Contemporary Sino-Japanese Relations on Screen provides an illuminating perspective on Japan-China relations in the early post-Cold War period, a time of profound change in this relationship in terms of both politics and the economy. Author Griseldis Kirsch uses a selection of Japanese films and television dramas to examine “how the discourses around China’s rise evolved in Japan.” Her aim in this study is to reveal “how Japan saw its emerging rival during this crucial time” when, following the collapse of the Japanese asset price bubble, China came to challenge Japan as the leading economic power in Asia (p. 9).
Kirsch’s analysis is based on a selection of (by my count) nineteen films and eight television dramas produced between 1989 and 2005, as well as several earlier films and other popular culture productions taken up for comparative purposes. The selected materials span a variety of genres, from romantic comedies to yakuza crime dramas, and include both major studio productions and independent art-house films. The book’s analysis reveals differences between films and television dramas and also across genres, while emphasizing recurrent patterns in the representation of China in Japanese popular media. Kirsch includes films set in or featuring characters from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the People’s Republic of China, allowing for comparisons of the ways in which political and economic relations with different parts of Greater China were reflected on the Japanese screen.
Following a brief overview of the history of the Sino-Japanese relationship, Kirsch reviews major theories of Otherness drawn from sociology, postcolonial theory, and cultural and media studies to clearly and usefully define the ideas and terms that inform her analysis. In characterizing the representation of China in Japanese media, Kirsch makes particular use of insights drawn from postcolonial theory. She thus builds on the work of Koichi Iwabuchi, who studied Japanese reactions to the reception of Japanese popular culture in Asia and found that they were, “by and large, postcolonial, [End Page 491] filled with a desire to (still) dominate Asia” (p. 27). Kirsch similarly finds that the Japanese films and television dramas she examines continued older colonial attitudes toward China, bolstering Japanese identity by constructing a hierarchical relationship. These productions served the function of “Othering China, appropriating it for the sake of Japan within binary oppositions.” She explains that “this Other is largely about self-assertion, it gives identity to the Japanese Self in delimitation to its greatest rival in Asia with whom it shared a long history of interaction and domination/subordination” (pp. 27–28). Moreover, she observes, “with a history of looking at China with a colonial gaze, notions of Japan’s superiority continue to dominate the present” (p. 27). Kirsch also draws from the works of Alois Hahn, Werner Faulstich, and Knut Hickethier the notion that the foreign Other in media appears in various manifestations, for example as exotic, as threatening, or as an object of desire. Themes of a postcolonial binary characterized by Japanese dominance and Chinese subordination and by perceptions of China as both an object of “horror” and a source of “salvation” organize much of the rest of Kirsch’s study.
The next three chapters, which form the core of the book, provide an analysis of how the changing relationship with China was reflected in Japanese film and television dramas. Chapter 2 covers the period from 1989 to the mid-1990s. Even after the bubble, Japan remained the most economically developed country in Asia, and the representation of China in films and dramas produced in this period reflected this dominance. Japan at the time served as an important source of inspiration, aid, and investment for the Chinese modernization program, and many of the films and dramas portray Chinese and other Asians who come to Japan to study or work, while others portray Japanese traveling to China. In these examples, “Japan is shown as an economic superpower that attracts foreign students and workers alike while pumping money” into Chinese...