- Japanese Mythology in Film: A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime by Yoshiko Okuyama, and: From Dog Bridegroom to Wolf Girl: Contemporary Japanese Fairy-Tale Adaptations in Conversation with the West by Mayako Murai
Japan’s recent burst of interest in its indigenous folk narrative has led to an extraordinary production of literary, artistic, and cinematic works. An active exchange has begun in which Japanese-made animated movies and TV series have made previously esoteric motifs of that country’s folk culture increasingly familiar among young patrons of these art forms in the West. While valuing its own folk traditions, though, Japanese culture has long been curious about parallel folk traditions in the West. So, as a parallel development, interest in Western tales has grown of late, with publications on their history and possible psychosexual meanings becoming so popular in the 1990s that Japanese publishers called the phenomenon a “Grimm Boom.” These intersecting developments have led to increasingly complex works for audiences of both popular and formal art.
These two new books thus are both timely and welcome to scholars interested in this lively [End Page 236] cross-cultural interaction. Folk-infused cinema and literature have become more widely available to English-speaking researchers in subtitled or translated versions, but these new analyses come from scholars fluent in the country’s language and contemporary milieu. Such references provide lucid and detailed guides to levels of meaning not readily accessible to English-speaking audiences.
Okuyama’s work, based on materials and units originally developed for an undergraduate course on Japanese mythology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, will be more accessible to readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture. It begins with clear definitions of the concepts and methods of semiotics, followed by brief discussions of the nature and scholarship of mythology and storytelling and a guide to how to apply these bodies of knowledge to watching film. This guide is intended to provide basic teaching material for undergraduates, but it is also helpful for scholars approaching film and anime from a social science or folkloristic perspective.
The heart of the book consists of chapters that “unpack” the often dense emic meanings in a set of well-chosen recent Japanese films, half live-action and half animated. Most folklorists will be familiar with Okuyama’s choices from the anime work of Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke (2000) and Spirited Away (2001), both of which are readily available and have been the topic of folkloristic analysis in English. Mamoru Oshii’s dystopian anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) has also generated attention among film studies academics, though it has remained relatively unknown to folklorists. Okuyama clearly explicates this work’s links to Western prototypes like the 1982 American film Blade Runner. But, she more tellingly fits the film’s complex portrayal of humanoid robots (or increasingly mechanized humans) into Japan’s deep folkloric background of highly realistic dolls, which are felt to possess or develop a sense of consciousness over time. More folklorists should be aware of Yuki Urishibara’s manga Mushishi (2006), which has been adapted into a widely acclaimed and award-winning anime TV series. Nominally the experiences of an itinerant shaman and herbal doctor, the series creatively builds on a broad range of widely known Japanese folk beliefs and legends.
The live-action films handled are even less known among English-speaking scholars, but Okuyama effectively makes a case for learning about them. Onmyōji (2001, 2003) is a two-part film based on a tenth-century aristocratic exorcist, while Dororo (2007) presents the quest of a medieval samurai to free himself from a curse placed on him as a result of a Faustian bargain with the demonic world by his ambitious father. Both...