Original score: Toru Takemitsu Running time: 60 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
In the past few months my girlfriend Polly and I rented the entire 1995 BBC TV documentary series "Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood". We sat in rapt silence (only broken by the occasional "wow" or "that's amazing") as we watched the history of cinema in Europe from the invention of the cinématographe by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 to the proliferation of "talkies" during the early 1930's. For most of the series my girlfriend sat with a pen and pad writing down titles of films that we've continued to search out during the past weeks. "Wouldn't it be great if they had a series like this on Japanese cinema?" I remarked at one point, and I followed up with Marty Gross, a friend who works with the Criterion Collection resourcing Japanese films. I found out that he had helped get "Cinema Europe" released in Japan with Kenneth Branagh's excellent narration replaced by an equally excellent one by famed film critic Nagaharu Yodogawa. "Isn't there a similar series somewhere about Japanese film?" I asked Marty. "Not really. Japanese studios are notorious for not cooperating with each other, so it's very difficult to bring all that footage together like they did for 'Cinema Europe'," was his answer. In order for my girlfriend and I to continue our cinematic journey through Europe and onto Japan I had to turn to Nagisa Oshima's much shorter but still excellent one-hour 1995 TV documentary "100 Years of Japanese Cinema".
I had first seen Oshima's personal overview of the history of Japanese film a couple years ago during the Nagisa Oshima retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario here in Toronto. "You'll like this," I told Polly as I popped the DVD in to play, "It starts way back during the silent era, plus it has English narration." It turns out that the copy that a friend had lent me was the version narrated by Oshima himself. Okay, it might require a bit more attention for the subtitles, but in the end a bonus. We settled in, this time without Polly's pen and pad but my thumb on the pause button of the DVD remote so I could chime in with the occasional "I have that one," and "I wish they'd release this film." We were immediately struck by an important difference between Oshima's film and "Cinema Europe". So many of the early silent films that Oshima begins his history of Japanese film with, a history that Oshima quickly points out began just a year after the invention of the cinématographe, are simply represented by stills. This wasn't an aesthetic choice by Oshima. The sad reality behind these brief flashes of the very beginnings of motion pictures in Japan goes beyond the fragility of celluloid. The Great Kanto Earthquake, the Allied bombing of WW2, the American Occupation and strict film censorship under General Douglas MacArthur all meant that the percentage of films that survive from those first days of motion pictures in Japan is far less than in Europe or the United States. 1899's "Momijigari (Maple Viewing)", Shozo Makino's 1909 film "Battle at Honnoji Temple", amongst many others only exist in fragments, or in some cases only in a handful of stills. Thankfully Oshima tells us of the miraculous rediscovery of the lost print of Daisuke Ito's 1927 film "Chuji's Travel diary" (below), a print that To himself didn't know existed.
Quickly, and thankfully, the stills gave way to clips and some full scenes and I found myself really enjoying watching "100 Years of Japanese Cinema" again, mostly because many of the films that Oshima was covering were new to my girlfriend. Polly laughed during the scene from Yasujiro Ozu's silent comedy "I Was Born, but..." where the young boys debate whose father is more important, she asked me if the anti-heroine of Kenji Mizoguchi's 1936 drama "Osaka Elegy", played by Isuzu Yamada, was a prostitute or just a bad girl, and she gasped in wonder at the subtle moment when a paper lantern floats down along the gutter in Sadao Yamanaka's "Humanity and Paper Balloons". Right after "Humanity and Paper Balloons" we took a couple minute beer/ tea run to the kitchen. "I'm really liking this," Polly said, "but I'm finding it pretty wordy and the subtitles are going by really quickly. Most of what I'm not able to read seems pretty pretentious though." It's understandable, I thought. "They call Nagisa Oshima the Godard of Japan," I explained. Thankfully she came back with me to watch the rest of the film because French New wave intellectual Jean-Luc Godard is a filmmaker that my girlfriend detests. Later on, as Oshima switches his narration, referring to himself in first person as he enters Japanese cinema history Polly grabbed the remote and hit pause. "A 'premature conclusion on the post-war democracy'?" she yelled in response to the clip from Oshima's 1971 film "The Ceremony", "How the hell am I supposed to know what that means?" She had a good point, even though Oshima was quoting film critic Eizo Hori. Oshima, always the didactic filmmaker, doesn't break form and lays the self-serving intellectual clap-trap on pretty thickly at points through his documentary.
"100 Years of Japanese Cinema" isn't all self-aggrandizment though. Oshima does one thing that should be done much more often - he puts Japanese motion picture history in the larger Japanese historical context, and we're not just talking about viewing things through the rote "pre-WW2/ post-WW2 and then everyone got a TV and stopped going to the movies" series of events covered by so many Japanese film scholars. The February 26 incident, the attempted coup d'etat by Imperial Japanese Forces in 1936, the repealing of the ban on draft deferral of students in 1943, the ANPO Treaty of 1960, and the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party that same year, all of these events are brought into the equation as Oshima takes us through his history. He also brings up such fascinating footnotes as how the kaiju genre had its roots in the propoganda films of the 1940's and how Keiko Sonoi, the lead actress in the wildly popular 1943 film "Muhomatsu no issho" was amongst the estimated 80,000 people who died instantly when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He also makes the bold, and some would say the correct assertion, that the time of great flux in Japanese cinema history during the late 60's and early 70's when the studio system collapsed, directors released films through the newly formed Art Theater Guild while other directors cut their teeth making pink films formed the Third Golden Age of Japanese Film. It's a point worth considering.
By the end of "100 Years of Japanese Cinema" we began scouring my DVD shelf to plan what movies we should watch next, so even though my girlfriend wasn't totally sold on Oshima's cold intellectual dissection of the first century of motion pictures in Japan (and even though this wasn't a true film review) we were both left with a renewed interest in the history of film. I suppose that's what matters the most.