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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Moral Ambiguity in Japanese Cinema: High & Low (1963) Princess Mononoke (1997), Shoplifters (2018)

In light of BFI's Japan Cinema 2020 season, I thought I would share my own essay on Moral Ambiguity in Japanese Cinema examining Akira Kurosawa's High & Low (1963), Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) and Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters (2018). Originally composed in May 2019, it was an entirely new topic to me which I had to educate myself on a different way of life due to the many amazing and ancient Japanese customs. I do not claim to be an expert. From writing this essay I got a greater perspective of the culture and it's cinema is ever better because of this. I intend to examine this more in later work.

*Contains Spoilers*


‘… to think that getting to the point is the point of Japanese films is to miss the point entirely.’ - Donald Richie, Japanese Cinema (1971: Pg. 16)

Moral ambiguity is prevalent in Japanese cinema. Often accused of being slow or sentimental, ‘…the Japanese, having a high opinion of reality, are literally much better able to appreciate a realistic rendering of their lives.’ (Richie, 1971: Pg. 22), this national cinema perhaps explores the human condition most effectively. Richie goes on to say that the absence of both ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’ is ‘…recognition of the complication of human character is a prerequisite for any sort of meaningful experience…’ (1971: Pg. 76). This humanist way of storytelling captures the heart of moral ambiguity. This essay will explore how Japanese Cinema presents this idea to us with a particular focus on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018), Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) and Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low (1963). Through their use of story, structure, technical skill and performance, these filmmakers depict morally dubious stories and characters.

What is Moral Ambiguity?

‘It’s up to the audience to turn a character into a hero.’- Steven Spielberg, Mifune: The Last Samurai (Okazaki, 2015)

Ambiguity is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as ‘the fact of something having more than one possible meaning and therefore possibly causing confusion’ (Cambridge Dictionary Online, 2019). Moral Ambiguity is when there is no defined right and wrong. The dilemma has no easy answer and with regard to storytelling, can lack catharsis; with regard to character it can be confusing. Within the mold of Japanese storytelling, however, this can be the case with many of their stories as ‘… becoming better is, indeed, not the major theme it has been in other national cinemas… bad is accepted along with because it is there; it is part of things as they are.’ (Richie, 1971: Pg. 77). A good example for this would be within the frame of their horror cinema. The plot of the vengeful ghost story, Dark Water (Nakata, 2002), ends in melancholy when it appears that the spirit, a neglected child who drowned, was only lonely.

Fig. 1 Screenshot from Dark Waters (Nakata, 2002)

Japanese Religion, Culture & History

‘…in both the Shinto and Buddhist traditions life is a balance between forces of good and evil, with both necessary to maintain life as we know it.’ - N.A, Insight Guides: Japan (2014: Pg. 195).

Japan is still a relatively new modern country, with its modern era starting around the 1850’s with what has been named the ‘Western Intrusion’ (Valentini, 2013). It is a place of rich history, culture and religious traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years before its modernization. These are still visible in their culture today, and wildly contrast with some of their more extreme, recent commodities and practices. This makes for an interesting culture; complex in that this is a society with its feet placed firmly in the past and present, their perception of the world both historically, religiously and socially vastly differs from that of the west but is still ‘…unfailingly curious about the new, so are they unfailingly loyal to the old…’ (Richie, 1971: Pg. 35).

Fig. 2 Screenshot from Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Its culture is firmly based upon Buddhist and Shinto practices. Isolated for as long as it was, these religions have become ingrained into their day-to-day lives for hundreds of years. Buddhism teaches its followers enlightenment and was introduced in the 6th century, it co-exists with Shinto well and compliments many of the aspects of it (Hane, 2016: Pg. 16). However, it is Shinto that seems to have dramatically shaped their moral outlooks on life.

Shinto, which means ‘way of the gods’, is the Japanese religion that believes in multiple gods, Kami, who represent different parts of the earth. It is native to Japan and dates as early as the pre-historic period. As well as exploring man’s relationship with nature, it explores the land they own, the seasonal tides and extends to their relationships with other humans. It differs to other religions in that there ‘…are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits.’ (N.A, 2019). The Japanese today still have public shrines and many in their homes.

Fig. 3 Screenshot of a home shrine in Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018)

Another concept in Shintoism is the idea that loved ones once gone become spirits who watch over us and provide protection to their families after we pass. With this in mind, in death the loved one has joined the spirit world and begun a new life, therefore ‘…there is no need for salvation. For this reason, fear of eternal judgment is not a guiding factor in the behavior of most Japanese’ (N.A, 2011).

