Early Japanese filmmaking


Elsewhere in the world, the cinema was also coming to maturity, especially in Japan, where director Yasujiro Ozu was creating films in his own idiosyncratic style, at the beginning of a long career that would stretch from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, covering not only the transition from silent films to sound, but from black-and-white to color. Sound came late to Japan, in large part because of the benshi, narrators who performed during screenings of silent films, commenting on the film’s narrative as well as advancing the

plots. The benshi correctly sensed that the sound film would spell an end to their profession, and they sometimes resorted to violence to press their case, with the result that the first Japanese sound film, Heinosuke Gosho’s Madamu to nyobo (The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine) was not released until 1931. Even after this, silent films continued to be produced in large quantity in Japan, not ceasing production completely until 1936. Thus, Ozu’s finest silent films include his masterful I Was Born, But … (Otona no miru ehon— Umarete wa mita keredo), a charming coming-of-age comedy, which was completed in 1932, when most of the world was already firmly in the sound era.

Often called the most Japanese of directors, Ozu went on to create films notable for their restrained editorial pace and meditational camera work, which consisted almost exclusively of shots taken by a stationary camera from a low angle, usually about three feet from the ground, mimicking the eye-level of the characters in his films, who habitually sat on cushions or tatami mats rather than chairs, in accordance with Japanese social custom. Then, too, Ozu’s visual style was almost entirely devoid of such devices as fade-outs or fade-ins, usually used to suggest the passage of time, or any sort of camera movement within the shot. Thus, his camera observes the world with a gaze of serene detachment, and yet this quiet, careful approach to mise-en-scène makes his films deeply compelling.

During the silent era, Japan’s film production was remarkably high, almost reaching that of Hollywood, with roughly four hundred films produced in 1931 alone. In large part, this was due to Japan’s cultural and social isolation, a situation that would come to an abrupt end with World War II. But despite its insularity, or perhaps because of it, the Japanese silent film achieved a certain purity of aesthetic ambition, and by the 1920s two major genres of cinema had emerged in the furious pace of production: the gendai-geki, contemporary drama about family life and social conditions (Ozu’s specialty), and jidai-geki, films that re-created Japan’s feudal, often violent past. A third genre also emerged in the wake of the massive earthquake of September 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, and caused an abrupt though temporary cessation of film production, due to the fact that many film production facilities had been destroyed. The shomin-geki, or film dealing with the struggle for existence among Japan’s blue-collar social classes, was a direct result of this natural disaster.

Important directors during this period in Japanese cinema include Minoru Murata, Kenji Mizoguchi (who created period dramas and contemporary narratives with equal assurance), Heinosuke Gosho, and Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose film Jujiro (Shadows of the Yoshiwara, 1928) was the first film to receive general distribution outside Japan. Mizoguchi, Gosho, and of course Ozu would become major directors during the sound era of Japanese cinema, with careers lasting into the 1950s and 1960s. Despite Japan’s seemingly closed society, Hollywood films were quite popular in Japan during the silent era, particularly after the 1923 earthquake, and many of the gendai-geki films especially were influenced by technical and aesthetic strategies favored by Western cinema.

One of the most unusual films to come out of Japan during this period was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s highly experimental Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness, 1926), which, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, used exaggerated sets and heightened theatricality to tell the tale of a mother imprisoned in an insane asylum after the attempted murder of her son. The film’s narrative structure is chaotic, proceeding in dreamlike fashion, and Kinugasa is clearly more interested in revealing his characters’ inner conflicts than in any sense of traditional plot progression. One of the most individual films of the Japanese silent cinema, A Page of Madness was thought to be lost for nearly half a century until Kinugasa discovered a copy of the film in his tool shed in 1971. He had a new print of the film made, added a contemporary musical score, and subsequently re-released the film internationally to great acclaim.

While much of the world found a distinctive national voice during the silent era, many other countries remained in thrall to Hollywood’s commercial vision, existing as colonialized outposts of the Western cinematic empire. In England, the Hollywood film rose to such cultural dominance that the government enacted the Protectionist Cinematographic Films Act of 1927, mandating that a percentage of all films screened in England had to have been produced within the country. Hollywood got around this by setting up facilities in England (such as Paramount British, Warners British, and MGM British) to create program pictures, running little more than an hour and produced for £5,000 or less, which became derisively known as “quota quickies.” Although the resulting films were shoddy and lacking in artistic innovation, they were, technically, English made. As a result, Hollywood studios could induce local theaters to screen these pictures through block booking, in order for exhibitors to receive the American movies their audiences truly wanted. The effect was to co-opt the nascent British national cinema, which, with the exception of but a few truly indigenous productions, remained moribund.

Elsewhere, the various nations of Africa were still colonized, with France, England, Belgium, and other nations controlling social and imagistic commerce, relying on Hollywood films and the occasional European import to provide programming for the few theaters that regularly screened films for the public. Brazil in the early silent period relied mostly on Hollywood for its films, and the Mexican film industry was similarly dormant. China’s film industry was largely subsidized by the West, producing forgettable romances and melodramas, while India was still a part of the British Empire, with local filmmaking confined to carefully censored newsreels and self-congratulatory travelogues. Egypt also relied on American imports for much of its early silent programming, and what little production there was bore the stamp of Hollywood production techniques.

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