Review: On The Japanese Cinema Book

No Regrets, Just Youth

Editors Hideaki Fujiki (professor of cinema studies at Nagoya University, Japan) and Alastair Phillips (professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick, UK) have accomplished the considerable task of assembling a collection of essays by scholars working in America, the UK, and Japan whose intent consists of historicising and updating Japanese Cinema Studies. Which are all things to everyone.

Few international cinematographies have consistently generated renewed critical analysis over the last seventy years. To this day clear factions continue to operate, notably in the Anglo-American and French communities, resulting at times in groundbreaking approaches and revelations that remain too often untranslated. Both have also generated their own peripheral fandom subcultures that find expression in film festivals, websites and pop culture publications.

This particular collection has no qualms about where it locates itself: it is a firm example of the cross-pollinating at play between the US, the UK and Japan academia, whose institutions have the merit of national diversity within their departments. It is no small accomplishment for this book to list texts by Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean scholars exploring the complex legacies of Japanese cinema history. There have been very few books that have included this number of essays on Japanese cinema by Japanese scholars. Masato Dogase’s essay on Japanese Student Movement Cinema (his discussion of Ogawa Shinsuke and and Hani Susumu is concise and to the point) and Yuka Kanno’s work on Queer Resonance and Miwa Akihiro (through gender performance, sexual identification and desires ‘embodied by the star’s own persona’) are among the book’s rewards. 

This also leads us to the groundbreaking archeological enterprise undertaken by Aaron Gerow from Yale University who writes about Japanese early cinema and who has been a key figure in establishing a chronology of film theory in Japan. Naoki Yamamoto provides an example of this in an essay looking at the impact of Soviet montage theory on Japanese film criticism.

Divided into seven parts, the first four rely on already grounded and tested methods of analysis, focusing on theory, industry, film style, and genre. However, each text attempts to unearth material, from archive to photogram, in order to reveal new information allowing for either new or extended readings. This is yet again an example of the rigor found in anglo-centered formal research, and the bond between deep analysis and its ties to empirical data. For years France trailed behind such results. Few French scholars in the fifties, when Japanese cinema was first shown in France, were able to speak the language, and film critics did not have the means to travel to Tokyo and Kyoto[1]. Donald Richie was there to shape an initial history while France provided ‘mise-en-scène’.

France would in time be catching up to Japanese cultural history; meanwhile, it produced philosophy and theory. The remaining three parts of the JCB find themselves at a juncture when recent French theory (ecology and postcolonialism) coincided with how Anglo-American scholars had socially politicized  earlier post-structuralist philosophers. And the films and genres discussed here display how fluid they are in their ability to sidestep containment. This is largely due to one of the book’s key accomplishments, the translation of several texts in Japanese by Thomas Kagara and Satoko Kakihara, which demonstrate how film scholars in Japan began to embrace a post-Hasumi Shigehiko moment

But old habits die hard and the longing for a linear reading, from Ozu to Kitano, manifests itself in its desire for being able to qualify a work as ‘Japanese’. The editors, in their introduction, raise the question as to whether Oshima Nagisa’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a Japanese film, given its list of co-production partners. Oshima’s Ai no Corrida/In the Realm of the Senses is a French film, with some assistance from Japan, while his Max Mon Amour, written by Luis Bunuel’s seminal collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, is a French-American film. Kurosawa Akira’s Ran is again a French film… Are they directors’ films or national films? How does it differ for a Japanese director finding financement abroad from the case of Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir during their American period, or Orson Welles moving to Europe? When is a foreign film shot in Japan not Japanese? Always.

Still, the book’s cover points to something which remains intrinsically Japanese in what it reveals of contemporary production conditions: Koreda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister, adapted from the Kamakura Diary manga, with the four young women out wearing their yukata; their smiles brighter than the Hana-bi they’re enjoying. The film stars Ayase Haruka, a constant presence on Japanese television and advertising and a guarantee for financing. The JCB proclaims Japan Cinema is still alive and talents such as Ayase are markers of a longing for renewed youth. The book makes a strong case for how very much alive it was as a provider of enduring cinematographic myths.

[1] I have examined this in lectures and texts which will be collected in an upcoming publication, ‘l’histoire du cinéma Japonais racontée par la France’ (the story of Japanese Cinema as told by France).


The Japan Cinema ANT

Part 1 of the Japanese Cinema Book focuses on the theories and approaches of Japanese film studies in both Japan and Anglo-Saxon academia. Rendering an archeology of discourses against a linear, teleological historiography, all the authors have made in-depth surveys of historical and contemporary scholarships in regards to each topic (early cinema, authorship, spectatorship, criticism, narrative, and feminist film studies), except for Kosuke Kinoshita who invests more effort into the case study.

With a diversified group of contributors, the book pays careful attention to the politics of language, from the Japanese word order of name to the translation of terms. As mentioned in the book, the Japanese word eiga doesn’t really differentiate between movie, film, and cinema (which is the same case in Chinese). The originally imported film culture immediately finds its local vitality with its conceptual traces back to the long tradition of gento and stage performances. In its development, different actors in the network (see Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, or ANT) are at once inextricably linked, such as the dynamic relationship between the author and the spectator mediated by benshi in the silent film era, the common case wherein a member of a film crew carries out multiple tasks or an outstanding performer also directs or writes scripts, as well as foreign theories constantly interacting with local thinkings and agendas.

Japan’s film industry, as with other countries, enjoys a unique development trajectory, and perception of it (along with its essential differences) in this volume provides indispensable connections to Anglo-Saxon trajectories. A wide range of historical materials and perspectives have been brought into the book precisely to encourage local readings of Japanese film industry and transboundary understandings of the context, as alternatives to the Orientalist, nationalist and gendered viewpoints that prevailed in the last century. Such a common ground contributes to the strong sense of a transnational academic community embodied in the book, where many contributors share the same references from different standpoints or cross referring to each other’s work.


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