electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 4 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 20 September 2009


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Modernity's Female Face

By

Timothy Iles

Associate Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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About the Author


Russell, Catherine (2008) The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, paperback, xviii, 465 pages, ISBN 978-0-8223-4312-7.


Since the early 1930s, the Japanese film industry has maintained a continual, vibrant, and complex evolutionary process which has produced tens of thousands of individual works, as well as thousands of individual directors. Of these, several hundred have received considerable fame both domestically and outside of Japan. And yet, perhaps unfortunately, only a relatively small handful of directors receives the bulk of international critical and popular attention. Non-Japanese scholars of Japanese film have raised Kurosawa Akira, Mizoguchi Kenji, Ozu Yasujiro, Oshima Nagisa, and other 'classic' directors to near-divine status—and with considerable justification. But the attention which these directors who began their careers in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s have received has to some extent diverted attention away from many of their contemporaries, whose work is in many cases equally deserving of the type of adoration which Kurosawa's legacy enjoys. While it is difficult to argue that scholars have overlooked Naruse Mikio, it is less difficult to assert that they have neglected him far more consistently than is warranted. Naruse's career stretched over four decades, and produced an opus of over eighty works, the majority of which survive. And yet in English there has not been a sustained critical inquiry into his output, analytical of the thematic, stylistic, and technical continuities which define this director as a master of cinematic narration. It is in this context that Catherine Russell's magnificent contribution to Japanese film scholarship emerges as a long-overdue and remarkably persuasive volume of evaluation and interpretation.

Russell's task is monumental—to situate all of Naruse's extant works into a coherent analytical structure—but she has given herself a logical and practical starting point for this project. By organising her study around what is, after all, Naruse's own key issue, women and their influential place in Japan's developing modernity, Russell's examination of her material assumes an organic shape which does much to absorb its readers from the outset.

This absorption, of course, is something which Russell's highly readable though academically precise writing style facilitates, but it is her willingness to listen to Naruse's own cinematic voice which is one of the greatest strengths of this study. Her goal becomes, instead of a struggle to fit a body of work into a theoretical paradigm, rather an expansion and justification of that paradigm through a close analysis of what truly should be the most important aspect of scholarly study—the primary material of its analysis, in this instance, the films of Naruse Mikio. "In the early years of his career, Naruse's cinema was at the centre of Japanese modernity, featuring new women doing new things in the context of a new technology of representation. In tracing his depiction of women and their stories through the difficult Fifteen Years' War and seven years of occupation, we can see how the mass culture of the era functioned within the interstices of ideology and humanism" (p. xiv), Russell asserts. Through the attention which she gives to Naruse's texts, she is able to articulate both eloquently and carefully Naruse's depictions of the changing roles of the individual in a shifting socio-political structure, to illustrate the role cinema itself has in both critiquing and influencing that shifting society around it. As Russell explains with disarming candour, "Unlike conventional auteurist studies, I cannot really testify to the distinctiveness of Naruse's cinema, the degree to which it departs from the industry norms of his career, or the degree to which it is representative and typical of other studio products. My aim instead is to indicate how this cinema participates in and contributes to Japanese modernity as a cultural movement" (p. xiii). Having set this stage and goal for her project, she is quick to define her terms and set the parameters of her study. "In assessing the internal contradictions of Naruse's films, I am looking for ways that they enact a critique of Japanese society and point to the potential for social change and transformation. I will argue that Naruse's cinema details the ideological contradictions of the lost promises of the Meiji Reformation, followed by the false promise of 'democratic revolution' of the American occupation" (p. xiii). What follows are six chapters, each focussing on a particular period in Naruse's career, and each presenting close readings of his films from that period, carefully detailed.

Importantly, Russell's work is sensitive to the context in which Naruse produced his films. As she explains, "twelve women's magazines were published in the 1950s, many of them containing film reviews and stories about actors and actresses, indicating that Naruse's cinema was part of a much larger phenomenon" (p. 29), and that phenomenon was, of course, an increasing amount of attention to 'women's issues' and gender equality, as part of a nascent Japanese feminist movement. While Russell early on asserts that "[her] feminist analysis of a director and a body of work that engaged with neither the politics nor the vocabulary of feminism is explicitly made from outside the cultural framework of the films' production and reception" (p. xv), she is astute enough to identify, quite correctly, differing characteristics between the 'Japanese feminism' of Naruse's time, and that of the "specific perspective of early-twenty-first-century global feminism" (p. 20) which informs her critique. As Russell points out, "Japanese feminism has developed its own goals, methods, and priorities, but it shares with Western feminism a commitment to the recognition of female subjectivity, even if it tends toward an essentialism that is not widely accepted in North American feminism" (p, 28). While Naruse "may chronicle the trials and tribulations of women in Japanese society, they are often willing participants in their own entrapment within a network of social customs and historical forces" (pp. 25-6). Thus Naruse's engagement with a newly-emerging 'female subjectivity' becomes a complex discourse on his times and the changing expectations and hopes of Japanese women, centred on one word which Russell foregrounds in her study, modernity.

