Skip to main content

Nonfiction in the Far East: Fifty Years of Documentary Theory in Japan

By Ray Zone

Japanese Documentary Film:The Meiji Era through Hiroshima
By Abe Mark Nornes
University of Minnesota Press
257 pps. (paperbound) $19.95
ISBN 0-8166-4046-7


Abe Mark Nornes came to write about Japanese documentary through a circuitous route. Asked, along with Fukushima Yukio, to program a retrospective called Nichi-Bei Eigasen (Japan/America Film Wars) for the 1991 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Nornes was charged with showing American and Japanese World War II-era documentaries that covered the same themes and subjects. "We showed an American film and a Japanese film on a given subject back-to-back, in a dialogical manner," writes Nornes, "so that the films implicitly commented on each other."

The experience taught Nornes that his "relationship to the films did not develop in the relatively solitary space between history and writing." Programming the series involved screenings and considerable discussion with Japanese film historians and film festival attendees. As a result, Nornes found enthusiastic audiences hungry for information about Japanese documentary.

Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima, Volume 15 in the fine Visible Evidence series edited by Michael Renov, Faye Ginsburg and Jane Gaines, is the first book-length English-language study of Japanese documentary, and it covers the first 50 years of documentary film theory and practice in Japan. The work, Nornes acknowledges, "is as much about the story of how people thought about documentary film as the story of documentary film—of what was made and when and by whom."

To tell this story, Nornes makes extensive use of print documentation with individual film descriptions and analyses that alternate with "narrativized historical context." His work is a history of both films and contemporary criticism, and it explores the historical conceptions of the relationship of cinematic representation to the world in Japan and the function of cinema in society.

By approaching documentary history in Japan in this way, Nornes sheds light on both the public discourse and a hidden, politically charged, discourse. The films themselves, by implication and omission, reveal both these forms of discourse. The political dimension of filmmaking, its relationship to power and its proximity to ever-shifting historical "truths" are brilliantly foregrounded in Nornes' work. The discussion presented, says Nornes, "always assumes a multiplicity of competing forces that shape each other, compromising any easy division between public and private in most cases."

In each of the first five chapters of his book, Nornes attempts to reveal the potentially dangerous expressions of the hidden discursive field as "it leaked into view" in both the films and film criticism. Chapter 1, "A Prehistory of the Japanese Documentary," covers the first two decades of Japanese cinema, when highly regarded speakers known as benshi stood beside the screen, explaining what was transpiring.

As with American documentary, Japanese nonfiction films of the 1920s primarily consisted of newsreels that "straddled the line between reportage and the recording of spectacle and scenery." By 1928, amateur film enthusiasts were using different small-gauge cameras and projectors, and they held public exhibitions of their films and published their own magazines.

The dojinshi was a self-published periodical for groups of like-minded intellectuals (dojin). Eiga Zuihitsu (Essays on Cinema) was a dojinshi devoted to film and one of the publications that provided Nornes "useful access to the way film was being conceptualized at given movements by specific groups of thinkers." Nornes focuses on a debate between Iwasaki Akira, a radical critic, and Shimizu Hikaru, a respondent for Eiga Zuihitsu, which championed film aesthetics, because the debate itself represented a microcosm of the intellectual life of the time.

"Shimizu valorized the thrilling modernism of the European avant-garde film," writes Nornes. "And Iwasaki was leading the way toward a radically politicized cinema."  In 1927 the proletarian film movement in Japan originated when a young film enthusiast named Sasa Genju filmed a May Day parade with his Pathé "Baby" 9.5mm camera.  Genju's work, championed by Iwasaki, spearheaded the proletarian film movement, which came to be called Prokino, a loose and fractious group of individuals who wrote for a variety of dojinshi with titles such as Eicho (The Current Cinema). Eiga Orai (Film Traffic), Eiga Zuhitsu and Eiga Hyoron (Film Review).

By 1930 Prokino had its own publication called Shinko Eiga and over its five-year life, its members in different branches produced 48 films, including 11 newsreels, 19 films of incident reportage and 12 documentaries.

In subsequent chapters, Nornes traces the conventionalization of film representation-what he calls "a hardening of style," in which the left-wing filmmaking movement was crushed in the 1930s. Examining the "hidden spaces" of ideological discourse, Nornes analyzes moments in the history of Japanese documentary "when discontent comes into view."

This tendency is given full disclosure in a separate chapter on the career of Prokino filmmaker Kamei Fumio, considered the central figure in Japanese documentary. With films such as Shanghai (1937) and Fighting Soldiers (1939), Kamei, in Nornes' words, "undermined the codes of the hardened filmic style with a specificity and brilliance unmatched by his colleagues." Analyzing specific scenes from Kamei's documentaries, the author reproduces film frames in the book to illustrate his discussion.

Nornes has authored an unprecedented history of Japanese documentary film that is also a revealing examination of the dynamics of public and hidden discourse in motion picture communication.


Ray Zone can be reached at