With this in mind, it helps us understand their recent modern history and the influence their beliefs had on this and popular culture. With the defeat during the Second World War, natural disasters like the Great Kanto Earthquake, Hiroshima and Nagasaki Nuclear bombs and the American occupation, the Japanese have endured moral diversity unlike many. With change in regimes, their cinema has suffered with heavy censorship from both their wartime government and the American government. Their endurance of this is clearly noted in Buruma’s essay for the BFI re-release of Godzilla (Honda, 1954), ‘… Godzilla is never portrayed as an evil creature. He is more a force of nature, like an erupting volcano, or a devastating tsunami, which is more or less how many Japanese remember World War II anyway’. (2016: Pg. 1).

Fig. 4 Screenshot from Godzilla (Honda, 1954)

It was not until the US occupation ended that filmmakers were able to create more politically charged, humanist films and creative, traditional cinema that captured the spirit of Japan old and new. Kurosawa brought their films to the West and incited the famous ‘Golden Age’ (The 1950’s) of Japanese Cinema, with his exciting, shocking and ambivalent Rashomon (1950) which won him an honorary Academy Award in 1953. It captured the tone of Japanese cinema and it moral constructs. The film does not care who committed the crime, only that man’s ego gets in the way of the truth. As Kurosawa put it in his autobiography ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.’ (1983: Pg. 183).

Fig. 5 Screenshot from Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)

Japanese cinema experienced a similar New-wave movement as other countries, with experimental films such as Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964) and younger filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima but the box office figures declined significantly since the advent of television. However, it has seen somewhat of resurgence in recent years with the works of award winning director Hirokazu Kore-eda and Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi Miike. With the Academy Award winning film Departures (Takita, 2008), Japan has shown that its cinema is still capable of shedding light on Japanese tradition in a modern world. It is proving to struggle with its national identity as western influences impact their output. Richie quotes Shun Nakahara who reflected on the change, specifically its lack of character depth that was once a prominent trait ‘…Japanese directors stopped being Japanese, [they] wanted to be like Americans…. We’re relaxed enough that we can again revisit the past’ (2012: Pg. 228).

Japans modern history is tumultuous with an acceleration into the modern day world from, what many would consider, a medieval way of living until the mid-1800’s. Due to this, Japan has had to make great steps in advancements to keep up. As an isolated country, it means that much of their history is still constant as very little foreign influence and invasion changed much of their way of life for hundreds of years and religion, social structures, beliefs, fashions did not evolve as it did in the West (Hane, 2016: Pg. 69). (For a more in-depth look into the History of Japanese cinema, see Appendix A below)

Fig. 6 Screenshot from Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)

Anime, a form of animation in Japan that covers many genres for both adults and children, was very much the same as its live-action counterpart, heavily censored and underfunded during the war. It grew in popularity in the early sixties and later the eighties with the films of Miyazaki and Isao Takahata that have displayed much of this ambivalence and ambiguity that is a large part of society. These films, considered mainstream, opened up the world of Anime to the West but also displayed, with a better understanding, the religious and social conditioning. They kept Japanese cinema relevant, becoming some of the highest grossing films (Wolfe, 2016). Although Studio Ghibli films are family friendly, much of anime such as Akira (Otomo, 1988) is not and has shed the stigma that animation is only for children. Therefore some of Japans most poignant stories and unsettling histories have been captured on this platform. Napier argues that anime has had such a greater success than Japanese cinema because it’s ‘participation in global culture’ (2005: pg. 22). She discusses that western culture influences its entertainment, and most present in its animations. This intermingling with ‘national boundaries’ is a reason for its wide appeal whilst also its ‘differentness’, such as its themes and issues, is very much the culture of Japan and reflects the society. For a more in-depth look into the history of Anime see Appendix B below.

Fig. 7 Screenshot from Akira (Otomo,1988)

High & Low (1963) – Dir. Akira Kurosawa

Success isn't worth losing your humanity.’ - Reiko, High & Low

Akira Kurosawa explores societal divides and moral dilemma during a heat wave in his 1963 film High & Low. This is perhaps the most explicit representation of Moral Ambiguity in his works; a literal translation of its original title is ‘Heaven and Hell’. A shoe business mogul, Gondo Kingo is on the brink of a buy-out when he receives a call demanding a ransom in exchange for his kidnapped son. Determined to pay it, at risk of going bankrupt his son unexpectedly reappears. It was his chauffeur’s son who was kidnapped. He must he decide if he pays for the life of another man’s child and risk his own future. (For a more comprehensive summary, see this link.)

Kurosawa has always shown an interest in Humanist stories, himself saying in his autobiography ‘No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home…’ (1983: pg. 61). His filmography also reflects this as it ‘…is unified by the director's deep-seated belief in the fundamental goodness and dignity of the human being… the old-fashioned notion of the "human spirit" generally triumphs…’ (Winokur &Holsinger, 2001).

