copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Japanese cinema, the classroom, and Swallowtail Butterfly

by Colleen A. Laird

“Is there no need to question the politics and institutional history of the canon, to examine why certain works are either included in or excluded from it?”
 –Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000)

There is new cinema in Japan. In the past few years, the Japanese film industry has seemingly recovered from the studio collapse of the 1980s and has emerged from its cocoon in V-cinema. More and more screens in Japanese multiplexes showcase domestic films, and several production companies have revitalized their roles as producers rather than just distributors. Likewise, Japanese cinema is again in circulation at international festivals, as evidenced by Kitano Takeshi’s acceptance of the 2007 Venice Glory To The Filmmaker Prize (named after Kitano’s own film), Kawase Naomi’s win of the Venice Grand Prize at the Festival that same year, and Takita Yojiro’s 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar win for Departures (Okuribito). [1] [open endnotes in new window] Within this small sampling is the promise of a diverse Japanese cinema: a television comedian turned internationally acclaimed directorial superstar (Kitano), a female documentarian (Kawase), and former “pinku” (soft-core pornography) talent (Takita). Similarly, the study of Japanese cinema within the past decade has also diversified. Scholars are incorporating new methodologies and theories as well as investing in-depth historical studies. Not surprisingly, Japanese film has become a more regularly offered course in universities and colleges, particularly in the United States. However, Japanese cinema as an object of study within the Western classroom does not quite reflect the status of the industry or the scholarship. Instead, it harkens to older, more staid, methods of canon and culture study. More often than not, it seems that study of Japanese film is in fact a thinly veiled study of Japanese culture.

It is precisely this culturally deterministic approach to Japanese cinema that I wish to counter in this essay through an analysis of Iwai Shunji’s popular film Swallowtail Butterfly (Suwaroteiru, 1996). In considering both the aesthetics and coded content of Iwai’s film, I wish to illustrate how Western education of Japanese cinema hinges on seeing Japanese film as a national medium, and how recent independent filmmakers have been marginalized due to their extreme popularity with youth (mass) culture as well as their more international, hence less exceptionally intrinsic, aesthetic that embraces film as a global medium of expression. Swallowtail Butterfly stands as a particularly illuminating example of the problems of value-based scholarship of Japanese cinema because it achieved popular box-office success but was widely panned by elite, staid film critics who decried both the film’s style as well as its perceived lack of substance. To address issues of canon and education, I use Swallowtail Butterfly as an example of “problematic” contemporary cinema in order to challenge some of the biases or patterns established in Japanese cinema classrooms as well as the scholarly impulse to canonize cinema.

On teaching Japanese cinema

In 1991, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argued that there were two “types” of Japanese cinema scholarship:

“On the one hand, the Japanese film and area studies specialists tend to take up the historical study of Japanese cinema, since they possess a good command of the Japanese language and are familiar with Japanese culture but not with the theoretical advancement made in film studies; on the other hand, film critics well versed in theory but not in the Japanese language write on Japanese cinema from ‘theoretical perspectives’” (Radical, 251).

Although significant strides have been made in the last eighteen years by scholars to break through this binary—particularly by theory wielding scholars who are either native Japanese speakers now writing in English or non-native scholars versed in theory who have incorporated language and culture into their training—Japanese cinema in U.S. classrooms does seem fraught with the same quintessential plight: culture studies vs. film studies.

As Keiko McDonald observed:

“Courses on Japanese Cinema have become one of the most salient features of Japanese studies programs at major academic institutions all across America. Courses with titles such as Introduction to Japanese Cinema and Japanese Literature and Film are attracting students in ever increasing numbers. Japanese studies majors are joined in the these classes by film studies majors, who come from programs that recognize the unique contribution Japan has made to world cinema. The most dramatic increase in demand has come from students whose interest in Japanese culture and society has been linked primarily with electives” (Reading, vii).

I would like to add to this bifurcated description not students who are versed in Japanese culture and film students (a hybrid that I think, though rare, is obvious), but students who come from entirely unrelated disciplines and enroll in Japanese film courses for the elective credit or distribution requirement. McDonald’s book is an attempt to address some of the classroom issues educators of Japanese film face given this student demographic. Though, as she notes, a few books introduce a general readership to Japanese film history, genre, and select directors, her book serves as the only textbook written specifically for the Japanese film classroom. [2] To address this need she writes with the following question as a foundation:

“How does a person from the Japanese tradition show Western viewers, primarily general audiences, how to see a Japanese film” (vii).

Because I feel that this is, for the most part, still an important question, I would suggest a somewhat less essentialist modification that opens the question to educators now versed in Yoshimoto’s two types of scholarship: How does a person trained in Japanese culture and language and film studies show viewers in a Western classroom how to see a Japanese film? The answer to this question, of course, challenges most teachers of Japanese cinema. More often than not—in my own personal experiences and those of my colleagues and professors with whom I have discussed this issue—Japanese film survey classroom conversations often revolve around cultural explanation. [3] In fact, this is the goal of McDonald’s text. In the Film Studies classroom, Japanese cinema (typically represented by Ozu) is often bereft of cultural or linguistic context and used as an example of non-Hollywood technique and style. These are Yoshimoto’s two types: culture and theory.

There are, of course, some practical limitations as to why this is the case (and they are most likely encountered frequently among teachers of non-Hollywood or U.S. cinemas).

First, foremost, and perhaps most obvious, is that although many students enrolled in undergraduate Japanese film classes may also take Japanese language and history courses (either simultaneously or through prerequisites), most do not. More to the point, most students also studying Japanese in college are not at a language ability level that enables them to read texts in Japanese or to watch the films without subtitles. Educators may have surmounted this barrier, but our undergraduate students have not. [4] It is for this reason, as an astute “works cited” reader will note, that my focus on literature in the field is primarily directed at English-language materials. As this essay is partially a call to rethink curriculum, it seems appropriate to concentrate on the texts accessible to our students.

Language aside, students not versed in the bare necessities of Japanese history, aesthetics, and “traditions” often get lost in the abyss of the exotic unknown. To many students the “Japanese” part of “Japanese” film is in equal measure the most prohibitive and the most engaging aspect of the class. As so many of the commonly taught films feature prominent aspects of “Japanese tradition” (more on this to follow), classroom dynamics fall into explanation of Japanese culture (either by the instructor or “savvy” students) as almost a matter of course. As such, many schools explicitly offer courses with, as one course description puts it, “particular attention…to the relationship of the film to traditional arts, culture and society” (Tomonari, Spring 2010). [5] Additionally, teachers also face the problem of students’ varying background in and familiarity with film studies—terminology, history, form, theory, and analysis, particularly for students who take Japanese Film courses to fulfill a distribution requirement.

Second, Japanese Film, as a field or even an object of education, does not have a consistent home in the U.S. academy. On the one hand, there has been an increase in survey courses dedicated to Japanese cinema (as a historical study featuring industry, formal aesthetics, movements, cultural motifs, noted auteurs, etc.) as well as related “topics” classes or seminars (on horror [6], specific auteurs such as Ozu and Mizoguchi [7], gender and sexuality [8], animation [9], etc.). On the other hand, Japanese films are still taught as supplementary media in culture, language, and history classes. Moreover, as there exists no Department of Japanese Film in the United States, Japanese cinema educators teach out of a number of different departments, with different curriculum goals, and different university or college bureaucratic regulations such as course level, prerequisite requirements, quarter and semester time constraints, and distribution credit procedures (sometimes referred to as diversity distribution or international distribution credits, for example). Many professors of teach out of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Asian Studies, Japanese Studies (or some other variant) departments:

However, other professors are housed in

This is by no means a comprehensive roster of all professors teaching Japanese film courses in the United States, but the diversity of departmental homes in even this small sampling is meant to indicate a diversity suggestive of varying methodologies, focus, and training. While it may be slightly easier or more appropriate to require (let alone expect) students to have backgrounds in film studies (for those teaching within Film Studies programs) or Japanese language and culture (Asian Languages programs), this is certainly not the case for English, History, and Anthropology. Additionally, the methods of professors certainly differ in their respective fields, and it may very well be that the goal behind offering a class on Japanese film—justifiable in a course proposal—is to either emphasize culture, history, and language (Asian Studies, History, Anthropology) or aesthetic and style (Film Studies, English).

