Censorship of Japanese Films During the U.S. Occupation of Japan explains the basics of occupation era censorship, gives an interesting interpretation of Ozu, but offers quite little in terms of new Kurosawa scholarship. Somewhat recommended.
Lars-Martin Sorensen’s new book, Censorship of Japanese Films During the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, is the latest English language Kurosawa book to make its way to the bookshops on the eve of 2010, Kurosawa’s centenary year. Sorensen is a Danish postdoctoral Film & Media Studies research fellow from the University of Copenhagen, and may be familiar to many readers from the video essay that he recorded for Criterion’s Drunken Angel.
Censorship of Japanese Films is a revised version of the author’s PhD dissertation. It is consequently fairly academic in its delivery, which among other things means that it has a relatively well defined thesis that it defends throughout, giving the book a comparatively good, solid structure that makes it easy to read. This thesis argues that the typical “good winners, good losers” narrative, which sees the Japanese as having graciously accepted their defeat in World War II, is faulty, and that visible rebellion against the occupying Americans can be found, including in the films released during the occupation. The book consequently sets out to show exactly how directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to smuggle in anti-occupation sentiments despite the ongoing censorship.
The book begins with Stephen Prince‘s foreword, which is just over two pages in length and pretty much works as an overall description of the contents. It could in fact have been shortened and printed on the back cover, which now only includes a picture of the author and the publisher’s logo.
In his own introductory chapter (pages 1-33), Sorensen notes that earlier English language film criticism has had the tendency to treat Japanese films as “text”, therefore “ignor[ing] the active meaning-making process of the contemporary audience” (8). Sorensen calls for an approach which is more centred on the question how the intended contemporary audiences may have received and interpreted the works. In addition to this overall approach, Sorensen references reception theory, cognitive film theory and cognitive philosophy, concluding that “the theoretical and methodological basis of this work rests on socio-cognitive theory” (10-11). Now, as the book is basically a dissertation, and therefore a text whose primary purpose at the time of writing must have been to earn the author his doctorate, there is some amount of what could be called “academic exhibitionism”, or referencing of theoretical and scientific frameworks that could well have been left out had Sorensen not needed to quite so overtly display his knowledge of the subjects discussed. Fortunately this abundance of theories, as so often is the case, is by and large limited to the introductory chapter, and if the mentioned theories are actually put into practice later on, it is done without much fanfare or notice of the fact (and I actually have some background in socio-cognitive theories). All in all, the book therefore reads well, is never dry or drowned in empty academic complexities, and the discussion is pleasantly easy to follow in spite of supposedly resting on specific theoretical frameworks.
Chapter two (pages 35-83) sets out to compile the profile of an average Japanese post-war film goer, or “Moe-san”. Sorensen references a handful of contemporary studies that give interesting data about the age and sex distribution of audiences of the era: for instance, we get to know that a study conducted in 1950 found that a total of 82% of film goers in Tokyo were 16-30 years of age, and that 16-25 year old men and women were equally active film goers, but from older audiences men were the majority. (37) Other surveys tell us that more than half of the film goers were either students or company employees (the number of unemployed film goers declined as years passed and the economy grew), although data from rural areas is somewhat lacking. (37-38)
As most film goers belonged to a relatively narrow profile group, this gives Sorensen an excellent opportunity to draw a more in-depth picture of Moe-san; his or her educational background, overall wartime experiences, as well as relationship with the media can all, argues Sorensen, be reconstructed based on the film goers’ average age. While the result is certainly a very generic picture (and Sorensen never pretends his profiling to be more than that), this exercise is extremely interesting for someone like me who has often asked the question what the target audience of Japanese post-war films may have been like, but has had no way of answering that question. Although there is only so much that Sorensen can do within the space given, I would for this chapter alone recommend Censorship of Japanese Films for anyone interested in post-war Japanese cinema.
Chapter three (pages 85-112) moves onto the actual censorship, explaining the dual system of film censorship that took place under the American Occupation, where work was divided – not always smoothly, Sorensen tells us – between the two separate bureaucratic bodies of Civil Information & Education Section (pre-production censorship) and Civil Censorship Detachment (post-production censorship). The chapter ends with a brief look at Japanese censorship after the Occupation, which continued to be heavily influenced by Occupation time practices.
In hindsight, I would have liked this chapter to be longer and more detailed. In fact, considering the book’s title, I feel that this chapter should have been the centre piece of the book, yet Sorensen gives it surprisingly little space, and consequently the reader is left without fully understanding the day-to-day workings of the two censorship bodies. In my view, this chapter could therefore easily have done with more historical examples and anecdotes of censorship practices to better illustrate the system. It would also have been helpful had Sorensen better described the state of the censorship documents today, where they are kept, in what kind of conditions, and how much scholarly work has actually been done on them, both in Japan and abroad. Now, all these questions remain unanswered.
