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Japan makes great genres, but . . .

by Donald Richie

THE MIDNIGHT EYE GUIDE TO NEW JAPANESE FILM, by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, foreword by Hideo Nakata. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press. 366 pp., 151 b/w photos, $22.95 (paper).

The authors of this very interesting new compendium on recent Japanese cinema would agree, I think, that the “new” in their title is used in two senses: First, it means films made only a short time ago; second, it suggests films and filmmaking methods not previously experienced or encountered — novel or unfamiliar cinema.

Accounting for this division between old and new, they posit a renaissance. This was “the slow emergence of true independent filmmaking,” as contrasted with the corporate filmmaking of the major film companies, most of which went bankrupt or otherwise ceased production.

Though taking over a decade to “come to a boil,” the “full-blown re-emergence” occurred in the 1990s when “a new generation of filmmakers appeared, the vast majority coming from roots that lay outside the traditional film industry.” Their “attitude and philosophies of cinema were entirely different from those of the old studio period. They were independent in spirit: artists with nothing to lose, but everything to gain.”

This book then is a compilation (originally appearing in another form on the Web site MidnightEye.com) of profiles of 20 of the best-known of these directors plus reviews of almost 100 films — reviews that include cast and staff data, synopsis and information on distributors.

The directors include Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto as well as Hirokazu Kore’eda, Makato Shinozaki and Naomi Kawase. The coverage comprises all you need to know about the cutting edge of the new Japanese film genres: animated, inventive and imaginative, violent and cool.

In their pursuit of the new, the authors aver that “it’s always much more challenging and exciting to venture into uncharted territory.” (But one ought note the territory is not all that uncharted. Mark Schilling’s seminal “Contemporary Japanese Film” (Weatherhill Inc., 1999) interviewed some of the directors and reviewed some of the same films — though, to be sure, much has happened in the six years since it was published.)

As the authors forge forward they are guided by their paradigm: that a renaissance occurred, that new directors took over and that there was a more or less clean break with the past. And to an extent there was, but some qualifications are perhaps needed.

The new films are more or less genre-generated, and Japanese cinema has long provided a home for genre. Not only was there a major division between the period film (jidaimono) and the contemporary-life film (gendaigeki), but there were also all sorts of category-themed products in between. Just as other merchandise (Gucci, Fendi, Prada) fills the brand-names genre, so directors like Miike and Kitano are seen to do “yakuza” products; Kurosawa and Tsukamoto are found under the “horror/Gothic” label. If it is true that Japan’s is a cinema that has reinvented itself, it has done so as a kind of generic product.

Not that this was not done in the past as well. Rather, that the predominance of genre cinema now current is more slickly made and more financially successful. The ghost stories “Ring” and “The Grudge” quite outsold such early ghost-story films as Kenji Mizuguchi’s “Ugetsu.” There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that the new product has the advantages of the producer’s being in charge of all aspects of production — including publicity — in a way that was not common earlier.

Indeed, one of the ways to define the new Japanese cinema would be to indicate that it is just as much a producer’s as a director’s cinema. It is the producer, not the director, who controls the budget and often who conceives the idea of the film itself. It was the producer of “Rampo” who took the film away from the director, re-cut it to box office specifications and made it a financial hit.

The motion-picture producer now has more power than he has ever had, but no film director (independents such as Kitano and Kore’eda excepted) now enjoys the power that Mizoguchi had at the Daiei studio and Yasujiro Ozu at Shochiku. And this is perhaps one of the reasons that so much of the new Japanese film is so generic. A director like Miike is for hire, as it were, and the producer acquires him to expertly construct the needed entertainment.

Thus another paradigm for the “new” Japanese film would find that this description mainly means films made a short time ago, that “novel” films and filmmaking methods often refer to prior methods and that the attitude and philosophies of cinema sometimes resemble those of the old studio period.

There are now fewer differences between “independent” and mainstream films since all are required by their producers to entertainingly make money, and genre is the answer. As Martin Scorsese has observed: “For better or worse, story entertainment is saddled with conventions and stereotypes, formulas and cliches. All of these limitations are codified into specific genres.”

The extraordinary film surpasses its genre. Ozu is “home drama” but he is also much else. Kore’eda made a “ghost story” in “After Life,” but there is also much else. There were the Kurosawas, the Naruses, to surpass their genres, and there are now young directors strong enough and brave enough to push their projects past generic ambitions and into something truly personal.

Many of these were written about by Mes and Sharp in this book, but this presentation is affected by the paradigm assumed and by their close following of the chic of violence — page after page of Miike and Kitano but no investigation of the new filming methods of Nobuhiro Suwa, and no mention of contemporary master Jun Ichikawa at all.