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