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Japan's 'ambassador' movies

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Japanese movies have enriched world cinema for decades, from the epics of Kurosawa to the sensitive dramas of Mizoguchi and the delicate inner landscapes of Ozu. Where would we be without ''Rashomon'' and ''Gate of Hell,'' or ''Yojimbo'' and ''The Seven Samurai''?

In addition to these mainstream films, moreover, Japan has created a body of movie poetry - ''experimental'' cinema based on personal expression rather than box-office ambitions. Like similar works in the United States and many other countries, these films have a growing audience of admirers who reach far beyond national borders. Indeed, experimental movies are often used as ambassadors of goodwill, traveling abroad to share the personal and artistic views of their native lands.

In the latest instance of ''ambassadorial cinema'' Japan has sent a provocative package of experimental films to the United States, where they are now touring - introduced by their curator, Donald Richie - to a number of American cities, from Pittsburgh and Chicago to Minneapolis and Honolulu. After the tour ends on Feb. 10, the films will continue to be shown widely in the United States and abroad. Supported by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and organized by the American Federation of Arts, the programs (comprising 20 films) cover a lot of ground, from the early-'60s surrealism of ''X'' by Shuntaro Tanikawa and Toru Takemitsu to the early-'80s technodazzle of ''Spacy'' by Takashi Ito.

The films were selected by Mr. Richie, who chose them after viewing some 2, 000 works spanning the whole 20 years of Japanese experimental film. A resident of Tokyo for the past 35 years, except for a couple of breaks -- including a stint as curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art -- the American-born Richie is widely recognized as an outstanding expert on all aspects of Japanese cinema, which he discussed in a recent interview with the Monitor.

Why are Japanese experimental films of particular interest to Americans?

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