Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema

Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema

by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto

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The films of Akira Kurosawa have had an immense effect on the way the Japanese have viewed themselves as a nation and on the way the West has viewed Japan. In this comprehensive and theoretically informed study of the influential director’s cinema, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto definitively analyzes Kurosawa’s entire body of work, from 1943’s Sanshiro Sugata to 1993’s Madadayo. In scrutinizing this oeuvre, Yoshimoto shifts the ground upon which the scholarship on Japanese cinema has been built and questions its dominant interpretive frameworks and critical assumptions.
Arguing that Kurosawa’s films arouse anxiety in Japanese and Western critics because the films problematize Japan’s self-image and the West’s image of Japan, Yoshimoto challenges widely circulating clichés about the films and shows how these works constitute narrative answers to sociocultural contradictions and institutional dilemmas. While fully acknowledging the achievement of Kurosawa as a filmmaker, Yoshimoto uses the director’s work to reflect on and rethink a variety of larger issues, from Japanese film history, modern Japanese history, and cultural production to national identity and the global circulation of cultural capital. He examines how Japanese cinema has been “invented” in the discipline of film studies for specific ideological purposes and analyzes Kurosawa’s role in that process of invention. Demonstrating the richness of both this director’s work and Japanese cinema in general, Yoshimoto’s nuanced study illuminates an array of thematic and stylistic aspects of the films in addition to their social and historical contexts.
Beyond aficionados of Kurosawa and Japanese film, this book will interest those engaged with cultural studies, postcolonial studies, cultural globalization, film studies, Asian studies, and the formation of academic disciplines.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397090
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/31/2000
Series: Asia-Pacific : culture, politics, and society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 543,478
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto is Associate Professor of Japanese, Cinema, and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.

Read an Excerpt


Film Studies and Japanese Cinema

By Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9709-0



After having experienced two decades of rapid institutional expansion and consolidation, film studies is now facing a new challenge. The specificity and significance of film as a distinct object of scholarly investigation have been problematized by the emergence of new electronic and digital technologies. The current predicament of film studies is also a result of its institutional growth and development. Since the 1970s, the specificity of film studies has been determined largely by its focus on theory and radical interdisciplinarity. Yet when so many other humanities and social science departments claim a share of cultural studies and offer courses on critical theory, the boundaries between film studies and traditional disciplines are increasingly becoming blurred.

The purpose of this part is not, of course, to propose a large-scale solution to the disciplinary impasse of film studies. In what follows, I shall instead reexamine the scholarship on Japanese cinema as a symptomatic manifestation of the current disciplinary crisis. It is important to note that Japanese cinema was not simply added to the canon of film studies some time after the successful legitimation of film as an object of serious academic research; on the contrary, Japanese cinema played a significant role in the establishment of film studies as a discrete discipline. The position of Japanese cinema is inseparable from the question of how film studies has constituted itself, legitimated its existence, and maintained its institutional territoriality through a double process of inclusion and exclusion.

Very schematically, the history of American scholarship on Japanese cinema can be divided into three phases: (1) humanistic celebration of great auteurs and Japanese culture in the 1960s, (2) formalistic and Marxist celebration of Japanese cinema as an alternative to the classical Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, and (3) critical reexamination of the preceding approaches through the introduction of discourse of Otherness and cross-cultural analysis in the 1980s. Instead of being confined within the subfield of Japanese cinema, these stages were an integral part of the expansion and consolidation of film studies as a discrete discipline during the last three decades. To understand how Japanese cinema is constituted as an object of knowledge, it is not enough just to study scholarly books and articles on Japanese films. A critical reexamination of scholarship on Japanese cinema must be accompanied simultaneously by a reassessment of the larger discursive contexts of film studies and Japanese studies, which are constrained and regulated by specific disciplinary structures and rules.

How has Japanese cinema been constructed as a distinct object of knowledge in film studies? How has Japanese cinema been treated by Japan specialists? How has Japanese cinema been studied in the academic context of the United States? How can we study Japanese cinema differently? Is film studies the best institutional site where the research on Japanese cinema is conducted? If not, what discipline is better prepared for, or more congenial to, the study of Japanese cinema? What is necessary to make the scholarship on Japanese cinema more solid, reliable, or exciting? How can we structure the field of Japanese cinema to ensure its continuity and growth? These are some of the questions that the following discussion attempts to grapple with.

Humanism and Essentialism in the Postwar Era

In the 1950s, it was mostly journalists and critics at large who published essays on Japanese films. Japanese cinema burst on the American film scene when Kurosawa's Rashomon was unexpectedly awarded a Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. This unique period film was extensively reviewed in the major newspapers and highbrow magazines, and its critical and commercial success aroused American curiosity in other Japanese films. Parallel to Hollywood depictions of Japanese life and culture in the 1950s, many of these journalistic writings relied on stereotyped images of Japan or fixated specific aspects of Japanese culture and social customs as the Japanese essence. For Hollywood and journalistic film criticism, Japan was often nothing more than a land of exoticism and alien culture.

