A Lateral View
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A Lateral View

Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan

Donald Richie

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📖 eBook - ePub

A Lateral View

Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan

Donald Richie

About This Book

A masterfully written collection of short essays by the recognized Western expert on Japanese culture and film and the man Time magazine calls "the dean of art critics in Japan." Spanning more than thirty years, Richie interprets his adopted home's creative accomplishments during its rise to economic and cultural power.

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Women in Japanese Cinema

ONE DAY, a number of years ago, I was speaking with director Shiro Toyoda. We were talking about film-acting and I asked why the men were usually such poor actors and why the women were almost invariably so good. He said that it was only natural: the Japanese woman from childhood is forced to playa rolemore so than in most countries. She is her father’s daughter, then her husband’s wife, then her son’s mother. From the earliest age she learns to mask her true feelings and to counterfeit those she does not feel. One of the results is that the Japanese woman becomes a consummate actress. “You could take almost anyone, put her up on the screen, and she would do very well,” said Toyoda.
This seems small compensation for such a restricted life. Acting it is, but it is also dissimulation and—eventually—bad faith. Born into a position still openly regarded as inferior, given the most limited choices, Japanese women are expected to shuttle between kitchen and bed, to be cheerful with the fretful male, to manage the household economies, to deny herself as a person and yet, somehow, find fulfillment within her narrow confines.
Okusan, the Japanese word for wife, literally means “the one inside.” By extension it means the one who cannot get out. The male criticism most often leveled against Japanese women, and one before which all but the bravest would cringe, is anna rashiku nai which means “unwomanly.” It is usually heard when a woman has done anything to realize herself in human rather than “feminine” terms.
The dilemma of the Japanese woman is acute. She cannot even seek solace in the tokenism to which men in the West are now resorting. Legally, women can remain nearly as helpless and dependent as children—wards of their fathers and husbands. Economically, if they try to make a career, the double standard continues and they are often paid less than a man in the same position. Socially, if they remain single, or work for a living, or get divorced, they are subject to varying degrees of opprobrium. In old age, a kind of freedom is attained only because a woman has by then become useless.
In no other country as advanced as Japan is woman still so frankly regarded as chattel. The double standard is so ingrained that it is almost taken for granted; consequently, no attempts are made to conceal it. The manipulation of women for economic, social, and sexual purposes is openly displayed, and its rightness is seldom questioned. One would not, indeed, expect men to doubt a system so beneficial to themselves. But in Japan, more often than not, the women also seem to subscribe to the rightness of their own oppression. They submit and endure; or they enter professions designed to entertain men where, unless vigilant, they become as predatory as the males they serve. Sincerely, cynically, or hopelessly they collaborate.
There is one quarter of this vexed area, however, that differs markedly from similar states in the West: Japanese women and their limited province have been meticulously and honestly observed. To a limited extent this has occurred in Japanese literature and drama. Overwhelmingly, it has occurred in the cinema. An extraordinary dossier has been built up of films devoted to women and their various problems. That this should have occurred in a society so frankly male chauvinist is surprising: films, after all, are made by men and financed by them.
One of the reasons is that until recently a predominantly female cinema audience was actively promoted. Going to the movies is traditionally one of the freedoms allowed a woman, since it is presumed that she has both the time and inclination to do so. Yet, if one compares Japanese women in film with those of the West, one sees little of the hopefully compensating glamour and elegance cynically given Norma Shearer or Lana Turner, almost nothing of the harmless independence allowed Brigitte Bardot or Audrey Hepburn and their more recent counterparts, and nothing at all of the mock-dangerous bitch freedom granted Bette Davis or Joan Crawford.
The main reasons for the reliability of Japan’s films about women is that, as a whole, Japanese cinema has until recently concerned itself with a faithful delineation of all aspects of Japanese life. It did not become a dream factory until much later than most national cinemas. There is consequently a truthfulness in the presentation of women that is largely missing from films in the West.
And there is another consideration. Any serious film director is concerned not only with meticulous representation but also with a kind of drama which must, by its nature, question the ethical rightness of things as they arc. There are obviously great exceptions—in Japan that of Yasujiro Ozu at once suggests itself Usually, however, a director is drawn to situations with maximum dramatic potential. Invariably that potential is provided by strife and friction between the individual and his environment. In the Japanese woman, Japanese directors have discovered the perfect protagonist. This does not mean that Japanese directors are feminists—even Kenji Mizoguchi, though he is often so described. It means rather that these directors in seeking objectivity as well as dramatic revelation have, naturally, shownJapanese women as they are.
Of all Japanese directors it was perhaps Mikio Naruse who best understood the position of Japanese women and, consequently the nature of their dilemma. Certainly, when he wanted to delineate the close confines of life, to show the hopelessness of all attempts at escape, it was women he chose to carry his “message.” Other directors have responded similarly. When Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa have criticized existing Japanese social standards it is often women who serve as their protagonists. When Susumu Hani wished to show optimistic hopelessness and when Shohei Imamura wanted to show doomed intransigence, they did so through stories about women. It is through women that Toyoda portrays lost innocence and thwarted bravery. And when Mizoguchi comments pessimistically upon the fruitless journeyings of all humankind, it is through women that the dark nature of life is revealed.
In the performances of the actresses chosen by these great directors there is, moreover, an extraordinary sense of truthfulness and reality. Compared with the dramatic honesty of Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, Sachiko Hidari, the performances of many Western screen actresses seem hardly more than the manipulated posturings that they arc. It is perhaps only in the Japanese film that women have been consistently allowed to be themselves. It should be added, however, that it is only in the film that this has been allowed.
The paradox is striking. The single honest cinematic portrait of women has occurred in a country where honesty on the part of women is not tolerated. Not that this has ever been remarked upon in Japan, where disregard of such matters all but disarms criticism. What remains is a body of film which reflects with undismayed clarity just what it means to be a woman in Japan.

