our jet lag before starting to film on the island. Certainly we had been given to understand in Moscow that we would have a cabin to ourselves. Suddenly without warning, while we were debating what we should do, a voice form immediately behind us in Russian said.
“What are you getting so worked up for its only one night, why don’t you save that money and spend it on the island when you get there”.
It was like somebody had thrown a bucket of cold water around us, so unexpected was it to hear the Russian language break through the steam of our emotions. We turned round in dumbfounded belief to be confronted by the same person I had spoken to already in the queue, standing with a look as if to say “Are you stupid or something, everything is going to be OK, relax and enjoy yourself”.
            We both felt completely foolish that someone had been listening to our conversation which we had thought was in private. We never imagined anybody around us would understand Russian. Here however, was a guy who by now, we understood, was Russian and giving us some good common sense down to earth Russian advice. Natasha and I looked at each other and laughed at how foolish we must have sounded and also how nice it was, especially for Natasha, from someone from home. This is often important for Russians but no less for me who at that time had been living in Moscow for around ten years. Marat introduced himself with a friendly grin and introduced his travelling companion a young Japanese guy, Ken, who was his assistant in the laboratory where he worked in Tokyo. They had decided to come to Ogasawara as it is considered by the Japanese to be a once in a life time journey.

            After the initial introductions we flung our stuff onto the space by our places. It was obvious that we were all going to get on well. Marat was from Kazan and had worked in Tokyo for a year or so as a scientist. He was a tallish, solid looking young man about 30 years old with what had been closely  cropped dark hair which had grown out  somewhat,  with mischievous  smiling eyes and an equally mischievous grin. I could imagine how much pleasure he must have derived from eavesdropping on us and waiting to the last possible moment before revealing his identity. Ken was a much younger Japanese guy in his early twenties. His good natured and naive laugh betrayed an air of innocence and his genuine desire to get acquainted was enough to make us feel completely at ease. Added to this we were all together in the same place. It’s possible that the Japanese had arranged things this way to make us feel less estranged. Right next to us was another European guy who I thought was American. He put his stuff down and took out a lap top and went off somewhere. We hardly ever saw him on the whole voyage.  Once settled we decided to go up on deck. I wanted to film our departure and everyone else wanted to get out into the sunshine. I was worried about leaving our possessions unattended but Marat and Ken assured us that nothing would happen to them and they were completely safe in Japan. 

     Up on deck the morning sun was warm and intense. Crowds had already gathered preparing for the departure of the Ogasawara Maru. Down below on the quay relatives and friends had come to see them off as if we were going on a three year cruise instead of just for a few days.  All around us lay the vast cityscape of Tokyo and I began filming everything I could see, the crowds on board who were milling around and exploring the ship from one end to another or simply wandering around in the early morning sunshine or gazing at the buildings rising up into the clear blue sky or passing boats and vessels in the  aquamarine of Tokyo Bay which shimmered in the intense heat. Already there was a festive mood on board as we waited for the ship to slip its moorings and begin its journey out to sea. It was only now that I began to understand the significance of what I had been planning for months. Up to now it seemed like a simple matter of organising things in the correct order so that I could film everything I needed. Now it became more obvious, that together with our meeting with Akira Suzuki the day before and the voyage we were about to undertake, something quite special was going to take place. As I moved about the Ogasawara Maru Ken followed me asking me at every step about the camera and what was the film I was making and when it was going to be released etc. I realised that I had acquired an unofficial camera assistant and his youthful enthusiasm put me in an excellent mood as in many ways it mirrored my own feelings. I was glad of the company and Ken was able to indicate and explain various points of interest which could be viewed from the deck of the ship.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Chapter 2. Tokyo and David Burliuk

Chapter 2. Tokyo and David Burliuk

The eleven hour flight from Moscow was uneventful and we tried to sleep as much as possible, anticipating a heavy schedule which would start as soon we would reach Japan. From time to time I would look down from the small oval window at the vast emptiness of Siberia as we passed over the Russian interior. We arrived at Tokyo Nartito airport and then onto a train to the centre of Tokyo. By lunch time we had ascended from the metro onto the blazing humid streets of Tokyo. After Moscow it was a bit of a shock but fortunately we were quite close to the hotel already and within fifteen minutes I was unpacking the equipment for the interview which was scheduled for two o'clock in the afternoon. That was when we had our first hitch.

