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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #34: July 11, 2002

"A Hundred Years of Japanese Film" by Donald Richie

Reviewed by Takahiro Miyao (GLOCOM)

Title: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
Author: Donald Richie
Publisher: Kodansha International
Date/Time: October 2001
Pages: English text 312 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 4-7700-2682-X


This is an extraordinary book about Japanese movies, written by the foremost Western authority on Japanese film, Donald Richie. What is special about this book is the fact that this is not just an introduction or a summary for Japanese movies, but in effect an empirical study of Donald Richie's ideas:

(1) The Japanese style of film making is "presentational" rather than "representational."
(2) The tradition and the modern coexist in Japanese film, as is the case with Japanese society and culture in general.

Regarding the first point, he says that "one of the ways in which I have attempted to identify the demands of an assumed native culture is by presupposing a polarity between what I identify as a presentational ethos, which I find more in Asia than in the West, and a representational ethos, which I find more in the West than in Asia." The presentational means stylizations of raw reality, while the representational means the representation of reality itself, where "realism" has a privileged position in the West, while it is just one of many stylzations in the East.

This idea may be applied to explain the enormous popularity of "manga and anime," especially with "virtual reality," in Japan. Donald Richie says that "the differences between the seventeenth-century garden of the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto and the computer game Dragonball are manifest, but their similarities should not be overlooked," and the similarities are "the taming of nature, the idealizing of the environment, and the making of everything into what it ought to be rather than what it actually is." This essentially is the same thing as what he says in his Epilogue in a recently complied volume, "The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan" (
), that there is a similarity between a land-scape garden built by the daimyo and golf courses created in forest areas; "Everything changes. ----- What is important, and what is eventually defining, I decided, is this genius for the harness of change."

This leads to his second point, i.e., the coexistence of the tradition and the modern in Japanese film. While it is not easy to detect traditional traits in modern films in Japan, its traditional accent is still there. "In the pictorial compositions of both the earliest and the latest films (The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin vs. Neon Genesis: Evangelion, for example), I have traced connections and found ratios of empty and full which can be viewed as typical," says Donald Richie with the following conclusion: "The living tradition (unseen, even unconscious); this amalgam of supposition, conjecture, surmise, and accepted assumption; this aesthetic celebration of pattern and composition: this extreme angle from which life is to be viewed; this need for an authoritative and Japanese voice that is what this book has been about."

The following is an outline of the book on the publisher's webpage:

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs
By Donald Richie

Donald Richie is one of the foremost authorities on Japanese cinema. After serving as Curator of Film at MOMA, Richie moved to Japan, where he immersed himself in the Japanese film world, eventually producing several classic works, including books on the world-renowned directors Kurosawa and Ozu.

In A Hundred Years, Richie offers a highly readable insider's look at the achievements of Japanese filmmakers. He begins in the late 1800 when the incipient industry took its inspiration from the traditional stories of Kabuki and Noh theater, and finishes with the latest award-winning dramas showcased at Cannes.

In between, Richie explores the roots and uniqueness of Japan's contribution to world cinema, illuminates the careers of Japan's rising stars and celebrated directors, and offers a fascinating view of the strategies and politics of the movie studios themselves.

For the movie-going reader, a selective guide in Part Two provides capsule reviews of the major Japanese films available in VHS and DVD formats, as well as those televised on standard and cable channels.

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