We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies, published by Duke University Press. The book’s author is Alexander Zahlten, an Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.
In The End of Japanese Cinema Alexander Zahlten moves film theory beyond the confines of film itself, attending to the emergence of new kinds of aesthetics, politics, temporalities, and understandings of film and media. He traces the evolution of a new media ecology through deep historical analyses of the Japanese film industry from the 1960s to the 2000s. Zahlten focuses on three popular industrial genres: pink film (independently distributed softcore pornographic films), Kadokawa (big-budget productions as part of a transmedia strategy), and V-Cinema (direct-to-video films). He examines the conditions of these films’ production to demonstrate how the media industry itself becomes part of the politics of the media text and to highlight the complex negotiation between media and politics, culture, and identity in Japan. Zahlten points to a different history of film, one in which a once-powerful film industry transformed into becoming only one component within a complex media-mix ecology.
We thank Professor Zahlten for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
Could you tell us why your book is titled The End of Japanese Cinema? How did Japanese cinema end and what then began in its place?
The title of the book may sound a bit inflammatory. However it doesn’t propose an end to film in Japan – if we understand that as a body of films, or even a body of interesting films. Rather the book makes a case for a different way of approaching and understanding film and other media from Japan, but also more generally. At the same time, it provides a history of film in Japan from the 1960s to the 2000s. You might already notice the difference I am making between “Japanese film” and “film in Japan.”
Very roughly speaking, in phase one of much of English-language scholarship on film from Japan there was the idea that one watches masterworks by great directors as more or less standalone pieces of art, yet also, somewhat paradoxically, to learn something about a more or less imagined Japan. In the 1990s there was a move away from these tendencies towards what we might call micro-histories that relied on rigorous archival work and tried hard to stay away from grand narratives and larger historical trajectories. There was also an attempt to legitimize films from Japan not primarily as “great art” but as having “radical politics.” It still remained focused on film as an almost hermetic medium, and the afterlife of phase one – even in its rejection – was pretty strong. The current media situation points us towards understanding these approaches as sometimes limiting and in many ways problematic lenses. What was previously understood as “Japanese cinema” simply has too many blind spots.
Rather, we now see deeply interconnected media channels constituting immensely complex webs of production, distribution and reception, in which film plays an important role but is part of a larger system. These webs extend far beyond the confines of the cinema, and certainly far beyond a bounded national context. The result is a fundamental transformation in what and how film means, and as a result we need a different perspective, and different theoretical frameworks, to grasp that transformation.
That said, the point the book makes is less that the situation for film has changed – although it has in important ways – than that it allows us to see that a different perspective was possible and necessary all along. To do that, it looks at three points in Japanese film and media history where decisive changes took place and new genres appeared that revolutionized the idea of what film is.
Can you briefly tell us about the three genres of films–V-Cinema, Pink Film, and Kadokawa Film–that you explore in the book?
The book uses these three genres to map the larger history of film in Japan from the 1960s to the 2000s. Such a history has, I think, been missing – at the same time the book makes a case for looking beyond just “film history.” These genres all appeared at what were perceived moments of crisis for film in Japan, and introduced quite radical change.
Pink films are what might be called a specific kind of sexploitation films, of which thousands have been produced since the early 1960s, with both highly experimental and incredibly generic films among them. Kadokawa Film appeared in the mid-1970s and introduced what was called the media-mix to film – completely changing how film was made and really defining pop culture in Japan throughout the 1980s. V-Cinema is a straight-to-video genre that established a very different space for film, and used the technology of video to make a case for a nostalgic but also ironic “rewind” in a time of crisis.
Yet because these are all very popular genres, not “respectable” as high art or radical politics (at least not in the way it is conventionally understood), and often have pretty politically problematic sides to them as well, they have been pretty much ignored in scholarship until now. Only Pink Film has gotten a modicum of attention more recently. These genres revolutionized what film itself meant and how it functioned.
