The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945

Peter B. High,
The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945.
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
ISBN 0 299 18134 0
544 pp
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by The University of Wisconsin Press)

The University of Wisconsin Press is to be congratulated on the publication of Peter High’s The Imperial Screen. For many years to come, this groundbreaking volume will be a standard work in Japanese film studies. Marketing is taking over from scholarship to an alarming degree in the determination of academic publishing decisions. Furthermore, disciplines like Film Studies are sometimes erroneously and snobbishly considered “lightweight,” and therefore are increasingly used to subsidize the more “serious” areas with popular sales. High’s book consists of 600 pages of densely written historical scholarship about a period of Japanese cinema from which few films survive or can be seen. Great sales cannot be expected. Yet, this is a foundational work; it is the starting point for all future scholarship on this period and topic. As such, it demonstrates the need to counter current trends and ensure scholarship can be in charge in academic publishing.

High works in Japan and The Imperial Screen was originally published in a Japanese version in 1995. The book is a history of Japanese cinema in the period of high militarism beginning with the invasion of China in 1931 and ending with defeat in 1945. As such, it is a study of the cinema of collaboration. Indeed, the overarching project of the volume is to understand the combinations of policy, economic, cultural, and other reasons that in various ways silenced criticism and coerced, persuaded, and seduced film industry professionals into conformity with the military expansionism of the era.

It is important to emphasize that this is not what is usually known as an “institutional” history – one that ignores the films themselves. Instead, High is careful to demonstrate the connections between texts and the “institutional,” showing how censorship and policy decisions determine which genres are favoured and how individual scenes are handled. For example, High’s discussion of the fate of various Ozu films at the hands of the censors indicates that the transition away from slapstick comedy may not only have been because Ozu’s personal and artistic “maturation” but also because of increasing censor demands for high seriousness. To try to detail the extraordinary coverage of the book would be futile in a review, but rest assured that this is the starting point for any work on Japanese cinema in this period from now on. It is an essential book for any serious scholar of Japanese cinema.

As High recounts in his introduction to this revised and extended English edition, reviewers in Japan expressed surprise that a foreigner has produced the first rigorous scholarship on this era. What distinguishes High’s work from that of previous Japanese authors is his methodology. Presumably learnt in American graduate school, High’s work follows the best tenets of the new American film historiography by returning to primary documents and carefully supporting every argument. This is different from the “impressionism” of previous work. High also notes that as a foreigner of a post-war generation, he also benefited from having few axes to grind. He is not concerned with the assignation of blame or forgiveness. In this sense, being a foreigner may have been an advantage.

The publication of this English edition of the work may also be an appropriate occasion to remark on how it differs from existing English-language scholarship. Some of the early work suffers from the same impressionist lack of rigor that limited earlier Japanese writing. But more significant is that High’s approach also differs from the long tradition of largely visual formalist work by foreign scholars. Admirable though the attention to the editing codes, mise-en-scene, framing and so forth are in those works, as I read High’s work I could not help thinking how utterly impossible it would be for scholars who cannot understand or read Japanese to do this sort of work. It also made me think about the limited ability of such scholarship to account for the textual and formal properties of the films. For if High’s book demonstrates one thing conclusively, it is that filmmaking was not an isolated sphere of activity.

My only reservation about this book is a minor one, but perhaps important. Given High’s focus on the at least unfortunate history of Japanese colonialism and its legacy, there is one strange irony. As far as I can tell, High has limited his scholarly rigor to scholarship and documentation available in Japan and – to a less degree – the United States. Chinese place names are given unusual spellings, making it impossible to determine where they are. Chinese film titles are translated idiosyncratically, making it difficult to know what they are. And the existence of extensive scholarship by scholars outside Japan and the United States is ignored, even when much of it is in English. This is most evident in the section of the book on the notorious star Ri Koran, or Yamaguchi Yoshiko, who passed for a pro-Japanese Chinese and made films throughout the Japanese colonial empire. She has been written about by the Australian scholar Freda Freiberg; had dissertations written about her in Australia and the United States; had her film set in Taiwan studied in depth by scholars there; and had her Shanghai and Manchurian films featured in a Hong Kong film festival retrospective and catalogue. Surprisingly for such a rigorous scholar, High ignores all this.

However, it would be churlish to overstate this unfortunate point. Overall, the work is exemplary in its detail and rigor. In fact, just as I started out with a comment about academic publishing, it seems fitting to end this review with a remark about academia in general. High also remarks that it took him fifteen years of research to produce this single volume. In English-language countries, the recent move towards bureaucratic measurement of scholarship by volume of “output” would make this seem like a very poor record. What would happen to a scholar like this in the United States, where one monograph is often demanded for employment and another for tenure? Or in the United Kingdom, with its “research assessment exercises”? The Imperial Screen is a model of the best scholarship that we should all aspire to. But I cannot help worrying that this work is only possible outside English-language academia today.

Chris Berry
University of California, Berkeley.