I am still amazed by those who have the time to maintain a blog. I don't, so the best I can offer here is occasional short bits of news and observations.
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It has certainly been a long time since I posted on this blog. Blogging requires both a font of energy and a certain amount of time, and I'm afraid both were lacking in the latter half of 2012. I will try to do better in 2013.
Before saying goodbye to the old year, I did want to mention that the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan, which has published two of my books, has started to sell e-book versions of some of the titles in its catalog. You can thus now get e-book editions of two of my publications:
A Page of Madness (Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, Number 64)
Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies (co-authored with Abé Mark Nornes, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, Number 65)
The great actress Yamada Isuzu has passed away. She died on July 9 at the age of 95.
It is important to remember not only her magnificent performances in such films as Kurosawa Akira's Throne of Blood or Mizoguchi Kenji's Sisters of the Gion, but also how much she lived the history of Japanese cinema. She debuted at the age of 12 in 1930, when Japanese cinema was still mostly silent. That film starred Okochi Denjiro, the actor whose face graces this site. At Yale we showed Itami Mansaku's masterwork, The Peerless Patriot (Kokushi muso, 1932) - which unfortunately only exists in an abridged version - and Yamada was already playing beautiful adult women at age 14 or 15. Her first two tour-de-force performances, in Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, were done when she was only 18 or 19. Her talent was tremendous.
And she could do many roles. Few abroad have seen these, but her jidaigeki with Hasegawa Kazuo during the war at Toho, which combined mystery and comedy, are wonderful to watch. After the 1950s, she appeared progressively more on stage and television, but she still kept winning major awards. She was the first actress to be given the Order of Culture by the Japanese government (Sugimura Haruko was offered it first, but declined). Her personal life was not the happiest - born to a poor family; married four times; a daughter, the actress Saga Michiko, who died before her - but her performances overwhelmed us with their strength, range, and subtlety.
A shocking piece of news at the beginning of the year was the sudden passing of the film scholar Tanaka Masasumi on 30 December 2011. Tanaka-san was returning home after the benshi Sawato Midori's year-end party and collapsed at the entrance to his apartment. He was only 65 years old.
Tanaka-san was insistent on not being called an academic, but his scholarship was better than a lot of professional academics I know. He was most famous for his work on Ozu Yasujiro. Over the years, he published not only important analyses of Ozu's work such as Ozu Yasujirō no hō e: Modanizumu eiga shiron, but also accumulated and published over several volumes, Ozu's writings and diaries, such as Ozū Yasujirō zenhatsugen: 1933–1945. But Ozu was not his only passion: he also helped write and edit books on Naruse Mikio, Shimizu Hiroshi, and Mori Masayuki. He contributed essays to many publications (I used his essay on prewar jidaigeki from Jidaigeki eiga to wa nani ka in my period film class this semester--a fine piece that is one of the best surveys of jidaigeki's place in modernity). His breadth of knowledge and scholarship will be greatly missed.
March has been an extremely busy month for me. I have a backlog of things to talk about on this blog, but to get at least one entry in this month, I thought I'd mention an interesting "encounter" that is now visible on TV.
On the website for the NHK television show, Takeshi Art Beat, there is a clip of the new opening animation for the show as it transfers over to NHK World. It was made by Yamamura Koji, the Japanese animator whose Atamayama (Mt. Head) was nominated for an Academy Award. It of course features Beat Takeshi (subject of my book KItano Takeshi), who has been hosting a number of art shows since Hana-bi made "artist" part of his persona. The animation follows the usual practice of dividing Takeshi into two figures (here "director" versus "comedian" doing his Comaneci gag) but interestingly mediates them through cubism. That may be a reference to one of Takeshi's earlier art shows, Takeshi no dare demo Picasso, but perhaps it is also a statement that the only way to view Takeshi is through the cubist convolutions of different spaces and times, a view that itself must include both popular commercial media and the experimental.