Fig. 8 Screenshot of the assistant and Gondo in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

An exploration of the characters shows that Gondo, although a relatively righteous man, is still amongst the corrupt business men and morally dubious himself. We see that ‘…Gondo is on the verge of descending into immorality… In a chaotic world man is measured by the choices he makes’ (Galbraith, 2002: Pg. 347). Therefore it is through the events of the film in which Gondo loses everything that he can be returned and saved from corruption. It is revealed he worked his way up the social ladder to get where he was. The risk is not so much that he loses his fortune, but what his family will lose. Takeuchi, the kidnapper’s, experience of life until the crime has been similar. Lurking in the slums below, Takeuchi parallels him as a young man as we learn from Gondo’s fear of poverty and humble beginnings yet he has made the choice to turn to crime. Only in the finale do we feel closer to the criminal. Until this point, he sports sunglasses much of time and the audience almost only sees him as a villain ‘…we’re not looking at him in a just lighting…. The audience’s natural thought is that the film is a vehicle for empathy …a film without a universal truth, it is a specific view of a specific scenario, forcing us into a much more personalized view of morality.’ (Sullivan, 2016). When Takeuchi reveals that looking at Gondos house was like looking at Heaven, he reveals his humanity and flaw.

Fig. 9 Screenshot of Takeuchi in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Kurosawa uses imagery and framing to portray the moral ambiguity. Early in the film, before the kidnapping, the framing when Gondo is calling other associates to arrange a business deal with his assistant to the right of him and his wife to the left foreshadows the dilemma he is about to face. It is his wife throughout who urges him to spend the money, sacrifice their wealth to have the boy whilst his assistant adds pressure onto him about making the deal. The wife is his moral compass, the assistant present’s corruption.

Fig.10 Screenshot of the wife, Gondo and the assistant in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

The plot structure is interesting to note in High & Low as it is split into visually and tonally different sections. The first half, Heaven, is bright clinical whites in a stylish modern home. The second half is dark, seedy and sweaty during the sweltering heat. We can see the clear poverty divide. However, Kurosawa ‗…constantly blurs the lines between heaven and hell…Gondos heaven is corrupted by wolf-like treachery… Yokohama-as-hell is blurred by the presence of detectives hard at work on Takeuchi‘s trail.‘ (Galbraith, 2002: Pg. 349) The hell of the film is even seductive and free in comparison to the conservativeness of the Heaven above.

Fig. 11 Screenshot of Takeuchi in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Kurosawa also captures ‘heaven and hell’ in his blocking of scenes. Movement, a trademark of the directors, is theatrical. He has characters move in and out of the confined space waiting for phone calls with tension ever-building. Character dynamics are arranged but also moral questions are highlighted. The scene where the chauffer drops to his knees, begging Gondo to save his son intricately places its characters and guides the audiences eyes (Cinefix, 2019). Gondo lingers at the peripheral of the frame, by the curtains, trying to desperately to get away from everyone and the current situation. Each characters attention is on Gondo and the tension of his decision is realised.

Fig.12 Screenshot of Gondo and the Police in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

The camera techniques vastly differ between the three key event timelines of the film, 'In Gondo‘s villa he keeps the camera at chest height and shoot with few cuts in long, slow-roaming takes on a single set… the police procedural is restless, dynamic, driven by nervous tension; low angles, high angles, mobile camera, fast urgent cutting, mainly shot in sleazy locations…‘ (Kemp, 2011: Pg. 1). The middle event on the train is all in handheld in real time and in many ways more exhilarating to watch than the final act.

Fig.13 & Fig. 14 Screenshots of ‘Hell’ in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

The investigation is shot at a more leisurely pace with many scenes in the night. Once we move into ‘Hell’, Kurosawa makes sure that Gondo’s home is always in frame, towering over the slums below. And as we feel the effects of the heat wave and the poverty, we begin to understand the resentment toward the ever imposing presence of his ‘castle’. One of the investigators even remarks, as he passes by it that if feels like it is looking down on them.

Fig.15 & Fig.16 Screenshots of Gondo’s castle from the perspective of ‘Hell’ in High & Low (Kurosawa,1963)

In the final scene, Gondo is finally confronted with Takeuchi in prison, separated by glass. Here the former has regained most of his fortune, his sacrifice rewarded but he is melancholy. The two men, sitting opposite one another with the kidnapper looking defeated, there appears to be no winner. We feel only pity at the conclusion. We are posed with a moral question, the blame does not really fall on any one person as ‘… morality in of the Kurosawa film is rigorous, and such easy dichotomies as good and bad are not tolerated… In High and Low, the plate of glass separating the jailed kidnapper and visiting victim reflects and fuses their images in the final scene’ (Richie, 2013: Pg. 168). In this Kurosawa holds them up and asks his audience whether or not they are different. That final image is not explicitly a molding of two faces together but having the two in one another’s reflections, haunting and intrusive, captures the ‘what ifs…’ of the moment. Galbraith elaborated on this point saying that ‘…choice rather than circumstance is all that separates them’ (Galbraith, 2002: pg. 346).

