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. 

Kawabata Yasunari on Cinema

This coming week I will be attending an international conference in Paris on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Kawabata Yasunari. Entitled "Relire Kawabata au 21e siècle - modernisme et japonisme au-delà des mythes," it will take place on September 17 and 18, 2014, at the Maison de la culture du Japon (for the first day) and the Université Paris Diderot (on the second day). It will feature some of the top literature scholars in Japan, Europe, and the United States, including Michael Bourdaghs, Kensuke Kono, Hirokazu Toeda, Hirofumi Wada, Yuko Brunet, Tomi Suzuki, and Cécile Sakai (who is the main organizer). The novelist Tawada Yoko will give a talk on the evening of the first day. Click here for the program (in French). 

My own interest in Kawabata is rather long held. One of my first published articles, "Celluloid Masks: The Cinematic Image and the Image of Japan" (in Iris 16 [Spring 1993]: 23-36), considered how Kawabata's and Tanazaki Jun'ichiro's literary representations of cinema connected to their constructions of Japan. And of course my second book, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, is about the film Kawabata was individually involved in making. 

Nuclear Nation Twice and Cinema after 3.11

This week and next week I will be participating in two events in Tokyo centered on films about the disasters on March 11, 2011, both of which—by chance—happen to feature screenings of the documentary Nuclear Nation (Futaba kara toku hanarete) and a discussion with the director Funahashi Atsushi. 

The first will take place on July 18 at Josai University, and will include a panel discussion with me, Hayashi Chiaki, Kitano Keisuke, Abé Mark Nornes, Mark Roberts, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, and Akira Mizuta-Lippit on the issue of cinema after 3.11 Details can be found here

The second will take place on the following Friday, July 25, at Sophia University. That will focus more on the film and will feature a talk after the screening between me and Funahashi-san. Details are available on this pdf.

There are a lot of films being made on 3.11—though many with some difficulties—which are increasingly becoming the subject of academic studies.

Ewha-Yale Conference: “Korean Literature, Art, and Film from 1910 to 1945”

This weekend I will be taking part in a conference coordinated by Ewha Women's University in South Korea and Yale University. Entitled “Korean Literature, Art, and Film from 1910 to 1945” that is being held at Ewha. A number of Yale and Ewha faculty will be taking part, as well as a former student of mine, Naoki Yamamoto, who is at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While I am not an expert on Korean cinema, I hope in my paper, "Colonial Era Korean Cinema and the Problem of Internalization," to pose some questions about the relation of film form to colonial subjectivity. Here is the abstract of my talk:

The internalization of the values of the colonizers in the mind of the colonized—the colonization of the mind—can be as crucial to the perpetuation of colonialism as the violence of legal or military force. I would like to analyze some colonial era films that I think pose some interesting questions about the problem of internalization during Japan’s colonization of Korea. One could see in films like Military Train (1938) or Volunteer (1941) examples of characters internalizing the voices or visions of Japanese empire. Yet I wonder if these films do not also show us complications in these narratives of internalization. First, they may seem in part to internalize Japanese film language or style, but given fraught debates in Japan over what constituted a national cinema, Koreans were at best internalizing a cinema that Japanese authorities themselves had not internalized as sufficient to represent the modern Japanese nation. This situation may affect the entire phenomenon of internalization. What I am curious about is less whether there was internalization of Japanese cinema or not, than the shape of the “internal” within the colonial spatial dynamics: what the cinema tells us about the fraught nature of internalization itself, for instance about how the boundaries between internal and external are demarcated or rendered ambiguous, about the construction or deconstruction of internalized subjects, and the contradictions of representing internal states through external means like cinema. I wonder if we cannot hypothesize that, if colonial era Korean cinema seems often concerned with internal states, it is less because it is opening up the space that will be internalized by the colonial cinema, than it is exhibiting the cracks and contradictions in internalization itself and the problems of colonial subjectivity. I thus was particularly interested in the number of stories, such as Fisherman’s Fire (1939), where gazes mattered, but which were often presented without point of view structures, or through point of view editing or eyeline matches that are considered wrong according to the rules of classical Hollywood cinema.

You can check out the schedule at the Yale CEAS site.

Film Criticism and the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema

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One of the trends in academic publishing these days seems to be an effort to provide information in a more condensed, easy-to-consume fashion. There are series like "Short Cuts" and its brief books on various topics in film (such as on New Korean Cinema). There also seems to be an explosion in publications of various handbooks or companions to this or that subject. I participated in one with my article on ”Japanese Film and Television" in the Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society edited by Vicky and Ted Bestor and Akiko Yamagata; and in another with the piece "Nation, Citizenship and Cinema" in A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan edited by Jennifer Robertson. 

There are now a number of these handbooks or companions being prepared on Japanese cinema. I've been asked to contribute to most of them (and even approached about editing one). The first to come out may set a standard that will be difficult to surpass:

Daisuke Miyao, ed. Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema. Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 9780199731664.

Archival Film Festivals and Japan

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A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of Tokyo FILMeX's "Nippon Modern" retrospective of Shochiku films from the 1920s and 1930s for Undercurrent, the online journal of FIPRESCI. It was a critical take on not just the retro, or even Sato Tadao's article for the catalog, but of a longer history of Japanese critics and institutions declining to think sufficiently about Japanese film history, in part by not thinking about the history of thinking about cinema in Japan. The piece was another in my efforts to think about the history and problems of film theory in Japan, which I mentioned in my last entry.

The Undercurrent article caught the eye of Alex Marlow-Mann, who asked me to expand on it for a volume in the "Film Festival Yearbook" series put out by St Andrews Film Studies. This volume, number five in the series, was on archival film festivals. My piece, entitled "Retrospective Irony: Film Festivals and Japanese Cinema History," sketches the history of retrospectives of Japanese film originating in Japan, beginning with those organized by the Kawakita Nagamasa and his wife Kashiko (the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute), and explores what kind of Japanese cinema they were constructing, especially for a foreign other. As with the Undercurrents piece, I note how these retros frequently did construct a Japan or Japanese cinema that was itself not supposed to be the object of critical theory, even when these events were held at home.

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.

Tetsujin28go

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. 

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