This is so obvious that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but it is something that can also easily be forgotten—the audience that you watch a movie with can really effect how much you enjoy it. Tonight I was reminded of this when I attended a movie night organized by a Tokyo-based American screen writer and music producer. This was my first time to join, but apparently he puts on the event around once a month, inviting people to enjoy wine at a cozy restaurant while watching a film. The selections are Japanese movie with English subtitles or English-language productions filmed in Japan, so there tends to be a crowd mostly of people like me—long-term foreign residents of Tokyo.
Tonight it was 1957 Marlon Brando film Sayonara. All I knew about the film was that Miyoshi Umeki became the first—at to date, only—Asian performer to win a best supporting actress Oscar. If I had watched this alone, I would have been mildly entertained. Although the film took place at locations around Japan, there is very little on the screen that could be recognized in the Tokyo that I live in. So I would have watched it as just another big-budget Technicolor ‘50s production. But watching it with a group of other foreign residents of Tokyo, it became lots of fun. We chuckled at the cheap jokes of Marlon Brando bumping his forehead on the low doorways of Japanese houses or struggles to sit at low Japanese dining tables, and every time Umeki came on the screen someone would let slip “oh, she is so adorable!” When Brando’s character goes backstage to have a word with the actress he is in love with and opens the door for an elderly stage dresser and says in his loveable Southern drawl the single Japanese word doozo (“go ahead”) we all roared with laughter.
Although there are a lot of naïve ideas and a few really bizarre ones in Sayonara, it is a well-made film. But this viewing experience for me was made more by the audience than what was on the screen.