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Inuhiko Yomota stormed onto the scene in the 1980s — the scene being the revolving stage of Japanese polemics, on which new ideas and intellectual styles were presented, only to be swiftly replaced by a different set of ideas and styles. This was the era of the shinjinrui, in which a “new breed” of young consumers pursued novel objects and goals, both tangible and intangible.

Yomota was unique among those on the scene and he has kept returning to the limelight over the decades even as the stage has revolved beneath him.

What Is Japanese Cinema? A History, by Inuhiko Yomota.
248 pages
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS

He made his mark first as an editor of the groundbreaking journal of Japanese and international subcultures, GS Tanoshii Chishiki, a magazine that took its name from Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom.” After his first major trip overseas to Korea, in 1979, where he taught Japanese at a university in Seoul, he developed a long-standing passion for Korean culture that eventually led him to introduce Korean cinema to Japanese audiences.

Not only that: He ushered in a national interest in the works of Rainer Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and similar directors of the European avant-garde. For nearly 40 years now he has lectured from Palestine to New York, from Cuba to Kosovo, France and Italy, digging into and exposing the subsoil of cultures around the world. No intellectual in Japan can match his breadth of committed concern.

Yet, his abiding ardor has been for the cinema. Among his scores of books, he has taken up directors Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, and actors Setsuko Hara and Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Now we have this volume, originally published in 2014 as “100 Years of Japanese Cinema” by Shueisha, providing non-Japanese readers, in a lucid translation by Philip Kaffen, with Yomota’s sweep of the history of Japanese film.

We follow the development of cinema in Japan, starting with the samurai cut ’em ups and melodramas influenced by kabuki and its spinoff, shinpa, from the prewar period to the present. Though many filmmakers, even ones considered arch-traditionalists like Yasujiro Ozu, were influenced by Americans, the content of Japanese cinema came from Japanese roots, with additional touches from Russia, Germany and France. In this sense, Yomota is the right person to interpret the form: He has, throughout his career, maintained a deliberate and healthy distance from Hollywood.

We see that director Kenji Mizoguchi was inspired by nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) and woodblock prints. You can see it in the studied composition of his frames. Kurosawa’s inspiration was the noh theater. Mikio Naruse imbued his films with the evanescent nature of human relationships as seen in truncated dialogue and fleeting gestures. Even those as antithetical in spirit and message as Ozu and Oshima rely on the turning and twisting of Japanese rituals of behavior and communication: Ozu with his hyperrealistic take on the toll those rituals exact on loved ones; Oshima with his attack on the pocked face of entrenched Japanese hypocrisy.

World War II brought about a stunning social and ethical discontinuity in Japanese life. Yet cinema bounced back after 1945 with many of the same directors working for the same studios. Ozu took up the middle and upper-middle classes as his new subject, but his plaintive nostalgia and subdued wit remained untouched and, if anything, enhanced. The great director Daisuke Ito, the master of the prewar period drama, turned, in his 1948 classic “The Shogi Master” (“Osho” in Japanese), to a modern setting. But the themes of duty versus compassion were unchanged.

Then, in 1951, Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” took the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival; and, again in Venice, three films of Mizoguchi garnered awards in three consecutive years from 1952. It is hard to overestimate the impact that these international accolades had on the people of Japan after the rightful and humiliating defeat less than a decade prior to that.

What followed was a boom in cinema production and attendance, peaking in the late 1950s, until television stole the big screen’s thunderous popularity with the marriage of the crown prince in 1959 (many people bought sets just to see the event). Color television dealt the silver screen another blow with the broadcast of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics into homes.

But in the 1950s, at least, the Japanese were not only eager but downright desperate to see the replaying of their national narrative, historical and contemporary, in film. The new golden age of Japanese cinema had begun.

Films by the prewar masters were surpassed in popularity by those of Kurosawa, Tadashi Imai, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa, among others, especially films that strove to come to terms with Japanese cruelty and the victimization of others in the decade leading up to and during the war.

How many countries have produced such powerful and genuinely antiwar films as Japan did at this time, films full of empathy for the victims of violence? Yomota takes up many of them, notably Imai’s “Till We Meet Again” (1950) and “Tower of the Lilies” (1953), both intensely moving portraits of men, women and children caught in the web of war. Kinoshita’s “Twenty-Four Eyes” (1954) portrayed children whose tragic fate was dictated by the fanatics of empire. And perhaps no film captured the postwar yearning for reconciliation and forgiveness more poignantly than Ichikawa’s “The Burmese Harp” (1956), a story about a Japanese soldier who remained in Burma to come to terms with the effects of his country’s crimes. All of these were based on popular works of literature.

Yomota deals with these and other films in a social and political context. This is what distinguishes him from almost all contemporary film critics. Despite the antiwar nature of these films, Yomota writes, “What they held in common was the confirmation of the consciousness of the Japanese people of themselves as war victims.”

Director’s cut: Nagisa Oshima, left of camera, directing 'The Ceremony,' in 1971, starring Kenzo Kawarasaki and Atsuko Kaku (front) | © OSHIMA PRODUCTIONS
Director’s cut: Nagisa Oshima, left of camera, directing ‘The Ceremony,’ in 1971, starring Kenzo Kawarasaki and Atsuko Kaku (front) | © OSHIMA PRODUCTIONS

In other words, Yomota, thanks to his long association with other cultures, particularly those of Asia, is able to insert the scalpel of criticism into the very heart of the Japanese. This book is healthily nonjudgmental concerning which films are “good” and which are not. Instead it steps back — far back — to gaze carefully at and analyze the bigger picture: the role that cinema has played in reflecting and altering Japanese consciousness and Japanese reality over the span of a century.

He takes up in detail not only the structure of the industry and how it has evolved, with the decline of the studio system and the burgeoning of small independent production houses, but also the importance of ethnic (i.e. non-Japanese) filmmakers in Japan; the role played by politically engaged documentary filmmakers such as Shinsuke Ogawa with his remarkable recording on film of the farmers’ struggle against the construction of the airport at Narita; the impact in recent years of female directors; and issues such as class-engendered poverty and gender identity in films of recent years. He even pokes below the skin of Japan’s once-popular soft-porn film industry.

In the preface to this provocative and confronting book, Yomota clearly states his objective.

“As a film historian,” he writes, “I would be delighted if Japanese cinema becomes a launching pad … to develop a general interest in Japanese people and Japanese culture. At the same time, I believe it would be equally wonderful if an encounter with Japanese films stimulates readers’ interest in seeing more films from around the world.”

I have not read a single Japanese book that has accomplished this more thoroughly and engagingly than this one.

Roger Pulvers’s latest book is “My Japan: A Cultural Memoir,” published by Balestier Press.

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