 Natalia always assists me were ever I go but after such a long flight and the heat she felt ill. She lay down for five minutes and fatigue and sickness set in. There was nothing we could do, the interview was already arranged and I couldn't change anything. It was probably a mistake to organise the interview immediately after such long flight but it was too late to worry about that now. Fortunately Michiko, who had done a lot of organising for us and had in fact set up the interview with Akira Suzuki, was on hand. When she arrived she took stock of the situation and reassured me everything would be fine and she would take care of any problems. With that we went down stairs and waited for Akira Suzuki. 

When he arrived in the hotel lobby I was pleasantly surprised and with just one glance I knew he would be a good interviewee. Dressed casually in light coloured trousers and a blue shirt, his attentive expression exuded intelligence and seriousness even though I could see he was a bit nervous. I was nervous myself as I hadn't fully decided in which language I wanted to conduct the interview. I knew Mr Suzuki spoke English but I find that interviewees always give of their best when they speak in their own language. Certainly they come across more natural and relaxed which is really what I wanted. We found an empty part of the hotel lobby with plenty of light and with a good view of the garden and beyond the garden, in the near distance, Tokyo Bay.  After a bit of time spent getting the radio microphone to work properly and getting the sound levels right we made a start. We tried a bit in English and then I asked Michiko if she would actually ask the prepared questions in Japanese to see what the difference would be and I would film Mr Suzuki in conversation with Michiko, although with Michiko out of shot. Straight away I knew this was the correct decision. He began to speak animatedly and enthusiastically as if he was explaining all about Burliuk in Japanese to an old friend he hadn't seen for a while. Also Michiko was very professional almost as if she had been doing this kind of work for years. Mr Suzuki had brought with him editions of the books he had written and translations of Burliuk's books that he had undertaken himself, which Burliuk had written during his stay in Japan. I featured them in the interview quite prominently. The "props" enhanced the interview greatly and gave it a more intimate tone while at the same time adding a visual contrast to the overall conversation. I hate interviews which are just a person's head and shoulders talking all the time. As the interview came to an end Natalia came down and joined us looking much better. I introduced Mr Suzuki to Natalia and unexpectedly he began talking in fluent Russian with her. This was when the "second interview" started. With Natalia's questions, Akira Suzuki seemed to get a second wind and spoke lucidly in Russian about Burliuk for about another hour. As we later discovered, he had been an interpreter in the Far East of Russia in Vladivostok and on Sakhalin when the Soviet and Japanese governments decided on forming a closer trade relationship, in the area of oil exploration. His Russian was extremely good and this meant that I could now understand what he was talking about at first hand. It would help me with the rest of the next two weeks shooting. He was an absolute font of knowledge on the subject of Burliuk in Japan and I kept the tape rolling all the time.

What had been worrying me up to now was how I would integrate the material from the island of Ogasawara into a film about a futurist artist from Russia; stylistically and generally speaking how would it work. It just didn't seem to make sense and while I was looking forward to the idea of spending a few days on some remote tropical island in the Pacific Ocean which could only be reached by ship, I was beginning to wonder why I was actually going there, apart from being able have a holiday by the sea.  Akira Suzuki cleared up the problem almost immediately when he began to explain why David Burliuk went to Ogasawara himself.
After a long period of travelling across Russia and Siberia prior to embarking on a military transport to Japan, enduring revolution and the uncertainties and danger of civil war, Burliuk wanted to rest in a warm climate with his family. One of the other reasons was that he was a great admirer of the work of Gauguin. It was Gauguin who inspired Burliuk's early work and that of Burliuk's contemporaries. Burliuk longed to follow the example of Gauguin and paint on a tropical island far away from the cares and influence of the everyday world. This became possible after he had staged a successful exhibition in Japan and managed to raise a considerable sum of money so that he could also bring his family to join him on the voyage. Akira Suzuki further recounted how when Burliuk returned to Tokyo he put on another exhibition of paintings he had completed on Ogasawara. The Japanese public where somewhat taken aback. They had come to expect avant-garde abstract paintings from this futurist artist and instead they were treated to a series of scenic views presenting the astounding beauty of the island of Ogasawara painted on canvas in the traditional manner of landscape painting.

