The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies

The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies

by Alexander Zahlten


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In The End of Japanese Cinema Alexander Zahlten moves film theory beyond the confines of film itself, attending to the emergence of new kinds of aesthetics, politics, temporalities, and understandings of film and media. He traces the evolution of a new media ecology through deep historical analyses of the Japanese film industry from the 1960s to the 2000s. Zahlten focuses on three popular industrial genres: Pink Film (independently distributed softcore pornographic films), Kadokawa (big-budget productions as part of a transmedia strategy), and V-Cinema (direct-to-video films). He examines the conditions of these films' production to demonstrate how the media industry itself becomes part of the politics of the media text and to highlight the complex negotiation between media and politics, culture, and identity in Japan. Zahlten points to a different history of film, one in which a once-powerful film industry transformed into becoming only one component within a complex media-mix ecology. In so doing, Zahlten opens new paths for uncovering similar broad processes in other large media societies.

A Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369295
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/06/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Alexander Zahlten is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University and coeditor of Media Theory in Japan, also published by Duke University Press.

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Market of Flesh (Nikutai no Ichiba, Kobayashi Satoru), the film that was later to be called the first Pink film, opened in four theaters in Tokyo on February 27, 1962. It was based on an incident that supposedly occurred in October 1961 and was novelized in the magazine Bessatsu Naigai Jitsuwa. Set in the Roppongi section of Tokyo — a central hangout for American GIs and seen as a hothouse of hedonistic, Westernized culture — the narrative depicts Harue and her fiancé, Kinoshita, visiting a nightclub. After Harue is sexually assaulted in the bathroom, a horrified Kinoshita breaks off the engagement. When Harue commits suicide by jumping from the roof of a building, her younger sister, Tamaki, enters the Roppongi club scene to investigate, looking for revenge.

On March 15, 1962, the Japanese police halted the screening of Market of Flesh on suspicion of obscenity. It was the first time that the police had taken action against a film with an Eirin mark on those grounds. Eirin, the Administration Commission for the Motion Picture Code of Ethics (Eiga Rinri Iinkai), had passed the film and classified it as seijin shitei (adult) on February 17. Eirin sent an open letter complaining to the police department, and after several cuts the police agreed not to raise formal charges. The incident generated a fair amount of publicity and elevated the film to a minor hit. This was the first time that Pink Film, though it would not be called that until later, entered the public eye, and the controversial way that it did set a pattern that would be repeated many times over.

Although there was sensationalizing coverage of the film in weekly magazines, there is virtually no serious critical commentary on Market of Flesh from the time. Had there been, we can assume that the film probably would have been considered evidence that the film industry was in disarray. After continuous growth since 1945, audience attendance peaked at over 1.1 billion in 1958, while the number of movie theaters reached their high point in 1960 at 7,457. But within just two years, major film production, distribution, and exhibition entered a period of extraordinary distress, and audience attendance plunged by almost half. Similarly, feature-film production dropped by almost 50 percent to a total of 275 films in 1962, down from 548 in 1960. At the same time, Pink Film proliferated wildly: three films appeared in 1962, twenty-four in 1963, sixty-five in 1964, and in 1965 some counts record an astonishing 213 Pink films, supplying 44 percent of the total feature film output of Japan.

The following two chapters map the formative first ten years of Pink Film, when it performed the painful and turbulent double negotiations of what film and media, and what Japan, were supposed to become. Pink Film's abrupt and extraordinary expansion occurred at the onset of an intense crisis for the film industry and at the tail end of Japan's first period of rapid economic growth after the war. It was a time when the struggle for different visions of Japan's past and its future erupted into the open, attempting to define the shape and quality of community, economy, and the public (media) sphere. Pink Film, as we will see, drew on many of these visions at once, presenting an impossible option that encompassed both resistance against the status quo and stood at the forefront of its most radical visions. Pink Film was the experience of confusion of the first two decades after 1945 made commodity, and a central and violent glue that held this commodity together was gender. How it commodified a conflicted experience for the first approximately ten years of its becoming Pink Film and then shifted away from confusion and into formalism is the trajectory of these two chapters.

There is no record that anyone saw Market of Flesh as a beginning, as revolutionary, or as a herald of deep changes to come in the very near future. Nonetheless, Market of Flesh is significant in that it combines a number of elements that would later be identified as typical of Pink Film. It contains themes of gendered nationhood framed by postwar trauma that sees the end of the war as a historical rupture. It uses violence and sexuality as central motifs, with the drama troublingly playing out on the abused female body. It was shot in a comparatively short period of time and with a very low budget — 6 million yen (about $16,600 in 1962) — by an (ostensibly) independent production company, and, more importantly, it was independently distributed. The film referenced an actual incident, giving it connotations of actuality and realism, and was written and directed by the same man, Kobayashi Satoru. Finally, it was a point of contention between Eirin, the independent ethics regulatory body, and a metropolitan police that preferred quick and demonstrative action to long negotiations. All of these attributes would become part of the discourse of the Pink Film industrial genre in the decades to come.

