The Aesthetics of Japanese Cinema
By Kenji Iwamoto
1. The Tradition of the Aesthetic Consciousness in Japan
In this paper, I will investigate the tradition of the aesthetic consciousness in Japan substituting the aesthetic consciousness or the thought and expression of beauty for the term of aesthetics. The reason is that Japanese traditional consciousness of beauty is included in the films, a product of modern society, in various ways.
The aesthetic consciousness in Japan may be expressed by the two ways as follows; one is shown through works of art and the other is revealed in ways of living and of thinking or living itself. Both have been changing with the tendency of the times, but it is needless to say that the old taste doesnÕt disappear but mingles and permeates into new one to flow deeply in the consciousness of people. Also, it is obvious that the origin of the Japanese culture itself has been influenced by other nations in Asia, especially, China and Korea, because it has been blended and stored with a variety of different races and cultures. Then, let's examine some main concepts related to the aesthetic consciousness in Japan.
There was an excellent opinion on the theory of poetry and of Noh drama in Japanese medieval times (12C - 16C) which is called Yosei and Yugen. Yosei means an emotion or a mood created beyond words. Such a thought of poetry Is very interesting, in that a great value is put on something beyond words although poetry is a genre of arts to be expressed in words. Yugen has the same meaning. It designates misty profound and subtle sentiments, and elegant and mild motions or beauty. Yugen is a temn of philosophy, thought Buddhism which was introduced from China, but has changed to be concept of traditional Japanese beauty.
Beauty of Yosei and Yugen can be replaced with the term of Sabi, which means a timeworn mood or loneliness to be common in Arabi (a desolate look), Sabi (an antique look) and so on.
In modern times (17C-18C), there were the words of Wabi Karumi and Mono no Aware (an awareness of the transience of everything worldly) in the theory of Sado (the tea ceremony), Haiku and literature. Wabi was concerned with a tranquil and plain flavor. Karumi, meaning lightness, is the simplicity shown in the supreme stage, which is opposite to boastful gravity or complicate skills. Mono no Aware is a feeling caused from the change of seasons, an intensive interest evoked by music or love, or an eagerness for things in the work. Besides, there is a tradition that makes much of leaving some spaces in a drawing paper in the theory of painting.
Considering these facts, it can be said that a suppressed expression or non-expressed expression is regarded as the best that reaches to the nothingness in the aesthetic conscious of Japanese people. Indeed, it may be connected to the Zen. Meanwhile, there is an expression which takes on full decorative property (e.g : the gold foil of some temples, Buddhist sanctums, mansions, ' etc.).
Now, Iet's examine the aesthetic consciousness concerned with the ways of living and of thinking or living itself. Japanese is the agricultural nation, but there were some groups of wandering and roaming people such as lots of artists who led a vagabond life for their whole life, peddlers, aesthetics, etc.. Here, the theme of a wayfaring way or Michiyuki (a trip to the death) often repeats in Japanese films. The idea of transience produces the view of life and death accepting death, as a routine. The aesthetic consciousness to death is represented as Shinju (a lave suicide) that is characterized in the tragedy of Kabuki or Joruri. Also, there were the view of life and death of Yakuza, who thought of keeping an obligation to the last as a morality, and of warriors (Bushido) who considered a loyalty and a submission to be one. All of these beautify the attitude of accepting death as trivial.
If it is the aesthetics of the positive and that of victory to keep a life, we can say that the aesthetics of Japanese is related to that of the negative or a ruin. It is not simply defeat but ruin based on some righteousness. Such an aesthetic consciousness was visually stylized in Yakuza films which was popular in the 1960's.
In the other side, there were the traditions of Kabuki and paintings which showed a ferocious fancy, a ghost story and even bizarreness, Rakugo, a story-telling skill of traditional laugh, and shameless laugh, humor and satire shown in popular literature or
paintings, contrary to the aesthetic consciousness concerned with elegance, Yugen, transience death. These traditions have something to do with optimism and realism, which choose grotesqueness rather than elegance and persistence rather than transience. Therefore, it can be called an anti-aesthetic consciousness, in that I satirizes the above-mentioned traditional aesthetic consciousness and violently upsets it. Such a strong anti-aesthetic consciousness is well exhibited in a director Shohei Imamura's works.
2. The Expression of the Aesthetic Consciousness in Japanese Films - Suppression and Excess
Japanese films had been rapidly mass-produced after 1923, and then finally reached to its summit in the 1950's. In the 1920's (the silent picture days), Japan had already achieved a big film country following America in terms of quantity. But it did not get internationality
because of the shortage of ability in terms of quality.
