JPRI Working Paper No. 108 (November 2005) "Enlightenment Guaranteed" Meets The Liberal Democratic Party: Teaching
about Japan through Film by E. B. Keehn
Most of us who are not Japanese and who study Japan can recall that first epiphany. That moment when we realized Japan's depth and history is intellectually surprising and historically compelling. For me it was sitting through a screening of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) at the Smithsonian when I was 17 years old. I'm not sure how I ended up there, on what was literally a dark and stormy night. No one I knew had ever been to Japan, or had any Japanese friends. But as I sat in the dark that evening, transported to an existential sandpit in a nameless coastal village in Japan, I knew where I was going as soon as I could raise the money.
That is the potential power of film. It entertains, enrages, and all too often simply bores. But it can also transform and alter a life's trajectory. And as a teaching tool it can, in a matter of seconds, impart dense, interwoven layers of cultural and political meaning that would otherwise be transmitted through hours of lecture and reading.
When I was asked by Mount Saint Mary's College to teach a summer graduate seminar on Japan, something I hadn't done in almost ten years, I pulled out my old syllabi and rummaged through lecture notes and reading lists. It all seemed so unsatisfying. Those materials could easily be updated, but I could feel the tedium coursing through my veins at the thought of it. When I last taught, it was at an ancient British university in the East Anglian fens. What made sense there seemed disturbingly irrelevant in the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2005, where my students would range from South Central intellectuals and film writers for the Los Angeles Times, to a well known producer-director from the old Yugoslavia. I needed to repackage my style from years of gentle Anglican teaching to something robust enough to stand up to the harsh multi-media glare of culturally savvy Angelenos.
And then there was the personal question. How do I do this without boring myself half to death? A small confession here. The truth is, I have not maintained a constant fascination with Japan over the years. In fact, by the spring of 2005, when I drew up a syllabus for the course, I'd gotten a second doctorate, this time in clinical psychology, and had developed a fascination with neuropsychotherapy. But there was one exception. Japanese film. I still had those fond memories of Woman in the Dunes. Perhaps I could rekindle my fascination with Japan and convey it to my students by going back to its filmic beginnings. And if there is one language Angelenos understand, it is the language of film.
I am not a film specialist. So I did the obvious. I made a list of the Japanese films I love. I sent it around to friends and colleagues and asked them to add what they love to the list. And I consulted with Pedro Loureiro, the curator of film and video at Frank Gibney's Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. Within a few weeks I had a list of over 60 films. And with the help of Mr. Loureiro, I built a DVD library that would see me through the summer semester.
The next task was to organize the films and decide on the intellectual content of the course. I compared my list of films to the half dozen issues that have continued to nag at me about Japan. There were six basic questions, only some of which are connected to my original doctoral training as a political scientist: (1) why has Japan chosen to remember WWII in the way it has? (2) why does class, hierarchy, and social submission look the way it does in Japan? (3) how have ideas about the individual and the family evolved over time? (4) when, why. and how did "Post War Japan" end? (5) what is the enduring appeal of anime , and why does it transcend all cultures? and (6) how has Japan been portrayed in the West and in Western cinema, and how has it influenced our understanding of Japan?* I divided the course into these six categories and grouped the films accordingly, less out of a sense of good pedagogy than out of pure self interest concerning issues I wanted to explore in the context of a graduate seminar. (* A complete list of films, and their categories, are given at the end of this essay. This also includes some films suggested by students.)
I was now ready to conduct a semester-long experiment on fifteen unsuspecting students. From the beginning we were on our toes. It was not purely a film class, but a steady diet of film was required, both in and out of class. It was not purely a social science class about Japan, but concepts of political, economic and social organization were woven into the course structure.
Part of the success of the seminar depended on looking at Japanese films in ways that critics and scholars traditionally do not. It is rare to find commentators or social-science-oriented Japan specialists who have extensively examined all the films on the syllabus for their political and historical context -- at least in English language writings. To compensate for this, as we went forward with the course, the students and I developed two overarching themes as we viewed and analyzed each film. First, what were the universal attributes of each film? What spoke to all of us, regardless of our knowledge of Japan? The second theme was to view each film through a particularistic lens, to ponder how a Japanese audience - oriented to its particular place in time and history -- would understand the film. For example, at one level, Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru is a compelling story of one petty bureaucrat's attempt to give his life meaning before dying from cancer. But for Japanese audiences sitting in movie houses in 1952 and still struggling to come to terms with what democracy might mean under American tutelage, it also explores the edges of social action and the difficulties of creating an administrative state capable of responding to those without a traditional voice in the halls of power.
