Posts Tagged ‘Film Studies’

Time to get to work

2010/06/03 1 comment

Well it has been around a month since my last update. In that time I have been able to see old friends, be humbled in seminar and puzzle out my goals for the coming year. While that last part is an on-going process I have been feeling a bit restless in the academic area. Yes, Yes I have been going to classes and working hard to improve my language skills, but still feel overwhelmed by the fact that with each character I learn ten more come with it. This is an old complaint, but a valid one. In the face of such frustration I inevitably buckle down and get the work done.

In reality I have been procrastinating by watching films. For the most part (sad to admit) they have been mindless blockbusters or the weekly DVD release list, (cough cough) Daybreakers, Edge of Darkness, Yes Man. Last night, however, I watched Godard’s, Breathless. After a few more viewing I will be able to articulate the joy I felt watching the film, but more than anything I was excited to write about film again. So for the moment I will indulge in larger academic pursuits while avoiding more immediate obligations. Win Win!

As an master’s student I have been focusing on the work of director Masumura Yasuzo who was a contract director for Daiei Studios from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. While working on this project I realized that my interest began with an actress who worked with Masumura in over twenty of his fifty-four films, Wakao Ayako.

I plead guilty to initially being struck by Wakao’s beauty. This was quickly overshadowed by the skill she brought to a variety of roles. In each successive film I watched Wakao seemed to effortlessly morph into whatever character she portrayed. While I have seen a smattering of the 160 or so films she made during her career I have yet to see some of her most lauded performances such as A Wife Confesses (1961), Women are Born Twice (1961) or Seisaku no Tsuma (1963).

A Wife Confesses (1961)

I became even more interested when I began to look at her filmography. Wakao enters the film industry in the early nineteen fifties playing mostly secondary characters. In the latter half of the decade she is given major supporting roles in films by Mizoguchi (Street of Shame ’56) and Ozu (Ukigusa ’59). Then, in 1957, she starred for the first time in a Masumura film, Aozora Musume, which began a relationship that would last throughout the 1960’s. What is unique about Wakao Ayako’s career is that the peak of her success as an actress and as a face for the industry is contained within the 1960’s. Throughout the decade she was awarded best actress by film review and fan magazine Kinema Junpo three times. In addition she was on the cover of countless fan magazines and was one of the few actresses in 1960 that Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson felt compelled to include in the extremely over-cited The Japanese Film: Art and Industry.

At this point my interest started to grow out of pure fandom and into the shards of a topic for study. Quick searches revealed that even with the success of her career, multiple awards, and popularity from fans there was little to no information available outside of simple lists. To date there is only one book (that I am aware of) that looks at her work. Fortunately this book is not a simple biography or review of her films, but an attempt at serious analysis by two known scholars of film in Japan; Saito Ayako and the often published Yomota Inuhiko. I was fortunate, through the graces of my advisor, to make a copy of this book which was published in 2003 and has since gone out of print. For the past two months I have hunted through book stores looking for this title. Then, last week during a break from class I happened by one of the many used book stores in Ocha no Mizu and there it was.

Without any money on hand I had a minor freak-out plotting the next two hours of my life that would involve getting said monies and purchasing said book. Racing home against the mass of umbrella holding commuters on a typical rainy day back to my apartment I got my cash card, found an ATM (which is not as easy as it sounds in this country), got monies, returned to Ocha no mizu, bought book and ran up to the graduate study area of Meiji before settling in. As my deep breathing subsided I opened the book to discover it was not a used copy. It was in-fact a brand new second printing, which was made April 20, 2010.  Could it have been some mystical working in the cosmos that the publisher’s knew a fanatic Wakao Ayako fan had arrived? My massive ego will only take half the credit for this one. The more probable explanation is the recent publicity Wakao has been making on screen and stage.

One would be her appearance in the Softbank “father” ads which promote a new family plan for phones. The father is a cute white dog with various actors rounding out the family. Within the last six months Wakao Ayako has been revealed as the mother or grandmother in the family.

I enjoy the second one a bit more, because there is some humor with Jiro, the dog, hogging the picture frame

In addition her image has been used on Softbank billboards around Tokyo which was very cool to see during stops along my train route. In addition to the commercials Wakao recently appeared in a special two hour drama “Kekkon (Marriage)” which aired in November of last year; Finally, there was the second run of a play she performed in two years ago featuring many of the actors in the drama special.

As luck would have it the play ran during the week after my arrival. With repeated confirmation of my school schedule, the schedule for the play, monies and ticket availability I found myself in the second row stage right on opening night!! The experience was a dream come true and I almost let out an audible gasp when she appeared on stage. Fortunately her appearance was on my side of the theater so in the first instance that she appeared on stage I was within ten feet of her. For the remainder of the play I sat in awe as I witnessed first hand Wakao practice her craft live in what is touted as her final stage performance. It was a precious experience that I know I will cherish more and more as the years go by. (Also, I am quite happy to live in a cliché of sentiment about that night).

The play is titled hanabanashiki ichizoku (which might be translated as ‘The Glorious Family’. There are of course other ways to interpret it.)

While I am still working out how to frame my study of her work, the recent exposure combined with my personal interest has provided a renewed passion for the project. In a basic sense I think Wakao Ayako’s work and career is a way of entry to analyzing a variety of elements within the film industry of Japan throughout the 1960’s. A study that will range from bio and film analysis  to production, marketing and fan culture during a very specific period in Japan’s film industry. This is at least the direction I want to head. My interest in the industry and marketing aspects of Wakao Ayako and her work are two-fold. First, I want to move beyond a simple star study or biographical approach. Second, I am opposed to the idea that films studies remain outside the realm of industry or marketing to create the notion that film is a pure ‘text’. While I have used that term in the past I would argue that a more expansive and encompassing approach should be pursued. It will open up avenues for film study not available in other disciplines without diminishing the notion of film’s artistic importance. Cut and dry: the money matters in film studies.

While I have a lot to develop I am encouraged by this work and I think there are some exciting things to be written in the future. Until next time, cheers!