In those days, the characteristic of Japanese films was that, first of all, various tastes of directors could be engaged in making a film because lots of directors were needed for the mass production of films. Second. Japanese cinema developed its own distinctive features in theme, genre, aesthetic consciousness and the method of expression because it did not have international markets. Besides, there was great influence from European films.
In other words, the traditional aesthetic consciousness of Japan was influenced as immensely by Europe as by many Asian countries including China and Korea. Generally speaking, if you could pick up two of the specific characters of Japanese films among others, they might be suppression and excess. While suppression means to press down expression, not ex-press (push outside) but in-press (pushed inside). That is to say, it is to control and make calm not to express some desires or feelings, and not to explode. Excess means to push fervently an expression toward outside, namely, to express some desires or feeling, and to go off. Yasujiro Ozu is regarded as the representative of
There are a tension between inactivity and activity, a vivid contrast of light and shadow, and the dynamics of motion in Akira KurosawaÕs works. In his films, there are some excess of expression and the emotion of energy like heavy rain, gale, the burning sun, etc. Such excess which intensely pushes ego toward the outside is explicit in visuals as well as actions, and it can make itself understood internationally. ThatÕs why his films get a good reputation widely in the world. Also, his works have the excess of a view of morality of enforcing humanism as well as that of expression, and make spectators embarrassed or moved. The excess as the expression of the manhood may appeal to less female than male. Mr. Donald Riche, well known for his introduction of Japanese films to foreign countries, has praised for Red Sorghum, a Chinese film, on the ground that it reminds Rashomon. Ahang Yimou's Rod Sorghum has a heroin but depicts not so much the expression of the womanhood as that of a strong ego and self-assertion. And in his other works, the excess and vividness of color can be well observed, too.
Kurosawa's noticeable features can imply the following. He began as a painter and was interested in Japanese traditional artistic accomplishment like Noh drama, which greatly influenced the beauty of style of his works. Both NohÕs restrained expression and Kurosawa's excessive one do not contradict, but are related with each other in a dynamic tension within his films to complete his unique and consistent features under his aesthetic consciousness.
Director Shohei Imamura is same in the light of 'excess', even though his works display the traits of more 'suppression' than 'excess' as shown in Woonagi (The Eel) and Black Rain. But his works can be distinguished from Akira KurosawaÕs ones, if same in excess, in that the former works contain the spirit and consciousness of an intensive anti-aesthetic. He expresses the power of life, straightforward desired and trivial comedy of worldly human beings with some distance, rather than the beauty of an image or a composition. From this distance, there is created a laugh which is not ridicule but sympathy with common people. It seems that Imamura's true characteristic is an endless interest in a falling man and popularity going through his works with something secular. Meanwhile, the works of Takeshi Kitano, who directed HANA-BI, are the films of suppression in general. Except A Scent At The Sea(91), ids Return(96), some unexpected violence are hidden in his works. HANA-BI has a man of few words and suppressed dialogues, but hidden violence take on a sudden and excessive property in it. This excess make spectators shocked. Be it ever so physical and bodily violence, this is something to be felt an airs of nihilism and pessimism which come out of the fissure of his existence, and to transcend beyond words, reason and logic.
Characters who are similar with the hero of HANA-BI distinguished in Japanese films to win a prize in international film festivals, for example, Kohei Oguri's Nemura Otoko(Sleeping Man), in which Ahn Sung-ki, a famous Korean actor, appears, Hirokazu Koreeda' Light of Fantasy, Naomi Kawase's Moeno Suzaku, Makoto Shinozaki's Okaeri and so on.
In fact, the expression of 'suppression' can be found in many films all over the world, too. A Taiwan film A City of Sadness and an Indian film Song of the Road are good examples. And in Korean films, director Im Kwon-taek's works Jokbo(The Family Tree Book), Sibaji(A Surrogate Woman), Sopyunje, etc. can be counted in. But strong pathos is fully contained in his works.
As a result, both 'excess' and 'supression' may be excessive elements of all nations only in terms of an abstract meaning. The points are whether such expressions are unusually much involved in Japanese films and whether they include the characteristics peculiar to Japan.
