by Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, 03/30.2022
When I hear or speak Tadao Satoʻs name, it’s usually just slightly louder than a whisper and spoken with respect. It’s said with reverence because from 1982 onward, Tadao Sato played a giant role in educating and influencing anyone serious about Asian cinema, particularly Japanese cinema. Those of us who do not speak or read Japanese cannot read over 100 of his books because they are available only in Japanese. So the quiet, respectful way we say his name could also reflect the fact that he’s somewhat of a mystery to us. Except, of course, we all have a copy of the classic “Currents in Japanese Cinema” by Tadao Sato which was translated into English by Gregory Barrett in 1982. Another invaluable book translated into English Sato-san wrote in 1982, had to wait until 2008 for the Japan Foundation to fund an English translation by Brij Tankha that NETPAC’s Aruna Vasudev and Latika Padgaonkar organized and edited and Berg published. His internationally influential book, “Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema”, is of major importance because it articulates why Mizoguchi is a genius filmmaker. I first heard about Tadao Sato the author from Donald Richie who I had the good sense to defer all things Japanese to when I started the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival in 1981. Donald said that no serious Asian film symposium with film scholars, authors and critics could take place without Tadao Sato attending with a translator. So we invited Sato-san and he attended the East West Center film symposium in 1985, as documented in photos of distinguished guests that year. In 1988 I invited him to the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival again, only this time to serve on the 1988 jury as seen in this
attached photo with other jury members, including Donald Richie in his semi- permanent role as Honorary Jury Chair. Dignified, stately, self contained, Tadao Sato
the author remained a revered mystery to me. Then in 1991 Sato-san became the Deputy Director of the Fukuoka Film Festival and I no longer needed to lament the fact I could not read most of his books because I could now cexperience his values through the fruit of his work in Fukuoka. First and foremost, I became aware of the importance of his partnership with Hisako Sato, his wife, who became the Festival’s coordinator, researcher and much more. I saw them in action at Asian film festivals watching Asian films one after another and conferring with each other afterward. While other Festivals went for the prize winners, Sato-san would select Asian films and Asian filmmakers he thought overlooked but deserving to be exhibited, documented and, importantly, their films worthy of preservation. The “Focus on Asia Fukoka Film Festival” was where I would go for the rare privelge to see films from under-represented parts of Asia such as Syria, Lebanon, Mongolia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan as well as a place to meet dedicated filmmakers like Marylou Diaz Abaya from the Philippines, and an array of Film Festival programmers, critics, authors and scholars who were serious about keeping the focus on
showing films from the diverse Asian cultures as well as films with unique , and often brave, visual language from their particular region of Asia. Further, it was where I could feel a sense of relief that rare or lesser known Asian films that captured the specificity of a culture in stories and characters would be collected, preserved and exhibited in a film Archive at the Fukuoka City Public Library. By the time Sato-san retired as Director General of the Fukuoka Film Festival in 2001, the film archive had purchased the archival rights to 153 of the 218 films exhibited at his Festival, and to this date preserves these prints as the valuable Asian cultural heritage that they are. In 2001 I saw Tadao Sato again, but this time in a different role. This time he was outside Tokyo in Kawasaki-shi as the President of the Japan Academy of Moving Images, established in 1975 by the world-famous Japanese filmmaker, Shohei Imamura. The three year film school program was founded on the principle of discovering what it is to be human and to use moving images to communicate the students’ findings. I was researching a possible model for University of Hawaiʻi’s new film school. Sato-san told me the first year student classes were devoted to humanities studies, emphasizing the philosophy of Imamura. Students studied the history of world cinema by seeing 35 mm prints of international films properly projected. The lucky 300 students had Tadao Sato teaching the mandatory World Cinema course in the first year. At the end of the year they were required to make a presentation about a social problem or an aspect of what it is to be human. The presentation about the subject they had selected could be in any format - a play, music, slides, lecture – anything except moving images. During the summer their assignment was to write a script about the subject of their presentation. It was only in their second year that the students could take their first screenwriting class. Oh, how I would have loved to have been a student there! The most vivid memory I have of Tadao Sato was the last time I saw him. I was staying in a Tokyo hotel somewhere in Shinjuku. After hearing I was there, he sent a message to me that he was coming to see me because he had something important to give me. I recall it was pouring down rain, and we both had only a short time to meet. He had taken the train from Kawasaki, and we met at the designated stop close to my hotel, each of us underneath a big umbrella protecting us from the loud pouring rain. In his arm was a large cloth sack which he handed it to me. In his limited English which was at least ten times better than my limited Japanese, he told me about each item in the sack. Inside the sack were seven video cassettes from Mongolia that he had carefully curated for me to take back to Hawaiʻi . Each had a handwritten note taped on it telling the title in its’ native language and in English. It also had the directorʻs name, the length of the film and the year the film was produced – all information he knew film programmers needed. Inside was a note card with the name, address and fax number of the person in charge of distributing the print. He spoke passionately and seriously about each one of the seven as if each was his precious child, encouraging me to see it was programed in Hawaiʻi and beyond. And then at the end he smiled and said, “This one is my favorite. “ Alas, I don’t remember the name of his favorite. I just remember his rare big smile that underscored the thrill of sharing his passion about Mongolian films.
Then he turned around and walked away in the pounding rain to go down the stairs underground to catch the train to his home. Lingering inside the moment, I felt a rush of gratitude that in my life time I had the great fortune of interacting with this unique and extraordinary man. Tadao Sato, as I experienced him, was a fierce and tireless advocate for overlooked Asian visual Storytellers who make exceptional films by being truthful about their specific cultures and experiences. The filmmakers and films selected by Tadao Sato – and dare I say - Tadao Sato himself - give audiences glimpses and insights into what it means to be fully human.