Japanese Film Theory and Criticism

Abé Mark Nornes
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University of Michigan
Seminar in Japanese Image Culture

This course presumes no knowledge of film theory or criticism. Its goal is to bring us up to speed in existing critical discourse on cinema by reading core texts for class discussion and by presenting a brief resumé of an additional reading with handout in rotation [titles for the day are in square brackets in the schedule]. The discourses are pitched at three levels: primary theoretical texts, important film studies articles and canonical texts for Japanese film studies.

Special consideration has been given to areas that are of particular interest to students of Japanese literature to promote cultural studies in areas of free and speculative research crossing traditional boundaries between literature and other narrative arts and forms of popular/mass culture.


Austin, How to Do Things With Words

Barthes, S/Z

Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism

Derrida, Limited, Inc.

Tokyo Story



Research Paper (due the last day of class and no later): 80%

Book Review: 10%

Participation and Presentations: 10%


January 12: Introduction

Read: Iwamoto Kenji, “Film Criticism and the Study of Cinema in Japan: A Historical Survey”; Joseph Anderson, “Japanese Film Periodicals.”

See: Mishima (Paul Schrader)

January 19: Adaptation I

Read: Hugo Munsterberg, “The Means of the Photoplay,” from The Film: A Psychological Study; Leo Braudy, “Acting: Stage vs. Screen,” from The World in a Frame; André Bazin, “Theater and Cinema,” from What is Cinema?; Sergei Eisenstein, “Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves”; Suzuki Shirôyasu, “Sei no komyunikêshon,” Nagai Kafû, Yojôhan fusuma no shitabari.

See: Yojôhan fusuma no urabari (Kumashiro Tatsumi)

January 26: Adaptation II

Read: Seymour Chatman, “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (and Vice Versa)”; Dudley Andrew, “Adaptation,” from Concepts in Film Theory; Tom Gunning, “Narrative Discourse and the Narrator System”; Seymour Chatman, “The Cinematic Narrabor,” from Coming to Terms; Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”; Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, “Rashômon” and “Yabu no Naka.”

See: Rashômon (Kurosawa Akira)

February 2: Humanism/Essentialism

Read: Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer; Donald Richie, “A Definition of the Japanese Film”; Sato Tadao, Ajia Eiga; Yomota Inuhiko, Den’ei Fû’un; Hasumi Shigehiko, Kantoku Ozu Yasujirô

See: Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujirô) (1300 Chem)

February 9: Authorship

Read: Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”; Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema; Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”; Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author.” (Start reading for next week.) [Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa and Bordwell’s Ozu]

See: Otoko wa tsurai yo: Tora-san no haru no yume (Yamada Yôji)

February 16: Language & Text I

Read: Austin; Derrida. [Richie/Anderson’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry]

See: Page of Madness (Kinugasa Teinosuke); Selected Japanese TV

February 23: Language & Text II

Read: Barthes, S/Z; “The Myth Today”; Empire of Signs.

See: Evangelion; parts 1-3

March 9: Genre

Read: Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”; Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Synactic Approach to Film Genre.”

See: Furankenshutain v. Baragon

March 16: Ideology & Text I

Read: Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy; Nakai Masakazu, “Haru no Kontinyuitî” and “Eiga no Jikan”; Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [Desser’s Eros Plus Massacre]

See: prewar home movies; Death by Hanging (Ôshima Nagisa)

March 23: Ideology & Text II

Read: Nöel Burch, To the Distant Observer. [Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo]

See: Shibukawa Bangorô (Futagawa Buntarô)

March 30: Subject & Text I

Read: Jacques Lacan, “Mirror”; “Agency of the Letter”; “Signification of the Phallus”; Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics. [Barrett’s Archetypes of the Japanese Cinema]

See: Hana-Bi (Kitano Takeshi)

April 6: Subject and Text II

Read: Stephen Heath, “Anata Mo”; “Narrative Space”; “The Question Oshima”; Matsumoto Toshio, Eizô no Hakken. [Davis’ Picturing Japaneseness]

See: Môjû (Masumura Yasuzô)

April 13: Feminist Synthesis

Read: Christine Gledhill, “Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema; Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa. [Mellon’s Waves at Genji’s Door]

See: Yôji, What’s Wrong With You? (Idemitsu Mako); Violence at Noon (Ôshima Nagisa)

April 20: Identity Politics and Cross-Cultural Analysis

Read: Scott Nygren, ” Reconsidering Modernism”; Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, “The Difficulty of Being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Postcolonial World Order.” [McDonald’s Japanese Classical Theater in Films]

See: An Actor’s Revenge (Ichikawa Kon)