05 January 2008

Great book on Japanese Film

My interest in (and even knowledge of) Japanese film started in graduate school. My friend Ken Carson offhandedly said, "Hey, I'm going to go see The Seven Samurai this weekend, want to come?"

"What's that?" I replied, never having heard of the film.

"Oh," Ken answered, "it's the greatest action movie ever made."

I thought that was a bit overhyped, but it certainly piqued my interest, so I went. The next Monday another friend asked me, "So, what did you think of Seven Samurai?"

"Oh," I answered, "it's the greatest action movie ever made."

Since then I've not only watched most Kurosawa movies but moved into the more esoteric realms of Yasujiro Ozu and others. Then, along came Donald Richie's One Hundred Years of Japanese Film, which I picked up at Kinokuniya last weekend.

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film cover

This is a dense but great book surveying the rise of the Japanese industry (at its height, in 1960, Japan made 537 movies) and the unusual aspects of the industry such as the long tradition of benshi, narrators used for silent movies who surivived in Japan for decades. It also covers fairly carefully the fall of the industry in the 60s and 70s: like everywhere, television was the main culprit, but the Japanese industry's response was in the end less effective than Hollywood's.

There are longish sections on Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi but the real appeal of the book is its thoroughness: every studio and many, many directors are described, as are hundreds of films. I wrote a longer review of the book here.

1 comment:

Gilles Poitras said...

Wow, just now reading this book?

Good choice it is one of the best books on the subject you can get.

If you want to explore the very early days of Japanese cinema Digital Meme is starting to put out a series of silent films on region free DVD with subtitles in multiple languages and benshi accompaniment. They even have a 4 disc set of early anime.

These are not easy to get I had to go to their offices in Tokyo to pick them up.

Later I found copies at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

They also have a documentary on Tsumasaburo Bando and several books in English.