Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.
As film critic of the Japan Times, Schilling has been taking the pulse of the country’s pop culture for the past three decades. International readers have likewise gleaned insights into Japan’s cinematic world from his occasional dispatches for Variety and the Asian Wall Street Journal. A broad range of those observations from the past 20 years are now collected here in Art, Culture and Commerce: Japanese Cinema since 2000.
By sheer coincidence, a few weeks before Schilling’s book arrived, I’d finally gotten around to finishing The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie’s masterful synthesis of scene-by-scene analysis, critical evaluation and social commentary. This is not that book. Richie’s study, still the definitive examination of its subject, exudes historical perspective on every page. Schilling, through newspaper reviews and interviews with prominent filmmakers, writes from the front lines. By contrast, this is history on the installment plan.
Richie does make an appearance here, both in a cameo as Schilling’s predecessor (and mentor) at the Japan Times and as a featured guest, discussing his own early experimental films. So too does Kurosawa loom in the shadows, both in a welcome interview with the director’s longtime assistant Teruyo Nogami and a review of When the Rain Lifts, a period drama scripted by Kurosawa but not filmed until 2000 by first-time director Takashi Koizumi. Here Schilling is characteristically both critical and charitable:
It’s easy to dismiss When the Rain Lifts as sub-Kurosawa, a last faint hurrah from the period of the master’s final decline, but I prefer to see it as one last message from his heart, a distillation of all he learned in nine decades of living and five decades of filmmaking.
For the most part, though, references to Japan’s Golden Age are diffused and reinterpreted by the next generation. Where Richie had Kurosawa, Schilling has Yoji Yamada, whose Twilight Samurai (2002) tweaks the genre with social commentary of its era much as The Seven Samurai did a half-century ago. Where Richie had the domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Schilling has the less stylized family tensions of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Still Walking (2014).
Written mostly as stand-alone miniatures, Schilling’s pieces are best consumed in the same manner.
Taken over time, though, a few developments stand out, particularly in charting the rise and fall of particular directors. Takashi Miike, after his psychological horror film Audition (2000), was destined to be “one of the leading Japanese directors of his generation.” By Hara-Kari (2011), Takashi’s 3-D remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai revenge drama, Schilling takes into account that the film had to “rise above technical hurdles and comparisons with the past to achieve a grandeur of pathos of its own,” but he still longs for the “the crazy Miike of old”. Of the other Takashi, Kitano (aka “Beat”), Schilling compares the director’s “self-indulgent” gangster film Outrage (2010), which he awards two stars—with its “more satisfying” three-and-a-half star 2012 sequel Outrage Beyond (“a film that understands its disreputable pleasures—and knows how to provide them”).
Perhaps because of his outsider status in Japan’s insular film world, Schilling is quite attuned to cultural crossovers, both past or present, Hollywood or Hong Kong. While dispensing the obvious citations of Ken Watanabe’s sojourns in Hollywood, or Zhang Ziyi’s Japanese outing in the title role in Princess Racoon (2005), he also questions director Umetsugu Inoue about making the classic musical Hong Kong Nocturne for Shaw Brothers, or actor Takuya Kimura about appearing in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046.
Quibbles are less about the content than the book itself, spanning nearly all levels of the editorial process from insufficient proofreading to occasional lapses in fact checking to questionable choices in the format. Beyond distracting mistakes in punctuation and formatting, a review of Ponyo (2008) misquotes the opening of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a mention of the influence of “Roger Coleman” in an interview with Satoshi Miki is almost certainly referring to filmmaker Roger Corman. Regarding formatting, films are not listed alphabetically but gathered by year of release (and not alphabetized even there). Listings have English titles and Romanized Japanese, though not the Japanese characters. Nor is there an index that would aid in finding titles—to say nothing of directors or actors—in an efficient manner. The final pages list the annual Top Ten films from 2000 through 2017 (and the Top Five for 2018), even though not every “best” film is reviewed, and several annual sections in the main text contain fewer than ten reviews.
Perhaps the biggest problem with a linear reading of this book is that the interviews with filmmakers comprising the first half rarely offer much context for the director’s comments. Questions are often rudimentary and superficial, and the context still retain such a whiff of “film junket”, hyping the projects at hand, that you can practically hear the publicists rustling in the background.
Once into the review section, though, Schilling becomes a different writer entirely, not merely dispensing the relevant information about each film but often relating and examining his own reactions as well. Threaded between the lines is much of the background a general reader would need in preparation to hear from the directors themselves.
With Schilling having spent so many years of his life in Japan, it is perhaps entirely appropriate that his book is best approached in the traditional Japanese manner, reading from back to front.