"The Great Rebel Filmmakers"
The third episode, “1918-1932: The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World,” is, in my estimation, far superior to the first two. Instead of trying to structure a thesis by utilizing a number of clips unrelated to the period under discussion or veering off course with filmmakers who belong in another episode, Cousins largely stays on topic and the years that are the announced focus of this chapter. He begins by stating that in the 1920s and early 1930s there were seven challenges to the conventional approach to narrative cinema he continues to identify with
Cousins’ first discussion in this episode concerns the second challenge to cinematic conventions which he describes as having come from the great German director, Ernst Lubitsch. He shows a clip from one of Lubitsch’s early appearances as an actor in the 1915 film, Robert and Bertram, before presenting as an example of the director’s mocking, subversive style a scene from The Oyster Princess (1919) satirizing an American capitalist. Cousins next features clips from Lubitsch’s The Mountain Cat (1921) that incorporate surrealist imagery. Turning to Lubitsch’s American career, he includes a sequence from the classic 1924 film, The Marriage Circle, in which the director used subtlety and suggestive use of objects to convey sexuality in a way that got around the
The third challenge to conventional cinema, he states, came from the French impressionist directors like Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier and Abel Gance. Cousins is to be commended for recognizing the centrality of Gance, the towering visionary genius whose contributions have often been overlooked or slighted in many standard chronicles of film history. He points out that one of the outstanding techniques of impressionist filmmakers was to utilize montage sequences made up of flashes and repetitions of images as they appear to the individual in real life. He demonstrates the power of this technique in a scene from Gance’s monumental La Roue (1922) in which as the young protagonist clings desperately to the cliff from which he is about to fall, “the screen becomes his inner eye” with shots lasting just one frame. Cousins quotes from Jean Cocteau on the significance of La Roue and observes that the Soviet directors, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, all studied the film in
Cousins then deals with Gance’s spectacular impressionist masterpiece, Napoleon (1927). As he puts it, in order to convey the dynamism of the hero, Gance rethought cinema in relation to movement. Cousins excerpts the remarkable snowball fight at the beginning of the film with its hand-held camera and rapid montage effects as well as the thrilling chase scene on horseback in which the action expresses Bonaparte’s kinetic energy. He then includes footage of the stunning climactic Italian campaign in which Gance employed three screens. Cousins notes that British historian Kevin Brownlow undertook a mammoth restoration of the film which Gance toward the end of his life viewed from his hotel window at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979.
Cousins next considers the fourth challenge to standard filmmaking, expressionism, which he feels explored deeper aspects of the human mind than impressionism. Tracing its origin to
Another style of expressionism appears in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis (1927), a work which Cousins says could have been designed by an architect, one he calls “the most iconic film of the silent era.” Among the excerpts he includes are footage of the visionary great sets depicting a kind of fantasy New York, the stunning scene of the robot Maria coming to life, the underground city where the workers toil on huge construction projects, and the final reconciliation scene between capital and labor in front of what seems to be a cathedral. Noting that Lang’s city scapes were profoundly influential, Cousins states that Vidor was so impressed with Metropolis that it inspired his own scenes of urban New York in The Crowd. Here, however, Cousins is in error as Metropolis did not open in New York or elsewhere in America until after Vidor had completed principal photography on his film. Rather, it was another German film, F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which had greatly influenced the American director prior to his beginning work on The Crowd.
Cousins concludes his section on expressionism with Murnau’s masterwork, Sunrise (1927). He shows the scene of the couple in the city so wrapped up in their feelings for each other that they are oblivious to the traffic around them as they imagine they are in the country. Other examples he chooses illustrate the narrative’s contrast between the rural and the urban. Seemingly unaware of the discordance between his customary use of the term “romantic” as a pejorative and his positive employment of it here, he says that the concluding image of Sunrise is like a German romantic painting. He points out that the film was made in Hollywood but, unusually, the studio gave Murnau total creative freedom. He also notes that critics in France voted Sunrise the greatest film of all time and that the French poetic realists of the ‘30s considered Murnau their master.