Third, Japanese cinema studies is taking the shape of an increasingly more diversified field, with more and more new and seasoned scholars casting wider and more complex networks of ideas and solid primary-source research. In particular, the development of topical courses suggests a progressive establishment of legitimacy and complexity for the field. Be that as it may, there has emerged, despite all the aforementioned differences between departments and universities, a solidified canon of both films and source texts in Japanese film classrooms. Before turning to an analysis of what this canon is, it is relevant at this point to consider the history of Japanese film scholarship, upon which the educational canon is based.

Both Darrel William Davis (Reigniting) and Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (Radical; Kurosawa) have problematized the trajectory of Japanese cinema scholarship as largely shaped by the work of three founding fathers: Donald Richie, Noel Burch, and David Bordwell.

Donald Richie is perhaps the most famous critic and authorial voice on Japanese film, as well as the most prolific. He co-wrote the foundational book The Japanese Film (1960) in collaboration with Joseph Anderson. Richie’s writings feature his concepts of presentational (cinema that portrays imaginary ideal settings and social structures that emphasize stylization) and representational (cinema that reflects reality) styles in Japanese film. According to Richie, Japanese filmmakers have very little concern for realism and prefer to express themselves through the presentational mode, constructing the world around them as they would like it to be, rather than as it is (Hundred, 11). As such, Richie, drawing upon a humanist standpoint, argues that elements of the Japanese national character can be found in the aesthetics of Japanese cinema because the presentational style presents the attributes of the Japanese cultural ideal. Richie’s legacy in Japanese film scholarship builds on this humanist perspective, leading to the assessment of Japanese cultural products as reflective of a homogenous collectivist Japanese society.

Yoshimoto argues that this field of inquiry problematically led to general claims regarding the “Japanese Mind” (Kurosawa, 10). As a result, Japanese films became an object of study, as humanist scholar David Desser argues, because “of what they reveal of the Japanese character” (quoted in Kurosawa, 11). Though Richie has recently reversed the position laid out earlier in his career by his recent argument that “there was…no Japanese essence awaiting liberation by a few individual filmmakers” (Hundred, 11), he still views cinema as reflective of cultural value and characteristics, albeit acknowledging that those might be constructed rather than intrinsically determined. Davis describes Richie’s work as “reflectionist,” due to “the assumption that film reflects preexisting cultures” and “culture determines artistic expressions like cinema” (Reigniting, 62).

Seeing what he perceived to be the decline of original or innovative cinema in the West, Noel Burch’s goal in To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) is to identify the “essential difference between the dominant modes of Western and Japanese cinema” (11). The main project in To the Distant Observer is to identify and categorize Western filmmaking structures, particularly the Classical Hollywood Cinema system, through constructive comparison with Japanese cinema as an aesthetic Other. As a result, Burch’s work sets up a dichotomous relationship between East and West in cinema studies. Davis argues that for Burch,

“To the question of why Japanese cinema is special, the answer is because it relates in arresting ways to Western cinema. Japanese cinema is diametrically opposed to Western film because Japanese signifying practices pose a material critique of Western logic, logocentrism, and aesthetics” (63).

Burch set the stage for further applications of film theory in the study of Japanese cinema (as opposed to the more historical approach of Richie), but with his oppositional approach he also set the standard for the study of Japanese film in perpetual reference to Hollywood cinema. Yoshimoto considers the poststructuralist approach Burch takes in The Distant Observer to be the origin of the aforementioned two types of film study. Some scholars criticize Burch’s decontextualized fantasies regarding Japanese traditions and culture as an act of Orientalism; these scholars tend to eschew theory in favor of historical context. Other scholars who defend Burch’s approach often disregard context in favor of cross-cultural analysis (Kurosawa, 23).

David Bordwell, most well known in film studies for his groundbreaking work on Classical Hollywood Cinema, approaches Japanese cinema study from a neo-formalist perspective. Like Burch, he also sets about analyzing Japanese film in contradistinction to Hollywood cinema, using what Davis calls a “dialogic framework” or “cinema as interaction” (Reigniting, 63). Unlike Burch, he sees Japanese cinema as constructed by trends in the present, rather than via tradition. For example, in his auteur study of Ozu Yasujiro, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Bordwell defines Ozu as both a modernist and the “most Japanese” director because his works stands in greatest contrast to the techniques of Classical Hollywood Cinema. As such, Ozu must be both politically resisting the Classical Hollywood style and decidedly not American. While in his many works on Japanese cinema Bordwell is concerned with cultural context, the context of his own work and his comparative approach stem from his thorough analysis of Classical Hollywood form. As such, Japanese cinema, in a dialectical relation with U.S. cinema, is studied in relation to a dominant cinema, rather than in its own terms.

These three scholars—Richie from the 1960s onward, Burch in the 1970s, and Bordwell in the 1980s—have been tremendously influential in constructing the field of Japanese cinema studies in the West. Though they are at times at odds with one another, between them they have facilitated methods of interpretation and analysis that have formed the foundation of the discipline. Their contributions are invaluable, but not unproblematic. Their texts, at times, encourage essentialism of Japanese cinema as representative of a unique but homogenous aesthetic of artistic expression reflective of national character (as argued by Davis and Yoshimoto). Additionally, the framework of their very studies structure a method of inquiry that positions Japanese cinema as an object of study bound by its status as alternative to Hollywood.

In recent years, top scholars in the field are both revising and broadening established history and theory. Since the foundational texts have been the subject of much debate, there seems to be a movement now to approach Japanese film in its own right and not “cinema as mirror”–as Davis puts it—or useful as a Hollywood alternative. [10] Scholars writing in English in the field have turned back to early Japanese film history and are producing important texts that deconstruct, rework, and open the canon from beyond its foundations. [11] Many also extend a hand into criticism of contemporary film, generally from the approach of auteur (heavily focused around Takeshi Kitano, Miike Takashi, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi) and genre (e.g. horror, pink, documentary, jidaigeki) studies. [12]

Be that as it may, the diversification of scholarly works has not yet resulted in a diversification of texts used in the classroom. To answer my own curiosity regarding what materials are commonly used in Japanese cinema classrooms, I canvassed fifteen syllabi—each from different universities (including representatives of non-U.S. institutions)—ranging from courses taught between 2000 and 2009. [13] Among them, all but three predominantly feature Richie’s work (either The Japanese Film, A Hundred Years, or both). Out of those twelve courses, Richie is a required text in six. In fact, it would seem that for many of these courses, the class itself has been designed around the use of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film as the primary textbook. Four courses require Burch’s To The Distant Observer and eight use Bordwell extensively. Notably, only two also require texts on film theory (Braudy and Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism and Bordwell and Thompon’s Film Art) that would be found in a general film course not dedicated to Japanese Film. Additionally, although many incorporate individual articles into reader packets, only three incorporate essays of the kind of more recent scholarship I mentioned above, but none of these scholars’ books. This is unsurprising for courses begun in a previous decade, but puzzling for more recent classes. [14]

