Film Theory

Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano

In Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano presents an insightful, multi-faceted analysis of Japan’s interwar cinema within the context of Tokyo’s rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (even as the process of industrialization had already been underway), in particular, the output of Shochiku Kamata Film Studio which, as the only studio in Tokyo remaining operational after the earthquake, continued to produce films during this transition period that embodied Japanese society’s ambiguous relationship with modernization. To this end, Wada-Marciano examines the studio’s prevailing representations of domestic and social spaces, the emerging middle-class, athletic competition, the modern girl (moga), nationalism, and ethnic identity that expressed the public’s anxiety over Japan’s rapid modernization, as well as the cultural transformation created by the country’s international emergence ushered by the Meiji Restoration.

The chapter, The Creation of Modern Space analyzes the complex role of spaces as a reflection of social and cultural transition. In this respect, the father’s alternating role as both authoritarian figure in his home and office subordinate willing to make a fool of himself for his boss’s benefit in Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born But… reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the public’s unresolved negotiation with the process of modernization. Wada-Marciano further explores the social dichotomy through the bifurcation of geographic space itself, in this case, Tokyo’s post-earthquake, transitional landscape that embodies what sociologist Yoshimi Shun’ya classifies as kakyo kukan (hometown space) and mirai kukan (future space) urban spaces.

Citing the stories of the visiting provincial mother in Ozu’s The Only Son, the bus driver’s encounter with a Tokyo-bound country girl in Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You, and an industrialist’s decision to stay with his new rural family instead of returning to Tokyo (and his legitimate family) in Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Wada-Marciano illustrates the idealization and nostalgia for a distant, irretrievable home evoked in these colliding images of tradition and modernity. Another manifestation of negotiated space is in the integrated setting of Yokohama harbor as a gateway to the outside world in such films as Yasujiro Shimazu’s First Steps Ashore, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor, and Mikio Naruse’s Everynight Dreams to represent the alien other, whether through overt notions of foreignness as criminal element and economic marginalization, or ethnic and cultural assimilation (Wada-Marciano astutely points out that the characters Henry and Dora in Japanese Girls at the Harbor represent a mixed race – and by implication, culturally diluted – population, and were portrayed by Eurasian actors, Ureo Egawa and Yukiko Inoue).

The negotiation between domestic and social spaces in I Was Born But… also leads to the broader examination of the urban white collar workers and the amorphously defined middle-class that constituted the predominant audience for these films and popularized the shoshimin eiga (middle-class) genre. In the chapter, Vernacular Meanings of Genre: The Middle-Class Film, Wada-Marciano expounds on the idea of hometown by highlighting the studio system’s ancillary creation of an interconnected, virtual “extended family” in the recurring casting of the studio actors who would appear in various roles across several film productions. Wada-Marciano further provides a comprehensive discussion of I Was Born But… within the context of audience identification by analyzing the sons’ rebellion through the prism of ambiguous social roles in the face of a new, emerging urban middle-class, where society has paradoxically embraced modern ideals of equal economic opportunity through hard work, even as it reinforces archaic models of hierarchy:

The middle-class genre film suggests the antinomy between Japanese modernity and rising nationalism in the 1930s, in the sense of a Japanese national subject’s split between the call to modernize and the contradictory longings for the mythic cohesion of the past. The idea of ‘the middle class’ at the center of the genre worked to mitigate long-standing differences in social strata and in the particularities of Japan’s interwar social transformation; the collective image of the middle-class served as a national identity for the modern subject. The middle class that emerged in interwar Japan referred less to a reconfigured labor force than to a new citizenry of a modern social transformation.

In Imaging Modern Girls in the Japanese Woman’s Film, Wada-Marciano proposes that the image of the moga has been shaped by modernity and nationalism in the absence of assimilating Western liberalism – in essence, reinforcing the distinction between modernization and Westernization. This distinction is revealed in such moga themed films such as Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo, where the perceived scandal is implied in the sister, Chikako’s (Okada Yoshiko) involvement with a left-wing organization rather than created by a morally transgressive act, a politicization that could not be explicitly stated because of government censorship and an imposed ban of socially progressive, tendency films since the early 1930s:

In a further reading of Chikako’s sacrifice, the film deploys another parallel in an act of whispering that occurs as the film reveals Chikako’s moonlighting. The scandal is revealed to Harue by Kinoshita; first he states, ‘Chikako seems to be working as a barmaid after her daytime job… The rumor involves not only that… ‘; then he whispers the rest to Harue, although the information is not shared with the audience. At this point we might imagine Chikako is involved in prostitution or something worse. More whispering occurs in a later sequence, when Harue reveals the rumor to Ryoichi. She says, ‘What would you do if your sister was not who you think she is?’ Then she whispers to Ryoichi, and again, the film conceals the information from the audience. Ryoichi replies, ‘What are you talking about? It’s too ridiculous!’ Harue continues, ‘That’s not all. Your sister has disgracefully become a barmaid.’ This information, as delivered, effectively undercuts the possibility that Chikako’s suspected disgrace involves prostitution, but leads the audience towards another possibility – that of Chikako’s involvement with a Communist political group. The film encourages such a political inference by embedding details of a hidden social progressive narrative, as in an earlier scene of the police officer’s inquiry at Chikako’s office and later in a headline announcing the arrest of a criminal organization.

The idea of Japanese modernity as a convergence of social discourse and national policy also forms the critical framework in the chapter, The Japanese Modern in Film Style, which distills the essential themes from the previous chapters into an analysis of Yasujiro Shimazu’s Our Neighbor, Miss Yae within the varied contexts of modernist filmmaking (shooting the soon-to-be divorced, older sister Kyoko through old-fashioned, shinpa styled framing to emphasize the visual disjunction), urban spaces (images of the Ginza shopping district from a moving car that convey progression in its conflation of absolute and relative motion), athletics (after-school baseball practice), and nationalism (Yae-chan’s family’s relocation to Korea as part of Japan’s expansionist campaign during the Fifteen Years’ War).

Acquarello, 2009 [reprinted]

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