Usually, a concern for a balanced composition, symmetrical or asymmetrical, has become an identifying mark of Japanese films - right up to the films of, say, Kitano Takeshi, and beyond.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: Chapter 5, "The new independents", page 59.


Ozu, like many Japanese directors (Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ichikawa Kon), was a draughtsman. His pictures (usually still lifes, all in that rustic manner typical of the traditional amateur aesthete, the bunjin) are highly competent. Whether he so regarded them or not, his sketches, watercolors, and ink drawings are the opposite of modernist - they are deeply traditional.

Perhaps the most traditional aspect not only of Ozu?s films but also of Japanese cinema as a whole is its long-lived and still-continuing concern for composition. Dictionaries define composition as the combining of distinct parts to create a unified whole, and the manner which the parts are combined or related. The presentation of a unified view is one of the elements in Japanese culture?the garden, ikebana, the stage - and it is not surprising that an acute compositional consciousness should be part of the visual style of the country.

In Japanese film the compositional imperative is so assumed that it is the rare director who fails to achieve it. (If he so fails, as in the films of Imamura Shohei, it is intentional.) Usually, a concern for a balanced composition, symmetrical or asymmetrical, has become an identifying mark of Japanese films - right up to the films of, say, Kitano Takeshi, and beyond.

If Ozu?s compositional interests can be seen as traditional, so too, can his thoughts on construction. Critic Nagai Tatsuo once mentioned that many of Ozu?s titles refer to the seasons and asked Ozu if that meant he was interested in haiku. The director replied that he wrote maybe three haiku a year, although, in truth, his journals are filled with them - one a week or so. He would at times be self-critical, such as with the following haiku, after which he wrote, "what a bad poem."

Spring rain
Begins to fall
Poor kotatsu (13)

The seasonal reference is certainly there. The fact that the foot-warmer is no longer needed now that the warm spring rains are falling, is true, a bit mawkish. Nonetheless, Ozu himself thought haiku of relevance to film: "Since renga [linked classical verse] is similar to film editing, I found it a good learning experience." (14)

NOTES:
(13): Ozu. Carnets, p. 100.
(14): Sato Tadao. Ozu,p. 159.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 59, chapter 2, section: The New Gendaigeki


Another genre specialist was Fukasaku Kinji, who made Battles Without Honor or Humanity (Jingi naki tatakai, 1973-76), a multipart series for Toei. The Series criticized the yakuza and concerned itself with the extreme consequences of giri and ninjo. These pictures formed a subgenre within the major yakuza-film genre. Known as ninkyo-eiga, such vehicles were idealized, highly formalized elaborations, set usually in the late Meiji, the Taisho, or the early Showa eras. The hero wades into the rival gang and emerges victorious.

Though popular and profitable, the ninkyo-eiga did not last. A late attempt at revival, Sakamoto Junji?s Another Battle (Shin jingi naki tatakai, 2000), some of Kitano Takeshi?s films, and all of Miike Takeshi?s. In these, the lawless, nihilistic hero of early Ito Daisuke is revived, though as a figure of mere fashionable violence rather than, as in the ninkyo-eiga, serious moral concern.

There were during the period many other genre craftsmen as well. Nakamura Noboru, who had worked as assistant director on Toshimura Kozaburo?s The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi, became a latter-day jun-bungaku socialist, making into persuasive films such novels as Ariyoshi Sawako?s The River Ki (Kinokawa, 1966) and Kawabatata?s Twin Sisters of Kyoto (Koto, 1963). Oba Hideo, another Yoshimura-trained director, specialized in melodrama and created an enormously popular trilogy What is Your Name? (Kimi no na wa, 1953-54) and later remade Snow Country (Yukiguni, 1965).

Chiba Yasuki, having early completed Certain Night?s Kiss, went on to create superior program-pictures such as the four-part Mr. Fortune Maker (Oban, 1957-58) and an excellent Hayashi Fumiko adaptation, Downtown (Shitamachi, 1957). Also working for Toho, Okamoto Kihachi began under Naruse Mikio as assistant director on Floating Clouds. He later went in for spectaculars including The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu toge, 1966), Kill (Kiru, 1968), and the star-studded The Emperor and the Genera (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, aka Japan?s Longest Day,1967); the wry war comedy, Human Bullet (Nikudan, 1968); and a remake of Kurosawa?s Sanshiro Sugata (1977).

