The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema

Yves Laberge

Now available in an inexpensive paperback version, this hefty Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema is an original introduction to the studying of contemporary film production in Japan. As in any given Handbook, we find here 20 commissioned essays about various features of Japanese Cinema, focusing on what makes this national cinema specific and somewhat unique. Prior to that, Daisuke Miyao (who is now at the University of California, San Diego) had already published many monographs, including a rigorous analysis of the international career of the great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973).[i]

Unlike other anthologies related to Japanese Cinema, this Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema avoids an excessive focus on the very well-known, era of the ‘classic Japanese directors’ of the mid-20th Century – such as Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi – to concentrate instead on transversal and transdisciplinary approaches on  national identity, cultural industries and globalisation.

Even though it seems too short in its argumentation, Miyao’s timely Introduction concentrates on abstracting the forthcoming chapters and aptly notes that ‘there is an urgent need for a comprehensive but up-to-date volume that grasps Japanese cinema under the rubric of the global, and [this Handbook] also fills the gap between Japanese and non-Japanese film studies and between theories and practices, and eventually challenges the deep-rooted culturalism of Japanese Cinema’ (p. 2). If Miyao ever wished such a book would appear someday, here it is now: the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema will probably fulfill all the high expectations of experts in Asian Studies and World Cinema Studies.

Theoretically, the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema is impressively strong and diversified, for example in Chapter 4, ‘–Creating the Audience: Cinema as Popular Recreation and Social Education in Modern Japan–’ in which Hideaki Fujiki demonstrates how national identity was elaborated in Japan. Perhaps the most penetrating contributions gathered here are interdisciplinary chapters focusing on the Japanese film industry, especially during the afterwar period corresponding to the Cold War era and therefore anticommunism; many new institutions were created in Japan under the close guidance of the United States, according to its national values, ideologies, and interests. For example in Chapter 11, ‘–The Emergence of the Asian Film Festival: Cold War Asia and Japan's Re-entrance to the Regional Film Industry in the 1950s’,– Sang Joon Lee argues that the Federation of Motion Picture Producer’s Association of Asia  was created in 1953 only to promote, through feature films, the American viewpoint in Asia in terms of mass culture, ideologies, and media in general (p. 231). Asian and Japanese institutions such as film festivals were a fertile place to promote US–approved values and viewpoints: ‘most participants were ardent pro-American and anticommunist film executives supported, partially or fully, by the American government’ (p. 231). In this 1950s context, Japan seemed not to resist much to the US cultural imperialism.

In Chapter 12, ‘Yamagata - Asia - Europe: International Film Festival Short-Circuit’, US scholar Abé Mark Nornes discusses topics related to the cultural, political, and diplomatic dimensions of film festivals inside and outside Japan. He argues that the early successes of some Japanese films which became classics, such as Kurosawa’s inimitable works, because they were critically praised and unexpectedly won prestigious prizes in film festivals. This forced Japan to reconceive its own strategy of film production and exportation: ‘A programmer for the Venice International Film Festival saw Rashomon (1950), was stunned, selected it against the wishes of studio head Nagata Masaichi, and screened it unbeknownst to the director; the film won the Golden Lion, and suddenly every festival desired a Japanese film in its lineup’ (p. 245). Because these last chapters touch upon many concepts related to distribution and cultural traffic, it will widen the readership for the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema and will be of interest for readers in disciplines such as sociology of culture and International Relations.

To summarise, this solid Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema has two strong points: first, it aptly provides an interesting state-of-the-question regarding Japanese Cinema in the recent decades, mainly 21st Century. It also shows in many interesting ways how the paradigmatic concepts for today’s film studies, such as national identity, cross-cultural theory, spectatorship,  can be illustrated in the studying of current films being released in Japan. Inevitably, we find in some chapters some standard film studies about one selected theme as exposed in a representative work like Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano’s Chapter 17 titled ‘Cinema and Memory: Confabulated Memories, Nishijin (1961)’ and Chapter 19 on ‘Viral Contagion in the Ringu Intertext’ by Carlos Rojas. But there are as well many transversal studies that touch more broadly a subgroup or trend in Japanese Cinema. These are arguably the most original and memorable contributions, but there are quite a few in here.

As such, this Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema can be useful even for scholars in Film Theory with a minor interest for Japan or Asia. Not for undergraduates, the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema would be a useful starting point for graduate students who envisage a focus on films from Japan or more broadly on Asian Cultural Studies, not to mention World Cinemas. With the obvious interdisciplinary background used by many contributors even academics already familiar with Japanese Cinema will learn from these essays. However, this new 2019 paperback version is just a reprint at a lesser cost than the first, the now unchanged hardback version released in 2014. Some excellent books don’t really need to be updated. Let’s hope this excellent Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema will be translated into other languages, including…Japanese! 

[i] Daisuke Miyao, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007; Yves Laberge, ‘Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (review),’ Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, no. 25, 2011,, accessed 21 December 2020.