Last Updated 27 May 2020

Asian New Wave Cinema

Category Asia, Cinema, Modernism, Taiwan
Essay type Research
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Asian New Wave Cinema

The initiation of Asian cinema into the global public arena can be traced back to 1895.  It was in 1895 that the very first cinematic production was released in the Grand Café of Paris.  At this same time, in Asia, the treaty of Shimonoseki was signed by the Chinese Quing Dynasty turning over rule of Taiwan to Japan, which lasted until 1945.  During this period, Taiwan progressively attempted to establish its own identity; this desire manifested itself in the form of aesthetics, specifically film.  The shift in film style and technique that occurred in Asia specifically around the early 1950’s became known as Asian New Wave Cinema. 

The more influential new wave film out of Asia comes from the eastern region.    This includes the films of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, North Korea and South Korea.  East Asian cinema is particularly famous in the west for the genres of Martial arts films, Jidaigeki, J-Horror (Japanese Horror), Anime, Heroic bloodshed, and Tokusatsu (Japanese science fiction).  Within Asia itself, the culture established its own ideals of what made good cinema.  Traditional sentimental themes, as well as old cultural connotations had well established their place in the film practice of film critique.  This was until certain directors came on to the scene and challenged the social norms and traditional expectations of Asian Cinema.  One of these

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In the late 1950’s, there was an underground film culture that erupted in Japanese cinema.  In his article Against the Solemn Serious Sect, Nakahira Ko talks about his experience as a director in Japan and likens it to his dealings with Hollywood.  He argues that during this period there was a designated Big 10 films each year, whose directors were awarded for their social contributions to society as opposed to their cinematic talents.  This inadvertently isolated many talented Asian directors from receiving acclaim, of which Nakahira was one.  He connects this cinematic academy bias to that of the western cultures as well.  He points out that, while he was in the west in 1957 judging for a roundtable discussion called Screen, the two films he deemed cinematically excellent and compliments to the aesthetic had very cold receptions in regards to the western judges.  Nakahira’s main position in his article is that films should be judged not solely on their social commentary, but on their cinematic relevance, artistic narrative, and style.  His ideals are in essence the core belief that triggered the Japanese new Wave in cinema during the 1960’s.  Yasuzo also comments on, and rebels against, this idea of the Big ten films.  In his article he states:

There are two kinds of films that always occupy the best ten of Japanese cinema: the first is the genre of naturalist film that depicts the fragile and sentimental petit bourgeois, while the second is constructed on ideology, abstractly drawing the faults of Japanese society and overflowing with truth-what is commonly known as realist film.  I have no interest in either. (Masumura Yasuzo, Eiga hyoron, March, 1958)

This attitude depicted here by Yasuzo is the core concept that drove Asian new wave film in the 1950’s.  Directors that adhered to the radical norms of this era in film, appeared on to the scene as underdog filmmakers, but soon found themselves as the figure heads of a rising generation. This case is especially true of the director previously mentioned Nakahiro Ko who in 1956 released his film Crazed Fruit and he changed the industry.  Ironically, Nakahiro actually worked under the direction of Yasuzo for more than fifteen years before producing his first film.

I don’t like sentiment.  The reason is that in Japanese cinema, sentiment means repression, harmony, resignation, sadness, defeat, and escape.  To Japanese, things like chases, victory, comedy, life and death struggle, conflict and dynamic movement do not belong to sentiment.  Originally, josho meant emotion, and it should refer to the amplification of all emotions, but the Japanese came to call sentiment only those feelings that were negative and passive. (Masumura Yasuzo, Eiga hyron, March, 1958)

Here Yasuzo talks about some of the reasons why his films spark controversy in the Asian community.  His claim that he doesn’t like sentiment and that his films lack it is in direct response to his feeling that Japanese culture as a whole is very passive and repressed.  He attempts to free his community from this type of obsessive repression by displaying vulgar and clever forms of expression his films.  This is an aspect of Asian new wave cinema that formed in direct response to the social conditions of Japan.  This says a lot about film in general being a window into one’s society and a form of a cultural medium, in that one who knew nothing about Japan might view Yasuzo’s films and assume that all Japanese people were aggressive and vulgar.  While at the same time forming new stereotypes, Yasuzo shows his community that film has the power to incite individuals to reflect upon their own social characteristics.

