Sep 14 2009

Japanese Cinema: A Beginner’s Guide

So you fancy yourself a film buff now. You’ve watched enough movies, a mix of film-studies classics and pop, cult favorites, to carry on an hour-long discussion. The conventions of Western story telling have become predictable and you yearn for cinematography that will wow you.

World cinema is looking more and more attractive, but you don’t know where to start. Then, while watching that episode of Cowboy Bebop from the first season you got at DVD Planet, it hits you: What about Japanese cinema?

That’s a great idea! Why not explore the Eastern side of film. Maybe something that’s not anime? Ok, one step at a time. So where to start?

First off, I must give you fair warning: most non-anime movies from Japan will come off as soul crushingly boring. They are long, drawn out and makes a Godard flick look like a Roland Emmerich heap. Most of the critically acclaimed films worth watching are well over two-and-a-half hours.

To make this transition as easy and painless as possible, start off with the quintessential samurai movie, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Released in 1956, Kurosawa’s timeless tale shows the struggle of poor villagers who try to hire samurai to defend their village from bandits.

The Seven Samurai’s story structure may seem familiar because its story structure and plot points were used in The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s 11, The Dirty Dozen and A Bug’s Life. Coupled with its rich story, Seven Samurai features unprecedented camera work for 1956 (keep in mind that Kurosawa waited until actual rain for the final raid scene) and the excitement in the fight scenes top anything Michael Bay can do (formula for Bay movie: explosion + bullets / titties = awesome).

Seven Samurai represents one of two types of Japanese films ever made. All films that are set pre-1868, when Japan was opened up to the West, are called jidaigeki and anything after 1868 is called gendaigeki. Kabuki Theater, which highly emphasizes slow pacing, imagery and sentimentality between characters, is a heavily influence jidaigeki films.

Many of Kurosawa’s films are influenced by American Westerns, which make them more identifiable with American audiences. After Seven Samurai, try watching one of Kurosawa’s earlier films, Rashomon, which depicts four accounts of a rape and murder leaving the audience to decide who done it. Rashomon is credited as being the film to introduce Japanese cinema to the rest of the world.

So now you’ve got your feet wet, eased your way in with Kurosawa. Now it’s time to take the plunge into the deep end with the great, daunting Yasujiro Ozu. Known as the most Japanese of the old legends, along side Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu’s films emphasize the clashes between Japanese and Western culture.

Brace yourself now as you prepare to watch Ozu’s acclaimed Tokyo Story, the story of an elderly husband and wife that visit their children in Tokyo only to find that they are no longer respected by their children. So get four shots of 5Hour Energy and an adderall, and focus on the dialogue, the little camera movements and the attention to little human insights.

Now you’ve taken the plunge and I know what you’ll say: “Tokyo Story was a great movie, a great story and I never want to watch it again.”

All right, you’ve had enough. Time to swim to calmer waters. Ease back into your comfort zone with any anime movie from Hayao Miyazaki.

What is truly unfortunate is the negative stigma anime has with American audiences; that anime is for children and perverts. Miyazaki successfully blends striking, eye-catching animation, a highly imaginative story and subtle adult themes to create a movie that can be enjoyed by children but is far more suited for adult audiences.

Much like a Pixar flick, almost all of Miyazaki’s movies are highly rated and critically acclaimed. lists his lowest ranking movie, Howl’s Moving Castle, as 86% fresh. The man’s worst work is still better than most directors best films. Just get a list of his movies, close your eyes and pick one; you will not be disappointed.

So that about wraps it up for your Japanese cinema adventure. Now you can see that watching Japanese cinema can be a lot like dating a Japanese girl: new, exotic, adventurous, but after a while you realize she talks too damn much and have no idea what she’s saying.

10 Responses to “Japanese Cinema: A Beginner’s Guide”

  • anton Says:

    I mentioned this on James’ FB wall post, but I would’ve expected a “beginner’s guide” to cover more than just Kurosawa and Miyazaki. While I will agree that a lot of the non-Anime titles can be slow, but I contend that most foreign movies are slow when it’s not produced with Americans in mind.

