International Writers Magazine: Film Space
FAMILY AND THE MODERNIZATION OF JAPAN
you kill your best friend? So goes the tagline to one of the most
controversial, and indeed successful Japanese films of recent
years, Battle Royale (2000), in which a randomly chosen
class of schoolchildren are forced by the government to fight
to the death until only one remains.
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Kenta Fukasaku (Screenplay)
Koushun Takami (novel)
Its a question
that luckily most people will never have to consider. However, if Battle
Royales dystopian near-future vision of a collapsing society
is to be believed, then the youth of Japan is destined not to be so
Of course, the lengths to which the Japanese government are willing
to go to in an effort to curb juvenile disobedience are greatly exaggerated
in the film. Or so you would hope. Is Japanese society crumbling to
such an extent that drastic actions such as the Battle Royale
Program need to be taken? Of course not. In fact, this is far from the
message that the film is trying to put across. What Battle Royale does
intend though, is to reflect and criticise the Japanese system and society
that has put the children in this unenviable position in the film, as
well as forewarning what could happen if things continue as they are.
Indeed, this is not the first time that concerns over the state of modern
Japan have been raised by filmmakers.
Yasujiro Ozu, one of Japans most internationally renowned directors,
is a key example, his moving and emotional films still bearing relevance
today, almost half a century after his death. His work is an important
source of anxiety over the death of old Japan, and the countrys
subsequent modernization and obsession with technology, particularly
in his later films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Autumn (1960).
He was also certainly not afraid to address the negative effects that
he felt this was having on the people, particularly the youth, of Japan.
many of the young dislike his work, calling him old-fashioned and reactionary.
And so he would appear, since he so continually celebrates those very
qualities against which young Japan is constantly in revolt: the traditional
virtues of Japan (Richie, 1959, p.18).
So, clearly there is an obvious conflict of interest and values between
the young and the old in Japan. Take Ozus Tokyo Story for
example, which is basically an examination of the Japanese family. In
the film, we see an elderly couple travel to Tokyo in order to visit
their children. Upon arrival, they are essentially brushed off and sent
to a resort, as their children are too busy and preoccupied to spend
time with them. For Western audiences, myself included, our natural
reaction is to feel sorry for the parents, because of the disrespectful
treatment they receive. In Japan on the other hand, sympathy lies with
the children. They are the ones seen as being inconvenienced, and their
parents are viewed as a bothersome irritation.
On my first viewing of the film, it was hard to relate in any way to
the actions of the children in Tokyo Story. I would like to think
that I have a close relationship with my parents, and would hope that
I never come to think of them as a nuisance. But is it the same for
the Japanese? In a word, no. Their modern family system is formed in
such a way that it appears to suppress emotional ties between parents
and their children, at least from my perspective. Because of the adults
excessive working hours and overtime, coupled with the childrens
demanding educational schedules and private after school classes, often
modern middle class Japanese families have very little free time to
spend together socially. Its hard to imagine a having a strong
bond with your parents if you never see them. This is one of Ozus
concerns in Tokyo Story, as we see Koichi, the doctor, having to forgo
a trip out with his children because of a patient he has to visit. His
sons angry reactions suggest that this is a regular occurrence.
Koichi doesnt even have time for his own children let alone his
parents. Perhaps this is the statement that Ozu is trying to make: that
the new jobs and lifestyles that came along with modernization of Japan
are tearing apart the bonds that make up families. Are Koichis
children likely to treat him with any more interest and care than he
does his own parents when he gets older? I doubt it.
Interestingly, a fair percentage of elderly Japanese parents do end
up living with their children. However, this arrangement tends to be
for pragmatic rather than altruistic reasons. Given the high cost
of purchasing housing properties, young people are prepared to live
with or close to their parents and provide them with home-based nursing
care, in the expectation or acquiring their house after their death
in exchange (Sugimoto, 2003, p.176).
So under the surface, the support for ones elders in Japan appears
to be more of a business agreement than anything else, and this further
reinforces the notion that emotional ties between Japanese parents and
their children may not always be present. After all, aging parents who
lack many possessions or anything inheritable of worth have difficulties
living with or receiving care from their children, as their offspring
have nothing to gain from it.
I can see Ozus point. Modernization seemingly has driven a rift
between Japanese family relationships and created social issues. Surely
if a husband and wife never get to see each other, at least one of them
would be unhappy. The fact is, the rigid code of Japanese conduct in
middle-class society means that people rarely articulate their true
feelings. This can be seen in Ozus films where, the "plot"
often involves an exquisite dissection of ritualised politeness to reveal
the characters true emotions by the films end. (Lopate,
1986, p.13). If it takes the length of a film for someone to say what
they mean, then it is no small wonder that issues and problems in Japanese
society remain unresolved because the countrys behavioural codes
do not permit people to freely state their opinions and worries. The
fact that Ozus films are constructed solely to build up to a climatic
release of emotion also reveals Japans tendency to value style
over narrative. Just think about Tokyo Story. Its narrative does not
drive the film, and the plot is rather secondary and basic to the interaction
between its characters. Not only do relationships appear to be a major
concern of Japanese society, but they also emerge as a central focus
of Japanese films.
