Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese Cinema

By Bingham, Adam | CineAction, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Original Visions: Female Directors in Contemporary Japanese Cinema


Bingham, Adam, CineAction


In his landmark study of the Japanese nuberu bagu (nouvelle vague), David Desser quotes from an interview with actress Hidari Sachiko, who told Joan Mellen: 'if you want to say something about Japan, you have to focus on women,' (1) something Desser underlines with his own observation that: 'a focus on women can reveal most of Japan's inner tensions and contradictions.' (2) These are statements that would seem to have an inherent validity when one considers the number of notable Japanese directors to have built their cinema around images of Japanese womanhood, who have repeatedly shaped their narratives around, and drawn their thematic preoccupations from, female figures and their socio-historical fate in Japan; who, indeed, have been described and celebrated by some commentators as feminisuto (feminist) filmmakers.

This is true of the new wave (Yoshida Kiju, Imamura Shohei) and the golden age of Japanese cinema in the post-war years (Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kinoshita, Toyoda Shiro). It is true of the 1930s (Shimizu Hiroshi, Gosho Heinosuke) and the 1990s and thereafter (Kore'eda Hirokazu, Nakashima Tetsuya, Ogata Akira). It is also true of certain genres that have historically achieved prominence in Japanese filmmaking: from silent Gendai-geki and classical Haha mono ('Mother films'), to the so-called 'Pinky violence' Yakuza films, and on into the modern J-horror boom and a return to prevalence of the home-drama by such directors as the late Ichikawa Jun, Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Toyoda Toshiaki. This plethora of filmic images of Japanese womanhood, combined with the crystallization in the 1920s and increasingly thereafter of modern 'women's literature' would thus seem to underline Hidari's contention that this particularly turbulent century in Japan's history has been captured through and reflected in narratives centred on female protagonists.

Whatever the truth about the claims of feminism made for such films and filmmakers, particularly Mizoguchi (and it should be noted that this has been disputed by as many as have advocated it), it is nonetheless true that films about women have predominated throughout Japanese cinema, about women but made by men. Whatever their respective insights or attitudes, the fact remained that women in Japanese films were almost always created, and certainly looked at, by men. They were not looked at in a way informed by the Mulvian model of power, desire and the objectifying gaze ('to be looked at-ness'). Rather, they frequently reverted almost by default to images and symbols of femininity and womanhood as opposed to simply being feminine, being women. That is, they reverted to well worn, culturally-pervasive cliches, to types of the kind essayed by Ian Buruma in his book A Japanese Mirror (3) (the self-sacrificing heroine, the demon woman, the embattled survivor, etc). Thus one can easily recognise a Mizoguchi or an Imamura film because of the explicit types they employ, and the role of these types in shaping and conditioning their particular narratives.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In modern Japanese cinema, images of and stories about women and womanhood (including many teenage dramas) continue to proliferate, as a recent Japan Foundation UK touring programme entitled Girls on Film amply attests. Indeed, at a symposium in 2009 it was estimated by producer Kito Yukie that 70% of filmgoers in Japan are female, and that the subservient roles often taken by women in the Japanese film industry (working at such jobs as script continuity), coupled with their domination of the fields of production and marketing, make it logical that this country should see more women directors. And in the current climate, so it has. However, unlike, say, Iranian cinema, one couldn't exactly say that this situation has undergone a marked and progressive transformation in terms of the politics of representation. Indeed, the (mostly young) female filmmakers who have come to prominence in the last fifteen years have not been overly concerned with providing portraits of 'women' and 'womanhood' per se. …

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