Roger Pulvers has had the sort of free-ranging, multifaceted career that seems like a dream in this specialized age, when academics labor in their narrow professional silos.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944 to Jewish-American parents, he came to Japan in 1967, began teaching at Kyoto Sangyo University and was soon writing short stories and essays about his new home. In 1972 he went to Australia to take up a university lectureship in Japanese — and started what was to be a long and still-continuing shuttle between the two countries.
In Australia Pulvers became an acclaimed playwright and theater director, as well as an Australian citizen. In Japan he made many friendships in the arts world, while publishing a stream of books, from novels to textbooks, in both English and Japanese. (The total is now approaching 50.) He also wrote the Counterpoint column for The Japan Times from 2005 to 2013.
In 1982, director Nagisa Oshima hired Pulvers to be his assistant on the shoot of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a drama set in a wartime Japanese prison camp starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano.
Nearly 35 years later, the now 72-year-old Pulvers is releasing “Star Sand,” his first feature as a director — and a film he considers a “little sister” to Oshima’s classic. Scripted by Pulvers and based on his own novel of the same title, “Star Sand” is set on an unnamed island near Okinawa toward the end of the war — and after an invasion by American forces that had turned into a long, brutal struggle that claimed nearly 150,000 Okinawan lives.
The film’s main characters are two deserters — the Japanese Takayasu (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the American Bob (Brandon McClelland) — who find refuge in a cave by the ocean. There’s also 16-year-old Hiromi (Lisa Oda), who lives alone on the island because her father is working at a war plant in Nagasaki and her Japanese-American mother has returned to Los Angeles.
One day as she is on the beach collecting “star sand” — tiny star-shaped protozoa fossils — Hiromi discovers the two men and decides to help them, though she knows that aiding the enemy, in the form of the handsome, gentle-spirited Bob, is dangerous. But the real danger comes from Takayasu’s older brother, Hajime (Takahiro Miura), a wounded soldier still burning to kill and die for the Emperor. Once he arrives at the cave, the trio’s peaceful (if anxious) interlude comes to an abrupt end.
Speaking to The Japan Times at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where the film had its first public screening on April 10, Pulvers says that, appearances to the contrary, “Star Sand” is “not an anti-war film.”
“I’d say 99 percent of all so-called anti-war films are not really anti-war at all,” he explains. “They are about the triumph of good over evil, but that’s not possible. … Who is to say who in a war is good?” No one side in a conflict has a claim to absolute virtue, he adds: “It’s self-righteous to say you do. In war there are no winners; all are losers.”
While portraying Bob and Takayasu in a sympathetic light, “Star Sand” does not present them as heroic in the way that war movies tend to do. Takayasu grimly meditates with his face to the wall when his brother threatens Bob’s life. Meanwhile, Bob is a likeable sort, whose crinkly grin sets Hiromi atingle, but he has totally rejected fighting.
If his and Takayasu’s pacifism makes them contemptible in the eyes of Takayasu’s gung-ho brother, so be it. In Pulvers’ eyes they are heroes.
“Those who kill (in wartime) carry that burden for the rest of their lives,” Pulvers says. To refuse to kill, he adds, “takes true courage.”
At the same time, the film is not a simplistic hymn to saintly victims-in-waiting. Violence intrudes and the moral waters are interestingly muddied.
Why Okinawa? Pulvers has long felt a love for the islands and had an interest in their troubled history. Also, the residents of the film’s island, Iejima, welcomed Pulvers and his cast and crew, and supported his film’s call for an end to violence. Far from being the refuge depicted in the film, Iejima was devastated by bombing during the war. The survivors and their descendants remembered, even as memories of the war faded among succeeding generations of their countrymen.
In the film this gap is symbolized by Shiho (Riho Yoshioka), a present-day Tokyo college student who is drafted into researching the events in the cave by her elderly professor (Renji Ishibashi). She becomes a reluctant, if finally effective, link between Okinawa’s past and Japan’s present.
Pulvers, however, did not intend to make a specifically Okinawan or Japanese film.
“I wanted to make it universal,” he says. “It’s set in Japan, but it could have just as well been Poland.”
As someone who has lived most of his life between Japan and Australia, Pulvers says he doesn’t “identify with any one country.” He does, however, find commonalities between the land of his birth, where he notes that “both Republicans and Democrats have been saying ‘America is the greatest country in the world’ for the past 50 years,” and countries like Japan, Russia and Korea (“just to name a few”) where the “we are special” rhetoric is similarly loud and insistent.
In the film’s cave, however, all are equal in their humanity, which includes hunger, pain and death. At the same time, Pulvers says, “I want the audience to be left with a feeling of light and hope.”
“It’s not a political movie,” he adds. “I’m not telling the audience what to think. The message is up to them.”
“Star Sand” will screen on April 22 at the 9th Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha (April 20-23). It will open theatrically in Okinawa on June 21 and in Tokyo on Aug. 4. For more information, visit www.star-sand.com.
A film festival for Okinawan fans
Now in its ninth edition, the Okinawa International Movie Festival is something of an outlier in its focus on populist fare, including a section of films by TV directors, and another, Deru-Cine, that invites audience members to appear on camera. It’s also unusual in that its main sponsor is Yoshimoto Kogyo, the talent agency that handles many famous Japanese comedians.
For Okinawans, the opening-day red carpet offers a chance to see their TV favorites up close. But there’s a lot for cinephiles, too — from screenings of new Japanese and Asian indie films to Okinawan classics.
The 9th Okinawa International Movie Festival takes place April 20-23. For details, visit www.oimf.jp.