Tony McKibbin reviews the Directory of World Cinema: Japan

Read Tony McKibbin's review of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan, which recently appeared in the Edinburgh Review.


'Cinema is a bit like football: half a dozen or so great nations with a long
history of success and numerous other countries with often brief but
distinctive movements or moments. In film, the US, France, Italy, Russia,
Japan, Germany and India are probably the most significant, and so to write
a book on the national cinema of one of these countries is to enter a crowded
field. Is this why A Directory of World Cinema: Japan is such an odd book: that
it is an attempt in form, if not always in content, to be fresh and surprising?
Editor John Berra announces in the acknowledgments that ‘this volume
was never intended to be a conventional film guide’. Rather than the A-Z run
through of titles, or a year-by-year account of the highlights, Berra’s Directory
offers instead a series of chapters mainly grouped around genres. There is
also, though, a section on three key directors (Takeshi Kitano; Satoshi Kon
and Akira Kurosawa), a nod to the film of the year (Achilles and the Tortoise)
and a chapter on ‘The Art Theatre Guild’. An ‘independent association
dedicated to exploring the artistic possibilities of cinema’, it was founded in
1961 and was originally a distribution arm for international art-house films.
But it then became hugely important as a production unit, allowing directors
like Oshima, Shinoda and Terayama to do their most challenging and often
interesting work.

The genre sections are the most useful, with chapters on the Japanese
gangster film (Yakuza), the samurai (Chambara) film, as well as period
(Jidaigeki) and contemporary (Gendaigeki) film, Pink movies looking
at Japanese erotica, and the J-horror wave that includes Ring, Dark Water
and Audition. There is much erudition here, and plenty markers for the
uninitiated keen to make sense of Japanese cinema. Though Berra says his
brief was unconventional, the writing is fine but not always as distinctive as
the unconventional brief would indicate. There is often fact and opinion rather
than analysis, so we get plenty of comments like ‘confused and uninspired’, ‘a
profoundly moving experience’, ‘as entertaining as it is touching’, ‘beautifully
filmed’, and so on. There are also, however, many formal observations and
little details of character from the writers that make the book worthwhile, no
matter its limitations, none more so than Bob Davis’s astute comments on
Oshima’s Boy, with its useful analysis of colour in the film.'

Tony McKibbin - Edinburgh Review

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