The Japanese Eroduction

BOTH ECONOMICALLY and psychologically, the eroduction (a Japanese portmanteau-term coined from “erotic production”) is an interesting cinematic phenomenon. In the days of fallen box office receipts it at least made back its costs; in times of empty movie theaters, it played to half-full houses; even now the eroduction continues to command the attention of a loyal if small audience.
One of the reasons for this is that Japan, unlike other civilized countries, has no porno houses. The eroductions are the limpest of soft-core, and though there is much breast and buttock display, though there are simulations of intercourse, none of the working parts are ever shown. Indeed, one pubic hair breaks an unwritten but closely observed code. Though this last problem is solved by shaving the actresses, the larger remains: how to stimulate when the means are missing.
The rigidity of Japanese law in this regard is to be observed in film-showing as a whole. Japanese production must remain within certain limits and when it does not, as was the case with certain Nikkatsu pictures, the company is sued by the Metropolitan Police and a full-scale court case follows. Imported films also are no exception to the general rule. Many are rendered chaotic because so many scenes are missing; others are difficult to follow because the film goes out of focus (an alternative to snipping) during nude scenes; I Am Curious—Yellow had fortyone scenes blacked out with the title “Censored.” A further curiosity was the Japanese presentation of Woodstock. In several of the scenes nude couples wander in the distance. Though perhaps unnoticed in many countries, the sharp eyes of the Japanese censors instantly detected this irregularity. A number of employees were equipped with small scraping needles and painstakingly picked the emulsion from the offending parts. When the film was projected the distant strolling couples consequently seemed girdled with fireworks. Though this called instant attention to what the censors were presumably attempting to hide, the letter of the law had been observed and this result satisfies all censors everywhere.
In Japan, consequently, the eroduction is needed—small outlet for prurient interest or simple curiosity being found elsewhere. Though any number of illegally imported blue films and tapes are around, they are expensive, difficult to obtain and dangerous to show. For the average, interested moviegoer, the eroduction is all that there is.
Thus, unlike other countries where a free access to pornography has resulted in a satisfied curiosity, a stilled prurience, and emptier and emptier porno houses, Japan retains a compulsive and relatively obsessed audience. There are perhaps deeper psychological reasons for this, as may be apparent later in these notes, and in any event attendance is still good enough that the eroduction business remains a solvent one.
At the height of eroduction production twenty small companies made some two hundred such pictures each year. The shooting-time for each remains short—a week at the most; studios are seldom used, rather actual apartments, houses, etc. are seen; wages are low; and the cost of making such a film can be quite reasonable.
The released film is triple-billed and leased to a distributing chain which owns its own theaters. There were in Tokyo over twenty such chains (Kanto Films, Okura Productions, Tokyo Kyoe, Roppo, etc.) and the profits from the film are divided in such a way that from the per-picture average admission price more than one quarter goes to the original producing company, less than one quarter to the distribution company, and one half to the theater.
This division would seem unfair to a production company owning no theaters, but there are actually very few such. Usually, the production company, the distribution chain, and the theater management all belong to the same corporation. The profits are therefore both total and considerable. There were over one hundred eroduction theaters in Tokyo (and probably nearly one thousand in all of Japan) with an average capacity of hundreds per house; they are open daily from ten in the morning to ten at night, and they are always partially filled. Given the small original budget and the low cost of overhead, the profits are considerable.
The situation is somewhat analogous to that of the porno houses in America where the product costs little, upkeep is negligible, and admission prices are high. Differences would include the amounts of money authorities must sometimes be paid to allow public showings, and a capricious public which is not to be depended upon.
InJapan, the eroduction is the only type of picture that retains an assured patronage. The mass audience has fallen off in the last decade. Two of the majors (Shintoho and Daiei) are no longer in existence, Nikkatsu has gotten into trouble trying to turn out high-class porno, and...

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APA 6 Citation
Richie, D. (1998). A Lateral View ([edition unavailable]). Stone Bridge Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/562368/a-lateral-view-essays-on-culture-and-style-in-contemporary-japan-pdf (Original work published 1998)
Chicago Citation
Richie, Donald. (1998) 1998. A Lateral View. [Edition unavailable]. Stone Bridge Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/562368/a-lateral-view-essays-on-culture-and-style-in-contemporary-japan-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Richie, D. (1998) A Lateral View. [edition unavailable]. Stone Bridge Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/562368/a-lateral-view-essays-on-culture-and-style-in-contemporary-japan-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Richie, Donald. A Lateral View. [edition unavailable]. Stone Bridge Press, 1998. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.