Popcorn and Sake

Joe Knowles

What are you looking at?
In Hirokazu Kore’eda’s 1998 film After Life, the dead discover that there is no heaven or hell, only their own past. The deceased, finding themselves in a kind of cosmic waystation, have just one task during an allotted week in limbo: Choose one memory, and make it a good one. In the afterlife, it turns out, you meet not your maker but a film crew. They shoot and edit a re-enactment of your chosen memory, sit you down in a theater on the premises, and whisk you off to the great beyond to live with that memory forever.

Kore’eda’s picture speaks volumes about the nature of cinematic reality, especially the way the Japanese have been developing it for more than a century. For if movies are highly selective versions of reality, the Japanese have taken the maxim to an extreme. The country is famous for ultra-stylized presentation—in everything from flower-arranging to head-spinning anime—which often piques or baffles viewers in the West used to “realistic” or “naturalistic” ways of showing. In America, even patently unrealistic blockbusters live or die by their special effects’ realistic appeal. “Realism” in the cinema is as much a calculated aesthetic choice as any other, but as audiences, we don’t like to be reminded of that. We tend to deny style even as we rely on it.

This does not seem to be an issue for Japanese audiences. From the outset, when movie cameras first arrived in the archipelago in 1899, Japan simply “had no tradition of the common style known as realism,” Donald Richie explains in his superb new history, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. “Art and entertainment alike were presentational, that is, they rendered a particular reality by way of an authoritative voice.” Japan’s classical arts “had assumed the necessity of a structure created through mediation.” In a country where modernity had been declared overnight, the stagey conventions of noh and kabuki, not to mention the flattened, two-dimensional aesthetic of woodblock prints and ikebana flower arrangements, had a lot more to do with the emerging local style of film than any newfangled yearning for perspective or documentary fidelity.

Though Japan also had conventional silent films, especially into the ’20s and ’30s, many if not most of the early pictures were narrated live by a benshi, a kind of emcee who would describe and comment upon a procession of moving images for rapt audiences. Although some degree of live narration was not uncommon in other countries, it took much longer for full-fledged narrative films to develop in Japan than elsewhere, in part because responsibility for dialogue and storyline—however slender—was left to the benshi, some of whom became famous in their own right. The films themselves, with a few notable exceptions, remained loose collections of scenes more concerned with atmosphere, educational value or random comedy than with plot. By the ’30s, this would change, as the benshi lost his job to the talking soundtrack. But the peculiarly cultural need that the benshi had filled—a strong sense of authorial presence, an overt stage—did not go away.

Naturally, a culture so deferential toward authority, whether in an artistic or political sense, went hand in hand with authoritarianism. With more consent from the citizenry than the Japanese still care to admit, militarists led the nation on a path of war and conquest that culminated in unprecedented disaster in World War II. The Allied Occupation recognized this dynamic and even censored films thought to be too “feudal” in character. The occupiers may have understood their mission in cultural as well as military terms, Richie argues, but Japan still “has never assimilated anything that it did not want to.” Democracy, yes, but the Hollywood close-up? Not so fast.


How much of John Ford’s DNA found its way into Akira Kurosawa, and how much did the latter’s samurai epics imprint Star Wars? What does splattermeister du jour Takashi Miike owe to Quentin Tarantino, and what does Tarantino, in turn, owe to gangster-flick pioneer Seijun Suzuki? The answers to such questions are endlessly arguable, but what is consistently clear, Richie demonstrates, is that on the Japanese side of the equation, even after many decades of ping-ponging cultural influences, “any influence … is swallowed, digested and turned into something sometimes rich, often strange and always ‘Japanese.’ Any definition of Japanese style has to face the fact that most Japanese are usually unable to handle anything without swiftly nationalizing it.”

