Film Criticism National Cinema

Eros Plus Masscre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser

In Eros Plus Masscre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, David Desser examines the creative and revolutionary spirit that defined the 1960s Japanese new wave movement (nuberu bagu) apart from the facile identification and synchronicity associated with the coincidental emergence of the French new wave, and more importantly, refocuses his exposition within the indigenous specificity of Japanese culture in the face of postwar social, economic, and geopolitical transformation. Presenting the emergence of the movement as the fateful intersection between the budgetary realities of declining (and increasingly competitive) commercial film production among the nation’s institutional motion picture studios (as a natural consequence of television’s popularization as a medium for audiovisual entertainment) that also enabled the creation of more autonomous, independent film production and distribution companies such as the Art Theater Guild, and the modernist influence of the prewar Shingeki “new theater” (a movement patterned after the European Naturalist Theater) that, in its focus on the problems of the individual, served as an effective vehicle for promoting left-wing ideology, Desser underscores the significance of the industry’s fostered climate of innovation and (implicitly transgressive) experimentation, not as the creative reinvigoration of a dying studio system, but rather, as a desperate means of luring audiences back to the cinema. Within this context of reflexive, corporate-driven goals of returning to profitability, Desser illustrates not only the highly conducive environment that cultivated the movement, but also foreshadows its inherent unsustainability.

Using the generational classifications outlined in Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors – Early Masters (Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse), Postwar Humanists (Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi), and New Wave (Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda) – as a basis for tracing the movement from its origins within the studio system through their tenure as assistant directors to established filmmakers (along with noting the natural human tendency to reject a mentor’s influence in an artist’s development of his own aesthetic), Desser further expounds on Bock’s paradigm by presenting the precursive influence of the Shingeki modern theater in the creation of politically rooted, keiko eiga “tendency films” during the 1920s that explored social problems as a means of inciting change, as well as the popularization of the youth-centric taiyozoku (sun tribe) films that iconized the image of a rebellious, disconnected, and self-destructive postwar generation. Framed against the left movement’s fervent opposition to the ratification of the bilateral Anpo Security Treaty of 1959 that sought to formally ally Japan with the U.S. in the Cold War against the Soviet Union (and implicitly, marginalize the country’s own nascent socialist party), Desser illustrates the integral politicization coupled with the existential angst of youth culture the capture the zeitgeist of the movement.

Beginning with the chapter entitled Ruined Maps, Desser examines the commonality of sociopolitical themes that continually resurface in the films of the Japanese new wave, in this case, dislocated sexual energy as a manifestation of the integral question of Japaneseness. Diverging from the pinku eiga (pink films) genre in their political implication, the transgressive sexuality of Nagisa Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth, The Ceremony, and In the Realm of the Senses), Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers and The Profound Desire of the Gods), Seijun Suzuki, Koji Wakamatsu (Go, Go, The Second Time Virgin), and Matsumoto Toshio (Funeral Parade of Roses) reflect the moral confusion, dysfunction, and repression that intrinsically form the consciousness of Japanese postwar identity. This postmodern anxiety is incisively captured in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaptations of Kobo Abe’s modernist fiction, where the dehumanizing performance of absurd, everyday rituals (The Woman in the Dunes), physical disfigurement and transplantation (The Face of Another), and impersonation and social disengagement (The Man Without a Map) reflect the conscious erasure of identity as a delusive means of amnesic transformation – an potent metaphor for the superficial rehabilitation of national identity through imposed conformity, ideological re-identification, and revisionist history.

Desser similarly examines the essence of Japanese “feminism”, or feminisuto, in the essay Insect Women – a cultural particularity that hews closer in spirit to the idealized portrait of sacrificing, indomitable, marginalized women in Kenji Mizoguchi’s cinema than to the ideological pursuit of equal rights. Observing the role of sexuality as a means of empowerment and liberation in the films of Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder), Masahiro Shinoda (Dry Lake, Pale Flower, Banished Orin), and Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba), Desser also cites the work of lesser known filmmakers, Susumu Hani’s A Full Life and He and She in the idea of spiritual emancipation through personal choice and self-discovery, and Yoshishige Yoshida’s A Story Written with Water and Akitsu Springs where the maternal symbol of water serves as a metaphor for eroticism and idealization.

In the subsequent chapter, Shinjuku Thieves, Desser further expounds on the issue of gender disempowerment by examining the broader issues of ingrained social injustice that has been enabled by the cultural rigidity of monoethnic sameness and codified behavior. The first example involves the systematic discrimination of the burakumin, an archaic feudal caste designation for people whose ancestral occupations were touched by death (such as butchers, leather workers, and undertakers) and whose residences were segregated from the local population through isolated hamlets to avoid contamination. Although abolished during the Meiji Restoration, the stigma of burakumin persist in insidious ways that inhibit social mobility away from these “outcast communities” through such seemingly innocuous tasks as screening job applicants and martial prospects, where background investigations reveal their community (and inferentially, caste) association. Another is the racism and persecution inherent in the treatment of Koreans (and foreigners in general) in Japan, where a tainted history of occupation and enslavement (especially with respect to the forced recruitment of comfort women during the Pacific War) have engendered a cultural arrogance towards their once “conquered” ethnic minorities. It is this reinforcement of dehumanizing stereotypes that Nagisa Oshima incisively confronts in such films as The Diary of Yunbogi, Three Resurrected Drunkards, and Death By Hanging, where society’s projection of Korean identity contributes to the corrosive realization of a demoralizing, self-fulfilling prophesy.

Moreover, as Dresser illustrates in Forests of Pressure, beyond the sad universality of racism and socioeconomic marginalization, even more irreconcilable is the intra-ethnic discrimination that is emblematic in the segregation of survivors from two man-made disasters: the hibakusha who survived the atom bomb (a recurring subject in Kaneto Shindo’s body of work and in Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain), and subsequently, those afflicted with Minamata disease, a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poisoning from industrial pollution. Stigmatized by virtue of arbitrary exposure, their plight not only reflects a social rejection of alterity and imperfection, but more importantly, provides insight into the Japanese postwar psyche by exposing its deeply rooted cultural anxiety over the unreconciled consciousness of its own self-inflicted victimization, whether through unquestioned allegiance that led to a senseless war and international humiliation, or through irresponsible industrial policies in the aggressive pursuit of economic recovery (and profitability) that have led to a large-scale environmental catastrophe. Contrasted against Shinsuke Ogawa’s culturally immersive, profoundly committed, and groundbreaking environmental documentaries (most notably, Forest of Pressure and the epic Sanrizuka series), the widely divergent approaches to political filmmaking reflect the disorientation and uncertainty of a people struggling to define its essential postwar identity between the rapidly bifurcating lifelines of tradition and modernization, conformity and humanity, victimization and culpability.

Acquarello, 2007 [reptinted]

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