Fig.17 Screenshot of Gondos reflection over the Kidnapper in the finale of High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Princess Mononoke (1997) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

‘To see with eyes unclouded by hate’ - Ashitaka, Princess Mononoke

Miyazaki is a filmmaker most associated with family friendly Anime features. Princess Mononoke was his first and only heavily violent film in which he wanted ‘…to depict the unchanging nature of humans…’ (Miyazaki, 2015: Pg. 272). The films story begins in medieval Japan. A prince is wounded by a feral forest spirit who curses him. To find the source and cure of the disease he travels to Irontown where he is caught amongst a viscous war between the spirits of the forest and the villagers. Meanwhile, the emperor has demanded the head of the Shishigami, the spirit of the mountain, to grant himself immortality. (To see a full summary of the film see see link.)

Fig.18 Screenshot of Ashitaka and his clan in Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Growing up in post-war Japan, Miyazaki has had the opportunity to take an objective stance on war and seen the impact of it from a young person’s eyes. He has been opinionated on his storytelling and morals, feeling he has a duty to younger viewers to not allow pessimism cloud their own views being quoted as saying; ‘The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it - I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it is rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.’(2005). This was pulled from an online article and is something that can be clear across his work.

Fig.19 Screenshot of the Shishigami in Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Much of Princess Mononoke was inspired by Shinto which can be seen across many of Miyazaki’s films in which he includes characters paying respects to Jinja (shrines), Torii (sacred gates) (Odell & le Blanc, 2009: Pg. 28). The conflict between Nature and Man, Miyazaki promotes his views on the environment and pacifism. He has chosen to explore these through depictions of spirits of the old faith. In an essay on the film, Gavrilo stated that Miyazaki ‘…is unafraid of condemning violence and the short-sightedness of its characters, but it stops short of condemning those characters outright; there’s no holier-than-thouism to it’ (2018). He highlights the bad within people but painted them as loyal and hardworking despite being greedy and shallow. But he has juxtaposed this with the representation of nature and the kami (spirits) like the ferocious Moro, San’s wolf mother, and the infected boar as equally flawed. Napier writes ‘These kami were gods not because of any moral attributes (as is the case of Buddhist pantheon, a later addition to Japan) but because of their literally awesome powers.’ (2005: Pg. 241). They have murdered the humans, some of whom are innocent. The Shishigami spirit (who oversees life and death) is the catalyst for the film, representing the harmonious nature which comes across in its ‘inaction’ (Bowen,2014).

Fig. 20 Screenshot of the headless Shishigami in the finale of Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Miyazaki will choose to paint a morally grey world for his audience. In a video essay about ambivalence in his works and Mononoke, the essayist says ‘…[at] no point does one faction, nature or the town, come out with a clear moral high ground rather we’re just sort of left in this world between these two poles not knowing exactly who we should side with…’ (Big Joel, 2017). He goes onto discuss the protagonist, Ashitaka, is neutral during most of this conflict. As neutral ground, he helps the audience see the rationale of both sides, but as a character he doesn’t really care about what is good and what is not. This makes the difference to the viewer’s perception of the film and guides us to refrain from explicit judgment. Ashitaka’s only characteristics are honor and bravery whilst all the female characters involved in the conflict are far more complex, compelling characters. Yet he is integral to the viewer’s perception and joins these women beyond war.

Fig. 21 Screenshot of San and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Lady Eboshi is significant to the morally ambiguous nature of this film as she poses a dilemma to the audience. She is arrogant, fuelled by greed for the land and a desire to conquer the Shishigami which is evidenced in the final act when she declares, “Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god… The trick is not to fear him.” However, her goals are not entirely selfish, she is an assertive self-assured leader and her decisions are economically charged. Rickett made this observation in his article on Miyazaki’s narrative style, ‘…antagonists usually have redeeming qualities and their own understandable motivations for doing what they're doing.’(2014). Wanting to better the town for her people, she offers salvation to lepers, bought and took in prostitutes. She teaches them to make firearms, but is good to them. Furthermore; her character is always given a choice. Bowen in his essay found redemption was offered to the humans despite their foolishness (2014). The concept of evil within its context, as the Japanese believe, is evident as Lady Eboshi, within her environment and interacting with her people can be perceived as a good but flawed leader. As a villain she is a representation of man’s greed.