From this, Cousins proceeds to the fifth challenge to conventional narrative cinema in the 1920s. He relates that in France and Germany in those years cinema became all the rage intellectually, producing an avant-garde movement in filmmaking. Works he excerpts include Walter Ruttman’s abstract animated short, Lichtspiel: Opus 1 (1921), Rene Clair’s Dadaist comic short, Entr’acte (1924), and Alberto Cavalcanti’s experimental depiction of Parisian lower-class life, Rien que les Heures (Nothing But Time; 1926). Cousins demonstrates that an abstract image of many peering eyes in Cavalcanti’s film influenced a similar dream sequence that artist Salvador Dali designed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945.
Cousins then transitions to Dali’s celebrated collaboration with director Luis Bunuel on the most famous of all the early avant-garde films, Un Chien Andalou (1929), with its use of free association resulting in such shocking images as the shot of a razor slitting a woman’s eye. Cousins illustrates through a clip the influence of the film on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and goes on to excerpt equally startling scenes from Bunuel’s sound feature, L’Age d’Or (1930). He comments that the film’s assault on cherished traditions led to attacks by rightist elements in France and its subsequent suppression for half a century.
If avant-garde directors like Bunuel rejected the content of romantic cinema, Cousins states, the sixth challenge completely rejected its form. These were the revolutionary filmmakers of the Soviet Union, the most manic of them all, in Cousins’ words. The speed and dynamism of their work mirrored the great social upheaval that transformed their country. He shows a clip from one of Dziga Vertov’s newsreels, Kino Pravda no. 19 (1924), taken aboard a moving train, before turning to Sergei M. Eisenstein. In the introductory section of the first episode, Cousins had utilized Eisenstein’s celebrated sequence of a revolutionary woman’s body on a raised drawbridge in October (1928) to illustrate the power of editing. Here he introduces the great director with footage from his very first film, the 1923 short, Glumov’s Diary, in which he also appears as an actor. Cousins features the legendary, overwhelming Odessa Steps sequence from his masterpiece, Potemkin (1925), and additionally demonstrates that it influenced a similar sequence in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). He interviews Naum Kleiman, the leading authority in Russia on Eisenstein, who vigorously disagrees with those who have argued that Potemkin advocated revolutionary violence. Eisenstein’s film, Kleiman says, was instead against violence and for peace and brotherhood.
Bypassing another brilliant Russian director, V. I. Pudovkin, presumably for reasons of time but also perhaps because Cousins maintained in his book his work was “tainted” with “ideological smugness,” he next deals with the Ukrainian master, Alexander Dovzhenko. Cousins presents powerful images from Arsenal (1929) depicting the horrors of war, followed by the lyrical scene of a peasant dancing in the director's 1930 silent film masterpiece, Earth. In this section, Alexander Sokurov, a leading contemporary Russian director, expresses his admiration for, and indebtedness to, Dovzhenko.
These are the sole examples of early non-Russian Soviet filmmaking included in The Story of Film. Although cinema production in the '20s and '30s flourished in the Caucasus Republics--Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan--with many fine films by such outstanding pioneers as Georgia's Ivan Perestiani and Armenia's Amo Bek-Nazarov, as in Cousins' book, there is no mention of this in his series.
Cousins’ seventh challenge comes from the “floating world” of Japan where filmmakers in the 1920s and early 1930s developed their own unique approaches to narrative cinema that diverged from the Hollywood pattern. He begins by acknowledging that Japan in its arrogance slaughtered millions of Asians in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but as if to “compensate” for this, as if in horror, the same country whose militarists were responsible for this havoc also brought forth great artists with a very different perspective who took film to new heights. In Japan, he states, as exemplified by Yasujiro Ozu, the director had the kind of ultimate creative control that was lacking in the studio system associated with Hollywood where the producer had the most power. He includes an analysis of Ozu whom he calls “perhaps the greatest director who ever lived,” excerpting from his 1932 silent comedy masterpiece, I Was Born, But. . . With an insightful commentary by the premier Western authority on Japanese cinema, Donald Richie, he demonstrates that this timeless and uproarious comedy about rebellious children has an underlying serious theme when they discover that their father, the “emperor” of their little world, is an ordinary man, a mere salaried employee who has to kowtow to his boss. Cousins shows how Ozu departed from Western cinema in his innovative use of camera height and positioning of the actor. The continuity of the director’s technique is further demonstrated with footage from Tokyo Story (1953).
