Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film

picture: Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film
16 February 2004


Much like Mark Nornes's book Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, Picturing Japaneseness looks at the effects of pre-war government intervention on film, in this case focusing more specifically on the field of jidai-geki, or period drama, and its stylistic changes between the years of 1936-41. To this end he defines what he terms as the "monumental style" - a "bending of the language of classical Western cinema to accommodate the undulations of classical Japanese design and behaviour… The films enact a canonization of history, an emphasis on indigenous art forms and design, and a corresponding technical repertoire of long takes and long shots, very slow camera movement, and a highly ceremonial manner of blocking, acting and set design. The monumental style sets out to transform Japanese tradition from a cultural legacy into a sacrament".

The key point in the argument here is that propaganda not only consists in the demonization of the enemy (as in Frank Capra's Why We Fight films, or recent portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood), but also in the glorification of the self, and Davis draws attention to the way in which these films presented a pure, traditional image of Japan to its population drawn from a long line of artistic history, untainted by the modern "Western" style that had crept into the nation's arts and is manifested in films in the decades leading up to the invasion of Manchuria. He carefully defines what is meant by terms such as "the Classical Hollywood model" and "national cinema", and provides some solid analysis of some of the filmic texts on offer, such as the early work of Mizoguchi and the oft-filmed tale of Chushingura to back up his assertion that they adhere to a rigid Japanese aesthetic.

Davis is quick to point out that this "monumental style" did not stretch to all films made during this period, representing a tendency more than an approach. He also looks at three films made after the war which manifest the same style, but in order to attain a very different response: Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953), and Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Ran from the 80s. Perhaps were the book written now, the work of Kitano, and especially Zatoichi would come in for closer scrutiny.


Picturing Japaneseness - Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film

picture: cover of 'Picturing Japaneseness - Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film'

Columbia University Press