Donald Richie-A Lateral View-A Definition of the Japanese Film

Donald Richie-A Lateral View-A Definition of the Japanese Film

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–8. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 6
Background image of page 7

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 8
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: A Definition of the Japanese Film I AM SOMETIMES asked to describe Japanese cinema briefly, to define its essence in a few words. This is impossible. It takes more than a sentence or a paragraph to describe the Japanese film; as I have discovered, it takes entire books. Still, certain general observations may be made: for example, if American cinema is basically about-action, and European cinema is basical— ly about character, then Japanese cinema is basically about atmo- sphere. By this I do not mean that all Japanese films share one particular tone, or elicit the same emotional response. I mean that they often display that heightened sense of reality, which we may call atmosphere. Before going on to explain how Japanese directors create at- mosphere, however, there are certain distinctions to be made between Japanese and Western culture; these distinctions are important because they contribute to vastly different attitudes- toward cinema and cinematic technique. Japanese philosophic tradi— tion sees the individual as an integral part of his world; each man is an extension of the uni— verse. Nature is complementary to the individual, and one should live in harmony with it. Things as they are, are the way things should be. Unhap- Western philosophic tradi— tion views the individual as unique, each man being the center of his personal universe. Nature is an enemy to be conquered, to be used violent- ly if necessary. Things as they are, are to be denied; one must always create A DEFINITION OF THE JAPANESE FILM py events are simply accepted because they exist. Japanese art observes mono no awaré, the transience of all earthly things, a concept popularized by Bud- dhism and of great importance in any discussion of Japanese aesthetics; it implies not only an acceptance of evanescence but also a mild celebration of that very quality. The Japanese recognizes his dual nature; he is an individual but he is also a social unit in society. If he must choose be— ‘tween his loyalty to himself and his society, he often sacri— fices the former. The Japanese is limited by his attitude. He finds the aver- age, the normal, even the me- diocre reassuring. The Japanese finds in na- ture, in his social duties, 3 \sense of belonging to some— thing larger than himself, which paradoxically affirms him as an individual. In the cinema this creates a 171 a better world where things are as they should be. The Western individual likes to think of himself as a unique personality, not as part of a larger unit. If he must sacrifice his social persona he gladly does so, since such an action affirms his individuality. The Westerner strives to ex- ceed limitations. He dislikes the average, the mediocre. The Westerner, with only his idea of himself to sustain him, soon falls into cynicism, into disillusion, into various forms of heroics. In the cinema this creates a 172 A LATERAL VIEW feeling for actuality, since the japanese accept, although per— haps unwillingly the way things naturally are—thus the sense of realism in thejapanese film. The films are contemplative and fairly slow. They are ram— bling stories, built like thejap— anese house or garden. The japanese realize that the only reality is surface reality. They have no sense of hidden reality, no sense of conscience. They are a people without pri- vate guilt, though they do have social shame. This results in films which do not usually‘ contain any strong personal statements, but which do examine the world in precise detail. feeling for action, because things as they are cannot be accepted. Films are more con- cerned with plot than with at- mosphere or realistic detail. The films are filled with ac- tion and move very quickly, They are tightly plotted, utili- tarian, like the American home or skyscraper. The West refuses to believe that surface reality is the 'only » reality. Forlthis reason West- ern religions suggest after-life and stress private conscience. Westerners have little sense of social shame but a great sense of private guilt. This results in films which are strong personal statements but stress little of the world’s realistic detail. These distinctions are directly related to the matter of cine- matic atmosphere. The Japanese director creates atmosphere pri- marily by limiting his locale; although certain movies produced A DEFINITION or THE jAPANESE FILM 173 in the West explore a restricted space, there are many more such films in Japan. Naruse’s Sounds from the