The course became an attempt to set up a visceral experience of what it would have felt like to be a Japanese film goer at the time a given film was first released in Japan. Lectures, readings, and discussions framed the context for viewing the films. The experience for student and teacher alike was often visceral, since film is anything but a neutral medium. Students were quick to talk about what they liked and what they disliked, and to ask fascinating questions not easily answered. For example, "Why are love scenes in Japanese films fundamentally aggressive, and so utterly lacking in tenderness and romance?" Indeed, the portrayal of women in Japanese cinema, and gender politics in general, became a source of constant discussion and debate throughout the course.
Then there is the often murky moral world of protagonists in Japanese film. Students were initially befuddled by the early scene in Imamura Shohei's Unagi (1997), when the husband stabs his wife in a jealous rage, then calmly bicycles to the local police station to turn himself in, murder weapon in hand -- a scene which led to lengthy discussions about law and society in Japan.
There was also a powerful response to Japan's distinctive cinema of war and conflict. It can be maudlin, enragingly unreflective of broader global issues, bleakly metaphorical, and constructed around narcissistic notions of victimization. But it can also be unflinchingly harsh in its critique of the state and the state's perversion of norms to serve the ends of those in authority. And it can do it in a way that combines complexity, compassion, anger, violence, and futility into a single narrative that can leave the viewer stunned at what has just happened on the screen. There is no better example of this than Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962).
Japan also has a distinctive cinema of the individual. Not just the completely emotional and barely rational anti-hero who so accurately fits the Ivan Morris rubric of nobility in failure. In more subtle ways, too, the individual is portrayed as finding a deep dignity. Sometimes it is a dignity found in developing one's inner freedom while being imprisoned by status and station, as in The Twilight Samurai (2002). Or it may be spiritual, as in learning to embrace the limited dreams found in an individual life, as in Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life (1998).
Then there is the family. We really do want to know if ours is more grotesque, or more beautiful -- perhaps even more beautifully grotesque -- than someone else's. Here it is hard to beat Yoshimitsu Morita's The Family Game (1983), a film that rubs our noses in everything that is wrong in a perfectly "normal" Japanese family and its quest for status through educational attainment. It also reminds us that any attempt at personal change within the context of the family can be so exhausting that it literally leaves us collapsed on the floor from all the futile effort. Who can't relate to that?
And when did "post war" Japan actually end? There is no easy answer to that, but probably somewhere between the bursting of the bubble in 1989 and the sarin gas attacks on Tokyo's subways in 1995. Itami Juzo's films capture Japan on the edge of this moment. His Japan is self-contained, completely and confidently itself, and entirely of the moment. In his world, women are both idealized and infantilized. And there is wealth. It is just there, as if it had always been there, with traditional culture something no one really understands anymore, as in his wonderful film Ososhiki (The Funeral, 1984) . Then there are also the tremendous appetites of his protagonists, often barely under control (e.g., Tampopo). His films can seem like extended television sitcoms, but a little too shocking and a little too angry to be comfortably accommodated in that medium. This makes them just like Japan, in the 1980s before the bubble burst, when the country could no longer be comfortably explained as a mere student of the United States.
What about anime? Not animation. Anime. This is not Bambie, with its anthropomorphized bunnies and familiar forest creatures. It is Ghost in the Shell, with its ruthless technology, its Blade noir aesthetic, and its sexually charged atmosphere. It is Grave of the Fireflies, tackling issues of abandoned children and the chaos of war in the soft colors of hand-drawn characters. The influence of anime is pervasive in contemporary global culture. The violent video games produced by the U.S. Department of Defense to help recruit young men and women into the armed forces would not exist in their present form without the influence of Japanese anime. Pixar films would not have their wry combination of adult and childhood themes without the influence of anime. And then there are the films of Hayao Miyazaki, with their completely realized worlds of Shinto influences, environmental concerns, powerful girls, and intense distaste of military culture.
And finally, there is the question of how the West views Japan. Which is also a reflection of how they view us. This is really also a question of how we anticipate their anticipation about what should be on view at all. Welcome to the hall of mirrors. There are few better introductions to this theme than Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy, which shows how Gilbert and Sullivan composed and staged the comic opera The Mikado in 1885 after encountering Japan's presentation of itself at the Crystal Palace in London. Once all this gets thrown into the global culture mill and left to churn for a century or so, the patrimony for cultural icons becomes obscured. For example, you cannot watch a Clint Eastwood film like Unforgiven, or any of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and not see its antecedents in films like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Who can ever again see a ronin drawing his sword against outrageous odds and not see every gunslinger who ever fought on the minority side of justice against rapacious cattle barons and corrupt sheriffs?