One thing I should add, though, is that the book applies a slightly unusual definition of genre, under the term of “industrial genre.” Essentially, this means that the industrial structures and their activities themselves are textual. They produced an argument that was read, experienced, decoded. And in the case of industrial genres it matched the argument the films were making with their stories and styles. So narrative, style and industry create a complex system that works in lockstep to create an overarching textuality with a decipherable stance.
What led to your interest in these genres of films? How did you first begin learning about them and seeing them?
Only three years after their first appearance, Pink films already made up almost half of all films produced in Japan – that is from zero to 225 in three years! Yet when I started researching Pink Film almost nothing had been written about it – it seemed as if the films never existed, or played no role for film in Japan. This is still mostly the case for Kadokawa Film – which at one point had produced seven of the ten most successful Japanese films of all times, and V-Cinema, which was also revolutionary.
So my initial, first interest in these films had a somewhat vague and superficial motivation: to find out more about what had been ignored or hidden, yet seemed to have been both a massively large and consequential part of film in Japan.
It was only once I had made some headway into that research that I really understood the impact these genres had, and the larger trajectory they pointed at. It was a trajectory that led far beyond the conventional understanding of “cinema” and pointed to deep transformations of how we engage with, understand, and live with media. It has much to do with the emergence of new kind of media ecology. That is when I felt that this could be an important project.
What has it been like to write about film genres that have not been widely explored in English-language scholarship or necessarily seen by many people in the West?
First of all, it can be a bit lonely! Even Japanese film specialists, for the most part, haven’t seen a lot of Pink films or V-Cinema, much less researched their industrial structures and practices. So there aren’t many people to talk to about specific aspects of the genres, while if you bring up a scene in a famous Ozu or Ghibli film everyone will know what you are talking about. In addition, when I started the project I was based in Germany, which barely had anyone seriously working on film in Japan in the entire country.
But it was also exciting, and once the larger questions I was pursuing crystallized a real sense of direction and method emerged.
One challenge many researchers are faced with – especially with regard to Japan – is that of not accessible or not even extant films or other media. The other aspect, especially when researching the industrial context, is gaining access to information and people that were actually involved at the time. Luckily, because I was program director for Nippon Connection, the largest festival for film from Japan, for many years, I had contacts to many people in the film industry. This was a real boon; in fact I’m not sure I could have done the work I did without those very fortunate circumstances – and the generosity of the people I met through that work.
Why do you think the “media mix” media ecology grew so swiftly in Japan in the post-1960 period?
The appearance of a media mix media ecology is one of the defining factors for media after the 1960s – and for a life increasingly with and through media. Interconnections between media existed long before the 1960s: Lively interplay took place between radio and film, newspapers and literature, etc.
But the 1960s see a different level of volume and complexity in these interconnections. This arguably leads to emergent new dynamics on the one hand and an increasing overlap of life and media on the other. There are some conducive conditions, such as the increasing affluence and of the sheer size of Tokyo, where most of the media industry is concentrated. In a way the complexity of the media ecology reached a tipping point, and a generation grew up immersed in, or rather part of, that ecology. In a way this then becomes a self-amplifying system – and maybe the most complex media ecology in the world. We really still don’t understand the whole scope of this phenomenon, and this book was an attempt to begin that work using film as a thread to guide us through the changes.
What kinds of archives and sources–beyond the films themselves–did you consult in order to understand the changing structures of Japan’s media industries and the actual physical experience of seeing films in these genres?
Much of what I needed to research was difficult to access through any official archive. Many aspects, such as the experience of going to see certain kinds of films in certain kinds of theaters, is of course by definition not directly accessible.
Accessing the films themselves was definitely a problem. Only a tiny fraction of pink films were ever released on VHS or DVD, and official archives aren’t a great help (eventually Video on Demand services were helpful). Researching V-Cinema films meant you had to track down a VHS when a video store was having a sales event due to bankruptcy.
