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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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BRADSHAW, P. (2018). Shoplifters review – family of thieves steal moral high ground – and hearts. The Guardian. [Online]. 14th May. Available from: [Accessed: 21st March 2019].

BURUMA, I. (2016). Godzilla – Illustrated Essay Booklet. First Edition. London: BFI

CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY ONLINE. (2019). Cambridge Dictionary. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 1st April 2019].

CHANG, J. (2018). Hirokazu Kore-eda carries on through success and sadness with the release of his Palme d’Or winner, ‘Shoplifters’. [Online]. 23rd November. Available from: [Accessed: 23rd March 2019].

CINEFIX. (2019). 21st January. 3 Brilliant Moments of Blocking (in Kurosawa's High and Low). Cinefix – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from:

CLEMENTS, J. (2018). Anime: A History. Fifth Edition. London: BFI. Bloomsbury.

COOK, P. (ed.) (2007) The Cinema Book. Third Edition. London: BFI. Palgrave Macmillan.

CRISWELL. (2016). 2nd October. Seven Samurai - Drama Through Action | CRISWELL | Cinema Cartography. Criswell – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: [Accessed: 28th February].

EBERT, R. (2002). Hayao Miyazaki Interview. [Online]. 12th September. Available from: [Accessed: 29th February 2019].

EHRLIC, D. (2018). Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Masterpiece ‘Shoplifters’ Is the Culmination of His Career. Indiewire. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 23rd March 2019].

GALBRAITH, S. (2002). The Emperor and the Wolf. First Edition. London: Faber and Faber

GAVRILO, (2018). Moral Impossibility of Pacifism Defines 'Princess Mononoke'. Filmfaqs. [Online]. 18th April. Available from: [Accessed: 23rd March 2019].

GRUNERT, A. (2017). Toshirō Mifune: Between Extravagance and Subtlety. Senses of Cinema. [Online]. March. Available from: [Accesssed: 24th March 2019].

HANE, M. (2016). Japan: A Short History. Third Edition. London: Oneworld Publications.

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

KEMP, P. (2011). High & Low – Illustrated Essay Booklet. First Edition. London: BFI

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. (2013). Directed by Mami Sunada. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal.

KUROSAWA, A. (1983). Something Like and Autobiography. First Edition. New York: Vintage Books.

MCROY, J. (ed.) (2006). Japanese Horror Cinema. Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mifune: The Last Samurai. (2015). Directed by Steven Okazaki. [DVD]. UK: BFI.

MIYAZAKI, H. (2015). Starting Point: 1979-1996. Second Edition. San Francisco: Viz Media.

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NAPIER, S. (2005). Anime: From Akira to Howls Moving Castle. Second Edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

NOWELL-SMITH, G. (ed.) (1996). The Oxford History of World Cinema. First Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ODELL, C. LE BLANC, M. (2009). Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. First Edition. Herts: Kamera Books.

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

RICHIE, D. (1971). Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character. First Edition. London: Secker and Warburg.

RICHIE, D. (2012). A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Third Edition. New York: Kodansha Publishing.

RICKETT, O. (2014). The Universal Appeal of Hayao Miyazaki. [Online]. 11th December. Available from: [Accessed: 28nd February 2019]

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

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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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*Contains Spoilers*

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, was set and filmed in Cornwall, England. It is about a married couple, David Sumner, an American mathematician and his beautiful British wife Amy who return to her home village to escape the anti-Vietnam War protests. They are soon harassed by the locals and the finale consists of David finally standing up to them and defending his home, revealing the aggressive nature in himself that is a primal, masculine trait, suggesting that we are all animals and that society and its ideologies are a masquerade. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake was shot in Mississippi, USA, a lush contrast to the original film. This time a script writer and actress, moving from L.A so that David can finish a script. The narrative unfolds the same way but the contrast in settings is clear.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

Stereotypically rural places and 'Rural Horror' such as The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973) are seen as a return to nature, a purer landscape compared to the urban environment. However, these portrayals in both films have received negative reception as the representations offended the locals who became concerned about the rural stereotypes. The ‘locals’ are portrayed as violent but devoutly religious, as seen in the remake in which the town attends church, reinforcing this stereotype. In the scene, David, an atheist, leaves the service, an act which enrages the locals.