    There are some glaring omissions here – like Takashi Miike’s work – Ichi the Killer, Audition (which is my personal fave), and Visitor Q. Q was pretty much unwatchable from a narrative standpoint, but I just had to figure out what else this guy was gonna do with the film. Also, the J-Horror genre needs to be in there. There’s a reason Hollywood poached the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) Seems like it would warrant mentioning, now? And how could you forget Battle Royale?! Even QT named this as one of the best films he’s seen since Reservoir Dogs came out. I figured it would AT LEAST get an honorable mention.

    And if you’re going to mention Miyazaki, at least throw out another Anime title – like Akira, which is just as iconic.

    I get the last paragraph is an attempt at humor, but I would just be wary of how it will come across to some of your readers. If the lack of content in this article makes the author sound under-informed on the topic, ending it with this comment certainly makes the author sound ignorant.

  • albert Says:

    that last paragraph was an example of latent racism.

  • jamesgoux Says:

    While when skimming this article for publishing, I missed the last paragraph, I’m sure Dylan meant it in good humor, and allow him to respond to it in his own words. To those who are offended by it, I do understand and apologize.

    As for the missing films/directors, I’d say the article is intended to be an introduction to Japanese cinema and that these two directors are a good and important place to start. Certainly this would not provide a comprehensive study, but it would get you started, which is the object. I myself haven’t seen any of the films you mentioned, but I’ve heard good things about them and would like to get to them eventually.

    I don’t think Dylan and I make any claim to be experts in the field of Japanese cinema. You have to keep in mind that when it comes down to it, it is an editorial piece. Therefore his film selections are his own, particularly since he is not intentionally dismissing any of the films you mention.

    I personally appreciate the criticism, as we’ve had little to no real discussion on the website. Still, I stand by the article and its author.

  • anton Says:

    Yeah, as a beginner’s guide, I could see starting off with those directors. For me personally, I wanted more of a survey course-type article that just skims some of the prominent films and genres to come out of Japan. The author suggests that the reader would already have a solid footing with cinema – “a mix of film-studies classics and pop, cult favorites, to carry on an hour-long discussion.” I do think that Kurosawa is pretty standard film-studies fare and would have already known and seen one or two of the films. This is really why I thought it would offer more than just a rehash of a film history course. Again, this is just me.

    I do have issues with some of the generalizations the author makes. He says “most non-anime movies from Japan will come off as soul crushingly boring.” I find it hard to buy this argument if he only talks about three directors. And when you say that you and the author are not “experts” in this type of cinema, (and how many of us are, really?) using the phrases “most non-anime films” and “soul crushingly boring” are a bit bold, don’t you think?

    And without trying to beat the whole race thing to death, I thought it was irresponsible to make that comparison. Not only does the author make the cliche joke about “exotic” Japanese women, he also compares it to its cinema, which I’m sure you know, is highly revered among cinephiles, which this site claims to have. The author’s final statement claims Japanese cinema, like their women offer nothing.

    Race issue aside, is that really the last impression the author want to leave the readers with?

    If the author truly feels this way, that’s fine and ultimately his prerogative…but boy let me tell you…he’s missing out. On the cinema AND the women!

  • dylankent Says:

    Wow. It looks like I’ve made somebody’s day. Normally, I would never respond to a reader’s comment, but I feel this issue needs to be addressed, particularly the claims that I am “ignorant” and a “racist.”

    I always appreciate criticism, provided that it’s criticism. Anton, I’m talking to directly to you. I’m sorry I didn’t list the films or directors you would have listed. Instead of cowering behind the computer screen, why not be constructive and write your own article? You sound like you know a thing or two about Japanese cinema. I’m pretty sure James would be happy to have it on the site and I would be happy to read it.

    Adding a list of films for other readers to watch is a good thing. I would encourage the people that read out articles to add what they think are movies people should watch. After all, that’s what we’re trying to do on this website.

    As for the directors I chose to write about, I chose those two because the both exemplify the two main styles of Japanese cinema as mentioned in the article. The reason I didn’t write a 30-page dissertation on the history of every Japanese film ever made is because I was intending write an article for those who have never seen a Japanese film, as stated in the article. I wanted to give them a quick jumping-off point for them to pursue the topic further. I do mention that the critically acclaimed films are worth watching. And about the Japanese horror genre, I didn’t mention it because that’s a whole other article.

