Narrative In Japanese Film 3: Yamanaka

I am again going to quote at some length from Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film, with the subject this time being Yamanaka Sadao’s exquisite 1937 film Humanity and Paper Balloons:

In the second sequence of the film—a lane outside the tenement—we find that the camera is placed level with the human eye and that all shots are economically edited along a single axis. In this, Yamanaka was certainly influenced by Ozu. Though there are asides during the length of this sequence (one of them is to introduce Unno, the masterless-samurai hero of the film), in the main the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley varies not at all—the angle coincides with the axis.

This way of working is not often seen in American or European films of the period because these scenes could be said to “not match,” also because their sequence violates one of the assumptions of international cinema style, namely, that a film progresses by opposing shots. Shots which are compositionally similar are thought to confuse, though this Yamanaka sequence is proof that this is not necessarily so. The theory about opposing shots seems to be based on a Western assumption that narrative can proceed only through conflict and confrontation, compositionally as well as otherwise. The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.


In showing us the tenement alley, the director moves along its length, shot after shot. A precise rendering of the street is given, a believable accounting of its space, a logical introduction of the characters, and the setting up of half of the spatial metaphor. This is the closed and crowded alley itself, which, though invaded by officials from time to time, is really the safer part of the world.

When the outside world (the town outside the tenement district) is delineated, we are given no such spatial grounding. We do not know the location of the pawnbroker’s house in relation to our alley, nor the location of the bridge where one of the main characters will be killed. The temple gate, the fairground, all these “outside” locations are separate, distinct, cut off from each other. They lack the continuity of the tenement, which we were shown whole and complete. Consequently, it is the tenement which feels safe, like home, and it is the outside which is dangerous, or alien. “Spatially, Yamanaka—having set up this opposition of spaces, having fully reticulated one and left the other carefully and threateningly unreticulated—has created for himself a bipolar structure.”

Well, with all due respect to the eminent Mr. Richie, there are some aspects of this section that I’m a little unhappy with.

Firstly, the terminology in the first paragraph is wrong. The sentence “the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley” should surely read “the camera placement in each shot during the progress along the alley.” This mistake is repeated in the first sentence of the next paragraph as well, but thereafter corrects itself. A strange lapse (and something his editor should have picked up).

Secondly, I don’t actually agree with the conclusions Mr. Richie draws from his observations. Yes, Yamanaka does construct these opening scenes from a series of overlapping shots that, in terms of strict Hollywood continuity-style editing, would be considered ‘wrong’ because they break the 30º rule (which is presumably what Richie means when he says the shots don’t “match”). And, yes, the vast majority of narratives constructed using continuity-style editing are heavily reliant on shot/reverse shot structuring.

From these initial observations he then goes on to say that Yamanaka is doing all this to create a “spatial metaphor” where this seamless and “compositionally similar” directing represents the unified and integrated community within the alley, in opposition to the world outside which is represented by Yamanaka as a series of locations that are “separate, distinct, cut off from each other.”

However, the shooting and editing styles do not change throughout the film. When Yamanaka has to shoot a similar type of scene in the “outside” world—and where the action is confined to a long narrow space such as an alley—he employs exactly the same type of shot structure and editing style as he does in the tenement. In other words, Yamanaka is not composing these scenes this way in order to express a “spatial metaphor,” it is simply a function of the types of spaces he is shooting in. For example, here is a sequence of stills from the opening tenement sequence that Richie describes:




Compare this now to a scene later in the film that is in Richie’s “outside world” but shot in a very similar type of space:




As you can see, a very similar overall style. There doesn’t seem to be any particular “spatial metaphor” at work here that would allow us to identify the two sequences as existing in different symbolic or psychological realms: we’re just shooting in alleys!

Isn’t there also a contradiction in Richie’s piece? First he says that the “idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity … is seen again and again in Japanese movies” but then later asserts that the creation of these two spaces—the safe tenement vs. the alien outside—creates “a bipolar structure.” Surely all narrative proceeds through conflict of some kind.

Oddly enough, I do agree with the basic opposition that Richie has observed, namely that Yamanaka plays off this cosy and communal tenement against the disjointed and harsh outside world, but I don’t believe this is expressed in the shooting and editing styles. For me, it is the emptiness and formality of the outside world that distinguishes it from the noisy and vibrant tenement.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.76)

Narrative In Japanese Film 2: Design As Narrative

Another section of Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film to catch my eye is this description of Daisuke Ito’s 1927 film Diary of Chuji’s Travels:

Much of the film looks like a modern—specifically American—movie. Yet it often segues into a decidedly Japanese sensibility. The dialogue scenes are in medium close-up, there are two shots with a forty-five degree shift of viewpoint, and eyelines follow international standards. Yet, in the sequence in the saké brewery, we follow a downward pan from darkness to patches of sunlight, beams, ropes, and finally to the men manning the works. A written title appears in this initial darkness and continues all the way through the pan—in effect turning the screen into a calligraphy surface, a two-dimensional page.

The following sequence, in the saké brewery yard, is pure Japanese aesthetic bravura. The area is littered with enormous empty barrels, some on their sides, and so the scene is filled with circles. Shot after shot emphasizes ceaselessly the resulting circular compositions. A girl wanders in circles; children play circular games: the design has become the story. And during the remainder of the film, scenes return to the compositions of this sequence, reminding us of it. The heroine goes to sit in the circle of a big, empty vat; later, children form a dancing circle around the distraught samurai hero.

Such apparent design-as-narrative reminds one of traditional printmakers, particularly Hokusai, and brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot. We can readily understand the role that traditional composition plays in Japanese cinema.

Wow: the design has become the story! I only wish there were more depth to this section. When Richie says it “brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot” does he mean Hokusai in particular, or traditional printmakers in general? It’s just so tantalizing!

Something I’m going to have to research myself.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.70)

Narrative In Japanese Film 1: Benshi

I’ve just finished reading Donald Richie’s excellent A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. The book is arranged more-or-less chronologically, and begins with the very earliest of Japanese-produced movies in 1899. These, as with the imported films that at that time made up the bulk of the repertoire, were obviously all silent films. However, when they were screened they had sound added by a benshi, someone who Richie defines as a “film narrator, commentator, lecturer—a master of ceremonies whose appearance was an assumed part of early Japanese film showings.” This amazing practice continued well into the era of the talkies, and did not die out fully until the mid-1930s.

So why did the Japanese cinema audience need the benshi, and for so long? Excuse me if I quote at some length from the book:

The reasons for the long life of the benshi were various. Since Japan had only some forty years before been “opened up to the West” (a phrase invented in the West), ignorance of much of the outside world was common. The benshi filled in the gaps of knowledge Western viewers had acquired long before. They were “a reassuring native presence with a presumed acquaintance of the foreign object,” a necessity which might even now “explain the Japanese affection for teachers, tour guides, sommeliers, and other conduits for the acquisition of new experience.”

In addition to his educational role, the benshi was essential to the film-viewing experience. In part, this was because the early cinema of Japan was, as elsewhere, a cinema of short, unrelated clips—initially films form abroad: in the Lumière collection, one saw babies being fed, gardeners being squirted, and so on. A commentary connecting these clips not only made a short program longer but more coherent. Later, when longer programs became available, story links were created by the benshi. Still later came the illusion of a self-contained story-world. Until then, the benshi was all that these little glimpses had in common.

The benshi was also required to fill the time. This he accomplished in various ways. Besides talking, he sometimes lengthened the viewing time. Many films were quite short, and so a number were shown on a single bill. Sometimes, as was common in early showings in France and the United States, films were repeated. Since the audience had not yet developed what has been called a “linear response,” no one minded a second viewing as it gave one a chance to catch new things the second time round.

In recalling the films he had seen around 1898, as a child of about ten, novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro said: “The ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same scene could be projected over and over. I can still remember, endlessly repeated, high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking and then receding, and a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters.”


The technique of repetition has a proper Japanese name, tasuke (continuous loop), and its use remains common on Japanese television and in the movie theaters, where advertising clips are repeated several times. The aim now is not to make a short program longer, but the argument holds that anything short may be twice savoured. After all, repetition seemingly for its own sake is so accepted an element in Japanese dramaturgy that its cinematic equivalent seems quite natural. Perhaps those Western viewers, even during a Mizoguchi Kenji or Ozu Yasujiro film, sigh and hope the director will soon get on with it are responding to this Japanese tradition of repetition.

The benshi mostly filled in the time with lengthy explanations, a time-consuming rhetoric, and drawn-out, often moralizing conclusions. It was the benshi who created the narrative for the audience to follow, and even today, when the narrator’s performance has been reduced to a more or less scholarly reconstruction, a plethora of explanations, repetitions of information, and voice-overs remains in Japanese commercial film. This was what the uninformed audience required and consequently wanted. “What to filmgoers in the West might seem an overdetermined, annoying repetition was for Japanese audiences constitutive of meaning.”

From the Western perspective, it could be said that the benshi delayed the cinematic development of narrative in Japan. However, this line of thought is valid only if one believes that the development of narrative was a “natural” development of the film and that there were no other alternatives. Actually, as Japanese film indicates, there were.

In the West, cinema was evolving into a self-sufficient narrative. It seemed the most practical way to entertain increasingly sophisticated audiences. A series of short clips gave way to lengthier, more coherent stories. The audience’s involvement in more detailed stories increased attendance. It was thus possible to find in the narrative film the most suitable cinematic form if the industry required films to be quickly and cheaply made.

In Japan, however, the perception of narrative was different. It was the benshi and not any self-contained cinematic narrative which made sense to the audience. He not only explained what was being shown on the screen but also was there “to reinforce, interpret, counterpoint, and in any case to intercede.”

The role of the benshi was a very traditional one. From the earliest times, Japanese drama had required an informing voice. The chorus in noh drama, the joruri chanter in bunraku puppet drama, the gidayu narrator in kabuki—all premodern Japanese drama is a pictorial expansion of verbal storytelling. Joseph Anderson has indeed defined the Japanese drama as a presentation “in which actors do not autonomously enact events for spectators; dialogue spoken by actors is not the primary speech modality; and basic plot structure is not based on conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity.”

Rather than being presented as an occurrence, drama is presented as a recounted occurrence. Although many national dramas have entertained like assumptions, the Japanese theater (and its descendants, movies and television) has remained remarkably faithful to the authoritative voice. As one early critic expressed it, the film itself was like the bunraku puppet and the benshi was the gidayu reciter.


The influence of the benshi continues even today. Joseph Anderson remembers listening to a modern Japanese soap opera from another room in the house and discovering that “voice-over narration not only recaps previous episodes but every so often talks about things that are happening right now on the tube. I don’t have to look at this television drama. I hear it.”

I find this passage pregnant with ideas. For my own benefit as much as yours, here are a few brief notes:

  1. This all suggests that Japan remains a primarily oral society. Most likely this is due to the notoriously difficult-to-master writing system that they use.
  2. In the text above, who said the audience had not developed a “linear response.” What do they—the person who said it originally and Richie himself—mean by it?
  3. This idea of showing film (or video) in continuous loops is intriguing. Given the modern technologies we have, it’s surprising that more has not been made of looping (as it has, for example, in audio). There are places where it is in common use: pop concerts and pop videos spring to mind; advertising on the web, or on LCD displays in public spaces; and Buñuel has used it (that scene in Exterminating Angel where the guests arrive twice). Presumably looping is so rarely used outside of these contexts because most films and TV shows are plot-driven. But as Brian Eno has said: “Repetition is a form of change.”
  4. If Japanese dramatic forms are not based on what we would recognize as an Aristotelian narrative form (conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity), then what are they based on?

One final thought. Could not this format of short film or video clips linked by a live narrator/performer be consciously revived as a modern form? With the technologies we have at our disposal this could produce some very powerful effects.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (pp.19-22)