A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors
by Tom Mes
Providing career profiles and complete filmographies of over 150 filmmakers, from the silent days to the digital age, Alexander Jacoby's A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors is the product of an astonishing amount of research. It not only gives us a very reliable reference work, but, more importantly, it shines a very welcome light on hitherto darkened corners of Japanese film history. Unjustly neglected or forgotten filmmakers are given a new lease of life. Torajiro Saito, Fumio Kamei, and Kajiro Yamamoto are hardly household names even to dedicated scholars, but the detailed profiles provided by Jacoby invite a rethinking of the canon and will serve as a map for the intrepid and the curious. Film critics, programmers, curators, librarians, academics, or simple fans - Jacoby's tome will prove of great value for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese film.
A book like this has certainly been long in coming. The sheer research required for such a volume must have scared off more than a few well-intended initiatives over the years. Jacoby deserves much praise for braving the odds and venturing forward on his own. In the acknowledgements, he thanks his Ph.D. supervisor for allowing that "time that should have been devoted to my studies was absorbed instead by this book" - but surely the book in itself should be reason enough for granting Jacoby his degree. It will certainly have a far larger impact than any graduation thesis could ever hope to aspire to.
While there is little to fault this as a reference work, the critical aspect fares rather less well. Jacoby writes firmly in the humanist tradition of Donald Richie (who wrote the foreword and to whom the book is dedicated) and anyone familiar with Richie's writing knows that this approach can occasionally tend toward the dogmatic, with judgment frequently passed on moral rather than artistic grounds. Exemplary in this case is Jacoby's dismissal of Yasuzo Masumura's The Blind Beast as "repulsive" on the basis of its subject matter (blind sculptor kidnaps pretty model and locks her in a basement where they eventually wind up living an amour fou culminating in bodily mutilation), ignoring the film's incisive commentary on male impotence - a common motif in the filmmaker's work. Similarly, berating Sabu, director of far-fetched but thoroughly amusing knockabout comedies like Postman Blues for "making light of mortality" is somewhat akin to disliking a banana for being yellow.
Although Jacoby noticeably tries at the very least to empathise with each of the filmmakers he profiles, his inclusion of a sort of blanket verdict about their work at the end of each entry is never quite convincing, as the format of the book doesn't afford him enough space to build a sound argument to support his judgments. Instead, the author elevates his preference for naturalistic styles and static long takes, which reveal "the nuances of behavior and expression", to a nigh-absolute criterion. But in cinema (not to mention in film criticism) there are no absolutes. Two directors can have opposing philosophies and approaches, but they can both make great films. Despite praising Japanese film for its diversity in his introduction, Jacoby's view of cinema is one that believes in the existence of supreme greatness (here personified by Ozu, Shimizu, Mizoguchi, and Kore-eda) - and, by extension, in the inferiority of everything that doesn't attain such heights. As a result, a book that intends to widen our view of Japanese cinema ironically ends up feeling rather claustrophobic at times.