Just living is not good enough

What are the most important things for humans? Food, clothing and housing are essential for living without doubt. However, we all have realized one thing in the stay-at-home lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic: We cannot be satisfied with just living, but rather we appreciate something unnecessary.

As remote work was promoted, many academic conferences were also held through a computer screen. Participants gave a presentation, and the conference ended after a questions and answers session. Seemingly, the process was the same as those before the pandemic. However, participants, including me, were dissatisfied.

It is because we had no coffee break. Obviously, I am not saying that I had an urge to eat cookies. What we wanted was face-to-face conversation, or a chance for small talk.

Activities like small talk are different from acts minimally required for survival such as eating and sleeping. Few of such activities have practical purposes. In that sense, you could say that they are unnecessary.

Nevertheless, everyone has experienced that small talk with a colleague or friend suddenly linked with one’s own issues or thoughts, which provided a helpful clue. Although it is unclear whether something unnecessary is immediately useful, that does not mean it is worthless.

In today’s Japanese society, many people are asked, “What good will you do?” and asked for a result at lightning speed. So-called neoliberalism has made the idea of “avoiding what is useless” spread.

However, I believe that such an idea is wrong. It is simply near-sighted.

I am a researcher in film studies, specialized in Japanese cinema. The study itself is not the kind of research to provide food, supply housing or find a new treatment for disease.

Be that as it may, if you think that film research is merely watching a film and giving feedback, you are wrong.

Film studies are about understanding the development process of cinema as a form of expression and exploring human society and the spirit of the age through films.

Influence of society on films

First, film studies start with a question, “What was the first film?” The history of films is relatively short and began in earnest at the end of the 19th century after the establishment of photographic technology.

The first “moving pictures” in Japan could be seen in Edison’s Kinetoscope introduced in 1896. This was not shown on a screen but instead was a wooden box in which only one person could watch continuous images lasting a few seconds.

In the following year, Lumière’s Cinematograph was screened for the first time in Japan, and small venues came into existence, where a number of people could enjoy the show at the same time. As it was able to record longer footage compared to a Kinetoscope, it became overwhelmingly popular, and it laid the foundation of the form of film appreciation for the next 100 years and more.

Later, in addition to daily records and stories, films started to have the function of news that recorded current events to be shared. In Japan, this was triggered by the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. In those days, as there was of course no television and few photographs, visual information on war from films was incredibly important for citizens.

Soon in the late 1920s, silent cinema began to shift to sound film worldwide. At that time in the West, there was the argument that the emergence of talkies would lead to the loss of the artistic quality of cinema.

For instance, a German film theorist Rudolf Arnheim argued that the essence of art lay in the gap with reality and criticized talkies, because they brought the cinema experience closer to reality. His thought was based on the idea that the focus of films was to move images, and therefore, films were art that did not depend on sound or language, in the same way as paintings.

On the other hand, in Japan, the presence of storytellers who explained the story played an important role after the emergence of cinema. They were popular stars called benshi (narrators), the presence of which was based on Japanese traditional storytelling, and it can be traced backed to picture deciphering in the Heian era.

It is thought that most Japanese audiences were attracted to the narrative of popular benshi, or sound and language, instead of the film proper.

In this way, cinema is influenced by every factor that exists in the society of the day: science technology, domestic and international political situations, the tides of artistic thoughts, popular culture and its trends, and the circumstances of producers and investors.

If you watch an old film, you may find it somehow different from recent ones. In cinema studies, we attempt to understand such differences from a viewpoint of influences that society has had on the film.

To put it another way, we highlight the image of society of the day based on factors that the society has on cinema, which provides us with an opportunity to face modern-day issues, turning to our own society.

It seems to me that, for example, studies on films produced early in the Sino-Japanese War are certainly connected with multiple current issues in light of the relation between society and war or post-war reinterpretation.

Japanese war cinema linked to present day

I would like to cite films by Tomotaka Tasaka (1902-1974) as an example. Although Tasaka is now little known except to film experts, he was the same generation as Yasujirô Ozu (1903-1963) and Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) and was once a leading film director in Japanese film industry.

When Japan plunged itself into all-out war with China in 1937, and the lives of the Japanese citizens became more and more tinged with the war, Tasaka had a high reputation, and it could be called his heyday as a filmmaker.

His war films Five Scouts (Go-nin no sekkôhei) and Stones on the Way (the latter was based on a popular novel by author Yûzô Yamamoto), both of which were released in 1938, were ranked first and second respectively in the top ten of the year selected by the film magazine Kinema Junpô. In 1939, the following year, Mud and Soldiers (Tsuchi to heitai), based on a book by Ashihei Hino, was also ranked third.

Kinema Junpô has never seen other cases where a high reputation was concentrated in such a short period in its nearly century-long history. This means that Tasaka’s films fitted perfectly with the feelings of the Japanese during wartime.

After that, Tasaka was drafted by the military in 1945 and witnessed the atomic bombing in his hometown Hiroshima. He resumed directing while fighting his atomic bomb disease after the war and created humanitarian films.

What interests me is that even his films released during wartime are praised in post-war Japan because “they were full of humanity” and “those Japanese films did not glorify war.”

In other words, it asserts that, while Japan was heading toward all-out war with China and the United States, Tasaka made anti-war films. Is this really true?

His war films indeed focus on small daily events of soldiers to depict the life and humanity of each soldier at the front. Moreover, as a common element seen in many other Japanese war films, they do not demonize the enemy, while Western propaganda films do.

Nevertheless, if we analyze Japanese society at the time in detail, we have no choice but to consider that his works are propaganda films in keeping with the intent of the government and military and produce a certain effect to lift the fighting spirit.

Japanese film production companies went on a war footing in 1937. The authorities tightened the already strict control of the film industry, culminating in the Film Laws, modeled after similar laws of Nazi Germany, that were enforced in 1939. The production and distribution of films required permission, scripts were censored in advance, and a surveillance agent was present during filming.

Looking back on those days, Tasaka himself later talked about the difficulties of making war films under the censorship system. And yet in such times, the Japanese Ministry of Education recommended his films as excellent.

Five Scouts also won the Popular Culture Ministry Cup in the sixth Venice International Film Festival in 1938. There is no doubt that Mussolini’s fascist government also recognized a propagandist nature in Tasaka’s war films.

After all, putting aside his inner feelings, it is clear that his war films practically supported Japan’s war effort. At any rate, the view that “He made anti-war films during wartime” seems an extremely idealized evaluation.

In the meantime, since I am from a German-speaking country, I understand somehow why the Japanese made such a reinterpretation after their defeat in the war.

If they were ashamed of their war as an inhumane act while thinking that not all Japanese people were to blame, the view that Japanese films did not glorify war must have been a sort of consolation.

Furthermore, I assume that such human psychology seen in the post-war reinterpretation is linked with issues in modern society, which still suffers through war.

Needless to say, my interpretation may be inaccurate. That is why it is extremely valuable for even small research to be demonstrated for discussing different opinions and deepening thoughts. You cannot possibly know what kind of research is interesting or has an impact on society until you conduct your research. If you already know the results, it is no longer research.

We cannot be satisfied with just living, but rather we appreciate something unnecessary. This is what I mentioned at the beginning.

Research is a luxury for society. I would say that 99.9 percent of all research is unnecessary. However, the meaning of such research might eventually be understood in 10, 20 or 50 years, or perhaps in several centuries.

I believe that film studies are also the kind of research that might create such value for society.

* The information contained herein is current as of June 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.