The ability of film to educate was found in the sophisticated paper topics the students chose -- students who had no prior knowledge of Japan nor, in most cases, of Japanese cinema. These included "The Four Noble Truths in Imamura Shohei's Unagi," "The Courtesan in Japan, Venice, and France," "Cinematic Suppression of Space and Time in Shintoism," "Cultural Form and Content Dichotomy in Japanese Film," and "Mecha Anime in Mega Japan."
A brief comment on one psychological aspect of film. Butler and Palesh have written about movie-going as a positive dissociative experience. One where we can sometimes lose ourselves emotionally and intellectually in alien concepts and cultures, and viscerally experience the traumas and frustrations of characters we might otherwise not be able to understand or even imagine. Indeed, film directors seek to mobilize our own traumas and fears to guide us toward empathy with their stories and characters. When film is used to educate about another society and culture, rather than indoctrinate, it should place a high premium on clear lectures, and incisive readings and discussions. Without this, teaching Japan through film might inadvertently guide students to simply swap one set of prejudices for another, rather then encouraging critical thinking.
It is likely that film studies people will find my list of movies dissatisfying, as will some social scientists and Japanologists. There is not enough Ozu, not enough Mizoguchi. And where is Fukazaku, representing the nihilistic gangster genre? Fortunately, my students didn't seem to mind, partly because they were encouraged to view and present films outside the list, and to bring these into our discussions. In fact, the experiment in mixing media and metaphors -- film, social science, history, and sociology -- was, from their standpoint, a success. They learned about Japan at an accelerated pace, while the viewing of films on their own time gave them ownership of course material in a way that is not as easily achieved with only lectures and readings. And for every student who fell asleep watching Women in the Dunes , there were others who watched it four or five times, broke down the scenes, pondered the symbolism, and made that piece of Japan truly, uniquely and permanently their own.
E. B. KEEHN is a psychotherapist, Asia specialist, television and film consultant, researcher, editor and author. He has doctorates in political science and clinical psychology and can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Lisa D. Butler, Ozana Palesh, "Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies," Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2004, pp.61-88. Thanks to Dr. Paula Thomson for bringing this article to my attention. [Return to Text]
AND ITS CONSEQUENCES The themes of
war and peace are particularly well developed in
Japanese cinema. It was the only Asian nation to
develop a form of feudalism comparable to that
of Europe. In the early 1600s, after centuries
of perpetual war, Japan became a unified state
and the country entered into two and a half centuries
of enforced peace. This only ended in the mid-19
th century, at the insistence of the United States
and other Western powers. What followed was Japan's
modernization, and five decades of Japanese imperialism
beginning in the 1890s and ending with Japan's
defeat in World War II. The impact of this complex
history is portrayed in these films, and includes
studies that mix guilt, shame, victimization, pacifism,
CLASS, HIERARCHY, AND SUBMISSION
Iconoclasts, rebels, and the challenges faced
by the individual striving to balance personal needs and the sometimes heartless
demands of society -- these are enduring themes in Japanese culture. This week's
theme will examine the place of the individual in society, and the various ways
individual and group norms interact to create dilemmas of identity and action.
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE FAMILY
The themes of family
and the individual are universal, occurring in
every society's literature and cinema. Japanese
film gives us enduring images of the dynamic tension
between the needs of the individual and the requirements
of family responsibilities. In a society where,
until recently, the elderly were almost always
cared for at home, images of aging are also powerful
portrayed by some of the films in this section.
POST WAR JAPAN
In the 1980s, Japan had finally arrived.
It was no longer struggling to rebuild after the
devastation of World War II. The years of hard
work and personal sacrifice since defeat had paid
off. In this period, by some economic and public
policy measures, Japan was the wealthiest, most
successful nation on the face of the earth -- a
situation that came to a crashing halt in the 1990s
with a decade and a half of recession and the rise
of the Chinese economy. These films look at the
cultural dislocations, ironies, and frustrations
of the "new" Japan.
The most remarkable maker of anime in our
time is Miyazaki Hayao. His feature length films,
which appeal equally to children and adults, are
complex without being condescending. Five examples
of his work are listed below. I have also included
several non-Miyazaki films, with adult themes.
In adult oriented anime, cutting social commentary,
sex and violence, are an integral part of the story
lines, and are often examples of post-modern film
LOOKING AT JAPAN
Whether we're talking about something
as American as the western, or the rise of Impressionism,
innovation in the theater, fashion or manufacturing,
Japan has played an enduring role in the creation
of western culture. How we view this Japanese influence,
and how we view Japan in general, says as much
about us as it does about Japan. Below are examples
of films that reflect back on us, as we reflect
on Japan. Issues of outlaws, spirituality, ethics,
and art all come together to create an image of
Japan this is, by turns, powerful and trivializing,
poignant and superficial.