As Japanese cinema began to be treated as a distinct object of knowledge in the 1960s, the production of critical discourses on Japanese cinema was also transformed into a more specialized activity. The first significant text that contributed to this transformation was The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, published in i960. Intended for a serious yet general audience, The Japanese Film is a highly informative overview of Japanese film history combined with separate sections on major film directors and actors, generic types, and industrial structure. The publication of this book did not immediately engender the field of Japanese cinema in academia; however, over the years, Anderson and Richie's pioneering work has firmly established itself as the most basic reference book for film scholars conducting research on Japanese cinema. In addition to The Japanese Film, Richie has published, as the most authoritative voice in the West and in Japan, numerous articles and books on Japanese cinema.

The 1960s discourse on Japanese cinema, exemplified by the works of Richie, is a type of humanist criticism, which sees film as a repository of universal values. The best films, humanists argue, can teach audiences, without overtly being didactic, important moral lessons regarding human dignity, freedom, and the unity of the human race. But these universal ideals are most effectively conveyed to audiences when they are represented through the concrete images of a particular nation, history, or culture. According to humanist criticism, what makes a film a great artistic achievement is therefore not the abstract presentation of the universal values but the complex interplay of the universal and the particular, in which the latter embodies the former.

One of the most enduring legacies of the 1960s humanist criticism on Japanese cinema is the use of "national character" as the particular, through which the humanistic ideals of universal significance are said to be represented concretely. This focus on national character as a determinate factor in analysis and interpretation has led to an unfortunate situation, in which stereotypes of the Japanese national character and cultural essence are routinely used to explain thematic motifs, formal features, and contextual backgrounds of Japanese films. Thus, in American scholarship on Japanese cinema, the Japanese are often presented as the homogeneous, ahistorical collective essence called the "Japanese mind." ("To the Japanese mind, the self-sacrificing hero is the most admirable hero of all.") It is argued that "Japanese culture and consciousness are marked by a valuing of the irrational," and this is why "one finds in Japanese culture a deeply embedded notion called yugen, which entails the presence of mystery and incomprehensibility in all things." Many sweeping statements on Japanese culture are made without any consideration for its relationship to social practices and history. ("The Buddhist view of the world as transitory and full of pain has suffused the entire culture, inducing a sense of resignation in the presence of political brutality"; "Zen has infiltrated all aspects of Japanese culture, including the cinema"; "Although the codas [the uncharactered shots that begin and end most sequences of Ozu's films] have narrative significance, Ozu's privileging them over simply following the action of the characters suggests an aesthetic attitude that places the individual as a mere element in the universe, the 'void,' rather than at the center, as in Western, Greco-Roman thought.") Japanese films are said to be worth studying because of "what they reveal of the Japanese character." The ubiquitous presence in Japanese cinema of the traditional aesthetic is simply assumed without any critical analysis of that aesthetic. ("The black and white becomes an aesthetic device, which in this case reflects the Japanese ideal of wabi [poverty, the prizing of that which looks simple].")

It is of course not possible to determine precisely where this valorization of the Japanese national character came from. But two discursive systems from quite different areas, auteurism in film criticism and the legacy of the American military intelligence activity during and after World War II, cannot be ignored. Japanese films' appeal to the audiences in and outside of Japan led many critics to conclude that there was some kind of universal value in those films. While the exotic appeal of Japanese cultural specificity was acknowledged, the critical acclaim that certain Japanese films — particularly gendaigeki, or films set in contemporary Japan — earned at international film festivals was regarded as a living proof of Japanese cinema's ability to go beyond the parochial context of Japanese society. The gap between universality and particularity was believed to be filled by "humanity," which was posited as the most common denominator among diverse groups of people transcending national and cultural differences. And it was the role of auteurs to mediate the specificity of cultural tradition and the universality of films' messages. Therefore, in the context of 1960s auteurism, the most important book on Japanese cinema was not Anderson and Richie's The Japanese Film but Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965), since the latter was not only the first comprehensive study of the work of a Japanese film director but also one of the earliest examples of serious film books devoted to any auteur's work.

Auteurism has, according to Janet Staiger, three basic criteria to determine the value of filmmakers as auteurs: "transcendence of time and place, a personal vision of the world, and consistency and coherence of statement." In their pursuit of "universality" and "endurance," the auteurist critics find history transcended in the works of great filmmakers. These basic characteristics of auteurism make it an ideal system of critical discourse that has created a space for Japanese cinema in American academia. Whether explicitly stated or not, the idea of the universality of shared humanity is indispensable for making Japanese films intelligible to the American audience. Because of the great auteurs' putative ability to transcend the specificity of history and cultural context, the seemingly exotic films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and other Japanese directors can easily be incorporated into a canon of the "world cinema." However, to the extent that history and cultural tradition cannot but play a significant role in the formation of a "personal vision," what is supposedly transcended sneaks back into the auteurs' works. The humanist studies of Japanese cinema typically try to resolve this ambivalent relationship of the universal and the particular through recourse to Zen and the idea of religious transcendence.

