electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 1 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 15 April 2009

Search the Web Search ejcjs

How to contribute to ejcjs

Keeping Things Well at Hand


Timothy Iles

Associate Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

e-mail the Author

About the Author

Jacoby, Alexander (2008), A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, ISBN: 978-1-933330-53-2, paperback, xxxiii, 398 pages

In his Foreword to this volume, Donald Richie, one of the most important and influential non-Japanese scholars of Japanese film, writes that 'directories of directors are extremely helpful. They indicate the shape of a career, give examples of its contours. They help trace development, or lack of it, and offer a full account of a life's work. They record and they register' (ix). This is very true—and, also as Richie points out, good directories are scarcer than they should be. To help rectify this situation for English-language scholars, Alexander Jacoby has created a thoroughly-researched, comprehensive, and yet highly personal set of 'profiles and filmographies for more than 150 Japanese filmmakers at work in live-action cinema between the silent era and the present day' (xxvi). The comprehensiveness comes from the scope of the historical periods covered here and the many diverse genres and eclectic styles which the directors represent. The 'personal' comes from Jacoby's criteria for including the directors he has chosen, which rest on his 'sense of each director's importance in Japanese cinema, and to an extent on Ec [his] evaluation of their talent' (xxvii). Jacoby readily admits that he has 'made space for little-known directors who do not command a wide reputation ifEc [he is] personally enthusiastic about their work' (xxvii). This is a candid, even refreshing approach to scholarship and quite appropriate given Jacoby's stated intention for his book to serve 'as a source of both factual information and critical discussion,' (xxvii). In general his work succeeds admirably in bringing together in a highly accessible package both an alphabetised, chronological listing of many filmmakers' output, as well as provocative comments on the substance of that work.

This is a handbook of directors, a directory, rather than an interpretative or analytical evaluation of the filmmakers it includes, yet as such, it is an impressive collection. Jacoby introduces each director by listing his/her date of birth, date of death (where appropriate), and the Japanese kanji script for the director's name. Next comes a brief though insightful description of major themes selected from major, representative works, supplementing his own critiques with relevant evaluative, illustrative quotations from contemporary directors or film scholars. Attached to these introductions are chronological filmographies, as complete as possible, listing film names in Japanese transliteration and English translation, both literal and commercial, where such differ. While Jacoby discusses representative works in passing, he doesn't attempt an exhaustive overview of the directors' output—quite understandable given the scope of the work as it stands. He also doesn't provide a list of principal actors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, or other details of technical collaborators. This is unfortunate because such information too can be extremely useful in providing a coherent picture of development in a filmmaker's work. And yet here, too, we can forgive Jacoby for leaving this material out, and so keeping his book to a manageable 400 pages. And, after all, this does not aim to be a film directory—for that, one may turn to Tom Mes's and Jasper Sharp's Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2004), for example, or even to the newly-updated version of Donald Richie's A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: a Concise History, With a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001). These other works are more centrally concerned with providing introductions to Japanese film for general or academic audiences, respectively, and so their greater detail is necessary. Jacoby's project is more limited, but in some ways broader. Instead of an exhaustive listing of the production details of each director's work, on the one hand, or an investigation into the thematic, stylistic, and political trends of the Japanese film industry as a whole, his task is to 'offer a comprehensive introduction to the work of major directors from every period of the Japanese cinema' (xxv).

While the entries are indeed comprehensive, they are also relatively brief, averaging between one and two double-columned pages, and yet Jacoby's economical writing style allows him to give a good evaluative overview of the work he discusses. The descriptions are definitely aimed toward the amateur enthusiast, though, avoiding specific, esoteric terminology about composition or lighting, for example. Jacoby has also elected to use Western name ordering for his discussions of the directors, inverting the order of family name/given name which is proper in Japan. This is not surprising given Stone Bridge Press's own focus on a popular, general readership, and neither does it detract from Jacoby's overall well-considered entries and sensitivity to cinematic and historical importance. For the reader wanting a quick guide to prominent directors throughout Japan's rich film heritage, this book makes a welcome and overdue contribution to cinema studies. I certainly do hope Alexander Jacoby will turn next to some of the areas he reasonably decided to leave out of this volume: television, for example, but more importantly animation. There is an equally pressing need for a comprehensive handbook of filmmakers working in anime, as indeed there is a need for a comprehensive history of animation in Japan.

These projects are for the near future, however. For now, Jacoby's handbook is a valuable and valid guide to a wide range of important filmmakers who, collectively, have produced a highly impressive body of work.

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).

e-mail the Author

Back to Top

Copyright: Timothy Iles
This page was first created on  15 April 2009.

ejcjs uses Dublin Core metadata in all of its pages. Click here to enter the Dublin Core metadata website The Directory of Open Access Journals includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive online databases of open access journals in the world. Click here to enter the DOAJ website.

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive databases of social science research worldwide. Click here to enter the IBSS website

The electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies is permanently preserved at research libraries worldwide by the LOCKSS electronic data storage system. Click here to be taken to the LOCKSS homepage.

This website is best viewed with a screen resolution of 1024x768 pixels and using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.
No modifications have been made to the main text of this page since it was first posted on
If you have any suggestions for improving or adding to this page or this site then please e-mail your suggestions to the editor.
If you have any difficulties with this website then please send an e-mail to the webmaster.





Search Now:
Amazon Logo
Search Now: