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On View : Between Two Cultures : PBS EXPLORES THE TRUE STORY OF A WOMAN WHO BROKE DOWN BARRIERS BETWEEN JAPAN AND THE UNITED STATES

August 21, 1994|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

"Here was a woman who was too Japanese for Americans and too American for the Japanese."

These are the words of Sheldon Larry, describing Haru Reischauer, the woman whose story Larry directs in "Long Shadows," airing Wednesday on KCET. The "American Playhouse" production--the story of a woman heretofore known mostly as someone's wife--is the first bco-production by KCET and NHK/Japan Broadcasting Corp.

Although the Japanese side wanted a documentary about the Reischauers as a couple when they first approached producer Ricki Franklin four years ago, she had other ideas.

"I had known who Edwin Reischauer (former ambassador to Japan) was," she explains, "but I knew very little about his wife. But once I and Milan Stitt (the writer) met her and learned about her life, we agreed that the story here is Haru. It had a real contemporary resonance." Here, after all, was a shy, reluctant diplomat's wife who not only outlived her marriage of 35 years, but became an outspoken person in her own right, including the creation of a women's department in the embassy in Japan.

While Edwin Reischauer had grown up in Japan before coming to America, Haru was raised in Tokyo but completed her education in America. She thereafter went back and forth throughout her whole life, and still lives in La Jolla.

Dealing with the Japanese as partners in the production was not always easy--not because of any rancor, but the result of contrasting cultures.

"They have a word called kata, " explains Larry, "which means blueprint. And they have an extremely ritualistic kata for everything. When there's no blueprint, they're at a loss, while we Americans are more 'seat of our pants.' But to their credit, they were wonderful hosts." (The production shot in Japan for nine days.)

"It was also extremely difficult to get permission from them to shoot around Tokyo," adds Larry. "We wanted to shoot a protest scene at a university there, which took months to negotiate. And in the end we still couldn't get it because they were afraid it would reflect badly on the university. Still, shooting there gives the film a look and feel it never would have had."

One of Larry's great challenges was eliciting a realistic performance from lead actress Fumi Dan, a star in Japan, but unknown in America and unversed in English. Both Dan and Matt Frewer ("Max Headroom," "Doctor, Doctor") as her husband, age over many decades.

"I had her brought here for a month to work with a coach," says Larry. "The Japanese acting style is a bit more representational and stylistic. But Fumi put herself in my hands and went places emotionally she'd never been."

For Frewer, playing Reischauer, who was a widower with three children when he met Haru, the role was too good to turn down.

"I pored over a lot of photos," says Frewer," and I worked hard at learning Japanese. It's a hard language to pick up, to get the music of, as opposed to just the words. But mostly I was concerned with making his aging believable. I tried to capture how his whole being changed--there was a defeated quality about him--after Kennedy's assassination, and the attack soon after on his own life. It was one of those roles I would have done for free."

But "Long Shadows" mostly is the portrait of a remarkable and intelligent woman, one torn her whole life between two cultures. ("Do I bow or shake hands?")

"She broke down many barriers and took it as a matter of course," says Ricki Franklin, who is most responsible for sticking with a project that came close to dying many times over the years. "Haru is not only a role model but a wonderful human being and I hope that speaks to all viewers."

The production aired in April in Japan to very high ratings, and PBS has equally high hopes for it here. "I've always felt public television was not the place to do lily-white productions," says Franklin. "So many of us come from immigrant parents and there is so much drama in these conflicts."

"Long Shadows" airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on KCET.

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