Donald Richie’s long-awaited new book, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001), is a bit like old wine in new skins, though this is not necessarily a criticism. It attempts to update the field, incorporate new work on Japanese film history and modify some untenable positions taken in the past. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, however, like its title, retains a slightly musty flavor that, depending on one’s taste, improves with age. In a day when specialization and would-be sophistication dominates film and media study, a straightforward, synoptic introduction to Japanese film can be refreshing.
In five deftly wrought chapters Richie covers the highlights of Japanese film in the 20th century. What is new in this volume is a short introduction with something close to a statement on method. Richie’s is pragmatic, insisting on both the importance of Japanese appropriation/indigenization and national identity as something constructed rather than discovered. He says his responsibility as a historian is to compose a narrative that balances the weight of tradition (“volksgeist theory”) with the import of foreign influence (11). Fair enough, but what is noteworthy is Richie’s rejection of essentialism: “there was . . . no Japanese essence awaiting liberation by a few individual filmmakers” (ibid.). This is a significant shift by the co-author of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1959, rev. 1982). Richie then proposes a “schema” (n.b.) that distinguishes two basic aesthetic poles at work in Japanese film: presentational and representational. This axis, familiar to anyone who has studied Asian theatre, or Noël Burch, lets Richie discuss realism using a different vocabulary, where realism is subsumed under the representational ethos, the dominant one in the West. In Japan, and Asia, Richie finds the presentational to be dominant. It privileges stylization and tends to be indifferent to “raw reality.” This means that presentational aesthetics in Japanese film are true to Japanese cultural tradition, and thus serve to reflect Japan, even when those aesthetics are borrowed from abroad.
Richie’s proposals are hardly provocative; they appear almost commonsensical but what they represent is an historiographical (self) consciousness. This in turn assumes existence of Japanese cinema as a scholarly object or field. Hence Richie’s effort to address students (12), and to situate his book within an academic body of writing on film, not just cultural criticism or informant.
It appears Donald Richie would upgrade his status from critic to teacher, to engage with other historians, to document sources, to provide bibliography, filmography, even a glossary, and to make explicit his assumptions. These aims are laudable. But in the end they do not supercede authorship: the overriding importance of individual directors as prime movers, as well as the stature of ‘Donald Richie’ himself as a discursive presence.
(It’s unfortunate that Kodansha has published a short foreword by Paul Schrader, and even provided a little blurb on the dust jacket of who Schrader is. Not only does Schrader exaggerate Richie’s changes of approach in his successive books, from 1959 to 1971 [Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character] to 1990 [Japanese Cinema: An Introduction], to 2001. Schrader also calls Richie “the Commodore Perry of Japanese film history”! The admiral identified with the phrase “gunboat diplomacy” is hardly the right person to stand for Richie, tireless interpreter, apologist and connoisseur of all things Japanese.)
Preliminaries over, A Hundred Years delves immediately into the most interesting material. This is because Chapter 1 follows directly from the methods espoused in the introduction. The advent of movies in Japan was by way of theatre, oyama (female impersonator) and the benshi (narrator). Presentational aesthetics are sustained in benshi performance not only because of historical ties to the puppet and kabuki theatre but because Japanese drama is characterized as recounted occurrence, not depiction or make-believe (20-1). Though Richie doesn’t invoke it, the distinction here is that between diegetic and mimetic modes, or telling and showing. Richie asserts that Japanese film emerges from an essentially oral narrative form whereby stories are mediated by an “authoritative voice” (21). This authoritative narrating voice, originally possessed by the benshi, was to be taken over by directors, producers, and film style but its priority, and its Japanese “accent,” remains in force to this day, in television, manga, games and other popular forms.
This can be questioned, particularly the way Richie conflates presentationalism, voice, and mediation, especially in his discussion of early newsreels (“newsreels were expected to be ‘fake,’ that is, as presentational as anything else,” 27). But his pronouncements are stimulating and interesting even as they revive old Orientalist fantasies of the empire of signs, indifferent to plausibility or verisimilitude. Such semiotic utopia are in any case speculative; Richie tells us that by the mid-teens the importation of American film (especially those of Universal) and European theatre (shingeki, “New Theatre”) led to the formation of large studios, economies of scale and rationalized production.
