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“That Little Band of Men” or, the strengths and limitations of auteurism in the Japanese Cinema

door Alexander Jacoby

It is now more than forty years since the Japanese cinema came properly to international attention. This was a time when auteurism, the philosophy which would come to dominate film appreciation through the nineteen sixties, was as yet confined to the pages of a single Parisian magazine. Critics at that date wrote admiringly of such directors as Vittorio de Sica and Marcel Carné, but in general, serious critical writing on the cinema tended to focus more on national schools and styles – Soviet montage, French poetic realism, Italian neo-realism – which grouped together such actually diverse artists as Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Renoir, Carné and Duvivier, De Sica and Rossellini, as representatives of particular national traditions and social trends.

Japanese cinema, however, was perceived through an auteurist lens from the start. The Venice festival screening of Rashomon (1950) obtained its director, KUROSAWA Akira, a reputation as one of the world’s leading artists in film, and guaranteed the release of his subsequent films in the West. In the fifties, Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) and Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo, 1957) all circulated widely on the international art house circuit. MIZOGUCHI Kenji’s work was less widely distributed, but the Silver Lion won at Venice by The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952) ensured festival showings, at least, for Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho Dayu (1954), Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu monogatari, 1954) and Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956). Most of these were period films: dramas of contemporary life achieved less celebrity, probably because Japanese distributors themselves assumed that the details of daily conduct in modern Japan would prove inaccessible to Western audiences. But OZU Yasujiro too, had enjoyed partial retrospectives in Britain and America (though not yet in France) by the mid sixties. By that time, Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry had been published, including mid-length auteurist analyses of the work of nine Japanese directors, and dedicated “to that little band of men who have tried to make the Japanese film industry what every film industry should be: a director's cinema”.

Richie and Anderson also provided a detailed introduction to the workings of the Japanese studio system, to Japanese popular genres such as haha-mono (“mother-film”) and chanbara (“swordplay-film”), to the conditions of production in Japan, and to the historical circumstances that shaped its film art. But these circumstances seemed remote to Western audiences, who accordingly felt free to canonize specific artists and, particularly, to assume that the work was unaffected by the peculiar requirements of a popular commercial art form. Cinephiles bracketed Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu with such uncompromising European art filmmakers as Bergman and Antonioni. It would have shocked most Western filmgoers to learn that these three directors had been consistently commercially successful, which was how Kurosawa and Mizoguchi came by the budgets to make their often epic period films. Likewise, those in the West who saw Ozu as the ultimate mimetic artist would have been surprised to learn that RYU Chishu, say, was actually a star, with a clearly defined star persona evolved through dozens of films, not all by Ozu; and that, for Japanese audiences at the time of the films’ initial release, the mimetic effect would have been seriously disrupted by watching him play, within the space of four years, a father of 60 odd in Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), a thirty-something older brother in Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951), and a 70-year-old grandfather in Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953).

I do not propose, however, to take a stance against auteurism. The notion that the director is the only determinant of a film’s quality now seems ridiculous, but the idea that he or she is a major factor still strikes me as common sense. An auteur, properly speaking, is not a director who exerts total control over his films (which no one does), but a director whose films manifest certain consistent stylistic and thematic features (which most oeuvres do). This is more likely to be the case, naturally, if a director does achieve a certain measure of choice over his material, and with that in mind I propose that it is, in fact, a philosophy particularly applicable to Japanese films produced under the classical studio system. Japanese directors historically exerted a far greater degree of personal control over subject matter, casting and camera style than filmmakers in the Hollywood studio system of the same era, for which the theory was initially devised.


Tokyo Story (1953)

The continuing validity of a modified auteurism – one which acknowledges the social and historical influences shaping film production at the same time as it celebrates individual creativity – is confirmed by closely argued, historically aware and informative book-length studies of Mizoguchi and Gosho by Mark LeFanu and Arthur Noletti. Auteurism equally still seems relevant to modern Japanese cinema, where directors such as YANAGIMACHI Mitsuo and OGURI Kohei have pursued paths of uncompromising independence, seeking funding from private or unconventional sources (Oguri’s Sleeping Man was financed by Gunma Prefecture, where it was shot), and where even genre directors such as KUROSAWA Kiyoshi and KITANO Takeshi have sought to achieve an instantly recognisable personal style. Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes’ Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film is arranged in chapters each devoted to an individual director; and even Donald Richie’s most recent history, especially in its later chapters, largely sorts its contents by director. This is in contrast to his original history, co-written with Joseph Anderson, which adopted a narrative-driven approach, and in which auteurist content was confined to one chapter. As I myself am the author of a forthcoming handbook of Japanese directors, containing filmographies for and profiles of directors both classical and contemporary, I certainly would not wish to reject the auteurist approach as outdated.