Cousins also interviews actress Kyoko Kagawa who worked with both Ozu and another brilliant director, Kenji Mizoguchi, later in their careers and provides illuminating recollections of her experiences with them. Utilizing scenes from Mizoguchi’s classic sound film, Osaka Elegy (1936), as well as a later work, Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), to illustrate the director’s individual style, Cousins points out that in the earlier film he had anticipated Orson Welles’ deep-focus photography in Citizen Kane by five years. He also juxtaposes a scene near the end of Osaka Elegy in which the heroine nearly drowns herself with a similar sequence involving Joan Crawford in Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (1945) to make a point about the Japanese film being more realistic in its treatment than the romanticized Hollywood production. It was a great shame in film history, he says, that for so many years the heritage of Japanese cinema, as exemplified by Ozu and Mizoguchi, was overlooked in the West.
Compared to the preceding sections in this episode, Cousins’ presentation of Chinese cinema, the last to be considered in the hour, seems almost like an afterthought. For one thing, whereas he had begun the episode by saying that there were seven challenges to conventional cinema, he now characterizes China as presenting the eighth challenge. Additionally, this is the only segment in the episode in which he does not provide analysis of specific directors as the sources of experimentation.
Cousins begins his consideration of the early Chinese cinema based in Shanghai with a clip from the 1927 film, Romance of the West Chamber. In commenting on its technique, he views it as largely following Western models in a manner typical of Chinese production at that time. It was amidst the social upheavals of the 1930s that he feels the cinema of China came to maturity. In what he characterizes as another rebellion against Hollywood romanticism, in the ‘30s there were great films and great directors treating social issues with outstanding realism. Following footage from a noted sound film from 1935, Scenes of City Life, he concentrates on the tragic story of Ruan Lingyu, the brilliant actress who starred in some of China’s greatest films. Cousins praises the intense naturalism of her performances and has on-the-street conversations with people in Shanghai, asking them about their familiarity with the actress. Her talent is illustrated with excerpts from two classic silent films, The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1935). Cousins notes that the press attacks on her private life after the latter film was released led to her suicide.
In focusing on an actress who gave magnificent performances but, as far as is known, was not involved in production behind the camera, Cousins departs from his customary emphasis. Up to this point, Cousins’ almost relentless auteurism has generated not so much a history of cinema as a history of cinema directors. He does not mention here at any time Wu Yonggang, the director of The Goddess, Cai Chusheng, the director of New Women, or the other major directors of the '30s like Sun Yu, Fei Mu, Cheng Bugao, and Bu Wancang. While one wishes he might have made some acknowledgment of them, the attention paid to Ruan Lingyu is indeed a refreshing change after the many clips in which he did not so much as give the names of the players. For example, when he showed scenes from Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy in the preceding section on Japan, he did not even identify Isuzu Yamada, the immensely gifted actress who appears in this footage and who had one of the most remarkable careers in the history of Japanese film.
Cousins concludes this episode by commenting that for many years the cinema had flourished without the element of sound that is so much a feature of our daily lives. Now he points out that this was all about to change, heralding what will be the focus of the next episode. In making this observation about the medium’s long silence, however, he does not take note of the constant employment of musical accompaniment for the films, despite its usage in his own excerpts, the frequent use of sound effects, nor the Japanese practice of live narrators known as benshi to provide spoken dialogue for the silent performers on the screen.
The greater amount of consistency in this episode generates a real sense of the excitement and creative freedom of the period. An additional skill is evident in Cousins’ ability to cover so many countries and artistic movements in the hour while often conveying effectively the different approaches taken by the artists.
For all the laudable aspects of the episode, however, the cold eye of history must take note of what has been omitted along with the attendant effort to channel what has been included into a particular pattern. Although Cousins makes some mention of films in these countries that adhered to the conventions of what he persists in labeling “romantic” cinema influenced by the Hollywood “bauble,” the sole example he shows is from Romance of the West Chamber. Essentially, therefore, the series continues to be centered around a perceived contrast between Hollywood and the rest of the world.
