If art is the backbone of culture, the underlying essence that reflects and informs how life is experienced, then exploring the nuanced and often drastic distinctions between the art of different regions can reveal collective perceptions of the human experience and the world at large.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the contrast between the West and East: one need only look to Michelangelo's David to see Western projections of individual heroism or the Terracotta Army to see Eastern notions of collective honor.
This is particularly noticeable when comparing classic American and Japanese cinema; filmmakers in each country approach the aesthetic medium with different attitudes and intentions that are palpable in the play of light and shadow on the screen. As a caveat, it’s important to note that these are broad observations, and while they may be helpful, they certainly don’t apply to every film.
Perhaps the overarching distinction to be made is that American cinema is generally more concerned with action, plot, and character while Japanese cinema tends to emphasize atmosphere and mood.
This is more than evident in those explosion-intensive Hollywood blockbusters with narratives driven by courageous protagonists whose fierce independence and aplomb thwart the plans of evildoers and save the world from imminent destruction (see: any superhero movie ever made). While this may be a slightly exaggerated cheap shot, even the more subdued American classics – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers, etc. – tend to feature highly individualistic protagonists whose character and actions impel the narrative toward its inevitable climax and resolution.
Japanese cinema, on the other hand, is much more subtle and contemplative. The events unfold around a more fluid yet restricted narrative structure and the camera dwells on the small details and minutia of life rather than briskly moving on to the next event in the plotline. The result is a heightened sense of reality and a tonality inextricably linked to the space in which the characters exist.
As author and critic Donald Richie notes, “Japanese cinema is based on the concept that less means more. The less the director shows, the more carefully he must choose what he does show. The spectator, presented with less than he perhaps expected, must bring more of himself to the film, must allow himself to think and feel more.” Just as a haiku can express more through slight inferences, through what is not stated, Japanese cinema takes a more minimalist expressionistic approach, lingering on surface level reality long enough to amplify its intrinsic emotional qualities.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a prime example of this sensibility of meaningful restriction and atmosphere, particularly in its opening and closing shots. We enter the film with a shot of Lake Biwa and the shoreside village where the four central characters reside; rather than merely functioning as an establishing shot, however, the camera dwells on them from a distance, pulling us into their world through a constrained visual meditation on their home and the natural world surrounding it.
The final shot is similarly composed and paced, although given the events leading up to this point, it becomes tinged with a melancholic air of loss. “By giving us almost nothing to look at,” Richie opines, “Mizoguchi has led us to see.” So while nothing may actually ‘happen’ in these two panoramas, they are pregnant with an emotional depth, beauty, and poignancy that could hardly be achieved through exposition or action.
The essential differences between classic Japanese and American cinema are not incidental; rather, they are symptomatic of the social environments in which they were created. American films are deeply rooted in the Aristotelian conception of drama: there is a precise beginning, middle, and end, and everything in the story is meant to progress along this three-act structure. Moreover, Western philosophic tradition views the individual as unique, the mediocre as unacceptable, and surface reality as something to transcend. American films reflect this by valuing individuality and progression, by depicting characters who exceed both their own limitations and the ostensible limitations of surface level reality.
On the contrary, Japanese philosophic tradition sees the individual as an essential component of the world, the mediocre as reassuring, and surface level reality as the only reality. Japanese films, then, value normality and realism above all else; events are depicted as they are in the real world, meaning there is no clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.
Naturally, not all Japanese and American films reflect these aesthetic principles, particularly as globalization has brought the two nations closer together, allowing artists in each country to learn and borrow from one another. For every film that aligns with these aesthetic tenets, there’s a film that defies them. Nonetheless, by retrospectively viewing and analyzing early Japanese and American films, we may glean the cultural residue and aesthetic idiosyncrasies of each country, and in so doing gain a better understanding of how our sociocultural roots affect our perceptions of the world.
If you’d like to read more about this subject, we recommend you pick up A Lateral View, Donald Richie’s book of short essays on culture and style in contemporary Japan; one of these essays, “A Definition of the Japanese Film”, was the primary source for the opinions and information in this post. Covering everything from the Noh theater, fashion, television, Tokyo Disneyland, language, the kiss, and, of course, film, A Lateral View is an invaluable book for anyone interested in modern Japanese culture.
Tell us what you think about the differences between Japanese and American cinema below in the comments section.
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