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June 25, 2005

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

Donald Richie - 2001


Like probably everyone else in North America, I learned about Japanese movies from Donald Richie. My pared down collection of film books still includes The Japanese Film (1959, co-written with Joseph Anderson) and Japanese Cinema (1971). I also crossed paths with Richie a couple of times. I was a student volunteer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1972-73, while Richie was associated with the film department. Word got out that he vetoed the showing of Japanese War Bride when the museum presented a King Vidor retrospective. I briefly met Richie again a few years later at the Denver International Film Festival where he presented the early Kurosawa film No Regrets for Our Youth.

In approximately 250 pages with tiny type and stills smaller than postcards, Richie gives an overview of the history of Japanese film from the beginning to the near present. While some of material is familiar, what Richie has attempted is to explain this history in terms of the history of Japan, the history of the Japanese film industry, and a general overview of Japanese culture. Even though I usually don't remember any of the Japanese names for the different genres, what I appreciate about a book like this is that it piques my interest in filmmakers I might otherwise not know about.

Thanks to DVDs I am actually able to see more Japanese films than I did when I lived in New York City back in the early 70s. I am still stuck with Princess Yang Kwei Fei and An Actor's Revenge on tape. Here's hoping that New Yorker Films, the most consistent distributor of classic Japanese films in the U.S. with convert their entire library to DVD soon.

Richie answered a question I've had for a while which is "Whatever happened to Susumi Hani?" Hani was a relatively young director who started in documentaries in the late 50s and made dramatic films from 1960 to 1968. His career coincided with the French Nouvelle Vague, but more interestingly, is that Hani's films at this time were all independently financed, unlike his contemporaries such as Nagisa Oshima who were employed by the studios. I had seen several of Hani's films in the early 70s, but was totally unaware that by that time he had given up making narrative films and had returned totally to the documentary, specifically wildlife films.

While Richie has written books on Ozu and Kurosawa, he remains enthusiastic about several of the filmmakers working today. Of the older directors still active, Richie cites Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Takashi Kitano is also discussed, with several titles included in the VHS/DVD list. Richie also discusses other contemporary directors, most of whom are unknown in the U.S. and can only be seen on imported DVDs.

What is left out is of interest. Richie discusses Kyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to A.K.) but otherwise ignores the recent boom of horror movies from Japan, the most visible genre for American audiences. It would be interesting to know Richie's take on the popularity of J-Horror for a very dedicated audience, as well as the fact that several titles have been, or will be, re-made by Hollywood. More to the point is the cultural difference between Japanese and U.S. audiences. The Japanese seem comfortable with random horror, at least on screen, while U.S. audiences demand clarity and explanations.

There are a couple of interesting paragraphs concerning the collapse of Japan's studios in the 80s that seem very relevant to contemporary Hollywood:
"Subjected to what were, at the time, unprecedented levels of advertising hype, the curious flocked, money was made, and a precedent was created. The pictures, of course, were unexceptional. As Umberto Eco has observed, mass media insists upon repetition, redundancy, and iteration as well as obedience to a schema. This means that the film is fit only as product, and soon only product fits the audience.

In this cycle, since the cultural traffic is all in one direction, any cultural activity that is not mainstream will be neglected. Whole visual cultures, many venerable, will disappear, along with the personal vision of the artist and the apprehension of all that is different - since these are contrary to the expectations of mass media."

Whether Japanese film history is in any way a forecast of what will happen to Hollywood is yet to be fully seen. Even if it comes to pass, in Richie's view the technology will change, but Richie can always see film history's past in the films of the present.

Posted by peter at June 25, 2005 04:58 PM