Japan Story: In Search of a Nation (Christopher Harding)
Since the dawn of Meiji era Japan in the mid Nineteenth Century, the nation – and indeed the rest of the world – has struggled with modernising the archipelago. Two separate attempts over one and a half centuries have resulted in wars, booms and busts as Japan tried to find its place in the world.
For centuries, Japan essentially shut itself off to the outside world, trading only sparingly with Western nations; trying to shut out any cultural influences that could impact on the nation’s harmony. But as the years progressed, Japan’s ability to live on its own were made increasingly difficult by Western nations trying to impose themselves.
Harding looks at two separate attempts, largely led by America, to integrate Japan into the modern world. The first coming with the start of the Meiji era is compared to being forced to sign a contract with a gun to your head. Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his fleet of modern US battleships pointed their cannons on the islands until a one-sided trade deal was agreed. Japan had now started to dance with the western devil.
What followed were major changes in the country in its adoption of western ways, but gradually, Japan wanted to see its influence on others. Perhaps taking cues from western empires, Japan started to move in on its Asian neighbours, starting numerous wars and expanding into the mainland. But new to this world, and the game of colonial power, Japan pushed things too far, atrocities common and the first attempt at modernity was brought to a spectacular halt nearly a century later.
This then prompted the start of the second attempt at modernising Japan, with the US overseeing the rebuild from the ground up. Perhaps trying to learn from mistakes of the past, Japan took itself to become a global economic power and beginning to exert a cultural influence throughout the world.
Harding starts each chapter with an exemplifier for each stage in the progression of the story, and thus develops the overall story as almost a serial; but also hits home the difficulty in adapting to new ways in a clash of cultures. This obviously poses a lot of difficulties in the writing and the reading in balancing stating things as they were without attributing blame one way or another. What is obvious is that Japan did a lot bad over this period, but serves as an example as to how globalisation can have dire consequences when faced against tradition.
Japan has been the victim in many things over the last 170 years, but also an aggressor as well. If history is written by the victors, this is a firmly two-sided coin. Heads or tails…or tales? (Sorry.)
- Days to read: 29
- Days per book: 14.4
Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000 (Mark Schilling)
Schilling’s previous collection of his film reviews and interviews with directors, mainly for the Japan Times, “Contemporary Japanese Film”, covered Japanese cinema’s rebirth with the rise of the “New Wave” and numerous international festival successes. The Nineties well-and-truly saw Japanese cinema put back on the international map. The last two decades covered in this anthology, however, have seen the international market still there for Japanese films, but the overall quality has gradually started to drop, year-on-year.
Starting off with some general essays on Japanese film, like the previous volume we then see various interviews with directors before delving into a selection of film reviews covering the last twenty years. This is very much a “Part 2” and despite the title suggesting as much, there is not much of a wider commentary of the state of Japanese cinema as a whole over this period.
But Schilling is very much a journalist, rather than an academic and his personal touches in his reviews make them enjoyable to read. The reviews are select, however, so there is more focus on the stronger films from the new millennium, and so might paint a better picture of Japanese cinema than the reality has shown. International awards have been less regular and despite some very good films made in the period, they haven’t come quite as thick and fast as in the Nineties. Directors who reigned in the Nineties have barely scraped a couple of watchable films together, with many seeing their best days behind them.
I read “Contemporary Japanese Film” as a toilet book, and took a long time to work through it. This I read straight and reading hundred of reviews back-to-back can start to drag over a number of weeks – but there are two decades worth to cover.
To close, Schilling provides his own “Top 10s” for each of the twenty years, apart from 2001 – again, this very much needed an additional proof-read – and so from my limited viewing here are my top twenty Japanese films from the first twenty years of century twenty…one.
1. Nobody Knows (2004) Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
2. Tokyo Sonata (2008) Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
3. Still Walking (2008) Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
4. A Story of Yonosuke (2013) Dir: Shuichi Okita
5. Ping Pong (2002) Dir: Fumihiko Sori
6. Like Father, Like Son (2013) Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
7. Tony Takitani (2004) Dir: Jun Ichikawa
8. Spirited Away (2001) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki
9. Shoplifters (2018) Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
10. Zatoichi (2003) Dir: Takeshi Kitano
11. One Cut of the Dead (2017) Dir: Shinichiro Ueda
12. Departures (2008) Dir: Yojiro Takita
13. The Taste of Tea (2004) Dir: Katsuhito Ishii
14. I Go Gaga, My Dear (2018) Dir: Naoko Nobutomo
15. Memories of Matsuko (2006) Dir: Tetsuya Nakashima
16. The Twilight Samurai (2002) Dir: Yoji Yamada
17. Fish Story (2009) Dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura
18. Ichi the Killer (2001) Dir: Takashi Miike
19. Monday (2000) Dir: SABU
20. After the Storm (2016) Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
- Days to read: 51
- Days per book: 14.6