News and Opinion

Film as an Important Cultural Property

According to the news services, the Council for Cultural Affairs (Bunka Shingikai) has recommended to the Minister of Education that he designate the 1899 film Momijigari, one of Japan’s earliest existing films recording the Kabuki actors Ichikawa Danjūrō IX and Onoe Kikugorō V acting in the eponymous play, an Important Cultural Property (juyo bunkazai). If the recommendation is accepted, the film photographed by Shibata Tsunekichi will become the first motion picture ever to be given that designation.

This might be a momentous decision in terms of film policy (a topic which I've discussed elsewhere). Japanese officialdom has made cultural policy a central aspect of state policy, assigning culture a significant place in defining Japanese history and national identity. I have long complained about a cultural properties policy that privileges pre-modern arts and "traditional" practices as "true" Japanese art, thus denigrating modern arts like film as "Western" and not "truly" Japanese. Such policies serve to construct the nation and its spirit as somehow separate from historical modernity, while also threaten the preservation of the film heritage by essentially stating that it is unimportant for Japan. Institutions such as the National Film Center get nice buildings (to support the construction industry) but not enough money to really support good preservation, research, and education in film. One should always take care in pleading for national bureaucrats to support your medium, but I've always felt there are ways to strategically use the government to promote film culture and its preservation. Breaking the standards by designating not just a film, but also a reproducible form like the cinema as a cultural treasure, may open the way for Japan to create something like the National Film Registry in the USA.

Miike's Yatterman

I had a little bit of time over the weekend in Japan, so I hopped on my bike - a quaint mama chari – and rode off to Shinyurigaoka to check out Miike Takashi’s most recent film, Yatterman. I have an article coming out soon on Miike, so I wanted to see what was up.

There’s a lot that could be said about the film, which as a whole was not that great in my opinion, but it did pose some interesting questions about authorship.

First, this is not a gross-out, excessively violent film like those Miike is “known” for. Heck, half the audience was about 10-years old. Yatterman is based on a famous 1970s anime that was more a gag cartoon than a robo-action piece; it was kind of notorious for having the villains explode at the end of each episode in a mushroom cloud shaped like a skull (Murakami Takashi has quoted that in his paintings). Miike said in the program that he tried to remain faithful to the original, so while some who don’t know the anime might find characters suddenly breaking out in a dance or cartoon-like figures inexplicably bursting forth (like a pig on a palm tree) a sign of Miike-like excess reminiscent of The Happiness of the Katakuris, these are mostly just recreating what was in the original. The movie in many ways is so much like the anime that it might be a bit confusing to those who know nothing of the original. So one wonders: what then is “Miike” about this film? And: why is this question even important?

Taisho Katsuei Studio

After my speedy trip to the U.K., I am now in Japan. The Okinawa conference at Sheffield was great, but it was too bad that Takamine Go wasn't feeling well enough to travel. Tanaka Yasuhiro and I were asked at the last minute to do the Q and A after Untamagiru, but I don't think we embarrassed ourselves. The next day, Mika Ko did a nice talk on the film.

I'm in Japan to do some research, talk to publishers, and file my tax returns. Today I headed down to Immigration in Kannai in Yokohama and decided to check out the former site of the Taisho Katsuei Studio in Motomachi while I was there. When I taught at Yokohama National University, I always took my students on a history tour of the Kannai area (Yokohama history is quite fascinating, I think), and always swung by Motomachi to show them the former site. They had a stone tablet commemorating the site at the base of Motomachi Park below the Foreign Cemetary and near the local pool, but they renovated that area to show off some of the old water sources and the tablet was moved. The last time I went I couldn't find it, so I went again today to look some more. Luckily I found it off to the side on the right, quite far from where it used to be. Here is a map to its current location.

Roots of Japanese Anime Trailer

My wife uploaded the trailer for The Roots of Japanese Anime, her new DVD at Zakka Films, onto YouTube. It's not that great, but it is one of my few moving image creations. I'm still not that happy with the timing or the transitions, but she gave me just a few clips and I worked with what I had. I did it using iMovie, which itself has limitations in the use of titles and other tools. But it was fun to play with it (especially manipulating the sound). My wife got a copy of FInal Cut Express for Christmas, so we should be able to do some more next time around.

By the way, some reviews have started appearing for The Roots of Japanese Anime, such as one here. That one was much appreciated, but it was less a review than a summary of the booklet. Can't people be a bit more original in their reviews? 

I'm off to the UK today for a conference on Okinawa at Sheffield. I'll give an updated version of my piece in Islands of Discontent.

Kanai Katsu DVD-Box Set

Here at Yale, we just enjoyed a pleasant and provocative visit from the great independent filmmaker Kanai Katsu as part of our East Asia in Motion symposium.

We screened Mujin retto (The Desert Archipelago) and Good-Bye on film (the first in 35mm and the second in 16mm) with digital subtitles: the prints were in very good visual condition and the grad students doing the subtitles were spot on. In the discussion afterwards, we got into Kanai's experience at the Daiei studios (where he worked with Kinugasa Teinosuke, so I got to talk to him earlier about the director of A Page of Madness), his impetus for going independent, his connections with Nihon University film people like Adachi Masao and Jonouchi Motoharu, his relations with Oshima Nagisa and Ogawa Shinsuke, his inspirations from existentialism and Surrealism, and especially his depictions of zainichi Koreans and his experience of filming Good-Bye in Korea (he said it was the first postwar Japanese film to be shot in South Korea).

One good piece of news is that Kanai-san has put out a DVD-box set of his films WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES. It's a limited edition, numbered, and with Kanai's signature. More info on the set and on ordering can be found here. Few of the works of the 1960s Japanese New Wave are available with subtitles, so it is even rarer to find some important works at the fringe of the New Wave, between fiction and experimental film, coming out with subtitles.

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