Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie

(book review)

I've been making an effort to watch more Japanese films lately, but I still feel a bit lost in the Japanese section of my video store. So when saw this book, I thought it would help me navigate my way through Japanese cinema a little easier.

This book is by Donald Richie who, according to the various quotes on the cover jacket, is single handily responsible for introducing Japanese cinema to the West. I had never heard of him before, but then there's a lot of stuff I haven't heard of.

The introduction to this book is by none other than Calvin's own Paul Schrader, who claims to have been greatly influenced in his film student days by Richie's earlier books.

Despite Schrader's high praise, I had a hard time making it through this book. So many names of directors and films are crammed into this 250 page book that it makes your head spin after a while. Some parts of the book are interesting, like when it talked about the film making policies under the American occupation, or when it talked about the contrast between American documentaries and Japanese documentaries. But often it feels like you're just reading through a long list. There were times when I seriously considered throwing this book against the wall and being done with it, but for better or for worse I struggled on through it.

For people like me who are starting out with very little knowledge of Japanese cinema, there's a lot to swallow in this book. I think someone who was already familiar with Japanese film might get more out of it as it might help to organize film information they already have.

That being said, I did learn a thing or two from this book helps me understand Japanese cinema more, and perhaps in the future I'll try and be less critical in my various reviews. For example this book helped me realize that Japanese cinema has it's own tradition and history, and shouldn't always be judged against Western films. The over acting (which I'm -always - complaining - about) is because Japanese initially viewed cinema not as a realistic portrayal of life, but as an outgrowth of theater.
Also Richie explains why Japanese TV and Cinema can be repetitive, and why the Japanese stay sitting all the way through the ending credits in a movie theater (something I've always wondered about).

At the same time though, there are a lot of truly terrible films that the Japanese film industry crank out each year. (Alexander Kerr has a few rants about this in his book "Dogs and Demons"). Richie occassionally acknowledges this in passing, but he keeps his focus on the directors who in his opinion defy the mold.

When I bought this book, I was hoping to use it as a guide in the video store. And although I'll certainly keep it around as a reference, the book contains very little information on any given film. Most films are summed up in a couple sentences, a couple paragraphs at most. There is however a small film guide in the back which I'm planning on making use of.

Because the book is more or less organized according to directors, what it does do is give a good understanding of the broad themes and approaches of different Japanese directors, and their differences from each other. In this respect the book is most useful, although again for the novice like me it's all a bit hard to keep track of.

That being said, a few movies are mentioned in this book that I have reviewed on this blog: My Neighbor Totoro, Shall We Dance, and Zatoichi.

[Interestingly enough, Richie gives Zatoichi a rather tepid review, despite the fact that Zatoichi is used as the photo for the book's cover (see image above). I'm guessing this was someone else's choice other than Richie, who writes of the movie: "lots of violence naturally, but at the same time a kind of noble pathos, which shortly becomes tiresome. The all singing, tap dancing finale is welcome but rather too short."]

Many more movies are mentioned that I saw before I started my movie review project such as Battle Royale, Godzilla, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Princess Monoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Akira, Steamboy, Ghost in the Shell, Brother, The Tokyo Trial, et cetera.

There are some repetitive passages in this book which are indicative of sloppy proof-reading, and the fact that someone along the way wasn't giving this book a lot of attention as it got pushed out towards publication.
Nevertheless, now that I've completed this book, I hope to be able to use it as a reference in the future as I continue my journey into Japanese film.

Addendum: according to this book there is an annual film festival in Yufuin, Oita prefecture. Amazing how I can live in Oita prefecture for all this time and not know these things.

Link of the Day
A friend of mine and former co-worker started up a new website TADA Music, documenting the independent music scene in Japan. Well worth taking the time to have a look.

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