[UTCP Juventus] Mark ROBERTS

30 August, 2010 Mark ROBERTS, UTCP Juventus

During summer vacation, young researchers at UTCP introduce themselves in the UTCP Juventus series. Today, Mark Roberts introduces his research interests and current project.

My research is focused on the relationship between socially conscious films and the modernist tendency in the Japanese cinema during the years 1955-64. This project begins with several ideas that I originally explored as part of my dissertation.


Known as the "Shôwa 30s" [昭和三十年代], the years 1955-64 stand as one of the most dynamic periods of postwar Japan. Coinciding with the celebratory construction of the Tokyo Tower, the Japanese film industry reached its point of apogee, with ticket sales peaking at over 1.1 billion in 1958, and production reaching 555 domestic feature films in 1960. In terms of spectators and films, the Japanese cinema was at this moment the largest in the world. Yet in the superheated atmosphere of a modernizing Japan, audience demographics were changing rapidly, the film industry entered a phase of overproduction, and the studios themselves were riven by internal conflicts between management and the rising generation of younger directors. In effect, Japanese society was changing faster than the film industry, whose production system struggled to respond to the changing composition and tastes of postwar audiences, and the onset of a long battle against television.

The situation of the most prominent directors of the early postwar period was symptomatic of these rapid changes. If the most important critical tendency in the Japanese cinema during the immediate postwar was the humanistic realism of Kurosawa Akira, Kinoshita Keisuke, and Imai Tadashi, it is significant that by the mid-1950s these directors had begun to lose the support of their audiences. Similarly, the films of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and their contemporaries came to be seen as increasingly out of step with postwar life. In the case of Ozu, for example, the sense of loss evoked by his films -- what David Bordwell describes as an implicit critique of “the broken promises of Meiji” -- no longer seemed to transcend a general mood of nostalgia for pre-war Japan. To the generation of directors who started in the Shôwa 30s -- Masumura Yasuzô, Oshima Nagisa, Imamura Shohei, et alia -- the rigor and refinement of Ozu’s late style seemed too conservative or even politically reactionary, more the imposition of a false harmony than a reflection of contemporary Japan.

During the Shôwa 30s, then, a younger generation of directors worked to establish a new, critical relationship with the film-going public. Broadly, they shared an interest in finding new ways to represent Japanese society, even in films that were planned as mass-entertainment program pictures. In a bid to maintain their hold on audiences, the studios rationalized production, quickly adopting new technologies such as CinemaScope and color film. The youngest directors embraced these innovations, exploring new forms and narrative techniques. In parallel, the culture of film journals grew to provide the directors and critics friendly to their cause with new venues, and in this fashion broached more theoretical debates about the nature and social role of the cinema. Together, the films of the rising generation of directors and the criticism supporting them may be seen as a response to and rejection of the traditional studio production and its industrial basis, and as a response to perceived failures of postwar realism. Beyond that, however, we can see the young directors and screenwriters beginning to theorize new forms of the individual, and showing these new individuals using the cinema.

The general view shared by Western critics has been that the young directors of this period found their voice around 1960, in a movement known as the Shochiku New Wave. While this has been a compelling narrative, it also fails to account for some of the more significant developments of the period. In contrast, my approach has been to consider the notion of a "socially conscious cinema" more broadly, especially in relation to the popular genres of comedy and satire. As we peel away the veneer of nostalgia and evaluate individual works and directors in relation to the studio system rather than simply following an auteurist understanding of film production, I believe a more complex and contradictory picture emerges.

Axes of Inquiry

My research has been focused on the cinema of the Shôwa 30s in historical context, with emphasis on the works of Masumura Yasuzô. I am interested in the specific formal and thematic qualities that emerged in socially conscious films produced during this decade, and the changes in the way they sought to represent Japanese society. My inquiry engages with and builds on the earlier research of Eric Cazdyn, Noël Burch, and David Desser. Some of the questions orienting my inquiry have been: how should we theorize the cinema of this period? What cinematic or narrative devices were employed to engage audiences with social questions? How should we understand the new representations of sexuality that appear at this time? How should we think about structural changes in the film industry, and the problem of mediation between industry and cultural product? To what extent should we prioritize cross-cultural and/or transnational analyses of films during this period? And finally, how should we situate the cinema of the Shôwa 30s within the broader discursive space of Japanese modernity?

— Mark Roberts

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