Usually, a concern for a balanced composition, symmetrical or asymmetrical,
has become an identifying mark of Japanese films - right up to the films of,
say, Kitano Takeshi, and beyond.
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: Chapter 5, "The new independents", page
Ozu, like many Japanese directors (Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ichikawa Kon), was a
draughtsman. His pictures (usually still lifes, all in that rustic manner
typical of the traditional amateur aesthete, the bunjin) are highly
competent. Whether he so regarded them or not, his sketches, watercolors, and
ink drawings are the opposite of modernist - they are deeply traditional.
Perhaps the most traditional aspect not only of Ozu?s films but also of
Japanese cinema as a whole is its long-lived and still-continuing concern for
composition. Dictionaries define composition as the combining of distinct parts
to create a unified whole, and the manner which the parts are combined or
related. The presentation of a unified view is one of the elements in Japanese
culture?the garden, ikebana, the stage - and it is not surprising that an acute
compositional consciousness should be part of the visual style of the
In Japanese film the compositional imperative is so assumed that it is the
rare director who fails to achieve it. (If he so fails, as in the films of
Imamura Shohei, it is intentional.) Usually, a concern for a balanced
composition, symmetrical or asymmetrical, has become an identifying mark of
Japanese films - right up to the films of, say, Kitano Takeshi, and beyond.
If Ozu?s compositional interests can be seen as traditional, so too, can his
thoughts on construction. Critic Nagai Tatsuo once mentioned that many of Ozu?s
titles refer to the seasons and asked Ozu if that meant he was interested in
haiku. The director replied that he wrote maybe three haiku a year, although, in
truth, his journals are filled with them - one a week or so. He would at times
be self-critical, such as with the following haiku, after which he wrote, "what
a bad poem."
Begins to fall
Poor kotatsu (13)
The seasonal reference is certainly there. The fact that the foot-warmer is
no longer needed now that the warm spring rains are falling, is true, a bit
mawkish. Nonetheless, Ozu himself thought haiku of relevance to film: "Since
renga [linked classical verse] is similar to film editing, I found it a
good learning experience." (14)
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 59,
chapter 2, section: The New Gendaigeki
Another genre specialist was Fukasaku Kinji, who made Battles Without
Honor or Humanity (Jingi naki tatakai, 1973-76), a multipart series for
Toei. The Series criticized the yakuza and concerned itself with the extreme
consequences of giri and ninjo. These pictures formed a subgenre within the
major yakuza-film genre. Known as ninkyo-eiga, such vehicles were
idealized, highly formalized elaborations, set usually in the late Meiji, the
Taisho, or the early Showa eras. The hero wades into the rival gang and emerges
Though popular and profitable, the ninkyo-eiga did not last. A late attempt
at revival, Sakamoto Junji?s Another Battle (Shin jingi naki tatakai,
2000), some of Kitano Takeshi?s films, and all of Miike Takeshi?s. In these, the
lawless, nihilistic hero of early Ito Daisuke is revived, though as a figure of
mere fashionable violence rather than, as in the ninkyo-eiga, serious moral
There were during the period many other genre craftsmen as well. Nakamura
Noboru, who had worked as assistant director on Toshimura Kozaburo?s The
Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi, became a latter-day jun-bungaku
socialist, making into persuasive films such novels as Ariyoshi Sawako?s The
River Ki (Kinokawa, 1966) and Kawabatata?s Twin Sisters of Kyoto
(Koto, 1963). Oba Hideo, another Yoshimura-trained director, specialized in
melodrama and created an enormously popular trilogy What is Your Name?
