JAPANESE CINIMALISM: THE JAPANESE FILM PARADIGM
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
Defining The Style Of Japanese Cinema Once And For All
Japanese film is often admired. In film theory, however, Japanese cinema is usually categorized as «Alternative Film» or «Asian Film», which are wildly imprecise descriptions.
It’s about time that Japanese film style is recognized for what it is: One of the most distinct film paradigms ever made. This is JCA’s definition of the Japanese film paradigm, and we call it Japanese Cinimalism.
What Is Japanese Film Style?
Like all film styles, Japanese film style is the palette of filmic techniques used to assemble movies: Cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound design, dialogue, editing, and direction. The extent to which these techniques are used makes filmmaking formulas, also known as film paradigms, like Japanese Cinimalism.
According to international film theory, filmmaking can be divided into five major film paradigms and a handful of minor film movements. These paradigms and movements have arguably introduced groundbreaking formulas to the art of moviemaking.
The five established film paradigms in film history are Hollywood Cinema, Russian Montage, German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, and The French New Wave. In addition, film movements such as The Czech New Wave, The Polish School, and Dogme-95 are said to have impacted the way we think of moviemaking.
However, the style of Japanese filmmaking tends to fall in the category of either Asian Film or Alternative Film. Both classifications are indistinct and easily misread, while the Japanese film style is distinct and easily recognizable. There simply lacks a proper definition of the Japanese film style, which JCA tries to rectify with Japanese Cinimalism.
What is Japanese Cinimalism?
In short, Japanese Cinimalism describes the features of the Japanese film paradigm. It lists a set of cinematographic techniques commonly detected in Japanese filmmaking of all ages. In essence, these techniques are long ASL (average shot length), static or slow camera movement, emotions expressed via natural phenomenons, and superposition.
In addition, film researchers have found a few other techniques that frequently appear in Japanese cinema. These are deep focus shots, flat lighting, and shots empty of reference (as in lingering on details that don’t directly connect to the narrative). However, none of these film techniques are used as dogmatically as the four features listed in the paragraph above.
So, where did the term Japanese Cinimalism come from? It connects to the Japanese film paradigm's long ASL, static camera positioning, and slow camera movements. These film techniques promote detail-oriented filming, design, and storytelling. As a result, the filmic expression is often meticulous.
Even though the Japanese film paradigm doesn’t have anything to do with the concept of minimalism, its expression conjures a slowed-down and contemplative atmosphere. As such, the amalgamation of the words «cinema» and «minimalism» sounded kind of fitting. So, JCA went ahead and coined the phrase «Japanese Cinimalism».
The Japanese directors that perfected Japanese Cinimalism did indeed introduce a new formula to the art of filmmaking; directors like Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Mikio Naruse, and Yasujirô Ozu. Why, then, if there’s a detectable Japanese film paradigm at hand, is Japanese film style labeled as Asian Film or Alternative Film?
A big part of the reason is how international film researchers have approached Japanese film style. Instead of trying to outline the essence of the Japanese film paradigm, most of them have examined the difference between the Japanese film style and other film paradigms.
In addition, some film researchers have voiced their disbelief in the existence of a Japanese film paradigm. They argue that all techniques in Japanese filmmaking are derived from international film styles rather than Japanese traditional aesthetics. However, before getting into this discussion, we need to outline the history of the Japanese film style.
The History of the Japanese Film Paradigm in a Nutshell
It’s hard to pinpoint when the Japanese film paradigm first surfaced, but film researcher Donald Richie argued that a national Japanese film style appeared in the late 1920s. According to Richie, the emerging shomingeki (everyday dramas) ushered in something akin to a paradigm.
The Japanese film style was still unrefined back then, but Yasujirô Ozu was already dabbling with the film techniques in question. Films like Tokyo Chorus (1931) and I Was Born But … (1932) showcase the early stages of Japanese Cinimalism. A decade later, the Japanese film paradigm was thoroughly conceptualized by Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin (1941).
The 47 Ronin took Japanese film style to the extreme. Its cinematic expression relied heavily on Japanese aesthetic ideals taken from traditional arts such as Noh and Kabuki theater, screen paintings, and woodblock prints. The influences were so explicit that the term «over-articulated» came to mind.
