On Becoming a Fan of Japanese Film


By Masha Leon

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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At the July 18 reception for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, held at Gracie Mansion, host Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the organization “for bringing a small measure of justice to the millions of Jews victimized by the Nazis” and the resulting “distribution of over $1 billion… to more than 500,000 Jewish victims in 78 countries.” There were brief comments by the Claims Conference’s president, Rabbi Israel Singer; Julius Berman, Claims Conference chairman; and Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York. A survivor from Vilna asked me: “Why hold the money? Why not distribute it now? We’ll soon all be dead.”

* * *

Later that evening, I was at the Center for Jewish History for the opening of “Greetings From Home: 350 Years of American Jewish Life,” a unique exhibition of 200 objects celebrating the first permanent Jewish settlement in North America in 1654, curated by the American Jewish Historical Society, the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Sephardi Federation with Sephardic House. David Solomon, executive director of the AJHS, commented, “This exhibit… is inclusive of the breadth of the Jewish experience in this country.”

Center Chairman Bruce Slovin, stand-in for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, who was scheduled to make the evening’s presentations, said, “We are the largest repository of Jewish history outside of Israel.” In awarding a plaque to “Street Rabbi” Robert Kaplan, director, intergroup relations and community concerns of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Slovin noted, “He rediscovered his Jewish identity at age 29.” Kaplan responded: “Being called a ‘street rabbi’ is a big compliment…. As a person living out their Jewishness in the street and in their car [it] is really emblematic of the Jewish experience in New York…. We made a home here… a profound home.”

Eve Landau, executive director of Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC in Manhattan, described Ma’yan’s mission: “To act as a catalyst for change in the Jewish community to make it more inclusive of women…. Since our founding in 1993, we have been interested in both the spiritual and ritual area as in the role of women in Jewish communal organizations. [We are] committed to creating a just and equitable Jewish community that includes the voices, talents, and ideas of all its members.” The evening’s third honoree was Zalmen Mlotek, executive director of Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre and internationally recognized authority on Yiddish folk and theater music. Mlotek expounded on the role of the Yiddish theater in American Jewish life.

* * *

Were it not for Mlotek’s father, Yosl Mlotek (the Yiddish Forward’s late culture editor), my daughter Karen and I never might have met Japanese film superstar Toshiro Mifune in 1984 in New York. What brings this to mind is the month-long Summer Samurai festival at New York’s Film Forum, which opened this past week with Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 masterpiece, “Samurai Rebellion,” produced by Mifune. The plot concerns a discarded mistress of a feudal lord, the mother of the lord’s infant son, who is ordered to marry the son of a loyal follower. Despite a mother-in-law from hell, the marriage turns out to be a love match and the couple has a daughter. When the lord’s eldest son dies, he demands his discarded mistress back. Driven by love for his son and daughter-in-law, who do not want to be parted, the once obedient Mifune breaks with tradition and — following his heart, not his lord’s edict — unleashes a bravura performance of slice and dice swordplay against the lord’s minions. As noted in the press release, the film is an “attack on feudalism, the arrogance of power and mindless loyalty in any context.”

In 1941, then 23-year-old Yosl Mlotek and my mother and I were among a group of refugees who rented rooms in a house owned by a former general of the tsar in Kobe’s Yamamoto Dori district. Across from us lived a longtime Kobe-based Jewish family. Their 10-year-old daughter, who spoke fluent Japanese, English and some Yiddish, went each week with her kimono-clad maid to a dinky movie house in downtown Kobe to see samurai flicks (the Japanese counterpart of American cowboy serials). Mlotek asked her if we could come along. His mantra was: “Lomir geyn! Ven veln mir zayn nokh amol in Yapan?” (“Let’s go! When will we ever come back to Japan?”). On occasion we were joined by young Mayer Zucker, whose daughter, Sheva Zucker, now teaches Yiddish at Duke University. Though the film quality was appalling, the high-pitched sound track raspy and my young friend’s translation sporadic, I became an avid Japanese film fan.

Decades later in New York, I shlepped my young daughters to whatever out-of-the-way movie house showed a Toshiro Mifune film — “Rashomon” (1950), “Throne of Blood” (1957), “Yojimbo” (196l) and the gem of them all, “Seven Samurai” (1954). As a college student and fine arts major, Karen entered The Center for Public Cinema Inc. film poster contest, “1,000 Eyes,” with a woodcut print of Mifune in Akiro Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” which won second prize.

In 1984, New York City’s Japan House hosted a weeklong Toshiro Mifune film retrospective with the star present. We were granted a private audience with Mifune. Through an interpreter I told him about my sojourn in Japan, and Karen presented him with a copy of the poster, which she asked him to sign. Mifune requested a marker and signed in English and Japanese. The astonished interpreter later told us, “He never signs autographs.” Thank you, Yosl Mlotek.

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