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 179, chapter 4, section: The Advent of Television and the Film?s Defenses


Genre as such, however, could no longer command a market. What happened to the yakuza film is instructive. With the jidaigeki fading into television, this modern descendant of the matatabi-mono became, for a time, the leading action-film genre. Yakuza etiquette is really a parody of the samurai code, and its expression is actually a continuation of what one critic called the "Chusinguara mentality." With such "Japanese" virtues as loyalty, dedication, and subservience inculcated, one might have thought that a lasting popularity was assured.

Stylistically conservative, the yakuza genre was further a "rationalized" product in that it was constructed of standard units: the "return" scene, the "identification" scene, the "reconciliation" scene. These were shot, from film to film, in more or less identical fashion. Like many traditional Japanese cultural products, the films were constructed as modules, one attached to another. Not only did they resemble the chambara in this way, they even reflected Onoe Matsunosuke?s methods - one duel per reel. Such rationalization also means a product which is cheaper to make and easier to distribute, thus reducing the unit price.

Yet the popularity of the yakuza film lasted only a decade, from about 1963 to 1973. Film yakuza, models of submission, were quite unlike the modern gangsters with which audience were now familiar from crime films. What is more, the sacrifice of individuality for the sake of the group (giri-ninjo again), the message inherent in the ritualistic yakuza film, was of directors to keep churning out the product, the genre itself died.

Many genre?s died along with the yakuza film, including the "youth film", a product whose directors were not said to have reached an average age of sixty-five. Eventually, in the eighties and nineties, the yakuza film became just another vehicle for violence, along with films about fast cars, aliens, and natural disasters. As has been mentioned, there was some attempt to rethink the genre, notable in the films of Kitano Takeshi, Miike Takashi, and others, bit it never again attained an audience-wide opportunity.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 209, chapter 4, section: After the Wave


To be sure, Japan had always devoted itself more to genre than had many other countries. There was jidaigeki, gendaigeki, haha mono (about mothers), tsuma mono (about wives), the tendency film, and a myriad of others. But at the same time, there were also a large number of films which were not generic in inspiration.

By the end of the century, however, a majority of the product were determined by genre. As Kurosawa Kiyoshi saw it, after the studio system collapsed and production ceased, the genres actually grew fewer in number, while those that remained became ubiquitous. "The dominant genre today is the yakuza genre. I think the reason for this is that the Japanese audience likes Hollywood films. That is why the main genres are mysteries and thrillers and yakuza films. And, of course, one of the most important names here is Kitano Takeshi." (4)

Genre is certainly one of the ways in which the remaining audience is funneled into the theaters, but there are many others. Just as we saw the attempt to counter the threat of television by introducing monsters, sex, and wide screen, so we now see an audience wooed back with genre, spectacle, and the promise of a product to be viewed in a theater only. These films were made independently, were unaffiliated with whatever major studios remained, and were able to offer something more sophisticated in the way of entertainment at a significantly lower cost to the producers.

While the West is familiar with this way of making films, it was relatively unknown in Japan. A picture could be made for comparatively little since a recently formed company would not be burdened with the cost of a full-time studio and staff. The term "independent film" in the West at that time usually indicated and independent attitudes well. It was the kind of film the major production companies could not make, given what was considered its narrow audience appeal. This was initially the reading of the term dokuritsu purodakushon in Japan as well. In time, however, as in America, the independent film gradually turned mainstream.

Maverick films became box-office hits, the avant garde turned up on the big-theater screen, new filmmakers were awarded government prizes. With the expansion and later contraction of Japan?s economy, a new conservatism - compared to the relative liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s - became evident, In film this was seen in the slow backing away from the style of modern realism to something which could be labeled as "postmodern" - a mixing of high and low, art and commerce, which posited that culture had never been as pure as assumed, the notion that all culture is syncretic, hybridized. Postmodernism called for a definite return to the presentational quality which had always defined the Japanese dramatic ethos, bringing about the emergence of that completely presentation film genre, anime. This return to the presentation implies a return to open control (as opposed to the covert control implied by the presentation), and it operates on many levels.

