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Book Review: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

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Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film is an absolutely wonderful exploration of Japanese cinema, and Richie does an excellent job of articulating the many ways in which Japanese film deviates from its Western counterparts. Richie is the former Curator of Film at the New York Museum of Modern Art, and he has written some forty books on Japan and its people (as Paul Schrader writes in the forward, “Over the last forty years Donald Richie has written and rewritten not only the history of Japanese film but also a history of critical methodology. Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie”).

Richie first experienced Japan in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, he arrived in Japan as a civilian staff writer for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He soon gravitated toward Japanese cinema, and started writing movie reviews. In 1959, he wrote The Japanese Film: Art and Industry; in 1971, he authored Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character, and Japanese Cinema: An Introduction appeared in 1990. This book thus marks his forth foray into encapsulating an overarching critique of film from the Japanese perspective. It serves as a thoughtful exploration of how frequently film represents culture, and how mutating artistic mediums still manage to allow artists to struggle with their surroundings in ways which mirror the debates in the culture itself.

One of the primary themes of Richie’s book is how Japanese filmmakers addressed the rapid changes in Japanese culture during the early 20th century. While the film The Last Samurai is an overtly romanticized version of the struggle between traditional Japanese culture and the perceived “Westernizing” influences which abandoned the samurai’s sword and the horse in favor of the suit and the Model T. But the weight of tradition was not so easily abandoned, and as such Japanese film routinely dealt with the tension between the old and the new. As Richie writes:

In 1896, when film was first seen in Japan, a fifty-year-old member of this initial movie audience would have been born into a feudal world where the shogun, daimyo, and samurai riled. He could not have left his archipelago or, if he did, he could not have returned upon pain of death. His manner of dress and way of speech were regulated by his status, and his ignorance of the outside world was general. It was still the epoch of the Tokugawa clan which ruled Japan from 1600 through 1867, encompassing much of what we now know as the Edo period.

During the ensuing period, the Meiji era (1868-1912), this kimono-clad viewer would not only have seen the Meiji Restoration (when the sixteen-year-old emperor was brought from Kyoto to Edo – now Tokyo – to become the nominal head of the new government) but also the Meiji “Enlightenment.”

Here, under the slogan “A Rich Country and a Strong Military” (Fukoku Kyohei) he would have seen the abolition of the feudal socioeconomic system under which he had grown up, the adoption of modern (Western) production methods, and universal conscription. Under another of the many colorful slogans of the period, “Civilization and Enlightenment” (Bummei Kaika), he would have experienced the official urging of Western clothes and meat eating, the abolition of sword carrying and chommage (topknots), and eventually the disbanding of the samurai themselves.

This hypothetical fifty-year-old would have also witnessed the forced adoption of the Western (Gregorian) calendar, the emergence of a nationwide public school system, the inauguration of telephone and postal services, and the construction of railways.

And yet, Richie says, this fellow, who might well be dressed in a three-piece suit and a bowler hat, would have been told “to somehow hold on to his Japaneseness.” Or, to borrow from another slogan: “Japanese Spirit and Western Culture,” in that order, by Imperial edict.

I was fascinated by Richie’s exploration of how film was first introduced into Japan and its incorporation of film first as a method of capturing traditional Japanese theater, together with the custom of men acting as women (a custom which disappeared within just a few short years as a distinctly Japanese form of “realism” brought a host of other changes). He noted that for some in Japanese culture, the conventions of traditional theater served as a mechanism of preserving culture; essentially, that it was a use of the medium to depict that which had become defined by a very specific set of artistic rules. In a statement I found quite telling, Richie asserts: “It is probably safe to say that Japan has never assimilated anything that it did not want to.”

From the early silents to the esoteric incorporation of expressionism to the strict governmental controls of the film industry as a mechanism of propaganda during World War II and beyond into the contemporary era, Richie’s narrative is nuanced, detailed, and conversational. I was intrigued by his discussion of the film A Page Out of Order, a 1926 film directed by Kinugasa Teinosuke which would have undoubtedly mirrored some of the German cinematic expressionism of the period. The film is ostensibly about a man who abandons his wife, causing her to drown her baby and go insane (or, as Richie points out, to go insane and drown her baby). The older daughter bitterly holds the father responsible; in his guilt, he gets a job at the asylum where his wife is incarcerated. In the end, his daughter’s marriage has been happily arranged, but the father stays at the asylum because his memories and hallucinations have served to make him as much a part of the place as the deranged wife.

Of the film, however, Richie writes:

Such a story would have equally suited the demands of shimpa, but the scriptwriters purposely scrambled time and space. In addition, Kinugasa complicated any easy reading by leaving out all the dialogue titles that Kawabata had provided and by cutting any scenes that could forward a recognizable plot. He also urged the inclusion of logically irrelevant but emotionally evocative scenes – a broken rice bowl, a rain-soaked cat – and interrupted the narrative so often that the audience had to bring its own subjectivity to assist in any interpretation.

Ouch, my hurting head. Talk about, as Joss Whedon does, bringing one’s own subtext to a film.

Richie covers the social realism of post-war (and occupied) Japan, then addresses the challenges the Japanese film industry faced as a result of competition from television (competition which continues, and which likewise affects the American film industry today). The breakup of the studio system in the 1980s led to the development of what Richie calls “the new independents,” and it is perhaps ironic that the history of Japanese film thus mirrors the developments of American film – in which the 1970s saw the rise of independent filmmakers and studios who were subsequently subsumed back into the corporate fold. Of the “new kind of Japanification” Richie sees promulgated by the latest wave of filmmakers, he writes:

The divergence between traditional and nontraditional is much less marked. Whether something is traditionally Japanese or not is no longer a concern – no one can tell and no one cares. Tradition is not to be guarded. It is to be augmented as the riches of the rest of the world are assimilated.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to explore more of Japanese film than Akira Kurosawa (nothing wrong with Kurosawa – his films are typically fascinating). In that regard, the book closes with a “selective guide” to Japanese films available on DVD or video (and undoubtedly accessible through Netflix). All in all, I must say I’m thinking of it as an indispensable resource on global film.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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  • http://www.templestark.com Temple A. Stark

    This post was chosen by the section editor as a BC pick of the week. Go HERE (link) to find out why.

    And thank you
    – Temple

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com Pat Cummings

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.