Reliable film industry data for the “respectable” film industry was fairly accessible, but much less so for the genres I was dealing with. In many cases, interviews with and help from current and former participants in these genres were central in gaining access to such information. One incredibly generous example is Satô Keiko, a legendary producer in Pink Film since the early 1960s with the company Kokuei. From the background, she has shaped the face of Japanese film in all reaches of the film industry, She is a fascinating figure in her own right, and one of the coolest people on the planet. Much of the research on Pink Film wouldn’t have been possible without her.
So, in the end it was about piecing together the discourse around film and the discourse through film by searching out many different kinds of sources, few of which were readily available. Maybe that makes it sound frustrating and hard, but it was actually incredibly interesting detective work. And I got to meet many fascinating people along the way.
How would you like your book to expand or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s film and media history?
Maybe it sounds primarily negative at first: The book tries to move away from perspectives focused on individual geniuses, or tracing a very local (though covertly national) context. The book is emphatically not about delineating a national cinema. And it tries to counter the tendency of the current boom of media theory, which tends to be highly Euro-America centric and full of universalizing pronouncements.
However I see it mainly as a positive project: To try to find a way to link different systems – such as industry, media technologies, and narratives and styles – to be able to stay attentive to specific historical contexts and to more mobile, less specifically context-bound factors. It’s an attempt to develop an approach that looks at that link. The main solution I came up with was to see industrial structures and practices as aesthetic texts, and to see aesthetic texts such as films as part of structures, as structural and structuring in themselves.
Are there three or four movies that you would highly recommend to someone who is not already acquainted with these genres but would like to begin to understand this period in Japan’s media history?
Wow, that’s an impossible request! There are over eight thousand films from these genres, and it is the heterogeneity within the genres that really helps you understand the larger formation. Also, the films that are more interesting to watch as films are often the most misrepresentative of the whole… So let me simply recommend one film from each genre that is especially interesting in itself.
Pink Film: The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Meike Mitsuru, 2003) is a hallucinatory anti Iraq War sexploitation film that shows how even with the extremely modest budget means of pink film ambition can go far. Accidentally caught between secret agents hunting down a replica of George W. Bush’s finger (that can trigger a nuclear apocalypse), Sachiko receives a bullet to the head that turns her into a genius and a giant fan of Noam Chomsky’s theory of linguistics. It isn’t free of the general problems of Pink Film’s politics of sexuality and gender, but Meike – one of the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Pink Film – at least works against the open misogyny that characterizes a large part of early Pink Film.
Kadokawa Film: Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Somai Shinji, 1981 – not the horrifying 2016 movie) is a stunning film that crafts an outrageous premise, delirious long takes, a very honest coming-of-age story, and almost surreal postmodern irony into one of the defining works of 1980s’ pop culture.
V-Cinema: Neo Chinpira Teppodama Pyu (Takahashi Banmei. 1990) features one of the biggest stars of V-Cinema, Aikawa Sho. Aikawa is a firework of charisma and intelligence, and this story of a young thug that tries to procrastinate away an assassination assignment is a fantastic platform for his ironic charm. It also helps alleviate the chronic masculinist romanticism that characterizes V-Cinema, though it certainly doesn’t dispense with it.
Could you tell us briefly about your next book project?
Currently I’m writing a book about another aspect of the transformation of the media ecology since the 1960s: our shifting relationship to fiction and actuality. One way to track this is through the changing treatment of death and finality in the media mix. The volume is bookended by two actual funerals, each held for a fictional character – one in 1970, one in 2007. What happens between these funerals really transforms how we feel about fiction, “reality,” and possibility. Though I started this project a long time ago, it in many ways directly relates to the discussion around the “post-truth” era.
The book I am ready to get going on after that will track the history of different strands of media produced and disseminated by individuals and groups of peers– what in English is often very imperfectly called “amateur media”, though a large focus will be on film. This will have a wider historical scope, beginning in the 1910s and leading up to today.