Sunday, August 16, 2009

Modern Japanese Cinema

The Japanese began producing films at approximately the same time as the West, but while the Western cinema was quickly taking shape, the Japanese cinema remained relatively stagnant. By the time the cinema became the major narrative art form in the West, the typical Japanese film served as a form of illustration for the bensei, the traditional storyteller. The center of attention was the bensei as he told the tale and the film was used primarily as a visual enhancement for tales that may (or may not) have been related to the original narrative of the movie. Meanwhile, film as an art in its own right for the Japanese only existed at certain specialty theaters which showed the major Russian, American and German films of the era.

It was not until the 1920s, when various film directors began resisting the use of the bensei, that the Japanese cinema began moving in its own unique direction. The foreign films of the 1920s were the original models copied by such early Japanese filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, but this foreign influence was only the raw material that was quickly adapted and altered into distinctly Japanese forms. By the 1930s, the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi were considered too Japanese to be understood by foreign viewers.

The Japanese cinema is also one of the few national film industries in the world (the other main example being Hollywood) that has had a long, continuous history since the silent era. However, quantity does not always correspond with quality (as Hollywood also amply demonstrates) and the Japanese cinema's history has gone through periods of immense creatively - such as the late 1930s and the 1950s - followed by other, less interesting stages of standard genre melodramas, potboilers, and the occasional soft-core porn.

Unfortunately, the Japanese film industry is currently in the midst of such a period and the exciting and innovative films of the 1960s has been followed by economic problems within the industry and a reluctance on the part of producers to finance anything beyond quickie exploitation films. American movies dominant the marketplace and an upsurge in television viewing in Japan has not only made it more profitable for a Japanese director to work in television, but allows the director to achieve greater artistic independence on the small box rather than on the large screen. The few important artists still making films have found it necessary to either make blatantly commercial thrillers (which is what Kon Ichikawa has done) or else seek international backing for Japanese films (e.g. Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses was produced by a French company). After years of frustration, Akira Kurosawa found it necessary to accept the Soviet's offer to direct the non-Japanese film Dersu Uzala - either that or retire from film making altogether.

The 1960s stands out as the most recent period of major innovation in the Japanese cinema. It was a period that was fueled by national and international upheavals in the arts and by a growing sense of disenchantment among the younger generation of Japanese artists with many aspects of the society in which they lived. The spirit of compromise and mild optimism found among the Humanist filmmakers of the post-World War Two era was replaced with a more formalistic and rebellious attitude. New forms and structures were developed to deal more critically with contemporary subject matter while those filmmakers who dealt with historical subjects did so in a highly self-conscious effort to re-evaluate Japanese history and culture in light of the present situation. Double Suicide by Masahiro Shinoda takes a Brechtian approach to the traditional form of the Bunraka puppet play, purposefully exposing both the manipulations of the puppet-masters upon the actors and the film making process itself.

The avant-garde in Western art and literature had a strong influence upon many of the Japanese filmmakers of the 1960s, a "coming full circle" considering the influence of Japanese art upon the original avante-garde movement in the West. When Nagisa Oshima began working in the cinema, he was more impressed with the films of the French New Wave than he was with his own country's cinema and the stylistic similarities between his films and those of Jean-Luc Godard has not been overlooked by Western critics. Likewise, Woman in the Dunes is obviously derived from Franz Kafka's The Castle and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe's concerns are those of a European Existentialist. The allegorical content of the film is structurally austere and visually Woman in the Dunes is highly similar to a European "art" film.

As previously mentioned, Japanese culture was targeted for a critical re-evaluation. The new filmmakers were acutely aware of the changes that had taken place in modern Japan and of the apparent failure of traditional values. This failure in the face of recent history is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the way that Oshima chronologically structures The Ceremony. The various ceremonies of the film are set during politically important years of the post-war era. 1947, at the beginning of the film, was the start of the Cold War and the first wave of "Red Purges." In 1952, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed and Japan began to reap a profit from U.S. involvement in the Korean War. That same year, Japan's Communist Party broke with the students (one of whom was Oshima) in the radical movement. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was renewed in 1961 despite violent protests. 1964 was the year of prosperity and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. In the year the film was made - 1971 - the Security Treaty was renewed again and the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima led a small private army in a take-over of the National Security Force headquarters. Mishima's siege - his impassioned speech in support of the Emperor and "true" Japanese culture - and his act of ritual suicide afterwards, had stunned his fellow artists. In spite of his fanatical right-wing politics, Mishima was an influential voice to both sides of the Japanese political spectrum and his spectacular death forced to the surface the self-destructive contradictions which the Japanese intellect is seemingly incapable of resolving.

These contradictions - the disastrous outcome of military imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s; the massive disruption of an age-old culture and the overly enthusiastic embracing of things American; the attempt to build a democracy out of the remains of a politically feudalistic nation while simultaneously maintaining the Emperor; the deep relevance for the beauty of nature while the modern landscape is transformed into an industrial wasteland - has produced, according to Kon Ichikawa's Odd Obsession, a particular kind of impotency in the Japanese soul.

Bitter, ironic and a lover of macabre humor, Ichikawa has been a major influence upon the Japanese filmmakers of the 1960s because, says Shinoda, "he makes films only for the sake of making films, (his) work has a kind of innocence and very pure pleasure. In the technical realm he has been the most influential in pointing out directions for the avant-garde...." His willingness to experiment (he made one film told from the point of view of a cat) and sheer audacity in subject matter (after Odd Obsession he made Fires on the Plains in which a group of stranded soldiers resort to cannibalism) is often combined with an ambiguous moral viewpoint. Unlike many of the other Humanist directors of the 1950s, Ichikawa ask questions rather than teach lessons and the vague optimism of his contemporaries is replaced with a biting pessimism.

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