Japanese CinemaThis is not a typical scholarly handbook, and will not necessarily provide an overview of the history of Japanese cinema. Instead, it seeks to reassess what is at stake for this cinema today. The volume’s twenty essays present different perspectives on Japanese cinema, the field of Japanese film studies, as well as concepts of national cinema and world cinema. The multifaceted nature of this volume is not a failure of either the authors or the editor. Rather, this diversity of perspectives makes the monograph compelling and relevant to both students and researchers of Japanese cinema, and to those interested in visual culture anywhere.

Another acknowledgment that should be made before delving in more detail into this ambitious work is that this review is written by someone who is personally and professionally close to some of the contributors to this volume (although not to the editor) in ways that might seem to disqualify him from the task at hand. However, rather than review any individual contribution, my aim is to assess the volume as a whole, to measure how essays cohere, and ultimately to ponder how the entire volume reconstructs the notion of Japanese cinema and how it projects an image of this national cinema toward wider recognition.

The history of the international study of Japanese Cinema began with an enthusiasm unmatched by any other research of a national cinema. Yet, this enthusiasm was marked by what the editor, Daisuke Miyao (1), pointedly calls, “culturalism,” or the mistaken tendency to see in Japanese films a unique cultural other, most emblematically found in Nöel Burch’s 1979 book To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema. Although this tendency has not entirely disappeared, the study of Japanese cinema since has been shaped mostly by scholars less distant from their object of study – those trained in Japanese studies, film studies, or both – and equipped with the language skills required for a more critical contextualised analysis. As a result, however, Japanese cinema became something of a closed field, deterring those who were not studying exclusively Japanese visual culture, and promoting an attitude of dismissal toward studies that failed or refused to include specific Japanese context. This also led, unfortunately, to a loss of some of the enthusiasm that followed the international study of Japanese cinema in its early days. This volume might be seen as an effort to spark new and wider interest in the field by reopening it to include observers from various distances, with contributions by non-Japanese and non-film scholars, one archivist, and one film producer.

In his introduction, Miyao asserts that Japanese cinema has been “one of the world’s important national cinemas” thanks to its golden age of domestic cinema culture during the 1950s (a largely understudied phenomenon that this volume does not shed any light on either (2)), its contribution to the prevalent paradigms in the study of film, namely, that of auteur theory (from which the volume largely strays away), and that of art cinema (to which it is much committed). Yet, Miyao continues, Japanese cinema as an object of academic study had been marginalized in recent years. The Oxford Handbook on Japanese Cinema tries to rediscover this national cinema in the age of globalism, transnationalism, and other media. Such ambitions are clearly evident in the structure of the volume and its three parts: “What is Japanese Cinema Studies?” “What is Japanese Cinema?” and, most provocatively, “What Japanese Cinema is!” Together, the essays offer a meditation on Japanese cinema via discussions on such specific topics such as melodrama (Miyao) or montage (Kinoshita), and also larger ideas about the nation, translation, conversion, the body, gender, politics, economy, ideology, authenticity, art, and, of course, cinema. In the following, however, rather than abstracting thoughts on any of the above-mentioned subjects, I will briefly look at the volume as an edited work and try to extract the questions, and indeed, possible answers each part might be alluding to. Due to the nature of such a complex and ambitious work, this review cannot really do justice to the project in its entirety. However, I will try to suggest a few questions of my own, and to point to some possible stronger and weaker aspects of the volume as a single work.

Monday (Sabu, 2000)

Monday (Sabu, 2000)

The first essay seems to, almost directly, tackle the question of the first part, “What is Japanese Cinema Studies?” The essay, titled, “Japanese Film without Japan: Toward a Nondisciplined Film Studies” by Eric Cazdyn, discusses the potential of studying Japanese cinema without considering its national qualities, by means of “forgetting Japan.” To be sure, Cazdyn does not argue that Japan as a nation ceased to exist in any way, but rather, that the different channels through which films travel globally have made the nation state less culturally dominant. As a case study that exemplifies the developments of the new global environment in Japan, Cazdyn analyses a film released in the year 2000, Monday (the original title is in English), directed by the Japanese director known as Sabu, while referring to the specific Japanese social and economic context. Although the essay does conclude by admitting that it is impossible to study Japanese cinema without Japan, Cazdyn suggests that thinking about this impossibility might broaden the prospects of the field.