The films featured in these courses are in no way surprising, particularly considering that they are supplemented by the works of scholars who wrote on a very particular set of auteurs for very particular reasons. The course offerings are consistently structured around the following directors (in order of popularity): Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, Kurosawa Akira, Imamura Shohei, Oshima Nagisa, Suzuki Seijun, and Fukusaku Kinji. Other directors (especially Naruse Mikio) show up periodically between courses, but the aforementioned form a canonical collective. As for representatives of contemporary Japanese cinema, the usual suspects are Kitano Takeshi (most overwhelmingly), Kore-eda Hirokazu, Miike Takashi, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi. When anime is a course consideration, animators Oshii Mamoru and Otomo Katsuhiro are selected. Although there has been over a “hundred years” of Japanese cinema, we offer our students a list of primarily seven directors. To be very blunt, an obvious problem is that none of these directors are women, and they are all "artistic" as opposed to "popular" filmmakers. Is there not, at this point, in the words of Yoshimoto in his consideration of the canon of English language literature taught in Japanese universities,

“no need to question the politics and institutional history of the canon, to examine why certain works are either included in or excluded from it?”

If courses are structured, as they seem to be, around foundational texts written on a selection of films that dates from these texts, then it stands to reason that the canon of films shown at universities share some of the same problems of the foundational texts themselves: cultural essentialism (reflectionism) and use value as counterpoint to Hollywood cinema—a cinema that is in many ways already “knowable,” or at the very least openly understandable, to our students. If the films we show to students stem from this tradition, then the films we teach to students have been selected for their enigmatic characteristics. The obscurity of these films, chosen for presumed cultural specificity or resistance to formal norms (of Classical Hollywood Cinema), is almost by default why, when students encounter Japanese film within this framework, they get bogged down by seemingly inscrutable barriers of culture and form. Currently teachers now face something of a double burden in teaching film theory and Japanese culture, without a body of texts that address film in Japan as something other than referent to a larger, more well-know body of work: Hollywood cinema. Despite a movement toward complicating Japanese film history, this problem of a canon continues. Although scholars have made significant strides in diversifying the field, the overwhelming use of Richie’s books seem to suggest that they are as yet the only classroom textbooks available (or widely known) as teaching materials and that other, newer work is not being accessed by a younger generation of undergraduates.

In order to deconstruct the staying power of the canon, let us consider, by way of example, some of the problems of incorporating contemporary cinema into a survey course, where it often falls under the label “New Japanese Cinema.”

New Japanese cinema

The phrase “new Japanese Cinema” (sometimes “new Japanese film”) has been in use since at least the 1960s to publicize relatively recently released films making the rounds of international festivals, art houses, and retail markets. [15] However, in the past decade, New Japanese Cinema with a capital “N” has surfaced to designate a grouping of films that perhaps share something more than just being “recent.” The application of this term is, of course, problematic because, as I will discuss, it has an amorphous definition and slippery meaning among journalists, critics, scholars, and publicists alike. There is no consensus in terms of dates, content, or style. “New Japanese Cinema” as a term is also confusing historically. Its predecessor, the Japanese New Wave (nuberu bagu), is clearly used to designate a movement lead by a collective of studio-trained, independent filmmakers from the 1950s to the 1970s including Oshima Nagisa, Imamura Shohei, and Suzuki Seijun. Indeed, aware of this, some have even resorted to using the phrases “Japan’s New New Wave” and the “New Japanese New Wave” (Stevens, 2001; Ko, 2004; Bingham, 2008; Leung, 2009). Functionally speaking, the initiation of another term sporting the appellation “new” seems sloppy and redundant at best—will we see a New New New Wave in the future? Be that as it may, “New Japanese Cinema” as such is gaining in popularity.

Noted film critics Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, co-editors of the still premier Japanese cinema website, Midnight Eye (www.midnighteye.com), take the auteur approach in their book The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (2005). Mes and Sharp claim the book is “an attempt to give contemporary Japanese film its due as well as an attempt to fill a gap” (resulting from the end of the New Wave) by featuring a “new generation of filmmakers” emerging in the 1990s (xii). Aside from the last section reviewing individual films collectively entitled The Other Players, each chapter is constructed around directors [16], samples their respective works, and combines historical information with insightful reviews and interpretive analysis. Structuring their book in this way, however, Mes and Sharp do not attempt to define New Japanese Film in any theoretical sense (or even by shared characteristics); they make no effort to connect the directors and their work to one another. The main feature of this version of New Japanese Cinema, then, is purely temporal.

And yet, even in this sense, there is an added element of confusion within the grouping. The book begins with chapters on Suzuki Seijun and Imamura Shohei (two New Wave directors) followed by Fukasaku Kinji (perhaps most celebrated for his film Battles without Honor and Humanity, 1974). Although these directors have made films in the past two decades, their inclusion in this auteur-structured collective—along with other directors who have actively been making films since the 1970s—may constitute a kind of continuous narrative of Japanese film direction, but ultimately undermines the attempt to distinguish a cohesive “new generation of filmmakers.” Moreover, as Mes and Sharp as much admit, their selection of articles and directors does seem to be predicated on personal taste, which tends to belie the publisher’s blurb, “a complete guide to Japan’s movie renaissance” (back cover).

Film scholar Aaron Gerow also writes specifically on this new generation of filmmakers in New Japanese Cinema, but reworks them into what he calls a “Festival Generation” (Recognizing ‘Others’, 1). Gerow gives us more than a temporal classification and illustrates the industry constraints that these filmmakers face, noting that this new generation “still at a disadvantage in a domestic market dominated by major studios, have come to look on foreign film events as a crucial means of gaining prestige and publicity at home” (1). I am in favor of an industry (production and exhibition) context to think about contemporary Japanese cinema and would like to see this term Festival Generation catch on within the field. International film festivals do have an enormous effect on domestic reception of prize-winning films (e.g. the case of Academy Award winner Departures/Okuribito, 2008) [17] However, the important function that international film festivals play, as noted by Gerow, in exposing and supporting the Japanese industry is not unprecedented. The reception (and inception of Japanese film studies in the West) of Japanese cinema begins with well-known “discovery” of Kurosawa at Venice in 1951. It may not be enough, then, to define the contemporary situation.

This link between international film festival exhibition and Japanese cinema studies should prompt us to ask the following question: on what basis of criteria are films from Japan selected for international competition? If films are still selected because they are seen as representative of outstanding Japanese cinema bearing the characteristics of a perceived national cinema (and this suggestion is not without basis if we consider recent prize winning films such as, again, Departures/Okuribito or Kitano Takeshi’s Hanabi, 1997), it may behoove us to avoid using the perspective of international film festivals as in some way demonstrative of a contemporary generation. Such a tactic may not relieve us of the pitfalls of previous generations that Davis and Yoshimoto articulate in their own work and Gerow himself describes: “Japanese motion pictures of the 1950s and 1960s earned praise abroad because they were defined as art cinema (as opposed to popular cinema) and because, in a bipolar fashion, they verified universal values of humanism while also confirming impressions of Japan as exotic and unique” (1). Instead, the role that domestic film festivals (in conjunction with, overlooked in Gerow’s article, backgrounds in television [18] and V-cinema production) play in the Japanese industry since the 1990s is equally, if not more so, worthy of serious theoretical attention and may provide an “out” in terms of potential critiques of orientalism and the problems of film accessibility that so often formulate the defense of scholarly selectivity. I will return to this point below.

