FILM 1701 Lecture Notes - Benshi, Gendai-Geki, Jidaigeki
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Week 14: Japanese Cinema
Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) (Mizoguchi)
1. Cultural issues of understanding and interpretation
-tradition of North American film criticism of Japanese film which interprets Japanese film
through Western concerns, usually positing a quality of “Japaneseness” or positing a dichotomy:
West vs East
Occidental vs Oriental
e.g., Noel Burch (To the Distant Observer), finds in Japan a parallel with modernist Brechtian
aesthetics of negation and declares Japanese cinema “avant-garde” using a European model of
-like all critical categories, these terms are only useful insofar as they illuminate and do not
obscure the meanings of a film or a culture.
-what is interesting in reading interviews with Japanese directors, and in reading about Japanese
film history, is how many internal divisions there, just as there are in North America. Mizoguchi
calls himself a “Kyoto” director as he feels based there, and not a “Tokyo” director. Different
studios in Japan, as in Hollywood, produced different kinds of film. Japanese film studios were
highly hierarchical in a way that benefited directors much more than in Hollywood, which was
-Do NOT look for a broad category of cultural Japaneseness (just as we were wary about making
pronouncements about the “german soul” with German Expressionism)
-Rather, examine specific aesthetic traditions of art making, performance, belief and value
systems AS THEY APPLY to the film in question. E.g., Benshi: lecturer in Japanese silent
cinema who was used into the 1940s.
Static Culture vs dynamic culture
-Japan has been described as static, e.g., David Cook, basing this observation on the assumption
that Japan was in isolation before 1945. Japan, isolated from the West, would have a purity that
could ground a “Japaneseness”. This is not true, although Cook is correct in treating the end of
WWII as a violent and decisive break in Japanese culture
-Japan influenced by Polynesian, Korean, Siberian, Chinese, Indian, as well as Western culture
1868: Meiji Restoration, period of greater Western influence.
-in arts: Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Nietszche, Proust, post-impressionist painting, futurism, dada, and
surrealism all came to Japan + photography
-film industry explicitly modeled on Hollywood
BUT, Japan, like any culture adapted these “influences” to its own set of dynamic cultural and
E.g., No drama: 14-15th century (to present): classical theatre style, highly and controlled
stylized form with dance and song. Uses masks, centres around ghost narratives, and takes place
on small indoor theatre stage, with single gnarled pine tree painted on background screen.
Influenced by Buddhism. It attempts, through story, to evoke a mood. The mood is the goal, not,
as with linear storytelling, dramatic resolution or character psychology. We are less meant to
learn about the individual psychology of a character than feel the subtle emotion of a
-The point is that to attempt to understand these films, we need to learn the specific cultural and
aesthetic traditions at play
-Highly conventionalized forms like No drama (whose style dominates the Lady Wakasa
sequence) don‟t „work‟ completely unless the viewer understands the conventions.
2. Genres: history of Japanese cinema
jidai-geki: period film
gendai-geki: contemporary film
3. Resonances of war:
1945: end of WWII: American occupation, and censorship: feudal or militaristic themes banned,
rush to modernization: Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, Gen Douglas McArthur led
occupation called SCAP.
1952: end of occupation: beginning of “Golden Age” of Japanese cinema
Ugetsu set in 16th century civil war period: Mizoguchi a fanatic for historical accuracy in period
mujo: “The mutability of all earthly phenomenon” (Buddhism)
Ugetsu monogatari (tales of moonlight and rain) (mizoguchi: cultural issues of understanding and interpretation. Tradition of north american film criticism of japanese film which interprets japanese film through western concerns, usually positing a quality of japaneseness or positing a dichotomy: Occidental vs oriental e. g. , noel burch (to the distant observer), finds in japan a parallel with modernist brechtian aesthetics of negation and declares japanese cinema avant-garde using a european model of avant-garde art. Like all critical categories, these terms are only useful insofar as they illuminate and do not obscure the meanings of a film or a culture. What is interesting in reading interviews with japanese directors, and in reading about japanese film history, is how many internal divisions there, just as there are in north america. Mizoguchi calls himself a kyoto director as he feels based there, and not a tokyo director. Different studios in japan, as in hollywood, produced different kinds of film.