Professor John Williams was born in St. Albans, England and grew up in Wales.He received his BA and MA in Modern Languages from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German Literature and then taught French and German in a Comprehensive School in London.From the time he was a teenager, hehad an intense interest in films and making films, so after two years of working as a teacher, he moved to Japan with the idea of teaching and saving money to go to film school in America After early fateful encounters with young filmmakers in Nagoya , Professor Williams began to make films in Japan has now lived here for more than 30 years.He is the director of four feature length films including Firefly Dreams (2001), Starfish Hotel (2006), Sado Tempest (2012), and most recently , Shinpan (2018) and has also produced several films by other directors.He sat down with the editors from Angles, to discuss his life, his career, and his work as a teacher in the Department of English Studies.
Angles : How did you get started in your field?
Professor Williams: That’s a difficult question.When I was fourteen years old, I saw a film that changed my life.It was “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” It was a German film and I saw it on television and learned there was the job of director and this was one man, Werner Herzog, who was the writer and director of the film.So that was my first exposure to the idea that someone could make a film and that’s when I decided that was what I wanted to do, but at that time in Britain you really couldn’t study filmmaking until you were around twenty-seven.There was only one film school and it was for older people, so I when I was thinking about going to university, I decided to study literature instead. Really, I’m a literature person, that’s my background as an academic and that’s partly because I couldn’t study film in Britain.I started making films in university, but I had two things going on—my love of literature and my love of film.Still when I graduated from university there still weren’t many film schools, so I didn’t know what to do. I tried to get into the film Industry, but it was very hard.After two years of teaching languages in a school in London I decided to come to Japan and make money and go to film school in America.
Angles: Why did you decide to come to this country?
Professor Williams: Because I had been exposed to some Japanese films and Japanese literature and I was fascinated. 2 years but now I’ve been here for 30 years.Life is messy.
Angles: So, you didn’t have it in mind to be living here for this long?
Professor Williams: Not at all.I thought I would be here for a couple of years and then maybe go to America, which is the place where people usually go to study film.I guess I was lucky because when I arrived in Nagoya, I met some film students in the streets making movies, and I asked if I could join them, so I started making films with them.I made a lot of short films in Nagoya.After making several short films I decided I didn’t need to go to film school because I had taught myself how to do it or they taught me, and I had learned through making mistakes…. so that was my education… on the streets of Nagoya.
Angles: What was the biggest attachment for you in Japan? That you decided you could stay here for so long?
Professor Williams: That’s a good question.I think it was partly those friends in Nagoya and I found I could make films here.Then started started much more Japanese cinema, and that was very interesting.And then I started reading much more Japanese literature, It just seemed as if going to America was a very conventional choice, because everyone does that, especially if you’re from Britain because it’s easy-you speak English and American cinema is so widely known.But I discovered that Japanese cinema is far more interesting than American cinema, especially if you watch old Japanese films which are really fascinating.So, a lot of interesting things about Japanese history and Japanese mythology and I thought it was more interesting to stay here and make films here than.be to go make films in America.
Angles: After living in Japan, what was the transition from making films to teaching filmmaking?
Professor Williams: That was kind of gradual.I started out teaching English and eventually I got a job teaching at Nagoya University and in Nagoya University I had classes where I could teach my own subject. Then I began teaching filmmaking to the students and I discovered that was very rewarding and when I came to Sophia that had become my specialty.I found that the students at Sophia were very interested in that.Gradually all my classes became film related classes.It was a natural flow.
Angles: After coming to Sophia, what did you think was the specialty of the university?
Professor Williams: Compared to other participants there was a great freedom, especially in this department, to teach the thing you are interested in, that you’re passionate about.Also, the students respond very well to that.A lot of students are interested in media.There is a lot of demand for the classes for people who are interested in making films or working in television or just doing some kind of creative work, so it seemed like a good match.
Angles: For me, being an English department student, I really think that English forms the basis and then we can learn a lot of things in English by learning the knowledge of each teacher and I think that matches with the teachers and the students… Looking at other faculty, what do you think are the positive aspects of the department in terms of the relationship between students and teachers?
Professor Williams: In my case, there are a lot of other professors who are doing similar things.But we don’t have an actual department, we have a lot of people who are interested in performing arts, media, film, and writing. So, about a third of our department are working in a similar area, which is really nice for me, but also nice for the students who can get an education in creative media and performing arts, even though there isn’t a formal department.
Angles: Going back to your experiences in filmmaking and teaching, what were some of the biggest challenges early in your academic career.
