Japanese cinema is one of the things that inspired me to study abroad. In my time here, I’ve realized that aside being a source of enjoyment, films are also a useful tool for understanding my new environment. Watching films has helped me to pick up on popular references in casual conversation. It has also helped me to overcome language barriers. In this post, I’ll share a few of my favourite films, and explain how they’ve helped me in social situations.
Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950) is one of Japan’s most celebrated films. It was also one of the first Japanese films to make waves in Euro-America, winning prizes at both the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards. Set towards the end of the Heian period (794-1185), it tells the story of a murder trial, in which suspects present clashing narratives of the events leading up to the crime. The suspects’ conflicting accounts raise questions regarding how representation distorts reality. As a point of interest, the film’s fictional trial also inspired the legal term ‘the Rashomon effect,’ which is used to describe conflicting testimonies. In the time I’ve spent here, I’ve heard a number of allusions to Rashomon both in and out of class. It’s also a film that most people are familiar with, and therefore offers great fodder for conversation. In this way, a basic familiarity with Japanese cinema has helped me to connect with the people around me.
Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story (1953) is another classic and personal favourite. It tells the story of an elderly couple who travel from a rural town in western Japan to visit their kids in Tokyo. It describes the emotional pain of growing old in a rapidly changing society. It also illuminates the contrasting attitudes of Japan’s rural and urban populations around the 1950s, a time in which Japan’s postwar economic recovery prompted mass urbanization. When I was in Hiroshima over winter break, my former homestay brother referenced Tokyo Story to describe the feelings of some of Japan’s elderly people, who’ve witnessed Japan’s radical socio-economic change in the postwar period. To prospective exchange students, I recommend Tokyo Story both as a fantastic film, and as a tool for understanding popular references. It is one of Japan’s canonical films, and is often brought up in conversation without introduction.
Yakuza films, i.e. films centred on Japan’s organized crime syndicate, also maintain a strong presence in Japanese theatres. Believe it or not, some of these films can be great language-learning tools. I know it sounds crazy, so allow me to explain. Japan is home to a number of regional dialects, each with different pronunciations, vocabularies, and, sometimes, grammar. Meanwhile, textbooks for Japanese-learners tend to only mention Tokyo’s dialect, making it difficult for exchange students living in other areas to overcome their language barrier. When I lived in Hiroshima, for instance, I had to learn a local dialect that was dramatically different from what I studied in school. This is where Yakuza films came in.
A preponderant amount of Yakuza films are set in one of two major cities: Hiroshima or Osaka. Even if they’re not, the characters tend to speak in one of these cities’ vernaculars. In this way, they provide valuable, albeit slightly crude, examples of two common dialects. I used Fukasaku Kinji’s classic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) to familiarize myself with Hiroshima’s dialect. As I watched, I jotted down unfamiliar words and grammar, and searched online for their counterparts in Tokyo Japanese, i.e. the dialect I studied in school. Over the past fifty years, Yakuza films have characterized Hiroshima’s dialect as aggressive and scary. As an unfortunate consequence, my occasional slip into Hiroshima’s dialect here in Tokyo leads to reactions ranging from laughter to outright shock.
These are just a few of the ways that watching films has enriched my time in Japan. I hope this post inspires you to check out a Japanese film. For people interested in learning more, I’d recommend The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema. You can use your library account to access an electronic version here. I also highly recommend the Department of East Asian Studies’ EAS242H/243H. Rashomon and Tokyo Story are available to borrow at U of T’s Media Commons. The Japan Foundation Library on Bloor Street also has a few DVDs in its collection.