Pink Film quickly developed and performed an identity based on opposition: to the major studios; to the status quo of postwar politics, or even the idea of a postwar; and to a set of connotations of national identity. These themes of antiestablishment resistance, oppositional realism, class politics, and independence permeate Pink Film as an industrial genre. They are found in the films' narrative and style but also extend beyond it to industry organization, labor relations, the identity politics of those involved in the industry, and reporting on Pink films. Yet despite being opposed to the majors in terms of product, function, and ideology, Pink Film paradoxically supported, and was indeed integral to, the system that ostensibly shunned it. All of the five major studios that were still operating throughout the 1960s — Shochiku, Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, and Daiei — profited from Pink Film's existence, and almost all of them surreptitiously participated in Pink Film production. This tension between resistance and participation in many ways expresses the turmoil of concepts and allegiances that Japanese society itself had been dealing with since the end of the war.

Confusion will serve as a central concept for understanding Pink Film's expansion. The state, with its high-growth strategy and model of postwar democracy, put forth fairly clear ideas about the identity it wanted to fashion for the new Japan: a modern, peaceful, and affluent capitalist nation completely removed from its recent past of militarism and colonialism. Pink Film on the other hand deliberately did not present a cleanly defined and newly born identity, but mirrored an experience. It insisted on the con-fusion of life after the war with its deep changes, ambivalent options, and difficult combination of change and continuity. Georges Bataille has stated that "obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality." In this sense, Pink Film was no doubt obscene, and a danger to the sanitized state order the government was striving for. This obscenity was deeply tied to the confusing of a certain temporal model that was intended to secure the new Japan's identity.

The temporality that high-growth Japan aimed for began with the claim of an année zéro and a clean and total rupture with Japan before 1945. It was a flight into futurity that prevented any real assessment of the catastrophe of war and the system and choices that had led up to it. Pink Film injected disorder and distrust into this official narrative, which was tied as much to a specific temporality as to corporeality and control. It instituted what Elizabeth Freeman has called chrononormativity, or "the use of time to organize human bodies into maximum productivity." Pink Film performed opposition to that temporal regulation and provided a kind of volatile epistemology on the levels of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Before Linda Williams or Judith Butler considerably complicated the workings of sex films, Catharine MacKinnon — in a statement often criticized by feminist scholars as reductive — claimed that pornography "eroticizes hierarchy." Pink Film, we might say, eroticized confusion, if for very specific audiences.

Pink Film's method should, however, not be stylized into heroic resistance. This confusion was escapist and epistemological, one that mirrored the psychological complexities experienced in personal and societal dimensions. Pink Film organized a constellation of social and political impulses in a way similar to what David Berry calls, in relation to postdigital aesthetics, an asterism: "Following a line of reasoning that capitalism's ability to sublimate and defuse social conflict remains undiminished, there emerges a modulated intensity in terms of what we are here calling a new asterism. Constellations are patterns of concepts that form at a particular historical epoch. The concepts are usually not identical and not necessarily cognate; rather, they lie in the same historical epoch. This explains why the concepts can be contradictory or paradoxical and yet remain in a constellation as such. An asterism is a prominent pattern of concepts that lies within a wider constellation." Commodifying the contradictions of postwar Japan and making them palatable, it addressed them and kept that address in circulation. The genre expressed itself wedged between rarefied capitalism and fiery resistance, and the polyvalent role of representations of sexual violence that suffused it. That Berry applies the concept of the asterism primarily to a "postdigital" regime points to the fact that the increased appearance of industrial genres can be seen as a herald of a media-transitional phase, though one that is not necessarily attached to the principle of the digital.

Any attempt to understand the specific confusion Pink Film was selling and that both denounced and conceded to normative social, political, and economic power relations must take the pervasive and unsettling role of sexual violence in the films into account. The site and enabler of Pink Film's attractive confusion was male power and the insecurities and fantasies that connected gender to a discourse on nation. Pink Film was both soothing and unsettling for its male audiences, and much less ambivalently disturbing for groups that would come into conflict with it, such as the Haha no Kai (Mother's Association) or the police. Both destabilizing and laying the groundwork for reformation of the nation, it functioned as an essential aspect of crisis capitalism in Japan's post-postwar era.

Therefore, a simple oppositional reading of Pink Film as resistance is difficult, as part of its agenda was to present both opposition to and a radical version of the status quo. Decrying the social convulsions of the high-growth economy, it also participated in a larger movement toward efficiency, economic stratification, casualized labor, and commodification. A gap also exists between its status as realism and its highly generic standardization, between ideas of rural authenticity and stylized modernism. There exists a disparity between the ideas of human liberation and the intensely misogynistic imagery Pink Film depicts, in its double play of identification with both victim and assailant. It both claims to take part in the public sphere and drives for gender-oriented compartmentalization and the dividing up of audiences. It was exactly the ability to con-fuse all these contradictions that formed part of the genre's appeal for participants and the audience.

Pink Film wore this confusion on its sleeve until the early 1970s, as it was an important component of its identity and success. It was then that Pink Film, which had previously acknowledged the inextricability of supposed opposites and the continuity of history, slowly became subsumed by an ideology of clean-cut compartmentalization. This and the following chapter focus on the phase of formation of the industrial genre and its aggressive confusion, followed by its fixing into specific forms and spaces.

