Screening for pure literature

Book to Screen
July 20, 2001

For the past decade, there has been a trend in American colleges for Japanese film studies to be taught as a subdivision of literature. As a result, Japanese films have become the focus for interpretation based on established western critical theory. As Susan Sontag has argued, this tradition privileges content over form, often to the detriment of our understanding of film art.

Keiko McDonald's works on Japanese cinema belong to this hermeneutic. From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Film continues this tradition with a primarily content-based analysis of 12 novels from the junbun-gaku (pure literature) movement of the post-Meiji Restoration period (1868) and their screen adaptations.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is an attempt to contextualise the discussion of individual film adaptations in part two, using a historical framework of the development of both the junbun-gaku movement and the film industry. It has tantalising insights into commercial factors such as competition between studios that often led to the release on the same day of films inspired by the same novel. However, these insights are not developed and the reader is left with a sense that these factors, which clearly played a crucial role in determining production choices, need further exploration.

Another problem with this section is a lack of discussion regarding a definition of junbun-gaku . Evaluative categories of "high" and "low" culture are accepted as given. These assumptions are problematic, particularly when considering McDonald's statement in the conclusion that her hope in writing the book was to interest not only scholars and academics, but also non-academic readers and viewers of Japanese novels and films, some of whom may not be familiar with Japanese literary schools of thought.

The discussion in the second section focuses primarily on lengthy plot summaries that tend to overshadow any critical analysis. As a result, stylistic questions that could be asked - such as how Japanese film-makers have transposed complex novels, often written in the first person, to a primarily visual medium, are taken up only at the most superficial level. Books such as From Book to Screen provide useful reference material on films not widely available outside Japan. However, they rarely leave the reader with a sense of having attained a greater understanding of the complex contextual and stylistic issues that combine to produce particular films or genres at particular historical junctures.

Isolde Standish is lecturer in Japanese film studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Film

Author - Keiko I. McDonald
ISBN - 0 7656 0387 X and 0388 8
Publisher - M. E. Sharpe
Price - £59.95 and £21.95
Pages - 326

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