A Hundred Years of Japanese Film – Book Review

“What we know about Japanese film we owe to Donald Richie,” writes director Paul Schrader in his foreword to Richie’s book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Kodansha International, 2001 and revised 2005). One could just as easily add that what we know of contemporary Japanese culture we owe to Donald Richie as well. He has published on Japanese culture for more than fifty years and excels in elucidating those nuances that make a Japanese film unique.

Richie opens A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by stating that while film arrived in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century as a commercial Western product there was “a need to account for a certain Japanese tradition…a need which still remains.” (p. 10)

This need is often expressed in what Richie describes as the “presentational ethos,” which he identifies with Asia in opposition to the “representational ethos” in the West. An example explains this polarity. In the “representational” West, filmmakers would most likely film an orange “as is” to represent reality. In the “presentational” East, the orange’s skin would be removed; the sections would be separated and peeled; and the sections would be artistically arranged on a dish that matched the seasons before being filmed.

The presentational style is especially apparent in the films of Yasujiro Ozu as in his film Tokyo Story. Ozu’s placement of actors in Tokyo Story reveals narrative, or story line, though form rather than the content of what is actually said.

Once Richie has given us one of the keys to understanding the history of Japanese film, he informs us that very little of early film exists due to several factors:

• The 1923 Earthquake
• Firebombing of major cities in 1945
• Burning of banned films by the authorities of the Allied Occupation in the Post-War Period
• Industry indifference in later periods

Richie reconstructs the early history of film using existing stills, which seems an almost Herculean task when you see the number of “n.s.” in the citations, meaning “not surviving.”

After film made its 1897 debut in Osaka at a Cinématographe Lumière screening, the Japanese sought to make their own films. Taking their cue from the popularity of geisha postcards, the first directors filmed geisha dancing. The first true narrative films featured stories drawn from the kabuki theatre.

In Japan, film was considered theatre opposed to photography as in the West. Kabuki players relied on narrators to provide the story line as did noh drama and the bunraku puppet theater. Film had its narrators or, benshi, who maintained their position in film until 1932 long after the narrator tradition had died out in the West. Richie attributes the longevity of the film benshi to their go-between status as “conduits of new experience.” (p.19)

Japanese films are a perfect example of what the Japanese call “wakon yosai,” translated as “Japanese spirit and Western Culture.” This phrase emphasizes that while the means may be Western, the content and form is Japanese. This seemingly contradictory statement is still a key to understanding Japanese films along with the presentational style. Richie uses both as a guide to discussing films as diverse as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff to Godzilla and anime.

Film buffs and lovers of Japanese culture alike will enhance their knowledge by reading Richie’s insightful A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.

A film book round up with a focus on foreign cinema will be the subject of this week’s Culture with Ruth Paget radio show on Asnycnow Radio 3 at 5pm (New York time) this Wednesday, October 13, 2o10 on www.blogtalkradio.com. A podcast will be available on iTunes and blogtalk radio.

This review was originally posted on Ruth Paget’s blog Belle Vie Reviews and More at http://belleviereviews.blogspot.com