The Cinema of Japan and Korea continues Wallflower’s 24 Frames series of books, which aim to focus on 24 key (or indicative) films of a national cinema’s output. Whilst this gives a good opportunity to examine a number of important films or give a flavour of prevalent genres it does, by definition, restrict the number of films that can be covered, especially when there are two national cinemas under discussion. In this instance the problem is not helped by the fact that a third of the films examined were made between 1998 and 2000, useful if your interest is in contemporary cinema but less so if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of a country’s cinematic heritage.
These concerns aside, however, the essays themselves are all of excellent quality and take a varied approach to their subjects. Samara Lea Allsop’s discussion of Inoshiro Honda’s Gojira (Godzilla ) approaches the subject from a historical context, in relation to the aftermath of the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki together with the tragic results of the Bikini Atoll tests. It discusses the way in which even its allegorical criticisms were sanitised for the American re-edit as Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
The analysis of Shinya Tsukamoto’s hyper-kinetic cyberpunk films Tetsuo (1988) and Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) are the subject of aesthetic and ideological analysis, whilst briefly linking to the kaiju eiga genre (Tsukamoto’s films are generally produced under the banner "A Kaiju Theatre Production"), normally associated with Gojira and his compatriots. Like many of the essays it tries to establish connections with familiar Western titles as a reference point, as well as to more esoteric Eastern films.
Kinji Fukusaku’s modern cult classic Battle Royale (2000) takes on the new wave upstarts of the 60’s and Mizoguchi is included for his achingly tragic, elegantly composed Life of O-Haru (1952), here shown to be an arduous and meticulously shot response to Kurosawa’s award-stormer Rashomon (1950) – it’s one of the highlight essays.
Elsewhere the notorious art/porn (delete as appropriate) duo of Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses (1976)) and Kim Ki Duk’s The Isle (2000) are given thorough examinations from differing perspectives. Allsop’s look at Oshima’s work focuses on literally examining the title for sensual codifiers in the film, while Donato Totaro takes the
claustrophobic sado-masochism of The Isle as the core to his discussion.
Despite the absence of Ozu or Ichikawa, more established Japanese auteurs do get a look in – Seijun Suzuki’s studio baiting masterpiece Branded To Kill (1967), a film considered so uncommercial, despite its non-stop parade of bizarre sex and violence, that it was two decades before he could return to film-making. Akira Kurosawa is represented by Stray Dog (1949). It’s a good choice, especially when he is perhaps better known in the West for his jidai geki films.
The book leaves room for but one anime (the excellent, if disturbing, Perfect Blue ) in a fascinating essay that sits awkwardly in this collection with little context (no Studio Ghibli films, for example). The current labelling of contemporary Korean cinema as a successor to the glory days of Hong Kong is given plenty of scope, particularly in the discussion of the quirky, stylistic, black comedy by way of manga Nowhere to Hide (1999). More intriguing (and now high on our want list) is the underground DV film Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine in Daehakno (2000) – which sounds like an ideal film to stick on a double bill with Tetsuo, if your brain could cope!
The Cinema of Japan and Korea never fails to stimulate or provide a springboard for further research – it is both intelligent and accessible. Its restrictive remit may mean that the coverage is patchy, but this does allow for a more thorough approach concerning the films that are discussed. If you are new to Japanese and Korean cinema or want to look at your favourite films in more depth then this is, without doubt, the place to go.