Fig. 22 Screenshot of Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Miyazaki setting the film in Medieval Japan is a bold, because to depict conflict between man and nature in Japanese history is controversial. He stated in his project plans for the films in 1995 that‘… the usual back drop of period dramas… is merely a distant landscape in this film…by using this setting we intend to break out of our conventional knowledge, preconceptions and biases regarding period drama and to create characters free from clichés’ (2015: Pg. 273). Shinto believes in respect and peace with the earth so to contradict this is saying that there are imperfections with history and ancestry. ‘Samurai Ethic’ (Napier, 2005: Pg. 234) of traditional period cinema decrees that the samurai is recounted heroically. Miyazaki chooses not to paint this so fondly, setting up expectations alternatively. He has argued that man and nature have been at war before. In the West, we ‘instrumentalize’ everything we see, we must find a use for it (Wisecrack, 2018), meanwhile in Japan, influenced by Shinto, there is a respect for the nature around you. Depicting this negatively, with man showing he is willing to take from the earth rather than share with it, during a period that should be approached with this idea is criticism of a suggested past. Another filmmaker to do this was Kurosawa in films like Seven Samurai (1954). In his footsteps, as Napier puts it, Miyazaki ‘…refuses to sentimentalize medieval history’ (2005: Pg. 237).

Shoplifters (2018) – Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

‘Sometimes it's better to choose your own family.’ -Nobuyo Shibata, Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, described in the Guardian as a ‘… movie made up of delicate brushstrokes: details, moments, looks and smiles…’ (Bradshaw, 2018) which is a relevant statement to much of Kore-eda’s work but most skillfully used in this. The plot revolves around a group of troubled people, living together in the house of an old woman, who shoplifting for a living one day find a young girl on the streets. They take her in and for a time they live as one happy, unconventional family. (For a full summary of the film, see this link.) Kore-eda specializes in socially conscious pieces centering on the family unit. Shoplifters amalgamate many of his favourite themes into what has been considered his magnum opus (Ehrlic, 2018). His skill lies in his ability to tread carefully the line of sentimentality, without crossing over into sappy and capturing the gentle nuances of the day to day. He is applauded for his ‘Japaneseness’, as Ehrlic fondly discusses, in his native country and compared to his predecessors. He is patient and his camera unassuming; his films present the depiction for morale ambiguity.

Fig. 23 Screenshot of Nobuyo and Yuri in Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018)

Many of his scenes will linger for a long time; sometimes a scene or a subject of the shot will be filmed at a distance. His camera is often unjudgemental. It suggests neutrality. His style has been lauded, with Richie writing ‘the respect radiated in Kore-eda’s work is now rare in any film, let alone one made in modern Japan. Kore-edas camera waits just like [Yasujiro] Ozu’s, for people to leave the room before it shows the next scene’ (Richie, 2013: Pg. 244).

The bustle of family life is captured in Shoplifters so we can see everyone’s reactions, which can be more effective than a close-up. The scene in which the family goes to the beach captures this. We see this when the ‘grandmother’ watches her family play in the ocean and Kore-eda cuts to her POV. The shot lasts for over thirty seconds seeing every characters personality come through; the ‘father’ playing the joker, the ‘mother’ scolding him whilst laughing and so on. This is where we see the characters at their happiest and are not meant to see this as a participant but as an observer – a snapshot of the family. When things go wrong, it’s all the more hard-hitting. As Sims writes in his article on the film and its director, ‘so much of what the Shibata family does is out of love, but there are heavy prices to pay for not obeying societal rules. Kore-eda isn’t writing a fantasy film where those rules can be ignored forever with impunity.’ (Sims, 2018).

Fig. 24 Screenshot of the family at the beach in Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018)

As Richie has identified (1971), Kore-eda uses the close up in the traditional Japanese way to signify detail very sparingly. When Kore-eda uses a close up, ‘…it can be a rare and momentous occasion…’ (Yap, 2017) and it is because he wants the audience to see the power of his subject. In Shoplifters he uses the uncompromising close up. After the family has been caught by the police, the mother ‘Nobuyo’ is interrogated. The police tell her that she cannot be a mother for she has not given birth to Yuri, the camera watches as she, for the first time in the film, breaks down. The audience is subjected to over a minute of this as we see a new side of a criminal, all in a medium close-up. As a character she was reserved, but cared fiercely. The audience must watch this person who has caused us to question her motives finally show her heartache. This leaves us confused, moved and aware that there is no single person to blame in the film.

Fig. 25 Screenshot of Nobuyo’s ultimate breakdown in Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018)

More notable about this shot choice is the fact that when we first meet this character (when the child is brought to her home) she is framed through a doorway eating separately from the rest of the family at a distance. She only has singles when under accusation. This is her moral confirmation. Every one of the characters is a product of their society. Some critics have gone as far to reject Kore-eda’s intention ‘…for daring to show empathy with characters who break the law’ (Chang, 2018). Choosing to frame this scene as such is to force the audience to witness the moral dilemma. As reflected upon in the Richie’s book on Japanese Cinema’s national identity, he writes that ‘One of the reasons for the tragic bent of most Japanese films, and the notorious predilection of the ordinary Japanese movie for the unhappy ending, is philosophical. Tragedy presumes a closed world, a contained place where values are known.’ (1971: Pg. 74).

Fig. 26 Screenshot of the family at the start of Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018)

Kore-eda’ has structured his film to lure the audience into a sense of dilemma-less drama. It has an hour and a half of runtime of the family bonding and overcoming their differences. They may still be thieves but we forget this. Therefore we are entirely unsettled when the last half an hour plays out. It is long time to build up before the final conflict. We do not receive a cathartic ending. The family is not reunited, the youngest girl returned to her abusive parents, and justice has not been served. But that is not the point of this film. We do not get to choose the blame when the credits roll.


One thing you can be sure of, hearts change’ -Turnip Head, Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004)

Moral ambiguity is approached in different ways in the films High & Low, Princess Mononoke and Shoplifters. What seems most prominent is that these are filmmakers who have chosen not to conform to the western idea of Good and Evil. The lack of this moral form has ensured a quality unlike any other national cinema. Japanese cinema has one of the richest cinematic histories of the modern world, dating back to films inception in the late 1800’s (Cook, 2007: Pg. 4). It chose to focus its attentions on character and mood. The filmmaker has been described as not only taking ‘…the time to smell the roses but to plant them, nurture them and the watch them grow quietly.’ (N.A, 2017: Pg. 194) and this is still very much to be expected today, in modern cinema.

Japans filmography has displayed patience, honesty and daring in its attempts to paint the world in greys. Their worlds are not ideal worlds; Kurosawa’s poses the question after triumph that corruption still exists and can easily find its way to the best of people, Miyazaki states that man will always challenge nature and is sure to lose whilst Kore-eda lays the blame nowhere else but on societal structures. Catharsis is missing from all these films and it does not make them worse for it. With Moral ambiguity it leaves questions we have for ourselves only. But perhaps this idea is so unsettling to the western audience because we fear what we will find in this self-reflection. As Miyazaki said in the Ghibli documentary, ‘The notion that one's goal in life is to be happy... I just don't buy it.’ (Sunada, 2013).

Fig. 27 Screenshot of Gondo (Played by Toshiro Mifune, in High & Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Appendix Appendix A – Modern History of Japanese Cinema The Meiji period was a time of great economic, technological and cultural changes in the country, beginning in 1868 and concluding in 1912. Its feudal history before this is incredibly long and the world they inhabited until then was what could be seen as wildly outdated (Hane, 2013: Page 67). Modern history to them appears ancient to us but it was an isolated country with a social structure which still lingers in modern-day Japan. Now they were receiving direct influences from the West and with this a dramatic evolution.

It was the Great Kanto Earthquake, which destroyed ancient structures, homes and cities along with a vast majority of early films in Japan, that saw the major re-birth of the country. As they decided to rebuild, and new structures grew around them, they did not lose their rigid ethical and religious codes as some countries would have years before and this is perhaps why their culture feels so peculiar to the west. And even with an economic crash that affected the world, their film industry boomed creatively with a relative freedom and a national pride depicting their recent past and everyday lives most prominently seen in the works of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

However, in the wake of the war, and a stricter government in place ‘A law was passed in 1939 which laid virtually all control of state power. It became difficult to make films which did not praise the war or fascist ideology…’ (Nowell-Smith, 1996: Pg 419). Filmmakers no longer had the freedom to explore their cinema and therefore films during this period were biased, flat and often poorly made as ulterior motives were forced to be met. Even Akira Kurosawa gave into such propaganda filmmaking, with his release of the shallow The Most Beautiful (1944), about women working in a munitions factory. Film production declined during this period with resources needed elsewhere, and any film that came was severely censored, with the government now having their say in the early script stages. The Japanese are acutely aware of how they are perceived by external cultures and this is often seen even now. As Donald Richie writes in his book on Japanese Cinema and National Character, their films have a distinct ‘Japanese flavor’ which differs and ‘…has a much more definite meaning than say, “the American Way”… only because Japan is so intensely conscious of its own “Japaneseness”. Modern civilization is only on hundred years old and is never a veneer over a civilization which has endured for two millennia.’ (Richie, 1971: Pg 62).

Japan was heavily bombed during the latter years of the war destroying much of its cities again, inciting another major rebuild. After Japans defeat during the war, following the major atrocities committed both by and upon the nation, they were occupied by the US military which came with its own set of creative issues. The film law of 1939 was revoked and replaced by a law in 1946, by occupied forces, that all nihilistic films be prohibited, along with the destruction of 225 pre-war films.

