When we were young and adventuresome, Dr. M and I used to go see movies in downtown Los Angeles – maybe twenty miles from our house, braving murderous traffic – in a district that was seemingly non-discriminatorily called “Japan Town”. (Although I would not be excited about “Jew Town”.)
Our destination was the Kokusai Theater, a beautiful, freestanding structure, later relocated on the second floor of a Japanese shopping mall. We enjoyed going to movies at the Kokusai. (Which we learned about from L.A. Times “Entertainment Section” reviews.) Plus, when you went to the Kokusai on holidays, they gave you presents – festive calendars and decorative fans.
Our favorite Kokusai presentations were the Tora-san movies, a series of forty-eight, feature-length installments, generated two movies per year, showcasing Tora-san, an itinerant, seemingly slow-witted salesman – and his embarrassed Tokyo family – who traveled the countryside, and was unlucky in love.
In one opening “teaser”, Tora-san was selling sneakers at a small-town outdoor market. After encouraging a potential customer to try a pair on, the customer laced up the sneakers and immediately sprinted away. Leaving the bereft Tora-san annoyed, but also impressed by the demonstrable quality of the sneakers.
The always well-intentioned Tora-san had a unique way of handling life’s inevitable difficulties. Visiting his uncle in the hospital, Tora-san brings him a bunch of week-old bananas, insisting the ailing uncle pass them around, to insure upgraded medical attention.
Invariably smitten by some beautiful woman he encounters on his travels – who is currently estranged from her boyfriend – instead of stepping romantically into the breach, Tora-san, either deliberately or accidentally gets the feuding couple back together. Leaving town as he arrived, irrepressible but alone.
(To the catchy Tora-san theme music. Which I can sing to you on request. Ah, if only blogs could sing. Maybe they can. But, of course, I would have no idea how to do that. Granting you the imagined illusion of good singing rather than the less-than-mellifluous reality.)
Another movie we greatly enjoyed at the Kokusai was The Yen Family.
The Yen Family involves a suburban Japanese nuclear family obsessed with what they call “money spinning”, the family engaging in every imaginable scheme for turning a profit, including requiring an ashamed and embarrassed young offspring, after shining a visiting relative’s shoes, to present the visiting relative with an itemized bill for his services.
(This shocking occurrence triggers the film’s plotline, the visiting relative, a devout Christian, determined to rescue the tortured youngster from his family’s corrupting moneygrubbing clutches.
In the meantime, the family forges ahead in their determination to maximize profit in every direction. The Dad organizes elderly retirees to deliver early-morning newspapers, taking a sizable cut for his services. The Mother takes to the phones to provide pornographic “Wake-Up” calls for her subscriber-customers. And the entire family forms an “Assembly Line” to prepare pre-made lunches to hawk to the overworked businessmen downtown.
Watching The Yen Family’s microcosmical “capitalism in overdrive”, I immediately imagined writing an English-language “remake” (starring Steve Martin as the money-maniacally-driven father.) I pitched the idea to an executive at the studio I was working at, the executive responded, and he immediately arranged a meeting between us and Fuji Sankyo, the Japanese company that owned The Yen Family’s rights and would have to agree to the “remake” in order for the project to go forward.
What followed was one of the strangest occurrences in my long and eventful show business experience.
We arrived at the meeting, and were immediately introduced to the Fuji Sankyo executives, minus the “Head Man” who was on a business call to Japan in an adjoining office. At first, everybody spoke English. I mentioned my great enthusiasm for the Tora-san series, a blatant effort to endear myself with the added advantage of being true.
When the “Head Man” eventually arrived, suddenly the only people speaking English were the people not born and raised in Japan. The Fuji Sankyo executives were now insistently monolingual. It felt bizarre. They could speak English. And then suddenly, they couldn’t.
Knowing no Japanese whatsoever, I pitched the idea for a Yen Family “remake” in English. When I was finished, an American Fuji Sankyo employee translated what I had said into Japanese. Though I did not understand what he was saying, my words sounded considerably more impressive in a foreign language.
The “Head Man” then replied to my proposal in Japanese. At considerable length. After that – and here’s the amazing part – the American interpreter provided an English translation of the “Head Man’s” more than five-minute dissertation…
…with the benefit of no taken-down notes whatsoever! (Of course, he could have been winging it and we would have been none the wiser. But, I mean, what if he wasn’t?)
We went back and forth like that for about an hour – me speaking, the translator turning my words into Japanese, the “Head Man” responding – always at length – and the translator transcribing his boss’s remarks into English, with neither hesitation nor assisting notes.
By the end, my reaction to the experience was two-fold. One: This translator is a genius. And Two: “My head hurts.” I had no idea you could concentrate that hard. My brain was actually screaming for mercy.
The essence of Fuji Sankyo’s demands were the following:
They wanted the right to replace me if they were not pleased with my efforts. Which was like, “Hey, this is the movies; the screenwriter’s always dead meat.” At least these guys wanted to make certain that that was okay, which placed them Light Years ahead in the show business “Politeness” sweepstakes.
Their second demand, however, was a deal-breaker.
They wanted one of their executives to be in the room with me while I was writing the script.
My response was a fumbling,
“I don’t think… I don’t know how to do that.”
I mean, why would they even want somebody in the room with me.
FUJI SANKYO EXECUTIVE: “Can we discuss the use of that particular adjective?”
The English-language version of The Yen Family was never produced. I guess other prospective writers for the project had a similar reaction to “Company Demand Number Two.” Or else the studio executive who had accompanied me also experienced migrainic brain trauma and was in no hurry to return.
I still think The Yen Family would have made an enjoyable movie. But I guess, despite the tour de force demonstration by the American interpreter…
Something was lost in the translation.