The NHK news reported that the actress Awashima Chikage has passed away, dying of pancreatic cancer on February 16 at the age of 87. Foreign fans of Japanese cinema may not know her that much, but she was one of the great screen performers, one who was especially adept at comedy. Gaining fame first as a top star at Takarazuka (she primarily played female roles), she signed with Shochiku in 1950 and played in a variety of films, from Kinoshita Keisuke's postwar satire, Carmen's Pure Love (1952), to Toyoda Shiro's warm drama, Meoto zenzai (1955). She was a feature in the "Ekimae" comedy films, but foreign viewers might know her from Ozu Yasujiro's Early Spring (1956) or Kobayashi Masaki's The Human Condition (1959), but I will most remember her from Kawashima Yuzo's brilliant comedy, Kashima ari (1959), one of my favorite films. Her way of jibing, but also making an earnest play for Frankie Sakai using the phrase "tsun tsun" pierced my heart as well (though I wouldn't have run away like Frankie did - and as Kawashima heroes usually do). She continued acting into her old age, appearing for instance in Somai Shinji's The Friends (1994), or on stage, even as late as last year. She won a slew of awards for her performances, including Blue Ribbon awards and a Mainichi Film Award.
This announcement is also a little late, but the final volume in Shinwasha's excellent series of books on Japanese film history has finally come out. I reported on at least two of the previous volumes on this site, one on audiences (in which I have a contribution), and another on cinema's relation to literature. In a twist, the last book in the series is on the first years of Japanese film and, as with a number of books in the series, is edited by Iwamoto Kenji.
This anthology features articles by such scholars as Tajima Ryoichi, Koga Futoshi, Irie Yoshirō (who has a piece in the RJCS issue I did), Usui Michiko, Kobayashi Sadahiro (who has a piece in the Makino festschrift we did), Ueda Manabu, and Itakura Fumiaki, on such topics as the first Japanese film exhibition, Komada Koyo, Kobayashi Kisaburo, utsushi-e, home projectors, early movie theaters, benshi, the relationship with misemono, and early color. Many of the contributions are by young researchers, perhaps signaling the birth of a new phase of Japanese early film research.
There were two things that happened this fall revolving about Makino Mamoru that are worth noting. Makino, for those who don't know him, is the filmmaker, film historian, and collector who has not only produced important scholarship such as his history of Japanese censorship, but also collected materials essential for the study of Japanese film history. Markus Nornes and I edited a festschrift for him, In Praise of Film Studies, as well as dedicated our Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies to him.
The first big thing was the publication of a collection of his writings, Eigagaku no michishirube, by Bunsei Shoin. It was edited by Sato Yo, a fine young scholar who has been doing some excellent research on early film critics and helping Makino-san a lot recently. The book contains Makino's long-running work "Gaku no susume" that was serialized in Kinema junpo. It is a personalized account of the state of film studies in Japan, and Markus and I appear several times (even--ugh!--through photos!). The anthology also includes some of his other articles on documentary film history, proletarian film, film bibliography, and the history of Japanese film theory (a subject I am also working on: note the special issue of the RJCS). A complete table of contents is available on the Bunsei Shoin site. Markus and I also wrote short recommendations for the publication. Bunsei Shoin, by the way, is currently undertaking a full-color reprinting of all the issues of Kinema junpo from 1927 to 1940 (the period that has not been reprinted so far). This is a reprint that any library with a collection on Japanese film should have.
The news reports are relating the sad news that Morita Yoshimitsu, the director of such great films as Family Game (Kazoku gemu, 1983), passed away on December 20 of acute liver failure. He was only 61 years old.
Morita was always a complicated, contradictory director: fascinating and frustrating but always worth watching. He emerged from the world of independent filmmaking, becoming one of the first to theatrically release an 8mm feature film (Live in Chigasaki in 1978), and later independently financing his 35mm debut (No yo na mono, or Something Like It, 1981). Family Game, which I wrote about in Julian Stringer and Alistair Phillips's Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, earned him a reputation abroad as a great social satirist, but as I argue in the piece, it also deftly intersected with popular discourses about postmodernism and fashion. After the film, Morita declared himself a fashionable or pop director (ryuko kantoku) in ads he took out in magazines, and went on to direct quite a number of questionable movies starring idols and tarento. Even with his lesser films, however, you always had a sense Morita was self-consciously thinking about the media environment, if not cinema itself, and some of his best subsequent work, such as Haru (1996), which is largely composed of text messages, are experimental in one way or another. The marvelous monstrosity that is the crime thriller Mohohan (2002) is in fact a critique of our virtual media reality. While some of the idol films are not inspiring, small works like The Mamiya Brothers (Mamiya kyodai, 2006) are absolutely endearing.
