- The Japanese Period Film: A Critical Analysis
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Much like the importance of the year 1868 as a historical marker for the opening of Western influence to Japan, the year 1951 is important for the opening of Japanese film culture to the West. It was that year that Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon won first prize at the Venice Film Festival and introduced Western audiences to the Japanese period film and Japanese culture. According to Donald Ritchie, the consequent popularity of the film surprised the Japanese who believed that a “historical film” would be unacceptable in the West. Part of that concern could be attributed to the content and form of the historical narratives that were steeped in Japanese history and narrative traditions. For the Japanese the period film, whose history extended well before Kurosawa’s film, was a means of examining the present through the past. By so doing it employed motifs and historical characters and events that the Japanese felt were not accessible to Western audiences.
S.A. Thornton’s book provides a historical analysis of the Japanese period film through its narrative conventions and major motifs. The author contends that the period film was established in Japan between 1923 and 1939 when the economic and political situation in Japan “created a specific need for a period piece in film” (38). Thornton argues throughout the book that the period film was part of a narrative tradition that used the past to inform the present. The author’s aim was to provide a “short manual on how to read the narrative of Japanese period films” (6). The book expands on that notion by detailing how cultural institutions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Kabuki and Noh theatre, and contemporary literature contributed to the rich narrative tradition of the Japanese period film. Central to Thornton’s thesis is the development of the period piece in both storytelling and theatre as a means of commenting on the present in terms of the past. The Ako Ronin incident (“47 Ronin”) provides one example. Shortly after the mass suicides of the forty-seven vassals in 1703, a staging of the event in Edo was closed after only three performances. Subsequent Kabuki productions displaced the incident to an earlier historical period and were successfully staged without occurrence. As the period film developed it was able to inherit these narrative traditions of setting a contemporary issue in the historical past.
The Japanese Period Film is organized into three major sections: The Narrative Set in the Past; Realism in the Narrative; and The Scene in Japanese Narrative. In each section the author provides insightful discussion of key films, their historical basis, and their narrative progenitors in Japanese literature and drama. The majority of the book is devoted to pre-1970 films and follows a basic chronological order. In the first section, after providing some basic iconographic elements of the period film, Thornton discusses the characteristics of the Japanese hero within this narrative tradition. The Japanese hero has three fundamental characteristics: he is a real, historical character; he is connected with a political center such as Edo, Kyoto, or Kamakura; and he is foremost a tragic hero. These characteristics, the author notes, make the Japanese hero “particularly suitable as the subject of the [End Page 22] period film, whose function is criticism of society” (51). Thornton designates three basic types of protagonists in the Japanese period film: the tragic or noble hero, the anti-hero or nihilist, and the social or benevolent hero. The narratives connected with these heroes relate how the confrontation between Buddhism and Confucianism formed the basis for Japanese tragedy. Confucian doctrine based on the humanity of communal and social relationships is brought into conflict with the Buddhist doctrine of a humanity that is characterized by suffering. Thornton relates this through the concept of the angry spirit and how it is depicted within each of these heroes: through madness, suffering, and paternalism. This religious aspect of the Japanese period film is one of its central characteristics. The last chapter of this section is devoted to...