Professor Williams: I think it is partly getting people to accept that what I do fits in a university because I don’t have a conventional academic background.I am a filmmaker and practitioner, so while I think about theory and teach theory as well, my main focus is on the actual creative process.Even in America and Britain it has taken a long time for that to become accepted as part of a university structure, but now it is generally accepted in English speaking countries that it is a field. don’t think there are many places that accept that, but Sophia accepts that and that’s unusual and that’s part of the flexibility and openness of Sophia, but over the years I’ve often had to explain what it is that I do.
Angles: In your field is it usual for people to write academic papers on theory?
Professor Williams: Up until now there have been two distinct fields.One is film studies which is more traditionally academic, and film production where people didn’t write books, but they made things.My contention is that making visual materials is a similar process to writing books It involves both similar and different skills.I think theory and practice are different things.When you’re making something, you need to develop a different set of mental constructs.One is the process by which the thing is delivered, but the thing is not a book or paper, but a film.Like a lot of academic work, it is very collaborative.There is a lot of discussion, there is a lot of writing, there is a lot of research and then what happens at the end. is a film, not an academic book.Even if it’s a fictional film, it is a form of knowledge.It is a form of knowing the world and speaking about the world.That’s what we do at regulations, we talk about forms of knowledge, forms of inquiry.explore forms of inquiry, it’s important to have as many forms of inquiry as possible.
Angles: You also think that’s helpful for students to understand your field more?
Professor Williams: Not just to understand the field of filmmaking more, but to understand how we think about the world.We live in a very visual culture so a lot of the messages that we get about the world and the way we think about the world Are images, ways we like it or not.Those images are ways of thinking.If words are a form of thinking then in order to understand that thinking you need to write and know about words, but if visuals are a way of thinking then you need to know how those images are made and who makes them and how to make them, because it puts you in a different relationship to the messages.Whenever you make a film you are performing a kind of critical inquiry into the nature of thinking about how the world is constructed.
Angles: It connects to what you answered, but can you tell me what new ideas or recent discoveries in your field excite you the most these days.
Professor Williams: That’s a difficult one.I don’t think there are any new discoveries in making images because the language of visual storytelling, within about 20 years, was sort of fixed.If you think that cinema was invented in 1895 it is not that much different What is the difference between a large Hollywood action movie and for example, picture on an Indian temple wall about the deeds of the gods? They are stories about supernatural large forces.What interests me are these older stories and what do the continuation of older stories tell us about our nature as creatures.I am very excited when I see a film that I love like the Polish film Cold War.It’s a love story with a political background but it’s also a very beautifully and truthfully told story, and if I were to ask “is there anything new about that film?” Well,There is nothing new about that film, but the film itself is wonderful.It’s somehow very well-made.I think that’s the issue.In this age, of fakery and copying… things that are simple and true are very powerful. And how to make something that is simple and true is challenging.
Angles: You believe simplicity is the most powerful thing?
Professor Williams: I think simplicity can be the most powerful thing, but in order to become simple you sometimes need to go through a complicated process of learning first.Like in a Noh performance, in order to achieve what looks like simplicity, you need to go on a complicated journey and rigorous training first.
Angles: Besides the films you mentioned before, what are some texts or films you’d recommend to students to learn about your speciality?
Professor Williams: That changes all the time.Roshomon, by Kurosawa, both as a film and a way of understanding perspectives on storytelling, and also as a kind of philosophical film, is one of the great works of art.Tokyo Monogatari, by Ozu , if we’re talking about films where the filmmaker has achieved, after a long time to make a film that looks incredibly simple and yet is profound.The Insect Woman, by Imamura Shohei astonishingly powerful and political film, it’s like a stick of dynamite It’s in your face.If you just started with those three films as a way of understanding what you can do with this medium it would be a great place to start.
Angles: What are some of the ideas or experiences that you hope students take away from class?
Professor Williams: I think Imemura Shohei said it best, when he set up the Japan film school.He said he didn’t care if the students made any other films, but he wanted them to be interested in other people and interested in the world , that’s it.I kind of think the same thing, but also I think that through the collaborative process of making a film together, if the students learn how to, in English we say ‘lock horns,’ with each other then I have done what I set out to do. “Lock horns” means that you’re really engaged with someone else’s mind.You’re not just nodding and agreeing, but you’re really kind of pushing and shoving and touching the mind of the other person in that struggle to find something.When that happens in a classroom that’s really interesting.
Professor Williams teaches classes in Film Production, Film Studies, Translation, Critical Thinking and European Cinema, and has a seminar in Filmmaking.His most recent film Shinpan , an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial set-in modern-day Japan, opened in Japan 2018 and will continue showing in selected cities throughout 2019.To learn more about his ideas and the stories he tells, please watch his films or take his classes.