One of the most revealing examples of the use of Zen is Paul Schrader's study of Ozu in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Schrader argues that Ozu, Bresson, and to a lesser extent Dreyer created what he calls a "transcendental style," which is a transcultural film form expressing the holy or the transcendent. For our purpose, the viability of the notion of transcendental style is not too important. We shall also refrain from exhaustively enumerating questionable points and obvious factual errors in Schrader's description of Ozu's career and films. Instead, what really concerns us here is Schrader's precarious attempt to reconcile the universal and the particular in his discussion of Ozu's transcendental style.

"To what extent was Ozu's personality unique, and to what extent was it representative of the Zen culture? Did Ozu subjugate his personality in the manner of the traditional Orientalist artist, or were his films actually highly individualistic expressions?" (24). According to Schrader, these auteurist questions are not relevant for the case of Ozu because "considered in the larger context of Zen culture, man and his surroundings are counterenveloping, just as are mind and body, content and form; any distinction between them is arbitrary" (25). Schrader eagerly tries to mold Ozu into a Zen artist of the East whose personality and culture are so steeped in Zen that his films express the Transcendent. Schrader's strategy is to create a holistic space called "Japan," which can be represented as a series of concentric circles: at the center of this space is located Ozu's personality, which is "enveloped by Zen culture, and that Zen culture [is] enveloped by a transcending reality" (24). Once homological relations are established between the author, the text, and the context, it is easy for Schrader to claim that Ozu's films express the Transcendent as Zen art does.

The particularity of Ozu's personality and the universality of the transcendental style are reconciled with each other through the mediating presence of Zen and the transcendental nature of Oriental art in general. In Schrader's argument, "Zen" and "Orient" are magic words that miraculously solve critical dilemmas and contradictions of his theory of auteurism. To assert that Ozu was a commercially successful director and at the same time an auteur of the transcendental style, that is, to reconcile the seemingly impossible combination of the popular and the esoteric, or the commercial and the aesthetic, Schrader appeals to what he perceives as a unique characteristic of Japanese culture. Schrader claims that what initially appears to be the unattainable goal of developing the transcendental style within the context of the commercial film industry is not in the end impossible to achieve because the "concept of transcendental experience is so intrinsic to Japanese (and Oriental) culture, that Ozu was able both to develop the transcendental style and to stay within the popular conventions of Japanese art" (17).

While making a culturalist claim on homology between Ozu's personality, films, and Japanese culture as manifestations of Zen, Schrader is at pains to minimize the role of culture in the formation of Ozu's transcendental style, since the transcendental style, "not determined by the film-makers' personalities, culture, politics, economics, or morality" (3). is by definition a transcultural form. There are two basic steps in Schrader's strategy for resolving this contradiction. First, he tries to discard anything that does not confirm the image of Ozu as a Zen artist. Schrader recognizes, for instance, how Ozu incorporated into his films the "rote repetition of movement [as] a gag in Japanese silent comedy" (37). However, immediately after acknowledging the significance of a non-Zen aspect of Ozu's films, he concludes that "taken as a whole Ozu's techniques are so similar to traditional Zen methods that the influence is unmistakable" (38). What is ambiguous in Schrader's claim is the phrase "taken as a whole." Since Schrader does not explicitly specify the corpus of Ozu's films examined in his study, what he means by the "whole" remains unclear. According to Schrader, "everyone must return to the evidence; one must analyze the films, scenes, and frames, hoping to extract the universal from the particular" (3). Yet, what is absent in his criticism is precisely the evidence for his claim.

Second, Schrader deliberately confounds the transcendental style as a specific film form with the transcendental experience as a represented content in film. He creates this confusion precisely by calling for the necessity of differentiating the two: "Before one can analyze the transcendental style in Ozu's films, one must make (or attempt to make) the crucial yet elusive distinction between transcendental art and the art of transcendental experience within Ozu's work. Do Ozu's films express the Transcendent, or do they express Ozu, Zen culture, and man's experience of the Transcendent?" (23). The phrase "one must make (or attempt to make) the crucial yet elusive distinction" indicates the extreme difficulty of differentiating Ozu's transcendental style (the universal) and Ozu's personality and Zen culture of Japan (the particular). But according to Schrader, what initially seems an almost impossible task becomes achievable once the question of culturally specific perspectives is introduced. To assert the value of the Western perspective, he first concedes its limitation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Introduction 1

I Japanese Cinema in Search of a Discipline 7

II The Films of Kurosawa Akira 51

Kurosawa Criticism and the Name of the Author 53

Sanshiro Sugata 69

The Most Beautiful 81

Sanshiro Sagata, Part 2 89

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail 93

No Regrets for Our Youth 114

One Wonderful Sunday 135

Drunken Angel 138

The Quiet Duel 140

Stray Dog 147

Scandal 179

Rashomon 182

The Idiot 190

Ikiru 194

Seven Samurai 205

Record of a Living Being 246

Throne of Blood 250

The Lower Depths 270

The Hidden Fortress 272

The Bad Sleep Well 274

Yojimbo 289

Sanjuro 293

High and Low 303

Red Beard 332

Dodeskaden 334

Dersu Uzala 344

Kagemusha 348

Ran 355

Dreams 359

Rhapsody in August 364

Madadayo 372

Epilogue 375

Notes 379

Filmography 433

Bibliography 451

Index 471

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