Tokyo FilmEx concluded over the weekend. I was not able to attend, but I did write an essay for the catalog for their small Kawashima Yuzo retrospective. The other big retrospective they did was of the films of Somai Shinji, arguably the best Japanese director who is still not sufficiently known abroad. Somai was Japan's next master of the long take, after Mizoguchi Kenji, but since he worked a lot in youth film, a neglected genre, his work was not picked up by the arbiters of taste introducing Japanese film abroad in the 1980s. I personally think Typhoon Club, his brilliant evocation of youthful anxiety and death, is one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, but no one has ever tried to release it abroad with English subtitles.
Probably in time with the FilmEx retro, a new anthology on Somai, entitled Yomigaeru Somai Shinji, has been published in Japanese. (The English subtitle is "A Film Director in the Japanese Post-Studio Era.") As if emphasizing the above issue, the obi for the book declares: "The world still does not know Somai." It will take some more work in other languages for that to happen, but hopefully this book is a step.
Wow, it has been a long time since my last post! Sorry about that! It's been a busy semester, but I also have found few things to write about. But now I have one.
The Yale University Library has finally made public an important archival collection on Japanese film that I helped create. It is the Japanese Film Ephemera Collection which is housed in Manuscripts and Archives, inside Sterling Memorial Library.
Those who study film history in general know that ephemera can be important sources for understanding the way cinema works. Ephemera can include such things as posters, stills, magazines, handbills, advertisements, and programs. One may think that the only real thing that matters in studying a movie is the film itself, but as years of research in film history have shown, especially under the rubric of reception studies, the actual meaning that real audiences garner from a film is not exclusively the result of the text or of the director's intention. Viewers play a significant role in working with the text to create its meaning, interpreting it and adding their own experiences and feelings. Critics and other figures try to shape the text as well, and film companies, knowing the role of audiences quite well, also try, in advertisements and other publicity material, to not just get people to fork out money, but to form certain expectations that will frame how they view the film (informing people of the genre is one of the main examples of this). The notion that reception shapes a film is old hat for those of us who study Japanese film, because we know that a major portion of Japanese film history was dominated by the figure of the benshi, a person who took what was never a complete text and worked with the audience to complete it. As one of the elements that shape or represent reception, ephemera are thus crucial for understanding how a movie came to life amongst real people in its own time, becoming an experience that might have been quite different from us watching a DVD of the film on our laptop.
I heard the rumor some months ago, but I finally came across some articles to make this official: Seo Mitsuyo, the pioneer Japanese animator who directed the first feature length Japanese animated films, died last year, on 24 August 2010. He was 99 years old. For some reason, the passing of such a historic figure has not been officially reported in the press or been the subject of (much deserving) obituaries. My confirmation has just been two articles that Ohara Atsushi published in the Asahi shinbun here and here. There is no news on the exact cause of death.
Seo was a fascinating figure. He first studied painting, but interested in animation, he got involved in the animation group in Prokino and was even arrested for his activities. It is thus ironic that a leftist ended up making some of Japan's most infamous wartime animated propaganda films, and Seo was apparently long ashamed of that part of his career. But we should not forget that he was an innovator, a figure who, along with Masaoka Kenzo, with whom he sometimes worked, laid the foundation for the Japanese animation world we know today. He was the first to introduce the multiplane camera to Japan in Ari-chan in 1941 and then directed Momotaro no umiwashi in 1942, which even at 37 minutes was billed as Japan's first feature-length animated film. (My wife has released that film on DVD with English subtitles as part of the Roots of Japanese Anime collection.)
The relationship between Japanese cinema and literature has remained a rich topic of study not only because of the long history of adaptations of literary works into film, but also because artists on both sides have been intrigued, both for artistic and political reasons, with the potentials posed by the other medium. Some of this research can contribute to the ongoing discussion of adaptation, but there's always been the danger of much of it falling into dull comparisons of the original and the copy or trite claims about "visual" literature or about "literary" film. My writings on the topic, which include essays on Tanizaki, Akutagawa, and about the word and image in Japanese cinema, as well as a book on A Page of Madness, have tried to avoid these pitfalls by focusing on how each medium has pictured the other, within a larger discursive field defined by conflicts over the definitions of image and language.
