Friday, March 30, 2007

Introduction to a JDH (Japanese Directorial History)

This post will be the first of five parts in a series on Japanese directorial history, looking at the development of Japanese cinema from a historical perspective informed by auteur theory. It is meant to be a general introduction and not an exhaustive account either in breadth or depth. Individual reviews of Japanese films (some of which can be found here) are also helpful as well as detailed biographies.

History may be the only thing that has been consistently kind to Japanese directors. Certainly Japanese Studios, Hollywood imports, television, the sex industry and even native audiences have not always been kind to great (often declared in retrospect) directors. A reoccurring theme across the careers of many of the most famous Japanese directors has been resistance: to studios compromises, Hollywood competition, economic imperatives and the temptation to take the easy way out.

There are very few Japanese directors who have found success in Japan and internationally, or amongst critics and audiences. There are no Spielbergs in Japan (Even Kurosawa had infamous financing difficulties in his late career). Yet, when one looks back over Japanese film history from the 1920s to today, one finds countless great films, and there is little doubt that Japan has developed an impressive legacy of important directors.

This series will take a look at Japanese cinematic history as it affected the artistic maturation of directors, paying particular attention to the three main forms of their resistance: style, social and political statements, and content.

‘Style’ concerns how a director films a story and is generally the first mark that distinguishes a director as unique. Here, resistance means creating a style that is personal to a director and which may ignore the tastes of either domestic or Western viewers.

‘Social and political statements’ tell us what a film means and provide insights into a director’s beliefs. Resistance in the form of social and political messages can be very overt, and generally rejects traditional values, laws or widespread practices.

Finally, ‘content’ is everything that is actually caught on film. Prominent Japanese directors have often pushed the envelope in terms of depicting violence, sex and offensive material. Although, historically speaking, these three resistant trends emerged roughly in sequence, they are not restricted merely to finite periods. Rather, it can be shown that they are cumulative and that all three continue to this day.

In covering the history of Japanese cinema, the scope of this series has been restricted to ten directors: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Satoshi Kon, Takashi Miike and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. This selection does not presume to cover all, or even the majority, of challenging directors who have left their mark on Japanese cinema, but it does provide a wide variety of examples. Their careers and films can serve as a basic introduction to the rise of Japanese cinematic authorship and Japan’s role in film culture and counterculture.

The following work cited applies to this series:

Abe, Casio. “Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano.” Kaya Press, 1994.

All Movie Guide. 2005. All Media Guide, LLC. Oct. 1, 2005.

Cazdyn, Eric. “The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan.” Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Domenig, Roland. “The Anticipation of Freedom: Art Theater Guild and Independent Cinema.” Midnight Eye. Vienna. June 24, 2004.

Field, Simon and Rayns, Tony. “Branded to Thrill: The Works of Seijun Suzuki.” London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1994.

Kiju, Yoshida. “Ozu’s Anti-Cinema.” Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 2003.

“Multiple Sub-nyquist Sampling Encoding” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved Nov. 12, 2005, from

Nolletti, Arthur Jr. and Desser, David. “Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History.” Indiana University Press, 1992.

Ritchie, Donald. “The Films of Akira Kurosawa.” Third Edition. Berkely: University of CA Press, 1996.

Ritchie, Donald. "Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film." 1996

Richie, Donald. “Japanese Cinema: An Introduction.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Mad Dog said...

Hopefully the Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy will bump him up enough in your eyes to get him a spot next time. ;)

FilmWalrus said...

My selection of the ten directors was made to maximize coverage of both chronology, themes and style. It isn't my top ten favorites (which wouldn't include Miike, Oshima or Mizoguchi) or the top ten most important/influential (which would have to include Kon Ichikawa and Hayao Miyazaki).

I forced myself to select only one anime director so as not to bias too much towards my own taste (and left out live-action personal favorites Shinya Tsukomoto and Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

I chose Satoshi Kon primarily because he fits well into my postmodernism section but time and more movies may prove that Oshii would have been the better choice. Kon also fits into my general argument about resistance to popular trends where as Oshii has a more ambiguous relationship. Let me know what you think.

FilmWalrus said...

As a sidenote confession, I haven't even seen any films by Kinugasa. I would if I could find them. I selected him based on research to extend my coverage into the 1920s/1930s for which I am primarily ignorant.

Mad Dog said...

Yeah, Oshii's live-action stuff is quite different from his anime movies. They're pretty much exclusively postmodern and quite amusing, too. Still gotta see Avalon, I was initially turned off because it only has dubtitles. I can't complain about Kon, though, the guy's got chops.