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Views of Japan through Western films

by David Cozy

UNDER FOREIGN EYES: Western Cinematic Adaptations of Postwar Japan, by James King. Zero Books, 2012, 350 pp., $26.95 (paperback)

Most readers encountering a book called “Under Foreign Eyes: Western Cinematic Adaptations of Postwar Japan” will expect it to contain an interesting claim or claims about these Western representations of Japan, and that the claim or claims will be buttressed by sophisticated analysis of the films.

What we get instead in James King’s book is one plot summary after another for each of the 60-plus films he writes about.
King warns us in his first chapter (though his logic is hard to follow) that “because so many films are treated I have felt it crucial to provide the reader with a synopsis of the plot trajectory of each because, to do otherwise, might make it difficult for the reader to follow my arguments.”

One has to take King at his word that the arguments are there: They are obscured rather than illuminated by the summary after summary after summary.

This wouldn’t matter if “Under Foreign Eyes” were presented as an encyclopedia of film, with discrete entries for — summaries of — each of the movies covered, but because the book is not called “An Encyclopedia of Western Cinematic Adaptations of Japan,” unwary readers, expecting something other than a reference book, are likely to be disappointed. If they can get past that disappointment, though, they will find that, as with most compendiums of books or films, many of which will be unfamiliar, there’s much in “Under Foreign Eyes” that is of interest.

King discusses films ranging from “Tokyo Joe” (1949), starring Humphrey Bogart, to “The Cove” (2009), starring the dolphins of Taiji, with stops along the way at several obscure, forgotten and little-seen movies.

Good encyclopedist that he is, King imposes order on his catalog by dividing the films into categories: films dealing with the war, films dealing with the atomic bombing of Japan, films about the Occupation, films about geisha, films about yakuza and so on. He includes Japanese films, too, so readers can compare the approaches of Japanese filmmakers with those of their non-Japanese counterparts, and tells us enough about the films he considers that readers will have a good idea whether they are worth seeking out — or best avoided.

Most readers will have already seen, and formed their own opinions about, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” for example, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel.” Thus it is when writing about films like Josef von Sternberg’s “Anatahan” or Samuel Fuller’s House of “Bamboo,” neglected films by major directors, that King is most interesting.

Even if, for example, in King’s estimation, von Sternberg’s film about Japanese castaways on a remote island, an “investigation of what happens to mankind when it returns to ‘the level of the cave man,’ ” offers only “trite observations,” still, it is helpful to be reminded of this piece of the puzzle that is von Sternberg’s career. Fuller’s “House of Bamboo,” of course, is not just interesting, but good. King quotes film critic Keith Uhlich who writes: “Quite simply, ‘House of Bamboo’ has some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema.”

As useful as it is to be reminded of these sorts of films, so poorly is this book edited that one is often tempted to throw it against a wall. On Page 189 alone, for example, we find the name Muraoka rendered correctly three times, and as “Muraoko” five times. Elsewhere, Kaori Shoji, a contributor to The Japan Times, is identified as “Kaori Shoki,” and the paper for which she writes as the “Tokyo Times.”

King’s subject, foreign films about Japan, is fascinating; his book will have to do until a better one comes along.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and an assistant professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.