(Kimi no na wa, 1953-54) and later remade Snow Country (Yukiguni,
Chiba Yasuki, having early completed Certain Night?s Kiss, went on to create
superior program-pictures such as the four-part Mr. Fortune Maker (Oban,
1957-58) and an excellent Hayashi Fumiko adaptation, Downtown
(Shitamachi, 1957). Also working for Toho, Okamoto Kihachi began under Naruse
Mikio as assistant director on Floating Clouds. He later went in for
spectaculars including The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu toge, 1966),
Kill (Kiru, 1968), and the star-studded The Emperor and the Genera
(Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, aka Japan?s Longest Day,1967); the wry war comedy,
Human Bullet (Nikudan, 1968); and a remake of Kurosawa?s Sanshiro
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 179,
chapter 4, section: The Advent of Television and the Film?s Defenses
Genre as such, however, could no longer command a market. What happened to
the yakuza film is instructive. With the jidaigeki fading into television, this
modern descendant of the matatabi-mono became, for a time, the leading
action-film genre. Yakuza etiquette is really a parody of the samurai code, and
its expression is actually a continuation of what one critic called the
"Chusinguara mentality." With such "Japanese" virtues as loyalty, dedication,
and subservience inculcated, one might have thought that a lasting popularity
Stylistically conservative, the yakuza genre was further a "rationalized"
product in that it was constructed of standard units: the "return" scene, the
"identification" scene, the "reconciliation" scene. These were shot, from film
to film, in more or less identical fashion. Like many traditional Japanese
cultural products, the films were constructed as modules, one attached to
another. Not only did they resemble the chambara in this way, they even
reflected Onoe Matsunosuke?s methods - one duel per reel. Such rationalization
also means a product which is cheaper to make and easier to distribute, thus
reducing the unit price.
Yet the popularity of the yakuza film lasted only a decade, from about 1963
to 1973. Film yakuza, models of submission, were quite unlike the modern
gangsters with which audience were now familiar from crime films. What is more,
the sacrifice of individuality for the sake of the group (giri-ninjo again), the
message inherent in the ritualistic yakuza film, was of directors to keep
churning out the product, the genre itself died.
Many genre?s died along with the yakuza film, including the "youth film", a
product whose directors were not said to have reached an average age of
sixty-five. Eventually, in the eighties and nineties, the yakuza film became
just another vehicle for violence, along with films about fast cars, aliens, and
natural disasters. As has been mentioned, there was some attempt to rethink the
genre, notable in the films of Kitano Takeshi, Miike Takashi, and others, bit it
never again attained an audience-wide opportunity.
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 209,
chapter 4, section: After the Wave
To be sure, Japan had always devoted itself more to genre than had many other
countries. There was jidaigeki, gendaigeki, haha mono (about mothers), tsuma
mono (about wives), the tendency film, and a myriad of others. But at the same
time, there were also a large number of films which were not generic in
By the end of the century, however, a majority of the product were determined
by genre. As Kurosawa Kiyoshi saw it, after the studio system collapsed and
production ceased, the genres actually grew fewer in number, while those that
remained became ubiquitous. "The dominant genre today is the yakuza genre. I
think the reason for this is that the Japanese audience likes Hollywood films.
That is why the main genres are mysteries and thrillers and yakuza films. And,
of course, one of the most important names here is Kitano Takeshi." (4)
Genre is certainly one of the ways in which the remaining audience is
funneled into the theaters, but there are many others. Just as we saw the
attempt to counter the threat of television by introducing monsters, sex, and
wide screen, so we now see an audience wooed back with genre, spectacle, and the
promise of a product to be viewed in a theater only. These films were made
independently, were unaffiliated with whatever major studios remained, and were
able to offer something more sophisticated in the way of entertainment at a
significantly lower cost to the producers.
While the West is familiar with this way of making films, it was relatively
unknown in Japan. A picture could be made for comparatively little since a
recently formed company would not be burdened with the cost of a full-time
studio and staff. The term "independent film" in the West at that time usually
indicated and independent attitudes well. It was the kind of film the major
production companies could not make, given what was considered its narrow
audience appeal. This was initially the reading of the term dokuritsu
purodakushon in Japan as well. In time, however, as in America, the
independent film gradually turned mainstream.
Maverick films became box-office hits, the avant garde turned up on the
big-theater screen, new filmmakers were awarded government prizes. With the
expansion and later contraction of Japan?s economy, a new conservatism -
compared to the relative liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s - became evident, In
film this was seen in the slow backing away from the style of modern realism to
something which could be labeled as "postmodern" - a mixing of high and low, art
and commerce, which posited that culture had never been as pure as assumed, the
notion that all culture is syncretic, hybridized. Postmodernism called for a
definite return to the presentational quality which had always defined the
Japanese dramatic ethos, bringing about the emergence of that completely
presentation film genre, anime. This return to the presentation implies a return
to open control (as opposed to the covert control implied by the presentation),
and it operates on many levels.