There is no Westerner more qualified to deliver a history of that peculiar digestive process—and interpret it for us gaijin—than Richie, who, ever since first coming ashore with the merchant marine in 1947, witnessed at close range the flowering of the Japanese cinema’s latter half-century. As Paul Schrader puts it in his foreword to A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Richie is the “Commodore Perry of Japanese film history,” first as a modest film reviewer for the Army’s Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper and then as an enterprising and influential critic for the Japan Times.

A landmark book on Japanese film (co-authored with Joseph Anderson in 1959), the first of its kind, set in motion a prolific book publishing career that led to a stint as film curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—unhappily for him, because the job kept him away from his adopted home in Tokyo. But he played a key role in introducing American audiences not just to Akira Kurosawa (already an international celebrity for Rashomon and Seven Samurai) but also more “Japanese” directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Sadao Yamanaka. Back home in Tokyo, he went on to author the definitive book on Ozu, while continuing to lobby for such works as Nagisa Oshima’s darkly erotic In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Juzo Itami’s hilarious look at vanishing tradition, The Funeral (1984).

But perhaps Richie’s greatest asset as a film critic is that he is not just a film critic. His finest work is not a work of criticism at all but The Inland Sea, which can be best described as a novel stitched into a travel memoir’s skin. Richie is an endlessly curious guest, eschewing exotic preconceptions but unafraid to compare and draw differences between his native and adopted homelands. An overview of his oeuvre—ranging from novels and memoir to books on gardening and tattoos—reveals an old-fashioned and well-rounded humanism out of step with today’s niche-driven provincialism.

The essential Donald Richie Reader, published last year by Berkeley-based Stone Bridge Press, provides such an overview. The Reader, whose main entries are graced by numerous sidebars from other books and essays, visually demonstrates how the author’s various enthusiasms and interests have informed and enhanced each other over the years. We get a feel for the way Richie’s mind works as it relates to film, as in an early recollection of sneaking into forbidden movie houses (the occupation had rules against fraternizing with the locals) when he did not yet know the language: “Undistracted by dialogue, undisturbed by story, I was able to attend to the intentions of the director, to notice his assumptions and to observe how he contrived his effects.”

The young Richie had seen nothing like these films before. Where realist conventions dictated that close-ups automatically denote emotional intensity or character revelation, here close-ups were rare. The camera kept its distance, “as though to show the space in between.” And yet “the screen was awash with undammed emotion. … The very fact that [the characters] were so far away, and crying for such a long time, compelled my moving nearer, and hence feeling more. So different from the big and demanding close-ups of Joan [Crawford], with nostrils large enough to drive a truck into.”


Such was the hallmark style of the Japanese film industry’s postwar golden age. Movie houses were often standing-room-only, and in 1960 a record 547 films were produced. The studio system, moreover, emphasized the ultimate authority of the director, as opposed to Hollywood’s more producer-oriented system. Kon Ichikawa, asked to make a humdrum period genre piece, turned around with An Actor’s Revenge, a riotously profound, colorful, perverse and gender-bending masterpiece. And it’s hard to imagine any studio—in any country—today backing Masaki Kobayashi’s 9 1/2 hour anti-war trilogy The Human Condition, one of the rare Japanese films to frankly confront the nation’s atrocities during World War II. But that’s what Shochiku Films did, making quite a lot of money as well.

Perhaps no filmmaker benefited from the Japanese studio system more than Yasujiro Ozu, the undisputed master of the period, who rewrote the style book with his trademark three-feet-off-the-ground camera position—the point of view, after all, of most Japanese while sitting. For this he was heralded as something of a realist, but he often dismissed the rules of realistic continuity altogether for the sake of sheer pictorial balance, as with a strangely nomadic, brilliantly red tea kettle in Equinox Flower. The exquisitely detailed microworlds of his films are exactingly framed and composed, but where in real life is such consistent and purposeful beauty found? Yet his films—nearly all of them concern the same tragicomic topic, the dissolution of the Japanese family—palpably stir the viewer’s most basic feelings. Ozu shows that tightly controlled artifice can lead to a realism of a higher, more truthful and purely emotional realm.

