International Writers Magazine: Film and Japan
has happen to the Japanese family?
the outside, the importance of family within Japanese culture
seems paramount, why then, do many Japanese films tell a different
society portrays a picture of immense pride for their culture
and country, at the centre of this culture has been the archetypal
family unit, which from a western perspective appears to be based
on respect for ones elders. It is this respect that creates, what
westerners believe to be hierarchy within the home.
What is somewhat
obvious is that the younger generation has little, to no power within
the chain of command. This an issue that many Japanese directors have
demonstrated within their films, perhaps the most influential example
of this, would have to be Ozus Tokyo Story (1953), described
as "The most Japanese of all directors", surely this will
give a true insight into the real Japanese family unit. The film is
about a grandmother and grandfather who come from the suburbs, and make
the long journey to visit their children in Tokyo. Immediately Ozu shatters
any preconceived ideas that the western world might have about the family,
as the children appear spoilt and hold much of the power over their
parents. What is frustrating to the audience, is, that is a clearly
dysfunctional family, but the film offers no answers. The grandchildren
can not even be bothered to sit and spend time with their relatives,
their grandparents visiting, seems to be a great inconvenience for all.
The style in which the film is directed, allows the audience to simply
watch the action, in a similar manner to that of a documentary. This
film really unearths the generation divide in Japan; the older generation
wants to remain in their family unit, as it offers a form of safety
and superiority, whereas the younger generations are keen to move away
from tradition. It is said that "The clash of modern and traditional
is shown through the different generations. In the conflict between
a traditional parent and the independent minded modern child.".
Ozus depiction of the family, suggests that the younger generation
is moving away from the group mentality that the Japanese culture normally
What is interesting in Tokyo Story (1953) is that is shows an
extremely dysfunctional family, but offers no answers or resolutions
to the problem, this is mainly due to the fact that it is an on going
problem which has no obvious answers. As a western audience we watch
the film feel great sympathy towards the older generation, who are treated
with little care or respect, but the Japanese received the film in a
very different manner, audiences understood and sympathised with the
young generation. This is not so surprising though, as a large majority
of Japanese film goers fall into the younger age bracket, the problems
displayed in film are more than likely problems that they encounter
with their own parents. So clearly part of the problem concerning the
breakdown of the family, is due to a generation gap, which displays
different interests and morals.
Directors such Ozu, illustrated a theme that looks at children vs. the
adult, this is mainly because the chain of hierarchy that is displayed
in the "Ie" diagram, is bound to cause confrontation at some
point in Japanese history. The child vs. adult narrative is most boldly
depicted in Battle Royale (2000), this film is set in modern
day Japan, and it shows how the conflict of generations might eventually
become so out of control that serious action might have to be taken,
in order to restore some kind of chain of hierarchy. The family unit
does not play a major part within the narrative, this is very deliberate,
as it shows what might happen if the family-group culture is lost all
together, thus making the moral of the story all the more powerful.
The world of Battle Royale, is very much dog eat dog, only
the strong will survive. The children that take part in the games have
to mature rapidly, or they will be killed. The action in the film is
consumed by endless amounts of blood and gore, almost definitely symbolizing
the mess that society may enter into if the traditional cultural attitudes
are not up held. With the demise of the family and respect for the older
generation lost, Japan appears to be an extremely lonely place, where
happiness is a rarity.
Western society is often shocked at the dramatic differences between,
the quintessential ideas of Japanese society and the reality. It is
said the Japanese people have a "separation of real feelings from
ones face to the world", meaning that the reality
that you think you see, is perhaps not so. Film has therefore has been
the medium to scratch beneath the surface, and uncover the truth. Before
film, writers used a naturalistic style, to portray the reality within
their novels, but this style proved not very popular, surely because
Japan was not ready for the truth!
the World War 2, group dynamics changed in Japanese society, or
perhaps the reality was revealed? Grave of the Fireflies
(1988), directed by Isao Takahata demonstrates how families were
torn apart during and after the war, leaving many children to bring
themselves up, this exactly what happens to the protagonists in
Grave of the Fireflies, after their mother is killed in air
raid. The effect of continuous fire-bombing, meant that the chain
of hierarchy in the family, was no more. The group dynamics that
had held the society together for hundreds of years was falling
The film conveys
the harsh realism of war, the most important thing to each individual
was make sure they had access to food, as the rations were poor, and
left many malnourished. The children within the film travel to a distant
aunt, hoping that due to the family connection she would take them in
and look after them; this however is not the case. She is very cruel
and insists that the children sell their mothers clothes in order to
buy rice. It harsh acts like this that cause the children to turn against
their elders, going against the most sacred of Japanese traditions.