One such level is the open presentational character of the film itself.
Another is the hands-on and openly controlled manner os selling the product.
Like film merchants world-wide, the Japanese became adept at playing the marker.
Japanese films might not rake in much money at home, but their appeal could be
enhanced by prizes won at foreign film festivals. Eventually, Kitano Takeshi,
Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Aoyama Shinji, Miike Takashi, and many other younger directors
were winning prestigious awards abroad which resulted in larger sales
(cassettes, discs, rentals, direct money from television showings) in Japan.
Film production methods at the beginning of the twenty-first century have in
some ways returned to those prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth: many
small production companies, all more or less unaffiliated, all seeking to purvey
sensation and novelty. The masterless ronin is now the nearly anarchic yakuza
and his postmod posturings are not far from the kabuki-esque posings of
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 215-216,
chapter 5, section: The New Independents
The couple in Shady Grove (Sheidi Gurobu, 1999) seem barely to know
each other. In Eureka (Yuriika, 2001), the young people cannot
communicate - and this, indeed, constitutes the plot of this nearly four-hour
film. Victims of a bus-jacking they make the most of it, victimization also
being in fashion among the young. in EM - Embalmising (Ii emu embamingu,
1999) everyone was even more alienated. One critic said that "even the bang-bang
scenes felt deadened. Blasting away at one another, both the good guys and the
bad guys stood expressionless as shooting gallery targets - a borrowing from
Kitano Takeshi?s Sonatine ."
Kitano himself is one of the icons of violence, and since this quality has
come to play such a role in contemporary Japanese film, one might examine it.
Violence is perceived as akin to a kind of necessary dissidence, to exhibiting a
style that defies the mainstream, whatever that may be at the time. Since the
young want to believe that they are "with it", that they are "hip", that they
are "cool", and are hence more empowered than they actually dissent becomes a
means. Most young persons, however, will settle for something less
time-consuming than real counterculture alienation. They are satisfied with
adopting a look, a style, an attitude. To be cool means to have lots of
The phenomenon is by no means restricted to Japan and is, at any rate, not
new to it. Back in the repressive Edo period, to be hip has to show some
iki; to be square was to be yabo, and no one wanted to be that.
Extreme kabuki fashions (and morals) were imitated and the "prostitute look" was
in. The Edo period had its distinctive trendy take which we can still see in the
chroniclers as Hokusai and Utamaro.
In the Taisho period, the phenomenon of ero-guro-nansensu was, in its own
way, anti-establishment, its dissident means running against the grain of an
increasingly repressive government. To claim nansensu was really to suggest that
it was mainstream culture which was the more nonsensical. The attitude itself
was also discovered to be a marketable item. Nansensu stories and novels became
nansensu movies. Ero-guro could be translated into smart outfits (cloche hats,
bobbed hair, plus fours for the men) and marketed accordingly.
Japan, being the consumer culture that it is, regularly consumes and
internalizes all threats with the result that the trendy contemporary cool takes
on a decidedly institutional look. In other countries, what the fashion industry
flogs, what the department stores showcase, whatever appears on television -
none of this would be considered cool. In Japan, however, it is.
Cool is nonverbal. It does not explain itself, nor can it. Hence its means of
communication are purposely limited. In this it resembles manga construction, a
story-board-like assemblage of discrete boxes, each containing its grain of
information, affording nothing further than chronology as linkage.
In manga and in films such as Kitano?s, there is little explanation, much is
assumed, and the reader/viewer is encouraged to do no more than register each
event. His or her emotions are beside the point, since to be with it is to be
out of it. This is cool - or, in Japanese parlance, it is dorai (dry),
the undesired opposite of which is the very uncool uetto (wet).
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page 222-223,
chapter 5, section: The New Independents