Prof. IronMan is here to give you yet another look in the fantastic world of cinema in Cutting Into the Scene.
After a long while, I have finally fine tuned the second half of our look into Asian Cinema. With part one over and done with, we have seen that Hong Kong Cinema is more than just flash. To read part 1, click here. It is only now far that we see if the opposite applies to the other big nation in World cinema. Let's look at the question again:
David Bordwell argues that Hong Kong’s success is based on popular forms while Japanese cinema is more distinctive because it departs from the practices of Hollywood. Is this correct?
So let's continue this big essay by looking at the second statement... Is Japan purposely different to Hollywood?
Alright Students, Class Is In Session... Let's look at our subjects today:
Plot Summary, according to Imdb:
An elderly couple journey to Tokyo to visit their children and are confronted by indifference, ingratitude and selfishness. When the parents are packed off to a resort by their impatient children, the film deepens into an unbearably moving meditation on mortality
Plot Summary, according to Imdb:
In 12th century Japan, a samurai and his wife are attacked by the notorious bandit Tajomaru, and the samurai ends up dead. Tajomaru is captured shortly afterward and is put on trial, but his story and the wife's are so completely different that a psychic is brought in to allow the murdered man to give his own testimony. He tells yet another completely different story. Finally, a woodcutter who found the body reveals that he saw the whole thing, and his version is again completely different from the others.
Ju-On: The Grudge:
Plot Summary, according to Imdb:
An evil curse and vengeful spirits seem to linger upon a house where the horrific murder of a woman and child took place and anyone who sets foot inside the house is marked for a terrifying haunting which will not rest. One by one, those who have been tainted by the house begin to die, and nowhere is safe.
David Bordwell’s theory on Asian cinema states that while Hong Kong cinema tries to capture success by imitating other stylized and popular forms such as Hollywood, Japanese cinema does the complete opposite. The Japanese film industry aims purposely to create a distinct style that detracts away from the contemporary norms. Making such a broad conclusion opens the doors test it further. In the early beginnings of film in Japan, it was used and established as a commercial product to entertain the people. ‘The Japanese audience perceived film as a new form of theater and not a new form of photography.19’ Even though this branch of world cinema started officially at the turn of the 20th Century, it would only be until the 1950’s, during the United States occupation of Japan, that it became popular and recognized as a new and exciting art form. The ever developing country soon had filmmakers to produce these ‘photo plays’ that would not only amuse the local audience but to present a unique visual look into Japan’s complex culture and history through an individual approach that can only be described as particularly Japanese. One of the pioneers in this philosophy of film making is Yasujiro Ozu, who literally created a complete alternative method for cinema goers to appreciate. ‘Ozu is, in short, the most Japanese of all directors.20’
Yasujiro Ozu, in experimenting with cinema, has developed his own brand of filmic grammar that makes him a clear auteur, usually staying with the same motifs, themes and camera style. A fine example of his work is Tokyo Story, the first of his films to make a lasting impression in the West. Ozu’s style is one that truly aims on establishing a strange combination of authentic realism and artistic composition, accentuating on the cultural yet mundane routine of everyday Japan. He mainly achieves this through the slow, unraveling narrative that focuses on the shomin geki genre, which is a drama that revolves around the common people. These characters are not written as being any more relevant or important than the typical viewer. ‘We know the human agents only ‘behaviorally’, through their words, gestures, expressions, routines and decisions.21’ But through the visual style projected by Ozu, he is able to praise and almost idolize them for being their simplistic and commonly traditional Japanese selves.
