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West Views East

door Ivo Smits

The recent success of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2004) suggests that Japan in film still is a place where we as Westerners are confronted with ourselves. Her film does not claim to be “about Japan,” and to take it as such would be a mistake. It is a beautiful study of two Americans lost in an alien world that, by its very exclusive strangeness, brings them together for an intimacy that is as erotic as it is platonic. For that, the film might just as well been set on Mars (or Venus). A cruder version of this pattern is provided by Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), in which the nineteenth-century hero played by Tom Cruise redeems himself by siding with samurai fighting to retain a traditional way of life. Cruise’s character had lost himself when he participated in massacring Native Americans; now ‘samurai’ became a substitute for Indians, giving him a second chance. Japan is explained in this film only to provide a backdrop that will give relief to what occupies the mind and eyes of the Western protagonist.

Well, that is Hollywood for you, some will say. My point here, however, is that such films underscore a way of looking at Japan in film that has long been present in Western appreciation of Japanese films. I will sketch a brief history of that appreciation and suggest a link with the renewed success of Japanese films that has occurred since the mid-1990s on international film festivals in Europe.

First one might ask if there is such a thing as “Japanese film.” Yes, said director OSHIMA Nagisa a decade ago: it certainly exists. There are films made by Japanese in which Japanese on screen speak Japanese. Those are Japanese films. And that is why Japanese film exists. But he went on to add that “the Japanese film” ceased to exist in the 1960s with the increasing generation gap and the loss of homogeneity in Japanese society. It is not coincidental that the breakdown coincided with the new prominence of independent cinema in Japan.

Oshima's remark that “Japanese cinema” existed until the 1960s is interesting for another reason: in film studies critics have tended to see films from that same period as the main source material to define the characteristics of Japanese film. Specifically, critics have looked at films from the two “golden ages” of Japanese cinema, the 1930s and the 1950s. The discovery of such a thing as Japanese film was marked by the Golden Lion won by KUROSAWA Akira's Rashomon at the Venice film festival of 1951 and its subsequent Oscar for best foreign film. This was the start of a series of international prizes for films from Japan throughout the 1950s. That in turn resulted in attempts by film critics to define what made these films worthwhile.


Lost in Translation (2003)

In a critical appraisal of Japanese film studies that opens his book Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, YOSHIMOTO Mitsuhiro distinguishes three successive phases of the history of Western (meaning mostly American) study of Japanese film. The 1960s were full of the recent ‘discovery’ of Japanese cinema and focused on the ‘universal values’ that could be detected in the works of a number of important Japanese directors. In a humanist appreciation, the West could relate to the essentials of the Japanese characters that transcended cultural boundaries. The paradox was that at the same time the exotic value of the films, their ‘otherness,’ was seen as illustrative of their Japaneseness: seeing these films could learn you something about Japan and knowing about Japan helped you explain the Japaneseness of their plot and story. Yoshimoto does not really touch upon the recurrence of an almost fixed set of names that dominated the image abroad of Japanese cinema (Kurosawa, MIZOGUCHI Kenji, ICHIKAWA Kon, etc.). This was largely due to the set-up of the Japanese studio system at the time, which allowed a small set of top directors a very free hand in choosing what films they made. The idea that Japanese cinema harbored directors whose work could be analyzed in such a way that the Japanese particularity of a specific “author” was balanced by the universality of the values of his films, was in part made possible by the hierarchical organization of the film industry.

In the 1970s Japanese films came to be studied along more formal modes of analysis. Japanese cinema was appreciated precisely because it was different from what Hollywood had to offer. In a search for alternatives in visual and dramatic style, films from Japan could provide the necessary validation (again thanks to Great Names in art cinema). That a director like OZU Yasujiro had to wait until the 1970s to be discovered, just as Japanese cinema had been in the 1950s, is in part related to this new attention to visual style. That said, it is also clear that these different approaches listed by Yoshimoto have not displaced one another, but rather have accumulated. The paradox of the ‘humanist’ approach, in which directors are seen as interesting both because of their recognizably individual work-as-art and their representative Japaneseness, is still with us today.

The 1980s finally brought us “cross-cultural analysis,” a somewhat self-centered approach that mainly revolves around the question of how and why Japan and its art forms throughout history function as mirror image of the West. Not mentioned in Yoshimoto'’s brief history of how the West views the East is the rise of popular culture studies in the 1990s. The growing fandom in exactly that same period of anime and Japanese gangster film (saved from its then comatose existence), or the interest in pink movies, tied in nicely with a new serious attention to subcultures as a way of charting the complexities of Japanese culture today. Japan “is” not Spirited Away or Juon, but such films definitively are seen as an integral part of Japan. After all, around the world students increasingly list anime and Japanese pop music as their motivation to enter departments of Japanese studies.

Mercifully, academics do not occupy fixed positions in film festival juries, but their ideas do influence our ways of looking. The eagerness to see the latest film by well-known directors often ties in to the belief that in the total body of films by that director, we can detect his or her personal signature, a vision and expression that is unique and at the same time speaks to all of us around the world. In other words, you do not have to be Japanese or a Korean resident in Japan to appreciate SAI’ Yoichi's films. To see a director’s latest film deepens our understanding of that unique signature. The strategy to bundle young directors from one country suggests remnants of the idea that through film we can learn foreign cultures.


Sonatine (1993)

The formalist analysis of the 1970s, too, seems to have unwittingly left its traces. When in the mid-1990s Japanese films became important contributions to international film festivals again, leading to a new Japanese New Wave, these were often marked by certain visual stylistic elements that had been recognized as “Japanese” twenty years earlier. Typically the long shot, often static, in combination with a long take, was a recurrent characteristic that had been identified as ‘typically’ Japanese in analyzing some of the Great Names of the 1950s. The fact that it was also a known B-film technique played little part in that discussion. Now it seemed to apply to such diverse but prize-winning films as Sonatine (1992) and later films by KITANO Takeshi, OGURI Kohei's Sleeping Man (Nemuru otoko, 1996), KAWASE Naomi'’s Suzaku (Moe no suzaku, 1997), or SUGIMORI Hidenori's Woman of Water (Mizu no onna, 2002). The film to start this trend was undoubtedly Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995), KORE-EDA Hirokazu's debut film. Its success abroad brought out the usually unspoken tendency to construct consistent patterns in Japanese film: to the director’s surprise, his film was continuously compared to the work of Ozu, a director who had not been on his mind at all and whose films he did not really know. The Japanese films that landed outside Japan throughout the last decade also shared a quality of staging that was decidedly un-realistic in Hollywood terms. Steady shots of actors looking at the audience, as if posing for a photograph, for example, have a way of underscoring the staged quality of film and lend it a certain theatricality that long has been called a traditional quality of Japanese film.

There is much in contemporary Japanese cinema that does not at all match the qualities just described. That alone illustrates the tremendous diversity of films from Japan, or even East Asia at large. And while I doubt that critics and festival jury members aim for cultural analysis on a regular basis, the fact that films come from Japan sparks dormant notions of what Japanese style may be about.

Ivo Smits is lecturer at the Centre for Japanese and Korean Studies at Leiden University. He is co-editor of the book Bridging the Divide. 400 years The Netherlands and Japan (Hotei Publishing) and has been writing articles and reviews for NRC Handelsblad since 1994.