Shochiku, the studio behind most of Ozu’s films, valued him not necessarily for the money he brought in (usually very little), but for the prizes, acclaim and prestige he lent the company. The arrangement was rather like that of the old New York publishing houses, who used to subsidize worthy but uncommercial novelists with profits gained elsewhere. But by the mid-’60s, when push came to shove in competition with television, this enlightened practice was put to an end. Upon Ozu’s passing in 1963, a friend of his sadly remarked that it was fortunate that he died when he did, because he wouldn’t have been allowed to make movies for very much longer.


The Japanese have embraced video and television like no other country, and the Japanese studios paid an even heavier price than their American counterparts. For better and for worse, since the ’70s virtually all filmmaking in Japan has been a freelance proposition. Would-be auteurs can no longer concern themselves only with making movies; they must cobble together their own funding, find distributors and pray for modest ticket sales to justify their next project to finicky independent investors.

To be sure, the death of the studios suited many filmmakers just fine. Renegade directors like Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura thrived on the outside and paved the way for today’s wave of new independents, for whom international film festivals have become, ironically, the favored pathway to distribution in their own country.

Over the past 10 years, despite economic hardship, Japanese cinema seems to be on the uptick: Nearly 250 films were made last year. The final chapter of Richie’s history offers a current overview that is useful, stimulating and argumentative. While I think he’s off the mark dismissing a recent classic like Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (a nearly 4-hour epic about two young siblings and an ex-bus driver struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome), the chapter is a small victory for Japan’s cinematic diversity at a time when most international attention is directed toward the burgeoning, easily exportable genre of “J-Horror.”

An egregious example of such attention is Patrick Macias’ Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion. Macias has been inexplicably praised as an heir to the Richie legacy, but Tokyoscope illustrates all that is wrong with the subdivided world of film geekery. Grossly provincial in outlook, the book oozes with a sweaty affection for today’s young crop of horror directors, some of whom are indeed worth the hype, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), whose brief interview is one of the book’s brighter spots. But the slobbering praise is uniform, whether for veteran porn hacks or newly minted slasher maestros. Elsewhere, a ho-hum rundown of the Godzilla phenomenon pales beside what Richie wrote on the same subject decades ago.

The best of today’s working filmmakers include the aforementioned Kore’eda, who gave us After Life and the mournful character study Mabarosi. In 1999, Akihiko Shiota made Moonlight Whispers, a strangely sweet and tender story about … teen-age S/M. Veterans Oshima and Imamura are still masterminding worthwhile projects; the latter’s Warm Water under a Red Bridge is presently working its way through North American art houses. As a sideline to a very multifaceted career, the popular comedian “Beat” Takeshi Kitano makes interesting, if not always very good, gangster films.

But surely Japan’s most beloved living filmmaker is the master animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose Spirited Away (to be released in the States this fall) recently became the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history. The record had previously been held (though Titanic briefly topped it) by Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a beautiful humanist parable about, of all things, feminism, jobs and the environment. For the past two decades, Miyazaki’s films, and those of his independent Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata, have amiably demonstrated an ethical sophistication far beyond the reach of most Hollywood material geared to adults.

One slight problem with Richie’s indispensable history, and it is not his fault, is that some of his recommendations—actually, quite a few of them—are more or less out of reach, if you don’t happen to live in a city with a wealth of filmgoing options such as Chicago or New York (or Tokyo itself). In the world of video, DVD technology, with its multiple language tracks and subtitling options, could help facilitate a whole new level of cosmopolitan shared cinema. But the industry’s region-encoding scheme for such discs enhances its free flow of cash while pinching the free flow of culture. After a hundred years of Japanese cinema, one only regrets that the global economy is not as global as advertised.

Joe Knowles is a former culture editor for In These Times.
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