Mountain (Yama no Oto) takes place entirely within one house, with occasional shots of the street outside; Gosho’s An Inn in Osaka (Osaka no Yado) likewise shows a small inn and its environs, while Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) examines two houses. Kurosawa’s Red Beard (Akahige), Imai’s Night-Drum (Yoru no Tsuzumi), and Ko— bayashi’s Ham-Kiri (Seppuku) all show neighborhoods dominat- ed by single buildings: a hospital, a samurai’s house, a lord’s mansion./S\hindo’s The Island (Hadaka no Shima) takes place on an island, while Oshima’s Death by Hanging (Koshukei) is con- fined to a death cell and its imaginary extensions. Whether the chosen space is exterior or interior, however, it is always treated as an integral, tightly controlled unit. The use of restricted space is more than a technical character— istic, however. It reflects thejapanese inclination toward indirect expression. In Toyoda’s A Tale from East ofthe Sumida River (Bokutokidan) the action all takes place in Fujiko Yamamoto’s house, except for a few shots of the streets outside and a neigh- boring house. Toyoda chooses to narrate a simpleistory with virtually no plot: his attention is entirely directed to character development, and, practicing oblique expression, he uses the house as an extension of its mistress. During the course of this two-hour film we come to know the house intimately, upstairs and down; as its presence becomes familiar its owner becomes familiar by association. The increment of realistic detail within a well—defined space establishes an atmosphere, which in turn cre- ates a character; Fujiko Yamamoto becomes credible indirectly, by means of a totally believable realistic atmosphere. 2 174 A LATERAL VIEW japanese cinema is based on the concept that less means more. The less a director shows, the more carefully he must choose what he does show. Though Kurosawa is not considered by the japanese to be particularly representative of Japanese culture, compare his The Lower Depths (Donzoleo) with that of jean Renoir (Les Basfonds). Kurosawa’s film is made of so much less -a house, the people living in it, the yard outside, the sky above. Renoir is most interested in character, in closeups of Louis jouvet, ofjean Gabin. Kurosawa uses few closeups in his ‘ film. Rather we see his characters in groups oftwo or three, and always framed by the house, which is in every scene. Renoir takes us outside, Kurosawa keeps us inside. In all, Kurosawa shows us less, but his film implies more and demands more. The spectator, presented with less than he perhaps expected, must bring more of himself to the film, must allow himself to think and feel the moreQI-Ie is like a lens: the less light there is, the more he must open himself. When Antonioni discovered this in L’Avuentum and presented long scenes with “nothing” in ' them, it was hailed in the West as a major aesthetic discovery; and so it was, in the West. But the japanese film and japanese audiences had long understood the principle of understatement. Igor Stravinsky once said that until he knew how long a piece of music should be, and until he knew its instrumentation, he could not begin to write. Without these restrictions he could not compose. Japanese cinema affirms Stravinsky’s theory: its es- sence is restriction. Yasujiro Ozu has said that he writes his scripts with certain actors in mind: if he did not he could not write, any more than a painter could paint if he did not know what colors he was to use. A DEFINITION OF THE JAPANESE FILM - 175 _ There are various ways for the director to restrict, and conse- quently amplify, his film. He may limit his locale, his theme, or his method of description. Kenji Mizoguchi’s method of creat— ing atmosphere depends entirely on two limitations: he puts the action far fromthe camera and continues the scene for a long time. These two restrictions are seen, for example, in the lawn scene from Ugetsu. Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori are in the far distance playing on the grass by the shores of Lake Biwa. Nothing happens, yet the scene continues for some time. The result is that we slowly absorb the beauty of the scene and, consequently, apprehend what the surroundings mean to the two in the far distance. We feel the atmosphere much as they themselves feel it. By giving us almost nothing to look at, Mizoguchi has led us to see. Although the film no longer exists, Eizo Tanaka’s 1917 ver— ' sion of Tolstoy’s The Living CorpSe (Ikem Shikabane) was an example of the use of atmosphere as limitation. In this film, nature becomes a generalized substitute for specific emotion. When the director used the closeup, he did not use it, as Western directors almost invariably do, to illustrate an emotional climax: he used it directly before that climax. At the emotional zenith— the