    As for the racism claim, I apologize.

    So I hope that clears things up for other people. If at least one person came away from this article with a nugget of knowledge, then my work is done.

  • anton Says:

    Hey, man. It’s fine that you didn’t pick the films or directors that I would have. Am I not allowed to express my own thoughts about what I would have expected? And why do I have to write an article? I’m not sure what writing my own article and being constructive have to do with each other. Dude, that’s what the comment field is for.

    If you don’t think my criticism is valid, that’s fine but I should be entitled to them. Also, it IS valid criticism – which you clearly don’t take very well. I’m sorry you’re butt-hurt, buddy. You’re a writer – get over it.

    For the record, I don’t think you’re racist, man. Take it easy. But put yourself in the position of a reader for a moment, specifically a random one that happened to stumble on your site? Are readers supposed to know your tone and automatically assume you are making a joke? Honestly, I knew you were making a joke, but that doesn’t mean I should let it slide or “take it with a grain of salt” as you say. I was just suggesting that you might want to think twice about who would read this. (hopefully Olivia Munn!)

  • Friend Says:

    Ok guys, I think it’s important to remember that the bulk of the readers on this blog are people who have connections to its writers. As a friend of the site, I’d like to caution everybody against getting too personal/taking this article and its resulting criticism too seriously. It’s the internet, people. While discussion and dissenting opinions are integral to the blog, I urge everybody to take a step back if they feel like they’re getting too pissed off.

    I love you guys and I’d hate for this site to become a tense, hair-triggered war zone. And again, lots of us have connections to each other in the real world, so please be mindful of that. If anybody believes that something posted on this site is dangerous to its integrity, perhaps it might be best to first alert Benn or James (as the primary site managers) in a private e-mail about your concerns in order to avoid undue escalation.

  • jamesgoux Says:

    I’ll just add one more thing, since this might be many people’s first introduction to our site. While I stand by this article and what it is trying to do, please make sure you check out the rest of the site for yourself before making any snap judgments based on the incendiary nature of this discourse.

  • bennhadland Says:

    It’s an article, not an essay. It could have featured a few more directors, yes, but the point of articles is to be brief and to the point. Since it is a “beginners guide”, it would make sense to start small, and only discuss the basics.
    The topic of J-Horror is better suited as its own article.

    As far as the last paragraph is concerned: it’s a joke. As fans of roasts, Don Rickles and, we typically don’t take statements like the last paragraph, written in the this context very seriously. Insensitive? Possibly Definitely. Racist. Not at all.

    Dylan, James, and myself do sincerely apologize for personally offending you, Anton and Albert. This site is known for it’s language and mature discussion subject matter (for the sake of humor or otherwise), and I suggest looking for a more family-friendly review site in the near future that better caters to sensibilities.

  • anton Says:

    Thanks for your responses, guys. We certainly disagree on the content this article contained, and that’s fine.

    You’re probably right in that most of the readers here are somehow connected in the real world to the writers and site administrators. This is still a public site and the opinions expressed here are viewable for all – close friends and random readers.

    My biggest issue is the last paragraph. Again, since most of the readers here are friends of the site, I could see how a simple joke like the one made can be simply overlooked. I guarantee that the folks who I linked this article to were new to the site and would not immediately understand the tone and context of it.

    And look, I like racist jokes as much as the next guy, but this particular one struck a chord with me. It takes a lot to offend me and normally, I wouldn’t give it a second look. But the comment perpetuates a stereotype I don’t agree with and I was compelled to voice my opinion on behalf of those who may also have been offended but did not want to post a comment. The suggestion that no one thought it was “that big a deal” is what bothers me most.

    Thank you Benn for the disclaimer about the language and mature subject matter. Except making racial stereotypes – “for the sake of humor or otherwise” – isn’t what I would consider mature. Also, I’m disappointed you think the comment was not racist at all. I’m sure the writers and site administrators would want this site to be viewed by more than just friends and friends of friends. Except the insensitivity shown by the comment and future comments might end up keeping it that way. The it’s-just-a-joke-don’t-take-it-too-seriously defense will only fly so far.

    And just because some people weren’t offended by the comment doesn’t mean it isn’t offensive.

    So that’s my $.02…I think I got my money’s worth! Haha

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