            In Chow’s article from the book Visuality, Modernity, and Primitive Passion, he argues that Western modernism primitized non-western cultures with their interpretation of the world.  In this case, modernism includes the paintings of Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani and the philosophical ideals of scholars like Sally Price and Marianna Turgovnick.  Chow argues that during this era, when the rebellious writings of authors such as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller were taught in high schools and Universities as the first promoters of the bohemian lifestyle used to loosen up the prude and prejudice bourgeois society, by the nature of their perspective, they were primitizing other cultures.  This can be seen in the fact that these authors viewed their western communities as over-civilized, and adopted the sexual and cultural traditions of societies they felt were least civil and in touch with their animal instincts.  This implies that eastern areas like China are primitive in comparison to the West.  The main thing that signifies Asian New Wave as being so rebellious is its sense of newness.  The conscious understanding of concepts like Western primitization, as well as the genre’s attempt to confront traditional norms within its own culture, puts Asian New Wave Cinema in the position of battling social conflicts within and beyond it borders; this resulted in a shift in both eastern and western popular culture that can be seen to this day.

Virtually all the films produced, during the 1960’s, in Japan were considered anything but artistic. Around this time, a new wave erupted giving birth to films more aesthetically compatible with the politics of their era. Directors paid closer attention to frames, lighting, and distanced characters from their single dimensions giving them broader and more universally-conscious meanings. One of the main rebel directors of this new wave was Shinoda Masahiro. His film adaptation of the 1721 bunraku [puppet] play Shinjû ten no Amijima [The Love Suicide], by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, proved to be more dramatic, and thus more socially conscious than the original. Masahiro titled his film Double Suicide. Atop greater character depth, he also used multiple film techniques to relay a sense of social consciousness. The beauty of Japanese culture blended with ancient traditions to turns this Shakespearian-like tale into a political satire.
The main characteristic of Japanese new wave film is to address ideology and politics within film. Shinoda Masahiro gained a reputation for being an avant-garde film maker, who was radically cutting edge, but still conservative. This view, of course, came from the west. He is classified as conservative because the culture he is representing is considered conservative by American standards. In Double Suicide Masahiro subtly pokes fun at the hegemonic principles of his society, in a way I’m sure his fellow Japanese would consider anything but conservative. He presents human characters as walking live puppets, with no control over their destinies. Critics credit this to his underlying need to connect his films to the Japanese social structure. By portraying them as puppets, he is portraying the rest of Japanese society ruled by these same traditions as puppets as well. It is a simple connection but one of the many symbolic tools Masahiro uses to cross his film over to connect with real world concerns. More so than any conflict addressed is the topic of sexuality and the differences between women and men in the culture. Masahiro juxtaposes man and woman on screen in multiple ways. He uses sexual tension to draw attention to the traditions of the culture as well as keep the audience focused on the plot. The trait that is most common and significant about Masahiro’s work is that there is always more than one plot being carried out. There is always more than one message being told.

The love triangle that occurs among Osan, Jihei and Koharu poses many subtle ironies that can’t be seen as anything else but statements made by the director. An example of this is the scene when Osan confronts her husband Jihei about the agreement she set up with Koharu. It almost appears as Osan and Koharu are the only ones making decisions to address the situation, and Jihei comes across as being very weak. When it is found that Koharu is to be killed, Osan swallows the pride she has to help her husband save his mistress. This only makes Jihei more despicable. This male weakness isn’t just depicted in how the women tend to make the hardest decisions, but also in the facial expressions of the characters. Jihei is often very passionate. In moments when it appears he might burst into tears Koharu’s face is stern and steadily focused. The women seem disconnected from the plot, carried along by the plot of the bunraku play and by the social confines of their society. Their objectification is the most substantial political trait of the film.

The symbolism behind the relationship between the two main characters is mostly obvious to the common western eye. This is due to commercial comfort with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was loved for his ability to target the stories that best connected with the fears, loves and concerns of the people. His tragic stories targeted the sympathies of common people. They were sympathetic because they didn’t want to experience the same fate as Shakespeare’s main characters. Macbeth and Hamlet’s tales were tragic, but when Shakespeare made Romeo and Juliet, he cut a cord that would touch people forever. This is the same cord Masahiro stumbles across by remaking Chikamatsu’s play. This is the type of tale that transcends sexist ideals and misogynist theory. The two main characters are so deeply in love that love rules over all, and you’re just waiting for it to win. The only problem is that Japanese culture is more conservative than Shakespeare could even imagine. There are conflicts that need to be addressed that European, or western thinking isn’t even prone to think of. We are talking about a film made in 1969, which addresses the social conflicts of the 1700’s. No matter how introspective of a thinker you are, somewhere you’re going to fall short. But, as Cornyetz reveals, though Masahiro fails to provide a solution for his community’s social problems, he did acknowledge the modern day’s view of the future within the traditions of the past.

