Hey there, and welcome to another edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. I want to do something a little different this week. This is still a column about Japanese cinema, don’t you worry, but rather than explore the filmography of a beloved director or the history of a particular genre, I want to highlight a few interesting books on Japanese cinema I’ve either relied on or found interesting while creating this column.
This week, I want to recommend 2 different books on Japanese film that I can recommend as which I’ve found useful in broadening my general understanding of Japanese cinema. One book is an archive chronicling interviews and reviews about Japanese films created since the turn of the millennium, while the other is a broad history of the development of Japanese cinema from the introduction of film cameras to Japan at the end of the 19th century to the modern-day. Both have been useful resources for reference or clarification while working on this and are engaging in their own right.
I still have a film recommendation for everyone, but the purpose of this column is to share two books on Japanese cinema that I think are worth your time. Let’s get started!
What is Japanese Cinema? A History, by Yomota Inuhiko
Comparing the origins of cinema in the US to how the medium of cinema grew in Japan is intriguing, as it shows how both cultures initially viewed the invention of the motion picture differently. The invention of the kinetoscope, the precursor to the modern film camera, kickstarted a cinematic revolution in the US as people sought to use this expensive new technology to tell stories and capture the world around them. Before the end of the 1800s, the first movie studio was formed in New Jersey, and the origins of the modern-day juggernaut of film that is Hollywood can be traced back to the late 1900s and early 1910s.
In comparison, while American entrepreneurs were quick to form movie studios that capitalized on the excitement surrounding the kinetoscope, it took until 1897 for the first Japanese-produced film to be shot using the device, and even then, the footage being captured was heavily influenced by the West and Western interest in Japan as a foreign culture. Meanwhile, the development of early film in Japan was both influenced by and antagonized against Japanese theatre. Early films in the silent era took inspiration from Japanese theatre with the use of benshi, or professional explainers, who would essentially act as an additional element to the film, discussing its moral significance before and during the movie,
The development of the art of cinema in Japan from the introduction of the medium into the country until now is both inextricably linked and functionally independent of how cinema in the West has developed. In terms of introductions to the medium and its development over time, this book is both an engaging, concise yet detailed explainer to how cinema has developed over the past 120 years.
Starting in the final years of the 19th century, this book covers key film trends from each period of Japanese cinema history. Future segments cover silent film, pre-war cinema, wartime propaganda and film production in Japan’s occupied territories, occupation and post-occupation cinema, the studio system and its decline, indie film in the 1990s, all the way up to 2011.
What makes this book interesting is not just the clear and concise way the book introduces the history of Japanese history or Yomota Inuhiko’s encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, but how the book encourages the audience to critically engage with cinema as an art form. Through the introduction, Inuhiko frames the book around the question in the title and wants the reader to disavow the assumption that Japanese cinema can be reductively defined simply as cinema made in Japan. Not only should you consider Japanese cinema in a global framework, but you should consider how cinema interacts with other art forms and broader Japanese culture.
Through this double-meaning, Inuhiko creates an engaging, accessible book that explores the history of the medium and asks a simple question: what is Japanese cinema?
Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000, by Mark Schilling
The other book I want to recommend in this column is Art, Cult and Commerce by prominent Japanese film critic Mark Schilling. A critic for the Japan Times since 1989, this acts as a chronicle of the author’s interviews, essays and reviews conducted for a number of Japanese films released since the year 2000.
While done to keep costs down and avoid worrying about the costs of licensing images from the hundreds of films featured in the book, this isn’t the most engaging or exciting book to look at. With 500 pages of barely formatted text, only rarely punctuated by the doodles of Tomoki Watanabe, this book is more of a reference manual than something you’d sit down and read for hours on an evening. Without any photos or movie posters from the countless films discussed, it can almost feel a little intimidating to glance at the pages found within this tome to 21st century Japanese cinema.
That’s not to say the content found within its pages isn’t worthwhile. The book is split into four sections following a brief introduction written exclusively for this book. The first section is brief but interesting, a short collection of essays published over the years on several directors and trends within the industry. Here you’ll find an homage to Jun Ichikawa and a re-examination of the works of Yasujiro Ozu alongside articles like ‘New Era Launches on Japanese Screens’ an article originally published in Variety that speculates what direction Japanese cinema could go as we enter Reiwa.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the second section of the book, where 200 pages have been dedicated to archiving several interviews taken with Japanese directors and actors over the past 20 years. What I appreciate here is the variety of talents highlighted, which range from big-name creative figures like Hideaki Anno, Naomi Kawase, Kore-Eda Hirokazu and anime director Mamoru Hosoda to lesser-known people like Hitoshi Yazaki and Koki Mitani. Each gives a fascinating insight into the creative minds of those interviewed and remains compelling even removed from the movie release cycles the interviews were conducted within.