heroine receives some bad news—he pulled back and showed her alone in a field, leaning against a tree. In other words, just where the West would have called for a closeup to show emo- tion, thejapanese director made the barren field, the lonely tree, the cloudy sky comment upon the emotional state of the hero— ine. This is thejapanese way ofseeing, of showing things. Forty years later, in The Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo), Kurosawa again deliberately pulled back his camera at the emotional height 176 A LATERAL VIEW of the story. When Toshiro Mifune finally realizes the worst, when Isuzu Yamada feels it most strongly, the camera retreats. We see their emotion from a proper distance, framed by clouded skies and an encroaching castle. The later films of Yasujiro Ozu offer particularly good exam- ples of the japanese genius for meaningful restriction. The cam- era is stationary, and there is virtually no punctuation save that of the straight cut. In Ozu’s pictures it becomes impossible not to bring oneself into his milieu; the spectator is totally involved -in a carefully controlled vision of house and family. Such in- volvement is virtually unavoidable in his films, not only because Ozu creates a totally credible atmosphere, but also because he understands the basic nature of film. The cinema’s greatest strength is that it is able to record perfectly the surface of life, and nothing more. Since this is so, we should expect no more than a reflection of surface reality: the first films were newsreels and every film remains, in essence, a newsreel. Those great closeups of emotionally contorted faces in Western cinema and in some japanese films as well do not usually make us feel grief, pain, or happiness; what those images really convey are skin pores, mascara, and nostril hair. Since cinematic art, however, is symbolic, wé'accept this cosmeticized monster face as a representation of human emo- tion; we accept it even though we are not necessarily convinced by it. But when Ozu shows us Setsuko Hara at the end of Late Autumn (Akibiyori) sitting alone in the middle distance, hands folded, eyes downcast, we move nearer and nearer to a genuine feeling of sadness. One of the reasons is that Ozu does not demand our emotions and, paradoxically, we more freely give A DEFINITION OF THE jAPANESE FILM 177 them. But the most important reason is that by showing in the way he does, by respecting the surface appearance of life, he succeeds in suggesting the depths beneath the surface. He allows us to apprehend the emotional quality of life which its surface—— that portion captured by the camera—can only suggest. The less he shows, the more we feel. In doing this he respects not only us and himself, he respects the very nature of cinema. The japanese director could not respect the nature of cinema unless he also respected the nature of life itself. His aim, like that of all film directors, is complete credibility, but the japanese director is better equipped than most to achieve this end. We have already seen that he uses the atmosphere of a place to ensure our belief in it, that he purposely restricts what he shows and how he shows it to ensure our participation. Now we shall see the respect that the japanese has for life, and consequently for cinema. ' Several years ago I watched some workmen building a new wall where I lived in Azabu. Nearby was a tree with low—hang- ing branches. The workmen continued to build the wall and it rose closer and closer to the lowest branch. They stopped, talked, then continued building. They built a hole inthe wall to accommodate the branch. They did not‘cut off the branch as the Westerner would, as the japanese probably would. today; they enriched their wall with it. Again the filmic example must be Ozu. The typical Ozu scene begins rather briskly and the story is forwarded a shot or two. Then, after this is finished, at the very point where the Western director would Cut the film, one character turns to another and remarks about the weather, pauses to wonder about something, 178 A LATERAL VIEW or simply sits and looks. The camera regards this, recording it; sound stops, movement ceases. It is a moment of silence, of repose before the next scene. These tiny empty moments are the pores in an Ozu picture, through which the movie breathes. They define the film by their emptiness. They are examples of mu, a Zen aesthetic term implying, among other things, noth- ingness; they are also examples of care and respect. Compare this to the somewhat ruthless manner of the average Western director. He would have ended the scene after the plot had been forwarded, as though plot and not people was what he was really interested in. And in so doing he would have missed the most meaningful portion of the scene. One of the strengths of traditional