Lecture Note: Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the world – Prof. Akira Lippit of USC, Feb 9, 2010

Lippit Akira

Prof. Akira Lippit of University of Southern California

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club

“Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the World”

Presenter: Dr. Akira Mizuta Lippit, Professor and Chair of Critical Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California

February 9, 2010 at Terasaki Laboratory Building

Japan Study Club Lecture Note is complied by Cultural News

Dr. Lippit has a very extensive background in cinema and gave a most interesting talk on Japanese film.  He received a B.A. in English and Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, 1986; M.A. in English, University of California, 1987; PhD in Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins University, 1993; served as Asst. Prof., Department of Cinema, San Francisco State University, 1995; Prof. and Chair, Department of Film and Media Studies, University of California at Irvine, 2005; Prof., Department of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Cultures; Prof., Division of Critical Studies, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, 2005 to present.

He is also very active in producing informative cinema productions and announced a program that he organized through the USC School of Cinematic Arts which will be held at USC on February 19-21, 2010.

Dr. Lippit started his lecture by giving a general history and legacy of Japanese cinema within and outside of Japan.  In the late 19th century, much of film production took place in Eastern US and Europe as the core of film making.  While in America, where film production took place primarily on the East Coast, in the 1910s and 1920s, Japan was quite robust in film making.  This wave continued even during WWII as it was used as an instrument of the Imperial government.  Films played a large part as political and economical influences in Korea, Taiwan and much of Europe, especially in Italy and France. The Japanese film industry therefore survived this period.  Film making remained active until the 1960s when there was a global decline in cinema in general, mainly due to the arrival of the television.

Dr. Lippit then ran through the major eras of Japanese film history.

The first period was called the Classical Period that ran from 1930 to the early 1950s.  Akira Kurosawa helped establish the domestic market.  In 1950 he won the Vienna Film Festival Award.  This recognition surprised many Japanese and with it Japanese films now became visible.

Kurosawa was a master at creating strong stereotypes of his characters.  Toshio Mifune in the film Roshomon in 1950 showed the typical samurai as a grunting, hairy, large, carnal physical male.

Kurosawa was also an artist in the use of Western and European music in his Japanese films.  He was well aware of how the blend of the music of the cultures could create a most beautiful and powerful effect on the film as a whole.  He knew the choice of music could change how any scene is received.

Chishu Ryu in Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu in 1953, depicted a stereotypic elderly and most gentle man.  Even in his youth, this actor played the elderly and kind-hearted gentleman.  Other films depicted the good and loyal housewife.

After the 1950s, there was a new shift called the “New Wave.”  This was spearheaded by young post-war generation film makers such as Nagisa Oshima.  This group was more aggressive and political; yet at the same time, more aesthetic.  Their films searched for a way to leave the audience with a feeling of finding a deeper meaning to life.  In the process, their films were more edgy, political, violent, racial and sexual in content.  Questions arose as to social order and how one should be living one’s life.  The past film era was more elegant, lyrical and poetic.  This new contemporary group of film makers came out as figures that even protested war and the government in general.

The next period was the 1970s and 1980s.  There were still some good films being made, but there was most certainly a lull in film production.  Good films were few and far between.  Funding was a major problem.  With the young people going more for TV, commercials and music clips, film ticket sales were  poor.  In the 1980s, more interest was paid to the literature arena with many new and young novelists coming out with popular fictional books.

Then the 1990s period came and with it a sudden eruption of young film makers.  The arts, documentaries and social issues were no longer treated in the traditional Japanese way.  In the past a young 25-year-old apprentice would study under a master and would not actual produce his own film until he was in his 50s.  This also gave him only a small period in which to produce films.  These new film makers of this period were not so patient; they could not and would not wait for the old ways of becoming a film maker as their predecessors had.  They found their own niche in “Japanese horror” films and videos.  Nonetheless, this young group of film makers was not a coherent group.  Each operated and produced his own film in his own unique way.

There were three film makers who were in their mid-40s at this time that arrived on the cinema scene.  They had a certain restlessness within them.  They were seeking out man’s relationship to the world around them.

Film making was much in the hands of the French and Indians, but the Japanese were generally not taught by any other special group.  Japanese cinema therefore differed much from other countries.  The US perception of Japan was now in much contrast to other Asian countries like Korea.  Despite these differences, Japan succeeded in being an active part of the American film culture.

