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."