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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #38 (September 19, 2006), page 15.

Japanese film’s preeminent Western critic offers his latest theories

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film:

A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos

By Donald Richie

Kodansha International, 2005

Paperback, 320 pages, $22.00

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Donald Richie, the preeminent Western critic of Japanese film, has been studying his subject for nearly fifty years. As director Paul Schrader says in his introduction, "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie." Unlike other critics, Richie constantly reassesses his viewpoint and assumptions, so that any new work is a reimagining of his subject, and not a rehash of the same worn ideas. These reasons and more make Richie’s latest book, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, an essential reference guide for any student of Asian film, and a fantastic read for those merely curious about this complex and fascinating subject.

Japanese film is distinct from Western film for reasons both cultural and historical, and Richie covers both angles extensively in his book. Since its beginnings, Japanese cinematic art has reflected the constant dialogue between East and West. As soon as the new technology of motion pictures reached the islands, the art began to be reinterpreted according to Japanese aesthetics.

Richie frames his discussion of this intermixing by differentiating between "representational" and "presentational" art. Western film audiences are more familiar with the former, which indicates an artists’ desire to reproduce reality as faithfully as possible; most Western films follow in this pattern, and the director strives to remove his or her presence as much as possible.

Japanese culture and art, on the other hand, has always embraced the presentational stance, in which the artist mediates and shapes his subject, valuing aesthetics above all — the stylized movements of noh theater and ikebana flower arranging are two examples of the beautiful, but unrealistic, results.

The roots of Japanese film begin in this presentational mode, as early directors used film to record traditional theatrical works, using a static camera and minimal special effects. A good example of the cinematic presentational stance is the use of a benshi, a live narrator similar to the kind used in traditional drama. Acting as commentator and intermediary to the drama, benshi continued to be used even as Western films employed intertitles to advance the plot or relate dialogue.

As more Western films began to reach Japanese audiences, directors responded with more representational films about contemporary subjects, and employed more intricate film techniques. These films became known as shingeki ("new theater"), as opposed to the more traditional shimpa ("new school") which dominated early Japanese film. This began one of the other characteristics of Japanese cinema: the division and subdivision of the medium into specific genres, coincident with the compartmentalizing aesthetic of Japanese culture. While Western audiences might call a weepy women’s movie a "chick flick," Japanese moviegoers would distinguish between female-centered films about wives (tsuma-mono) or mothers (haha-mono). The developments of these genres and subgenres, and the directors, actors, and producers who employed and subverted them, encompass the bulk of the book.

In spite of the many strictures placed on the cinema from government, society, and the advent of television, the Japanese film industry thrives today, and Richie concludes with a long chapter on contemporary directors and their films. This is perhaps the weakest part of the book, as Richie discusses many, many individual works, without providing a coherent theme to unite them all. This is to be expected, however, as historians require the distance that only time can provide to understand their subjects, making writing about the present a difficult proposition for even an accomplished writer such as Richie.

The gleaming jewel atop Donald Richie’s crowning achievement is the DVD and video guide at the back of the book, which provides summaries of significant Japanese films, along with their availability in different media. For the reader who has been electrified by Richie’s insightful analysis, this guide alone is worth the price of the book. Included also is an extensive index and glossary, helpful for keeping track of the manifold genres and terms employed by Richie and others. Though it can tend towards more scholarly analyses, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film belongs on the bookshelf of casual and serious Asian film student alike, preferably close to the television, the better to enjoy his criticism in the context of the films themselves.

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