 Immediately I had the last part of the jigsaw and had no doubt as to how this element of the story would fit in with the rest of the film about Russian avant-garde and in fact how it would fit in with the whole series of six films. The simple fact is that Gauguin was a precursor of the avant-garde and in particular the Russian avant-garde itself. Most of the great Russian avant-garde artists and futurists like Kandinsky, Kulbin, Rodchenko and as already mentioned, Burliuk himself, were inspired by Gauguin's work. Here was a way of integrating all this material in a meaningful, coherent and hopefully interesting context and it would tie many elements together which I had been struggling to make sense of within all the other films.

The afternoon was gradually turning towards evening and we decided to call it a day and continue our discussions in a more relaxed mood in the bar of the hotel. I packed up all the equipment and within twenty minutes we were seated at a table on which had been placed some cool clear Japanese beer and some supper. I had a prior agreement with Akira Suzuki as to how much I would pay him for the interview, which was not extravagant  but it was what I had in my budget. Akira Suzuki insisted on spending  most of the fee on treating us to another few rounds of beer and numerous delicacies which the hotel had on offer. We sat for another three to four hours in lively discussion, exchanging ideas about Japanese and Russian culture and our respective interests. It was on this first meeting that we managed to forge a lasting relationship with Akira Suzuki who has many times since helped us on our numerous subsequent trips to Japan.

As far as I was concerned the material for the interview was excellent although it required checking. However, from what I could make out the sound, despite the compromising conditions of the hotel lobby with its background noise and distractions, had come out good which was the most important thing, . It all seemed like an auspicious start to our departure next morning to Ogasawara. We arranged to keep in touch with Akira Suzuki and I promised to keep him up to date with the progress of the film. After saying goodnight we got straight to bed. It had been a long day and Natalia and I were very jet lagged and tired but at the same time satisfied after the anxiety of getting the interview completed.  I knew tomorrow was going to be an early start and filming would be equally demanding. However much I enjoy the process you still have to be able to concentrate and be well rested to give your best.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Chapter 1 - Birth of a Film


In September 2005 I travelled from Moscow with my wife Natalia to Japan to make a film about the Russian futurist, poet and artist, David Burliuk, also known as the Father of Russian Futurism. The film was one of a six part series about the Russian Avant-garde. The visit involved a journey to Ogasawara for several days. The following is an account of our voyage to this island in the Pacific Ocean.
The total area of the islands is 73 km², with a population of 2440 (2000 on Chichijima, the seat of the municipal government and 440 on Hahajimi the only two inhabited islands). The common English name for Ogasawara is Bonin Islands.
The Bonin Islands, known in Japan as the Ogasawara Group are an archipelago of over 30 subtropical and tropical islands, approximately 1,000 km directly south of Tokyo Japan. Ogasawara is a sub prefecture Tokyo.

Chapter1. Birth of a Film.

The Journey to Ogasawara begins in Moscow. While researching the documentary film series "The Russian Avant-garde - Revolution or Renaissance". During post production of the fourth film in the series "Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde", I came across a one line statement in a book I was reading to the effect that; David Burliuk, the Father of Russian Futurism and the Russian Avant-garde, spent two years in Japan. That was it, no more information was provided but I was hooked. I knew I would have to make a film about Burliuk and include it in the series.
I had already lived in Moscow for ten years. I arrived on a cold dark march evening and spent the first few years learning the language, enduring various privations and inhabiting a room in an old apartment block on Tverskaya Street known as the "House of Composers". Gradually after alternate periods  of paid work and periods of living with practically no money whatsoever, I managed to build a life for myself in the post perestroika period of the mid to late 90s. As the decade drew to a close I was able to begin my long held intention of making my own films in Russia.

