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Korean Cinema’s Relationship with Japanese Film: Moving Images Back and Forth.

door Roald Maliangkay

In recent years, it has become possible again to relate and compare the Korean and the Japanese film industries. Even though both took shape at the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), trade in and public display of Japanese pop culture was ruled illegal on either side of Korea’s 38th parallel in 1945. From 1945 to 1998, when the South Korean government decided to loosen their ban on Japanese pop culture, South Koreans could always gain access to Japanese films abroad, but after stringent censorship was implemented in the 1960s they did not have much influence. Korean filmmakers produced a number of interesting films, but financial difficulties and censorship for many years thwarted the free expression of ideas, and self-censorship remained an issue even after the censorship became less stringent in the 1990s. While Korean films did win a number of international prizes, the Japanese film industry was able to produce a long line of great directors and visionaries, some of whom even had significant influence on Western cinema, earning much international recognition. Due to the system of censorship, in Korea their influence could not go far beyond inspiring Koreans to emulate their success. Because Japanese animation studios often employed Koreans for their labour-intensive colouring and drawing work, on the other hand, animation was the only area where Korean studios clearly adopted Japanese ideas and concepts. The colonial experience, followed by the Korean War, and the subsequent censorship and pressure to make anti-communist films applied by South Korea’s military governments, have, nonetheless, served to create a characteristically Korean style of filmmaking in terms of scripts, styles and themes. Although South Korean filmmakers have had to explore the boundaries of censorship and moral acceptance through a few crass productions such as Kojimmal(Lies, Chang Sonu, 1999), Korean cinema has managed to quickly establish itself as a breeding ground for a very wide range of ideas and concepts, marred only by the increasing involvement of conservative conglomerates. Today, the film industries of Korea and Japan seem to have equal chances of commercial success abroad. Considering the many joint projects over the past few years, this suggests the markets show many similarities, but if we study them closely, important differences can be found.

Contemporary Japanese film genres can be roughly divided into anime (animation), the often anime-like action film, horror, and social drama. Over the past decade the first three genres have become prominent, both in terms of their commercial success and image building. Few countries have been able to emulate Japan’s successes in these fields, but it is fair to say that over the past decade Korea has become a serious competitor in the genres of horror and anime. Already in July 1998, a year after KUROSAWA Kiyoshi's Kyua (Cure), came out in Japan, Seoul’s SBS (TV) came with T’oyo misut’eri (Saturday Mystery), a series of re-enactments of “true” horror stories, narrated by the people who supposedly experienced them. The series was a huge success and in Korea many other “true” horror stories were turned into film, including Yogo koedam (Whispering Corridors, Pak Kihyong, 1998), which also did well abroad. Since the Japanese have a similar interest in “true” or folk stories as the basis for their horror films, remakes have had reasonable chance of success. In 1999, therefore, a Japanese-Korean co-production did a remake of NAKATA Hideo's very successful 1998 movie Ringu (Ring), called Ning (The Ring Virus). And, in 2001, MIIKE Takashi turned Kim Chiun's Choyonghan kajok (The Quiet Family, 1998), a comic horror movie about a dysfunctional family running a hostel with deadly results, into an equally entertaining horror musical, Katakurike no kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris). The fact that Dreamworks in 2003 won the bidding for Kim Chiun’s 2003 Changhwa, Hongnyon (A Tale of Two Sisters), and Miramax last year began remaking Chong Yonggi’'s Inhyongsa (The Doll Master, 2004) are further proof that Koreans have a lot to offer in this genre.


Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004)

Korean anime artists who once learned the styles and techniques from Japanese animators, have helped the emergence of a mature Korean anime industry, which in the early 2000s made use of web-based animations as a cheap and relatively risk-free marketing tool. Their successes include Mashimaro and Pucca, characters who much like similar Japanese cartoon figures have helped sell all kinds of fashion accessories, clothing, and toys. The Korean characters look cute but they have a more picaresque quality to them as opposed to the uncompromising kindness and helpfulness of, for example, Doraemon or Astro Boy. Japanese animators recognise the expertise of their Korean counterparts, and in 2002 the first Japanese-Korean co-production, Pata pata hikosen no boken (Adventure on a Flying Ship), was aired on Japanese TV. Unlike the Japanese anime industry, however, and despite the relative domestic success of the Korean Nudul nude (Nudl Nude) series of comic strip shorts that have come out since the late 1990s, the Korean anime market does not appeal to adults in any way.

Differences between the markets, of course, abound. The sadism and violent cruelty found in many anime-like films from Japan, including Miike Takashi'’s rather grotesque Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi The Killer, 2001) is uncommon in Korean cinema, where the genre is virtually nonexistent. It is comic dramas, and sex-war comedies in particular, that appear to be one of Korean cinema’s major strong points. Following the example of Kim Uisok’s influential Kyorhon iyagi (Story of a Marriage, 1992), many others have followed, including Yi Chonghyang's 1998 Misulgwan yop tongmulwon (Art Museum by the Zoo), and Yu Ha’s 2002 Kyorhon-un mich’in chishida (Marriage is a Crazy Thing). Themes that are arguably more complicated, more directly critical of contemporary society will also continue to be made for Korea’s domestic market, while much like in Japan surreal, shocking or aesthetic films will continue to be made for foreign audiences. The Korean Wave of pop culture, which has been sweeping across Asia since a few years, could in theory encourage Korean filmmakers – and, subsequently, Japanese filmmakers – to impose a form of self-censorship, as it is the lack of sex and profanity, as well as the visual beauty of the protagonists that is said to make the Korean products so very marketable. Although I hold this to be one of Korean cinema’s current threats, this scenario is unlikely to become a single reality. Korean and Japanese people seem to have become more and more interested in exploring reality rather than fiction. They are also becoming more open-minded towards each other, and seem interested in exploring mutual issues together, not just mutual markets. SAKAMOTO Junji's 2001 KT, about the KCIA’s kidnapping of the former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in Japan in 1973, is a good example of an objective portrayal of a time when the South Korean military government fought opposition with all means necessary, and the Japanese media feared that any reaction to the illegal act could harm the two countries’ mutual relationship. Blood and Bones (Chi to hone, 2004), by the ethnically Korean director SAI Yoichi, relates the life of a cruel and petty Korean businessman in Osaka’s Korean district since the 1930s. Like most of Sai's films, it explores the life of outcasts and immigrants. Despite HAMADA Takeshi's beautiful cinematography and Sai'’s undeniably good intentions, however, it fails to portray anything but blatant sadism and cruelty. HOSHI Mamoru's 2004 Warai no daigaku (University of Laughs), on the other hand, is a true masterpiece that shows the Japanese colonial empire to revolve around people, rather than two-dimensional caricatures, and manages to move enormously through many subtle means. I hope that along with films such as KORE-EDA Hirokazu's 2004 Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows) it will be among the first of a new generation of Japanese films that deal with real social issues and make it to the Western cinemas nonetheless.

Roald Maliangkay is study advisor of the Master Contemporary Asian Studies in the Netherlands and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. He is specialised in Korean folk and popular music, popular culture, and cultural policy and Korea's relationship with Japan.