Japanese Cinema and Western Audiences: Why a foreknowledge of Japan’s social, cultural and historical background is a necessity in order to "properly" appreciate Japanese Cinema.
Discuss the claim that Japanese cinema cannot be properly understood by Western audiences without a wider understanding of Japanese history, culture and society.
In this essay I intend to prove that a foreknowledge of Japan’s social, cultural and historical background is a necessity in order to "properly" appreciate Japanese Cinema. With reference to films such as Ugetsu Monogatari and Tokyo Story, my aim is to use my illustrative examples, analysis and references to scholarly sources to clearly show that in order to “properly” understand Japanese Cinema, a foreknowledge of Japanese history, culture and society is a definite requirement a western audience.
The concept of world cinema has become commercially a genre. This genre creates the concept of the ‘other’; this is because it is other to what a western audience is used to (which is Hollywood or European cinema). It is also categorized as “third cinema”, with “first cinema” being Hollywood. This grouping normally means that the film is in a foreign language (non-english), it is culturally specific to the culture that produces it and is pre-occupied with culture and history or specific social and political ideas. These forms of categorization alone are evidence that western audiences consider Japanese cinema outside of their understanding of traditional cinema. To begin the argument we can relate to one significant theorist. Donald Richie moved to Japan during the occupation in order to study Japanese films, in order to gain an understanding of the Japanese national character, to assist in defeating the Japanese military forces. In his long stay in Japan, he familiarized himself with Japanese theatre, art, culture, cinema and society. This allowed him to play the role of “mediator” between Japanese cinema and the west” Without Richie’s knowledge of Japanese culture, history and society, his appreciation for Japanese cinema would be sparse. Fumiaki Itakura commented on Western audiences “Japaneseness” was invented just one hundred years ago, and were based on cultural nationalism. They are not likely to understand the ideology of this “Japaneseness.” It is clear that Japanese cinema is too culturally specific for a western audience to ‘fully’ appreciate.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s films have been put forward by critics and scholars as perhaps the most culturally specific Japanese films. His film “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953) is a Jidai-geki film, (a period drama) for which he has become recognised as an auteur. Themes revolving around wealth, family and spirituality play a main role in the film. Freda Freinberg described the film as “Totally other to the world we knew” in relation to western audiences. The geisha dance scene would be completely disregarded by a western audience. Firstly her singing is very culturally specific, and is a Japanese form of chanting. According to Leger Grindon in reference to the “Realms of the Senses” , the geisha functions as a sign of the Japanese forbidden, and the surrender of emotions in replacement of sexual passion. Genjuro has left his wife, and is being seduced by Lady Wakasa. The camera work is very insignificant to how the dance is portrayed. The camera stays at a mid-shot whilst she performs, only following her movement. The dance is a Japanese traditional dance, it’s very slow paced, as she dances she waves a fan. During this scene the attention is never on Genjurô. We can see in back ground of the shot that he is hypnotised by her dancing. Mizouchi wants the audience main focus to be on the dance. The traditional dance and song of this scene is very culturally specific, a western audience would not be able to “properly” appreciate it without a foreknowledge of Japanese Culture. The most significant part of this scene is the voice of her father. A low...
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