Like Mes and Sharp, Gerow also pinpoints a cadre of directorial talent (based on international preference determined by festival success rather than personal preference), most of whom overlap with those featured in The Midnight Eye Guide. Unlike Mes and Sharp, Gerow is less interested in discussing these directors as auteurs and is more interested in analytically approaching their body of work as sharing thematic and representational similarities. Filmmakers of this new generation are interested in “a rejoining of the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of cinema” (Recognizing ‘Others’, 2)–meaning that emphasis on form and content have previously been fractured and, at times, differently valued—and, while unifying these two components of film, challenging the conception that Japan is a unified, homogenous nation with a clearly identifiable national cinema. Their films trouble a cohesive Japanese identity “by focusing on zainichi Koreans, foreign workers from Asia, and others among the variety of peoples, languages, and cultures that inhabit the archipelago” (2). This troubling of identity (the “what) through the depiction of a series of “others” Gerow discusses—racial, national, familial, generational, interpersonal, psychological—is substantiated formally (the “how”) through the use of a shared “anti-humanist and detached” style (5). Significant characteristics of this style—what Gerow later complicates in regards to the work of Miike as a “homelessness of style” (Homelessness, 2009)—are preferential use of long shots, long takes, and the absence (or scarcity) of POVs, characteristics that, as Gerow admits, are not definitive of a break with the past (Ozu, Mizoguchi, et al), but due to the new generation’s rejection of the former’s emphasis on portrayals of humanism, are meant to be read/seen/interpreted differently. Although a compelling framework, this stance does seem to be somewhat weakly subjective; one has to buy, first, Gerow’s thematic characteristics of contemporary Japanese cinema as a whole, before agreeing that inherited elements of style are strategically and collectively used differently (and by more filmmakers than cited Aoyama Shinji).

Isolde Standish’s revisionary text A New History of Japanese Cinema ends with a brief look at recent filmmakers or, in her terms, the “post-moral” generation (332). Similar to Mes and Sharp, she tends to conflate contemporary filmmakers with filmmakers of the New Wave and, inline with Gerow, she categorizes them as sharing similar thematic content and style. However, unlike Gerow’s contention that these directors are producing work that is—by nature of “othering”—highly socially politicized, Standish argues the contrary. To set a historical precedence, Standish characterizes Japanese film style of the 1960s and early 1970s as avant-garde articulations denotive of a generational preoccupation with rebellion against state and structure. In their attack on capitalist enterprise and a perceived institutionalized return to pre-Occupation conservative social constructs, these political films transgressed social mores through almost hyperreal expressions of violence and spectacle. However, their attempts to invoke political awareness, agency, or even civil disquiet were undermined by the growth of Japan as an advanced capitalist society. The avant-garde foray into seemingly limitless excess echoed and indeed nourished capitalist dependency on “myth and fantasy, fictional wealth, exoticism and hyperbole, rhetoric, virtual reality and sheer appearance” (332). Efforts to resist the normative power matrix consisted of envelope-pushing tactics and snowballing expressions of spectacle—especially visualizations of violence and sex—that were subsumed as a matter of course into consumer culture, thereby negating the subversive intent. Standish argues that the following generation—presumably our contemporary cast of filmmakers, although her designation of “generation” is unclear—inherited the fallout of these politically fruitless and degenerative mechanics.

The current generation, which Standish has labeled "post-moral" (jingi naki) after Fukasaku Kinji’s celebrated Yakuza Papers series, similarly thematicizes transgressive hyperbole. However, she argues, as they are the product of and operate within advanced consumer capitalism, the films of this "post-moral" generation are postmodernist disengagements from the political and critical agency of their cinematic forebears. They include similar thematic tropes, discourse, and visual decadence found in the preceding generation of films, but removed from the historical context of resistance they are rendered meaningless exploits of spectacle. Drawing particularly from her own readings of select films by directors Miike Takashi, Kitano Takeshi, and Fukasaku Kinji, Standish notes that throughout the course of these ‘post-moral’ narratives “no one is saved and no apparent heroes exist; all are damaged individuals existing as global drifters lacking any geographical or emotional sense of connectedness” (330). Social anxieties are traumatically projected onto the physical realm of the bodies of the characters, primarily through sexual violation, abjectification, mutilation, or death. The alienated protagonists’ true struggle is not against other characters so much as it is against the surrounding mise-en-scene—usually dystopic conurbation. Despite their efforts, they are doomed to succumb to inevitable psychological or physiological destruction (or both). The protagonists’ resignation to defeat reflects their position as amoral, agentless actors staged in “a world in which there is indeed no salvation, but on the other hand nothing to be saved” (338).

Although Standish identifies significant themes and historical continuities between the resistance era (New Wave) film style and contemporary cinema, her term ‘post-moral’ is a problematic appellation. Not only must we question her usage of the denomination “moral” and its limiting projections of normativity, as well as her stance that these films somehow operate in a temporal disconnect from a nostalgic moral system, but we must also consider what seems to be a reductionist determination of the widely diverse thematics of the contemporary postmodern (her term) palette. This is surprising given her very methodical and excellent approach to other eras of cinema history, in which she traces multiple paths of expression and representation. Instead, Standish equates the ‘post-moral’ generation with postmodernity—a very troublesome mode to designate with historical specificity in regards to Japan without resorting to intellectual colonialism.

While I do not mean to suggest that Mes, Sharp, Gerow, and Standish are wrong—far from it, they are all important and leading contributors to the field of Japanese cinema studies—I do mean to point out that they are being strategically selective. In part, this is the constraint of an auteur-based approach. In designating a particular “generation,” it is of course necessary to pinpoint notable representatives. Yet, by doing so, these key players can be used misrepresentationally (and in some cases ahistorically) to exemplify the entirety of contemporary cinema both coming out of and circulating around Japan. Focus on a particular, hand-selected group—the creation of a contemporary canon—necessarily omits large bodies of work and workers, individuals and collectives, expressions and visions. This canon, in turn, creates a bottleneck in the field: scholars and critics with limited access to current Japanese films tend to recapitulate emphasis placed on known entities. This is particularly the case when language and distribution regions are a limiting factor. Whether the selection is based on personal preference (Mes and Sharp), international recognition (Gerow), or historical continuity (Standish), the process necessitates omission. Although all three nod to the much lauded Japanese horror scene, they completely ignore entire genres such as comedy, “pure love” (junai), animated and live action children’s films, action and jidaigeki, youth (seishun) films, melodrama, or even blockbusters, to name a few. This shared choice seems to bear markers of a contention between high-brow art-theatre cinema and popular multiplex movies. The total elision of the influence the Japanese television industry has had on contemporary directors also points to this. Moreover, there is little discussion of how popular or successful these films are on the home front

Before moving on, I would like to point out briefly what may perhaps be strikingly obvious: the “new” in New Japanese Cinema, as with the “new” in Japanese New Wave, is primarily used to distinguish a group of films and filmmakers from films of an earlier generation. This is a temporal demarcation. However, unlike the New Wave , Japanese film scholars, in adopting a term derived from popular culture (as opposed to a term embraced as a movement by the filmmakers themselves), have yet to come close to a shared definition. Clearly, we do not mean simply “recent” or “contemporary.” Otherwise, we might use these terms. The drive, I suspect, is to designate a break with the past. However, as we know, though the Japanese film industry has certainly had both setbacks and comebacks since the studio collapse in the 1980s, the history of film production in Japan is contiguous not, despite efforts to dissect it, fragmented. Nor are generations of filmmakers (many of whom are now trained in film schools led by prominent film directors who in turn were trained by film and television directors and scholars as per the Japanese ladder system of professional hierarchy) necessarily so divorced from inherited expressions (domestic and global) of content or style.

