Bad Girls of Japan

Title: Bad Girls of Japan
Editors: Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 222

Every once in awhile I will demand, in my ignorance, why no one has published an article about some facet of Japanese culture that really deserves an article. It usually turns out that, in fact, someone has published an article; and, occasionally, it turns out that all of the articles I have ever wanted to read have been published in one book. My most recent of such discoveries is Bad Girls of Japan, which was published in hardcover in 2005 and paperback in 2007. Why hadn’t I read it before this past weekend? That’s a good question. Perhaps I had thought to myself, what do I care about Abe Sada or Yoshiya Nobuko? Perhaps I had thought to myself, how academically rigorous can a short collection of twelve-to-fifteen page essays actually be? Did I mention that I can be extremely ignorant sometimes?

Bad Girls of Japan is a compilation of eleven short articles (plus a separate introduction, conclusion, and bibliography) about, as the title suggests, Japanese bad girls, with “bad” meaning “defying mainstream notions of proper female conduct” and “girl” being a term of female empowerment, apparently. Rebecca Copeland begins the collection with an essay about the demonic women of Japanese folklore, such as the yamamba, or carnivorous mountain witch, and the jilted lover turned giant snake monster from the Dōjō-ji myth that has come down to us by way of a famous Nō play. Other essay topics include geisha, Meiji schoolgirls, kogal, and shopping mavens like Nakamura Usagi – as well as the aforementioned Abe Sada (whose erotic escapades were sensationalized by films like In the Realm of the Senses) and Yoshiya Nobuko (whose Hana monogatari – flower tales – more or less established the shōjo narrative style).

In short, Bad Girls of Japan is all about women who have become the vortexes generating major cultural currents in modern and contemporary Japan. As such, it reads like an alternate cultural history informed by various academic focuses and disciplines. Since the essays are short, each writer has been forced to say the most important things about her topic in the most efficient way possible, but none of these essays sacrifices theoretical nuance (or footnotes). Furthermore, in a book designed to upset common ideas concerning Japanese culture, it is appropriate that none of the essays makes any sort of culturally essentializing overgeneralizations, either.

Because of its essay length and broad range of topics, Bad Girls of Japan does feel a bit like an introductory textbook, but it’s a very intelligent textbook, and the excellent editing ensures that it’s easy to read, as well. As a result, I think this essay collection is one of the rare academic books that will appeal to non-academics, and it would be an excellent choice of reading material for someone who doesn’t know very much about Japan but wants to learn more. I especially recommend this book to pop culture fans interested in moving beyond archetypes and stereotypes. It’s a quick, fun read, and it paints a lively and vivid picture of the past one hundred years of Japanese cultural history. To respond to my own initial doubts concerning this book, then, one should care about women like Abe Sada and Yoshiya Nobuko not merely because they were interesting people who told interesting stories, but also because of what their stories reveal about Japan and its relation to the rest of the world as it made its way through the twentieth century.

By the way, that hypothetical essay I always wanted to read about sex in josei manga is in here too, and I think Gretchen Jones does a great job of addressing the possibility of female pleasure and agency lurking within all the graphic rape. I just wish her chapter were longer, which I suppose is something I could say about everything in the book…

The Flash of Capital

The Flash of Capital

Title: The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan
Author: Eric Cazdyn
Publication Year: 2002
Publisher: Duke University Press
Pages: 316

For all of the back-breaking piles of academic books I read, I sure don’t get around to reviewing many. I suppose this is because I spend so much of what passes for my real life writing about them that I don’t have many nice things to say at the end of the day. The Flash of Capital is an exception. Perhaps I feel this way because I was inspired to read every word of the book – and Cazdyn’s book is not easy to read. Interesting and thought-provoking, yes, original, yes, lots of fun, yes, but not easy to read. If you are at all interested in Japan, film, or even Japanese film, though, it’s worth the trouble.

Cazdyn’s basic thesis is that the major trends of Japanese film correspond with the major developments of capitalism in Japan, which is only natural, considering that both movies and modern capitalism came to Japan at roughly the same time. The first five of the six chapters explore these intersections by examining certain key questions of film studies. For example, the second chapter is concerned with film historiography and how the discourses surrounding the Japanese state have shaped the way that critics and scholars have talked and written about film. The fourth chapter discusses how economic development, especially as it has engendered interest in socialism, has affected the agency of the actor. It also touches on the politically utopian and dystopian implications of the professionalism or amateur status of the actor. And the fifth chapter, which focuses on pornography, completely changed the way I think about the meaning of visual representation in film. The sixth chapter takes the various concepts presented in these five chapters and uses them to give new, interesting, and politically significant readings to the canonical films of canonical directors, like Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon, Ozu Yasujirō’s Late Spring, and Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell.

My favorite part of the book, however, was not the theoretical acrobatics or the micro-analysis of non-mainstream films and directors, but rather the information regarding the cultural context surrounding each topic. For example, the first chapter, which concerns the relationship between actors, spectators, and the medium of film, begins with a discussion of kabuki, which is linked to a discussion of the wanted posters for the members of the Aum Shinri-kyō cult (responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks). And the discussion of the pornography industry in Japan in the fifth chapter is beyond fascinating.

Unfortunately, the valuable ideas and information presented by Cazdyn occasionally become mired in the language of post-structuralist theory. Some of his sentences derailed me for days at a time. I will give an example:

The problem, instead, lies in the way Iwasaki works through the problematics, which ultimately betrays (the dialectical implications of) his work’s title and resembles a teleological history more than a relational one, with the telos being the birth of the proletarian film or even a later moment of actually existing socialism.

Excuse me, what? I’m feeling a little stupid and uneducated here. Also, as you might be able to tell from the above passage, Cazdyn is a bit of a Marxist. Although he vehemently denies such an affiliation, his ideology comes on fairly strong at points, such as at the close of the fourth chapter:

What Ogawa’s Sundial Carved by a Thousand Years of Notches (and the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival that it inspired) suggests is that new transnational networks must be built, no matter how unprofessional and utopian, in order to wrest at least some of the power away from the core of brokers whose monopoly on world power grows increasingly consolidated by the day.

To be honest, though, I find Cazdyn’s occasional ideological outbreaks inspiring. Even if they are sometimes uncomfortably Marxist, they make me think that Cazdyn is one of the good guys, and that simply by watching movies and thinking and writing we can make a difference and triumph over the evils of the world. Even if you’re not entirely convinced that this is true, it’s still fun to read The Flash of Capital solely for the thrill of encountering new ideas and tackling big intellectual concepts. And did I mention the awesome chapter on porn? In any case, this book isn’t for the casual reader, but if you think you’re interested, you definitely want to read this book. Go for it.