Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age

Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on new media

Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age

There’s no stopping Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano. Her last book, Nippon Modern, was a ground-breaking account of Japanese cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. Her next will apparently be a study of Japanese cinema in the Occupation era. She seems set on laying claim to every available decade in the history of Japanese film, and she is a welcome colonist, digging out useful observations and provocative conclusions. Most recently, this has led to Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age, a short (perhaps a little too short) volume of soft technological determinism, examining the impact of new media.

Wada-Marciano deftly avoids the error of many other scholars, by realising that ‘digital’ technology does not merely apply to production. Digitisation has affected everything from the ease with which cinemas can add extra screens, to the access of fans to obscure movies, to, well, me telling you this. If you are reading this, you are one click away from buying her book for yourself, an immense change to modern consumption, whereas previous generations would have had to resort to a long tramp down to the library or bookstore.

One of her five chapters is devoted entirely to Japanese animation, in recognition of its vital role in taking Japanese culture to the rest of the world. She fixes her focus on several intriguing creators, in particular Makoto Shinkai, whose Voices of a Distant Star, made in his lounge, distributed by internet mail order, is surely the epitome of the digital transformation. But she also examines Koji Yamamura, the Oscar-nominated animator whose short films constantly re-assert a ‘Japanese’ quality, seemingly with an eye on the international market, as well as Mamoru Oshii, not for his big-name anime movies like Sky Crawlers, but for his experimental hybrid film Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters.

Voices

Wada-Marciano is intrigued by the modern buzzword ‘transnational’, but unlike many of her colleagues, she does not blindly accept it as an example of a Japanese culture taking the world by storm, but rather as an element within a global culture. This attitude is particularly welcome in her other chapters, in which she delves into Japanese film abroad, including an entire chapter on the rise of J-horror, and its relationship to the rise of the DVD. Here, she engages with the simple fact that so-called V-cinema broke the log-jam of films awaiting a theatrical release, freeing young creators to experiment in what used to be called B-movies, but also confronting consumers with alternate entertainments. Some, she points out, such as the chilling Ring, were arguably even better viewed in your home, on the TV, where some of the more iconic moments might have had a greater, more immediate impact. More importantly for anime, DVD allowed what she calls a preservation of ‘cultural authenticity’, allowing for the presence of Japanese-language tracks, even on DVDs that would largely be watched by dub fans.

If I have any quibbles about the book, it is that it is merely the opening preamble of a much larger, longer argument for the impact of digitisation. Wada-Marciano makes a strong case for considering ‘industrial strategies’ rather than the usual guff about fan receptions and subcultures, but seemingly lacks the space to truly dive feet-first into what that might mean. In the case of anime, for example, digitisation has been part of industrial discourse since as early as 1974, when Toei first began consultations on a computerised production system. Digital storage, computerised camera tracking, Avid editing and scanned images have all formed a major part of anime’s development, as has the sudden immediacy afforded to overseas subcontractors by the invention of the ISDN, and the simple ability of online fans to gripe, moan and proselytise to each other about new shows. Most notable among such omissions is any mention of Celsys, the company whose RETAS Pro animation software has become an industry standard, and arguably as influential a template for style and art as Tezuka’s limited animation revolution in the 1960s. Nor is there much discussion of what Ramon Lobato calls the ‘informal economies’ of piracy and torrenting, which have had a world-shattering, and possibly terminal effect on Japanese cultural production, even as they carry it to more viewers.

But it’s unfair to dwell on the things that aren’t in a book when there is so much of value between its pages, not the least its insightful discussion of the live-action Initial D movie, a ‘Chinese’ film made in Japan for the largely Cantonese-speaking overseas market, based on a Japanese manga and anime, but tied just as heavily into the consumption of customisable cars for boy-racers. If that’s not ‘transnational’, I don’t know what is.

Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age is out now from the University of Hawaii Press.

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