electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 2 in 2007
First Published in ejcjs on 31 January 2007

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The Problem of Context:
The Context of Problems


Timothy Iles

Assistant Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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About the Author

McDonald, Keiko I. (2006), Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, ISBN-10: 0-8248-2993-X, paperback, 292 pages.

Keiko McDonald has been one of the most important contributors to English language scholarship on Japanese film, both classic and contemporary, since the publication of her first major work, Cinema East: a Critical Study of Major Japanese Films in 1983. She is perhaps best known for her 1984 monograph, entitled Mizoguchi, on the great director, Mizoguchi Kenji. Her credentials and credibility are thus well established and, one would think, almost impeccable, which makes the arrival of her latest work, Reading a Japanese Film, such a mixed event. On the one hand the book holds out much promise; on the other, what it delivers is occasionally quite disappointing.

The book is in sixteen (fairly short) chapters, each of which is devoted to the 'reading' of a specific film, the selection of which stretches from the mid-1930s to the late 1990s. There's a good range of material presented here, from the passionate feminism of Mizoguchi's Gion no shimai (Sisters of the Gion, 1936), to the broad comedy of Itami Jūzō's Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman, 1987), with some animation from Miyazaki Hayao (Tonari no Totoro [My Neighbour Totoro, 1987]) thrown in for good measure, as well as one or two lesser-known works from such disparate directors as Higashi Yōichi (Enonakano boku no mura [Village of Dreams], 1996) and Kawase Naomi (Moe no Suzaku [Suzaku], 1997). The chapters all follow more or less the same pattern: a brief introduction situates the work in its historical period and genre, before McDonald delineates the plot and characters through the filter of such subheadings as 'Film versus Novel' (p. 55), 'Central Problem, Issues, and Thematic Progression' (p. 166), 'Masterful Economy of Cinematic Devices' (p. 98), and 'The Final Sequence' (p. 117). These subheadings give an effective structural unity to each chapter and certainly do make the chapter's goal more accessible—but the problem is precisely with that goal.

McDonald states in her preface that, along with the growth in university courses offering introduction to Japanese cinema, there has been a corresponding 'vacuity of really sound textbooks to serve these eager new students of Japanese cinema in undergraduate classes' (p. vii). This is true enough, and from my own experience I can attest to the difficulty in finding readings for my undergraduate students which are appropriately balanced between introduction, appreciation, and analysis. To fill this gap, McDonald has written this volume. As she says, it is 'intended to address the basic questions with which [she has] been concerned as a teacher and scholar for more than two decades: How does a person from the Japanese tradition show Western viewers, primarily general audiences, how to see a Japanese film?' (p. vii). But it is this intention which proves problematic here, for it makes several assumptions about the nature of its material, approach, and aim that are difficult to justify.

The first of these is the issue of the general audience. The work, while seemingly aware of its audience, vacillates between the film scholar and the student of Japanese culture in a way that will not satisfy either. The film analysis is typically slight, consisting of little more than brief discussions of camera placement, shot length and distance, and contrasts in lighting or colour. Granted these are indeed the substances from which the director constructs the film text, but their handling here is not detailed enough to sustain McDonald's interpretations of the films—and these interpretations, too, while ostensibly geared towards that 'general, Western audience' by a 'person from the Japanese tradition' far too often revert to a type of Orientalism in reverse, an attitude of cultural privilege that, rather than enhancing the accessibility of the films, serves unfortunately to disappoint the reader more than marginally familiar with Japan.

This is the second unfortunate assumption which the book makes: that Japanese films must be read as 'Japanese films' aware of the tradition from which they spring, and that that tradition will always be 'Japanese'. In discussing Koreeda Hirokazu's Maboroshi no hikari (Maborosi, 1995), for example, McDonald alludes to the necessity of familiarity with classical Japanese poetry: 'Delightful as this vision is, there is something uncertain in it, too. Is it real or surreal?c Certainly any viewer versed in the Japanese classics will catch the allusion conveyed by this picture. A famous example would be these verses by Ōtomo Yakamochi, the eighth-century editor of Manyōshū c' (p. 212). The impulse to read the scene through reference to Japanese poetry is admirable, but McDonald's case is far from convincing given the brevity of her analysis and the choice of the scene itself, which would lend itself far more readily to a discussion of Japanese painting than of poetry. Also, McDonald continues her analysis of the scene in question without determining for the reader precisely why she had chosen the poem she quotes, or in which way the scene benefits from any specifically Japanese hesitation between delusion and reality. In fact, McDonald's analysis leans equally heavily on 'Western' psychoanalysis and visuality as it does on anything intrinsically 'Japanese'—but it is to this condition that her work remains blind.

Where the work is at its strongest, however, is at its discussions of developments and similarities in the camera work of the classic directors Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa, with the younger directors Koreeda, Kawase, and Kitano. Here, McDonald allows her knowledge of the classic directors to guide her through her analysis of the younger directors, utilising visuality in ways both interesting and insightful. If McDonald were to include discussions of the ways in which these directors, both classic and contemporary, had borrowed from and expanded on the technical aspects of Western cinematography, her book would be an absolutely indispensable contribution to scholarship. As it stands, however, it is a tantalising glimpse into what could be possible in reading Japanese films, but unfortunately it doesn't live up to its own potential actually to be a guide for a contextually-sensitive approach to a national cinema.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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Copyright: Timothy Iles
This page was first created on  31 January 2007.

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