It may be that New Japanese Cinema does not constitute a movement. We may be better off abstaining from painting contemporary Japanese cinema with large brush strokes (and rethinking the neat packages of other eras within Japanese cinema) until the distance of years allows for a more considerate, nuanced perspective. It is not my goal here to offer an alternative definition of New Japanese Film; rather, I am trying to argue for a resistance against the urge for classification and reduction: a canon. Instead, let us consider contemporary Japanese cinema as we do other cinemas: as a complex and heterogeneous cinema with numerous auteurs, a multitude of genres, a multiplicity of styles, messages, and expressions, and a great deal of influences, including television.

Beyond the canon: Iwai Shunji

Like many other contemporary filmmakers in Japan, director Iwai Shunji began his career in television as a director of music videos and serial dramas. To some degree, this start is said to have shaped his later film aesthetic, a style that features predominantly a preference for exploring movement (sometimes to the effect of obscuring the image), handheld camerawork, super-saturation of color, integration of music video montage (in that scenes are edited without dialogue to pop songs as musical interludes or are outright performances of pop songs by the pop singers themselves), rapid editing, and an extremely large number of shots per scene. On the one hand, we can consider this to be distinctly true: there is an overlap between his film style and Japanese music videos and television commercials in a shared privileging of image, music, and rapid edits. On the other hand, Iwai’s work bears very little resemblance to most mainstream television dramas that are often slow paced with long, dramatic takes and static camerawork. Iwai’s style is, more often than not, described by nay-saying critics as derivative of television aesthetics, but what detractors may be suggesting is that his style is reminiscent of television commercials, which are, by definition, commercial and not art. And yet, it was his television drama Fireworks (1993) that garnered attention from the Japanese Director's Association and he was awarded the Best New Comer prize. Recognition in commercial pop culture also means financial support from commercial pop culture industry and Iwai was thereafter able to secure budgets for feature length films for exhibition in theaters.

Iwai’s most critically acclaimed work is Love Letter (1995), a film about young woman who, out of mourning, writes a love letter to her deceased fiancé as a way of gaining closure. When she receives a reply from him, she begins an unlikely correspondence with him that inevitably leads her to return to his hometown to get to the bottom of the impossible circumstance. Iwai won eleven prizes for the film from a number of domestic and international juries including the Academy Award in Japan for Best Production, the Kinema Junpo Best 10 Reader’s Poll for Director, the Yokohama Film Festival for both Best Director and Best Production, and the Montreal Film Festival Audience Award. The actors featured in Love Letter also walked away from the film with several awards of their own. Since Love Letter, however, Iwai has somewhat dropped out of favor with the prize circuits and reviewers. Although his later films have picked up some critical attention and a few accolades, many reviewers have soured in their reception of Iwai’s later works. For example, to critic Jasper Sharp, his subsequent films are “prone to a slick stylistic glibness that caters squarely for the youth market—glossy exercises in pseudo-hip which, though undeniably influential, a mere five years later already look passé” (Fried Dragon Fish Review). There may be a reason for this fall from favor: full of long, static shots and contemplative silence, Love Letter is the least Iwai-like film in Iwai’s repertoire. It seems justifiable, then, to speculate that Love Letter was celebrated not as a sign of a “new” comer or a “new” talent, but another promise in a staid and recognizable canon.

Iwai is representative of a contemporary director of new Japanese cinema, but not New Japanese Cinema. His works straddle a liminal place in contemporary criticism and reception in the West. He is both well known and not. His films have featured in festivals and public film series in the U.S. (particularly his 2001 All About Lily Chou Chou) and they have been the subject of articles and conference presentations, but he is largely overlooked in most serious scholarship and usually mentioned only in passing. Three of his films are available on Netflix: Lily Chou Chou, Hana and Alice (2004), and New York, I Love You (2009), but these titles do not even constitute half of his body of work. His film Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) scores a 7.5 out of 10 on imdb.com (Suwaroteiru), and yet the film is not available at the Amazon website. The same movie appears on two of the syllabi I reviewed earlier, but the most popular text for these classes—Richie’s A Hundred Years—affords Iwai less than half a page, giving him something of a brush off as a “music-video director…who makes no distinction between the forms of film television, and music video, and whose ‘message’ is the stylish nihilism which has remained a favored youth-oriented mannerism” (225). Jasper and Sharp review Love Letter in New Japanese Film, but are clearly disdainful of his subsequent work and is relegated to the “other players” section. In company with most contemporary directors, Standish ignores him completely in A New History and his films—sometimes downright preachy in moralizing content—do seem to belie her post-moral classification. However, Iwai fares better with Gerow, who specifically lists him in his Festival Generation (Others) and specifically analyzes Swallowtail Butterfly as the troubling of a cohesive Japanese identity—one of the characteristics he outlines as a cohesive constant in contemporary Japanese cinema—in another article (Consuming Asia, 87-93). That said, the style characteristics of Gerow’s generation-- long shots, long takes, and the absence of POVs—hardly maps onto the main body of Iwai’s work.

Let us consider Iwai’s film Swallowtail Butterfly to explore how Iwai both embodies and troubles a New Japanese Cinema identity, how his works should suggest to us the dangers of a contemporary canon, and how, as a teaching text, we can use this film as an accessible device to challenge the idea of a national, cohesive, cinema in need of cultural explanation.

With Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), Iwai reimagines modern-day Tokyo from the margins in. The film begins with an energetic montage of overhead black and white shots of contemporary urban industrial complexes overlaid with English text, both visually and in voice-over narration, that establishes premise and style: pastiche, energy, play, message, and a decentering from Japanese culture and language. The text and voice-over explain that we are about to enter a ‘fairy tale’ world of industry and enterprise, one in which immigrants from China, Brazil, the United States, South-East Asia, etc. flocked to a mythological city called Yen Town in the pursuit of Yen. So enmeshed in the fabric of Yen Town’s capital growth, these workers, on whose backs the success of the city depends, are derisively labeled Yen Towns. Yet, despite the necessity of their labor, Yen Towns have been denied social status and representation. They have been pushed to the margins of the town to live in multicultural poverty, surviving in liminal collectivity as individuals uprooted from their homelands and excluded from new terrain.

The story follows a nameless young girl who is, from the death of her mother at the beginning of the film, bounced around from stranger to stranger in the Yen Towns immigrant community until Glico, a Chinese prostitute played by pop start Chara, takes her in and gives her a home and a name: Ageha. Through Glico, Ageha befriends several misfit Yen Towners who run a salvage yard by day and something of makeshift outdoor drinking hole by night. Between them, they constitute a mismatched family made even more incongruous by the mashup of their dialogue: some characters speak only English and Mandarian, others English and broken Japanese, and between them they flip in and out of language and lingo according to who speaks what. Conflict enters the narrative when one of Glico’s customers—a yakuza gangster—dies and they find upon burying him, a cassette tape with a recording of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The Yen Towners find more than Sinatra’s way, they find their own path to the much sought after yen when they discover that the tape contains a secret encoding that allows them to counterfeit fistfuls of the stuff. With their newfound riches, the group moves from the margins of town into the city to start up a legitimate nightclub headlining Glico as a singing sensation.