Chapter four (pages 113-181) turns to Yasujiro Ozu. Sorensen starts the chapter by giving us a brief introduction to earlier Ozu criticism, and then suggests that “[t]wo aspects of Ozu’s works go almost entirely unnoticed and unmentioned” by earlier writers, namely “that Ozu’s occupation films were censored by the CI&E and the CCD” and that Ozu “appears to have engaged in a sustained effort to problematize and/or criticize the impact of westernization on Japanese society”. (117) This is a statement that Sorensen is, in my view, able to back fairly well, and all in all the Ozu chapter is very interesting reading even for someone like me who has only a relatively superficial knowledge of the director and his (major) works.
Although the chapter focuses primarily on Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring, a good number of other wartime and post-war projects are also given a treatment, primarily with the intention of helping with the interpretation of Late Spring, which Sorensen claims to be the most interesting of Ozu’s post-war films, as it on the first look appears to comply with the occupation censorship’s recommendations, but on a closer look does not actually do so. The approach here appears thorough, and Sorensen certainly looks at Late Spring from several angles, considering censorship documents, individual drafts, as well as films and unfilmed scripts preceding Late Spring, in addition to a typical close reading of the film itself. In fact, going through Sorensen’s treatment of Ozu gave me the impression that Ozu’s body of work is highly interconnected, with later films referencing earlier ones on both concrete and metaphorical levels. If Sorensen is right, these works perhaps cannot be fully appreciated without a fairly holistic approach like the one employed here. The chapter also gains tremendously from observations derived from the censorship archives, including notes pencilled by censors on the synopses and drafts submitted by Ozu.
Chapter five, the longest of the book’s six chapters (pages 183-305), sets to do with Kurosawa what the preceding chapter did with Ozu. The Kurosawa that Sorensen describes is a director who collaborated with wartime Japanese censors and created pro-war propaganda works (especially through his scripts for other directors), while further associating himself with wartime ideals through many of his predominantly nationalistic friends. Once the war ends and the American occupation begins, Kurosawa – or so Sorensen argues – makes films that criticise the Americans and draws inspiration from the pre-war days and nationalistic ideals.
I have two problems with this assessment. One is that Sorensen is not able to provide enough hard data to back up his claims, interesting as they may be. Moreover, and even more importantly, I feel that Sorensen looks at Kurosawa from too polarised an angle, interpreting criticism of post-war changes as Kurosawa being anti-American and pro-tradition, rather than simply questioning the types of changes that were being made and wondering whether better alternatives might exist. Sorensen also argues, despite Kurosawa’s own account to the contrary (see Kurosawa’s autobiography, p.144), that Kurosawa had more problems with occupation censors than he had had with the wartime Japanese ones, and that the director was consequently in constant conflict with the Americans. Yet, Sorensen is unable to produce any significant documentary proof for this claim, and is then furthermore forced to suggest that some of Kurosawa’s supposedly anti-American films made it through censorship solely because of internal confusion in the bureaus.
In addition to a general overview of Kurosawa’s occupation films, Sorensen has chosen four of Kurosawa’s post-war films for detailed discussion: No Regrets for our Youth (26 pages), Drunken Angel (35 pages), Stray Dog (15 pages) and Rashomon (21 pages). Many other Kurosawa films are also referred to in the discussion, some of which only in passing, others in more detail. Considering Sorensen’s chosen topic, his scope and selection of films is good.
Sorensen’s treatment of No Regrets for our Youth attacks typical approaches to the work, which tend to describe the film as a “democratization film”. Sorensen’s own take is that the movie is in fact quite critical of the then-ongoing political and educational changes. His arguments are interesting, yet not always entirely convincing. Meanwhile, no censorship records unfortunately appear to exist for the film, giving us very little idea what the actual discourse with the censorship bodies may have been.
The following section on Drunken Angel is more interesting, and is much helped by existing censorship records that Sorensen peruses. Yet, I cannot really say that Sorensen here either convinces me with his take on the film, which argues for an anti-American interpretation, with westernised gangsters and traditional values. In his view, Drunken Angel is also an example where American censors in unintentionally made the film more anti-American through the changes that they requested, especially due to the change of ending.
Sorensen furthermore feels a strange need to quite prominently argue against the typical view of Drunken Angel as the first film where Kurosawa was able to realise his own vision (following Kurosawa’s comment in Richie, p.47: “It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else.”), insisting that with the presence of Kurosawa’s co-writer Uekusa, all the meddling by censors, and Mifune’s focus-shifting tour-de-force performance, “this film was not ‘only made by Kurosawa'” (270), as if any film could be the work of just one man.
