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My First VCR

Mar 7, 2010
Eiji Yoshikawa

I was 14 years old when I saw the advertisement in a movie magazine for “The first VCR for homes”.

Back then, the thing I hated the most was studying. The second most dreadful thing was school. And the third was teachers.

Although I played all day long and never studied, I had a private tutor. My tutor was the movies. Unlike the classes in school, I found movies were so much fun – always filled with adventures and dreams.

The advertisement in the magazine showed the dream of recording those movies on TV to a kid who was taping the sound of the film from the TV in an unplugged cassette recorder. The price in 1975 was about 315,000 yen, which in today’s dollars would be about 10,000 USD. My parents never saw me studying, and I rarely talked with my parents. My father could not stand the fact that I sometimes took a 60-minute train to the cinema and watched all the movies on TV -- but ignored my schoolwork. He was angry with my mother. ”Why does Eiji never study?” he would say to my mother. My mother never told me to study. She probably knew that it would be even worse if she did.

I promised myself, “I will get this VCR no matter what.”

“Would you buy me this machine if I pass the exam to Marugame High School?” I asked as I showed the advertisement to my mother. She showed the magazine advertisement to my father.

Marugame High was the best school in the area, and my parents thought there was no chance for me to pass the test – so there would be no risk at all to agree to the proposal to purchase this expensive machine.

My parents agreed to the deal!

The next day I dug to the bottom of my desk drawer in the classroom where I had crammed all the textbooks for the last three years. Four months later, I passed the high school entrance exam, and my father bought me the mysterious machine!!

This new machine was not in any shops in our area. We had to order through the Sony branch office in town. The staff in the office saw the machine for the first time, too.

One Betamax tape could record up to one-hour and it cost 5,500 yen – about $150 today. You needed two tapes for a two-hour movie and that ended up to be $300 dollars per movie! I had to place a special order to buy those tapes each time, as well, since no one was buying such a thing in 1976. While taping a movie, my fingers were always set above the silver pause lever for two hours, in order to cut the TV commercials…

“The City Lights”
“Les Enfants du Paradis”
“La Strada”
“The Bicycle Thief”
“Shane”
“The Leopard”
“The Railroad Man”
“Ash and Diamond”
“How Green Was My Valley”
“The Sound of Music”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“The Miracle Worker”
“The Train”
“12 Angry Men”
“Seven Samurai”
“Bonnie and Clyde”
“Easy Rider”
“In the Heat of the Night”
“King of Hearts”
“Sunflower”
“Serpico”
“Jeremiah Johnson”

These “world studies”, which were more credible than any studies from teachers in Japanese schools, arrived in our living room!

In high school, the classes got much more boring… I was always the second in the class and became the first when I was in the last year.

Of course, it was the first from the bottom of the class!

I never wanted to go to a university or college and I spoke even less with my father. When I was 17 and could not stand being at home, I thought of the same strategy I had used three years before.

“If I go to one of the top five famous universities, would you cover the cost for the fee, apartment and living expenses?” I asked my mother. My parents again agreed to the proposal because they thought I had no chance.

In Japan, December 1st is a special “Movie Day” for some reason… I thought this must be my kind of day, so on that day I opened the textbook for the first time – seventy-five days before the exams. I passed the entrance examinations to a couple of famous universities, and thus I could leave my home in the south.

Just as you record a movie, I recorded the textbooks onto the tape in my head. My drive to pass these university and high school exams was so that I could see more movies! I turned eighteen, and took a ferry and a train to Tokyo, holding the Sony Betamax VCR in my arms. In Tokyo, my own homework was to see at least two movies per day. The Film Center in Kyobashi, Athenee Francais, L’Institut Franco-Japonais and other small theaters were my every day hang-out. After viewing the world’s most legendary movies, I would go to the boxing gym I belonged to, where a few world champions were training. I could feel and see these real life situations every day. What I learned then was the spirit and determination of those top-class filmmakers and fighters.

“My life is to pursue the way”, I told myself, and never started or touched alcohol, cigarettes, pachinko parlor games, going to cabarets, or other things that weaken my spirit. “I will never say that I’m tired”, I told myself and have not said so for thirty years.

This is the dignity that films taught me.
This is the veneration I learned from the film artists.

I was a rebel, but not a punk.
I was an outsider, but not a bum.

“Thanks to all the great films that taught me what is real.”
“Thanks to the VCR that let me check it out over and over.”
“Thanks to the high-cost of taping one movie.”

Because it was hard to save money and buy the tapes, my level of concentration when I watch a taped movie was very high.

Nowadays I record hundreds of movies to a DVD disk that costs 20 cents, but none of them can beat those films on the Betamax tape.

There are thousands of new high-tech movies in the theaters, but none of them can even get close to any of those movies I taped. Why?

Because what you learn when you are young becomes your flesh and blood.

Victor Erice, the world class film director, said a few years ago, “Ninety-five percent of the movies these days are not movies.”

Movies must show morality, ethics and philosophy through the lives of people – and that is true of any visual work.

“How can I be better?” some students ask during my classes at film schools in Japan. My answer is simple, “Leave the class as soon as possible and travel in the world. Classroom work provides a foundation, but the real study is outside the classroom.”

Good visual works bring you the truth and make your life true.

I, who carried a suitcase-size VCR to Tokyo at the age of eighteen, am now traveling the world in my forty-ninth year with a compact video camera around my waist to shoot and record what is happening to real people in the real world.

The world is truly a precious place. Thank you, world.

Eiji Yoshikawa is a retired Pro Boxer who majored inFrench literature and did his thesis on Jean Cocteau and Cinematography. He founded the "Peacemakers", Japan's first neighborhood watch, and spends much of his time visiting schools and communities teaching children about non-violence. In 2004, Japan Inc. Magazine called him the "Compassionate Pugilist". We are proud to offer "Letters from the Compassionate Pugilist" as our first guestcolumnist. Contact Eiji at www.eiji.tv or via email.

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