Vita Brevis Breviter In Brevi Finietu

Vita Brevis Breviter In Brevi Finietu

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Can Japanese Cinema Be Fully Understood By Western Audiences?

I've covered some really interesting topics through my degree and masters degree courses, so thought I'd pop them onto my blog so that people can see some elements that interest me from a film studies angle! This essay was from my second year at Trinity and All Saints College during my Film & Television Studies degree.

Discuss the claim that Japanese cinema cannot be properly understood by Western audiences without a wider understanding of the country’s history and society.

                Japanese culture is very different to that of the western world. To say that Japanese cinema cannot truly be understood by a western audience is only partly correct; it is true that a basic knowledge of Japanese society is useful, as the society structure is a lot different to that of Western areas, however it is not vital. For the majority of Japanese cinema it does not matter if the audience knows much about the history of Japan, as generally many relevant aspects are explained, however the more knowledge that the audiences possesses, the more sense the film will make and audiences will be able to place it into context more easily.
                History is important in Japan, and has helped to shape the way society is structured today. Events such as World War Two and the rise of Japan’s economy in the 1970s have had huge impact on Japan (Bordwell, 2003), especially as relationships with work are of huge importance to the Japanese as individuals. After Japan had boomed successfully, a recession began and the long time leaders, the Liberal Democratic party were shown to be corrupted on multiple occasions (Bordwell, 2003, p. 646). Aspects such as this are an important influence on films and the making of the films themselves, little knowledge of these events can hinder ones knowledge of the country as a whole, but generally are less relevant to most films, unless they are about a certain event itself, for example war, in which case historical facts are generally explained in the films plot or narrative. 
                Theorist Edward Said claimed that “Orientalism involves the exercise of power operating through a body of knowledge (everyday, common sense and academic) that results to the legitimacy of ‘the west’ to govern, speak for and to shape the meaning of the ‘orient’”  (Needham, 2006, p. 8). This basically means that elements seen in Japanese cinema normally portray Japan in such a way that enables western audiences can develop their own interpretations of the orient, which often refers to Asia, and can attempt to fill in anything left out of the film by using their own knowledge.
                According to Iwabuchi Koichi, part of Japan’s success with western audiences is due to a scheme in which Japan attempts to “de-japanise” many of its exports, this is known in Japan as mukokuseki and mainly sees characters being designed to look more ‘normal’ to western viewers (Needham, 2006, p. 10). The Pokémon films and tv series are good examples of this, with characters being drawn in with a slightly more westernised appearance and large sections of the scripts being translated differently, often with sections added in, so that it is easier for the western audiences to understand the plot.  This style of film would make it much easier for western audiences to make the transition from watching their own familiar cinema to something that is entirely different, and acts as a sort of stepping stone. The Japanese influence on directors such as Quentin Tarantino, which especially can be seen in the samurai fight scenes and the anime sequence in Kill Bill Volume 1 (Tarantino, 2003), also opens western audiences eyes to the styles of Japanese cinema. The martial arts genre is also shown in Rush Hour (Ratner, 1998) and violence is also exploited, of which there is high demand for amongst Japanese audiences.
                The narrative structure of Japanese cinema is different to that of Western cinema. Western films are structured to have twists and turns in order to keep the audience hooked, whereas Japanese cinema tends to take a slower, more realistic pace. Japanese films often focus on an individual, rather than multiple characters (Groom, 2006). This may be difficult for a western audience to appreciate as this technique is used to make the audience have a stronger connection with a single characters thoughts and emotions, rather than the western style of introducing many, often stereotyped characters, into the film in order to captivate the audience’s shorter attention span. Many Japanese films follow the non-linear narrative structure which sees events happening but not in the usual chronological order (Hill, 2005). For audiences who are not used to this, it can be quite difficult for them to follow the plot. It requires patience and concentration from the audience, which is generally not what western audiences like, as they wish to be entertained simply and in a way that is far away from realism and the monotony of everyday life.
                One key aspect that western audiences may find hard to comprehend is the structure of the household or ‘ie’. Typical western families focus on looking after blood relations, and generally these are considered to be the most important people to an individual, taking place over friends or business contacts. The Japanese ie usually consists of parents, children and occasionally extended family members and, depending on wealth, servants. To anyone within this institution, the other members are of key importance. For instance, when a daughter marries and leaves her parents household, her new household with either her husband or his family becomes more important than her own family’s household. Once a member has left their original ie, they are less likely to see actual family members regularly, as seen in western society where the blood family is of more importance to the household. If an external person such as a son or daughter-in-law joins an ie they instantly becomes more important than any blood relative whom has moved out.  This can be seen in films such as Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) where two elderly parents travel from their home to visit their children, only to see their children struggling to balance their own lives whilst spending time with their parents, as this is an uncommon occurrence within Japanese society. 