The Yen Towners are not able to smoothly integrate into mainstream society, however, and only Glico—spotted by talent agents and signed on to a major record company—makes the transition. Even so, she is forced to erase her Chinese origins and adopt a concocted Japanese identity. This fracture in the group is followed by more trouble when more yakuza gangsters show up looking for their highly profitable cassette tape. In the ensuing scuffle, the characters turn on each other, immigration police get involved, a reporter unmasks Glico’s true heritage, and the price of success and passing in normative society becomes too costly. The group, minus a few casualties, reunites to return the tape to its “rightful” owners and destroy the remaining ill-gotten yen in a gesture of defiance against nationalism and capitalism. The events serve as a coming of age narrative for Ageha who transforms from a pitiable nameless orphan to a rebellious, self-reliant leader of a community; or, in terms of the film’s central metaphor, she transforms from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

As previously stated, Iwai’s filmmaking style is notably a celebration of movement and collage, and no less so in Swallowtail. Using digital video, Iwai makes great use of the raw aspect inherent within the digital format (particularly so given the technology in 1996), accentuating pixilation and an array of overexposed color tinting. The entire film is shot with a handheld camera, creating a visual perspective that is always in motion (often erratic) and identified as no gaze other than that of a seemingly disembodied camera. However, Iwai often privileges close ups—sometimes so close as to obscure the image—that, when paired with Glico’s musical numbers, are highly charged with emotion and spectator-character connectivity. The position of the camera is generally of a third-party ‘pseudo-documentary’ point of view that, were it not for the charged emotional content or the effect of the performances numbers that, as is the case with the musical genre as a whole, establish a community bond between spectator and screen (so long as the moviegoer feels a connection to pop music), might be inline with Gerow’s characteristic of the Festival Generation: the lack of POV. However, Iwai does use the POV at moments of reveal or psychological interiority, as I will discuss below. Contrary to long takes, shots are joined together at a rapid pace that simultaneously reinforces the fragmentation of the characters’ collective identity as well as the fragmented experience of the audience as we piece together often obscure images backed by broken languages into a sutured whole. As such, it is not uncommon for an average five-minute scene in Swallowtail to consist of upwards of 200 individual shots. Iwai rejects long takes, deep focus, and slow pacing in favor of speed, pixels, and the cut. This decentered fragmentation is a direct, purposeful reinforcement of Swallowtail Butterfly’s content: a decentered, fragmented rendition of Japanese society reimagined from the margins.

That is the central message of what is ultimately a highly moralizing film critical of contemporary society. Although there is certainly a multiplicity of meaning and subtext embedded in the digital glitz and glam, Swallowtail is primarily engaged with the representation of marginalized bodies and identities in the hyper-capitalist economy of fairy tale ‘Yen Town’ (modern day Tokyo) as a bitter but beautiful critique of late 90s Japanese social obsession with status/consumerism as well as the country’s underlying structural xenophobic violence. By focusing on the lives of young second-generation immigrants, Iwai captures a vitality that he shapes into a projection of a new generation (Iwai dubs them the ‘Third Culture Kids’) as the offspring of a global economy. He problematizes the dominant culture’s success as built on the suffering of non-Japanese peoples living in Japan that have been marginalized as anonymous, cultureless second-class citizens. As it is represented in the film, in order for these peoples to successfully integrate into Japanese society, they must erase their past histories (ethnicities/cultures/languages/etc.) and identities that mark them as non-Japanese, thereby becoming superficially Japanese. In other words, they must give up their particular specificity in order to pass in dominant culture. That Iwai illustrates this by primarily using Japanese actors to play non-Japanese characters is a layer of extra-textual complication that is the subject of some sore criticism of the film, and perhaps makes him a complicit player in that which he is trying to deconstruct. Be that as it may, the film still troubles normative identity. However, it does not leave us disaffected and estranged. The message is not dystopic. Rather, the film offers the optimistic construction of community based in individual self-realization.

This is particularly evident in what film critic Todoroki Yukio dubbed the “tattoo scene” (Maho, 40).

As the pivotal moment in Ageha’s coming of age story, the tattoo scene emphasizes the underlying themes of the film that deal with the erasure of the particular individual as he or she becomes a commodified component of the labor force that supports a booming global economy. It is in this scene that Ageha, resists the economic and ethnic interpellation (that she sees the adults around her submitting to) by recovering her heretofore submerged (originally even nameless) sense of self. During the process of getting a tattoo, she confronts her past through the recovery of her early memories.

The scene begins with Ageha revisiting a doctor she saw earlier in the film; he had saved her life after she brazenly tested out some bad heroine she and her friends had found. The doctor also happens to moonlight as a tattoo artist. Her return to the doctor—this time under her own volition—is symbolic of her newly found agency. She goes to a doctor who facilitates her healing process by agreeing to tattoo the image of a swallowtail butterfly on Ageha’s chest. This is a smaller version of a similar tattoo he did for Ageha’s mentor/adopted sister/mother Glico. The character of Glico, at this point in the film, is an important foil for Ageha. In order transform from a prostitute to an idol singer and attain celebrity status in mainstream Japanese pop culture, Glico has camouflaged her Chinese heritage and scandalous work history by donning an artificial Japanese ethnicity and persona constructed for her by Japanese music industry management. This is the exact opposite of what Ageha is about to do. However, the tattoo will ironically serve the same purpose for both because it is the discovery of Glico’s tattoo later on by a nosey reporter that links the new pop star to a nude Polaroid of Glico as Chinese prostitute. The tattoo also functions as the visual point of connection between Ageha and both her real mother and Glico as her surrogate mother: Glico’s tattoo, as was previously disclosed in the film, is a marker of her identity specifically so that when she dies she won’t be an anonymous corpse on a slab. Such was the fate of Ageha’s birth mother who’s ad hoc funeral we see at the beginning of the film. In the tattoo scene, we see Ageha transform from a naked body on a table slab (her mother) into a marked adult (Glico) and then beyond (herself). Like Glico, Ageha wishes to establish her identity. In becoming herself and actively marking herself, Ageha resists homogenization into the dominant culture and embraces her past to become whole, different, and not Japanese. In this scene, she actively asserts her identity as a Yen Town.

After Ageha convinces the doctor to give her a tattoo, she gently lies down on a table in the center of the grungy, poorly lit room. She gingerly removes her white shirt and the doctor delicately perches over her, backlit in a wash of light from a window behind him. Compared to the shabby darkness in the rest of the room (a metaphorical cocoon), this, now, is a process of enlightenment. For the rest of the scene, Ageha is shot from overhead. The doctor crouches over her naked torso and to his right is a table with pots of colored ink. In order to distract Ageha from the pain of the tattoo, he asks her to tell him about the first time she saw a butterfly. The retelling of the memory recalls her childhood as well—something we have never seen on screen or know that Ageha has thought about—as well as her estranged relationship with her mother and, by extension, her sense of self. As Ageha recalls back to her first memory of a butterfly, the scene is intercut with snippets of her memory, the frames artfully colorized in the tints of the tattoo ink. These shots are captured by a detached, frenetic, overhead POV that we soon understand is the POV of the butterfly Ageha is remembering and not her own: she has become so estranged from her own history that her recollection of a butterfly is inverted and we see the butterfly’s recollection of her.