Chapter 2 begins in 1923 with the Great Kanto Earthquake. It describes further rationalization of the film industry with the division of production between Kyoto jidaigeki (period pictures) and Tokyo gendaigeki (contemporary dramas). Richie covers the rise of Shochiku and its modern Kamata style, best known through the “home dramas” of Ozu and Naruse. There is discussion of Ozu’s notorious “modernism,” whose “traditional” roots can be found already embedded in Japanese architecture and drama: “Japan’s visible structural assumptions contributed to the West’s definition of modernism, just as Japan’s later lack of consistent aesthetic theory contributed to postmodernism” (55). Richie devotes a section to the importance of European-style avant-gardes in the 1920s, particularly the uses of expressionism in Kinugasa’s silent masterpiece A Page of Madness (1926). Here too, is “an illustration of how styles considered advanced or difficult in the West were readily accepted into the Japanese mainstream” (86), because of their affinity with Japanese presentationalism. In this context expressionism also serves a critical purpose, just like leftist theatre and literature.
In the 1920s and 1930s we read of literary adaptations, innovations in jidaigeki and shimpa melodrama (Mizoguchi), leftist proletarian films and, after 1936, official calls for correction, or “cleanup”: patriotic films, monumental invocations of Japanese values, and consolidation of the film industry. This gave way to full-fledged propaganda efforts against the Chinese and allies during the Pacific War. Here Richie drops all pretenses and spells out how Western realism was disallowed, equated by the authorities with subversion (101).
Chapter 3 discusses postwar developments to 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. Chapter 4 extends this through refinements in genres, the rise of television (or “tube” as Richie likes to call it), and the Japanese New Wave. In the late ’70s and ’80s the film industry went into steep decline. It abandoned large-scale studio production, along with major genres such as jidaigeki, yakuza and youth pictures, all staples of the ’50s and ’60s. These genres were replaced by relatively tasteful Nikkatsu “Roman porno” (romantic soft-core porn with literary pretensions) and the frankly titillating erodakushon (“erotic production”), hour-long featurettes independently produced and shown in triple bills. The majors still made some pictures but only the most insipid, pre-sold properties such as wide-screen monster, animal and animated films aimed at small children. Most studios survived by diversifying into publishing, sports and retail distribution, becoming enmeshed in larger structures of which filmed entertainment was only a small part. A familiar story round the world, but it set the stage for independent niche production and opportunities for specialized tastes. “The breakup of the studio system meant more freedom for directors” (216).
Yet Richie rightly points out that the chance to diversify in contemporary Japanese film is based on the persistence of genre expectations. He quotes Kurosawa Kiyoshi, the young low-budget thriller director, who recognizes the death of classic genres but also finds that the few genres that remain are even stronger. Because of the popularity of Hollywood pictures, mysteries, thrillers and yakuza conventions are structures on which to hang distinctly individual, even experimental work (215).
Oshima Nagisa, whose beautiful Gohatto (1999) graces the cover of this book, might be an example of this. Gohatto is a jidaigeki set in a samurai militia suffused with political intrigue and swordfights. But it offers a subversive twist: within its bushido trappings, homosexual melodrama frankly presented in an artificial, surrealist visual style no less striking than the conventional finery of period pictures.
Oshima was an admirer of Masumura Yasuzo, whose Kisses (1957) took an “adversarial” stance full of anti-literary, anti-collective, anti-resignation defiance, in short, he was a figure who defined Japanese cinema in the breach. Masumura, like Oshima, twisted classical tradition in his “vital, noisy” treatment of Chikamatsu’s Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1978), with its ‘idol’ casting of rock stars.
But there is an important difference: Masumura, we are told, was one of the Daiei company’s longest serving directors, so his adversarial style—whatever his personal convictions—was market-driven, appealing to the substantial youth market of the time. In contrast, Oshima has been working independently since 1960, when his film Night and Fog in Japan was shelved by Shochiku. And even more than Oshima, young innovators like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Miike Takashi, Aoyama Shinji, Kore’eda Hirokazu and Shiota Akihito have little connection to the major studios. The most they can hope for is a distribution deal through the majors, following exposure in an international festival, but more typical is the route from post-production straight to video, and perhaps the Internet.
