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On Contemporary Japanese Film

Vrvilo’s text, followed by two adapted lectures by Japanese film scholar Kenji Iwamoto on contemporary Japanese film, is an attempt to provide some information about thematic and stylistic-rhetoric characteristics of this immense area, on the occasion of Contemporary Japanese Film Cycle shown in the spring of 2004 in Zagreb and Split. The program consisted of five films dealing with contemporary topics from the 1990s by praised directors Takeshi Kitano, Juno Ichikawa, Shinji Somai, Yuji Nakae and Nobuhiko Obayashi, and Iwamoto held a lecture on portrayal of culture and society in contemporary Japanese film at the Academy of Dramatic Art. Mari Iwamoto’s experimental films Elis in Tears and Angel’s Red Navel were screened as a part of attendant program. Considering the fact that the Japanese cinematography produced 290 films last year, and almost 4,000 films during past fifteen years, the author wonders how many films one should watch in order to be able to talk about contemporary Japanese film? Also, is it possible to talk about it without relying on research, assuming and mutual supplementing of a few western scholars? Finally, do we even talk about Japanese film if we can compare it, to a varying extent, only to American or European film?
Since entering industrial phase and founding Nikkatsu producing company in 1912, after sufficient number of films produced in studios, which included genre system and star system closely connected with stylistic orientation of a particular company and its directors, Japanese cinematography can really be compared with Hollywood. Studio policy aimed at perfecting a certain genre and developing personal style. Japanese films have, to a large extent and regardless of various influences, relied on peculiarity of its own culture, history and society, so preceding patterns can be recognized in present-day compounds. Basic distinction between historic drama, jidai-geki and contemporary drama, gendai-geki was established in the first Japanese films made at the end of the 19th century. Historical drama was the most frequent until the beginning of the 1920s, when the other, thematically rich genre of contemporary film developed and it has been ruling Japanese cinematography since the 1960s. The beginning of the ’60s represent a breaking point for Japanese film because the film industry, immediately after production peak of 545 films, lost almost half of its audience, mostly due to the increasing influence of television. The big studios’ crisis, the same as in Hollywood, led to corrective genres in the main stream cinematography, and at the same time, a new generation of film directors pounced on the society, on stylistic-rhetoric preoccupations of their predecessors and on the idea of the film as separate product that is not directly connected to factual reality. A number of films about innovative and responsible young people (seishun eiga), with active heroes who do not consent to the common feeling of victimization, reflect, on the whole, dissolving of identity, ’depersonalization’, in the society that is also fragmented and divided.
Their politically thought-out films represent an answer to real social and political circumstances. High-level political consciousness, identification of art with life and politics, belief in film as the means of change, and, shortly after, complete loss of illusions (Oshima names a sense of collective castration) are some of the characteristics of that period called the last golden era of Japanese film.
Wide range of contemporary Japanese film comprises stylistically and thematically different feature films; increasingly popular documentaries owing to Yamagata International Festival that started in 1989; and animated films that are the most successful export product of main stream, with amazing 250 hours a year. The name ’new wave of the ’90s’ most often refers to a smaller number of independent filmmakers, some of whom were born immediately after the Second World War, but are mostly ’children of the sixties’. One of the distinctive features is their diverse manner of development; they made films as students; they acted and directed ’pink’ films (pinku eiga), documentaries, music videos and commercials; they assisted on independent and experimental films. Some of them teach feature and documentary films at Tokyo Film School, and at Japanese and international festivals in the mid-nineties their films drew attention to Japanese cinematography once more.
Among prize-winning directors are Jun Ichikawa, Kohei Oguri, Makoto Shinozaki, Hirokazu Koreeda, Shinji Aoyama, Shunji Iwai, Nobuhiro Suwa and many others. Masayukio Sua’s satire Let’s dance was extremely popular, and many admired action films directed by Takashi Miike, Sabu, Shinya Tsukamoto and Isao Yukisada, or psycho-horrors by Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Still, most ’festival’ films are closer to smothered aesthetic consciousness; aloof, objective outside voice and look, and silent, almost mute characters with sudden emotional or violent outbursts. They perceive problems in communication, alienation, moral disease and feelings under the auspices of the topic of family, which the most constant Japanese genre of family drama (homu dorama) identified with the topic of loss from the very beginning.

Tanja Vrvilo

The Aesthetics of Japanese Film
Representation of Culture and Society in Japanese Film

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