In this manner, Ageha sees herself as a neglected child playing in a filthy, locked bathroom. She transports cold noodles between bowls, intermittently feeding her battered dolls. She uses a ladle to fetch her playthings drinking water. Suddenly, she notices the butterfly fluttering above her, stops her play, and clambers on top of the toilet to catch it. Shots of the little girl and the butterfly are intercut with images of her mother (face always obscured by her long hair) having sex with a customer in the next room, captured with the same detached, erratic camera. Through this visual juxtaposition, Ageha sees herself as both the abandoned child culturally—we know that she speaks Japanese but has no knowledge of Chinese—and socially—she plays as an outcast in filth—to the extant that her subjectivity within the memory is questioned. Is she the child or the butterfly? Throughout her narration of the memory to the doctor, she is neither; they are “the butterfly” and “the little girl.” The scene ends with the little girl trapping—smashing—the butterfly as she slams the window shut to prevent it from escaping. A single butterfly wing—damaged, disjointed, dejected—floats down to and fro and comes to rest on the little girl’s chest. In this moment the little girl and the butterfly become one and Ageha, now tattooed with a whole swallowtail butterfly and not just a wing, has become whole and herself. From this moment on, Ageha can now set out to repair her community.

As discussed earlier, in signature Iwai style, Swallowtail Butterfly is comprised of predominantly handheld DV, supersaturated, short shots that are edited together to promote a sense of rapid speed and youthful vigor. The camera is always in motion. This scene is no exception, but it stands out as a more methodical, stylized, and paced shot sequence, inspiring a reprieve for introspection for both the characters in the film and the audience. Through the use of music and increasingly shorter shots, including several mini montages, the scene builds to a climax in which all cross cut action sequences reach their apex: her mother and her client achieve orgasm, the little girl slams the window shut on the butterfly, and Ageha on the tattooing table has an emotional breakthrough: she finally cries. Ageha has been holding onto her tears since the beginning of the film. She had never cried over her mother’s death. Ageha’s catharsis enables her to transform from anonymity in the margins (a nameless child without history of heritage) into a sound, whole, and centralized identity that is symbolically manifested by the tattooed pictorial image of the name/identity she was given by Glico and now claims for herself. Ageha means ‘swallowtail butterfly’ in Japanese.

Conclusion: Why Swallowtail Butterfly?
Then again, why not Swallowtail Butterfly?

The overwhelming criticisms within the review literature of Swallowtail Butterfly attack its aesthetics—too “pop” and “youthy”—and its content—meaningless and illusory. Richie is particularly disdainful of the film. His opines that the film “sounds like fun, but nothing is made of anything” (Movie Guide) He points out Iwai’s filmmaking start as a music video director and critiques the use of “super-fast cutting” in which “the whole thing eventually turns into a big, long, heavy MTV.” Eminent film scholar Sato Tadao heavily criticized the film for hinting at a “global message” but “falling short of any real content or meaning” and “failing to accurately represent a real cultural milieu in Japan” (translations mine) (Suwaroteru, 50). On the other hand, Japanese critic Onitsuka Daisuke seems to be one of the outstanding voices regarding Swallowtail. He nods to the style of the film, calling it “irresistibly charming”, and notes that the aesthetics of the film may have distracted other critics and scholars who seem to find the film “very stylish and that’s all...they think Iwai’s films have no content” (Poetic Sensibility, 4). Indeed, Iwai is often now characterized as a “pop” director who has fallen far from the promise of his first film Love Letter. Unlike his later films, the aesthetics of Love Letter follow a more conventional approach, slow pans, long takes, soft lighting, and continuity editing. After Love Letter, Iwai was touted as a new talent, but has been since dropped because his filmmaking style and content seem to have developed undesirable characteristics. For example, Tom Mes and Nicholas Rucka have criticized other films using Iwai as a staple pop product in statements like “[such and such a film is an] inconsequential time-waster from the Iwai school of hipness” (Midnight Eye Roundup) and “[such and such a film contains] characters that populate fluff of the Iwai variety” (Princess in an Iron Helmet).

It would appear that Iwai’s film fails in the eyes of critics on two counts: aesthetics and content. This may seem to be nothing more than merely two fundamental aspects of cinema commonly criticized, but given the history of Japanese film criticism, it is the particularity of the aesthetics and content in Swallowtail Butterfly that seem to be so objectionable. Rather than relying on imagery that is easily traceable back to Japanese culture and a Japanese canon, Iwai creates his story as a fantasy construct: a Yen Town that is at once Japan and is not. A Japanese film that is not a Japanese film. A new Japanese cinema that is not New Japanese Cinema. The film is even a way of making a film that is neither Japanese nor not—although hiring Japanese staff, crew, and actors, Iwai shot the film in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Shanghai, Australia, and Singapore, filmed scenes with multiple cameras rolling at the same time (unlike the more typical one-camera approach in Japan), used American screenwriting software, organized management of the film with one, central producer (rather than the multi-producer standard in the contemporary Japanese industry), and did all the editing and dubbing of the film in Los Angeles (Aoki, 46-47). The very process of making the film, according to his producer Kawai Shinya, was 30% Japanese and 70% Hollywood (although I think it is safe to question the “Hollywood” aspect here and simply rephrase that as 70% “unconventional”) (Aoyama, 46). Perhaps this creates a source of confusion, perhaps coded as derision, for critics looking for elements in Iwai’s film in accordance with the conventions of Japanese film study. Although set in “Japan” and occasionally using ordinary Japanese objects and, at times, Japanese language, these elements are made strange by both their decentered and reconfigured usage—a narrative that focuses on the representation and creation of non-Japanese persons in a constructed realm that is more pastiche of nonspecific industrial products than ethnically or racially informed culture, as well as the outright denial of these affects as being Japanese.

It seems to me that Swallowtail is not, as so many film critics have suggested, functionally bankrupt and devoid of meaning. Quite the contrary, the film’s very premise within the opening scene and again in Ageha’s rite of passage is wrought with meaning, even heavy-handedly so. It may be that the film does not convey the right kind of meaning or aesthetic quality that criticism and scholarship of Japanese cinema expects and valorizes. A multitude of readings exist in this film for its fans, not critics or scholars (although we can be movie lovers, too). The overwhelming support for Iwai’s films—the numerous popularity polls and audience awards associated with his films [19] and their high ratings on online review sites, strongly suggests that there is something at work within this film that carries a great deal of meaning for its spectators. As a film about foreigners living in Japan, fantasy allegory or otherwise, there is certainly a melodramatic nugget that rings true in my heart, currently a foreigner living in Japan. And so, too, for non-foreigners living in Japan: the film tied for 6th place (among Japanese movies) in domestic box office profits in 1996, earning approximately Y600 million (~$5.4 million U.S.D) (Kawasaki, 157). [20] Certainly, at sixth place, the film was not unpopular.

Since Love Letter, Iwai may have fallen out of favor with many reviewers, but Iwai has certainly not fallen out of popularity with spectators. Even more than ten years later, Swallowtail is still praised among a general audience and an increasingly Western audience. As mentioned previously, user reviews at imdb.com have given the film an average of 7.5 of 10 stars (1,634 votes) (Suwaroteiru). Interestingly, imdb users rank members of the canon as follows: Miike Takashi’s Audition (Odishon,1999) with 7.4 stars (19,005 votes), Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure (1997) with 7.4 stars (2,430 votes), Kitano Takeshi’s Brother (2000) with 7.1 stars (10,155 votes, although some of his other films fare better), and Aoyama Shinji’s Sad Vacation (2007) with 6.9 stars (157 votes) (see respective imdb citations). Although these ratings do not remain constant, and some films of these directors have higher and lower ratings that those I am directly citing here, I believe it is noteworthy that Swallowtail, though perhaps not as widely seen, is actually more well liked among spectators with enough passion for films that they are willing to rate them online. Imdb is but one, mainstream and easily accessed by teachers and students, space online in which Swallowtail enjoys user-generated praise. I suppose on the one hand there may be no accounting for taste, but on the other, maybe there is.

