PRINT February 2013


Toshio Matsumoto, Funeral Parade of Roses, 1969, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 107 minutes.

JAPANESE CINEMA became international at the moment it became national: the two formations bound together in the same instant. Two modes of visibility folded into each other in ways that made them as inseparable as they were ostensibly discrete. In the 1950s, film culture expanded globally, following waves of revolution and decolonization and the founding of new national entities. Paradoxically, it was this internationalization of cinema that made certain cinemas national, visible through the prism of nationalism.

The terms for a specific national cinema were usually established from without, typically by panels at international film festivals and similar bodies that evaluated films far from where they were produced.¹ What made a cinema national in the eyes of international observers? In an increasingly postnational present, the features that defined the national cinemas of the ’50s and ’60s look ever more similar, as if beneath the irreducible differences that define unique cultures, customs, histories, and peoples was a shared subterranean base. Among the requisite features was a determined balance between local elements and global dimensions, between singularity and universality; and evidence of an indigenous brutality ultimately redeemed by an inviolable humanism. A strange intimacy fueled by exoticism gives such works an aura in reverse—the unique appearance, one might say, modifying Benjamin, of a nearness, however distant it may be. Distance became the criterion for proximity. The work of Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, along with those of Ingmar Bergman (Sweden), Federico Fellini (Italy), Satyajit Ray (India), and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal), are among the most representative examples of the cinemas received as “national,” despite their vast differences from one another, or rather, perhaps, because of them.

At work in this generation of national cinemas was an imagined community of imagined communities, realms if not reigns of images aligned to convey an image of the nation. The ’50s in particular made possible such vistas, seemingly everywhere, turning cinemas at once into global villages and world expositions. Critics sought authenticity in balance with accessibility, and a filmic extension of cultural values, such as the “sadness of things” (mono no aware) in Yasujirō Ozu’s cinema. Japan may have been the first test case for the phenomenon of national cinema, as films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai, the Legend of Musashi Miyamoto (1954) received honorary Academy Awards and plaudits at Venice and Cannes. In the paradoxical logic of national cinemas, Japanese cinema—exotic, unfamiliar, different—became familiar. Its very distance became the source of its uncanny nearness. Apart from the exceptional quality of many of these films as works of art, they found approval by effecting a difference without difference. Their impression of proximity stemmed from the absence of a vernacular particularity. They seemed to speak a universal Japanese: Japanese in the dialect of what Benjamin called an originary “pure language.” Similarly, many of these films exceeded genre, appearing generic—which is to say, they belonged to the supergenre of national cinema. No film from this moment is more emblematic, perhaps, than Rashomon, which takes place across multiple temporalities and historicities, equally classical, modern, and postmodern. Its allegorical address and fantastic ontology allow it to appear essentially Japanese and essentially universal at the same time.

The international recognition of Japanese cinema as Japanese came at a critical juncture: The country’s film industry, among the oldest in the world, emerged after World War II and the subsequent Allied occupation intact, reinvigorated, and in transition. The ’50s were a famously productive decade for many of Japan’s most noted directors, such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, as well as Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Kaneto Shindō, among others, all born around the turn of the century; but by the decade’s end a new generation—including Nagisa Ōshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Yoshishige (known as Kijū) Yoshida, and Shōhei Imamura, all born in the ’20s or ’30s—was ascendant. Following their rebellion against the Japanese studio system and decision to work independently, apart from the established industry, these younger directors would come to be known as the Japanese, or Shōchiku, Nouvelle Vague. By the ’60s, when Japanese cinema had gained attention around the globe, these two forces, not necessarily opposed, had established a framework for locating Japanese cinema in the world: the internationally recognized art cinema of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, et al., and the New Wave rebellion. Together, these formed a dialectic between a Japanese national cinema and its critique. That is to say, the Japanese New Wave was, in its own way, also a national cinema—a counternational cinema that still held as its object the nation as such. Ōshima’s oeuvre, for example, systematically undermines Japanese ideologies of war, masculinity, sexuality, and power but retains as its structuring motif the image of Japan. In this sense, the counternational remained within the logic of national cinemas, even if, beyond this dialectic, other cinemas worked against the image of Japan as nation.

WHEN JAPANESE CINEMA came to be seen as an exemplary national cinema, it signaled for international audiences a set of features that designated Japan—an image and concept of Japan. Japan became apparent through the optic of Japanese cinema. This process was fraught with fantasy and misapprehension, as well as significant degrees of audiovisual stereotyping. Formal and stylistic elements in the service of the nation’s (presumed) cultural sensibilities—stillness, restraint, unexpressed emotion—came to determine many of the perceived features of Japan’s national cinema, whether or not a given film comported with these traits. And these elements were in turn understood as faithful reflections of the nation itself. A Japonisme was at work in the imagining and construction of a Japanese cinema suffused with Japaneseness, a sequel to the phenomenon that had occurred with the European discovery of Japanese art in the late nineteenth century, when the empirical Japan became indistinguishable from its representation. In both instances of Japonisme, the image of Japan precedes, and in some fashion overtakes, the possibility of a Japan existing apart from its reflection. For Japaneseness to become visible internationally, it had to exist already as an image—not discovered but recovered from an imaginaire. In the historical Japonisme as in its cinematic successor, the image of Japan was always the objective, the objectif and object, and the empirical Japan was only a by-product, if it came into the picture at all.

At work in the trope of Japonisme, then, is an economy of visualizing Japaneseness before the fact, a visualization that makes any appearance the repetition of an image, its afterimage. The trope is familiar in many iterations of Japonisme, in which figures such as Sergei Eisenstein and later Roland Barthes posit Japan as an imaginary signifier, an image before a referent—lost in translation, as Sofia Coppola would have it, subsumed in an audiovisual murmur. An image lost and recovered, rediscovered in the disclosure of its essential quality as image, an image in essence, a priori. The “Japan-image,” as Gilles Deleuze might have called it. In his 1970 Empire of Signs, Barthes calls the Japan he describes (and visited in 1966) a “fictive nation.” The signifier “Japan” in Japonisme is a receptacle for any and all fantasies about an imaginary Japan, an imagined country that appears in the first instance as a sign. Japan as such is a design, a place derived from a sign. Eisenstein indulges in a related reverie: “It is a weird and wonderful feeling,” he says in his 1929 essay “Beyond the Shot,” “to write a booklet about something that does not in fact exist . . . about the cinema of a country that has an infinite multiplicity of cinematic characteristics but which are scattered all over the place—with the sole exception of its cinema.”² According to Eisenstein’s logic, all of Japan, its arts and practices, is a cinema before cinema. Japan is a priori, or déjà, cinema, and cinema already Japan, déjàpan.

Throughout the ’60s, Japan’s national and counternational cinemas, both on either side bound together by the ineradicability of the concept of the nation, maintained the rhetoric of national cinemas and its integrity as a category designed to render visible and validate certain films. But there were other important forces in play, including the vibrant avant-garde (i.e., the films of artists and underground figures such as Shūji Terayama) and popular cinemas. And it is in the avant-garde and popular cinemas of the period that a third term intervenes to deconstruct the dialectic, to denationalize the Japanese national cinema by refusing to engage the rhetoric of nation in the terms established a priori, elsewhere.

Avant-garde film and video art in Japan reached a critical moment in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Terayama’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1970) stepped out of the shadows of Japan’s subculture and into the glare of the sexual revolution. Matsumoto’s first feature-length film, Funeral Parade of Roses was produced and distributed by the production company Art Theater Guild, which played a critical role in the development of Japan’s art-film culture. The film is a stylish reworking of Oedipus Rex, featuring a cast of largely nonprofessional actors from Japan’s gay and transgendered underground. Equal parts documentary and opera, with a fair amount of ultraviolence and Flaming Creatures, the film influenced filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick—whose A Clockwork Orange (1971) is said to have been inspired in part by it—to Takashi Ito, Matsumoto’s student, later an important experimental filmmaker in his own right. Emperor Tomato Ketchup, meanwhile, imagines a hyperviolent and hypersexual world in which children seize control from adults. Operatic, erotic, and apocalyptic, the twenty-seven-minute Emperor Tomato Ketchup (the shortened 1971 version of the feature-length 1970 original) became a manifesto of adolescent revolt. The film includes scenes of absurd sexuality and ironic violence, much of it performed by children.³ Its nihilistic glee, only loosely in the service of political exigency, locates Japan at a critical juncture politically, culturally, economically, and aesthetically. Nineteen seventy-one proved a crucial year for Japan in a number of significant registers: The “Nixon Shock,” Richard Nixon’s decision to remove the US dollar from a gold-based standard, propelled Japan’s postwar economic “miracle” toward greater heights with the subsequent revaluation of the Japanese currency. And the Japanese student protests of the 1960s, primarily directed against the security treaties and military agreements between the United States and Japan that staunchly positioned the two countries as Cold War allies, degenerated into savage infighting that would culminate in the infamous 1972 Asama-Sansō Incident, a hostage crisis perpetrated by members of the leftist United Red Army following a purge of its own members. Against the backdrop of a collapsing oppositional politics and the further consolidation of “Japan Inc.,” Japanese commercial cinema, like its counterparts worldwide, was buffeted by a global economic decline. From this moment of transition, the aesthetic and sexual transgressions of Funeral Parade of Roses and Emperor Tomato Ketchup signaled the dismantling of Japan’s national cinema from within, the denationalization of its cinema by the Japanese cinema itself.

These films’ preoccupations converged with a broader exploration of sexuality, as was evident among the filmmakers of the New Wave—for example in Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre (1969) and, especially, in the profusion of Japan’s “pink” exploitation films. In the same year that Terayama, who had emerged as one of leading figures in Japan’s artistic counterculture, presented his underground masterpiece, Japan’s oldest film studio, Nikkatsu Corporation, announced a turn to soft-core “roman porno” (an abbreviation of “romantic pornography,” Nikkatsu’s brand of pink cinema) as a means of surviving the general economic downturn among the Japanese studios. Within the framework of soft-core, or sexploitation, Nikkatsu continued its practice of granting directors fair degrees of creative freedom: The studio required these films to have a bedroom scene with sex or nudity every ten minutes, approximately six to eight such scenes per film, but demanded little else. As a result, the pink film became an experimental space of its own, attracting a steady flow of talented directors not afraid of roman porno’s taint. Another studio, Toei, made a similar decision to go pink, although not exclusively. But it was Nikkatsu’s pink era, from 1971 to 1988, that produced a number of classic soft-core films bound by their innovative uses of sexuality. For example, Nikkatsu’s first title in the roman-porno series, Shōgorō Nishimura’s 1971 Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon, starring Kazuko Shirakawa, uses Japan’s ubiquitous tenement housing as a panoptic site of late-capitalist boredom and frustration, an ennui that sex does not alleviate but rather intensifies. Nikkatsu’s pink films nurtured several important filmmakers both within and outside the pink genre, notably Yoshimitsu Morita, Yōichi Sai, and Yōjirō Takita, whose 2009 Academy Award for Departures—which, true to the style of the ’50s art film, blends the local and global, the singularity of custom and ritual with the universality of death—created a strangely overdetermined loop linking the tropes of national cinema to the history of pink film.

IF SEXUALITY was an agent of denationalization, genre itself was an even more potent one. Between the ’50s and the ’70s, the influence of popular genre films—from Tōhō Studios’ monster films, including Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954), to Nikkatsu’s youth, yakuza, and pink films—increased steadily. Yet the role played by genre films in the constitution of Japanese cinema, and specifically a denational cinema, is still underrecognized, as are the contributions of studios in identifying and training a generation of directors, talent, and creative staff in genre films that stood in stark contrast to the internationally acclaimed art films that formed Japan’s national cinema. In other words, the most specialized and niche subcultural tropes—those of the underground film—intersected with the most popular and supposedly generic ones, the genre film’s, to forge a denational cinema, one that was Japanese without being national.

It is not surprising that the site of this convergence was a studio: Nikkatsu. Founded in 1912, the company has overcome multiple financial and existential crises throughout its hundred years by changing course repeatedly—from silent films to period dramas to comedies and big-budget action films to pink films—committing only to the concept of a popular cinema. Nikkatsu weathered a wartime consolidation with other studios, postwar expansion followed by radical contraction, the transition to pornography, and ultimately a 1993 bankruptcy filing, from which it emerged after selling off assets and changing ownership, to resume production again, mostly of genre films—particularly horror movies and adaptations of television series. Some of Japan’s most compelling contemporary directors, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike, and Sion Sono, have made genre films with Nikkatsu; Nakata, hired by the studio to make roman porno, was among the last directors tapped by the studio in this capacity. Nikkatsu also developed some of Japan’s most important actors, especially during its golden age of the ’50s and ’60s, including Yūjirō Ishihara, Jō Shishido, and Akira Kobayashi, to name a few. Among its many notable episodes was the firing of its now most celebrated director, Seijun Suzuki, in 1967, following outrage over Suzuki’s legendary yakuza film of that year, Branded to Kill, and the 1971 decision to commit to roman porno as the studio’s new creative direction. However practical the decision to turn to explicit material to keep the studio economically viable, the result was a renewed commitment to genre, even if the specific genre changed.

Nikkatsu’s legacy, then, is the genre film. The studio’s catalogue and its eclectic stable of directors speak to a Japanese cinema comprising multiple genres and not a reflection of the nation in a single master genre; a cinema that moves between and across genres, a cinema of transgenres rather than imagined communities. Nikkatsu’s commitment to genre meant a decommitment to the production of national cinema. By changing shape as often as it did, the studio eluded the transfixing gaze of the nation.

For what seems clearer now in retrospect is that the very idea of the genre film, those films that adhere to convention (however unconventional) and strive for popular appeal, was inimical to the generic universality of the national cinema that emerged in the ’50s and after. Because genre films—yakuza gangster, chanbara sword fighting, pink exploitation films, horror, and animation, to name a few—rely on convention and an all too local vernacular, they suffer from inadequate worldliness, a prerequisite feature of all national cinemas, no matter how local such cinemas might appear on first glance. In spite of their seeming Japaneseness, neither Rashomon nor Ugetsu is particularly provincial: Each film’s address transcends the local conditions it depicts. Genre films, like those made by Nikkatsu from the ’50s through the ’70s, by contrast, are provincial, in highly particular ways: By plunging deeper into a Japanese vernacular they became, according to the logic of national cinemas, less Japanese, less representative. Branded to Kill features an eccentric hitman, Gorō Hanada (Shishido), who finds motivation for his hits in the smell of boiling rice. Here rituals of the gangster underworld—a subcultural sphere or “province” of its own, owing allegiance to network rather than nation—meld with a highly personal fetish. Hanada’s addiction to the smell of rice and his sensitivity to butterflies read as parodies of the very notion of Japanese character, manifestations of a perversion so extreme as to exceed the national. Whatever Hanada is, he is not an archetype. Meanwhile, the film’s oneiric structure—a strobelike series of bizarre and violent episodes, each only tangentially connected to the last—thwarts, as if intentionally, the temporality on which concepts of national cinema rest, that of a continuous flow of time that links the prior to the present instance. Here each moment, like each character, seems wholly particular, emerging into the present with no antecedents. In exaggerated form, this is the irruptive temporality of genre itself, working against the humanist universalism of national cinema.

In genre films, the image of Japan is replaced by a series of utterances that speak to a moment and not a recuperated image of the nation. There is no Japan that preexists its articulation and maintains its existence across time, no aura. In the genre film, Japan appears in one moment and disappears in the next, leaving only traces. The next iteration of Japan is another Japan, not necessarily the same Japan as before. And this Japan is not a nation but rather an amalgamation of vernacular instantiations that interrupt the continuous image of a Japan always (and already) present. Nikkatsu’s films are Japanese without producing an enduring image of Japan. The more Japanese they became, the less Japanese they seemed.

Only now, looking at the landscape of Japanese cinema between the ’50s and ’70s, does much of Japan’s celebrated national cinema look completely fantastical, forged in the projection of an imagined and even imaginary country that comprises only images, producing and reproducing the empty signifier of Japonisme. The underground and genre films produced during this time and outside the world framing of national cinemas engendered a de-Japanization of Japan’s national cinema, the de-Japanization of a Japan constituted a priori in the eyes of those who could only see in Japanese cinema an image fixed in advance. In this sense, these films constituted, in opposition to a national cinema, another Japanese cinema, from within; a cinema that became less Japanese the more it became so, effecting, in the image of another Japan, a kind of anti- or de-Japonisme: déjàponisme.

Akira Mizuta Lippit is a professor of comparative literature and of East Asian languages and cultures, and chair of the division of critical studies in the School of Cinematic Arts, at the University of California, Los Angeles.


1. This is not to say individual filmmakers don’t also participate in the production of a national cinema from within: Kurosawa was often accused in Japan of catering to Western sensibilities, in full awareness of his effect elsewhere. His was a self-induced and reflexive Japonisme.

2. Sergei Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot,” in Selected Works, ed. and trans. Richard Taylor, vol. 1, Writings, 1922–34 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 138.

3. For more on Terayama’s influence on Japanese but also global countercultures, see Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shūji (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).