While the final segment is brief and notes the author’s top 10 films for each year featured within the book, the third section is dedicated to reviews. Starting in 2000 and ending in 2019 (though only 2 movies are featured for 2019 due to when this book was finalized and sent to print), almost 240 pages are given to mostly positive reviews for Japanese films that have been released since the new century began. As a result, this section of the book acts as a way of recommending modern Japanese films that you may have missed over the years.
Aside from the newly-written introduction for this collection every article featured in this book was initially published somewhere else, with all the reviews and most of the interviews and features being first published for the Japan Times. That doesn’t matter, though, as this book does a great job of bringing all these pieces together into one place.
Without an index or in-depth contents as page, as well as a complete lack of images, this isn’t the most accessible book, I admit. Still, if you have any interest in Japanese film, the interviews and reviews found here are all interesting and make this a useful tool for reference when it comes to modern Japanese cinema. For example, I’ve relied on this book when writing a few of these columns in the past. I referred to the Mika Ninagawa interviews in this book as part of my research for that entry to my column, and the same can be said for other articles as well as a few I currently have in the works right now, as it can act as a starting-off point for further research or just something I use to search for an interesting film to watch.
For easy access to a number of interviews and reviews on 21st century Japanese cinema, it’s worth a purchase.
Film Flashback: Dancing Mary
Without a set topic for this week’s column, I have mostly free reign to recommend almost any film I want (within reason). Since I want to avoid discussing movies I may want to discuss when I talk about topics related to them in the future, I instead want to share a film I’ve enjoyed while watching recent online Japanese film festivals. That film is Dancing Mary, a creative blend of romance, comedy and drama that’s defined by the director’s trademark black comedy and a sense of compassion reminiscent of another of the director’s films, the live-action adaptation of Bunny Drop.
SABU, known most notably for Dangan Runner and Mr. Long, is the director behind this project. In the film, Kenji (EXILE NAOTO) is the youngest on a team of construction workers leading the development of a new shopping mall, but all their work is being hindered by mysterious supernatural powers that prevent them from knocking down an abandoned dance hall standing in the proposed mall’s location. There are rumors that the building is cursed and even exorcists are no help here, until one day Kenji bumps into a young girl named Yukiko (Aina Yamada) with the power to see ghosts.
Kenji’s chance meeting with the girl helps him discover the reason why it’s so difficult to tear down the dance hall: the spirit of a dancer still waiting for their lover to return resides within. This sends the pair on a journey to find the spirit of her long-lost lover, uncovering why he failed to return and bringing him back to the dance hall to help them move on. There is one problem: they don’t know where he is, and the construction company, beginning to get impatient at the delays the project has faced because of the dance hall, is bringing in the yakuza to demolish the building and get construction started.
With such a bizarre initial concept, it would be easy to go into this film expecting a light-hearted comedy, and the movie does have some inspired moments of hilarity throughout. Yet had Dancing Mary leaned more heavily into this aspect of the movie, I’d likely be far more critical of the quality of the film as a whole. To me, the reason I enjoyed this film so much has less to do with the quality of the movie and far more to do with the dynamic between our two main characters and the hopeful, empathetic core that the story builds itself around.
This is all built around the clever ways in which the film integrates its supernatural elements into the story. While Kenji is unable to see ghosts without holding Yukiko’s hand, she can, and in order to make the distinction of who’s perspective the story is being observed from at any particular moment, the film will flick between full-color and black-and-white cinematography. Yukiko can see ghosts wandering around the world just as well as she can see see the living and is ostracized for it, so while the film is shot normally when viewing the world from Kenji’s perspective, to emphasize how Yukiko and the ghosts are left behind by the rest of society, these scenes are shot in black and white.
This ultimately helps to not only ground the concept of seeing the dead as something normal and commonplace but treats these ghosts as the people they used to be while they were alive. The realistic depiction, alongside how the use of black-and-white emphasizes their loneliness and the regrets tying them to the land of the long, allows us to invest in these characters in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.
Sure, it may be fun to see how the yakuza, both living and dead, involve themselves in the disputes surrounding the dance hall, or to take a dying yakuza boss impaled by swords to a ghost yakuza base as part of their journey to find the guy they’ve been searching for, but these fights are enjoyable because want to see these star-crossed lovers reunited and we want to see these people find peace. Throughout their journey, you see Yukiko begin to open up to the world after once shutting it off and you see Kenji become more understanding, and this development alongside their dynamic is another high point of the movie.
Dancing Mary is one of the more unique titles I’ve had the chance to watch as part of this summer’s Japanese film festival circuit, a humorous yet heartfelt story lifted by strong performances from the lead actors. An imaginative tale well worth seeking out.
Dancing Mary was recently screened at Nippon Connection and New York Asian Film Festival.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!