News and Opinion

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. 

I have disabled comments for this site. If you want to discuss Japanese cinema, please join KineJapan, the list for which I serve as co-owner. 

Talking about Japanese Film Theory

I've appeared on television and radio multiple times, but I never like to watch or hear myself afterwards. Maybe some of it has to do with some complex over my self image, but mostly it's because I don't like how the ephemeral moment has been preserved forever. Like with writing, there's little you can do after it has been made public (unless you're writing for the net or can work with multiple editions of a book), but at least with writing you can rework the text multiple times until it's reasonably good before publication. With interviews on radio and TV, however, it's usually one take and that's it, mistakes and fumbles and all. I recognize my feelings are contradictory here. Cinema's value lies in part in its ability to capture the unrehearsed moment, to offer a glimpse of what's behind the performance of reality—as well as the performance itself—and lay bare some of its faults and inconsistencies. I admire that about cinema, but I guess I just don't like becoming naked that much myself. One realizes the camera's power once you get in front of it, and realize your image is being captured and projected into the ether.

Japanese Film Industry Statistics for 2013

For those interested, Eiren (the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan) has released the official statistics for the film industry in 2013. The Japanese summary is here; for English, you have to scroll down to the bottom of this table for the 2013 figures, or click here to see the box office leaders.

There's not much change from 2012. Total BO is slightly down, while total attendance is slightly up. The market share for Japanese films went down from 65.7% to 60.6%, but still remains strong, since the last time Japanese films kept foreign films under 40% for consecutive years was 1968–1969. The number of screens increased slightly to 3318, the most they've had since 1970. The average ticket price went down to 1246 yen (which is not what you pay at the theater—it's the average of all the tickets sold at different prices), which likely means that more are taking advantage of discount screenings or price specials (like ladies' day, etc.). 

The problem again is that the number of films released increased once more: 1117 total (up from 983), with 591 being Japanese films (up from 554). That's the highest number in history and an average of 21 films opening each week. Some of this is due the fact that they started including so-called ODS (Other Digital Stuff), like screenings of live events in movie theaters, in the stats, but part of it is due to showings of more low-budget digital works in very short runs.

ANA's "Racist" Commerical and Japanese National Identity

There has been a little bit of a hubbub over a new TV commercial that the Japanese airline ANA has put out. Some news organizations have reported complaints that it is racist, and ANA has responded by apologizing and is changing the ad. Here is the original CM: 

It's a disturbing commercial, but not exactly for the reasons some have stated. Since the issue of audience is important, it might be good to think about how the average Japanese viewer might see this. FIrst note the casting. The actor on the left is Nishijima Hidetoshi, a very good actor in straight dramas like Kitano Takeshi's Dolls who I like a lot (whom I've met, by the way). The one on the right is Bakarizumu, a popular comedian who has done some great routines (you can check out one here). The cut to Bakarizumu with the gaijin get-up is then intended to be comedic, both because of the casting (most Japanese would know who the two are) and the extreme get-up. You don't see that kind of get-up in Japanese TV comedy much any more, but when you do, it is rather self-conscious, emphasizing not only the stereotyped "gaijin" image, but also the slapstick, vaudeville-like nature of the comedy. That's the case here as well, with the rubber bands attaching the nose being quite visible. So on one level, the CM works by allowing the viewer to laugh not just at the "gaijin" but also, in a meta way, at the comedy. They thus laugh at the get-up as ridiculous, as patently false and comedic—perhaps even understanding it as old-fashioned and a stereotype. 

Catching Up: The Japanese Film Musical

It's been another long gap between posts. Still, I felt I had to get one more in before the new year.

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This post was not the only thing that took time. So did the book I want to introduce. It not only took several years for it to get published, but it then seemingly took forever for me to get a copy. But it is a fascinating book: The International Film Musical, edited by Corey K. Creekmur and Linda Y. Mokdad and published by Edinburgh University Press (ISBN 9780748634767).  

The book itself is an important step towards overcoming the tendency to equate the film musical with Hollywood cinema. It explore the broad range of narrative musical film traditions in a multitude of national contexts, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, China, India, Egypt, and Turkey.

My contribution considers the phenomenon of musicals in Japanese cinema by focusing on the problem of genre, both in terms of the general issue of the structure of genre in the Japanese film industry and the specific problem Japanese musicals have faced in trying to pursue what is often perceived as a Hollywood genre. The paper takes up two examples of the salaryman musical: Harikiri Boy (Harikiri bōi, dir. Ōtani Toshio), a P.C.L. musical from 1937 starring Furukawa Roppa; and You Can Succeed Too! (Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru, dir. Sugawa Eizō), arguably one of Japan's greatest musicals, made in 1964 with Frankie Sakai. It explores how Japan too, amidst the complex geopolitics of genre and nation, could succeed at the film musical. 

Kobe Planet Film Archive

In the same trip to check on Kyoto film archives, I also went to Kobe to visit the Kobe Planet Film Archive (Kobe Eiga Shiryokan). 

