Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context
by Tom Mes
In the very first paragraphs of the preface to her new book Reading a Japanese Film, Keiko McDonald explains that she set about writing this volume out of dissatisfaction with the dearth of "really sound textbooks" for Japanese film studies courses. Students are flocking to the classes, but tailor-made, up-to-date teaching materials are still few and far between.
Oh dear, I hear you think, a boring old textbook. Well wrong you are. For what is a textbook (a good one) if not an introduction to a subject, a well-balanced digest offering its readers a jumping-off point into deeper exploration? Reading a Japanese Film does exactly that: it will provide anyone who qualifies their interest in Japanese cinema as even the slightest bit serious with the solid basis they need to delve further into the wealth of more specific writing on the subject, not to mention provide a fresh look on the films themselves. After reading McDonald's new book, it is virtually guaranteed that you will be giving even well-worn standards like Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy, Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba or Takeshi Kitano's Kids Return another spin - and look at them with a fresh pair of eyes.
If there are still people out there who like reading books about their favourite films but are saddled with an instinctive aversion to anything labelled 'academic publication', this would be a good occasion to set their preconceptions aside. Certainly in the case of Japanese film, there are few more reliable sources for great books than North America's university press. With all the lowest-common-denominator levelling going on in the media landscape around us, book publishing included, the academic publishing circuit offers a relative safe haven against the overwhelming forces of marketing and sales figures. Here, authors and publishers alike don't need to worry about making their books accessible to an imaginary audience of 15-year-olds hooked on Onimusha and Kill Bill. Instead they treat their readers to the all-too-rare joy of being taken seriously.
As her previous volumes on the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and the influences of literature and theater on Japanese film have shown, Keiko McDonald is one of the more distinguished authors in the field, someone who has taken from her mentor Donald Richie the ability to write for wider audiences than those found in her normal campus environment. Mercifully free of jargon and the 'square pegs in round holes' syndrome that plagues overzealous academia, Reading a Japanese Film is a worthwhile and occasionally gap-filling overview of more than seven decades of filmmaking, from the advent of the talkies to the dawn of the millennium. Sixteen films are chosen and probed, ranging chronologically from Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion (1938) to Naomi Kawase's Suzaku (1997). Particular emphasis is placed on cultural symbolism and specifics, the 'Japaneseness' in other words, that non-Japanese viewers may not pick up on but which play such an important role in conveying the filmmakers' messages.
If many of the names here included are familiar, the actual films contain some pleasantly unexpected selections: Drunken Angel (1948) and Madadayo (1993) are hardly the most lauded of Akira Kurosawa's 29 feature films, but they are no less interesting as examples of what preoccupied this magnificent director at those particular moments in time. McDonald's acuity is shown in more than just the choice of titles, though. Among these sixteen studies, several are shining examples of accessible, thorough, at times even heartfelt film analysis. The author's overall no-frills style from time to time sparkles when she shows a more emotional side, as in her lambasting of the Japanese educational system in the chapter on Kids Return. Her 26-page probing of Inagaki's trilogy is a real standout, and a joy to read. Even readers who have never seen these three films will come away convinced of their qualities and finesses, and, despite the ample plot detail provided, they will want to rush out to see them rather than feeling like having the surprises spoiled.
Academic volumes do tend to neglect the reference aspect that a film book can provide. Reading a Japanese Film is no exception there, unfortunately. It occasionally comes off as having been written in a vacuum, with its rather tenacious use of English translations of film titles, even in cases where release titles have been in use for years, leading to such cringe-worthy references as 'Combat without a Code' and 'Lone Wolf with a Child'. Several glaring errors also contribute to this impression. It's always teetering on the brink of nitpicking to go pointing out errors in a book (it is virtually impossible to eradicate errors and typos from a first edition), but when a more than prominent figure like Tadanobu Asano is referred to as Tadanobu Ando, actors are credited for films they've never appeared in and Kinji Fukasaku's work is held up as the exemplar of the ninkyo eiga genre, the reader can rightly raise an eyebrow or two.
A similarly critical glance may be directed at the absence of any film from the 1970s. The book jumps from 1963's Onibaba straight to 1981's Muddy River, leaving a period uncovered during which Japanese cinema was in perhaps its most violent period of upheaval. Instead of relying on nebulous terminology like 'retrenchment', including a film by, say, Tatsumi Kumashiro or Shunya Ito (whose works, like most of the other filmmakers included, are relatively simple to obtain), would have given McDonald the perfect case study on how industry changes and economic misfortunes shape the eventual films - and pave the way for the decades and developments to follow.
That said, these are details, and if they distract from the overall achievement, it is only marginally. This book is called Reading a Japanese Film, after all, so we shouldn't be surprised if the focus is on textual rather than contextual analysis. (Though why do we still refer to 'reading' and 'text' when we talk about films?) In the end, this is a book from which even readers already familiar with the films under discussion will come away with new insights. Reading a Japanese Film gives you what all good books on cinema should: a deeper understanding and a resonant appreciation of the films themselves and the culture that made them.