The camera would be placed at a far lower level than that of any mainstream feature, usually equaling to the height of the kneeling or sitting position. This is done in response to create a common unity with the characters as many scenes involve them are set on this plane. It also establishes a bizarre sense of superiority within such unremarkable people as when they stand up, they appear at a higher level to the frame’s horizon and hence above the audience’s eye line. This theme continues with his framing on the scene itself. During key points with a conversation of which Ozu wants highlighted, he would break the 180 degree rule to show the characters dominating the screen equally with mid-shot central framing and inconsistent eye lines looking directly into the camera itself, giving each individual a chance to shine and almost interact directly with the audience. ‘In a Hollywood film, the camera rarely crosses the axis of action to look at the fourth wall.22’
The sets of each scene are designed to create an incredible amount of depth within the shot, usually framed and divided into different levels by traditional Japanese panels. With this particular set-up, he is able to show in detail a seemingly huge space filled with possessions, creating the illusion that the common working and middle class Japan have a lot more wealth and cultural understanding than what they appear to have. This theme of admiring the common people for their ordinary and traditional values is one that is rarely seen in other popular forms as many of the protagonists are either displayed as superhuman or placed within an unusual situation to move the story at an exciting pace. ‘Ozu’s narration is thus not only consistently overt but has a certain tone or judgmental attitude… best described as playful. By appealing to unity, the narration sets up a rigorous and self contained system.23’
Yasujiro Ozu was not the only film director to experiment with cinematic structure within Japan. Famously, Akira Kurosawa was the first Japanese director to break into the Western mainstream with his film Rashomon that was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 to high praises. What made this film unique was its manner of presenting its tale using the different subjective viewpoints of four distinguished characters. The composition of the piece surrounding a mysterious murder allows for an ambiguous ending with no defined conclusion, allowing the audience to come up with their own interpretations of the story through each of the individual’s traits and characterization. In fact, when the characters are presenting their side of the argument in an almost court like setting, they are doing so directly into the camera, suggesting to the viewer that they are the judge and jury of this case. This kind of audience participation and inconclusive climax is one that is far different to that of other popular forms, especially Hollywood of the Classical era. ‘Rashomon’s unreliable flashbacks were a logical step beyond 1940’s Hollywood experimentation and beyond European art cinema as well.24’
His inspiration for using such a method was from the written works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, traditional literature inspired by Japanese folklore. Kurosawa was particularly used the tale of ‘In The Bamboo Grove’ as his main source for the film’s layout as the story is retold several times through the perspective of multiple narrators. While this is arguably set to be a popular form, it is seeped in a legacy that is very loyal to its local customs and untainted by the outside world or by demands for popular satisfaction. By examining Kurosawa’s adaptation of this classical piece of literature, he has been able to not only produce a particularly exclusive style but also elaborate it to present an allegorical message aimed particular at Japan’s defeat during the Second World War. Each character who is presenting their case can be seen as the individual countries involved in the conflict, trying to desperately defend their actions for something that can no longer be altered, which was the death of thousands and the near collapse of a nation. The ending of Rashomon shows the character of the woodcutter accepting to raise an abandoned child, symbolically representing the older generation understanding the errors of their ways and hoping to raise the post-war generation to hopefully avoid history ever repeating itself, a message that can only be understood by the tarnished nation of which it is set in. ‘Kurosawa’s interest is in reflecting and interpreting his society. This aim, to be sure, is one quite taken for granted in other countries, but in Japan, it is not the average director who interests himself in controversial social issues.25’
While these two examples prove the claim set by David Bordwell that Japanese Cinema aims departing itself away from the practices of Hollywood, it is still too linear to cement this statement, avoiding a far broader range of Japanese cinema, particularly in its vast range of genres. Looking into the history of the country itself, Japan was an isolated country for many centuries, detaching itself from the rest of the world. It was not until the Meiji era in 1868 that Japan began to open its doors to the foreign market, preparing itself for modernization through seeking out Western influences in order to advance their own culture. ‘Any definition of Japanese style has to face the fact that most Japanese are usually unable to handle anything without swiftly nationalizing it. Thus any influence is swallowed, digested, and turned into something sometimes rich, often strange, and always “Japanese”26.’ Cinema is also affected by this notion and the Chambara genre, also known in the West as the ‘Samurai’ film, is a fine specimen of this.
Here is a clip from the film Zatoichi to establish the style and characteristics of the Samurai film:
The Japanese genre system is divided in two mega-genres that are later further divided into appropriate subgenres. One is Gendaigeki which is the genre of films set in modern times, while the other, Jidaigeki, is the opposite, having films set before the welcoming of foreigners. With the early years of Japanese cinema, the Jidaigeki films rose in popularity as the visual division between the modern day world after US hegemony and imperialism and before it, creating a strange form of escapism. Seeing this rise in popularity, the studios now had the added pressure of not only recreating the past but to reach the expectations of entertaining and satisfying its audience. In the 1920s, the import of foreign films, particular that of Hollywood, was large and had to compete with movies that ‘presented a stimulating and rare opportunity for Japanese to make contact with Western civilization27’ and ‘were a continual source of surprise and envy.28’ The viewers had the model of American swashbuckling sword fighting films to compare with Jidaigeki films. This clash of popular forms became eminent with the introduction of Chambara and Ronin films off the influences of Hollywood cinema. What this means is that this subgenre of Japanese cinema that has become a key attraction in its identity was a creation of the 1920s based entire off imitating popular forms set partly by the influence of Hollywood on Japanese audiences.
