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Jonathan Clements on the Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema

“Nobody knows anything.” William Goldman’s famous summation of Hollywood goes double for Japanese film, where, it seems, nobody needs to know anything. When journals of record can’t spell the names of Oscar-winners, when distributors can’t even pronounce the names of the films they sell, and where authors are praised (and bafflingly published) for trumpeting their own ignorance, Japanese film often seems left in the hands of poseurs and inadequates, muttering half-remembered orientalist clichés and pretentious bits of foreign-language decoration.

If this sounds like an over-reaction, I draw your attention to a shocking article by Julian Stringer in last year’s Film Festivals and East Asia, in which he charted the history of British writing on Japanese film. Stringer identifies a daft piece from the early 1950s, written by a reviewer in Venice who could neither speak Japanese nor read the Italian subtitles for Kurosawa’s Rashomon, who spun this lack of comprehension into a whole set of assumptions, stylistic theories and ideas about the nature of Japanese film. This was then dragged up again and again over the next twenty years, as subsequent writers in a major British film magazine leaned on the original, hand-waving wittering, assuming that the author must have known what she was talking about.

Life would have been very different with a copy of Jasper Sharp’s new Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema to hand. A chunky hardback on long-lasting paper, and with a spine that stands up to heavy punishment, this robust tome from Scarecrow Press has contents to match, designed to ensure that absolutely nobody has any excuse. Japanese film doesn’t have to be mysterious, and all the firm grounding you need is right here.

A potential working title was presumably Jasper Sharp’s Bumper Compendium of Things You Really Need to Know If You Want to Write About Japanese Film for a Living. There’s a timeline of Japanese film history, a glossary, and bilingual lists of both individual names and film titles – I dread to imagine the headache that must have been. A hundred pages at the back is taken up with an idiosyncratic but wide-ranging bibliography outlining starting points for deeper inquiry into many angles of Japanese entertainment, including television, the WW2 era, and lovely to see, 11 pages of nothing but works on anime.

Anime is made to play with the big boys in the main text, with a discreet and reasonable handful of entries on the important names, including Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka. Treatment of individual animators is in keeping with the book’s treatment of live-action film directors – highlighting the most lauded or garlanded, but also those whom Sharp regards as worthy of identification as “auteurs”. The product of an industrialised labour process that often crushes personality with the demands of piece-work system, anime does not have many truly individual voices, although there are arguments to be made for Sky Crawlers’ Mamoru Oshii, Perfect Blue’s Satoshi Kon, and the usual suspects at Studio Ghibli, all of whom get entries, alongside the immensely important, but often overlooked, likes of Tadahito Mochinaga and Kihachiro Kawamoto.

But it’s not just about the anime people. In fact, while it’s salutary to see them there, the anime people are not what makes this book valuable to the anime scholar. It’s everything else – the clear, concise histories of major film studios; the run-downs of important film legislation; the blunt statements of censorship facts; the bios of major actors and producers, all of which build up a picture of the Japanese film world as a whole. Sharp has previously written scathingly about the number of authors on anime who seem to live in an anime-only vacuum. And the entries in the Historical Dictionary make his point for him again and again – you can’t speak cogently and knowledgeably about Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira until you appreciate the story of the Anpo riots, and if you’ve never heard of Setsuko Hara then you’ll lose great swathes of meaning in Millennium Actress.

If you expect to earn some kind of capital from writing about Japanese film – be it hard cash or a tutor’s praises, then you should pester your library to put this book on their film shelves, alongside Mark Schilling’s Contemporary Japanese Film and Isolde Standish’s New History of Japanese Cinema.

The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema is available now from Scarecrow Press.

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