The reviews, in their own limited, Internet way, intimate what is so compelling to viewers:

In short, for its most vociferous advocates, it would seem that Swallowtail elicits an emotional—often visceral—experience. It does so, according to the range of reviews, through a combination of powerful aesthetics and thought-provoking content, and in fact they seem to reinforce one another. When a film is successful enough at reaching its viewers to provoke an embodied experience, it becomes an important text worthy of attention. As such, it seems appropriate to wonder at its omission in a contemporary canon and question why it is, for the most part, being selected against. And what other films are we overlooking? Are we still, despite strides in the field and in the classroom, still bound by constraints of a high (art) vs. low (pop) culture wars?

As a teaching text, Swallowtail is incredibly useful, particularly as a departure point at the beginning of a survey or topics class. To begin with—perhaps because of its “edgy” camerawork (that is certainly not mainstream, but regardless at least familiar and readable to the current generation of college students), fast-paced editing that, despite the speed, still follows the rules of continuity editing, the mishmash of language that includes English, and base as a coming of age narrative featuring young people—students, in my experience, are not immediately ostracized by issues of enigmatic culture or theoretical incomprehension. Quite the contrary, they actually like it, find it compelling, and engage with it as a text: they have unprompted things to say about it. Using Swallowtail Butterfly as the first in a survey course allows us to circumvent reliance on covering, however cursory, the mechanics of classical Hollywood cinema, thereby relieving both a cumbersome burden of class time misspent, and the theoretical implications of position Japanese cinema as the “other” cinema. It bears traces of both Gerow’s (contemporary cinema of “others”) and Standish’s (contemporary cinema as spectacle) arguments. But, despite, perhaps the “newness” of technique, the narrative structure of the film is quite “old”: it is a musical and it is a melodrama. At once a film of excess and control. Of Othering and introspection. Of identity lost and identity found. As such, Swallowtail, I propose, is not a film that should be overlooked or derided as “pop,” “youthy,” or “MTV-esque.” Doesn’t its aesthetics, its constructed representations, and production context suggest a rather exceptional film with a most valuable use in the classroom in that it challenges our (students and scholars alike) very notions of esoteric, enigmatic Japanese cinema or even a Japanese national cinema?

It has not been my intention in this essay to simply make a case for other educators to include what, admittedly, is one of my favorite films into the classroom. I do not mean to speak as a fan defending a text. Swallowtail is not really a unique or particularly special text in the whole of contemporary Japanese cinema. Or, perhaps, in the present case, the special quality of the text, I hope, is to inspire discussion, debate, and reconsideration of how we select representative texts across a discipline. Why do we seem to still conform to an educational standard based in omission?


[1] All Japanese names are written in Japanese name order: family name followed by given name. [return to text]

[2] This is clearly not the case for U.S. film studies. E.g.

[3] This is less the case for upper level seminars, in which case the students enrolled typically come with a background of knowledge in Japanese studies, film studies, or both.

[4] As purely an aside, this may not always be the case, particularly in regards to regional difference. I am noticing an increase in students who come to my particular university classes with a solid study of Japanese under their belt. It would seem that the proliferation of immersion schools and Japanese language offerings in secondary education, at least within the Pacific Northwest, is having a significant affect. However, this may not be sustainable or broadly applicable.

[5] E.g.

[7] E.g.

[8] E.g.

[9] E.g.

[10] The subject of Japanese Film Studies as field with a “use value” in relation to other national cinemas (historically and theoretically) was the topic of a Kinema Club Workshop in 1999. Yoshimoto and Nornes collaborated on a statement of “continuing/concluding thoughts” from the workshop; their summary can be found online at:
Several of the pressing issues they discuss as pertinent to the growth of the field overlap with the issues I have presented in regards to education, which is to be expected. They include: problems of communication between scholars working in Japanese cinema from within a variety of disciplines, a limited library of subtitled Japanese film that limits exhibition and study, and a paucity of translated scholarship between scholars globally (not just limited to English and Japanese).

[11] A number of cinema scholars, primarily film historians, have produced recent work from large historical revisions and definitive movements to explorative star and auteur studies. E.g.

[12] E.g.

[13] They are:

[14] It should be noted that analysis of these syllabi is, I acknowledge, in a way divorced from context. What is unknown is how each respective professor delivers the content of the course through lecture, how the texts are used, and what kind of conversation the students engage in. It may be that the texts mentioned are used and questioned as reference material, but this seems unlikely in the classes in which they constitute as primary required texts. An extremely notable exception is Abé Mark Nornes’ syllabus for The History of Japanese Cinema, which, in addition to being exemplary in his incorporation of foundational texts with contemporary articles, specifically states as goals for the course:

  1. to survey of Japanese film history,
  2. to theorize history in relation to image analysis,
  3. to question the construct of a national cinema,
  4. to utilize auteur study, and
  5. to situate Japanese film solidly in relation to multiple other national cinemas.

[15] For example, this phrase is used for publicity in Canby, Vincent. “Experimental Shorts From Japan at New Cinema Playhouse.” New York Times. May 3, 1968.

[16] Familiar faces, each of them with considerable star status within the field of Japanese Cinema, such as Kitano Takeshi, Miike Takashi, Miyazaki Hayao, Satoshi Kon, Shinya Tsukamoto, Nakata Hideo, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

[17] See Gray, Jason. “Departures tops Japanese box office following Oscar win.” ScreenDaily.com. February 27, 2009 (accessed December 26, 2009)

[18] Many contemporary directors either started out in television, were trained in television studios, or worked as television directors early in their careers such as Kitano “Beat” Takeshi, Miike Takashi, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Itami Juzo, Rintaro Mayuzumi, Higuchinsky (a.k.a. Akihiro Higuchi), Ishii Katsuhito, Takada Masahiro, Motohiro Katsuyuki, and Kiriya Kazuaki.

[19]     E.g.

[20] To put that number into an culturally specific industry context, the more well known (to Western viewers) Shall We Dance (1996)—winner of that same year’s Best Film award from the Japanese Academy—brought in Y1.6 billion ($17 million U.S.D.) The top selling film of the year, Godzilla Vs. Destroyer earned Y2 billion ($21 million) (Kawasaki, 157).

Works cited

Aoki Shinya. “Kawai Shinya intabyu.” Kinema Junpo. No. 1214 February, 1996, pp. 45-47.

Bingham, Adam. "The romance of certain old clothes or they don't make 'em like that anymore; Honor de Cavalleria and art cinema's last stand." CineAction 75 (Winter 2008): 34(13).

Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema BFI Publishing, 1988

Brother. Internet Movie Database.

Burch, Noel. To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema. University of California Press, 1979

Cure. Internet Movie Database.

Gerow, Aaron. “Recognizing “Others” in a New Japanese Cinema.” Japan Foundation Newsletter. 14:2 (January 2002)

-----. “Homelessness of Style and the Problems of Studying Miike Takashi.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies. (Spring 2009)

-----. “Consuming Asia, Consuming Japan: The New Neonationalistic Revisionism in Japan.” In Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States. Ed. Hein, Laura Elizabeth, and Mark Selden. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

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