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It's located about a five minute walk from Shin-Nagata Station on the JR line on the second floor of a shopping complex. The area was one of the worst hit during the Kobe Earthquake in 1995 (which I experienced in Kyoto), so much of the area is newly rebuilt. The neighborhood is known among anime and manga fans as the location of the Tetsujin 28-go monument (the robot hero of the Yokoyama Mitsuteru manga/anime that was released in the USA as Gigantor) that was built as a symbol of local revival in 2009.

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The Film Archive opened in March 2007 with support from the city as another element in Kobe's revival plan. It is managed by Yasui Yoshio, one of the core figures in the Kansai film scene. He runs the Planet Bibliotheque de Cinema in Osaka, a private film library that also manages a small theater, Planet + 1. He has unearthed a number of important films, including most recently two of Ofuji Noburo's animated films, and co-authored books like Osaka ni Toyo 1 no satsueijo ga atta koro. I've known him since 1993, when he was coordinating the historical retrospectives of Japanese documentary for the Yamagata Film Festival. We also ventured off to Minamata together to interview Tsuchimoto Noriaki and he provided the prints for my wife's DVD, Roots of Japanese Anime

Preserving Kyoto's Film Culture

The other day, I made a trip to Kyoto on Yale business. While there, I had the chance to meet with Moriwaki Kiyotaka, senior curator for film at the Museum of Kyoto. Markus Nornes and I are updating our Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies in preparation for a possible Japanese edition and I thought I'd check up on the Museum. Unfortunately, it does represent some of the problems film studies and archiving face in Japan. While their collection of materials is superlative (centered on the Ito Daisuke collection), their reading room no longer exists and scholars are only allowed to view the collection on a case by case basis. But it was great hearing from Moriwaki-san about how the Museum, despite these difficulties, is making use of what it has and even rethinking the role of archives. The Museum is not simply trying to preserve the artifacts of Kyoto's film culture, a culture largely centered around jidaigeki, but engineering opportunities for the knowledge of that film culture to live on in younger generations. Thus it is attempting, for instance, to put young anime and manga artists in touch with older film veterans so that the current fad for samurai and period manga/anime can actually feed off of a longer history.

Catching Up: Japanese Film and Television

In trying to start up this blog after a long respite, I noticed that there are a number of my publications I have not announced.

One is the chapter I wrote for the Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, edited by Ted and Vicki Bestor and Akiko Yamagata, entitled "Japanese Film and Television." While I have written on television before (such as my article on telop in variety TV), it was a challenge to combine histories of the two media in a single, 13-page essay. The article is weighted towards the medium with the longer history (cinema), but I attempt to offer a concise history of both, making them overlap on the issue of media, considering how media have not just represented modern Japanese culture and society, but also shaped and construct it. Crucial in this are the debates and efforts to articulate "how meaning was to operate in an age of mass cultural production and consumption."

The book itself is a treasure trove of information on Japanese politics, history, society and culture with chapter by top scholars such as Peter Duus, Dave Leheny, Merry White, Susan Napierr, Ian Condry, Bill Kelly (my colleague at Yale), Koichi Iwabuchi, and Ted Bestor. A paperback edition should be appearing soon.

Iwasa Hisaya and Olo: The Boy from Tibet

The important documentary and experimental filmmaker, Iwasa Hisaya, died on 4 May 2013. He was attending a screening of his most recent film, Olo: The Boy from Tibet, in Miyagi when he fell down the stairs of the inn and struck his head. He was 78.

Iwasa was one of a number of crucial postwar Japanese filmmakers who emerged from Iwanami Productions, a studio run by the Iwanami publishing house that mostly made educational and PR films. While producing films for an emerging Japan Inc., filmmakers like Iwasa, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Ogawa Shinsuke, and Kuroki Kazuo were hotly debating, in an informal group they called the Ao no kai, or “Blue Group,”  what not just documentary but also cinema was. Ogawa and Tsuchimoto went on to become the two pillars of postwar documentary while others like Kuroki and Higashi Yoichi became important fiction filmmakers. Iwasa was different, however, going independent like the others but treading a fine line between experimental and documentary film with works like Spring-Powered Cinema: Am I an Actress? (Nejishiki: Watashi wa joyu?, 1968).

Page of Madness and Guide to Japanese Film Studies e-books

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)

My analysis of the conflicted history and textuality of Kinugasa Teinosuke's 1926 masterpiece. An explanation is here. You can purchase the e-book here

Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies (co-authored with Abé Mark Nornes, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, Number 65)

Our guide to the resources useful when researching Japanese film, from the important books to the crucial archives. Here is the explanation, and here is the e-book link.

Yamada Isuzu

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.

Tanaka Masasumi

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.

Kitano Takeshi Meets Yamamura Koji

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.

Awashima Chikage

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. 

The Birth of Japanese Film

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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. 

Makino Mamoru, Film Studies, and Archiving

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. 

EigagakuMichishirube

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. 

Morita Yoshimitsu's Death

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. 

Reviving Somai Shinji

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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. 

The Japanese Film Ephemera Collection at Yale

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.

Seo Mitsuyo, Pioneer Anime Director, Passes Away

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.)

Japanese Cinema and Literature

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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).

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