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A Hundred Years of Japanese Films


A Hundred Years of Japanese Films

Donald Richie has been studying and writing about Japanese film
since before many of today's movie reviewers, myself included, were
even born. Richie arrived in Japan in 1946 as a civilian member of
occupation forces after World War II, got a job as an arts writer
at a newspaper and has been writing incisively about Japanese arts
and culture ever since. His classic study, "The Films of Akira
Kurosawa," is essential reading for film fans and critics alike. In
the introduction to A HUNDRED YEARS OF JAPANESE FILM, American
director and screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver,
Mishima) writes, "Whatever we in the West know about
Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald

In this volume, Richie begins by addressing the question of what
distinguishes Japanese cinema --- how it is different from,
influenced by, and influential on its Western counterpart. The book
basically runs in chronological order, starting in 1897 with the
very first motion pictures made in Japan --- short, silent films of
dancing geishas. Most of the earliest cinema consisted of stage
productions captured on film, complete with female impersonators
instead of actresses, and benshi, or narrators who stood in the
theater to recite lines or give commentary as the films were

Its roots in the theater elucidate Richie's concept of Japanese
cinema as a "presentational" medium, as opposed to
representational, or what Westerners tend to think of as
"realistic." "Art and entertainment alike were presentational," he
writes; "that is, they rendered a particular reality by way of an
authoritative voice (be it the noh chorus or the benshi). This
approach stood in marked contrast to the representational style of
the West in which one assumed the reality of what was being

Richie develops this theme and then illustrates how, over time, it
has shifted and metamorphosed according to the inspiration and
influences of each director --- from seminal artists like Gosho and
Ozu to the great Kurosawa, from Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura to
current independents like Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?) and
Hirokazu Kore'eda (After Life), even including anime and the
stylish, hyper-violent films currently reaching American theaters,
such as Brother by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (for whom Richie
displays a refreshing lack of reverence) and the twisted Dead or
by Takashi Miike. And that barely scrapes the surface of
what the author's survey includes.

Given its wide scope, the book as a whole will probably appeal most
to the serious film student, although it's easily readable enough
for the casual fan to enjoy as well. Richie covers so much material
that even hard-core cinephiles are bound to learn something new.
There's an invaluable glossary at the back, and even better, a
comprehensive reference guide with capsule reviews of Japanese
movies available on video or DVD. Nearly every page is graced by
still photos from Richie's vast collection (housed at New York's
Museum of Modern Art). In short, it's a gorgeous book, written out
of love by an obsessive film fan, and its only potential drawback
is that it's likely to convert readers into equally obsessive fans.
Be warned: Read it and you may never want to leave the TV room
again (except maybe to run to the video store).

Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen on January 22, 2011

A Hundred Years of Japanese Films
by Donald Richie

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Kodansha International
  • ISBN-10: 477002682X
  • ISBN-13: 9784770026828