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Reviews, Essays, and Interviews on Japanese Cinema, 2000–2019 (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Mark Schilling. 2019.
Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000
New York and Tokyo: Awai Books
ISBN 9781937220099

Mark Schilling’s Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000 collects essays, reviews, and interviews previously published in the Japan Times, Midnight Eye, Variety, Newsweek, and The Asian Wall Street Journal, as well as the catalogue of the Udine Far East Film Festival, which Schilling advises. The volume is a continuation of Schilling’s work in his previous collection, Contemporary Japanese Film (Weatherhill, 1999), marketed towards students, teachers, and the non-professional cinema enthusiast. While Schilling’s 1999 collection introduced writing on Japanese cinema to mainstream audiences who may have struggled to access reviews elsewhere, we might question the utility of this follow-up volume in an era where much of the book’s content is freely available in the online archives of the publications listed above. The impact of this volume today will therefore depend on how it is used by scholars, teachers, and students. I believe that this collection will prove a useful resource for research and teaching if we approach the volume as an historic document and as personal testimony, as much as a factual guide.

The relative ease of access to writing on Japanese cinema afforded by the Internet has also sped up scholarship and research publication since Schilling’s earlier volume, meaning that it is easier to access published work on recent cinema today than in 1999. There is a significant and growing body of scholarly writing on Japanese cinema since 2000.[i] The triple disaster in Fukushima prefecture in March 2011 and its impact on filmmaking practices and exhibition has, if anything, sped up the process of research and publishing on contemporary Japanese cinema. Against this background of scholarly activity, Schilling’s 2019 collection will not make quite the impact of his earlier 1999 volume, at least for research purposes.

Yet the volume has much to recommend it. Firstly, and quite significantly, the book is an enjoyable reading experience. Schilling is an engaging writer, often very funny, and the accessible style will be attractive to non-specialist and student readers, as well as useful for teaching purposes. The volume is arranged in three parts, beginning with a series of short essays, a section of interviews with directors, film industry personnel, and stars, and a longer segment of Schilling’s Japan Times film reviews organised chronologically. The closing pages show ‘Best Ten’ and ‘Best Five’ lists from 2000–2018. The hundreds of films discussed and reviewed include lesser-known and rarer movies, some still unavailable outside Japan, which will be of value to student readers and researchers.

It is unfortunate that typographical errors in the introduction and early sections sometimes risk misinterpretation of the useful industry information contained therein, for example, missing $ marks and their designations (millions, thousands, etc.) make budgets and box office takings a matter of guess work in places. However, with updates on alternative distribution formats and emerging screening platforms, as well as information about co-production arrangements between Japan and China, the new introduction makes a significant contribution to the volume.

More than 60 interviews with directors and stars contain priceless anecdotes that paint a colourful picture of the industry, though it may be difficult to prove some of the claims, allegations, and downright boasts therein. Schilling is a talented interviewer, drawing out highly original responses from interviewees. Some are hilarious, for example, director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s anecdotes about learning the differences between American and British English during a bathroom visit in the United States (p.153). Others are more poignant, such as director Umetsugu Inoue’s recollection of the tough times that star Misora Hibari suffered due to family problems and bullying in the mass media (p.81). The stories such Golden Age directors recount of their early years in the studio system are invaluable for their information about the informal networks of influence in the industry during its peak period of production and audience attendance (pp.77–8). Some of the Japanese cinema’s most famous directors were interviewed towards the end of their lives, and Schilling often asks them to reflect on the changes the industry has undergone during their working years. Shindo Kaneto’s observations about aging and loss, and the affordances of cinema to express such complicated feelings, are particularly emotional (pp.46–7).

The majority of the interviews give the impression of reading along with a lively conversation, often based on years of acquaintance or friendship built over multiple professional encounters. When interviews don’t go so well however, Schilling is a self-reflective interviewer, considering factors such as the environment of the interview and his performance of his own role to contextualise the reluctance of directors such as Masaaki Yuasa to engage in the extended responses more common to older industry professionals (p.219).

While the interview section is perhaps the most valuable part of the book, the preceding short essays also offer some reflections on the role of a film critic which may be useful for students and non-specialist readers interested in developing their own film criticism practices. An essay on screen violence gives an account of the overlapping concerns of film reviewing as a job, and the life and experiences of the film reviewer (p.27). In an interview in the Japan Times, Schilling cited critic Manny Faber to the effect that, “The critic doesn’t watch the film, the man watched the film” (Alyssa I. Smith, Want to know Japanese cinema? Get to know Mark Schilling”, The Japan Times, 18 January 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/01/18/books/want-know-japanese-cinema-get-know-mark-schilling, accessed 1 October 2020). The experiences and mood of the critic colour their review of the film, and critics may be drawn to films that reflect or confirm something in their own experience. I would suggest that the book is best used with this observation kept in mind. In places, judgements can seem overly subjective – for example, the later films of Takashi Miike are dismissed as “less interesting” (p.14) without justification or analysis. However, Schilling is transparent about the fact that he writes as an individual engaging with the films he reviews as a person with particular preferences and experiences, and as long as the reader does not forget this, the book will prove informative as well as entertaining.

[i] These works are generally organized by
1) theme: Rachel DiNitto, Ecology: Toxic interdependencies: 3/11 cinema, in Hideaki Fujiki and Alastair Phillips (eds) The Japanese Cinema Book, London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 379–94;
Aaron Gerow, Fantasies of war and nation in recent Japanese cinema, The Asia–Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 4(2), 2006, https://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/1707/article.html, accessed 1 October 2020;
Mika Ko, Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness, Abingdon and London: Routledge, 2013;
Erica Ka Yan Poon, Love and death in recent Japanese cinema, Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema 4(2), 2012: 135–68.
By 2) style: Kosuke Kinoshita, Narrative: Multi-viewpoint narrative: From Rashomon (1950) to Confessions (2010), in Fujiki and Phillips (eds) The Japanese Cinema Book, 81–93;
Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Capturing “authenticity”: Digital aesthetics in the post-studio Japanese cinema, Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18(1), 2009: 71–93.
By 3) genre: Mai Kato, Exploring the Japanese heritage film, Cinema Studies 1, 2019: 21-49;
Jay McRoy (ed.), Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008;
Wing-Fai Leung, Importing genre, exporting cult: The Japanese zom-com, Asian Cinema 22(1), 2011: 110–21.
By 4) director: Linda C. Ehrlich, The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema, Singapore: Springer, 2019;
Chika Kinoshita, The mummy complex: Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Loft and J-horror, in Jin hee Choi and Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano (eds) Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009, 85–99;
Rie Karatsu, Questions for a women's cinema: Fact, fiction and memory in the films of Naomi Kawase, Visual anthropology 22(2-3), 2009: 167–81;
Gavin Walker, The filmic time of coloniality: On Shinkai Makoto's The Place Promised in Our Early DaysMechademia 4(1), 2009: 3–18;
Jerry White. The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.
By 5) period or era: Adam Bingham, Contemporary Japanese Cinema Since Hana-bi, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015;
Andrew Dorman, Paradoxical Japaneseness: Cultural Representation in 21st Century Japanese Cinema, Singapore: Springer, 2016;
Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012.

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