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Sunday, March 5, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Evolution of Japanese cinema and the design of its creators


By JONNY CHINCHEN
A HUNDRED YEARS OF JAPANESE FILM, by Donald Richie. Kodansha International, 2005, 320 pp., $22 (paper).

Among Japanophiles, Donald Richie doesn't need an introduction, having written over 40 books on Japan, including the definitive works on directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and the first-ever in-depth consideration of Japanese cinema, "The Japanese Film: Art and Industry" (cowritten with Joseph L. Anderson). As director and screenwriter Paul Schrader states in the foreword to "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film," "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie."

But more than merely a historian of Japanese cinema's golden age, Richie is an active critic who continues to observe its contemporary evolution. The first edition of "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film," published in 2001, has been revised and updated to include recent movie trends, such as the horror revival, as well as introduce the latest related directors.

The book charts chronologically the development of Japanese film beginning with the early silents, which were largely stage productions captured on film. It covers periods of heavy foreign influence, particularly expressionism; the strict government control and censorship of the industry during World War II; continuing censorship in postwar Japan at the hands of the occupation forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur; and the artistic blossoming of film through the next few decades. It ends with the contemporary era.

Richie has some primary concerns throughout. One is to address the question of what makes Japanese cinema unique, how it differs from, is influenced by, and influences Western film. Another is the explanation and description of Japanese cinema as a "presentational" medium, as opposed to "representational" or realistic.

However, he is keen to point out that the concept of Japanese cinema changes and develops according to the artistic sensibilities of the directors handling it, and he ably develops this theme from seminal golden age directors such as Gosho, Ozu, Kurosawa, through Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura to current names such as Hirokazu Kore'eda, Miike Takashi and Takeshi Kitano.

For this edition, five new directors have been introduced, including Hideo Nakata, director of the worldwide cult phenomenon "Ringu"; Katsuhito Ishii; and Shinya Tsukamoto (perhaps the first Japanese director in recent memory to achieve global recognition for his amazing and grotesque feature debut "Tetsuo"). These three are famous for movies of a violent horror bent, and one gets the feeling that, while Richie bows to their achievements in globalizing Japanese film, he is a fan of neither genres in which they operate, nor their entries in those genres. The scope of the book, however, is much improved with their inclusion.

Richie's bold authoritative stance over a vast topic makes it easy for readers to forget that much of his book is opinion and not encyclopedic data; however, without this steady hand, "A Hundred Years" would be in danger of being a soulless catalog of Japanese cinema. The fact that it remains so readable and interesting throughout is a testament to Richie's skill as a narrator. But Richie's course is still selective.

He makes no bones about his favorites among the directors mentioned here -- anyone (Kore'eda, Juzo Itami) whose work shows the influence of Ozu is likely to gain favorable plaudits, while many of Japan's recent and wilder filmmakers (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Takeshi Kitano) are lambasted for trying to be cool. His treatment of them is refreshing amid the hype for such directors, but could be seen as a little dismissive given that their works have stirred up so much recent zeal and interest in Japanese movies in Europe and the United States.

Richie is less than euphoric about the recent boom in genre films in Japan, probably feeling that much of the output is overly trite and derivative of previous, more mature directors. He is also wary of the homogenizing effect such films have, not just upon the industry but also on their audiences, noting "perhaps the clones are already here. One of the indications is the new activity of the generic film. Spectators go clonelike to see the same thing at the same time; they all seem to have the same opinions of these popular entertainments."

This book is an authoritative, engaging and erudite study of the first 100 years of Japanese cinema. It is obviously not intended for those who, perhaps encouraged by the recent explosion of Japanese horror and violent genre movies, wish to explore the trashier side of Japanese cinema.

It should, however, be on the bookshelf of any serious film student as well as anyone who wants to experience more of Japanese film than a couple of Kurosawa movies. To that end, the book closes with a "selective guide" to Japanese films available with English subtitles on DVD or video -- one very valuable and useful resource.

Jonny Chinchen contributes to Wild Japan (www.wildjapan.co.uk).


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