Toeda Hirokazu of Waseda University is the preeminent literature scholar working on these issues in Japan, and he has just come out with an exciting edited volume as part of Shinwasha's Nihon eigashi sosho series (another volume of which featured my essay on Japanese film criticism).
I just saw this on the net, but the great actor Harada Yoshio passed away today, July 19, of complications from pneumonia as he was fighting cancer. He was only 71.
Harada was clearly one of the most important actors in post 1970 Japanese cinema, starring in many of the great independent films directed by such masters as Terayama Shuji (Den'en ni shisu), Suzuki Seijun (Zigeunerweisen), Morisaki Azuma (Ikite iru uchi ga hana nano yo shindara sore made yo to sengen), and Mochizuki Rokuro (Onibi). He was a regular in films directed by Kuroki Kazuo (Ryoma ansatsu) and Sakamoto Junji, and appeared in Koreeda Hirokazu's recent movies like Still Walking and I Wish. His last starring film will be Oshika-mura sodoki, which opened in theaters only a few days ago. Harada appeared in a wheelchair in front of cameras to make the stage greeting on opening day.
Some don't realize that Harada was the product of the last years of Nikkatsu Action, establishing his image there of the young, rebellious outlaw in such films as Hangyaku no merodi. As part of that image, he appeared in a lot of independent films, especially those of ATG, while also making a name for himself on television. In recent years, he has become an essential by player in films by many young directors like Miike Takashi, Toyoda Toshiaki, Shinohara Tetsuo, Ishii Katsuhito, etc. He could do comedic and gangster roles with equal ease. He won numerous awards as both best lead and supporting actor.
For much of the postwar, it seemed that all too many Japanese cultural products were attempting to forget WWII, to hide either the trauma of defeat or aspects that were inconvenient to Japan’s emerging national narrative. Now a good 65 years after the end of the war, with the real trauma having faded - or the war having too effectively been forgotten – it today seems that it is the postwar that is the object of selective remembering and forgetting. As I argued in a recent article in Japan Focus, Yamato’s gruesome depiction of the war that functions to forget the postwar, or Always: Sunset on Third Street’s remembering the postwar through rose-colored glasses, are two sides of the same cultural effort to avoid dealing with what the postwar, and its history of the Cold War, American dominance, economic growth and its cost, and political turmoil, have meant for Japan.
The new Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara コクリコ坂から), is set around the same time as Always, in the years just preceding the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This does a better job than that film at attempting to mix its nostalgia with the effort to remember history. Yet in the end it is a quaint, earnest but middling work that still somewhat selectively forgets the past.
Arguably the period of current greatest interest in Japanese film studies is the 1960s. Many scholars, young and old, are working on the period, especially if you expand it to include the late 1950s and the early 1970s. It was of course the time of the first "modernists" such as Masumura Yasuzo and Nakahira Ko; the beginnings of experimental cinema; the Japanese New Wave of Oshima, Imamura, Yoshida, et al.; a political pink cinema; the breakdown of the studio system; the rise of a new documentary; and the flourishing of independent film. An exciting period with much to research.
David Desser's Eros Plus Massacre - already over 20 years old! - is still a very useful introduction to the period. But it is testimony to the richness of the time that there is so much that Desser does not deal with. Much attention has been given to the theoretical context in these years (Yuriko Furuhata's dissertation, etc.) and to more marginal genres like documentary (Markus Nornes's work on Ogawa), pink film (Jasper Sharp's book and an upcoming anthology), and experimental cinema (including recent ATG retrospectives and attention to Matsumoto Toshio).
After moving my office and then moving myself to Japan for the summer, I can finally update the blog for the first time in a couple of weeks.
My announcement today is that Japan Focus has published another article of mine (previous ones were on recent fantasy war films and Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films). This is a much shorter version of a long piece that I wrote for the forthcoming Distorted Lens anthology, which is based on a conference at Stanford in December 2008 and which is being edited by Chiho Sawada and Michael Berry.
The longer version looks at a number of recent films made about kamikaze missions during WWII and compares them to earlier examples from the 1950s to the 1970s. Most discussions of Japanese war films have considered them in terms of how they warp, gloss over, or forget the problems or traumas of the war, but I analyze them in terms of how they work to forget the problematic history of postwar Japan. My main text is Sato Jun'ya's Yamato (Otokotachi no Yamato, 2005). I particular argue that the film's use of what I call vicarious trauma in depicting the demise of the young recruits on the Battleship Yamato functions to erase postwar trauma, an operation that I consider to be the other side of the same coin to the nostalgic depictions of 1950s and 1960s Japan in films such as Yamazaki Takashi's Always--Sunset on Third Street (Always--Sanchome no yuhi).
