Japanese Cinema Reframed

By Dixon, Wheeler Winston | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Japanese Cinema Reframed


Dixon, Wheeler Winston, Literature/Film Quarterly


Japanese Cinema Reframed

Japanese Cinema Refrained Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre and History. Arthur Nolletti, Jr. and David Desser, eds., Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. xviii+ 365 pages. $39.95 cloth, $18.95 paperback.

Reframing Japanese Cinema is a beautiful book, deeply felt and deeply personal. Nolletti and Desser have long had an interest in Japanese cinema, and this book is the culmination of their intense immersion in the world of Asian film. The title, too, is apt for the critical enterprise Nolletti and Desser set for themselves with this volume. They wish to "re-see" and rethink many of our Western cultural approaches to Japanese film practice, and they accomplish this task with brilliance and grace. Positing that "since the 1950s Japan has been a major force in international cinema," Nolletti, Desser, and the other contributors to Reframing Japanese Cinema discuss many of the major works of the classical Japanese cinema, many of them from the 1930s to 1950s; yet in no way is this book anchored in the past. One immediate indication of this is Nolletti and Desser's practice of using "name order in the Japanese Style, family name first and given name second," throughout the text. This may create some confusion for Western readers, but it is a positive step in the direction of eliminating the influence of Western cultural "centrism" on the heritage of the Japanese film.

The book is divided into three major sections, the first considering the question of "Authorship." Nolletti's opening essay in this portion of the text, "Woman of the Mist and Gosho in the 1930s," chronicles the life and works of "one of [Japan's] most preeminent directors," Gosho Heinosuke. Heinosuke, Nolletti notes, "excelled in the shomin-geki, the drama of the everyday life of the lower and middle class." The essay deals most prominently with Gosho's 1936 film Woman of the Mist (Oboroyo no onna), which Nolletti views as one of Gosho's finest achievements.

Robert N. Cohen's incisive essay on Mizoguchi Kenji's The Life ofOharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), made in 1952, effectively foregrounds the patriarchal discourse present in Mizoguchi's work, and incorporates much recent critical theory (particularly in the area of feminist criticism, psychoanalysis, and "the gaze") to ask the question "Why Does Oharu Faint?" in Mizoguchi's film. As the abstract preceding the article notes, "critics frequently have contended that by the end of the film she [Oharu] has attained transcendence." Yet Cohen feels that "Mizoguchi's attitude toward women was ambiguous at best and often disparaging." I would certainly agree with Cohen's interpretation of the film, and I would argue that this same view of the feminine pervades the rest of Mizoguchi's work. In this corrective essay, then, Cohen provides the valuable service of re-examining the film from a more modern (and hopefully, more enlightened) perspective, with insightful results.

David Desser's "Ikiru: Narration as a Moral Art" examines the work of perhaps the bestknown of all Japanese directors, at least in the West, Kurosawa Akira, with special emphasis on the 1952 production of Ikiru. Desser correctly cuts to the heart of Kurosawa's spiritual mise en scene: "spatial and narrative structures, theatricalization, and an objective analysis of style." Desser cites examples from such earlier Kurosawa films as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no ofumo otokotachi), made in 1945, and Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi), made in 1948, to isolate narrative strategies first practiced in one film by Kurosawa, and then carried forward (and further) in a later work. Desser thus "pairs" Tiger's Tail with The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin), made in 1958, and Kurosawa's 1957 version of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (Donzoko) with his much later film, Dodeskaden (1970), to find parallels that are both formal and thematic between these two groups of works. Desser's chief argument, as I read it, is that Ikiru is perhaps the most ambitious and mature recapitulation of the varied narrative and social, sexual, and political concerns present in Kurosawa's works, in that it "borrows" from not one, but two predecessors, Drunken Angel and Rashomon (1950). …

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