The occasion for such an adamant expression of Japanese traditional aesthetics was connected to WWII. During the war, Japanese filmmakers were first instructed to make propaganda by Japanese authorities. After the war, they were commanded by the Allied Forces to make films in the name of democracy.
The 47 Ronin was a product of its time. Yet, Mizoguchi established a distinct filmic expression that film researcher Darrel William Davis described as a movement in Japanese film history. Davis called it Monumental Style, which he convincingly defined and detected in a handful of films made between 1938 till 1990.
Though Monumental Style is related to Japanese Cinimalism, its confines were much more limited. In contrast, Monumental Style was argued to canonize Japanese history and utilize a ceremonial manner of blocking, acting, and design.
As applied in The 47 Ronin, Monumental Style made for a rather theatrical expression. As such, Mizoguchi’s film became somewhat of a test for film students ever after with its excruciatingly long-winded storytelling, which clocks in at just over four hours.
Monumental Style and Japanese Cinimalism have some technical features in common, though, like long ASL and slow camera movements. Still, Japanese Cinimalism was never as explicit in its stylistic expression as Monumental Style but applied these techniques more seamlessly, not to take attention away from the storytelling.
In the decades following WWII, the film styles of Ozu and Akira Kurosawa were much debated. Though both directors applied Japanese Cinimalism in their filmmaking, neither convincingly conformed to a Japanese film paradigm. The films of Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, on the other hand, made more consistent use of the film techniques in Japanese Cinimalism.
Masaki Kobayashi also produced a few period dramas – most famously Harakiri (1962) with Tatsuya Nakadai – inspired by Japanese traditional arts. Though the sources of inspiration varied greatly, the common denominators between Mizoguchi’s, Naruse’s, and Kobayashi’s filmmaking were long ASL and the predominance of static and slow-moving shots.
In the 60s and 70s, Japanese New Wave Cinema actively opposed the film styles of Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ozu, and Kurosawa. Filmmakers like Nagisa Ôshima and Shohei Imamura, for instance, tried hard to counter the Japanese film studios' formulaic filmmaking.
In many ways, they managed to break free from the studio system and apply a much more comprehensive range of film techniques. But, at the same time, they never managed to break free from the Japanese film paradigm.
A closer inspection of Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships (1961), for instance, or The Insect Woman (1963), reveals that both films still had long average ASL and an abundance of static camera shots. The same was the case for many of the films made by the new wave filmmakers, but to what extent is a question for another article.
Japanese Cinimalism has since been applied regularly in Japanese cinema, in all genres. Yoji Yamada, Naoko Ogigami, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, for instance, have made systematic use of long ASL, static filming, and slow camera movements in most of their films. The same goes for all Kore-eda films, like Still Walking, Our Little Sister, or Shoplifters.
Even the rebels of modern Japanese filmmaking, like Takeshi Kitano, Sion Sono, Takashi Miike, or Tetsuya Nakashima, all applied long ASL and static/slow camerawork when making many of their films. Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi, for instance, or Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions are prime examples of this.
The Biggest Problem in Japanese Film Theory: Orientalism
The first international book on Japanese film style – To The Distant Observer by Noel Burch – compared Japanese cinema to American and European film, which was problematic. When Japanese film was compared to Hollywood cinema, it was labeled «something different», making it inferior in a pseudo-hierarchy of film styles.
If Japanese film style is set up against established film paradigms, it automatically beckons the question, «how does it differ from other film styles»? A more appropriate question would be, «what is the Japanese film style»? The comparing of so-called «eastern» and «western» cultures is a well-known problem in historical research known as «Orientalism».
In 1978, Edward Said published a book called Orientalism. In it, he established the term orientalism to describe the notion of Western contempt for Eastern cultures. Today, the words western and eastern have become antiquated, but biases continue to influence discussions about various cultures.
If we look at a scene from The 47 Ronin and say this is unique because the pacing differs from Hollywood cinema, the film style is immediately labeled as different from something else. In other words, that something else is the norm, while the Japanese film style is the alternative.
A much better way of discussing the cinematography in The 47 Ronin is by relating it to other Japanese films and arts. We are looking for the common denominators, the red line throughout Japanese film history that might support the idea of a Japanese film paradigm.