Russell herself feels the ambiguity inherent in this word when she writes that "for the purposes of this study�c Japanese modernity denotes an era, roughly contiguous with Naruse's career, in which Japanese mass culture took on a primary role in the representation and fantasising of everyday life" (p. xvi). She defends her lack of rigorous definition of this principal term by suggesting that "the category of Japanese modernity, although necessarily imprecise, is an important means of avoiding an essentialisation of Naruse's cinema within categories of Orientalism or cultural nationalism. As a cultural economy of desire, fantasy, materialism, and everyday life, Japanese modernity is rife with contradictions and unevenness. It is precisely within this decidedly anxious social formation that the discourse of female subjectivity in Naruse's cinema is produced" (p. xvii). Here she sounds a note which recurs throughout her study—that non-Japanese critics have, to varying degrees, 'essentialised' Naruse as a Japanese director, and have applied a 'Japanese' aesthetic to his work which those critics often either misrepresent or fail fully to understand. In some ways Russell's assertion is ironic, given that she herself speaks no Japanese and is not a scholar of Japan. Nonetheless she displays a remarkable sensitivity to the cultural specificity of Naruse's films while skilfully avoiding the type of essentialism of which she accuses such scholars as Joan Mellen. She manages this neat trick by focussing, in her analyses, on the cinematic techniques of Naruse's films as integral to their narrative goals, and by allowing those goals and techniques themselves to guide her writing about the films. This is apparent in, for example, her discussion of Naruse's adaptation of Kawabata Yasunari's Yama no oto (Sound of the Mountain), and her precise dissection of the alterations which Naruse made to the delivery of certain lines in that novel. Through this type of carefully-detailed examination, Russell places her emphasis on Naruse's work in and of itself, allowing it to speak through her analysis, rather than forcing the films to fulfil an imposed vision of "Japaneseness." While Russell does resort to the claims of certain film scholars unable to speak the language of the country whose cinema they study, that "because Naruse's cinema has begun to circulate outside Japan, it remains open, in [her] view, to a plurality of readings" (pp. xv-xvi), she has made sterling use of the Japanese-language material which she has had translated to support her research, and has demonstrated throughout her study a true scholastic integrity to work with her primary material as, indeed, primary. This, to my mind, is the hallmark of a great scholar—her ability to maintain her fidelity to her material without losing her critical insight and precision.

And insight does indeed abound here. This work is thorough and illuminating of Naruse's goals and achievements as a filmmaker. Far from being "'a poor man's Ozu,'" as Russell quotes Sato Tadao's characterisation of him, Naruse emerges from these pages as a master craftsman of films depicting women's lives, with tremendous compassion for their efforts to engage themselves with the ever-changing world of contemporary Japan, fitting themselves into the interstices between traditional gender-based expectations and a contemporary morality of desire structured about the roles of the individual. "This cinema retains a strong utopian impulse in its sustained orchestration of the desires of women to rise above the institutional and social forces that keep them down" (p. 402). As Russell concludes her study, "Naruse's cinema may not be a representative cinema, given all the surrounding cultural crosscurrents that continued to change over the thirty-seven years of his career. But it is a symptomatic cinema, pointing to the ongoing negotiation of women's subjectivity within the terms of Japanese modernity" (p. 402).

For scholars of Japanese cinema in general this work is of great interest; for those of feminist cinema and the cinema of the postwar, humanist masters, it is of great importance. Russell has given us a solidly persuasive, researched, and illustrative analysis of Naruse's films, presenting them within the contexts that they themselves accept as most relevant: feminism and modernity. It is the overwhelming strength of this study that these two terms are not limited here to the context of Japan alone, but have much to say to global modernity as well. This work represents a great contribution to cinema studies, and points to the richness of Naruse's opus as a field of inquiry which scholars will be able to explore in many was. Naruse has not yet received the critical exploration his work deserves; this book, though detailed and impressive, is by no means exhaustive. Instead it is introductory—but what a tremendous introduction it is.


About the Author

Timothy Iles is Associate 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), and The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film (Brill, 2008).

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