Orgies of Edo (Ishii Teruo, 1969) 

Orgies of Edo (Ishii Teruo, 1969)

Next, Ben Singer, a non-Japanese specialist, offers a careful consideration of Japanese film style. He begins with a close analysis of a short sequence of a film pertaining to a genre that normally receives little attention from film scholars, pinku eiga, or soft-core pornography. Yet, the sequence of the film, Zankoku ijô gyakutai monogatori (Orgies of Edo, Ishii Teruo, 1969), is revealed to be, as Singer brilliantly demonstrates, profoundly telling in terms of the links between film style and cultural traditions. Singer then moves on with an equally attentive analysis of several well-known accounts of Japanese film form by Donald Richie, Noël Burch, and David Bordwell. Although the three seemingly represent different approaches, Singer shows that in fact there is much common ground between them. In the end, however, Singer concludes (in some ways at odds with Cazdyn) that in order to study national film style, one has to focus on elements that receive only secondary attention: production and exhibition.

While the first two chapters of section one dealt with the field of Japanese cinema as one composed around actual films, the other two chapters in this section suggest that the field is one that analyses discourses around cinema culture at large. Aaron Gerow lays out a history of film criticism in Japan to the present day, underscoring a narrative about cinema negotiated by professionals who gradually lose the ability to make a substantial impact on either audiences or the industry. Looking on the other side of reception, Hideaki Fujiki discusses the formation of cinematic audiences in the pre-war era. However, the conception of reception Fujiki is considering is one constructed as a social category by intellectuals affiliated with the government. Thus, together the essays form a discourse based on a specific mode of spectatorship within the study of Japanese cinema, while the section as a whole marginalises popular reception of films by ordinary filmgoers. Whereas the first two essays provocatively ponder bold possibilities for the field but conclude on a more conservative note, the other two are faithful to the kind of scholarship that has characterised the field in the last couple of decades. Therefore, rather than problematize or challenge prevalent paradigms within contemporary Japanese film studies, the first part of the volume, despite its bold promise, ultimately affirms a more orthodox direction not just as the right one, but also as productive and insightful. Among other questions about the field that could have been explored are, as Aaron Gerow himself previously asked: where does Japanese film theory fall? (3) Moreover, given that all four contributors to this section were trained in North America, it begs the question: is Japanese cinema studies a Western discipline? And related to that: what is the state of film studies (Japanese films included) in Japan (if it exists at all)?

The second part asks an even more challenging question: what is Japanese cinema? While it is not certain that the contributors are aware of the larger context within which their contributions are printed, these eight essays begin general investigation into the definition, or ontology perhaps, of Japanese cinema. Michael Raine’s essay (the first in this part of the book), “Adaptation as Transcultural mimesis in Japanese Cinema,” suggests an inquiry into the definition of cinema negotiated between forces of imitation, assimilation, influence, and international cultural flows. Weighing these issues, the essay asks whether there could be a Japanese cinema that is not the sum of its encounters with other national and international cinemas. While Raine gravitates toward a negative answer, he nevertheless raises new queries about transnationalism and what might be called “transculturalism” (a concept one might find as problematic as culturalism): the role of art and entertainment as phenomena shaped by domestic and global interactions, and perhaps even the overemphasis on film within the overwhelming reality of geopolitics. Taking to an extreme one of Raine’s provocative phrases, the question concerning the definition of Japanese cinema might be: are not Japanese films merely “shameless and shameful” (albeit at the same time, quite wonderful) imitations of Hollywood?

Similarly, Chika Kinoshita’s essay asks questions about Japanese cinema as an aspect of Japanese modernism, juxtaposed between notions of Americanism and mass culture. She does so by carefully analysing Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1929 Tōkyō kōshinkyoku (Tokyo March) in the context of domestic intellectual history. A slightly different option is suggested by Miyao’s own essay, “Nationalizing Madame Butterfly: The Formation of Female Stars in Japanese Cinema.” Miyao looks at the projected image of Japanese women, in both Japan and Hollywood, to find it eventually nationalised into a self-orientalist image of femininity. Thus, rather than narrative, he suggests that the images of real bodies of citizens are a site for questioning the nationality of Japanese cinema. Another, yet more specific, question about Japanese cinema’s relationship with America is found in the ninth chapter, “Outpost of Hybridity: Paramount’s Campaign in Japan, 1952-62,” by historian, Hiroshi Kitamura. The essay is an historical account of the American studio in Japan at a time when the domestic film industry dominated the market. The question about Japanese cinema as a whole that arises from the essay regards Japanese spectators, those working on behalf of the Japanese branch of the studio, and those who watched the studio brand films and who were not “passive recipients of Paramount culture” (p. 195), but active participants in the development of specific Japanese qualities to the brand in Japan, and to its promotional mechanisms as such.

Chapters eight, ten and eleven are dedicated to Japan’s relationships with other East Asian nations. In the first essay of the three, Dong Hoon Kim asks questions about the definition of Japanese cinema in light of the occupation of the Korean peninsula and the validation of the Japanese cinema laws there during this time. More interestingly, however, Kim’s essay raises further ideas about what he calls “interpretive performance” of Japanese film, anywhere, as part of Japanese film culture. Looking at the post-war era, both Kwai-Cheung Lo and Sangjoon Lee speculate about the reach of Japanese cinema into East Asia in light of military and colonial aggression. The question all three pose concerns the topography of Japanese cinema, its political limits, and its economic reach (although one might ask whether this question can be posed just as well about any other parts of the world).

