Only In Japan

Friday, March 30, 2007

Japanese cinema

DISCLAIMER: I really love Japan. I have the utmost respect for Japanese culture.

However, I think Japanese cinema STINKS. Note that I'm not talking about Japanese animated movies, just regular films. Let me count the ways in which Japanese cinema is an insult to Japanese people's intelligence:

-No originality: except for some fringe movies, most Japanese films are one-patterned tear-jerkers. You know, the kind where noble characters are faced with overwhelming adversity, but keep displaying the same moving purity of heart whatever the circumstances. You know, the kind that would be in the "young adult" section of a bookshop...

The popular genres are some of the classics from Hollywood: romantic comedies, disaster movies, all kinds of cop stories, start-low-become-a-champion movies... Notably absent from the list are legal movies; but with a notoriously arbitrary judicial system and a 99% conviction rate, what interesting movies can you make?
Instead, Japan gives us the awkward families-in-the-storm genre, where Something Truly Terrible tests the unity of a happy family, pushing it to the edge of rupture until in some unlikely twist of fate, love triumphs and harmony is restored. Something like Ozu remixed by Disney, if you can picture that.

In Japanese cinema, the characters are also an exercise in predictable phoniness: a succession of trite archetypes, such as The Idealistic Little Kid With A Dream (typical line: "Don't worry Mummy, I'll win the Junior Whatever Championship to cheer up Daddy from his sickness"), The Loving Wife / Mother Who Always Gives Good Advice (typical line: "Just put all your heart into baking him a chocolate cake and he will love you forever in return"), The Gruff But Golden-Hearted Husband / Father (typical line: "I thought about you two every day. [5 minutes pause] Little Taro has grown into a real man, hasn't he?").

Note that the originality problem has only gotten worse since the Korean Drama wave hit Japan a few years ago. Producers then realized that schmaltzy sentimentality and Confucian values could sell heaps. A perfect opportunity not to take risks making original movies? Sign us in!, they quickly said.
Well, at least that stopped them for a while from "adapting" perfectly respectable Japanese books / manga and bastardazing them into bland borefests. Yeay.

--Terrible acting: not that the Japanese are naturally poor actors, but overacting is a tradition dating back hundreds of years to Kabuki (Japanese theatre/opera), where strongly expressed emotions are the norm. Also note that Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director, specifically instructed his actors to act in a restrained and natural way, because his main influence was American cinema. As a result, the acting in Kurosawa movies is very good, which proves (if need be) that the filmmakers are the problem, not the actors.

The problem is made worse by the incestuous nature of the entertainment world in Japan. Pop music, advertising, modelling, television and cinema are about as inbred as the Japanese Imperial Family, which should come as no surprise considering these industries are all controlled by the same small group of people. So if it gets decided that young model X needs more coverage to promote his/her budding singing career, he/she will be plopped into some random movie being made at the time, regardless of whether he/she can actually act or even just looks the part; and bingo! (Or not)

Example: the excellent novel "69" by Murakami Ryu was adapted to the big screen a few years ago. The main characters are two 17 year-old boys; so it made perfect sense to cast a 24 year-old and a 29 year-old in their roles... I personally think the 24 year-old should never had left the TV series he was playing in, but who cares about acting in Japanese cinema?

The thing is, it just doesn't really matter: the advertising campaign will be such that people will watch it anyway. The bottom line is that in the end TV recycles it all; they always need new faces to make up for the terrible lack of innovation in their programming. But that is another story.

--Absolute political correctness: the Japanese generally don't like to talk about the problems and issues of society (that would, you know, disrupt the group harmony), but Japanese cinema takes this attitude to the extreme. The focus on "normal and respectable" families helps to keep the illusion of a prefectly homogeneous society; the kind where for example racial problems, gender / homosexuality issues or mental disorders simply do not exist. Which has a lot in common with America in the 50's brainwashing itself into believing it was Heaven on Earth, and is just about as true.

The real problems of Japan - the lack of communication between genders, massive reality escapism, inability to accept the past, for example - are about as common in Japanese cinema as sodomy in Walt Disney animated movies; and even when these problems feature in a Japanese film (generally a rip-off of a popular manga), they are introduced in such a sanitized form that they lose all meaning. Densha Otoko ("Train Man" in English) is a prime example of this syndrome: the original story (in manga form) is very meaningful, but in the movie version the main issues get diluted in a schmaltzfest of everyone changing for the best and feeling happy about themselves. To save the people from thinking too much, I guess...

That said, there is some independant cinema in Japan, but it is very difficult for it to survive in a society where a small cartel of people have a near-monopoly on mass media. This state of affairs leads to independant filmmakers being known and respected abroad but completely ignored at home, a situation they have the bitter joy of sharing with independant musicians. And that's a real shame: considering how much creativity is expressed in the design, animation and manga fields for example, there is no reason to believe Japanese cinema (and music) couldn't be just as great. A sad waste of creativity indeed.

But at least, the Wa (group harmony) is preserved.


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