An example of this dichotomy is his juxtaposition of the two suicidal heroines of Osaka Elegy and Mildred Pierce with his commentary pointing to the differences in staging and lighting as exemplifying the gulf between Japanese realism and Hollywood romanticism. What he does not take into account is that this variation here owes much to differing situations rooted in the respective social statuses of an outcast Japanese girl from the lower middle class and a mature and affluent American businesswoman plagued by personal problems. Also, in stating that the realistic Chinese films of the early 1930s emerged from a rebellion against Hollywood romanticism, he ignores entirely the existence of the many Hollywood studio films of the very same era that were themselves in revolt against romantic conventions, a fluorescence of realism that was only halted by the imposition of strict censorship.
Cousins’ treatment of larger historical issues depicted in classic films is particularly problematic and suggestive of double standards. While it is only a passing observation in an otherwise very appreciative and mainly non-politicized look at Gance’s Napoleon, it should perhaps be mentioned that Cousins characterizes Bonaparte’s Italian campaign in the triptych climax as “a land grab this film fails to condemn.” Gance did not condemn it because, in consonance with the historical sources and interpretations upon which he drew, Napoleon’s entry into Italy was not a land grab at all but was rather the extension of the French Revolution into another part of Europe that also safeguarded France from invasion by counter-revolutionary forces bent on restoring the old order. The kind of misreading of the film that Cousins’ comment suggests has often been used to justify the political attacks on Gance that played a major role in retarding full recognition of his genius.
When it comes to Eisenstein, Naum Kleiman, apparently expressing views with which Cousins is in accord, states that Potemkin “is against violence in any form.” Kleiman’s long dedication to not only documenting Eisenstein but also championing his work during a difficult period of transition is truly admirable. He is entirely correct in stating that the film’s ultimate goal is peace and brotherhood and that it has often been subjected to vulgar misinterpretations as being simple propaganda for how to make a revolution. However, I find it a bit of a stretch to suggest that in Potemkin Eisenstein rejects the revolutionary violence of the mutinous sailors rising up against the officers who oppress them. In both Potemkin and its equally brilliant successor, October, Eisenstein, while in no sense reveling in violence, is clear in projecting the feeling that armed struggle was necessary to overthrow the old order for the purpose of building a new, more egalitarian society. This is not to relegate him to the role of a propagandist since, as Cousins accurately points out, he was a complex and at times contradictory artist whose works encompass many layers of interpretation and meaning. But I think it does him a disservice to attempt to divorce him from the revolutionary struggles he supported with such passionate conviction in his films of the ‘20s.
Whether Cousins questioned Kleiman in such a way as to elicit the desired answer, I do not know. But it would appear that Cousins’ interpretation of Eisenstein is intended to adjust him to the changing attitudes toward the Russian Revolution that have emerged in the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kleiman’s statement seems to be reflective of the contemporary Russian liberal view that the early 20th century revolutions in the country were bloody and unnecessary divergences from the mainstream of Western historical development. However, I don’t think it should be obligatory to tailor Eisenstein’s transformative genius to the fashion of the moment. The visionary qualities of his extraordinarily powerful portrayals of masses of awakened humanity are truly beyond the whims of transitory political currents.
In the first episode, Cousins took a very different approach to Griffith’s depiction of the storms of history in The Birth of a Nation than he does with Eisenstein’s in Potemkin in the third chapter. Far from considering an alternative reading of the Civil War-Reconstruction epic, he was so intent on showing Griffith as having willfully created a “deceitful,” bigoted film that he made no effort to penetrate beneath the narrative’s surface bias to discover the essentially tragic tone of a powerful portrayal of the devastating effects of war and occupation on the ordinary individual. Cousins did not tap into the insightful views of an analyst like William Rothman who wrote in his book, The “I” of the Camera, of Griffith’s dark vision in The Birth of a Nation in which “innocence and monstrousness are eternally at war for possession of the human soul.” Instead, Cousins adopted the established, limited perception of the director which has significantly diminished his stature in recent years.
