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The Asian Reporter's
From The Asian Reporter, V15, #22 (May 31, 2005), page 15.
Balancing critique and guidance
The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film
By Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp
Stone Bridge Press, 2004
Paperback, 380 pages, $22.95
By Oscar Johnson
Don’t let this book’s claim of 97 film reviews and 20 profiles of contemporary filmmakers fool you. It is way more than the sum of its parts.
In bite-sized chapters, a director’s upbringing, influences, forte, and foibles are examine to unlock some of that director’s best works. Add to that scalpel-sharp critiques that flesh out actors, actresses, producers, cameramen, and plots and you’re getting warmer.
Co-authors Tom Mes (Paris based) and Jasper Sharp (in Tokyo) have compiled a work rich in detail that goes way beyond its stated contents. Drawn from the popular website, <www.midnighteye.com>, it speaks with clear yet casual authority on the modern history, trends, and techniques of Japanese filmmaking.
Fans of the website need not worry about investing in rehashed content. Mes and Sharp admit in the introduction that although a best-of book was initially planned, in the end the online content proved to be only a starting point.
Best of all, The Midnight Eye Guide offers priceless context for, and insights into, the most important aspect of the industry — the films themselves. This comprehensive guide is one that movie buffs and Japanophiles alike will want to hold on to long after the last page is turned. It will likely provoke ponderings of films already seen and cravings for those never before heard of.
In highlighting the careers and creations of directors such as Kinji Fukasaku, Shohei Imamura, and "punk filmmaker" Sogo Ishii, the authors offer telling trailers about the social fabric behind the scenes.
The book touches on how Ishii’s film Crazy Family, for example, shows his "preoccupation with the maddening effects of social pressure on the individual." It surveys how "the outcast, people ignored by the economic machine" in Fukasaku’s violent gangster films expressed "his dissatisfaction with the government’s policies for the (postwar) reconstruction of Japan." Similarly, in explaining Imamura’s distaste for the overplayed values of "honor, obedience, conformity and loyalty that … were actively being promoted in national cinema of the time," the book informs readers of the societal set on which such movies were filmed.
The book strikes a good balance, too. In addition to its well-informed, well-rounded critical commentaries on the subject at hand, it is every bit the user-friendly guide, fully indexed and with a complete bibliography.
It is laid out in 20 chapters. The first 19 feature one filmmaker each, followed by brief synopses and critiques of their noteworthy films. Details include both Japanese and non-Japanese titles, film casts, and distributors along with the various releases and whether or not they have subtitles.
To ensure great contemporary work doesn’t slip through the cracks, the final 70-page chapter entitled "The Other Players" reviews a slew of films whose directors didn’t make the cut earlier in the book. These reviews are packed with a surprising amount of the same nuanced detail on filmmakers, actors, and industry trends that marked the other chapters.
As with earlier chapters, readers may uncover new kernels of interest even in titles more familiar in the West, such as Tampopo, Go, and Avalon.