Audie Bock presents a collection of perceptive, knowledgeable, and comprehensive critical essays on the most influential and distinctive filmmakers of Japan in Japanese Film Directors. Bock chronologically explores the personal influences and cinematic contributions of several acclaimed film directors, and in the process, provides an intelligent observation on the profound effects of changing political, social, and cultural climate on the evolution of the Japanese film industry.
The Early Masters: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse
You must put the odor of the human body into images…describe for me the implacable, the egoistic, the sensual, the cruel…there are nothing but disgusting people in this world.
– Kenji Mizoguchi
Audie Bock defines Kenji Mizoguchi’s feminism through the nuance of the Japanese language by characterizing him as “indulgent toward women”, rather than assigning political implications of the traditional, Western definition to his romanticized, and largely unrealistic, view of women. Using this semantic definition, Bock explains that Mizoguchi was not necessarily concerned with the improvement of women’s social status, but rather, was fascinated by their ideal. Bock explains, “All of the admiration, exploitation, fear and pity concerning women shown in his life would find expression in his films.”
It is after all, the human drama, isn’t it?
– Yasujiro Ozu
On the subject of Yasujiro Ozu’s use of a peculiar low height stationary camera, Audie Bock refutes Donald Richie’s explanation that the effect on the viewer is that of a person sitting on a tatami mat, countering that in medium shot, the resulting height translates to one to two feet above the ground. Rather, Bock proposes that Ozu’s camera position is one of reverence for his characters. In essence, the point of view is one of appreciation, perhaps even inspired awe, for the common man – for the mundane and unalterable passage of time.
From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought remains with me.
– Mikio Naruse
In contrast to Ozu’s resigned acceptance of the transience of life, Mikio Naruse’s clinical and dispassionate view of existence is pessimistic, hopeless, and inescapable. Like Mizoguchi, Naruse identified this profound despair with the plight of women. However, unlike the self-sacrificing Mizoguchi’s heroines, Naruse’s women are often flawed, stubborn, and embittered. According to Bock, “Naruse heroines retain the dignity of evaluating their acts to the end, and the persistence for their search for happiness, despite accumulating evidence of its nonexistence, becomes the terrifying statement of all of Naruse’s work.”
The Postwar Humanists: Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi
I believed at the time that for [postwar] Japan to recover, it was important to place a high value on the self. I still believe this.
– Akira Kurosawa
Following Japanese defeat in 1945, the postwar generation found themselves reevaluating their obedience and culpability for their country’s actions. This sentiment was further exacerbated by an American occupation policy that sought to suppress the cultural heritage of feudalism that led to Japan’s isolationism and aggression. As a consequence, several established filmmakers could not (or elected not to) create films after the war. However, the universal themes, egalitarian values, and altruism of Akira Kurosawa’s films made him an ideal ambassador for Japan’s cultural reintroduction to the West. As Bock illustrates:
The choice of situations – Meiji Period martial arts competition, work for the war effort, persecution of Communists and bureaucratic stagnation – and of the young and old, male and female protagonists from varying social backgrounds, reveals a dramatic focus that is bound neither by politics, age, nor sex, but by existential challenge to the individual.
I have always believed since I was a child that beautiful things were true.
– Keisuke Kinoshita
Keisuke Kinoshita was a prolific filmmaker who showed great versatility in genre, narrative, social statement, and technique. Bock expounds on Kinoshita’s range: “He has excelled in both comedy and tragedy; the ‘home drama’ of the contemporary family in isolation from social problems, and period films exposing social injustices; ‘all location’ films and films shot completely in a one-house set, he has pursued a severe photographic realism with the long-take, long shot method, and he has gone equally far toward stylization with fast cutting, intricate wipes, tilted cameras and even medieval scroll-painting and Kabuki stage techniques.” In fact, Kinoshita has employed at least one innovative technique in each of his films. Nevertheless, despite his constant experimentation, Kinoshita’s idealistic themes of innocence, purity, and beauty pervade his films, reflecting his genuine sincerity, humility, and interminable optimism.
I don’t have any unifying theme – I just make any picture I like or that my company tells me to do.