Just by questioning their aunt, over her actions, reveals that the respect
that is fundamental in the hierarchical chain has been lost. Although
this is just simply one interpretation of war time Japan, it perhaps
offers some explanation as to why the family structure has broken down.
Children lost their parents and had to fight for their lives, therefore
this mentality is most definitely about a more independent thinking
generation, they were no longer concerned with taking over the family
house, as many of the houses were no longer standing.
The Japanese economy changed enormously during the 20th century, this
change, has put pressure both upon the young and old. During the beginning
of the 1900s Japan was strong, they won the war against Russia.
It was this win brought about a move towards modernity, immense pride
was felt throughout the country. Farming was still a major part of the
countries economy; this began to change after World War 2, when people
began to look at the west for inspiration for economic change. Industry
began to grow; this allowed children to move out from the suburbs and
into the city, in doing this they have broken away from the family-group
dynamics. Another point of interest concerning the Japanese family,
is the parents need for their children to succeed, this theme is displayed
in Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu portrays this, in an extremely humorous
manner, wherein the grandfather meets up with some old friends, and
drinks the night away, they eventually start talking about how their
children have never lived up to their expectations. This although humorous,
does display the amount of pressure the elders place on the younger
generation. It is said that within the "Japanese stem-family system
the eldest son is selected to replace the father in the local society.".
This surely underlines that much of the need for success, is so that
the parents feel they will be respected in the village or town in which
they come from.
The importance of family within Japanese society still remains, but
the tradition values held by the older generation, is simply not being
upheld their descendants, as the importance of economic success seems
more influential and perhaps more exciting than the strict and predictable
structure of The Ie. Therefore the fear of the family breaking
down completely seems somewhat extreme, but perhaps in a generation
or two, the structure of the family will take influence from the west.
The clear divide between old and young that is so often depicted in
Japanese film, may become a distant memory, and respect the may be evenly
distributed throughout the family. I however believe that Japan will
always hold onto their traditions, as there is such immense pride for
their heritage, mainly due their resilience during the war and the complex
political past, examples of these would be the fight for equality and
regaining economic power after their communist years. Unlike the west
Japan also has strong beliefs in their religions, which are mainly spilt
into Buddhism and Christianity, both of which hold great, the importance
of family, therefore this will most definitely help to maintain the
family structure throughout the generations.
The narrative structure of Japanese film, can also offer some answer
into the state of the family. Unlike the traditional Hollywood narrative
that has constant twists and turns, to keep the audience entertained.
The Japanese format is simple, it often relates to a specific individual,
and their immediate surroundings, this is of course a far more naturalistic
style, but it also focuses on the importance of the individual, and
their own aspirations and thoughts. With film being a relatively new
medium in context to Japanese history, it clearly displays the need
for the younger generation to think independently, and therefore play
less interest in the group and family dynamics of Japanese culture.
What can be learnt from the above films and most importantly Japanese
history, is that Japan is a country that is constantly evolving, economically
and as many directors portray, socially, it may not be clear on the
surface, but scratch a little deeper and you might find the truth to
represent a far more western attitude to their traditional values. So
for the time being the Japanese family structure still remains, but
the questions is for how much longer?
© Victoria Groom June 2006
Victoria is a recent graduate of the University of Portsmouth
Befu, H. (1962). Corporate emphasis and patterns of descent in the Japanese
family. In Smith, R., Beardsley, R (Eds.), Japanese Culture: Its
development and characteristics (pp. 3441). Honolulu: University
of Hawaii Press.
Benedict, R. (1967). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese
Culture. London: Routledge.
Bernstein, M., Studlar, G. (1997). Visions of the East: Orientalism
in Film. London: I.B. Tauris and Co Ltd.
Hare, J. (2001). The Japanese Family. Retrieved May 13, 2006, from http://
Handry, J. (1987). Understanding Japanese Society. Kent: Croom Helm
Varley, P. (2000). Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii
More about Film
in Film Space
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.