The news sites report that the actor Nagato Hiroyuki passed away on May 21 at the age of 77.
To talk about Nagato is in some ways to talk about the Makino dynasty in Japanese film history. Nagato's grandfather was Makino Shozo, the Kyoto theater manager who "discovered" Onoe Matsunosuke and made him the first big film star in the 1910s. He went off to start his own production company, Makino Productions, and fostered many of the great jidaigeki stars such as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, and Arashi Kanjuro. He also helped up and coming directors such as Kinugasa Teinosuke, the director of Page of Madness. He is widely known as the father of Japanese cinema.
Shozo's son was Makino Masahiro, one of the greatest Japanese film directors (who unfortunately is largely unknown abroad). Shozo's daughter was Makino Teruko, an actress who, after actually having once eloped with Tsukigata Ryunosuke (who played the villain in Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata), ended up marrying the actor Sawamura Kunitaro. He is most memorable for playing the bumbling but affable samurai searching for a pot in Yamanaka Sadao's wonderful Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo. Kunitaro was the brother of Kato Daisuke, a Kurosawa favorite and one of the Seven Samurai, and of Sawamura Sadako, herself a famous actress.
You can purchase the issue through the Japanese Amazon.
It just so happened that the Yale faculty vote to give me tenure was on the same day as a reception for the publication of the anthology Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife, edited by my former teacher and current colleague Dudley Andrew. I actually heard the results of the vote just before the reception started. The coincidence was quite appropriate because it was in fact a paper using Andre Bazin to analyze Richard Lester's Superman III, written for John Belton during a summer course at Columbia back in 1983, which probably got me started on this career in film studies. Everything somehow comes back to Bazin.
The anthology is a marvelous revisiting of Bazin's work, one spurred by Dudley's herculean effort to gather all of Bazin's writings, not just the ones canonized in a few books. These writings, and the dozens of essays in the book, provide a much more complex and fascinating vision of Bazin's thought.
I mention this here in part because there are two essays in the book that talk about Bazin in relation to Japan. First, Nozaki Kan, in "Japanese Readings: The Textual Thread" (pp. 324-329) discusses how Japanese thinkers read and digested Bazin. And second, my student Ryan Cook writes about Bazin's discussions of Japanese film in "Japanese Lessons: Bazin's Cinematic Cosmopolitanism" (pp. 330-334).
In the last of my "reports" on the trailers I made for the Documentaries of Noriaki Tsuchimoto series (one for Minamata, the other for On the Road), i wanted to mention the ones that I put together for his two films on Afghanistan before the Taliban, Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 and Traces: The Kabul Museum 1988.
Tsuchimoto was of course famous for his penetrating documentaries on Minamata disease, but he worked on many other subjects, ranging from student radicals in the 1960s (e.g, Prehistory of the Partisans) to a biography of the poet Nakano Shigeharu. Some films were extensions of the issues raised in the Minamata series, looking for instance at other forms of pollution like nuclear radiation, or at the oceans. He was always concerned with the oppressed and the marginal and read profusely, compiling dozens and dozens of scrapbooks (which his wife Motoko, with whom I experienced the earthquake, showed me once).
One topic of interest was Afghanistan and he ended up making three films on that country, based on the footage he was able to take during several trips as one of the few foreigners allowed to film in the nation in the 1980s, before the Taliban took power. I think part of his interest stemmed simply from his leftist sympathies, as he genuinely hoped that the socialist regime in those days would do a better job than some other socialist experiments. Another Afghanistan and Traces could be said to lack the critical eye that his Minamata works show, but they are by no means propaganda: just as Tsuchimoto genuinely cares for the Minamata victims through his camera, he goes beyond politics to express an affection for the everyday lives and culture of Afghanis. The resulting films are not as powerful as the Minamata films - Traces is closer to a documentary on art history (though one every art history department should have!) - but they serve both as irreplaceable documents of Afghan life and history (much of which is now gone or profoundly transformed) and as testimony to Tsuchimoto's unending efforts to understand others through film.