Kyoto Film Festival

Aaron Gerow gerow
Thu Sep 30 22:38:52 EDT 1999

Not much time today, so have to make this short.  Thus forgive me if this 
is not as well-developed as it should be.

Mainly I want to talk about the symposium.  I was really interested in it 
mainly because I am particularly concerned with "urban" ("urbane"?) and 
"modern" popular culture in the prewar, and I thought the symposium 
provided a good start to approaching the topic, but only a start.  I hope 
we can continue the project on this list and on other occasions.

First, there is the central issue of defining "meiro" jidaigeki.  The 
fact the term was used at the time does mean it is not just some category 
invented for the symposium, but there clearly has to be some 
investigation of precisely how the terms was used.  If it was originally 
used for Chiezo films, was it not used for other films?  Was the term 
being used in discussion to designate other popular cultural objects?  
Gunning used the term "cheerful", but that is clearly too broad a term.  
How do we distinguish it from "entertainment" or "goraku" or even other 
common terms like "yukai"?  This is especially important given the 
presence of other, non-tragic jidaigeki at Shinko Kinema, Daito, Zensho, 
Kyokuto which were all out action entertainment.  Can we call these 
"meiro"?  We have to be careful of a tendency just to append the term 
"meiro" as a way of justifying (though asserting a socio-cultural 
"trend") particular directors or films we like.  That itself can impose 
evaluative distinctions we may not want at this stage.

Second, with this comes the issue of class.  Saiki-san made the very 
important point that Daito and Kyokuto films had a different audience: 
younger and less-educated.  He used the term "children" but I am always 
suspicious of any discussion in Japanese film history which asserts that 
a certain kind of film had an audience of children.  In most cases, the 
assertion is a product of class and gender prejudice (I am not saying 
this of Saiki, but of the people he quoted).  In the teens, for instance, 
most intellectual reformers said only women and children watched the 
Japanese fare of the time (especially Onoe Matsunosuke's films), but 
Tokyo audience research like Gonda Yasunosuke's (in 1917) clearly shows 
that only in outlying theaters in the countryside on Sundays would more 
than half the theater audience be children. My suspicion is that 
contemporary descriptions of the audience were less statements of fact, 
than elitist arguments that only people "like children" watched such 
films.  That, of course, then justified the reformers' felt necessity to 
educate these "children" and control their cinema and spectatorship.

But back to the meiro jidaigeki, I think we do need to investigate 
whether these "entertaining" films had a different class status from the 
films of Daito and Kyokuto.  That should help us with the definition.  My 
suspicion is that the films shown, influenced by Lubitsch and others, 
were more the product of a middle-class, somewhat educated urban culture; 
while the work of Daito, influenced more by 1930s American serials, is 
more lower- or working-class.  This class distinction was, I think, what 
Kato-sensei was getting at when making the distinction between white and 
black cinema in the USA.  This should not only qualify the term "mass 
entertainment" (taishu goraku) that was bandied about at the symposium, 
but also temper the tendency of Eisenschitz and others to speak of a 
unified Japanese prewar film culture.

Third, there's still the problem of ideology.  While clearly Yamane 
wanted to talk about great movies, the foreign quests immediately brought 
up the issue of politics and resistance.  This speaks much about the 
differences in critical discourse on film between Japan and the 
US/Europe.  Clearly, foreign scholars are brought up in the post 1968 
tradition of searching for ideology and resistance within cinematic 
works, a quest that is mostly undeveloped in Japanese criticism (except 
the rare and under publicized academic work). This left some panel 
members like Yamane and Saiki at a loss: Yamane (mis)interpreted this 
issue as the question of propaganda, and proceeded to seek out answers to 
show that these films weren't propaganda.  Gunning, probably noticing the 
misdirection, reiterated the crucial distinction between ideology and 
propaganda, but that was completely lost on Yamane.  While the search for 
resistance proved a bit too typical, I still found much of the discussion 
an unfortunate reflection of the fact that much post-Hasumi writing on 
cinema in Japan utterly ignores the issue of ideology.  In this respect, 
I was hoping for more discussions by Kato-sensei and Tsutsui-sensei, 
connecting the films to contemporary ideological issues, but I guess 
there was not enough time.

(As an aside, I do want to say that, no matter how much I respect 
Yamane-san as a critic (I share a lot of his tastes) and a moderator (his 
work at YIDFF symposia has been great), I think he was not up to 
moderating such an academic discussion.  Maybe Kato-sensei would have 
been better?)

Again, way too garbled and short and discussion, but maybe others who 
were there may want to comment.

Aaron Gerow

P.S. I would also like to thank Kato-Sensei, Fujii-san and Itakura-san, 
and all the other festival staff for providing the occasion and for 
helping us while we were there.

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