Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts

Alistair Phillips and Julian Stringer (eds.),
Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts.
Oxford: Routledge, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-415-32848-7
US$35.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

The study of Japanese cinema has typically held a high place among national cinema studies for a couple of reasons. The first is, of course, the quality of the films, but beyond this, there has always been the sense that the social, cultural and industrial contexts of Japan are so distinctively different from those of other countries that they provide a particularly strong case in establishing the importance of such contexts to any understanding of the films themselves.

The editors of this anthology, Alistair Phillips and Julian Stringer (from the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham respectively) have brought together 24 chapters, each limited to about 5000 words and based on a single film. The essays are organised chronologically beginning with Ozu’s I Was Born But… (Japan 1932) and extending through to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Japan 2001).

The chapters are organised around individual films rather than invoking some unifying theme or theoretical paradigm. Phillips and Stringer cite as their main model for this, Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau’s French Cinema: Texts and Contexts, which first appeared in 1990, though they also reference Chris Berry’s more recent anthology Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes (2003). The main justification they offer for this film-centred approach is that the diversity of different films is important to foreground as a way of putting off larger generalisations which inevitably produce false unities.

This type of approach is a welcome response to calls for smaller scale, “bottom up” studies in cinema to replace the large abstractions of Theory with their fondness for re-casting the plurality of film production in terms of vague yet capacious terms such as desire and modernity. This is not to say that these more modest approaches are in any way anti-theoretical. Catherine Russell’s essay on Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums(Japan 1954) is a fine example of analysis starting from an individual film and working its way upwards to a consideration of larger abstractions. She is finally interested in the way the film responds to the changing nature of Japanese modernity, but she arrives at this through a careful combination of textual analysis, genre frameworks, contemporary critical response and social context. Isolde Standish’s chapter on Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (Japan/France, 1976) similarly situates that film in industrial contexts of both genre and the censorship system, while maintaining a focus on the broader context of changing conceptions of subjectivity in Japan, as the wartime ideology of a spiritual and self-less subject was contested by a postwar emphasis on the more individualised and bodily incarnated subject.

There are also a couple of more immediate justifications for the approach which underpins this collection. The first is the pragmatic one that most undergraduate teaching of cinema studies is still based around screening films. Most of these essays are written in an English which is admirably clear and they begin from the modest assumption of a reader who has seen a film and is interested in it. A comparison between Darrell Davis’s essay on Hana-bi (Japan 1997) in this anthology and his 2001 Cinema Journal article on the same film will give an immediate sense of the more text centred and accessible approach adopted by the contributors. The editors’ introductory section also includes useful short survey overviews of Japanese cinema history and historiography, indicating a primary interest in the undergraduate textbook market.

The other compelling argument for the importance of this anthology is that there has recently been a significant increase in the scope of available film offerings at both chronological ends of the Japanese cinema. Recent subtitled film and dvd releases of work by directors such as Shimizu, Yamanota, Naruse and Uchida, have provided westerners with fresh insights into the breadth of Japanese studio era filmmaking. Closer to our own time, the emergence of a new master like Kore-eda Hirokazu and vigorous commercial genres such as J-horror and anime demand constant updating. The tendency to link Japanese films to classical historical forms is most familiar from the work of Noël Burch (and it is echoed here by Linda Ehrlich when she posits renga verse as a source of Tampopo’s [Japan 1985] discursive form) but we do well to remember that Asian cinemas are fast-changing entities which are evolving in relation to all kinds of contemporary determinants that are both international and national.

This anthology brings together many well-known authors who have contributed to our understanding of Japanese cinema, and for that reason alone it constitutes an important addition to the literature. The contributors include Donald Richie, David Desser, Joan Mellen, Keiko McDonald, Isolde Standish and Darrell Davis, all of whom have written books which form the basis for much of our sense of the history and aesthetics of Japanese film. The anthology combines their work with many younger authors including Abé Mark Nornes and Aaron Gerow who have been extremely active in publishing on the contemporary Japanese film scene.

Given the disparate concerns and subject matter of the contributors and the limited space accorded each, it is fruitless to try to construct a generalised response to the work. Instead I’ll conclude by pointing to what I see as a couple of the more valuable chapters.

In his introduction to Maborossi (Japan 1995), David Desser provides an interesting triangulation on the differing aesthetic influences that the recent minimalist long take art cinema movement has drawn from Ozu, on one hand, and Hou Hsiao-hsien on the other. Given the paucity of English-language studies of Kore-eda’s films, this provides a significant starting point for people who are interested in incorporating these films into their syllabus. The same value adheres to Freda Freiberg’s chapter on Yamanaka Sadao and Alexander Jacoby’s piece on Shimizu Hiroshi. The extensive bibliographies which accompany each chapter, and which are collected at the end of the book, are also a valuable resource.

While Japanese cinema studies is finding fresh material for analysis, it also has a long and rich tradition. Abé Mark Nornes’ essay on Ozu’s Late Spring (Japan 1995), turns to its advantage the way that this film has been so heavily analysed. Nornes’ interest is not so much the film itself, but in the way it provides a touchstone for examining the major works which have been published on Ozu’s works – ranging from Paul Schrader, through Donald Richie to Noël Burch and David Bordwell.
The historiographic project at the heart of Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s chapter on Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth(Japan 1960) is to trouble the presumed rupture in Japanese film history represented by the notion of a New Wave. The essay revises the newness of Oshima’s approach by finding antecedents for his aesthetic strategies, but then goes on to suggest that we might fruitfully look elsewhere for the source of Oshima’s novel – to his conception of subjectivity rather than his explicit thematics.

This is a collection which aims at extending our knowledge of Japanese cinema in a usefully piecemeal way. Its essays are brief as well as variable in their approach and sometimes their quality, but those teaching Asian cinema, particularly at an undergraduate level, will find many pockets of material here that will aid in their thinking about this national cinema which has always been there, but which we are still discovering.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 22 March 2009

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →