ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

It’s that time of year again, when procrastinators do their taxes, spring cleaning, and summer abstract writing in one weekend!

My proposed paper for ASPAC this year (at Western Washington in Bellingham) is a variation on something I’ve been working on for a while now, no surprise to longtime readers of this blog, or of HNN, or to my students who have heard me rant and rail about the tragedies of historical fiction and historical movies for a decade or more. I’m going to try to focus on a kind of historiographical reading of the movies, and to talk about how we as public experts, teachers and writers, might productively respond to or use these works.

Here’s the abstract itself, which was limited to 100 words:

Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema
History is a rich vein of stories and settings, and popular historical movies can have immense effects on the historical understanding of general publics. This is especially true in Japanese history in English-speaking societies, where knowledge is often limited to one-sided understandings of unique episodes and orientalist mythologies of unchanging culture. This paper will examine a number of English-language movies, recent and older, not to catalog historical errors, but to understand how historical memory and Japanese historical processes are understood and portrayed. Finally, this paper will consider how that might affect the work of Japan specialists addressing these audiences.

I have a preliminary list of movies to address, most of which I’ve seen. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has ideas about other films to consider?

  • The Last Samurai
  • 47 Ronin (see also)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Shogun
  • Karate Kid 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Obviously, some of these are more important than others, in terms of audience range and likely effect on people’s ability to think about history in a coherent fashion: KK2 is probably more important than TMNT3, and the John Wayne, whatever its flaws or virtues, isn’t going to be more than a faint echo in the historical consciousness of contemporary audiences. The more recent films, including the wretched mess from Christmas, are going to weigh more heavily.


  1. I would suggest Sayonara, the 1957 film starring Marlon Brando. Though perhaps not so well-known to today’s young audience, supporting actors Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki both got Oscars for their performance of an interracial couple that decide to kill themselves instead of being forced to separate. Of the kind of movies you’re looking for that give a one-sided understanding of episodes in Japanese history, I would consider this movie to define American’s view of the post-war occupation period.

    If you are also including the West’s view of more modern Japan (you included KK2, so I suppose you are), some other films that you might consider are:

    * Gung Ho and Rising Sun, both dealing with fear of the Japanese Economic Empire taking over the West (that fear seems almost comical today)
    * The Challenge (1982, starring Scott Glen and Toshiro Mifune) and The Hunted (1995, starring Christopher Lambert and John Lone): both serve the ‘Japan is a land with mysterious and secret martial arts’ stereotype, though in both cases it takes an American to defeat them. Pretty similar to KK2, I suppose. The Challenge is a bit more grounded in reality though.

    Of the movies you listed, probably The Barbarian and Geisha made the biggest impact on me personally. Especially the scene where Harris finally gets an audience with the local Daimyo and says that Japan should open up its borders in order to progress:

    Daimyo: 「進歩」とは何だ?
    Huesken (the translator): What is progress?
    Harris: You tell him this, ‘Progress is not having to kill your baby girls because of a famine.’
    Huesken: 進歩は、飢饉の時に女の赤ん坊を殺さなくてもいいことです!

  2. Sayonara sounds like an interesting possibility, yes, along with the John Wayne.

    I thought about Gung Ho, but I didn’t remember it having much to work with historically speaking. I should go back and watch it again. Rising Sun… ugh, but yes, the van Wolferen thesis is an important element in the 80s-90s period.


  3. Good to see someone beat me to it with “Rising Sun.”
    Is “Black Rain” too (a) recent and/or (b) ludicrous to warrant consideration?
    And what about Mitchum’s “The Yakuza?”

  4. I thought of a couple more movies.

    * Mr. Baseball, with Tom Selleck and Ken Takakura. This also portarys Japan as it was viewed by the West at the height of the bubble, and feeds into the van Wolferen hysteria, though it takes a lot more positive view than Rising Sun.

    * Black Rain, starring Michael Douglas and again Ken Takakura. Noir 80’s bubble and yakuza.

    * Lost in Translation and (to a lesser extent) Ramen Girl: These have pretty much defined how the West sees post-2000 Tokyo culture and nightlife.

    You could also include a brief mention of movies that claim to take place in Japan but have almost no Japanese actors nor dialogue, and very few scenes, if any, that were actually filmed in Japan. Austin Powers: Goldmember, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Kill Bill all fit into this category.

  5. If you intend to disinter The Barbarian and the Geisha, you might take a look at several other 1950s movies: Japanese War Bride (Starring Shirley Yamaguchi aka Rikoran), The House of Bamboo (an American gangster flick with Robert Ryan and Shirley Yamaguchi), The Teahouse of August Moon (with Marlo Brando disguised as an Okinawan); Escapade in Japan (American boy stranded in Japan after his plane — piloted by an unknown Clint Eastwood — crashes. In the same vein how about You Only Die Twice (007 and Tamba Tetsuro backed by ninja against bad buys based in a volcano.) Other better possibilities are Tora,Tora, Tora (a relatively accurate dramatizarion of the Pearl Harbor attack — Mifune vs.Martin Balsam – coproduced in Japan and the US; Lost Translation (a satirical look at Japanese media culture fearing Bill Murray and Scarlette Johansson experiencing culture shock.)

  6. Maybe I should clarify: I’m not trying to do a filmography of American films about Japan generally, but of films that have something to say about Japanese historical events and process.

    Tora, Tora, Tora is certainly a possibility in that regard. Overall, though, I’m not going to be looking at films that take on contemporary Japan, unless there’s some focus on historic or cultural change.

    Looks like there’d be an audience for a more general examination of filmic portrayals of Japan over time, though. Worth considering.

  7. Films having something to say about the Japanese historical process? How about “Picture Bride”? Or is that too Hawaiian a film?

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