Eastern approaches

In Japan’s accelerated nineteenth century, the cinema was one of the last and most enduring of imports from the West. Within a couple of years of the first public demonstrations of technological innovations in moving pictures in the 1890s, by pioneers such as the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison, foreign cameras were taking in the sights of Tokyo. A native industry sprang up around the same time. Thousands of short films were produced over the ensuing decades; silent films remained common into the late 1930s, even as talking pictures established themselves and artistic ambitions grew.

After the Second World War, and even after the international success of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), appreciation of Japanese cinema overseas remained patchy. Writing in the TLS in 1960 (July 22) – in a review of a pioneering book called The Japanese Film: Art and industry, by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie – John Russell Taylor could suggest that the West had it wrong in thinking of Kurosawa as “typically Japanese”, while the Japanese thought him “one of the most Western of their directors”. At the same time the best work of directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa remained largely unseen outside Japan; Instead, distributors played it safe with the “sure-fire tasteful women’s picture” and the “occasional sex drama”.

A veteran writer on film, and formerly the publisher of VarietyPeter Cowie offers an informed view on these matters in Japanese Cinema: A personal journey (which is dedicated to the memory of Richie and his fellow film critic John Gillett). As Cowie notes, it wasn’t necessarily right for mid-century critics to judge all Japanese directors according to the politique des auteurs. Mizoguchi, for example, as a hard-pressed employee of the studio system, made seventy feature films before the war, not all of which bear the “distinctive signature” of his later work. On the other hand, as well as well-meaning critical confusion, there was sheer ignorance at work. Cowie recalls Leslie Halliwell’s bemusement at a press lunch in London in 1964. “Ozu?”, the maestro behind the Filmgoer’s Companion remarked. “That sounds like an anagram!”

Things have changed a little. A decade ago, for one thing, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) was crowned the greatest film of all time in a poll of film directors conducted by Sight and Sound magazine. Demand and supply – fueled by critical acclaim and a widespread Japanophilia – appear to be growing in the age of the streaming service. Anybody outside Japan who wants to watch Studio Ghibli’s acclaimed adventures in animation – all twenty-two of them – just needs a Netflix subscription. Viewers in the UK who prefer midcentury classics such as Tokyo Story or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai may turn to the British Film Institute’s streaming service (where they will find them amid an impressive range of weirder wonders, as well as plenty of those early short documentaries shot by foreign lenses).

In their different ways, Cowie’s book and A Companion to Japanese Cinema, edited by David Desser, allow for a deeper immersion in this marvelous cinematic universe. Cowie confesses that he has “glimpsed the structure of Japanese life and society even more from watching films than from visiting the country”, and offers appreciative accounts of the film-makers named above, as well as notable successors such as Nagisa Oshima (best known abroad for In the Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), Naomi Kawase (Sweet Bean, Radiance) and Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Desser’s Companion, by contrast, plunges into the scholarly depths to explore subjects such as Kawase’s “cinematic melancholy”, “shaping the anime industry”, queer film-making, “J-Horror” and “intermediate”. If intermediary isn’t your thing, it’s still perhaps worth opening the book for the sake of Desser’s useful introduction, which traces the formation of a Japanese film canon in detail, beginning with Rashomon winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

A focus on “certain themes” units Cowie’s essays. Mizoguchi, he thinks, is distinguished by “his profound knowledge and understanding of Japanese history”; A trio of prolific male film-makers, responsible for about 300 films between them, are brought together in a chapter concerning the “complex” role of women in Japanese society. A fourth man, Ozu again, is responsible for the “masterly, underrated” Equinox Flower (1958), a “pivotal film concerning the issue of arranged marriage”.

Although Cowie claims not to be attempting to assess the “complete career” of each director, his particular essayistic style has the overtones of such an approach: “If Kurosawa is the Beethoven of Japanese cinema, then there is no doubt that Ozu is its Chopin” “. Every Ozu film is “an exquisitely wrought jewel, but each is in effect a variation on a theme”. Perhaps that consistency is partly due to the fact that Ozu worked with the same scriptwriter, Kogo Noda, on twenty-seven films over a period of thirty-five years. Worked with and drank with, that is. “Finished”, Noda wrote in his diary of their collaboration on the script for Tokyo Story. “103 days, 43 bottles of sake.”

When it comes to Kurosawa himself, Cowie rejects the idea that this director is best set apart from his countrymen: “Returning to his work after an interval of ten years, I was struck by Kurosawa’s fidelity to his country’s culture and traditions”. He draws attention to the celebration of Japanese martial arts in Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and the “sardonic view of the samurai’s role” in pre-Meiji society put forward in Yojimbo (1961), but also has time for the neglected Dodes’ka-den (1970), a flop so severe that it contributed to the director’s suicide attempt the following year. The film crops up again in Dolores P. Martinez’s contribution to A Companion to Japanese Cinema – an essay rejecting the received view that Kurosawa had no interest in representing women “in all their complexity”. Martinez provides a persuasive rejoinder to this view, alongside further historical context that may help to alert viewers to the subtler aspects of his films.

As a jury member for the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002, Cowie was responsible for making Miyazaki’s Spirited Away the first animated film to win the top prize “at Berlin, Cannes, or Venice”. It was, for him, a revelation; the manga and anime craze of the 1990s had left him cold. Both novice and expert attitudes to Japanese animation figure in The Ghibliotheque Anime Movie Guide by Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham. The co-authors, who have produced a popular podcast on the subject since 2018, here present a fine selection of thirty notable films from the past sixty years, beginning with Panda and the Magic Serpent (Taiji Yabushita, 1958) and ending with Belle (Mamoru Hosoda, 2021); for each film Leader provides a “hefty slice of contextual background” and Cunningham offers a convert’s “critical commentary”. Miyazaki’s name and influence dominate, but as the authors have already devoted a whole volume to Studio Ghibli, only his first feature (the unpromisingly titled yet widely cherished Lupin III: The castle of Cagliostro, 1979) receives sustained attention here. Cunningham finds it “highly entertaining, but not as rich and rewarding as later works from the great director”; Steven Spielberg is supposed to have called it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”.

This comes immediately after Eiichi Yamamoto’s bewitchingly trippy Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and Gisaburo Sugii’s “poetic and elusive” Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985). More violent delights, with violent ends, duly follow – films that may fulfil the stereotype, for anime-wary audiences, of unsophisticated thrills that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as, say, Ozu. Ozu is certainly present, however, as an influence on anime films such as Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001) and A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016). Hosoda’s Belle, meanwhile, a virtual-reality fairy tale, received a fourteen-minute ovation at Cannes. No doubt there are more marvels to come.

Michael Caines is an editor at the TLS

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