Donald Richie’s account of Japanese cinema engrossing but flawed

japanese-films-s.jpgDubbed “the dean of Japan’s arts critics” by Time magazine, Donald Richie is renowned for his authoritative writings on Japanese cinema. In 2001, Richie published “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, a concise history, with a selective guide to DVDs and Videos”. The revised and updated 2005 edition I just finished features a still of Kitano “Beat” Takeshi as Zatoichi on the front cover. Japanese cinema experienced a resurgence worldwide with the success of J-horror pictures in the mid-1990s, and with the gradual re-release of classic Japanese films on DVD, I began my building a library of samurai and cult classics. I bought Richie’s book to learn more about the Japanese cinematic tradition, and while the book was definitely informative, it wasn’t what I really expected it to be.

Subtitled “a concise history”, the book provides a solid socio-political background on which to understand the development of Japanese cinema. Richie explains in the introduction that he will look at Japanese films via a presentational / representational axis. By the “presentational” ethos, Richie believes content is presented via stylizations with no assumption that raw reality is displayed. He feels that Japanese cinema is more closely associated with being presentational. In contrast, the “representational” ethos is associated with the West and assumes reality is being shown, i.e. it is a more realistic approach to cinema. Richie bases his argument on the differences in perception of the origins of cinema in the East and the West. The Japanese, he claims, saw film as an expansion, a new form of theatre, and thus were more open to formalistic presentations on film from the very start. The West, however, treated cinema as moving pictures – that is an upgrade, if you will, on photography – and thus a more elaborate and enhanced method of capturing reality. Via this approach, Richie analyses the ebbs and flows of Japanese cinema from its advent to the present.

What’s good about Richie’s book is that it is very informative and well written. It offers plenty of anecdotes on directors, and insightful commentary on how the studio system affected the choice of content and style of direction of films. The chapter on post-WWII cinema elucidates how the American agenda affected censorship during the occupation years. In these early chapters, Richie delivers in-depth analyses of the careers and films of key directors including Ozu, Naruse, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi.

My complaints? The front cover of the book shows a still from the recent Zatoichi remake. Readers will tend to buy the book for a concise history of what they imagine to be key Japanese popular cinema. But Richie has chosen to omit discussion of genre pictures in general; the book barely mentions the pioneering and influential yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku (though Seijun Suzuki is luckier and gets a few pages). The book also totally disregards chambara films – explained in the glossary as low-class samurai pictures – and cinema circa 1960s up till the present only gets a cursory mention in the final chapter. Richie has opted to concentrate on “high-brow” cinema and the book is a bad choice for readers who want to learn more about the popular Japanese cinema made cool by Quentin Tarantino.

I found the selective film guide available on DVDs and the glossary of terms included at the back of the book very useful. In short, despite its shortcomings, I would still recommend this book to any serious fan of Japanese cinema.

Midnight Eye’s review of the book.


One thought on “Donald Richie’s account of Japanese cinema engrossing but flawed

  1. I love your book review, it’s concise and yet so informative. Many people like myself don’t have the patience to read the entire or even a third of the book!

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