Japanese cinema lies in its refusal to depend on plot. To define plot one might turn to the late E. M. Forster’s'celebrated definition: the king died and then the queen died is a story; the queen died because the king died is a plot. The story reflects simple reality; the plot comments upon that reality, ascribing motives and relating actions. Plot cannot, however, be the business of cinema, which must always concern itself with recording surface reality. The aim of cinematic art is to take life as it is and to pattern it in some way which does not do violence to its nature. Plot is a pattern which does violence; it demands action and events, as opposed to the increment of precise surface detail, thus changing the nature of film as record— er of visible reality. The japanese have restored some of the realistic basis of cine— ma by emphasizing story rather than plot. This emphasis reflects japanese literature, in which many classical situations are based on girl-ninja, or obligation versus inclination. The resolution of A DEFINITION OF THE jAPANESE FILM 179 this simple opposition takes the place of a complex plot. Fur— thermore, japanese literary history favors epic narrative: The Tale oflse and The} Tale ofGenjt' are long chronicles in which events follow one another in episodic sequence. In this tradition, the first importantjapanese film, Souls on the Road (Rojo no Reikon), a‘1921 picture by Minoru Murata and Kaoru Osanai, consisted of just two interwoven stories. In their editing, Murata and Osanai were not interested in contrasting thoughts and ideas, but in creating parallels of feeling and atmosphere. Their two stories were not dissimilar to begin with, and the directors em— phasized similarity rather than difference. Griffith’s Way Down East, a heavily plotted melodrama with a strong theatrical sense of form, made at approximately the same time, exemplifies the distinction betweenjapanese and Western attitudes toward film. The difference in narrative structure is also reflected in the differ- ence between formalized Western endings and japanese endings. Unlike Way Down East, Souls on the Road simply stops; it has no formal conclusion. Although )apanese cinema has probably as many unhappy formal endings as the cinema of the West has happy ones, it also has a large number of informal, or open- ended, conclusions. These endings actually conclude nothing and are the proper choice in films which reflect the rhythms of existence: life itself never ends in any particularly meaningful manner. Happy or unhappy endings belong only to plotth films, which tie up life in a neat package; the happy ending is the bow on the top. Story, on the other hand, needs no such conclu— sion; it merely stops after a certain number of episodes. Like Souls on the Road, the best films of Ozu, Naruse, Shimazu, Toyoda, and Gosho have no endings. There is a pause in the 180 A LATERAL VIEW story, a pause in the lives of the characters, and instead of the next episode we see the announcement, “The End.” Film takes time to make its full impression and, until recently, thejapanese were almost alone in recognizing this. The length of Japanese films still causes complaint in the hurried West; even Pudovkin once said that there was “too much unnecessary foot- age” in japanese films. But time is always used for a purpose— to make one feel. One remembers what Mizoguchi said: put the action at a distance from the camera and make the scene last a long time. There are other ways of making long sequences, however, and herejapanese editing differs from Western editing: it intensifies atmosphere. One excellent example of such editing is a sequence from 'Ozu’s 1949 picture Late Spring (Banshun) which best typifies the subtlety and restraint of Japanese cinema. Ozu wanted to show the daughter (Setsuko Hara) becoming aware of the interest her father (Chishu Ryu) supposedly has in marrying an acquaintance (Kuniko Miyake). As some very deli- cate feelings are involved, Ozu did not wish to use dialogue—— rightly, he wanted to show rather than state. He chose to set the scene at a Noh drama performance and the only sound during this sequence is the sound of the Noh itself. The sequence runs this way: Middle-shot of Hara and Ryu at the theater watching The Noh play itself Long-shot of the audience including Ham and Ryu Closeup of Ryu’s pleased face Middle-shot of the actors in the Noh, the main actor, etc. Middle-shot of the second-actor and the chorus A DEFINITION OF THE jAPANESE FILM 181 Middle—shot of Ham and Ryu The Noh play Middle-shot of the actors Long-shot of the Noh play Ryu: he bows to someone Hara: she looks, then nods Miyake: she bows in return Ham and Ryu: she turns to look at her father Miyake watching the play Hara, her eyes downcast Middle—shot of Hara and Ryu Closeup of Hara, again looking at Ryu Closeup