This is not just isolated to just Samurai films but to all genres and styles distinctive to Japanese cinema, expanding it more than just being influence based on other influence or that of financial reasoning. The theory can also demonstrate the idea that films can fill themselves with acknowledging tributes to their predecessors, reaching to the point of satire or parody. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead film series is a fine example of a piece that other horror filmmakers have taken tribute to, whether consciously or not. These films are famous for creating the template for the zombie genre, having the zombies walk stiffly with a pale completion. This notion of the un-dead appearance has appeared in other accounts of this kind. In Japan, however, this image has always been present as part of their traditional folklore, seen in Kabuki theaters where the dead would appear to their victims pacing slowly towards them, completely white.
From all this evolved the template for Kainae films or avenging ghost stories, inspired by the visual cinematography and iconography of Hollywood cinema with the roots of ancient Kabuki. An example of this genre is Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: the Grudge. This use of combined imagery is seen in a sequence where a pack of ghostly schoolchildren is chasing around a fellow pupil around her home. Internationally, a dead man’s appearance maybe used in the same manner, but this image has be reused time again to different effect, creating an original cultural identity out of an old stereotype. Ju-On uses this classic dead image made famous by filmmakers such as George Romero in the West with a mixture of the images found in horror tales told in traditional kabuki theaters and cultural mentality to the dead to, ironically, establish an original brand that can now be recognized by foreigners as typically Japanese and distinctly different from Hollywood approaches. ‘Western ghosts are ethereal floaters because our collective belief in them is weak, but the Asian ghost is powerful and strong, willing and able to take you on’29.
How this film is as unique in comparison to a Western cinema is through its unusual method of telling the plot, having similar comparisons to Rashomon. Ju-On does not just tell the story through a single narrative but through multiple arrangements of small stories, each one showing its connection to the previous, no matter how small. This narrative trick can be seen as a strange domino effect, suggesting the message that one negative event can affect those around it, even if they are not personally involved at first. Each short narrative considered a rehashing of the previous story where an evil ghost follows the protagonist of that piece, searching for revenge on those who have disturbed them. In Japan, it is a closely traditional form of storytelling, similar to that of the ancient theater.
When Takashi Shimizu remade this film for Western audiences in 2004 as The Grudge, the technique of using multiple characters and connecting narratives were removed, having the film’s plot retold solely through one single flowing story, seen through the eyes of the lead protagonist played by Sarah Michelle Geller. This singular narrative structure was done purely to satisfy the Western audience, as they would not have been familiar with the traditional method the original film played on. The film used a combination of the scares and plot development from the multiple stories to create one easy to follow narrative that has its own cultural relevance and identity to its Western audience, while at the same time, paying tribute to the original piece.
David Bordwell’s convincing definition of Asian cinema is one that is too hazy and unbalanced to be taken as fact. While Hong Kong’s biggest success is through the art of rehashing popular forms, it also contains strong themes and allegorical content that concentrates on issues rarely discussed in Hollywood cinema. The works of Ozu, Kurosawa and Shimizu may establish a particular visual style only seen in Japanese cinema, but its history of modernizing and nationalizing popular forms is apparent in the content. The globalization of cinema itself is paradoxical, with each film from each country wanting to, not only create its own loyal identity, but to also have enough universal similarities and traits to sell the product easily around the world.
• Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story), Yasujiro Ozu, 1953, Japan
• Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa, 1950, Japan
• Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano, 2003, Japan
• Night of the Living Dead, George Romero, 1968, USA
• Ju-On: The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2003, Japan
• The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2004, USA
Richie, D ‘A Hundred Years of Japanese Film’ Tokyo: Kodansha International (2001)
Quote 19: Page 22
Quote 26: Page 11
Bordwell, D ‘Ozu and the poetics of Cinema’ London: BFI Publishing (1988)
Quote 20: Page 1
Quote 21: Page 53
Quote 23: Page 72
Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. ‘Film Art: An Introduction – 7th Edition’ London: McGraw Hill (2004)
Quote 22: Page 53
Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. ‘Film History: An Introduction – 2nd Edition’ London: McGraw Hill (2003)
Quote 24: Page 422
Sato, T ‘Currents in Japanese Cinema’ Tokyo: Kodansha International (1982)
Quote 25: Page 166
Quote 27 and 28: Page 32
Galloway, P. ‘Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand’ Berkley, California: Stone Bridge Press (2006)
Quote 29: Page 13
Well, that is it. That is the end of our very special look into the world of Asian Cinema, showing that there is a lot more into it than just orientalism and genre stereotypes. If you are interested in more on these subjects, I have also had a further look into these topics. Have a read at the short in-depth looks into Japanese Action Horror Film Versus and a more in-depth approach to John Woo's The Killer(which was referenced majorly in Part 1)