Directory of World Cinema: Japan

John Berra (ed.),
Directory of World Cinema: Japan.
Bristol: UK: Intellect Books, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1841503356
UK£16.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Intellect Books)

According to the editorial introduction, this volume “is intended to be informative rather than exhaustive. Instead of providing a general overview of Japanese Cinema, past and present…this volume aims to offer readers both familiar and unfamiliar with this particular national cinema a more culturally-specific insight into the films that have emerged from Japan.” (p. 7) This revealing statement illustrates the problematic ambition and inherent flaws in this type of Intellect Books project. How can one be “informative” and not “exhaustive” in dealing with a subject of this nature? By attempting to be all things to all (wo)men” in a compressed 350 page work, it succeeds in certain areas but fails in others, especially in comparison with competing works published by Scarecrow Press and the uneven, yet appropriately detailed, three volume study of Japanese film edited by Tom and Yuko Mihara Weisser published by Vital Books. Aaron Gerow’s Encyclopedia of Japanese Culture (2009) is mentioned on page 6 but does not appear in the “recommended reading” section. How can anyone fully understand Japanese cinema without a detailed knowledge of national culture and history that this schematic volume fails to provide? Since Intellect is also publishing a huge amount of journals (including one devoted to undergraduate papers!) aimed at university libraries in an era of savage budget cuts, one wonders whether this company will be the Cannon Studios of the twenty-first century? Apart from a few familiar names, most of this volume’s contributors are unknown to the world of peer-reviewed journals. It resembles a Reader’s Digest collection for those who would be better advised to go to standard texts and journals for better information on the subject.

The work is divided into several sections with only three directors chosen for a director section. Although well-known figures such as Mizoguchi, Ozu, Suzuki, Fukasaku, and Oshima are to be found in various generic sections, one questions whether these three – Takeshi Kitano, Satoshi Kon, and Akira Kurosawa – are really enough to represent the inherent diversity of Japanese cinema? Too much focus on Kitano’s work appears, perhaps because he is “cool” at the moment? Mikio Naruse only receives one entry in this directory! Hasn’t Kurosawa been covered enough by now? One also questions the limited focus given to certain films by directors that fit the generic parameters of this work. Takashi Miike may be “aggressively marketed to overseas audiences due to the `extreme nature’ of his work” (p. 6) but surely this directory could also include The Bird People in China (Japan 1998), Izo (Japan 2004), Zebraman (Japan 2004) and The Great Yokai War(Japan 2005) alongside The Happiness of the Katakuris (Japan 2001) to illustrate the diversity of his output? Although Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (Japan 1969) justifiably appears in the Japanese New Wave section, his last film Spy Sorge (Japan 2003) could have easily replaced yet another Kitano and Kurosawa entry. Translation problems still occur such as the inaccurate rendition of “Tetsuro Tanba” as “Tamba”, an error pointed out long ago in 1996 by Tom and Yuko Mihara Weisser. (See their Japanese Cinema: Essential Handbook, 5th edition, (2003), 13, a text missing from the recommended reading). Shogun Assassin(Japan/USA 1980) is covered but why not the original Lone Wolf and Child series?

While many entries resemble the Orwell “Newspeak” journalistic Intellect house style, informative and lively entries by Colette Balmain, Derek Hill, James Mottram, and Mark Schilling supply welcome exceptions. William Tsutsui also contributes an interesting essay on Godzilla (Japan 1954). Some introductory essays are of interest such as Christopher Howard on the Contemporary Blockbuster. The Period and Contemporary Drama section is perhaps the best section in the book covering key works by Ichikawa, Itami, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ozu, and Suzuki.

The directory lacks an index and the three pages “recommended reading” lacks essential works such as David Bordwell on Ozu and Jerry White’s recent book on Kiyoshi Kurosawa. A list of online journals appears but established academic print ones such as Asian Cinema and others are inexplicably absent. Instead we have internet sources like the Toronto Japanese Film Appreciation Pow-Wow! While The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (2004) appears in the reading list, is missing from the internet sources. Also, why is there no listing given to Colette Balmain’s Electronic Journal of Japanese Studies listed in her biography? The “Test Your Knowledge” in the final pages with its damning parallels to college quizzes and TV game shows reveals this directory’s superficial approach.

Extensive work still needs to be done on Japanese cinema, historically and culturally, to continue previous distinguished studies by scholars such as Bordwell, Desser, Prince, Standish, and others. Chris Desjardins, Tom Mes, Mark Schilling, and Tom and Yuko Mihara Weisser have already written more accessible and detailed texts for the wider market. But this book fails on both academic and popular levels due to its arbitrary and questionable selectively superficial approach.

Tony Williams,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, USA.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Tony Williams

About the Author

Tony Williams

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has recently edited GEORGE A. ROMERO: INTERVIEWS.View all posts by Tony Williams →