Therefore Jidaigeki films, the Japanese period dramas based on traditional forms and set in the past appeared to promote feudalistic systems and therefore were deemed to go against the new laws. Because of this, Japan had a long period in which there cinema was still censored (Nowell-Smith, 1996: Pg. 421). Furthermore, all trace of the occupation or Japanese suffering were to be erased which is why films of this period never feature G.I’s and cleverly hinted to the destruction through interesting set design. America poured a millions into Japan with the country thriving better economic security, eventually able to create the Japan we know today. The filmmakers of the time still preferred this in comparison to the war years as there was more money and certainly more freedom.

It was in the fifties that Japan was finally relieved of the American presence and had full control over their creative content. And they did not shy away from finally depicting the effects of the occupation, the war and the nuclear bombs that changed their nation forever. One example would be the first and iconic Monster movie, Godzilla (Honda, 1954). As Buruma writes in his essay for the BFI re-release of the film, ‘… Godzilla is never portrayed as an evil creature. He is more a force of nature, like an erupting volcano, or a devastating tsunami, which is more or less how many Japanese remember World War II anyway’. (2016: Pg 1). The 1950s saw the ‘Golden Age’ of which Ozu and Kurosawa paved the way with works such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Seven Samurai (1954). Post-occupation saw a rise in creativity and self-reflection for filmmakers who were now no longer uncensored and could tell the stories they wished to tell that would be both critical and tender with regard to Japan and its changing culture and history. During this period, we see a national identity that is more present than ever and until this point was sorely missing.

The internationally acclaimed actor, Kurosawa regular and star of Rashomon, Toshiro Mifune (Kurosawa regular) was the epitome of the tragic hero and morally disputable protagonist. This can be seen in many of his works both with Kurosawa and others in that they‘…lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper… the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.’ (Grunert, 2017)

During its long history, Japanese cinema has gone through many changes. After the success of the ‘Golden Age’ (during the 1950’s) with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) being the inciting film to bring Japanese film into the western zeitgeist, New Wave was introduced during the 1960’s. This was an opportunity for younger directors to come to the forefront to promote ‘fresh and free’ films and explore the voice of younger generations in a different way than the ‘youth’ pictures of the 1940’s. These independent films saw the rise of controversial filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima. Commenting on Oshimas’ cinematic works and what it meant for the implemented ‘New Wave’, Richie says ‘… filmmakers of the post-war era had embraced politics of leftist humanism. Now Oshima went on to express disillusion with the organized left and a continued despair with the right.’ (2012, pg. 197). These were films were more explicit both sexually and politically than their previous Golden Age counter parts, which can be seen in film such as Woman of the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964), and explored the metaphysical and youth culture in a more pessimistic way than had been seen in Japan.

During this time, Japanese horror made its first real introduction with the like of Kwaiden (Kobayashi, 1964) and Onibaba (Shindo, 1964) that merged the perfect blend of traditional ghost stories, terror and morality play. They differed much from the western horror films of the time in that they were so culturally specific and still held much of their Shinto beliefs and seemed to hark back to the old cautionary tales and traditional Kabuki and Noh theatre, the latter predominantly involving masks and demons (McRoy, 2006: pg 19).

Japan’s history has impacted its people’s perception of morals as much as their belief as a nation in the past one-hundred years and they have committed many atrocities themselves on other nations and their own. Furthermore, they have suffered much during WW2 and this has charged their stories with the ambiguity and moral questions that have become a trait of their cinema. Works such as Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988) and The Human Condition (Kobayashi, 1961) have highlighted these factors and war as the enemy rather than a single opponent.

Japanese cinema began to see its decline, as in most countries, with the advent of television in the 1970s. With these independent films, the studios could not compete with the home entertainment and struggled to reign in audiences as much as did. Many of the studios went into decline ore were merged with others and were left with the big three that still stand today; Toho, Shochiku and Toei. These do not include the animation companies although some of these do fund those projects. By the end of the 1970’s much of the industry was surviving through exporting its films rather than its domestic market (Richie, 2012: Pg 212)

Although Japans cinema has declined in box office figures in recent years, the advent of television had a huge effect on it, filmmakers and studios used New Wave to try and lure audiences back. Japanese New Wave cinema (The 1960’s and early 70’s) brought forward more politically charged films that were also more sexually explicit. These films felt more natural. Performances underplayed and more realistic sometimes played by unknowns and the cinema movement itself intentionally free-spirited (Richie, 2012: Pg 192). This made for a younger audience and kept it relevant for a time.