This is where Donald Richie’s book is most useful, bringing us up-to-date on Japanese films in the 1990s and beyond. Chapter 5 not only touches on the achievements of these young turks, it mentions the work of documentarists like Sento Naomi, Sato Makoto, Hara Kazuo and anime auteurs Tezuka Osamu and Miyazaki Hayao. Appropriately, this chapter seems unfinished; it shows how much work is being in produced in Japan today and how little it is written about, distributed and seen. It is surprising to see how many filmmakers and films are mentioned in this chapter, resorting often to little more than names of directors, titles, a brief statement of theme and a quotation. Richie acknowledges this in a statement that confesses the heterogeneity and crossover in the independent sector (217). In many places Chapter 5 doesn’t go much beyond a list; it segues nicely into the reference section in which 200 movies are briefly summarized and sourced by company and format. For any young reader interested in further research on Japanese film and media, the field appears to be wide open, awaiting critical elaboration.
Richie also usefully tips his hand in this final chapter by being opinionated. He is withering in his scorn for Kitano Takeshi, peddler of violence and the ethos of “cool.” (“Cool” is something of a bête noire for Richie, who uses phrases like “relentlessly cool,” “the cool crowd,” “on the cool edge,” and Kitano’s “hard-core cool”). Kitano has a lot to answer for, with young guns like Aoyama and Miike copying the uninvolved coolness of the Kitano, but what Richie objects to most is the presumption of novelty and freshness in youth-oriented violence. As if in revenge, Richie historicizes. He sketches the historical precedents of “cool,” going back through the youth movies of the New Wave and post-war generation to the 1930s, to Taisho and even the Edo period, “when extreme kabuki fashions and ‘the prostitute look’ was in” (223). In every case youth fashions worked at outraging adults, by being dissident through rebellions in style (“anarchy,” “chaos,” “violence,” or in another age, “ero-guro-nansensu,” the 1930s catchwords for erotic-grotesque-nonsense humor). Each take their turn to fuel the pop culture industry, which uses style to encourage young people to be “’with it’ . . . and hence more empowered than they actually are” (ibid).
Thus Richie ends his book on a cyclical note. In the absence of a unifying thesis on contemporary Japanese film, he constantly refers back to directors and films of an earlier age. On practically every page he mentions Ozu, Mizoguchi, or chambara master Ito Daisuke (in the context of his discussion on “cool”). This goes as well for directors themselves: “The independents of today are displaying a new kind of Japanification”(217). Today’s Japanification, however, is not the old Tanizaki model in which youthful Western infatuations give way to appreciation of traditional Japanese virtues. It is more to do with the allure of presentationalism.
If in the past some Japanese filmmakers sought to infuse their stories with incisive contemporary materials, it seems today cinema in Japan is toying with some kind of post-representationalism. In this, maybe Japanese moving images are going far back to early, even pre-cinematic forms to dwell in frankly presentational areas (empire of signs, redux). Manga and anime have become the master forms, expressing a “will-to-dominate” reality in service to some ego-ideal. This seems a far cry from traditional Buddhist acceptance and such, but perhaps not, if it is a form of secular otherworldliness: “the flight to anime . . . is the inevitable result of the ethnic self-denial that has suffused Japanese society ever since the Meiji era, and especially since the end of World War II” (252). Here Richie draws heavily from Sato Kenji, in a 1999 article from Kyoto Journal, an extraordinarily rich thought to be gleaned from such a slender magazine. Even more problematic is the attempt to discuss manga and anime in the space of 6-7 pages, if it is really true “that they have come to dominate all visual markets and, in terms of box-office figures, to represent Japanese filmmaking to its audience” (252).
This is not a complaint, however, but again, an observation pointing toward opportunities. There is something overdetermined about Donald Richie’s rhetorical strategy, his desire to bring contemporary cinema back in touch with the prehistory of a century-old heritage. This heritage, “this need for an authoritative and Japanese voice” is one which Richie himself has done much to define. (Example: in the final pages he brings together Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin with Neon Genesis: Evangelion.) Richie’s strategy is highly imaginative and expertly crafted, as if he were himself the benshi of Japanese cinema, but as he admits, his conclusions are speculative, only a provisional resolution. It remains for others to propose new models to account for the now-rapidly accumulating cultural capital of Japanese film, whatever forms it takes.
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