electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 4 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 28 April 2008

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Context Over All

Reading Content in a Circle


Timothy Iles

Assistant Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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About the Author

Phillips, Alastair and Stringer, Julian, eds. (2007) Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, London: Routledge, ISBN-10: 0-415-32848-9, paperback, 363 pages + index.

As Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer write in their Introduction to this volume of essays, 'the field of Japanese cinema studies is currently in a state of transition' (p. 2). The pioneering days of Richie, Satō, Mellen, Burch and Bock—marked by historical situations of Japanese cinema and by auteur studies of key directors—have passed, but in their place there remains to emerge a suitably comprehensive critical approach capable of encompassing both the heterogeneous product of the film industry on the one hand, and the diverse responses of scholars and consumers on the other. This current volume, along with other recent publications by Isolde Standish and Keiko McDonald, for example, aims to address what the editors see as a gap in scholarship. However, the editors specifically refute that these other publications provide that comprehensive overview of Japanese film studies. As they phrase it, 'there has been to date no single volume on the subject which offers such a wide-ranging set of critical perspectives suitable for the undergraduate student and advanced reader alike' (p. 1). Instead, they contend, it is their collection which constitutes a 'comprehensive volume of original scholarship that presents an accessible and multi-faceted overview of the enduring significance of Japanese film' (p. 1). In so describing the aims and accomplishments of their collection, they raise the expectations of their readers to stratospheric heights which, not surprisingly and despite the truly valiant and worthwhile efforts of its contributors, their volume fails to satisfy. This is unfortunate because, editorial hyperbole aside, the essays here do indeed present interesting, richly researched, highly readable, and valuable contextualisations of twenty four films ranging from the earliest days of Japanese cinema to the present.

But it is precisely this word 'contextualisation' which creates the greatest challenge—and shortcoming—of this volume, for here the situation of the films under consideration within the field of critical reception, historical period, or even aesthetic, poetic, and artistic stylisation takes definite precedence over analytical exploration of meaning or meaning-production. In providing texture and depth to this contextualisation, the erudition and research of the contributors are unparalleled. The essays here are fine examples of industrious exploration of archives and back-issues to construct solid, detailed grounds upon which the authors stand in discussing their film—each author/chapter having the task of presenting a single work. The writing is uniformly clear, concise, and illuminating—highly refreshing given the perilous state of contemporary criticism that often relies on esoterica of theoretical terminology to mask a lack of substantive analytical content. The writers, too, avoid the common practice of imposing a particular theoretical stance on their texts regardless of the applicability of that stance; in so doing, they also avoid essentialising the films or utilising western critical practice to 'valorise' the work. Sensitive to the texts themselves as valid objects of study, each contributor has crafted a chapter that builds well into the overall structure of the volume, a structure both coherent and impressive, albeit different from that which the editors describe. But then whence the dissatisfaction? It is not the writing that is at issue; nor is it the research. It is the word 'context'.

Given the task of situating their films into their respective 'contexts', the writers for the most part avoid dealing specifically with the texts themselves. That is to say, while Michael Raine offers an elaborate discussion of Masumura Yasuzō's Kyojin to gangu (Giants and Toys, 1958) which draws on the biography of the director, the nature of the novel by Kaikō Takeshi on which the film is based, the conditions of Japanese salarymen during the period of high economic growth in which the film was made, and discussions of stylistic/thematic departures of this film from others of similar content in the late 1950s, the chapter skirts away from a detailed deconstruction of the film's allegorical possibilities. Raine does indeed discuss Kyojin to gangu as an allegorical critique of 'the ways in which the many channels of trans-media exploitation in Japan's post-war celebrity culture were overwhelming the cinema' (p, 160), and his argument is persuasive. However, this argument occupies only a small portion of his chapter, quickly giving way to discussion of the international reception of the film and how it 'searches for a mode of representation appropriate to the experience of 'modernisation without modernity' in 1950s Japan within the modes of representation made available by that specific historic situation' (pp. 162-163). This, too, is intriguing, but there is little by way of real demonstration of how the film actually carries out this 'search'.

Raine is not alone in 'stepping back' from the brink of interpretive analysis. Aaron Gerow offers a succinct encapsulation of the critical response to Morita Yoshimitsu's Kazoku geemu (The Family Game, 1983); Linda Ehrlich explores some of the influences and progenitors of Itami Jūzō's Tampopo (Tampopo, 1985); and Keiko McDonald offers a glimpse into the process of adaptation through her study of Ichikawa Kon's Enjō (Conflagration, 1958) to discuss the differences between the film and Mishima Yukio's novel of the same name. These chapters too are masterful examples of the process of contextualising a work of art, just as they are equally masterful at hinting at without pursuing the avenues of interpretation open to them.

The rationale for this 'evasion' of interpretive culpability must lie with the mandate of the editors to produce a volume dedicated primarily to contextualisation. Alastair and Stringer state explicitly that 'there is clearly much to be learned from critical approaches which thoroughly research the collective production contexts of individual films and filmmakers' (p. 14) and yet the editors themselves also affirm their agreement with Chris Berry that 'in order to comprehend the historical complexity of any national cinema, it is necessary to discuss a diversity of films in both depth and detail' (p. 13). This is the crux of the conundrum in which the volume finds itself—in contextualising its 'diversity of film' it necessarily allows the 'depth and detail' of each individual presentation to recede in importance.

Indeed one may argue that any volume of just under four hundred pages which aims to do justice to twenty four films produced in a nearly eighty year period will inevitably fall short of achieving 'depth and detail', and with all due charity, one may easily excuse this shortfall in a volume otherwise so welcome. Nonetheless that tantalising claim from the outset, that this volume will provide a comprehensive overview of Japanese cinema's enduring significance, places such exaggerated emphasis on the function of context itself as the starting point from which exploration of the individual films will begin that when it arrives, that exploration must depart almost immediately. Given the 'transitional period' in which Japanese film studies finds itself, the publication of this volume is both reassuring and worrying—reassuring for the evidence it so amply provides as to the scholarly ability of critics working in the field to situate film in its historical, industrial, and aesthetic settings; worrying for the shifting emphasis it demonstrates away from textual analysis towards 'the various ways in which the cultural form of Japanese cinema has been produced, appropriated, and consumed historically' (p. 11). Comprehensive volumes must first comprehend, and in order to do so, while context is undoubtedly important, of primary importance is the text.

Yet still this is a volume to be commended for its sincerity, its seriousness, and for its scope. The twenty four chapters here are each solid, the research is encyclopedic, the logic is sound throughout, and within the variation of critical methods there is a stylistic coherence remarkable for the fact that the volume represents twenty six authors. The reader willing to overlook the editors' forgivable impulse to see this volume as providing that elusive grail of the 'single work able to do all' will find instead a rich, rewarding, approachable and practical introduction to a type of contemporary scholarship on Japanese film. This reader, without exaggerated expectations, will not be disappointed at all.

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  28 April 2008. It was last modified on 21 October 2008.

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