However, through this period we were able to see a rise in new talent such as Takeshi Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda who returned to the early themes of Japanese filmmaking - character studies, contemplative and patient - in the 1980’s and 1990’s which was also a period where Japanese horror cinema saw its revival in western audiences. With Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Dark Water, Ju-On (Shimizu, 2002) and Audition (Miike, 2000) and so on, it proved that Japanese could make relevant films that captured the imaginations of its audiences once again that still existed within the moral tales they were once known for. It is also worthy of note that many of their horror films featured antagonists that the audiences would ultimately feel pity for at the end; none of them are pure evil. These films received a number of US remakes that could not quite capture the original unsettling nature within them.

Modern Japanese cinema is suffering under its western influence, with many of the top-grossing films coming from overseas, but it is still receiving many notable awards and recognition in western society even if its’ own box office numbers have dropped significantly. It’s with the help of the Academy Award winning films such as Departures (Takita, 2008) and Cannes nominations and wins that Japanese cinema is receiving such international recognition but alternatively this is because Japanese cinema offers something more complex and in most cases more beautiful than its western counterparts. With such a different but intriguing culture, it makes for challenging films that are made with a skill and minuteness that sets it apart than many international cinemas. In its truest form, it is unique.

Appendix B – Brief History of Anime Animation started as early as cinema, but it grew organically from an older practice. Magic lantern shows, known in different regions under various names such as ‘kage ninge’ (Shadow Puppets) or ‘Utsushi-e’ (Reflected Pictures), as Clements writes, they were much like puppet shows of a sort with motion and animation simple but effective (2018: Pg 21). They often retold fairytales and legends and even instructional purposes by the 1890’s. Interestingly the first records of an actual cartoon being screened in Japan, although vague, seem to suggest around 1907-1909.

War time saw a similar time for anime as Japans live-action cinema. Much of the anime productions were propaganda pictures. By the end of the war, their films were either for children and for the military but anime had not become the medium it could be that would appeal to a wider audience. Anime filmmakers, however, were heavily influenced during the war by Disney and in particular Fantasia (1940) as Clements writes (2018: Pg 61), as production of this scale and depth had not been produced in Japan yet. Style and method still differed from its western counterparts and it would be a few years before anime would find its way slowly seeping into international viewing. This would be in the 1960’s with Speed Racer (Sasagawa,1967-68)and Astro Boy (Tezuka,1963).

Anime came to the forefront with the rise and success of the works of Miyazaki and Takahata, directors and producers of Studio Ghibli, who between them produced some of the most exhilarating, heart-felt fantasy films such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), and contemplative slice-of-life pictures like Only Yesterday (1991) and eye-opening war dramas like Grave of the Fireflies (1988) this inspired further funding into these productions.

It was not until the release of Akira (Otomo) in 1988 that Anime opened the door to a wider western audience and it never looked back. It proved what animation was capable of, that animation was not just for children, re-introduced Japanese cinema and that it could still be ‘mainstream’. A morally complex story with heavy theme or war, destruction and the absence of gods, it was progressive in that it used traditional 2D cell animation but animated at 24fps, but with each of the twenty-four frames being individually drawn. This created the hyper-detailed motion, light, colors and environments that captured all the chaos like no other animated feature before. Meanwhile, it also tackled themes that are wholly adult (Super Eyepatch Wolf, 2018).

After this, the anime was Japans biggest Japanese export with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001), Howls Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004) and Your Name (Shinkai, 2016) being the highest grossing Japanese films of all time (Wolfe, 2016). This reflects the changing state of its cinema as we see the international success shifting from live-action to animation. Napier argues that anime has had such a greater success than Japanese cinema is it’s ‘participation of global culture’ (2005; pg 22). She discusses that western culture influences its entertainment, and it seems most present in its animations and that this intermingling with ‘national boundaries’ is a reason for its big appeal whilst also its ‘differentness’, such as its themes and issues, is very much a culture of Japan and reflects the society. It’s similarities to western entertainments are as much as its differences.



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Image list:

Figure 1 Dark Water. (2002). Directed by Hideo Nakata. [DVD]. UK: Tartan Cinema.

Figure 2 Princess Mononoke. (1997). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Figure 3 Shoplifters. (2018). Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. [DVD]. UK: Thunderbird releasing.

Figure 4 Godzilla. (1954). Directed by Ishiro Honda. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Figure 5 Rashomon. (1950). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Figure 6 Woman in the Dunes. (1964). Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Figure 7 Akira. (1988). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. [DVD]. UK: Manga Entertainment.

Figures 8-17 High & Low. (1963). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Figures 18-22 Princess Mononoke. (1997). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

Figures 23-26 Shoplifters. (2018). Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. [DVD]. UK: Thunderbird releasing.

Figure 27 High & Low. (1963). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

Further Reading and Viewing - Japanese F
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