News and Opinion

Series: Documentaries of Japan

Satō Tadao is editing a very interesting project for Iwanami Shoten entitled Series: Documentaries of Japan (Shirizu: Nihon no dokyumentari). It is not only a 5-volume series of books, written with a general reader in mind, about various aspects of Japanese documentary, but also a 3-disk DVD box set containing some of the masterpieces of Japanese nonfiction film, many of which have not come out on DVD before. The first book volume of the series also contains a DVD with interviews and clips of some of the classic films. I have not seen a project like this in Japan yet.

The book series is composed of the following volumes:

1. Dokyumentari no miryoku

2. Seiji, shakai hen

3. Seikatsu, sangyo hen

4. Sangyo, kagaku hen

5. Shiryo hen (chronology, database, index)

Sato-sensei asked me to write a short piece on documentary and politics for the second volume, so I wrote about the relation of politics to film theory in the case of Prokino. This is the first thing I've written in Japanese for an anthology in a while, and it was again impressive how quickly it came out. The second volume is now on sale, with the remaining volumes soon to follow.

2009 Industry Statistics

This has been announced elsewhere, but the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (Eiren) released their statistics for the film industry for 2009. You can compare it to those from 2008.

The results are again great for Japanese film, and not so bad for cinema as a whole. Total box office went up 5.9% to 206 billion yen, with attendance climbing 5.5% to 169 million. Japanese films again beat foreign films at the box office 56.9% to 43.1%, their lead declining slightly but still winning in three out of the last four years. The box office for Japanese films rose 1.3% to 117 billion yen. The total number of films released slightly declined from 806 to 762, but the number for Japanese films slightly increased (from 418 to 448). The average ticket price increased by 3 yen to 1217 yen, while the number of screens continues to increase (to 3396 from 3359).

18 Japanese films earned more than 20 billion yen at the BO, more than the 15 from 2008, 2007 and 2006. Of the top 20 films, 16 were distributed by Toho, with RookiesPocket Monsters20th Century Boy Final, and Evangelion being the four to top 40 billion (all were distributed by Toho except for Evangelion). 

Avatar, Anime and Miyazaki Hayao

Last week on KineJapan we had nice discussion of James Cameron's Avatar. The question was posed whether the film exhibits the influence of Japanese anime, particularly Miyazaki Hayao (flying; wondrous forests; big trees with spirits [Totoro?]; respect for nature; etc.) and Oshii Mamoru (metal suits, transferring "ghosts," etc.). Some noted some pieces on the web that explore the same issues.

In the many responses, Kukhee Choo mentioned her article in Post Script about the influence of Battle Angel Alita on Cameron's Dark Angel. And Jasper Sharp used anime to actually criticize Avatar on his blog

Here, in brief, was my response:

When you look at it at first, the similarities with Miyazaki are there: the image of the forest, the non-human world, of flying, etc. Oshii also deals with battle suit issues, and so do many other Japanese anime. But Avatar's ideology is quite different from either of these.

First, Avatar never explores the complex questions of identity and reality that Oshii does: Is the Self the suit or what is "inside" the suit? How can we distinguish a "reality" from our world of computer networks and simulations? The thorough ambiguity that Oshii pursues on these questions puts him in parallel with the other great contemporary director of ambiguity, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Avatar just simplistically celebrates play with the "suit" while still holding out for a real "self" that is transferrable and thus separate from the suit.

Kitano Review in Film Quarterly

Arthur Nolletti, Jr., author of the solid book on Gosho Heinosuke, just let me know that Darrell Davis published a review of my Kitano book in the Winter 2009-2010 issue of Film Quarterly. It was nice to read Davis, an expert who published an important article on Kitano in the Summer 2001 issue of Cinema Journal, complement the book, saying it was a "reliable, scrupulous, and illuminating account" that "made a major contribution in detailing Kitano’s public persona," but I was most surprised - and pleased - to see him add: "That Gerow’s handling of his subject would fulfill expectations is no surprise, but wait, there’s more . . . a spark of humor, occasioned perhaps by the acid tongue of Kitano himself." In a book on a comedian, I had to throw in a few gags, but this is the first time anyone has said they worked. 

It's a relief to know this, but I don't plan to give up teaching and start doing manzai

Futaba Juzaburo

The Asahi reported today that the great film critic, Futaba Juzaburo, passed away last month on December 12, 2009. He was 99 years old. The family held the funeral in secret.

Futaba began writing criticism while working for Sumitomo, only quitting to concentrate on criticism in 1945. For nearly half a century, he rated films for the magazine Screen, showing no prejudice over what he would rate, looking at every thing from art films to B-films. Since Screen was a magazine centered on foreign film, however, he did not rate many Japanese films there, but his books on Japanese film include Nihon eiga hihan: 1932-1956 and Nihon eiga boku no 300-pon (he liked to compile lists). His most recent book, which came out in 2008, was Boku no tokkyu nijisseiki: Taisho Showa goraku bunka shoshi. He wrote a lot on American film.

He won many awards, including the Kikuchi Kan Prize, the Nihon Film Pen Club Award, and the Yamaji Fumiko Award. He also apparently translated mystery novels such as Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

Kinema Junpo Best Ten for 2009

The papers are reporting the results of the Kinema Junpo poll of critics of the best ten films of 2009.

1. Dear Doctor

2. Villon's Wife

3. Mt. Tsurugidake

4. Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi)

5. The Unbroken (Shizumanu taiyo)

6. Air Doll (Kuki ningyo)

7. Ultra Miracle Love Story

8. Summer Wars

9. Nobody to Watch Over Me (Dare mo mamotte kurenai)

10. Feel the Wind (Kazu ga tsuyoku fuite iru)

Page of Madness Book Review

Issue 26 of Screening the Past features a book review of my work, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, written by Frieda Friedberg, an Australian scholar of Japanese film. The same review also discusses Alexander Jacoby's A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors and the same issue also has reviews of  books on Kurosawa Akira and Naruse Mikio.

Matsue Tetsuaki's Live Tape

The title of Matsue Tetsuaki’s music documentary, Live Tape (Raibu tēpu), which won the best picture award in the Japanese Eyes section of the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, is both anachronistic and a contradiction in terms.

First it is anachronistic because these days few people use tape to record either music or video anymore. Recording on a hard disk is the norm for pros, which means that there are few material restrictions on how much you record. Tape, however, even if it is digital, limits you to the length of the tape, and that’s what’s emphasized here, as Matsue daringly decided to video tape a folk musician, Maeno Kenta, walking and singing through Kichijōji on New Year’s Day 2009 in a single, 74-minute shot that just fits into the length of a tape. No cuts, no trickery. Using tape is kind of old-fashioned, but so also is the belief in the spatiotemporal integrity of the shot in these days of digital manipulation. Matsue, who has insisted on a kind of - should we call it “outmoded”? - personal realism in his documentaries (Annyong Kimchi [1999], The Virgin Wildsides [Dōtei o purodusu, 2007], or Annyeong Yumika [2009)) and his AV work, stubbornly persists in letting reality, from technical issues to real events, limit the image, instead of conquering it all through the computer.

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