Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Early Japanese Cinema

You can tell it’s a busy week for me when I start recycling old school papers! Here is another excerpt from my grad school paper on Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. This is an oh-so-brief overview of the various influences that shaped early Japanese cinema:

The Japanese public’s first exposure to the film medium came in an 1896 exhibition of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope—the first movie camera. This occurred some two years after the camera’s first appearance in Europe. Approximately one year later, the short films of France’s Lumiere Brothers were shown to mass audiences. Inspired with the possibilities that the medium presented, Japanese began making their own films in earnest. In the beginning, the filmmakers turned not to Western imagery, but to their own within the traditional theater. The very first movies, in fact, were filmed theater performances.

Subsequent film genres and methods of characterization evolved from two traditional drama types—Kabuki and Shimpa. Kabuki is a historical drama, its main characters consisting of samurai. These idealized warriors are characterized as strong, wise, and determined. Imbued with Confucian morals, samurais’ loyalty to feudalistic lords is above that of family, placing no value on romantic love whatsoever. Shimpa, on the other hand, is a contemporary drama, coming into existence around 1890 as a potential replacement for Kabuki, “whose feudalistic forms were no longer capable of reflecting the mores of a modernizing Japan.” (Tadao Sato) The majority of these plays are love tragedies.

Many foreign films were imported as well, exerting considerable stylistic influence on the Japanese. Set designs were copied from German Expressionist films of the 1920s. Psychological insight was injected into characterizations in response to French film of the 1930s. The Japanese leftist “tendency films” made circa 1930 mimicked the montage style of Soviet Sergei Eisenstein’s films, resulting in a fad for an extreme style of editing. The pre-World War II American films had the most profound influence. The youthful movie-going audience, who detested what they considered their oppressive, authoritarian society, liked the “liberal spirit” of the American films. As Japanese film critic and historian Tadao Sato notes, “What they envied most were the heroes and heroines, who were ordinary people, the love stories, and the American freedom of spirit.” Up until the late 1940s, it was common practice to model Japanese films after American hits.


Source:

Sato, Tadao. CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA. trans. by Gregory Barrett. New
York: Kodansha International Ltd., 1982.

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