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Cinema in Japan

Daisuke Miyao movie street in Tokyo
Image: A street in Asakusa Park, Tokyo, lined with movie theatres, around 1930.

In one of our original overview articles, Daisuke Miyao traces the development of cinema in Japan in the early 20th century, highlighting how Japanese film-making grew out of kabuki theater traditions.

Image from Throne of Blood
Image: Throne of Blood, (aka Kumonosu Jo), Toshiro Mifune, 1957 (Photo courtesy Everett Collection/Mary Evans)

The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s saw the flourishing of talents of the great directors Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Akira Kurosawa. In the opening chapter of Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited, Catherine Russell considers the industrial, cultural and aesthetic features of classical Japanese cinema, its relationship to Hollywood and to Japanese national identity. In a similar vein, Robert N. Watson’s study of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s epic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the BFI Film Classics series, considers how the film highlights “analogies between British and Japanese medieval history, and between Shakespeare as an epitome of high western civilisation and Noh drama as an epitome of high Japanese civilisation.”

Image from Akira
Image: Akira (Photo courtesy BANDAI VISUAL/AKIRA COMMITTEE CO LTD/Ronald Grant Archive/Mary Evans)

Hit by the rise of television and home video, theatrical cinema in Japan declined in the second half of the 20th century. But the late 1990s onwards has seen a resurgence of a lively national cinema with directors such as Kitano Takeshi and Hirokazu Kore-eda releasing films that are both critically and commercially successful, and the popularity of genres such as the yakuza (gangster) film, horror, and anime. In this chapter from Contemporary Asian Cinema, Darrell William Davis provides an overview of the Japanese cinematic landscape, and Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell’s BFI Film Classic considers one of the most memorable examples of anime: 1998’s post-apocalyptic cyberpunk feature Akira.

In Memoriam

Peter Wollen 1938-2019

Front cover of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen

Peter Wollen’s writing was hugely influential for the development of film studies. While working at the British Film Institute, Wollen wrote the seminal film theory text, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, introducing ideas from semiotics and post-structuralism to the analysis of film. First published in 1969, Signs and Meaning was published in a new edition in 2013, with a foreword by D.N. Rodowick in which Rodowick considers the importance of the book in its various editions in changing the way we understand film as an art form.

In this chapter, Wollen considers the auteur theory developed by critics at the Cahiers du cinéma in relation to the films of directors including Howard Hawks and John Ford.

Wollen was to return to the auteur theory in his masterly analysis of Gene Kelly’s role as co-director, choreographer and performer of the eponymous dance sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, the subject of Wollen’s contribution to the BFI Film Classics series.

Thomas Elsaesser 1943-2019

Front cover of European Cinema and Contemporary Philosophy

The film philosopher and historian Thomas Elsaesser played a key part in the development of the academic study of film. Elsaesser was based for much of his career in the UK, at the University of East Anglia, and latterly at the University of Amsterdam. Like Wollen, Elsaesser engaged with both classical Hollywood and European cinema, and with questions of film authorship. In his study of the 1925 science fiction classic Metropolis, Elsaesser situates the film as an example of ‘UFA style’ – its technical complexity and attention to detail not attributable solely to the vision of director Fritz Lang, but the result of a collaboration “between set designers, cameramen, art directors and countless other, highly skilled specialists” employed by the film studio, UFA.

In his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, Elsaesser explores what he terms the ‘dandyism’ of Hitchcock’s unique persona, a quality that also informed his filmmaking style. Elsaesser suggests that Hitchcock’s life and art alike represent “a determined protest, the triumph of artifice over accident, a kind of daily victory over chance, in the name of a spirituality dedicating itself to making life imitate art.”

In a contemporary globalised cinema landscape, is the concept of the director-as-author still valid? In this chapter from his Limina Award-winning book European Cinema and Contintental Philosophy, Elsaesser outlines some of the defining features and industrial forces shaping 21st century authorship.

Homepage banner image: Akira (Photo by BANDAI VISUAL/AKIRA COMMITTEE CO LTD/Ronald Grant Archive/Mary Evans)

Homepage Wollen image: Peter Wollen (second left) at the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow in 1984 with, left to right: Peter Sainsbury, then Head of BFI Production; Naum Kleiman, curator of the Eisenstein Museum; the film-maker Sally Potter, and interpreter Bella Epstein. Photo © Ian Christie

Homepage Elsaesser image: BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 09: Jury Thomas Elsaesser attends a Flash Forward Jury Press Conference at the Grand Hotel during the 15th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) on October 9, 2010 in Busan, South Korea. The biggest film festival in Asia showcases 306 films from 67 countries and runs from October 7-15. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

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