Stereotyped rural inhabitants are of the lower class, un-educated, and misogynistic. In the film there are many occasions when women are treated as objects and belittled, such as the rape scenes. There are also suggestions of inbreeding which is explored in other rural films such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The seclusion of the areas create a heavy and brooding atmosphere for the characters, Cornwall’s rustic moor settings, with its tiny villages give the occupants an unhealthy closeness in their relationships. Therefore strangers aren’t accepted. They shun outsiders who threaten their ideals and values.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

The dominant ideology surrounding the English farming country and the ‘backwoods’ of America denotes tranquillity and peace within these locations. However, there is a significant contrast between the locations in the 1971 and 2011 films. Peckinpahs is the typical rainy Britain. ‘The weather adds a spooky surreal element to the picture too; we see very little sunshine through perpetually-grey skies, and the fog that rolls in off the sea at night gives the siege at the end of the film, a look for horror.’ (Mercer, 2011) This is visually more claustrophobic and in many ways enhances the eerie setting.

In comparison, Lurie’s remake conveys the aesthetic quality of the modern technology that removes some of the grittiness from older ‘backwoods’ classics. Furthermore the climate is warmer and it’s sunnier, the feel to the film more spacious in the clear weather. However, the run-down town and the dusty appearance of the Deep South make the country unappealing and gritty. In surrounding forests, where they hunt, vast woodland goes on for miles; Lurie’s characters are trapped by this geographic location.

One Mississippi resident described the opening sequence to Straw Dogs (2011) offensive, ‘…quick images of trailer parks, confederate flags, rural decay, barking dogs, misogynistic bar patrons harassing waitresses…basically a representation of what people stereotypically fear about Mississippi and the south in general.’ (Cooper, 2011). Other films such as Deliverance (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) have sparked similar criticisms. These films embrace the settings as many audiences are drawn to the escapist qualities of ‘rural horror’. Fearing these isolated places has become part of the genre’s iconography.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

However, Peckinpah’s opening is a slower sequence. Haunting and eerie, there is a peculiar score, unusual in its slow tempo and diegetic sound of children playing and singing. There seems to be something unnerving about the town as the children play happily in the grave-yard, oblivious to the resting place of the dead. This sequence reveals more about the location whilst setting the tone but not over using the stereotypes instantly, these follow later. Peckinpah utilises the natural light and surroundings of Cornwall’s moors to emphasise a sense of foreboding within the mise-en-scene.

Secluded landscapes in these films are the 'utopian fantasy' (Dryer, 1977) for the protagonists choosing to escape the chaos of urban living, the irony being that they now must confront their own misconceptions. In Deliverance, Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave, the protagonists try to get inspiration from the isolation of the countryside. The original David subverts his passive beliefs and un-masculine ways in an ironic finale which is the siege of the farmhouse. After escaping the protests that had become physical wars between the youths in America, the Sumners were thrown into a new war, forced to fight against the locals. Peckinpahs’ statement and use of irony could suggest the message that conflict is human nature and that man will always unleash savage and ruthless instincts when protecting their property.

The invasion narrative has been spoofed in the media repeatedly over the years for example in the black comedy The Cottage (2008), TV series The League of Gentlemen and even An American Werewolf in London (1981) features suspicious locals who dislike the backpackers. Although this stereotype is considered absurd, it is repeatedly used in horror cinema.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

There is also another convention that the locals follow, ‘We take care of our own here.’ There is a lack of authority in the townships, the police constable/sheriff of the towns are often a higher social class with a, seemingly, higher education. Not always present, their rule is repeatedly undermined by the workers. During the opening scenes of Straw Dogs ’71 and ‘11, the police arrive at the pub/bar and not once do the locals seem intimidated by the law enforcement but seem to mock it, subsequently brawls ensue.

The ‘barbarian’ locals reign over the locations and therefore take the law into their own hands. The final act of Straw Dogs clearly demonstrates this both films pan out in this way. When the town simpleton, Niles, is accused of abducting the town flirt, Janice, her father, Tom who is also the town drunk, the workers, including Amy’s rapists, are told of his whereabouts and attack the Sumners home. David and Amy accidentally hit Niles with their car on their way home and take him back with them where they plan to call for medical assistance. When the constable arrives, he confronts the men outside, only to be shot dead. Any hope of the characters being saved is gone as the local men do not fear the consequences of their actions. Therefore the protagonist takes the law into his own hands to prove his masculinity and defend his home and that he will defend it.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