                As blood family or ‘kinship’ (Nakane, 1973, pp. 5-6) is of less importance, relations with corporations take its place. As the economy is much more influential and continuously growing, it can be seen as being more ‘exciting’ than the rigid structures of the ie (Groom, 2006). The loyalty of a person to their company is of great significance, many Japanese work for a single company for their entire working careers, whereas western workers chose to change companies, if not careers paths more frequently. Most of a person’s social life is also based around the company, the Japanese organisations make sure that they look after their employees on a personal level as well as on a career level, the company is looked upon as being one big family, for example the kokutetsu-ikka or ‘One Railway Family’ (Nakane, 1973, p. 7) symbolises the family of the Japanese National Railways and its workers. This concept is different to western businesses as employees are encouraged to feel more involved and included on a personal level, therefore more willing to work harder so that they can help the company to succeed. As western audiences primary connections are family, work often comes second in importance.
                Another aspect that may be a lot different to western cinema is the audience’s desires. Especially within the horror genre, the audience’s desire for extreme gore and violence is incredibly high.  Japanese cinema, especially work by Takashi Miike who is famed for his films that take violence to new levels, is in general more realistic and also more psychotic in its approach to hostility. Characters such as Asami from Audition/Ôdishon (Miike, Odishon, 1999)is one of the most memorable for her horrific torture of her victims. Western audiences appear to prefer the ‘slasher’ style of having killers who kill their victims in an unrealistic way that involves much bloodshed and jump-out –of-your-seat moments, whereas Japanese audiences tend to prefer to want to see a build up of suspense before the victims of the film succumb to what is often a torturous death. These displays of cruelty and sadism are often more extreme than what the western audience is used to, and can scare the audience to the point where the film is no longer viewed as entertainment but rather seen as being too horrific just for the sake of it. Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 has its own Japanese version, with the film being extended with more scenes of a graphic nature in order to satisfy audience demand, with Tarantino stating that there was more demand for “blood and guts” (Needham, 2006, p. 12) implying that it is true that Japanese audiences desire something more extreme. Distribution company Tartan have set it ups own line of Asian Extremes, films from around Asia that are considered to be particularly violent, which includes films such as Ichi The Killer/Koroshiya 1 (Miike, 2002), Battle Royale/Batoru Rowaiaru (Kinji, 2000) and the Ju-on and Ringu films. This would suggest that Asian cinema is growing in demand in western areas, and that western audiences are developing the ability to understand Japanese culture.
                An area of Japanese cinema that western audiences may relate to more is how the target audiences of anime are more structured than the majority of cinema. Anime is often split according to intended audience, for example Shoujo, which is anime aimed at a female audience or Shounen, which is aimed at males (Beaumont, 2005). This means that the western audiences are more likely to understand the subject content, and can focus on trying to understand the cultural influences on such films. For instance, the Pokémon empire is an example of mukokuseki which appeals to most western audiences. Especially in the Shoujo and Shounen genres, it is very easy for a western audience to understand the films without any background knowledge as these are films designed for younger children, who also have limited knowledge even of their own world.  
                Over the last few years, more Japanese cinema is being shown in large cinemas, rather than small arthouse cinemas which generally tend to screen many foreign films. With the increase of American remakes of Japanese films, often horrors such as Ringu (Hideo, Ringu, 1998)and more recently Ju-on: The Grudge (Shimizu, 2003) more and more viewers are wanting to see the original Japanese films, which often leads to a desire to see more films that are similar in nature and style. By watching more Japanese films, the audience will deepen their knowledge of Japanese culture and will be able to apply it more readily to the films that they watch in the future. The increase of availability of Japanese film, especially through DVD also means that western audiences can easily see the latest films.
                In conclusion, to say that western audiences cannot understand Japanese films without background knowledge is not entirely true. With film such as Pokémon and Kill Bill Volume 1, western audiences pick up little bits of information about Japanese society each time they watch one of these transition films. This can then be applied to films that haven’t been ‘de-Japanised’ and therefore audience knowledge grows. However, for audience member who have no knowledge of Japan and its society or history, they may struggle to understand certain elements of films. With the growth of aspects such as Japanese fashion, and to some extent music, within popular culture, it seems more than likely that the demand for films will continue to grow too. With Japanese fashion and music becoming more mainstream in the western world, this also gives audiences a chance to learn more facts about Japan that can be applied to the world of film. It is my opinion that many Japanese films can be understood without much knowledge of the history or society of Japan itself, however audiences are not likely to experience the full impact of the film without this basic understanding.

Beaumont, L. (2005, September 18). Anime 101. Retrieved May 27, 2008, from Blog Critics:
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2003). Film History (International/Second ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Groom, V. (2006, June 13). What Has Happened To The Japanese Family. Retrieved May 27, 2008, from Hackwriters:
Hideo, N. (Director). (1998). Ringu [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Hill, S. (2005). Non-Linear Narrative In Films. Retrieved May 27, 2007, from Helium:
Kinji, F. (Director). (2000). Battle Royale/Batoru Rowaiaru [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Miike, T. (Director). (2002). Ichi The Killer/Koroshiya 1 [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Miike, T. (Director). (1999). Odishon [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Nakane, C. (1973). Japanese Society (Revised Edition ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Needham, G. a. (2006). Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ozu, Y. (Director). (1953). Tokyo Story [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Ratner, B. (Director). (1998). Rush Hour [Motion Picture]. USA.
Shimizu, T. (Director). (2003). Ju-On: The Grudge [Motion Picture]. Japan.
Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2003). Kill Bill Volume 1 [Motion Picture]. USA.

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