– Kon Ichikawa
Kon Ichikawa’s career is marked by great versatility and varied subject matter, from darkly comical social satire to profoundly humanist war films to compelling documentaries. ” My own life experience was not very rich, [so I decided to] absorb other people’s ideas in my own way, and see what sort of answers emerged from putting them on film.” Initially trained in animation, Ichikawa’s films bear the distinction of his training – from rapid editing, selection of transition shots, and exaggerate action of his films. His wife, screenwriter Natto Wada, was a frequent collaborator in adapting literary works to film scripts, until her retirement after Tokyo Olympiad.
On Wada’s retirement, Ichikawa explains, “She doesn’t like the new film grammar, the method of presentation of the material; she says there’s no heart in it anymore, that people no longer take human love seriously.” Bock further observes:
And indeed, if one compares a Wada scenario like Harp of Burma or I Am Two to any Ichikawa has directed since 1965, it becomes apparent that while humor and feeling for the human condition remain, some of the warmth of affirmation and optimism is gone.
I would have gone on [with art studies], but the Pacific War had begun. In art history, I knew it would require many more years of painstaking research for me to make a contribution, and the (Pacific) war made the future too uncertain. But with film, I thought there might be a chance of leaving something behind.
– Masaki Kobayashi
A protégé of Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi was drawn to film with a sense of urgency to create a legacy through art. With his fledgling career in filmmaking interrupted by the war, Kobayashi returned to the medium with a somber reflection for social justice, wartime responsibility, and meticulous aestheticism. Bock observes, “He denies that he is pessimistic, but admits ‘it is easy to become so after examining the history of humanity. You have to try hard to be optimistic.’…The history of humanity, in other words, reveals oppression and lack of human feeling in every age…”
The New Wave and After: Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda
You may think all that [image of hurried urbanites] is real, but to me it’s all illusion. The reality is those little shrines, the superstition and irrationality that pervade the Japanese consciousness under the veneer of business suits and advanced technology.
– Shohei Imamura
Irreverent and darkly comic, but also compassionate of human frailty, Shohei Imamura celebrates the underlying vitality and behavioral idiosyncrasies that constitute the real Japan. Of the archetypal Imamura woman, Bock explains:
The creative eccentricity that can be ascribed to Imamura lies in the realm of cinematic genre, for he rejects both the slow pace and the long-suffering image of the ‘woman’s film’. His women not only hold their own, they increase it, and they fight dirty with no pangs of conscience.
You may not think so to see me sitting here smiling and laughing, but that dark, oppressed side of me is always there.
– Nagisa Oshima
Profoundly influenced by nouvelle vague, Nagisa Oshima’s revolutionary approach to filmmaking has been described as difficult, inaccessible, and controversial. Yet despite his unconventional style, his underlying themes – injustice, repression, personal responsibility, violence – are contemporary social issues that reflect his concern for humanity. Bock observes:
Rather than Godardian alienation, it is a personal anguish that infuses the deadpan acting in Oshima’s films as well …Their blankness is a cover for their pain, as Oshima’s own early development of an emotionless mask was to hide his sorrow and loneliness. …He regrets his own tendency toward sentimentality. He prefers a more complex structure that hides his feelings at the same time as it reveals them.
Reality for its own sake is not what interests me. If my films had to be perfect reconstructions of reality, I would not make them. I begin with reality and see what higher idea comes out of it.
– Masahiro Shinoda
Masahiro Shinoda sought to understand the essence and peculiarity of the Japanese that led the country to war. His academic studies in drama and theater led him to reconcile the origins of Noh, whose tales of vengeful ghosts served as reassurance for the persecuted outcasts living under military aggression during the Middle Ages. From this, Shinoda derived a realization that the art, violence, destruction, and ideals are somehow interconnected into the formation of the Japanese character. Bock expounds, “Masochism and murder for the sake of the ideal, pure, beautiful love as mapped out in the horrifying symbolic acts of these contemporary dramas carries through all of Shinoda’s works, extending even to his recent period films.”
Acquarello, 2001 [reprinted]