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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Japanese directors in detail


A CRITICAL HANDBOOK OF JAPANESE FILM DIRECTORS: From the Silent Era to the Present Day, by Alexander Jacoby. Stone Bridge Press, 2008, 398 pps., $22.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Mark Schilling What used to be an obscure publishing niche — filmographies in English of Japanese filmmakers — is now a task to which a small army — OK, platoon — of volunteers is now dedicated on Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database and elsewhere on the Web.

Nonetheless, Alexander Jacoby's book, which provides filmographies and critical profiles of more than 150 Japanese directors from the silent days to the present, serves a vital need.

English-language Web sources, while generally useful, are only as good as their compilers, whose Japanese is often limited or nonexistent and whose knowledge of Japanese directors and their films is often partial, based on only what is available with subtitles.

This is not the case with Jacoby, whose research into both English- and Japanese-language sources has been thorough and whose knowledge of his subjects' work, derived from countless hours of viewing it, with subtitles or not, is impressive.

He has been selective, since profiling all the directors who have worked in the Japanese film industry from its beginning would be a prohibitive task for any one individual. (The best similar Japanese book — Kinema Junpo's 1997 guide to nearly 2,000 directors — lists 56 writers.) So Jacoby has created a pantheon based on his own critical judgment as to who merits inclusion, elucidated in the essays that accompany the filmographies.

This approach is somewhere between that of the Kinema Junpo guide, which strives for objectivity and completeness, and that of David Thomson in his classic "Biographical Dictionary of Film," which skimps on the filmographies while brilliantly and, in some cases, infuriatingly opinionating on his subjects. In other words, Jacoby has written a book to not only consult but also argue with.

My main argument is not with his encomiums to giants like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, or his appreciations of neglected studio stalwarts such as Kozaburo Yoshimura and Yasujiro Shimazu, which are mostly unexceptionable, if unremarkable. He has, however, little sympathy with the makers of what critic Pauline Kael called "great trash" — genre films that rise above tired formulas with everything from cheeky brilliance to inspired rage.

Since many of the more interesting Japanese directors from the past four decades or so have specialized in "disreputable" genres, from horror to soft porn, this attitude seems curiously blinkered, like that of the higher-minded critics of yore who looked down their lorgnettes at anything out of Hollywood.

Yasuharu Hasebe, Jacoby writes, carried mentor Seijun Suzuki's "fondness for absurd plots and stylized visuals to a disreputable extreme" in "Ore ni Sawaru to Abunai ze (Black Tights Killers)" [1966].

Disreputable? That is not the word I'd use to describe this energetic and imaginative, if patchy and goofy, spy movie spoof. Suzuki himself, not surprisingly, gets a bit of a brushoff — his absurdist comic masterpiece "Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter)" [1966] is described as "foolishly enthralling" — as does shock maestro Takashi Miike (who is chided for being "more interested in provoking his viewers than enlightening them").

Still, for all his moralizing and artier-than-thou hauteur, Jacoby gives these and other down-market directors their critical due with diligence and precision. Whether you agree with him, or mark up your copy with snide and furious comments, he belongs in the small pantheon of those who have made a major contribution to Japanese film studies.

Mark Schilling is a film critic for The Japan Times.


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