Sorensen’s treatment of Stray Dog continues the search for Kurosawa’s alleged anti-American sentiments. Now, while Sorensen’s interpretations of Kurosawa’s films are throughout the book strongly influenced by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, this chapter is particularly indebted to the work. Sorensen takes Yoshimoto’s treatment as his starting point, and then asks the vital question how much of the textual references an average film goer of the era could have picked. This is a good question, but one that Sorensen does not necessarily fully answer. He does, however, offer a few additional observations about the film’s textual pattern as well as a few notes about the film’s history with the censors, but ultimately the section on Stray Dog has fairly few truly new insights.
The book’s chapter on Kurosawa concludes with an interpretation of Rashomon, which is perhaps the most interesting and convincing of Sorensen’s takes on Kurosawa. Sorensen first notes that the character of Tajomaru can be seen as “a sort of oni, or ogre, of Japanese folklore, which has often been interpreted as a representation of the foreigner” (296; quoting Davidson). What this can potentially mean becomes clear a few pages later when Sorensen introduces the Japanese word rashamen, which is a derogatory term used for Japanese women who are mistresses to foreign men. As Sorensen points out, it was no secret that many American soldiers had such mistresses; in fact, in 1946 “roughly 40% … had a Japanese girlfriend while stationed in Japan”. (300) Sorensen also goes on to note that according to the Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, “the reality of the rashamen gave name to a subgenre in the postwar years of films that treated relationships between Japanese women and American men: the ‘rashamen genre'”. (300) The idea of Rashomon as a ‘rashamen film’ would certainly cast new light onto the rape/seduction scene at the centre of the story, while also giving an explanation why Kurosawa insisted on building the Rashomon gate in the first place (which, as Sorensen notes, is as if hit by a bomb).
Sorensen’s chapter on Kurosawa therefore ends on a high note. Still, one relatively big problem with the chapter as a whole is that it ultimately has very little direct material connection with censorship, and has far more to do with Sorensen’s underlying argument that Kurosawa’s works were inherently anti-American, and therefore anti-censorship. It consequently seems to me that this chapter is somewhat misplaced in a book about censorship practices in Japan, and would rather belong to a book with more generic interpretations of Kurosawa’s works.
The chapter on Kurosawa also includes a number of small factual errors, such as calling Ishiro Honda “Inoshiro Honda”, claiming that Kagemusha was Honda’s last collaboration with Kurosawa (198), or noting that the only generally available English friendly release of No Regrets for Our Youth is the poor quality Mei Ah version (210), although Criterion’s release (from the Postwar Kurosawa box set) has been available for almost two years now. It is possible that this last mentioned bit was written before the Criterion box set was announced, but considering that the book was published just now, this would have warranted at least a footnote, as now it gives the impression that Sorensen has not done his homework, casting doubt on other claims that I have no way of cross-checking.
Speaking of errors, the book could also have done with an extra round of proof-reading, as many typographical, typesetting and language errors remain on the pages. These are never troublesome enough to become a real problem for the reader, but I did have to start a few sentences more than once before realising that the reason why the sentence seemed funny was because of a missing or misplaced glyph. What is somewhat more disappointing than the occasional typo is that not all of the sources mentioned in Sorensen’s footnotes appear to be listed in the book’s bibliography.
What follows the Kurosawa chapter is the book’s concluding chapter (307-324), which summarises the discussion, while also briefly touching new topics. My own conclusion is that the strongest parts of Censorship of Japanese Films are the ones where Sorensen deals with documentary evidence, and as such I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the censorship system itself. Many of Sorensen’s film interpretations meanwhile seem somewhat too eager to jump into preferred conclusions, tempting as those conclusions may appear.
In summary, I would definitely recommend Censorship of Japanese Films During the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa to anyone interested in post-war Japanese cinema and contemporary censorship. To my untrained eye, the chapter on Ozu also seems very well written. As for the book’s Kurosawa criticism, there are certainly occasional gems in there, but there is also much of what has already been said elsewhere, and a fair amount of what I personally deem somewhat weak argumentation (but as always, this may well mean that I simply fail to understand).
Consequently, if price is an issue and Kurosawa is your sole reason for considering this book, I would perhaps wait for a cheaper paperback edition, which will hopefully see a publication sooner or later (there are no guarantees, of course). But if price is not an issue and you want to keep your Kurosawa collection complete, Sorensen’s book is certainly not only a must-have, but also capable of igniting discussion.
Lars-Martin Sorensen’s Censorship of Japanese Films During the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa is now available in bookstores, including Amazon.com ($119.95) and Amazon.co.uk (£74.95). If you have read the book, drop a line or two in the comments section to let others know what your opinion of it is, and whether you agree with anything that I have written here!