The section of the third episode that I feel merits particular attention is the climactic one dealing with East Asia. It is this part, more than any other in the series, which is central to Cousins’ assertion of the need to “redraw the map of movie history.” Indeed, the omission of Japanese and Chinese cinema history from the standard chronicles of film was part of a broader process in which the cinemas of India, Latin America, the Middle East, Australia, and the smaller European countries were also allowed to languish in obscurity. The dominant narrative for decades traced the early evolution of cinema as it developed in the United States and the larger Western European countries with Russia entering into the annals only in the Soviet period following the revolution. That the history of Japanese cinema was so long overlooked in the West was especially glaring given how large and productive it had been for decades prior to the victory of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. This triumph and a succession of similar awards and critical acclaim for Japanese films in the ‘50s brought belated recognition in the West of the cinema of Japan. However, it would be many more years before this appreciation was extended to earlier Japanese films.
There seem to have been several compelling reasons that accounted for this delay. Japan was very slow in developing an archival movement to salvage and preserve its film heritage so that many outstanding and essential works hidden in warehouses and private collections were long thought lost. In addition, the conservatism of the film history establishment in the West, even in the 1970s and 1980s, made it reluctant to initiate wide-ranging retrospectives of a major chapter of early cinema it had managed to ignore for so many years. Finally, in the years following the war, there had been a prejudice in the West, especially in the United States, against Japanese cinema of the ‘30s and early ‘40s similar to that which tended to condemn German and Italian films of the same era. It was thought that all three Axis allies had used cinema to inculcate to one degree or another reactionary, authoritarian ideologies. In the case of Japan, just after the war there was even the deliberate burning by American Occupation forces of a number of samurai films in an effort to purge the country of the feudal values supposedly contained in these films—an appalling act of destruction by conquerors with unmistakable racist overtones. In this context, Japan’s acclaimed postwar films, like the flowering of Italian neo-realism in the same era, were seen as the expression of a newly awakened democratic spirit fostered by the American occupation.
Cracks in the foundation, however, were becoming evident by the onset of the 1970s. By that time, the three great prewar Japanese films Cousins highlights in this episode—A Page of Madness, I Was Born, But. . ., and Osaka Elegy—were continually being shown and discussed in the West. I Was Born, But. . .had first been screened in America in 1963, the last year of Ozu’s life, when there was the initial glimmer of Western interest in the director. Kinugasa himself traveled to London in the early ‘70s to launch a revival of A Page of Madness which he had recently found and restored. What was still lacking in the West was a wider context in which these masterpieces had emerged. Unlike with the larger European cinemas, there were then no full-scale archival and festival presentations in the West of the early Japanese cinema to unveil many other previously unknown works. Nor did the 16mm. rental companies targeting revival houses have any particular interest in obtaining copies of these films to bring to a wider audience in the West. With no such support forthcoming to draw on the recent rediscoveries in Japan of numerous films that were previously missing, the handful of prewar classics by Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kinugasa that were being distributed in the West appeared to come almost out of nowhere from a cinema whose early history was still largely unfamiliar in the outside world.
As a historian who sought for a number of years to bring attention to this remarkable creative chapter in early film, I am especially sympathetic to Cousins’ efforts to give the Japanese cinema of the 1920s and 1930s the prominence it long deserved. From personal experience, I know how difficult it often was to see these films in the West and it would be years before I would have the opportunity to write about them. Gradually, however, by the 1990s, aided by the advent of VHS tape, it became much easier to see more and more early Japanese films in the West, generating a climate favorable to Cousins’ emphasis.
Indeed, there have been fresh discoveries since Cousins completed the writing of the first edition of his book. Doubtless for reasons of time, in his series he did not deal with Mikio Naruse, another prewar master on a par with Ozu and Mizoguchi whom he did discuss in his book. But since the beginning of the 21st century, a fourth filmmaker of those years has come to the attention of Western critics and historians, the brilliant director Hiroshi Shimizu who is now widely regarded as a peer of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. His work was characterized by powerfully realistic depictions of the Japanese society of his time combined with a lyricism rooted in his love of location shooting of both rural and urban landscapes. Among his great films of the '30s are Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), a story set in Yokohama at the crossroads of East and West in which several young girls become social outcasts; Kinkanshoku (Eclipse; 1934), a narrative about the traditional village life of Japan being slowly undermined by the predatory commercial lure of the big city; A Hero of Tokyo (1935), in which an investigative reporter uncovers crime and corruption extending into his own family; and Mr. Thank-You (1936), the depiction in real time of a bus trip in the country with passengers suffering from the hardships wrought by the Depression in Japan. Shimizu was long all but unknown in the West and perhaps reflecting that, Cousins did not mention him in his book at all, let alone feature him in his series.