A common trend that formed in Japanese films around the 1960’s was the commercial use of soft pornography. Japanese women were presented as a commodity within Japanese culture. The objectification of women in Japanese culture is taken so far as to consider them pieces of artwork. This was a major confine of Japanese life in the 60’s and evenmore so during the 1700’s. Masahiro depicts this side of the culture very well with Osan and Koharu. In her article, Gazing Disinterestedly: Politicized Poetics in “Double Suicide,” Nina Cornyetz analyzes the film’s aesthetic metaphors and sexual subtleties for meaning. She connects Japanese theorist Kuki’s ideal of iki, which is anything or person personifying the Edo period (1603-1868), in a restrained, open-minded, unselfconscious, indifferent or unintentionally coquettish way, to the Japanese woman.

I believe that Kuki's notion of iki (his twentieth-century invention that, it is important to remember, incorporates his imaginary of Edo culture), evolved in conjunction with other factors (including Buddhist detachment and twentieth-century Zen) into a modern valorization of the disinterested gaze in film and other arts. This "disinterested" gaze is, however, constitutively eroticized--frequently elicited by the prostitute's body--, distinguishing it from high Kantian disinterestedness. This gaze is also linked (sometimes only covertly) to a national imaginary and implicated in a particularized, and culturally exceptionalized, narrative and filmic gaze. Double Suicide cites--I believe in order to critique--this modern reformulation of iki as complicitous with an essentialized and homosocial transhistorical notion of Japanese "culture," which relies on the commodification of the Japanese female erotic body as the repository of "tradition." (Cornyetz)

Here Cornyetz caters Japan’s objectification of women to more than just a simple tradition, but she actually gives the custom and the women carrying it out credit for keeping track of Japan’s history. It gives a double edged quality to the practice. The artistry of this concept comes across in Mashiro’s film. Koharu is not just an object to be admired, but she also has an implied value by her being a courtesan. In a society that objectifies their women to such a degree that they ultimately end up viewed as unattainable or unreal, a woman for hire is a great commodity. It is no surprise how these customs could have lasted for so long. They hold many similarities to the way American women are objectified.

By theatrically citing the exteriorized subjectivity and ideal of iki that informed Edo puppet theater, Double Suicide suggests in modern filmic time-space a way out of the impossible dilemma and at least gestures toward the Real.(Cornyetz)
Mashiro uses many revolutionary film techniques. The film opens with Mashiro and the author of the script debating where the two lovers will have their death scene. This adds to the predestined nature of the character’s outcome and the theme of them being puppets with no control over their future. It also puts Mashiro in the class of directors like Hitchcock and Tarentino, who just can’t seem to keep himself out of his films.
Mashiro’s use of mis-en-scene keeps everything on screen relative to his message. He depicts intricate and ancient aspects of Japanese culture, while presenting new wave themes we now consider modern. He connects the live characters to the ancient puppet show by having stage hands fallow behind them. He also glides in and out of the puppet show back to real life in a way that almost makes them indistinguishable. His use of black and white, in an era when he easily could have used color, signifies the importance he was trying to place on the black garb of the stage hands, the shadows, the light and the contrast between male and female. He also designates the power of the characters through scene placement. There are many scenes where Jihei is seen sitting, while Koharu is standing. As he ponders over the anguish he feels about his lack of money, and the dishonorable nature of his actions, Koharu stands indifferent jaded by her place in the social structure. In the opening sequence of the film, when the stage is being set, you already know the outcome for these characters is predestined. The way they lie dead next to each other after committing suicide is symbolic of their relationship transcending death and the director’s way of subtly saying they are still together.