The second part of the volume concludes with a unique essay by Abé Markus Nornes. Through his personal account of programming and researching Japanese cinema for more than two-and-a-half decades, Nornes raises important questions about the reception of Japanese films in Western film festivals, and the role of Japan as a site where filmmakers from other Asian countries can learn more about Western filmmaking. Moreover, the essay makes a contribution to the question at hand about the definition of Japanese cinema by making an analogy with sparks and circuits, inviting the reader to ask whether Japanese cinema runs through a short circuit of its own, or whether it can ignite other circuits with those cinemas that it interacts with, globally. Lastly, Nornes is the only contributor who mentions Dudley Andrew, who has been one of the dominant figures in the study of world cinema for many decades, including Japanese cinema. It is, however, Andrew’s work on film theory that is relevant here, particularly his study of André Bazin (who is not mentioned at all in this volume), and his famous answer to Bazin in What Cinema is! (2010). It is therefore somewhat regrettable that the volume does not include any essay that deals directly with the definition of Japanese cinema, for example, as proposed by many Japanese film theorists and critics, most significantly during World War II, a time many of the contributors acknowledge as being a pivotal one.

As mentioned above, the third part is an obvious reference to Dudley Andrew’s work. Yet, while Andrew answers a question posed by Bazin, this part is better understood as an answer (or answers) to question(s) posed in the previous part. Thus, it would be wrong to consider this third section merely as an ontology of Japanese cinema. Instead, this part offers examples of cutting-edge scholarship on Japanese cinema today. While the first essay in this section is arguably an ontological account of the materiality of Japanese film by archivist, Hidenori Okada, a more thought-provoking answer is found in the chapter that follows, in which Shuhei Hosokawa discusses sound in Japanese silent films. Although it is a well-known fact that silent films, in Japan as elsewhere, were often accompanied by musical or other performances, Hosokawa explores the meeting point of Japanese cinema with such “indigenous” media as kabuki theatre, geisha dance, sumo shows, and Western music, such as brass bands. Although he does not question the role of the benshi as the centre of all these, Hosokawa’s account is instrumental in (what seems to me to be the volume’s effort at) the grounding of Japanese cinema as a multi-media phenomenon, right from its inception.

The Twilight Samurai (Yamada Yōji, 2002)

The Twilight Samurai (Yamada Yōji, 2002)

The next two chapters point to an altogether different approach on issues relating to the materiality of Japanese cinema. First, Ichiro Yamamoto, a film producer, describes his personal involvement in the production of Yamada Yōji’s 2002 jidaigeki (period drama) film,Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai). (4) While he spends some time writing generally about the history of the genre and filmmaking in Japan, his real contribution to this part of the volume is undoubtedly his insights into the nitty-gritty aspects of production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion of Japanese films today. A significantly different notion of a certain reality in Japanese cinema is suggested by Ayako Sato to be a mode of representing women and their bodies. Analysing three films in detail – Karumen kokyō ni kaeru (Carmen Comes Home), and to a lesser extent its sequel, Karumen junjōsu (Carmen Falls in Love), both directed in 1952 by Kinoshita Keisuke, as well as Suzuki Seijun’s 1966 Kawachi Karuman (Carmen From Kawachi) – Sato argues that their portrayal of the female body is significant. This is because women in these films embody the shame of defeat, and male humiliation during occupation. While similar topics have been dealt with in the past (e.g., with a focus on the male body, in Isolde Standish’s monograph, Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema: Towards a Political Reading of the Tragic Hero, 2000), Sato turns to see the reality of representations on film as a tension between bodies and embodiments of real Japanese men, women, and national memory.

Carmen Comes Home (Kinoshita Keisuke, 1952) 

Carmen Comes Home (Kinoshita Keisuke, 1952)

The two chapters that follow converge upon works by a single individual, experimental filmmaker and theorist, Matsumoto Toshio. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano concentrates mainly on a short film directed by Matsumoto, Nishijin (1961) that explores the boundary between documentary and poetic cinematography through its depiction of a specific location in Kyoto. Wada-Marciano discusses the film as a site where such dichotomies as, “tradition vs. modernisation, handicraft vs. mechanical production, and the working class vs. the bourgeoisie” (p. 370) are visually manifested and clash with one another. The result is a representation of “incomplete subjects” which reiterate a moment of crisis in Japanese modernity that further opens the debate on Japanese art, craft, and the place of cinema between these two. In a slightly different fashion, Miriam Sas, whose point of departure is Matsumoto the film theorist, rather than Matsumoto the filmmaker, argues that by 1970, “ideas of environment and apparatus that transform the understanding of both art and cinema” (p. 387) emerged around the notion of “intermedia.” Although she does acknowledge the fact that “media mix” was not initiated during the 1960s (indeed, as Shuhei Hosokawa’s essay shows, it was part of Japanese cinema from its inception), she argues that what was new was the “technological transformations in urban space and art’s responses to the experience of these broader ‘totalities’ and dynamic systems.” (p. 391)