Japanese film historians, at least from outside Japan, almost without exception, compare Japanese cinema to American and European filmmaking. This has rendered most attempts at identifying a Japanese film paradigm non-credible, even though the evidence might support their claims.
Now, you might think that it sounds like an issue of semantics, but it’s more complicated than so. Since it is hard to discern whether the arguments are poorly phrased or reflect a general attitude of superiority, the best way to approach the Japanese film style is to study Japanese films with our own eyes.
It is, of course, impossible for anyone to put aside their personal history and cultural heritage. Still, it’s not impossible to look objectively at the mechanics at play in any given Japanese film. Why the mechanics were applied is beside the point. We want to find out how they were used.
This is not to say that it’s wrong to compare film styles. It might even be necessary to outline the features of specific techniques, but it must be done objectively. Let’s make this clearer by posing a fundamental question: What is long ASL? It is a matter of opinion, of course, but it helps to compare ASL of various film styles.
David Bordwell, arguably the foremost authority on classical cinema research, found ASL in modern Hollywood cinema to be 3-6 seconds. According to JCA’s own research, the ASL in contemporary Japanese melodramas is 20.4 seconds, which is to say 3-4 times longer than the ASL in classic cinema.
In other words, we have two film paradigms; one is defined by long ASL, the other by short ASL. Naturally, this affects the overall atmosphere and storytelling, but it’s not to say that one is better or worse, or norm and alternative.
No one speaks about German Expressionism being lesser than Hollywood Cinema. Why, then, is Japanese film style labeled as an alternative when it has been applied extensively and consistently throughout the filmmaking history of Japan? Why isn’t the Japanese film paradigm getting the respect it deserves?
Establishing Japanese Cinimalism: The Japanese Film Paradigm
Getting back to the first book about the style of Japanese film, Burch was discredited because he approached Japanese cinema as an alternative to Hollywood film. Still, his book influenced many film researchers, not so much because of his findings but because of the concepts Burch introduced.
Unfortunately, many researchers followed in his Hollywood-comparing footsteps and failed to make headway in establishing a Japanese film paradigm. Donald Richie, for instance, the most prolific writer on Japanese film, persisted in comparing Japanese film style to other film paradigms.
When discussing film style, it is essential to remember that misc-en-scene and cinematography are the focal points. What drove these filmmakers to make these films is irrelevant. The filmmakers’ motivations are a topic for film historians who study films in relation to the times they were made. Film style research is about applied film mechanics and nothing else.
That said, film researchers worldwide have rarely separated the Japanese film style from the filmmakers’ incentives. Neither have they avoided comparing Japanese film and other film tendencies, which has forced Japanese film into the ambivalent corner of Japanese film history known as «alternative film».
Another reason for Japanese film’s anecdotal spot in film history is the notion that Japanese cinema is by and large copy-pasted film mechanics from America and Europe. Given the abundant links between Japanese film style and traditional Japanese aesthetics, JCA opposes this notion and argues that there indeed is a Japanese film paradigm at hand.
In fact, yours truly felt so strongly about this that I wrote my master’s thesis about the style of Japanese film. It all started when I first saw a Mizoguchi film and thought: «I never saw anyone make film like that before. Why isn’t this film style listed next to the five big ones in film history?» The film was Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and I like to call the style Japanese Cinimalism.
Center for Japanese Studies Publications: Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character
New World Encyclopedia: Japanese Cinema
Rutherford, Anne: ‘Volatile Space, Takemitsu and the Material Contagions of Harakiri’
Syversen, Robin: Rearticulating Japanese Cinematic Style
UK Essays: Brief History Of Japanese Cinema Film
Superposition is a tentative term in film theory. It describes the Japanese film style as an amalgamation of the codified production modes of film and theater. This creolization of sorts results in a film style that accommodates both modern and traditional aesthetics, as well as different types of narration.
Some film researchers have described this tendency in Japanese filmmaking as «bending» of the filmic language to express aesthetic ideas from traditional Japanese design and behavior.
According to film researcher Darrel William Davis, «the films enact canonization of history, an emphasis on indigenous art forms and design, and a corresponding technical repertoire of long takes and long shots, very slow camera movement, and a highly ceremonial manner of blocking, acting and design.» (Back to where you left off)