What I wish to do, however, in adopting an auteurist approach, is to widen the canon of generally admired directors. Any serious student of the classical Hollywood sound cinema will be aware, at the very least, of Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Mann, Sirk, Minnelli, Ray, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Wilder and Preston Sturges. For many Western filmgoers, the classical Japanese cinema still really consists only of the three great names: Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. Of the nine directors given detailed treatment in the auteurist chapter of Richie and Anderson’s book, Yoshimura has still never been honoured with a retrospective outside Japan. Imai has had a travelling retrospective, but his films remain wholly unavailable on commercial DVD in the West. GOSHO Heinosuke, TOYODA Shiro and KINOSHITA Keisuke have all had retrospectives in the past, but opportunities to access their work now are limited to a very small number of DVD or video releases, some out of print. NARUSE Mikio fares a little better, especially in France, where several of his films are, or have been, in distribution and on video. Nevertheless, the amount of available films is distinctly disproportionate to his status, since many initiates claim him as the fourth great master of the classical era. Only those of us who have lived in Japan, or who have expended considerable time, money and energy to access prints at archives and touring retrospectives, can confirm or deny such a view.

In 1959, Richie and Anderson claimed that those nine directors had produced the bulk of what was deserving of attention in the Japanese cinema. This was not true then, and it is even less true now. My own book will contain almost 150 filmmakers, the vast majority of whom are included because they have produced at least some work of great merit. There are still many consistently interesting Japanese directors who have never had a full or even a substantial retrospective in the West. Of the classical generation, Yoshimura deserves at least as wide an exposure as Naruse or Gosho. The main New Wave directors have had their retrospectives abroad, and for directors such as OSHIMA Nagisa and IMAMURA Shohei, the situation with DVD releases is gradually improving, but there are still no commercially available DVD copies of films by YOSHIDA Yoshishige subtitled in English, and only one in French. Likewise, such contemporaries of the New Wave as KUMAI Kei and the late KUROKI Kazuo – both distinguished social critics – have still enjoyed only occasional screenings of isolated works. Of the younger generations of Japanese directors – those born in the twenty-five years after World War Two, whose work spans the last three decades – only a small proportion, such as Kitano, are well known abroad. Some of the others, like HASEGAWA Kazuhiko, have had unfulfilled careers; and some of the youngest talents, such as FURUMAYA Tomoyuki, have still produced too few feature films to merit retrospectives. But it is surely time that festivals and cinematheques devoted attention to such relatively neglected figures as MORITA Yoshimitsu, the late SOMAI Shinji, and their slightly older contemporary, the commercially successful, yet experimental filmmaker, OBAYASHI Nobuhiko.

I would also urge that retrospectives be planned not only along auteurist lines, but thematically. Donald Richie has spoken disparagingly of the way in which artists such as Ozu have become “brand names”; partly, of course, this is a just recognition of the quality of their films, but it also reflects the fact that cinephiles tend to seek out what they already know, so that the familiar sells. In the seventies and eighties, the Japan Film Library Council (later the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute) made considerable efforts, not only to make more widely available the work of acknowledged masters, but also to expand the number of major artists known in the West. This was true both of films by then emerging figures such as Kuroki and NARUSHIMA Toichiro, and of neglected masterpieces from the past. Seasons arranged by theme – the family in Japanese cinema, or Japanese history through film – introduced almost, or sometimes entirely, unknown masters such as Kinoshita, Gosho and SHIMIZU Hiroshi, who later, in turn, became subjects of fuller individual retrospectives. A return to this kind of thematic arrangement, drawing on the wealth of subtitled prints held by the Japan Foundation, the Kawakita Institute, and the National Film Center, would enable the generally acknowledged best work by still neglected figures such as SHIMAZU Yasujiro, IEKI Miyoji and URAYAMA Kirio to be introduced or reintroduced to Western audiences, hopefully paving the way for showings of their lesser known films.

As for the youngest generation of directors, it is not necessarily too early to begin presenting their work as a whole – or at least, as an oeuvre in progress. European film festivals regularly screen the latest works by distinguished artists of the modern Japanese cinema, but, because these screenings are intermittent and the films rarely achieve proper commercial distribution, it is easy for audiences to respond to each new work as an isolated event. I would like to see festivals accompany new works with mini-retrospectives of their directors’ earlier output. Oguri Kohei and Hiroki Ryuichi, both individual and imaginative artists whose newest films will feature at Dejima this year, would be ideal candidates for such treatment. It is vital that awareness of the classical Japanese cinema be expanded beyond the obvious names of Kurosawa Akira, Ozu and Mizoguchi; it is equally vital that awareness of modern Japanese film should be widened beyond Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Kitano, Nakata and Miike. The first task belongs to our cinematheques and our DVD retailers. I hope that festivals such as Dejima will take a lead with the second.

Alexander Jacoby is a British film critic and writer with a special interest in Japanese cinema. His writing on film has appeared in Senses of Cinema and CineAction, and he is the author of a forthcoming handbook of Japanese film directors, to be published in 2007 by Stone Bridge Press. He writes on film and other subjects for The Japan Times, and has a regular monthly column in The Japan Times Weekly.