A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
by Tom Mes
Four years after its initial hardcover-only publication comes the very welcome paperback edition of Donald Richie's authoritative take on the full span of Japanese film history, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Published concurrently with a French translation (Le cinéma japonais, Éditions du Rocher), this is a "revised and updated" version of the 2001 text, which, particularly in the later sections, rephrases some of the author's statements and adds a name or two to the mix.
That the title of this book is "A Hundred Years", rather than the more definitive "One Hundred Years", is a subtle indication of its voluntarily selective view. This is Richie's own subjective account of that century-and-a-bit of filmmaking; a hundred years among other possible hundred years. Such an acknowledgement is a testament to the author's intelligence and awareness - there can be no such thing as a 'definitive' history of Japanese film. There will always be a process of filtering involved, whether forcibly, due to the unavailability of certain titles, or willingly, as a result of the author's tastes and opinions. Better to acknowledge this up front than pretend to deliver something no single author ever could.
There are two ways for a reader to react to this very personal slant: either lament what is left out and dismissed, or engage the discourse and opinions Richie puts forward. If we take the former route, it quickly becomes apparent exactly how selective the author's criteria have been. His history is largely the history of the studio A-list, and of the A-list studios. Shochiku, Toho, and Daiei, not coincidentally the homes of Ozu, Naruse, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi, take up the bulk of coverage. Shintoho, Nikkatsu, and particularly Toei (who Richie once referred to as "the most obtuse of the major studios"), all mainly purveyors of more popular fare, are given considerably less attention, as is Daiei's long tradition of chanbara.
Even within this relatively narrow selection, Richie spotlights a rather exclusive club of names. He himself keeps repeating how exceptional the positions and leeway enjoyed by Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa were, finding in their ability to take full creative advantage of their privileges a major argument for their predominance within his history. The flipside to that coin is of course that these three men made a combined total of less than 200 films in their entire lifetimes, whereas Japanese cinema as a whole was churning out more than 500 titles a year during these artists' heyday. Yet the number of mentions of Ozu in this book almost equals its page count.
Those who have come to Japanese film fairly recently and were weaned on the Kitanos, the Miikes, the Tsukamotos or the Fukasakus will likely have a tough time accepting the author's criteria. Richie finds little good to say (if anything at all) about any of these directors, despite the fact that all have them have been the subject of thoughtful, challenging, and intelligent coverage by critics and historians in Japan and elsewhere. Similarly, animation, which has a long, varied, and fascinating history (much of it created at obtuse Toei), is given short shrift as well. Bundled into a brief sub-chapter, Richie's take on animation relies largely on opinions expressed in a single essay by Japanese critic Kenji Sato who describes animation as having a "thin, insubstantial reality". These are examples of Richie's tendency to dismiss rather than to further investigate areas that do not take his fancy. In such cases, he refuses to do more than scratch the surface and sometimes forgets to check his facts (he doesn't know his ninkyo from his jitsuroku, for example, putting Fukasaku's Battles without Honour and Humanity in the former category and Battle Royale in the latter).
What results from this is a form of selective indignation. Richie chastises Shinya Tsukamoto for being influenced by the visual language of television, but offers no arguments as to why this should necessarily be a negative thing. Many times earlier in the book he acknowledges that artists are shaped by what they encounter on their paths and in their environments. He observes, for example, that Ozu was strongly influenced by the decidedly popular output of Mack Sennet and Hal Roach. But where this forms an occasion for Richie to have a closer look at the films of Ozu, he refuses to extend Tsukamoto - and many of his contemporaries - the same courtesy, instead preferring dismissive catchphrases like "pop" or "cool" to write off their work.
But to focus too much on these aspects of the book would be a mistake. Because even at his most dismissive, Richie never neglects to provide solid food for thought. That some of it might rub certain readers the wrong way is not an argument - those who pride themselves on the shock value of their favourite directors' films should not complain when receiving a few shocks themselves. In fact, there is much to be gained from Richie's discourse, no matter where your particular tastes in Japanese cinema lie.
The lynchpin of Richie's theoretical and historical approach throughout this volume is the contrast between presentation and representation, two stylistic methods he sees as roughly being a difference between the Japanese artistic tradition and the European/Western one. The latter's intrinsic goal is to emulate or closely reflect 'reality', making this the basis of all artistic choices. The former puts other concerns first. All-encompassing theories can often become rather restrictive - which perhaps provides another explanation for the selectiveness of the book - but this particular one proves to be remarkably workable within the boundaries that Richie has set for himself. It holds up just as well when discussing early twentieth-century silents as when talking about low-budget genre movies from nearly a century later. It proves to be a very practical tool too: Richie applies it consistently and in the process reveals a lot about the development of influences and styles within Japanese cinema's 100-plus year lifespan.
Another, perhaps even more provocative theory of Richie's is the idea of cyclical patterns of influence: that every few decades or so, artists return to the same sources, even when they aren't consciously aware of it: he draws parallels between, for example, the long-take style as employed by Kenji Mizoguchi and latter-day practitioners like Takeshi Kitano and Shinji Aoyama, then uses this a starting point to investigate how and to what end each of these directors employ the formal aspects of their films. Not all his comparisons are entirely successful - a very far-fetched parallel between Miike's Rainy Dog and the no longer extant 1899 silent film Armed Robber springs to mind - but the hypothesis does prove to be particularly useful when discussing the business and industry side of filmmaking, pointing out how the same promotional strategies and philosophies of commercial film production reoccur with great regularity over the years.
Then of course there are Richie's qualities as a writer. That distinctive, calm, authoritative, slightly stubborn, and occasionally authoritarian voice that is so uniquely his, also narrates this tome. The book speeds along a brisk pace and all that, but more importantly, Richie's prose combines eloquence, elegance, and perceptiveness, turning almost lyrical when the subject turns to Ozu or Kurosawa. Of Stray Dog he writes that the film sought to portray "a realism independent of reality". About Ozu's Tokyo Story, he was the first to suggest the now commonly used (and repeated here) phrase, "we do not want the film to end because we would have to leave these people whom we have come to understand."
As for Richie's unashamed subjectivity, it should only be applauded. A writer who doesn't let his own tastes and personality guide his work isn't worth the ink in his pen. In fact, it could be argued that this is exactly what makes a great writer - journalists and critics included: that, like with a great artist, his or her view of the world shines through in their work. And this certainly goes for Donald Richie.
Among the promotional blurbs on A Hundred Years of Japanese Film's back cover is one by Max Tessier, who claims that "This is probably the best, extensive 'digest' on all aspects of Japanese cinema available today in English." He is quite right. No matter what your interest level in Japanese film is, you can only gain from reading Richie's book.