News and Opinion

Rediscovering Classical Japanese Film Theory: An Anthology

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It’s finally out!

As many of you know, Markus Nornes and I have been working on an anthology of Japanese film theory for over a decade. The English one is still in the works, but the first volume of the Japanese edition is finally out from Yumani Shobo under the title Nihon senzen eigaronshu: Eiga riron no saihakken. The title in English is Rediscovering Classical Japanese Film Theory: An Anthology.

It is really the first of its kind even in Japan. There have been collections of writings on film in Japan, but whenever there is a collection of “film theory” (eiga riron), almost all the authors are foreign. It is as if “film theory” did not or does not exist in Japan. This is a problem I have called the “theory complex” in a previous article (available here). 

There is and has been, however, a plethora of fascinating and stimulating writing about the nature of cinema—what anyone would call “theory”—in Japan since the first years of cinema, some of which I have been introducing for over two decades, starting with the work of Gonda Yasunosuke (an example is here). Others have been investigating Japanese film theory as well, and so Markus and I started putting together a table of contents for what could become an anthology of the more interesting theoretical pieces on Japan. The themed issue of the Review of Japanese Culture and Society I edited in 2010 was a test run of such an anthology. 

A Prehistory of Japanese Sci-Fi and Fantasy Cinema

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Continuing my project of uploading old articles onto the Yale repository, I recently uploaded a more recent piece on the history of Japanese science fiction and fantasy films in the prewar era. Mark Schilling, who has programmed several marvelous retrospectives at the Udine Far East Film Festival, put together a series for the 2016 edition entitled “Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures and Fantasies in Japanese Cinema” to give audiences a sense of how rich Japanese sci-fi and fantasy film is beyond the big green monster. He kindly asked me to pen a piece on prewar works for the catalog of the retrospective.

Prewar Japanese science fiction and fantasy film remains relatively unknown, primarily because not too many films were made and few prints have survived. As I argue in the piece, against a film culture that valorized realism, such works were often confined to the margins of the industry, with movies like the legendary King Kong Appears in Edo (1938; an ad for the film is on the right) or The Steel Man (1938; featuring samurai battling a robot) mostly being produced by third-rung studios. Toho was the exception, making for instance the time-slip film Shimizu Harbor, Part II (1940) or Son Goku (1940), and thus helping lay the foundations for Godzilla and postwar tokusatsu films. Son Goku was Tsuburaya Eiji’s first SFX flick for Toho, so I couldn’t help but talk about his beginnings as a camera assistant on Page of Madness (1926), one of prewar Japan’s most complex and inventive films in terms of camera effects. (An introduction to my book on the film is here.)

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