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BOUND TO PLEASE / Three waves of change that transformed Japanese movies

The Japan News

By Etsuo Kono / Japan News Staff WriterThe End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies

By Alexander Zahlten

Duke University Press, 305 pp

Legendary film director Akira Kurosawa refused to shake hands with media mogul Haruki Kadokawa at the Tokyo premiere of “Kagemusha” in 1980.

“For Kurosawa, the larger part of established film criticism, and the old-school film industry, Kadokawa had begun the process of spectacularly demolishing the high art of cinema,” Alexander Zahlten writes.

Zahlten is an associate professor at Harvard University, where he teaches Japanese media culture and Japanese film. From 2002-2010 he co-organized the world’s largest Japanese film festival, the Nippon Connection Film Festival, in Frankfurt. He watches about 400 films a year, even now.

His provocative book, “The End of Japanese Cinema,” is based on his deep historical analysis of the field from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Zahlten describes the 1950s as a golden age when Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and other directors shot their masterpieces. However, after the 1960s, the studio-centered film industry went into twilight while television was ascendant.

According to the book, this situation produced three big changes. First there were sexually themed “pink films,” especially from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. Next came Kadokawa Film, a company that epitomized mass-market “media-mix” strategies from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Finally there was V-cinema, based on home video technology from the early 1990s to late in the first decade of the 2000s.

Zahlten says of these succesive waves, “As both mirrors and motors, as symptoms and interventions, these genres catalyzed profound and complex changes that influence any and every kind of media engagement in Japan today.”

The name of Kadokawa Film reminds me of a movie starring idol Hiroko Yakushimaru, “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun,” which garnered explosive popularity among people of all ages. When it came out in 1981, Kadokawa was advancing a new kind of Hollywood-style filmmaking in Japan, with huge production and advertising budgets. Film critics of the day were disapproving of Kadokawa’s approach.

But Zahlten writes: “Kadokawa’s concept of a unified audience harkened back to the 1950s, but in his vision it cohered through the media mix.” He judges that “Kadokawa Film helped forge a new relationship between various media.” Moreover, many vigorous directors and screenwriters emerged in the three new types of films, such as “Sailor Suit” director Shinji Somai.

Zahlten handed me this book when I met him at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in October last year. I asked if he continued to be interested in Japanese cinema, even after its “end.” He assured me that the greatness of Japanese film would continue as long as people continued to shoot films.

I can’t wait to see what great films the future will hold.

Where to Read

In a revival house, waiting for the lights to go down and the late show to start.

Maruzen price:¥4,984 plus tax (as of April 27, 2018)

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