My first stop in the process of making this film was the Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow to see what I could find out about David Burliuk and Japan. The results were pretty minimal; virtually no information existed of this period in Burliuk's life. There were books about his life and work in Russia and later in America after he left Japan but that was all. This didn't deter me and having already decided that somehow or other I would make a film about Burliuk in Japan, I pressed on with my researches. After a few weeks, I discovered that Burliuk not only spent two years in Japan but also lived for three months on a Japanese tropical island in the Pacific Ocean known as The Ogasawara Group of islands or what we call the Bonin Islands. What did he do there, why Ogasawara and where on earth was Ogasawara? Almost immediately, I began to put together a filming trip to Japan which would take in Ogasawara and other locations.
It took about six months or so to find funding, organise the logistics of the trip, finalise locations and other details. During this preparatory period I had managed to find out considerably more about Burliuk in general and about his stay on Ogasawara in particular. A friend of ours in Moscow who was a travel agent specialising in trips to Japan organised most of the trip, even managing to find us a hotel on the island of Chichijima and book us a berth on the only means of transport for reaching the islands, a ferry called the Ogasawara Maru. The journey can take almost thirty hours one way and the ship docks in the port of Futami on Chichi-jima and then waits in the harbour for 3-4 days before returning with the same passengers to Tokyo. We had even received some brochures with information about the ship. This had reassured any doubts we may have had and we speculated where on board the vessel our cabin might be located. In addition to this we had managed, through various contacts, to locate a Japanese academic Akira Suzuki who was an expert on Burliuk's stay in Japan and would agree to be interviewed. He was described to me as some one who had family connections with the island of Oshima.
The plan was that we would arrive in Tokyo on September 1st and then sail straight to Ogasawara the next day, spend 4 days on the island of Chichijima, return to Tokyo, film for a few days in Tokyo then spend a few days in Kyoto and back to Tokyo to pick up any loose ends. Then we would return to Moscow after a round trip of two weeks.

The ship to Ogasawara as a rule departs from the port of Tokyo very early in the morning so as a precaution we had booked into a hotel at the quay, some two hundred yards from where the ship was berthed so that we would not have to race across Tokyo in a taxi through rush hour traffic. I had also scheduled the interview with Akira Suzuki on the day of our arrival so that it would be off my mind for the rest of our stay in Japan. The difficulty was where to interview Mr Suzuki. In the end I decided that the best place would be in the hotel itself, if we could find a suitable corner. This would could cut down on travelling all over Tokyo with camera equipment trying to find the right location for an interview.

I was still in the middle of post production on the film "Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde", so things were quite frantic leading up to our departure. I relied quite heavily on Natalia in so much as she had already been to Japan a couple of times and knew a great deal about Japanese culture. She is a master of Ikebana of the Sogetsu School which was founded by Sofu Teshigahara, often referred to as the Picasso of the East. He developed a modern school of Ikebana which used contemporary materials as well as traditional plant materials in compositions and pioneered an avant-garde approach to the art of Ikebana. Dali and Miro were some of the people with whom he was acquainted and even worked with. His son, the film director and Ikebana master Hiroshi Teshigahara, was Natalia's teacher when he came to Moscow and founded the Moscow branch of Sogetsu. Also one of Natalia's ex pupils Michiko, a young Japanese woman who had lived in Russia for a couple of years, had been organising things in Tokyo for us before our arrival. As it turned out her help proved invaluable to the whole project.

In addition, my own research into Burliuk had progressed much further than initially expected, therefore I felt sufficiently prepared and was sure there was enough support to complete this stage of the project. I was eagerly looking forward to getting to Japan and making a start. The Ogasawara leg of the trip seemed partuclarily exciting, although I had a few misgivings about how to visually include the material from a sub tropical island into a film about a Russian avant-garde artist and nagging doubts were already beginning to form inside my mind. However I needn't have worried. Just a final check on the equipment I needed to bring with me for filming and we were ready to go.