3. The Expression of the Aesthetic Consciousness in Japanese Films - Death and Revival
Since the days of mass-production(from the 1920's through the 1960's), Japanese films have achieved to group various genres of films, regardless of good works by outstanding directors. Among the various genres, there is a genre, the period/costume film, which exhibit an aesthetic consciousness. The costume play can visualize the way of living of old Japanese before some influence from Europe as 'a kind of lost beauty today'. During this Asian Art Film Festival(from 6 Nov. to 20 Nov. 1998), three Jidai-geki(period/costume film) will be presented; Rashomon, Gate of Hell and Bushido-Samurai Saga(directd by Tadashi Imai). Muhomatsu no Issho(Life of Matsu the Untamed) can be added to them, it terms of 'beauty of lost life and feeling'.
Strictly speaking, it is true that these films deviate from the category of the Jidai-geki film. Rashomon and Gate of hell play with a medieval times older than Edo times, and Muhomatsu no Issho represents the times after the influence from Europe. Involved in the category of the Jidai-geki film Bushido-Samurai Saga tends to destroy what can be expected by spectators in films Ð explicit confrontation between good and evil, aesthetics of Tate(action in sword) and Tatharsis resulted from them.
Seen by foreigners, these films may have merits to posses both beauty of style as a costume play and some exoticisms referred to genre film, thinking that the populace's and aesthetics consciousness and the aesthetics of their living and feeling and reflected on a group of films which have grown to series of mass-production apart from Japonism. And in terms of them, I think genre film includes the hope, dream, purification passion and grudge of people.
However, genre film was forced to decline in Japanese film circles after the appearance of TV in the 1950's. The turned period was the middle of the 1960's, when Yakuza-film appeared. The background of Yakuza films as Meiji Restoration days(the end of the 19th century--the beginning of the 20th century) after Edo times passed away. This genre expressed something old and what is sinking as the good and beautiful, and something new and what is rising(above all westernization) as the evil=the ugly.
It is important that the last genre film expressing 'beauty of lost living and feeling' flourished in the high growth period of Japan in the 1960's. It means that Japanese traditional morality and aesthetic consciousness, especially those of the masses, have a transient prosperity within Yakuza film, a kind of genre film.
According to Takenobu Watanabe, a critic in those days, the appeals of Yakuza films are as follows; The first is the antagonism between things old and new, the second is the conflicts of interests(in life or economy), the third is the confrontation between things refined and rough, and the last is the opposition things harmonious and disharmonious. These four pairs of confrontations are visually expressed in Yakuza films.
Yakuza films don't stand for the male society in general, because there appears 'beauty of life and feelings in the male world' rather than 'beauty of lost life and feelings', and a number of Yakuzas come out there. Therefore, it seems proper to classify these films as a variant of the costume play as well. Except for current Yakuza films to screen a Japanese society after World War II, classical Yakuza films conserve the grudges of the old and the weak who are oppressed by the modern industrializing society and are disappearing from that society. Similarly, 'suppression' of patience and 'excess' of explosion of violence(or feeling) are true of Yakuza films, too.
Above all, it is most important in this genre that a man running behind others fulfills the ethics through death to get society, morality, justice, principle of 'revival through death' and 'the aesthetic of defeat'. As for HANA-BI again, only HANA-BI leaves a little bit airs of Yakuza film among the films which will be shown at the Asian Art Film Festival at Seoul. Of course, HANA-BI doesn't follow the pattern of Yakuza film as a genre. Its background is the present day and its here is not a Yakuza but an ex-policeman. So, HANA-BI resembles and American hard-boiled play, a film where a tough detective appears.
It is significant that the last scene of this film accords with some part out of the classical aesthetic consciousness. Also, it is obvious that grand prix winning works are the excellent accomplishments of directors of marked individuality. The aesthetic consciousness and anti-aesthetic consciousness of Japanese are flowing in those works. However, it is impossible to guess the variety of Japanese films only with grand prix
winning works, whether it is an old film or a new one. What kind of the aesthetic consciousness is in the current Japanese films, from which the Jidai-geki film and Ninkyo(yakuza) film almost have disappeared?
What is the aesthetic consciousness of Japanese which is common in such my recent interested films as Shunji Iwai's Swallowtail, Naoto Takenaka's Tokyobiyori and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure.
It is apparent that the aesthetic consciousness of Japanese consists of many elements unexplainable any more only with the traditional aesthetic consciousness of Japan or the East, including the influences from Europe.
If more Japanese films can be screened in Korea, Koreans may get faster aware of these facts than Japanese. Seen out of the country by other people, the remarkable features of a matter will be well grasped unexpectedly. (translated by Rho, Young-deok)
Note: This essay is a draft of a speech at the "Symposium for the Asian Art Film Festival" in Seoul, 1998.