Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema

Author: Jasper Sharp

Recently I reviewed a book in the same series on American Cinema and criticised it for being too broad a subject to do the book any justice. By contrast the book on Japanese cinema is very thorough. At first I thought this just demonstrated my own ignorance of Japanese cinema compared to that of Hollywood and the USA. But delving into the chronology near the beginning of the book it is evident that there are few landmarks, both cinematically and in the country’s rich and complex history the author has included which indicate what a rich and very different evolution Japan has compared to the USA or Europe. Sharp does seem to take the assumption though that the majority of the book’s readers will have at least a basic grasp or knowledge of Japanese cinema and history. The history of Japan’s cinema itself does run similar to that of many other countries, but considering that it remained such a secretive country which welcomed very few foreigners before the mid-19th century this makes it all the more amazing. It developed into a large industry by the 1920s but it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that most films were being converted to sound. Needless to say that the war years curtailed much production and the films that were made were for their propaganda value and for the most part of little artistic merit. The author gives credit to the great directors of Japanese cinema but he is at pains to let the readers know that these have largely been canonized by the West: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa. However, what the author has done is spell the name according to the Japanese tradition of the surname first and the given name second which is fine in the dictionary part but in the essays and written elsewhere Akira Kurosawa becomes Kurosawa Akira.

Over the years there are many directors who became well known to Western audiences if not necessarily household names such as the aforementioned Akira Kurosawa (who in 1954 directed Seven Samurai, the basis for The Magnificent Seven a few years later) and Yasujiro Ozu up to the more recent horror films from Japan and the likes of Takashi Miike. Let’s not forget the spate of Godzilla films and spin-offs in the 1960s and 70s and certainly not forgetting the recent popularity of Japanese horror films or J-Horror as the recent films have been called beginning with Takashi Miike’s Ring (1999). It becomes clearer reading through this as to how much Japanese cinema we are familiar with due to the popularity of what has become rather basely known as Asia Extreme (thanks to the Tartan video releases), Manga comics and Anime with the popularity of such films as Princess Mononoke (1997) and the beautiful Spirited Away (2002). But growing up it was the Godzilla films which first introduced me to Japanese cinema in a spate of 50+ films made between the 1950s and 1970s and are still being made today. To a cineaste eye it is the films of Ozu, in particular Tokyo Story (1953) which is one of the most subtle and beautiful films committed to screen which are seen as the height of film narrative and art. Tokyo Story is often read by many critics as being one of the greatest films ever made (it still appears in the Top 10 in the recent Sight and Sound all-time greats poll) barely gets a mention here unlike other more obscure films such as Daughter of the Samurai (1937) which gets a couple of pages dedicated to it. For me a director of equal stature to Ozu who is not given the same level of adoration that he deserves by most film critics is Mikio Naruse (forgive me but I have written the western way with the family name last) who made similar domestic lower-middle class dramas (known as shomin-geki or ‘common people’ dramas) but with the focus on women. At least he gets a fairly substantial mention here.

Another aspect of Japanese cinema is the way in which films are categorized into distinct sub-genres. For example the films of Ozu and Naruse were almost exclusively shomin-geki dramas although Ozu’s very first film (now lost) was a samurai historical costume drama (jedai-geki) before he went on to make student comedies (a whole sub-genre of their own) whereas the monster or Godzilla films were known as Kaiju-eiga and in themselves would have a sub set of sub-genres. By contrast other masterful directors such as Kurosawa would delve into different genres throughout his career. Even soft porn or exploitation films had their own categories by the late 1960s and 1970s before censorship laws tightened up and these were known as Pink Films or Roman Porno before this genre died out too in the late 1970s. This is, as already mentioned a very comprehensive book on a complex piece of history and it does need at least a vague understanding of Japanese cinema before delving into. This is not a western cinema from a western society (although many like Kurosawa are influenced by western stories and films) and therefore requires some understanding of the codes of that society. I for one will be using this book for reference purposes in the future in my pursuit of a better knowledge and understanding of Japanese cinema.

Chris Hick

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