Shinju, the act of double suicide, is a well known part of Japanese culture. Its popularity in the west, in American films like The Last Samurai, can largely be credited to the contrast between Christian ethics and Japanese ideals of nobility.  Its cultural connotation is largely part of the reason why the film was celebrated nternationally. In the west suicide is largely viewed as a sin, and an easy way out of life. This is in part due to the major influence of Christianity in the west. The reason why I think Americans are so intrigued by the Japanese concept of suicide is because their ideals are completely the opposite. Suicide is not only viewed as a difficult path, but a noble one. In his journal, Tragedy and Salvation in the Floating World: Chikamatsu’s Double Suicide Drama as Millenarian Discourse, Steven Heine goes over the many aspect of Japanese culture he studied on his trips to Asia. Heine feels that shinju, and specifically the suicides carried out in Chikamatsu’s plays embody Buddhist ideals. Themes like impermanence of pleasure or happiness. For example, the idea that no matter how comfortable you are in a chair, you will eventually become uncomfortable in a certain position and have to switch it. This is a concept of impermanence and therefore a Buddhist belief. This idea is present in Chikamatsu’s plays as well in Masahiro’s film. It’s present in the fact that the audience is always given the impression time is fleeting. Even during Jihei’s moments with Koharu, they are both aware that their love is temporary. The conflict of the film is with the impermanence and frailty of human nature. The agony and anguish is not over the fact that they can’t be together, but that they can’t be together forever. Even if Jihei is able to buy Koharu, they are both still forced to acknowledge that death is inevitable. Since there is no guarantee they will die together, committing a double suicide becomes the only noble act they can carryout in honor of their love, and the only way they ensure one never lives without the other.

A contemporary example of the influence which Asian New wave has had on the film industry can be seen with films like Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy.  It has alos found much international success in both the east and the west, and it represents the most recent interpretation of eastern culture.  It is a film that crosses all genres, with a Tarantino-esque film style, real time fight scenes and a psychologically viable narrative, it keeps pulses racing, pupils dilated and wits tested at every turn.  Based in Korea, the film’s use of subtitles highlight the deeper meaning within the writing as opposed to deterring from the plot.  The films main characters are Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) and Lee Woo-jin (Ji Tae Yuu).  The main theme of the film, like most of Chan-wook’s work revolves around the ideal of vengeance.  Oh Daesu is kidnapped, locked in a room for 15 years, and then released.  The rest of the film follows him as he attempts to find his captors and make them pay for this grave injustice.  There is one scene in particular that demonstrates an excellent use of cinematography by the director.  Oh Dae-su is torturing a member of the triad that locked him up, by pulling out one of the man’s teeth for each year that he was locked away.  The mis-en-scene and frame shifts used in this scene are very similar to that used in the shower scene from Psycho.  The audience is never actually allowed to see the act, but the pain and violence is implied well enough to make anyone cringe. The main theme that the film presents is that of a strong male lead.  The fact that the film has done so well in the west is very promising considering that Orientalism theory places the west as the main culprit effeminizing Asian males.  For the west to embrace a male lead character like Oh Dae-su who is very strong and devout with his convictions only shows how influential Asian New Wave has been on Western audiences.

In sum, Double Suicide (1969) and Old Boy (2003) are both examples of the evolution which Asian new wave cinema has gone through.  The films contest social norms while at the same time they are cinematically excellent, asking more of their aesthetic.  Directors like Nakashira Ko and Masumura Yasuzo are considered rebels in the east.  Their contributions to the film aesthetic are unparalleled unquestionable.  They combat ideals of Orientalism, while at the same time, they confront the prejudices inherent in their own societies.  Asian New Wave cinema marked a shift in societal expectations of the east, on the behalf of Asians themselves and Westerners.  There has been an evident change in the way westerners view Asian culture.  It is no longer depicted as a less civil primitized way of life.  Asian culture has grown in appreciation world wide; examples of this can be seen in the popularity of films like Crouching Tiger Hidden dragon, and Hero, which depict eastern culture as being beautiful and elegant.  This can all be credited to the 50’s and 60’s directors who were brave enough to be unconventional and give a new face to their culture, and to the Trans-generational genre that has become known as Asian New Wave.

Work Cited

Abbas, Ackbar. Culture ; The Politics of Disappearance. University of Minnesota 1997.

Chow. Primitive Passions New York: Columbia, 1995.

Cornyetz, Nina.  Gazing Disinterstedly: Politicized Poetics in Double Suicide A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.3 (2001) 101-127

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell. Cambridge MA. Oxford UK.

Jingsheng, Bai.  Chinese Film Theory: A guide to the New Era. 1990

Ko, Nakashira. Against the Solemn Serious Sect., Eiga hyron, March, 1958.

Oshima, Nalisa. Is It a Breakthrough? (The Modernists of Japanese Film).  Dawn Lawson Trans. Cambridge: MA Press 1992

Yasuzo, Masumura. A Defense- Turning Away from Sentiment, Truth, and Atmosphere. Eiga hyron, March, 1958.

Yuan Wenshu, About Film Study, Reference of World Cinema, June 1980.

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