Japanese society in celluloid

A New History of Japanese Cinema
July 28, 2006

The standard history of Japanese cinema, Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie's The Japanese Film , is now nearly 50 years old, so the time is ripe for another. But Isolde Standish's book is misnamed. It overlooks numerous canonical film-makers, such as Mikio Naruse and Shiro Toyoda, and ignores recognised classics such as Sansho Dayu and Humanity and Paper Balloons . If it is a history, it is a very partial one.

In fairness, Standish's aim differs from that of film historians such as Richie. She describes her book as a "study of some of the dominant historical discourses of the last century - modernism, nationalism, imperialism, transgression and gender - and cinema's role as a mechanism of mediation... both constitutive of, and constituted by, these same sociological discourses".

In other words, this is less a history of Japanese cinema than a history of the conditions of Japanese film production. Standish examines the ideological influences on film-makers and the role of genre and the star system in shaping the form and content of Japanese films.

This approach is sometimes very fruitful. Standish's treatment of wartime cinema is especially original. Writers on the period have tended to dismiss the propagandistic films of the era as an embarrassing interlude between Golden Ages in the 1930s and 1950s.

Standish, by contrast, shows how wartime propaganda films drew on modes of expression established in the 1930s, and "were part of a popular tradition sustained by well-established genre conventions, studio house styles and a highly developed star system". Here, as throughout the book, she supports her arguments by drawing on the contemporary writings of Japanese critics, writers and film-makers, translating and presenting much material previously unavailable in English.

Unfortunately, at other times Standish bases her conclusions on theory rather than fact. Discussing Oshima's banned, sexually explicit Ai no Corrida , she argues that what "upset the censors' sensibilities" were "the scenes depicting (the protagonist's) average(-sized) organ in a flaccid state", since they "opened up fissures between the reality of the physical organ and its symbolic function within patriarchal society".

This is demonstrably false: as Standish acknowledges a paragraph later, Japanese censorship codes prohibited all onscreen depictions of genitalia, male and female. Thus, it is likely that the motive was prudery, rather than a concern with the symbolic role of the phallus.

Standish's theoretical approach tends towards the predictable. Discussing her aims, she states that her book "does not claim to be the definitive history of Japanese narrative cinema", and adds that "the use of the word 'history' is perhaps misleading; 'histories' might be more appropriate, as this study takes the view that there is no 'grand narrative' of history that neatly collates all the facts and puts them into place".

This is attacking a straw man - no historian has ever believed that it is possible to collate all the facts - and it is curious that Standish offers the pluralisation of "history" as evidence of the originality of her study, when it is a cliche of contemporary academic thought.

Thus, although some of her theoretical approaches have not hitherto been applied specifically to the Japanese cinema, many of the book's arguments feel decidedly second-hand. In fact, despite Standish's stated aims, the book is least interesting when most theoretical. With its wealth of information about neglected Japanese films, it will, however, prove valuable as a factual resource.

Alexander Jacoby is an independent writer with a special interest in Japanese cinema.

A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film

Author - Isolde Standish
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 414
Price - £.50
ISBN - 0 8264 1709 4

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