Pink Stability

Pink Film is often described like a prehistoric mosquito preserved in amber. Such an image portrays this unusual genre as follows: as in the 1960s, Pink films are shot for a budget somewhere in the area of 2.5 to 3.5 million yen, with a production schedule allowing for three to five days of shooting. They are around sixty minutes in length, shot on 35 mm film on location and without sound, and are shown in installments of three films per program in specialized Pink Film theaters. The titles are, in keeping with the mode of consumption they are conceived for, highly stereotypical and often outrageous, only occasionally giving a sense of the film's subgenre, including terms such as jukujo (ripe/older woman) or chikan densha (train groper).

Production is based on a system of casualized labor, in which the distributor provides a nominal company (actually, the director) with a certain sum after clearing the script, usually 50 percent of the final budget, and the director functions as both producer and director using a very small crew. The directors often, though not always, write the scripts. This practice grants directors great autonomy, and as long as a certain number of sex scenes are included, the director is often free to experiment with form and narrative as he — the directors are overwhelmingly male — likes. It is possible to shoot many films in a short period of time, as the average Pink film might take about one to two months to go from first script stage to finished product; the crew accrues on-set experience quite quickly, and the rule of thumb is that it takes about three years to go from being an assistant director to making a directorial debut. As it was virtually impossible to get an apprenticeship at a major studio from the late 1960s on, Pink Film quickly became one of the sole ports of entry into the film industry. In fact, Pink Film would remain one of the prime sources of directorial and other talent for the Japanese film industry throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and for certain generations it is actually quite difficult to find directors working today that were not involved in Pink Film at some point. A large part of both the most commercially successful as well as the most critically acclaimed names had their first experiences in this industry: Suo Masayuki (Shall We Dance?, 1996), Takita Yojiro (the Oscar-winning Departures, 2001), Hiroki Ryuichi (Vibrator, 2003), Aoyama Shinji (Eureka, 2000), Oguri Kohei (Sleeping Man, 1996), Kurosawa Kiyoshi (Cure, 1997), Suwa Nobuhiro (M/Other, 1999), and Kobayashi Masahiro (Bashing, 2005), and the list goes on. Textual standards include simulated sex scenes at regular intervals, usually around five to seven scenes per film and usually including at least one scene of sexual assault. Genitalia and pubic hair — concealed during shooting with a taped cover called a maebari — are hidden on screen by either shooting around them or by using several postproduction masking techniques such as mosaic, dots, or (less often) scratching out. Violence, overwhelmingly against women, has been a mainstay of Pink Film since Market of Flesh.

Yet this image of genre stability is also deceiving. For example, as mentioned above, the budget of a Pink film has indeed stayed stable at roughly 3 million yen since the genre's inception, but the value of that amount has of course changed drastically. In 1965 that sum was equivalent to $8,333 in the United States, a minimal amount for a feature film production even at that time. In 2006, when Pink films were still shot almost exclusively on 35 mm film, the same sum adjusted for inflation was worth just about half, and by the 2010s video was making swift inroads into shooting of Pink films. Many of Pink Film's attributes have transformed over time, such as the length of the films (reduced from around eighty to sixty minutes) or the role of sexual violence (much reduced since the late 1990s).

At the same time, the image of stability has itself become an important characteristic of the genre, while in its formational period it was perceived as in constant flux. That approximately ten-year period of becoming Pink Film is the focus of the following chapters, and we might apply to genre what Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree write about media: "There is a moment, before the material means and the conceptual modes of new media have become fixed, when such media are not yet accepted as natural, when their own meanings are in flux ... while they are themselves defined within a perceptual and semiotic economy that they then help to transform." In the case of Pink Film it spurred not only a transformation in the semiotic economy of film in Japan but the very semiotic charge of film and media itself. How, then, was Pink Film identified, named, and recognized as a formation that would proceed to transform film and media in Japan?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction  1
1. Establishing Pink Film  25
2. Pink Times and Pink Spaces  63
3. Kadokawa Film  96
4. The Radicalization of Kadokawa Film  122
5. V-Cinema  152
6. Subgenres: Violence, Finances, Sex, and True Accounts  176
Conclusion: Present Histories  204
Notes  225
Bibliography  273
Index  285

What People are Saying About This

Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return - Miryam Sas

"Alexander Zahlten emphasizes a constellation of cinematic attributes that have rarely been considered so seriously in Japanese film and media studies: industry and industrial structures, distribution infrastructures, and viewing spaces. Demonstrating a special command of industry history, Zahlten facilitates fruitful dialogue between text and context that will change how people talk about Japanese cinema. A great read."

A Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies - Markus Nornes

"Thanks to the studio system and the canonical work of auteurs, there was a time when everyone knew the greatness of Japanese film—when everyone knew exactly what Japanese cinema was. This gave way to a sense of decline, if not an end, after the demise of the new wave. In his provocative new book, Alexander Zahlten directs us to the curious, protean margins of the industry to redefine our understanding of 'Japanese cinema.'"

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