There is, however, a much more glaring omission from Cousins’ presentation and, in my opinion, far less excusable. At no point in either his book or his series does he make the slightest reference to the early jidai-geki or samurai period films that constituted half of Japanese production and were essential to the evolution of cinema in that country. Nowhere does he mention such pioneer masters of the jidai-geki genre as Daisuke Ito, Hiroshi Inagaki and Sadao Yamanaka.
In stating that A Page of Madness was the second great Japanese film, after Souls on the Road, he completely ignores the powerful, brilliant 1925 jidai-geki film, Orochi or Serpent, the story of a samurai destroyed by his society. This masterpiece of world cinema, directed by Buntaro Futagawa and starring the legendary Tsumasaburo Bando (“Bantsuma”), incorporated the advanced montage techniques pioneered by European filmmakers such as Gance into a narrative expressing a very Japanese view of reality. It not only had a major impact on films in its own country but also had an effect far beyond its borders, a rarity for Japan’s cinema at that time. As I learned a number of years ago from a Japanese cinephile who knew Josef von Sternberg and as confirmed by another source, the Austrian-American director saw Orochi in the United States sometime around 1926, most likely at the Fuji-kan Theatre in Los Angeles’ Japantown that regularly imported films from across the Pacific for screening to Japanese-American audiences. It would appear that the film’s dramatic depiction of a samurai forced by his society into a life of outlawry influenced Sternberg’s conception of the good bad man when the following year he directed Underworld about a heroic gangster trapped by fate. Sternberg’s classic, in which he used his unique lighting effects, in turn impacted on the many Hollywood gangster films that followed in the ‘30s as well as the major works of French poetic realism in the same decade depicting those on society’s outside doomed to destruction. And in yet another twist, Sternberg’s film that had been influenced by a Japanese production in turn affected a number of Japanese films dealing with gangsters, including Ozu’s remarkable Dragnet Girl.
It was not a simple oversight, I believe, that caused Cousins to eliminate completely the jidai-geki with its significant parallel to the quintessential Hollywood genre, the Western. Rather, as was also evident in his omission of Louis Feuillade’s serials and the achievements of Denmark’s Nordisk company, it would seem that acknowledging the centrality of the jidai-geki to Japanese film might seriously impair the main thrust of Cousins’ cherished thesis positing a sharp distinction between a Hollywood studio system dominated by genres and cinemas in Europe and Asia led by transcendent rebels beholden only to their individual geniuses.
In his book, Cousins entitled the fourth chapter “Japanese Classicism and Hollywood Romance (1928-45),” a further indication of how central this envisioned dichotomy was to his interpretation. He rearranged the chronology in his series, shifting his consideration of the presumed contrast from the age of sound to the silent era. Still, his basic thrust remained intact.
There is no question that Cousins’ effort to incorporate East Asia’s early cinema history into the context of world film is laudable and something that was long overdue. Nevertheless, in the process of correcting this imbalance, he at times adopts a problematic approach in describing the circumstances under which these films were made, particularly those produced in Japan. He in effect presents the early Japanese cinema as one that afforded seemingly unlimited freedom to its creators without the commercial and political strictures that curtailed the autonomy of the filmmaker in other lands. Such an idealized view, however, overlooks the troublesome fact that there was always the specter of government censorship. Toward the end of his life, the great master of jidai-geki, Daisuke Ito, recalled that this censorship was terrible. The passage in 1925 of the Law for the Maintenance of Public Order mandated severe punishments, including the death penalty, for anyone involved in revolutionary activities or attempting to overturn the capitalist system.
Orochi, produced the same year that this law was enacted, was a protest against the reactionary forces behind such legislation. The censors insisted on cutting over 20 percent of the film before it was released while other scenes were ordered to be reshot. Despite these changes, however, as director Buntaro Futagawa stated, they were able to remain faithful to the original concept. That Orochi survived the censors’ shears to become a major artistic triumph may have partly been aided by the fact that the forces tending toward militarist authoritarianism were still relatively weak and not yet capable of enforcing the kind of rigid controls they would begin to impose on the culture over a decade later with the outbreak of total war.