The notion of Japanese cinema as an abstract dynamic flux within other media and nationalities is also raised by Alex Zahlten in the last chapter of the volume. The essay echoes ideas raised by the chapters by Wada-Marciano and Sas, but with one main distinction in that it veers from the traditional (Western) understanding of Art, and the tension associated with it in the context of Japan’s modernity complex. Instead, Zahlten situates the artistic conundrum (although not explicitly) within the flow of cultural consumption as “entangled with communication,” but also within loops of narratives repeated via various media, and the management of certain Japanese styles by domestic legal procedures and the international politics of soft power. If these discussions amount to a definition of Japanese cinema, it could come in the form of a struggle between difference and repetition, as a compromised version of itself through the growing fluidity of the world and the many worlds coexisting in different genres, modes, narratives, styles, or images of Japan. This notion can find support in the essay preceding Zahlten’s, by Carlos Rojas, who is not a Japanese specialist, and who has also co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas (2013). Rojas discusses another international and intermedia flow, the one that brought to Hollywood the 1998 Japanese film Ringu, and then ignited global attention to J-Horror that culminated in the series of Hollywood remakes of Japanese films, starting with The Ring in 2002. Arising from this essay is a conception of Japanese cinema as, essentially, a parasite, existing at the same time in various popular media, national contexts, and global coda.

Does part three of this volume indeed answer some of the questions posed in the second part? For example, is Japanese cinema a “shameful and shameless” imitation of Hollywood? Well, not necessarily – it might be more of a copy of other copies, and it too can be copied, even by its American, more economically successful counterpart. Thus, in the globalized world, it is suggested, Japanese cinema cannot truly exist in a confined circuit either. Nonetheless, the question about the nationality of Japanese cinema, particularly given the recent rise of right-wing politics, the rising tensions with some of Japan’s neighbours, and mainly, the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, remains as pertinent as ever. Lastly, although it might not be necessary to redeem the place of Japanese cinema in film or media studies, one could argue that what is really needed in order to further open it up for students and scholars who are not trained in Japanese studies is, in fact, a more straightforward English language handbook, perhaps not unlike The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas, with its concise history of cinemas in the Chinese speaking world, and different sections dedicated to form and structure. Although Japanese cinema studies, as a field, enjoys a longer history, since Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie’s The Japanese Film Art and Industry (1959, with a second edition published in 1982), there is no suitable, up-to-date scholarly guide for the study of this national cinema. (5) In the meantime, the newest and probably best handbook available is Yomota Inuhiko’s Nihon eigashi 110 nen (2014). Of course, it is only available in Japanese, and if one can already read Japanese, one might want to pay closer attention to the extensive eight-volume series edited by Yomota, Nihon eiga wa ikiteiru (Japanese Cinema is Alive, 2010).

To be clear, The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema is a spectacular and exciting collection of essays, reflecting important developments in the fields of Japanese cinema and visual culture. It is a field enriched by active discussion group lists like Kinema Club (6) which reach out for numerous motivated students of Japanese cinema worldwide, and, no less importantly, by the fact that there are more academic positions held by Japanese film specialists than ever before. This volume, therefore, while perhaps not more radical compared with less ambitious volumes such as Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History (ed. Arthur Nolletti and David Desser, 1992), or the more recent Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts (ed. Alistair Phillips and Julian Stringer, 2007), is nonetheless a wonderful demonstration of the robustness of the field.


1. Excluding names of Japanese scholars trained or working in the West, Japanese proper names in this review follow the Japanese convention, with the surname before the given name. This is despite the fact that the publication itself is not always consistent in this respect, with some of the essays following the Western tradition, while others the Japanese one.

2. In Japanese, however, Mitsuyo Wada Marushiāno, who also contributed an essay to this volume, recently edited the most significant work to date about this era in the history of Japanese cinema. See: “Sengo” Nihon eigaron: sen-kuhyaku-gojū nendai o yomu. (Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2012).

3. Aaron Gerow, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, no. 22 (December 2010), pp. 1-14.

4. This essay was exquisitely translated by Diane Wei Lewis.

5. One exception is Aaron Gerow and Abé Mark Nornes’ Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies (2009), but this is meant mainly for students who already have certain degree of fluency in the Japanese language.

6. http://kinemaclub.org/