In comparison to the American backwoods films, Peckinpah takes a more chilling approach. ‘The heroes of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes are given no choice but to fight and kill, attacked suddenly by monstrous villains who seem hardly human.’ (Newman, 2002) Newman argues how normal the antagonists are in contrast to these other films, and the extreme lengths David goes to in the end to defend his wife and home. Their intelligence is perceived as lower than the average middle-class citizen, and Lurie’s ‘Red necks’ are just that. Furthermore their emotional capability is lessened; the original was kinder on its villains. They were spontaneous and yet, generally, they had motives for the final sequence. They were twisted and inhumane about their actions but they weren’t barbaric Neanderthals that the remake portrayed them to be. One reviewer described the directors’ attempt on portraying the Deep South as, ‘…hamfistedly depicting his characters as such shallow, purposeless clichés, he’s removed any sense of depth or complexity.’ (N/A)

An example of this is the opening in which Amy and David travel into town to eat at the bar. Housed here are dirty, plaid wearing, men who harass the barmaid. Typical of the genre, rural horror, they are loud mouthed, offensive and all know one another very well, excluding David from the town instantly. They emasculate him and are overly intimidating. They are more similar to the ‘Hillbillies’ in Deliverance than Peckinpahs complex characters. The psychological horror of the film is absent in the remake which was one of the originals’ greatest strengths. R. Hogg and K. Carrington describe films like this highlight the key concept of the genre in that ‘…the rural is represented as a dark, hostile, alien environment, peopled by dangerous, atavistic types (“murderous yokels”) who prey on naïve, urban innocents.’ (Hogg, Carrington, 2006)

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

The original’s pub sequence is interesting; it has the essence of the old westerns, a masculine genre; about fighting for place in society, for authority or lands. This echoes the western genre significantly as David steps into the building and is watched by all the regulars whilst buying a packet of cigarettes. The bleak interiors of the pub, the gruff men scattered about it, the typical flat caps worn by most of the men, the mise-en-scene doesn’t entirely fit with David’s western-like entrance. But it still conveys the main theme of seclusion.

The menacing locals observe the American, their clothes not in fashion with the urban lifestyle outside of their village. There is minimal editing compared to the remake which uses many technical horror clichés, missing out on the psychological torture that Amy and David go through the entire film due to the hostile local men. This scene highlights a hierarchy in the village, that it is the working class citizens who have control, who are the biggest threat to the American, emasculating him and driving him to the very edge. Once he reaches this point, he descends into primal fury.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (2011)

Women are objects of the ‘Male Gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975), the promiscuous Janice, the barmaid in the remake and Amy, society to degrade them, which is probably one of the reasons why Mrs Sumner originally left. Most of the other women are stay at home wives which shows how far behind the towns are. These societies are not fully in touch with the outside world, living in the past with older morals and values. There is a strong religious ideology amongst these secluded, rural societies, not that many of them follow by it closely. There are church going citizens who clash with Sumners’ own atheism, in the remake he steps out of the church, disrespectfully, during a service to sit in his car until it ended.

In the original, religion is not one of the main issues for the couple, unlike Lurie’s. This emphasises the location, the Deep South of North America as having a history of strong religious beliefs leading to a conflict of ideologies. In the remake, this sequence is much more dramatic due to the strong faith within the state. Peckinpahs’ David is rude to the vicar and his wife when they visit their home but this does not lead to bitter feuds, they both seem more accepting of each other’s beliefs. The villages host a church social which everyone attends, even the Sumners. There is a mutual understanding within the community; it is a small town tradition that brings everyone closer together. However, this is after Amys’ double rape and David has fired the workers from repairing their garage. There is hostility in the air and the cheery atmosphere of the scene is over shadowed by the Amys’ fear and her husband’s discomfort with the other villagers.

Screencap: Straw Dogs (1971)

In conclusion, both films portray regressive representations of rural Cornwall and the Deep South, the remake consists of common, exaggerated stereotypes that damage the locations reputation. Peckinpah relies on the English countryside and nature to inspire the unnerving atmosphere; meanwhile clichés are used in the remake to shock the audience. Both locations are key features to the stories; a close-knit society is needed to achieve the tone of the film that takes mankind back to its primitive state. The directors embraced the setting and exploited the beauty of its lost-in-time appearance, creating an unsettling territory where the law does not seem to apply.