The studios, too, were by no means prepared to give all the directors everything they wanted as Cousins seems to suggest. At Shochiku, Mikio Naruse first distinguished himself in the early ‘30s with his silents, including two great, award-winning films in 1933, Apart from You and Yogoto no yume (a title that can be translated as Everynight Dreams or Nightly Dreams). Yet the head of Shochiku, Shiro Kido, disliked the dark vision of these powerful works and in reference to the realistic depictions of another master director at the same studio, said, “We don’t need another Ozu.” Naruse later said that at Shochiku he had often felt “compelled to take up anything, even if it was not very pleasing to me or even if I was weak at it.” Faced with such pressures, Naruse left Shochiku in the mid-1930s for what he felt were the greener pastures of the PCL Studio, later known as Toho.
By the end of the 1930s, following the start of the Sino-Japanese War, more and more limitations were being placed on Japan’s filmmakers culminating with the enactment in 1939 of the extremely restrictive Film Law. In 1937, the military draft ensnared both Ozu and his close friend, the brilliant young director of jidai-geki, Sadao Yamanaka. Ozu’s latest films in which he had successfully adapted to sound—The Only Son (1936) and What Did the Lady Forget? (1937)—did not fare well at the box office despite their artistry. One would think Shochiku might have been able to pull the necessary strings to retain him as a director or, at the least, gotten him a softer job in the military than his service as a common infantryman. Perhaps, though, his recent disappointing track record from a commercial standpoint decreased his value to the studio for a time.
Sadao Yamanaka’s fate would prove far worse than a temporary interruption in his career. His latest film, the jidai-geki masterpiece, Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), with its implied criticism of social inequities, made him an outright thorn in the side of the powerful militarist forces. It is said that he was inducted into the army the same day Humanity and Paper Balloons was premiered. In a will and testament he drew up on April 18, 1938, after saying he would be “a little aggrieved” if Humanity and Paper Balloons should be his last film although it was not “a loser’s grief,” he concluded in an especially poignant message for his fellow film artists in what was his final written statement: “Lastly, I say to my seniors and friends: Please make good movies.” Just five months later on September 17, 1938, at the age of 28 he died in China of an intestinal illness contracted by his service in the army. Considering how much he had achieved in six years of directing, there has long been speculation in Japan of what more he might have accomplished had it not been for his untimely death. He was surely as much a victim of a tyrannical regime as any of his contemporaries in Third Reich Germany or the Soviet Union. Japanese filmmakers in those years were affected in still other ways by the storms of history. In 1932, soon after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria placed the country on a road that would lead to total war by the end of the decade, Mizoguchi made a now-lost film entitled The Dawn of the Founding of Manchukuo, intended to promote the aims of the new imperial policy. With Japan engulfed in the Second World War by the early 1940s, many more propaganda films would be made to justify the government’s policies, a number of them directed by some of the Japanese cinema’s most outstanding filmmakers.
Cousins, however, does not address these aspects of Japan’s cinema and its often tragic ties to the country’s history. Rather, in arguing its films can be viewed as “compensation” for the misdeeds of the government, he projects an interpretation in which the cinema of Japan, apparently uniquely among all others in the world, somehow existed in almost total independence of its political and military leadership. Had Cousins consistently applied this to other countries with comparably rich cinema histories existing amidst unsavory regimes, I think his methodology could have readily been defended as an aesthetic one that recognizes the enduring power of art to transcend the limitations imposed by the political situations in which the films of necessity took shape.
Unfortunately, as was apparent in his superficial dismissal of Pudovkin despite the profound humanity of his work, Cousins in his book adopted a very different approach to films produced in those years in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, a perspective which affected what was shown or perhaps one should say what was not shown in his documentary series. In the commentary in his book, he described Italian cinema in the ‘30s and early ‘40s as “tainted by Mussolini’s fascist ideals.” He similarly characterized Soviet cinema in the same period as being imbued with “Stalinist” and “pro-collectivist” sentiments, while German cinema in this era was represented by him as being little more than a vehicle for Nazi ideology. He thus made no attempt to probe beyond such one-dimensional interpretations to discover far more varied and creative filmic legacies in which, despite all the severe attempts to control the artist, there were still a number of outstanding cinematic achievements. There was only a passing reference in his book to such major Italian directors of the ‘30s as Alessandro Blasetti and Mario Camerini and none at all to Raffaello Matarazzo; when dealing with the Soviet Union, he did not comment on the ‘30s films of Boris Barnet and Grigori Alexandrov and omitted altogether celebrated figures like the team of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, Abram Room, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, and Mark Donskoy; while with respect to Germany, he did not analyze Douglas Sirk’s ‘30s films nor make the slightest mention of other extraordinary directors including Reinhold Schunzel, Willi Forst, Luis Trenker, Frank Wysbar, Werner Hochbaum, and Helmut Kautner.