of Ryu, pleased with the play Closeup of I-Iara, sad Closeup of Miyake watching the play Closeup of I-Iara, sadder Long—shot of the audienceincluding Hara and Ryu Long-shot of the play Closeup of Hara, sad, bowing her head . . A tree in the wind, the music of the Noh continuing This is one of the most beautifully edited sequences in alljapa— nese cinema. It runs approximately three minutes and 18 com- pletely economical. Ozu used twenty—six separate cuts to achieve the effect he wanted, and there is not one wasted moment; each scene follows the next with perfect Visual logic. In the West, the sequence would probably be done in about five shots, one for each character and one or two for the play itself. The central point, that Setsuko l-lara doesn’tliwant her father to marry, i 182 A LATERALVVIEW would be made rapidly, and we wbuld be rushed to the next sequence. By the end of the film we w0uld probably forget the entire incident, or remember it only as a plot complication. The sequence in Late Spring, however, is unforgettable. The reason is, of course, Ozu's technique. He added cut after cut as a painter would apply brush strokes. each one Contributing to the final impression. Ozu edited not to contrast scenes but to compare them, to create an incremental structure in which the scenes sustain one another. In so doing he created a feeling of actuality, be forwarded his story, and he took the amount of time neces- sary for us both to be convinCed of what was happening, and to apprehend emotionally the impact of the event on the heroine. Finally, but perhaps most important, by creating that final image of the tree in the wind over the Noh music he conceived a rare conjunction of a physical with a spiritual state. I have discussed Only a fraction ofjapanese cinema. There is far more to be said, and many exceptions to be made to my remarks. For every Ozu there are dozens ofjapanese directors who neither know nor care about the nature of cinema. An Inn in Osaka is opposed to hundreds ofjapanese movies which respect reality no more than does the average California or Cinecitta production. Furthermore, there are other more objectionable qualities of the japanese film which I have not mentioned: the typical reliance 0n the overly explanatory, for example; the pres— ence of the benshi or the Iecturerlcommentator of the silent period, which still influences cinema; the shameless exploitation of sentimentality for its own sake which ruins many pictures, including some of Gosho, Toyoda, Kurosawa. A DEFINITION OF THE JAPANESE FILM 183 Moreover, the virtues I have been describing have now van— ished from thejapanese film as they are vanishing fromjapanese life. Where there is no more slramia {the lower—middle class) there can be no more manila-geld (films about the lower-middle class). In an affluent society, there is no more maria no aware. In a land where little is forbidden, there can be none of the energy or power of restriction. Less still means more, but thejapanese no longer believe it. There are doubtless strong economic reasons for all of this, but the economic explanation, whatever its strength, is never sufficient. Over thirty—five years ago junichiro Tanizaki saw what was happening. He wrote ofit in his line essay, lit-cf Raiser: (translat- ed as In Praise quliadows). japan has chosen to be false to its own history, its own nature, and consequently, its reality has changed. To a certain extent, that is to be expected in any modern industrial nation. Butjapan's attitude toward reality has truly altered. In a land where nature is no longer respected, where today is seen in terms of tomorrow, the regard for truth which creates art can no longer exist. Everything I have indicat— ed about the Western film may now be applied, with equal accuracy, to contemporary japanese film. The first country to understand the true nature of cinema, japan has now seemingly lost that ability. Remember the final shot of Late Spring. It is the sea. We have only seen the sea once, as a background, during the entire film. In the final scene we watch Chishu Ryu come home after his daughter’s wedding. He is alone now. He picks up a pear and begins to peel it. We see his face. He is a man alone, and he is 184 A LATERAL VIEW accepting his situation. Then comes the final cut to the rolling sea. Ozu has shown us a particular man and then he shows us the sea, the symbol of permanent change. Far from’being surprised, we are reassured because Ozu has shown us the truth of human life. He has created a film which shows us the world as it is. He accepts it, and ultimately, through his intervention, so do we. —1970 ...
View Full Document

Page1 / 8

Donald Richie-A Lateral View-A Definition of the Japanese Film

This preview shows document pages 1 - 8. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online