B. Mercer. (2011) Straw Dogs compared: an in-depth look at the 1971 original and 2011 remake.

C. Cooper. (2011) Does Straw Dogs (2011) harm Mississippi’s reputation?,

R. Dyer. (1977) Utopian Fantasy Theory

K. Newman. (2002). History of Straw Dogs and the Censors. Article distributed by Fremantle


R. Hogg, K. Carrington. (2006) Policing the Rural Crisis. Sydney. Federation Press.

L. Mulvey. (1975) Male Gaze Theory, Visual pleasure in Narrative Cinema


Straw Dogs. (1971) Film. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. [DVD]. UK: Freemantle.

Straw Dogs. (2011) Film. Directed by Rob Lurie. [DVD]. UK: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

(Originally Composed 20/03/2013 as a research project with regard to Horror tropes in Cinema)

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Last night I dreamt of boy with blue eyes. He found me in at the bar in a sleazy night club, returning my friend to me having found her pooping in the DJ booth. He was tall, with wavy hair and told me that he'd screwed his home economics teacher resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and a tumultuous custody battle. He was honest, or so I could tell by looking into his red, puffy eyes. Childless and penniless, he'd moved from street to street, all over town. He was my dream boy.

The next day, I wrote about him on the back of a used tissue I had in my pocket. And now the bastard is pissing in my shower and riddling my PC with viruses as he Googles 'Sexy Girl-on-Girl Horseplay'.

His name is Rusty Flares...

That's the basis of this melancholic dramedy, with a modern 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' twist. And, jokes aside, it works well. (I don't know why I felt the need for Rusty but Rusty shall stay.)

Be careful what you wish for. That's what our protagonist, Calvin (Performed interestingly by Paul Dano), discovers when he conjures his own dream girl through the power of his magic typewriter by the name of Ruby Sparks. Suddenly his decade long writers-block, doesn't seem so troublesome to him. Feeding off the fame from his previous book, uptight and set in his ways, craving 'real love' from a woman rather than a 'fan', Ruby comes as a cry for help to be loved by Calvin. In time, however, Ruby isn't all she's cracked up to be, but the writer has a solution for that. And he returns to the typewriter again.

"How harmful is that fantasy to real life?"

From the directors that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris followed up their quirky masterpiece with an equally quirky romance. It had been on my watch-list for years and to this day I don't know how I hadn't gotten around to it, but a spur of the moment decision led to an evening with the flatmates eating crisps and engaging in something fluffy and light. That wasn't quite what we got.

It's a wonderful criticism on the male fantasy. The role of the writer is called-out. What is their responsibility? The crafting of characters can become bizarre wish-fulfillment which is every writers right. But does one have to draw the line somewhere? When reality meets and enters fantasy? How harmful is that fantasy to real life? The average writer probably wouldn't think that deep but the film enters a dark realm where the role of the 'dream girl' progresses into something more realistic and depressing. That may be for the better.

"The film is dated by it's quirk but not by it's message."

Zoe Kazan penned this and performed as the titular role. To gain the perspective of a woman on this much discussed character trope brings a new light on the topic. She asks the question: With the harsh expectations placed on women to be the fantasy, what is the woman's responsibility to a man? And if a man could change those flaws when things became too challenging, would he? Would he try to understand them? These are all things this film seems to illuminate. She can't answer them for sure but she sure leaves us with an interesting after thought. Kazan brings to the role a dignity that other 'manic pixie dream girls' have been deprived of (We're looking at you Elizabethtown) and feels like a final say on the whole matter.

The film is dated by it's quirk but not by it's message. The first half an hour we were distracted by much of the 'quirkiness': the typewriter, the costumes, the dialogue. All a bit edgy. But once the story kicked in, one could look past all that and enjoy the story for what it is.

The cast is pretty darn good. Calvin's brother, performed with great comedic edge by Chris Messina is the experienced brother. Who has actually lived with and raised a child with a woman. He is the one who shines a light on the reality of relationships and we slowly learn throughout the film through him and other side characters that Calvin may not be such a victim in love after all. Another stand out is Antonio Banderas, as Calvin's mothers (Played by Annette Bening) new husband. Delightful, strange and a wonderful affinity with the pet dog Scottie, his presence in scenes are funny and undoubtedly enjoyable.

Not my favourite although I would probably have loved it back in 2012. But as an older, wiser old maid it feels over-powered by it's need to be 'indie'. But the premise is not wasted. Calvin is hardly a hero and Ruby is more than just a dream. Love isn't easy, it plays it hard and fast with no mercy. But that's where love becomes a unity, and this film feels like it's reminding us of that. No mater what we want to believe, the reality is actually better than the idea, if we give a chance.

It's time to set Rusty Flares aside.

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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