Even Hollywood began to adopt some of these strong Japanese themes.  For example, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwojima in 2006, was such a film.  This was the first time a director of Japanese-speaking film did not even speak the Japanese language.  This was also unique as it was a Japanese film that was filmed from an American perspective.

There is a scene taking place in the island Iwojima of the Japanese Territory in the Pacific Ocean during the war where an American prisoner is taken in by the Japanese.  This American prisoner is captured and dying.  A piece of paper is found on him and the one of the Japanese soldiers asks if it contains any plans of the enemy.  An on the spot translations miraculously emerges and it soon becomes apparent that this piece of paper is merely a letter addressed to Sam, the dying soldier from his mother.  Its simple and caring contents soon makes the Japanese soldiers realize the common human bond that connects all people, regardless of race, culture or station in life.  There is a common thread of humanism in all of us, regardless of any specific cultural differences.

This was a film directed by an American and set in California.  It showed how this letter generated sympathy for the enemy that transcended all political and cultural differences.  This film humanized the perception of the enemy.    This was a film where the Japanese and the US came together to co-produce a largely historical event of WWII.  This 2006 film hit the audience at even a deeper level as they were all aware of the current Iraq War that was raging at the time.

Clint Eastwood had said that he had wanted Kurosawa to film this movie, but unfortunately Kurosawa had already passed away and so he took it upon himself to produce the movie himself.  The last 15 years especially showed a reshaping of the images of Japan from the inside-out.

Another film depicting full stereotypic characters was Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation with Bill Murray.  Murray played an American who goes to Japan to do a commercial for Suntory Whiskey.  Such strong cultural overtones were displayed to the extent that there was no way the character that Murray played could even begin to comprehend what the Japanese woman translator was trying to convey to him.  The English translator for Murray just skipped over the actual words of the commercial director and so the director’s words were truly “lost in translation.”

On a lighter note, Shall We Dance, directed by Masayuki Suo, was a film produced in Japan that was a high-grossing film both in Japan and abroad.  In the film, the main character is a Japanese businessman who becomes infatuated with a dancing instructor and takes up social dancing.  This very act is very farfetched for the stereotypic businessman.  In the US, there was a remake of this film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.

Another very popular remake was The Ring.  This film came originally from the Japanese horror film called Ringu, directed by Hideo Tanaka.

A very dramatic movie was produced in 1995 called Love Letter, directed by Shunji Iwai.  The story is about a woman who could not let go of her love for her ex-boyfriend who had died in a climbing accident.  Her current boyfriend at this point takes her to the hill where the ex-boyfriend had fallen and died.  It was only through this exercise that she was finally able to let go by repeatedly shouting, “Ogenki desu ka.  Watashi wa genki desu.”  This was originally directed for teenage girls, but its popularity far extended this age bracket and was also very popular in Korea and Taiwan and became somewhat of an Asian phenomena.

Okuribito (The Departures), directed by Yojiro Takita, was awarded “Best Foreign Language Film” in 2009 Academy.  In this film, a man answers a want ad that he thinks is for a travel agent, but later finds out it is a job that requires the preparation of the corpse of the recently deceased.  It was most comical in that this mix-up arose from an intentional Japanese play on words on the part of the boss of the company in the hope of finding someone for the job.

Wondufuru Raifu, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, borrowed the name from the James Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.  In the re-name of Afterlife to American audiences, it is a movie of people who had recently died.  It is a very personal and dramatic film, but unfortunately was not a lucrative one.  Many Japanese film makers did not make money with such films.  Turning out a profit was very hard with the more popular onslaught of TV rentals and sales.  Action and horror films were generally the only avenue to making money; but not dramatic films.

Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall, was another interesting Japanese-themed film. This film was criticized by some critics as the main character, a geisha, was played by a Chinese actress.  The director claimed he could not find a Japanese actress whose English was sufficient for the part.  Yet Dr. Lippit made a most interesting analogy.  He stated that in a sense a geisha is geisha because she was taught to be a geisha.  In other words, she was not inherently a geisha, but was “created” to be a geisha.  Therefore, Dr. Lippit went on to say that a non-Japanese actress could be taught and “created” to play a Japanese geisha.

The audience truly enjoyed and learned a lot about Japanese film history through Dr. Lippit’s lecture and film clips.

Naomi Otani contributed to this text. Copyright by Cultural News.