Jared Colley's Reviews > A New History of Japanese Cinema

A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish
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May 15, 07

bookshelves: filmstudies, history
Recommended for: those interested in Japanese Film

Isolde Standish has written what I think to be the most informative and convincing historical survey (in english) on the rich tradition of film production in Japan. Donald Richie, in the same year (2005), also published (yet again) another book on the history of Japanese cinema (actually the hardback was pub. in 2002). Although Richie's book was just a new, updated edition of already published material I picked it up along with this book and read them together. There was a world of difference between the two, and I must say that I favored (by a long shot) the method and approach of Standish over that of Richie. Besides, it is nice to hear another voice in the discourse other than that of "the most authoritative critic of Japanese cinema." No one remains authority forever and, if you ask me, Richie's time is up.

As funny as it sounds, what makes this book more interesting is that it is much more historical. The book pays careful, constant attention to the socio-political contexts that undoubtedly inform and affect the cultural production of the times - and it does this in both national and global terms. Standish investigates how 'national cinema' functions -in the context of economic and societal transition- to shape and affect the perpetual constructions of national consciousness and identity. Suprisingly, she concentrates less on the effects of after-the-fact, direct censorship and more on the preliminary economic rationalization and verticle organization of studios and production companies as that which produces the most social impact. She poses questions about the rise and fall and ultimate ineffectiveness of 'leftist tendencies' films. She offers interesting analysis on the relation between the increase in speed and movement of bodies in 'chanbara' action films and the contemporaneous development of industrialization. Perhaps what is most fascinating in her study is her focus on the re-negotiations of gender politics as seen in popular narrative films in the context of the historical transitions from early to late 20th century society.

The peak of this book is definitely her coverage and analysis of cinema during the years of militarism and those of the occupation period. However, like any comprehensive survey of Japan's cinematic hisory that I have read, the book becomes more brief and hurried as one approaches the more contemporary era. Yet, at least she does mention and even explore (but only briefly) some of the more recent achievements. Unfortunately, I give this book 4 instead of 5 stars for this minor flaw. I'm saving my 5th star for that book that is bold enough to cover more recent ground at considerable length.

Also, one other great thing about this book (unlike some) is that every film that Standish 'reads' or analyzes at great depth is accessible to the public. I am pretty sure about this - but I could be wrong - I know that just about every film that receives attention can be accessed in some way. Blockbuster may not be a helpful resource here but amazon, libraries, and 'good' rental stores can provide that which is needed.
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