This refusal to engage in a meaningful way with the cinemas of these countries is reflected in the enormous lacunae in his documentary series. Nowhere does he include a single excerpt from a Soviet film made between Dovzhenko’s Earth in 1930 in this third episode and Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 I Am Cuba in episode number eight. Apart from clips from Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria, Italian cinema does not appear in the series until the fifth episode with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). And with Germany, there is nothing between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927 in the third episode and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early 1970s work featured in the tenth chapter, aside from a glimpse of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) in episode five and a major focus on Leni Riefenstahl in the fourth one.
Cousins’ perspective on Japanese cinema seems to have been largely shaped by two Westerners who wrote extensively on the subject. The late Donald Richie, whom Cousins interviewed for the series, was an American who first went to Japan after the war and, having fallen in love with the country and its culture, made it his home for most of his life. He authored many excellent, illuminating works on Japan, including pioneering accounts of its cinema that almost single-handedly introduced the West to a consciousness of its history. Another writer, who was not interviewed for the series, nevertheless evidently played an important role in shaping Cousins’ approach. Noel Burch, also an American but long resident in France, took a much more contentious position than Richie in his book, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, published in 1979. Whereas Richie primarily sought to reveal to the West the special qualities of Japanese cinema as an expression of its culture, Burch was much more polemical, seeking to establish Japan’s early cinema as an alternative to the cultural dominance of the bourgeois, capitalist Western film industries.
The cumulative effect of these varied but overlapping interpretations has been to advance an essentialist view of Japanese cinema in which the unique qualities of the culture endowed it with a spirit or transcendence not to be found in other national cinemas. This concept has thus generated a sense of respectful distancing on the part of analysts in the West noticeably lacking in their approach to societies that are either Western, like
Much the same political emphasis can also be encountered in writings about the Italian and Soviet films produced during this era. One could speculate how the histories of these countries’ cinemas might have presented them had the writers been “distant observers” from another civilization rather than critics who judged them within the context of their own culture. However much one may strive to consciously avoid a perspective that values Western lives over Asian ones, it is highly unlikely that a historian in the West would have suggested in a documentary series that the best German, Italian and Soviet films might be viewed as “compensations” for the crimes of the regimes. The degree of detachment that, by contrast, exists with respect to
I personally agree with the distinction that Cousins makes between the government and the artists in the case of
The essentialist interpretation of Japanese cinema has not only fostered a kind of political and cultural double standard, as seen in the contrasting views of German, Italian and Soviet films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but has also left its mark on the topic Cousins next addresses in the episode—the cinema of China. In the 1970s, both Donald Richie and Noel Burch drew a sharp distinction between Japanese films and those of other Eastern countries, especially
At the time Richie and Burch made these pronouncements, it was impossible for Westerners or even most Chinese to see the historic achievements of
Not long after Burch’s book appeared, China’s film archive was reopened to the public and, with the early classics of Chinese cinema increasingly studied by scholars in the West as well as China, the assumptions made in To the Distant Observer were quickly overturned along with the Orientalist arguments the writer had advanced to sustain them. Cineastes now began to recognize that in the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese cinema, with a heritage of silent and sound films equaling
Despite his praise of Chinese films of the 1930s, there is one residue of Burchean theorizing that Cousins seems to have incorporated into his documentary. This is the rather dismissive tone he adopts toward Chinese cinema of the 1920s and his view that
While the third episode contains many virtues as this analysis indicates, as an historical interpretation it remains problematic inasmuch as Cousins has anchored it in his dualistic theory of the