One such level is the open presentational character of the film itself. Another is the hands-on and openly controlled manner os selling the product. Like film merchants world-wide, the Japanese became adept at playing the marker. Japanese films might not rake in much money at home, but their appeal could be enhanced by prizes won at foreign film festivals. Eventually, Kitano Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Aoyama Shinji, Miike Takashi, and many other younger directors were winning prestigious awards abroad which resulted in larger sales (cassettes, discs, rentals, direct money from television showings) in Japan.

Film production methods at the beginning of the twenty-first century have in some ways returned to those prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth: many small production companies, all more or less unaffiliated, all seeking to purvey sensation and novelty. The masterless ronin is now the nearly anarchic yakuza and his postmod posturings are not far from the kabuki-esque posings of Matsunosuke.

NOTES:
(4): Doraiswamy, Rashmi. "Kiyoshi Kurosawa", in Cinemaya, Nos. 47-48, Summer 2000.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page: 215-216, chapter 5, section: The New Independents


The couple in Shady Grove (Sheidi Gurobu, 1999) seem barely to know each other. In Eureka (Yuriika, 2001), the young people cannot communicate - and this, indeed, constitutes the plot of this nearly four-hour film. Victims of a bus-jacking they make the most of it, victimization also being in fashion among the young. in EM - Embalmising (Ii emu embamingu, 1999) everyone was even more alienated. One critic said that "even the bang-bang scenes felt deadened. Blasting away at one another, both the good guys and the bad guys stood expressionless as shooting gallery targets - a borrowing from Kitano Takeshi?s Sonatine [1993]."

Kitano himself is one of the icons of violence, and since this quality has come to play such a role in contemporary Japanese film, one might examine it. Violence is perceived as akin to a kind of necessary dissidence, to exhibiting a style that defies the mainstream, whatever that may be at the time. Since the young want to believe that they are "with it", that they are "hip", that they are "cool", and are hence more empowered than they actually dissent becomes a means. Most young persons, however, will settle for something less time-consuming than real counterculture alienation. They are satisfied with adopting a look, a style, an attitude. To be cool means to have lots of attitude.

The phenomenon is by no means restricted to Japan and is, at any rate, not new to it. Back in the repressive Edo period, to be hip has to show some iki; to be square was to be yabo, and no one wanted to be that. Extreme kabuki fashions (and morals) were imitated and the "prostitute look" was in. The Edo period had its distinctive trendy take which we can still see in the chroniclers as Hokusai and Utamaro.

In the Taisho period, the phenomenon of ero-guro-nansensu was, in its own way, anti-establishment, its dissident means running against the grain of an increasingly repressive government. To claim nansensu was really to suggest that it was mainstream culture which was the more nonsensical. The attitude itself was also discovered to be a marketable item. Nansensu stories and novels became nansensu movies. Ero-guro could be translated into smart outfits (cloche hats, bobbed hair, plus fours for the men) and marketed accordingly.

Japan, being the consumer culture that it is, regularly consumes and internalizes all threats with the result that the trendy contemporary cool takes on a decidedly institutional look. In other countries, what the fashion industry flogs, what the department stores showcase, whatever appears on television - none of this would be considered cool. In Japan, however, it is.

Cool is nonverbal. It does not explain itself, nor can it. Hence its means of communication are purposely limited. In this it resembles manga construction, a story-board-like assemblage of discrete boxes, each containing its grain of information, affording nothing further than chronology as linkage.

In manga and in films such as Kitano?s, there is little explanation, much is assumed, and the reader/viewer is encouraged to do no more than register each event. His or her emotions are beside the point, since to be with it is to be out of it. This is cool - or, in Japanese parlance, it is dorai (dry), the undesired opposite of which is the very uncool uetto (wet).

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: "The new independents", Page 222-223, chapter 5, section: The New Independents


A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. All rights are reserved by Donald Richie. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Donald Richie.