While the Japanese middle-class struggle with the restrictions of their
social manners, it would appear that the working classes have greater
freedom of speech if Japanese cinema is to be believed. Witness the
work of Mikio Naruse for example, and you will find much more frank
and less reserved patterns of behaviour within the poorer families he
tended to depict. Generally, his characters were far more expressive,
and exchanges between them were more open and carefree than those of
Ozu, because for Naruses underprivileged individuals, time-consuming,
stereotypically "Japanese" manners might be considered a luxury.
(Lopate, 1986, p.14). Seeing how Naruse himself had a relatively impoverished
upbringing, and led a very modest lifestyle, it would be a safe bet
to say that his films embody a realistic picture of Japanese working
I have only touched upon certain areas and factors within Japanese society,
but on the face of it, it would seem that the modernization of Japan
has most deeply affected the middle classes. What is most striking is
that the transformation of the country was fundamentally triggered because
Japan felt inferior to the rest of the Western world, as opposed to
having a practical desire to progress culturally. When Japan encountered
Western civilization near the end of the 19th Century, it noted the
scientific and technological advances the West had made, and rapidly
and intently began to imitate and reproduce these innovations. It is
ironic how the reverse is true now, as we in the West try to import
and absorb as much Japanese technology as quick as possible. The Western
influence was also incorporated into certain areas of Japanese filmmaking
as well, in the work of Kenji Mizoguchi for example, who was, one
of the first in Japan to make fully realised sound films by assimilating
the Western model. (Cohen, 1978, p.111). You can see it in
his editing in particular, making use of a Western framing techniques,
such as a spectacular dissolve to link a bath between Lady Wakasa
and Genjuro with a picnic in Ugetsu (1953).
Japans decision to modernize, as we can see today, has led to
the dense urbanization of large areas of Japan, and their worldwide
reputation for embracing modern technology in all areas of life. Whilst
the Japanese seem happy to promote their mastery of electronics and
suchlike, Im not sure that they have been so eager to show that:
their achievement in technology, in turn, has had a profound impact
on the Japanese concept of the collective self. Indeed, the Japanese
have been jolted, as it were, by their own success and are having a
difficult time redefining their own position in relation to the rest
of the world (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1990, p.199-200).
So I think it would be fair to say that modernization is at the heart
of the problems in Japanese society that I have looked at, and also
perhaps played a part in fuelling a crisis of national identity. Ozu
would undoubtedly feel very smug.
so we come full circle to Battle Royale, a film that takes
all of the aforementioned concerns of Japanese society to the extreme.
The near-future Japan shown in Battle Royale is very different
from the idyllic country depicted in Tokyo Story, with its 15% unemployment
rates, abundance of juvenile delinquency and upwards of 800,000
pupils boycotting school.
I personally think
the film acts as a cautionary tale, providing an insight into Japans
possible future, and in particular the plight of its youth. To be fair,
I wouldnt want to go to school in Japan when considering the increasing
pressure that its prejudiced education system puts onto its pupils.
For one, the major corporations that have emerged with the modernization
of Japan supposedly promote employees on the merits of the university
they attended. So in order to achieve career advancement, you have to
study at the best universities, which in turn only tend to accept pupils
from the best schools (the majority of which are privatised). Japanese
school pupils from underprivileged families consequently have little
chance of progressing into high-powered careers because of this biased
system, which is structured so harshly against them.
This system is controlled and dominated by the Japanese government itself.
Most aspects of Japanese school life are. Decisions over what textbooks
are used in schools, style of uniform, length of pupils haircuts,
every aspect of modern educational life is decided and enforced by the
government. This militaristic approach has the effect of standardising
every pupil, to the point that:
It is standard routine in many subjects for a teacher to instruct
an entire class to read a textbook aloud, in unison. This
it difficult for any child to deviate from the set pattern (Sugimoto,
You can see the effects in Battle Royale: every pupil is identified
purely by a number after they have been killed in the film, because
that is what they have been reduced to: one number among many. As soon
as anyone rebels, the government kills them off with the Battle Royale
program, to scare everyone else into conforming to its ideals.
So who in Battle Royale is there to help the kids? No one, only
themselves. Where Ozu saw relationships between children and their parents
as failing, in Battle Royale the parents are absent completely.
Take Shuya for example. His mother has run away, and his father has
committed suicide. We only see his father alive in flashback, and even
then, there is very little communication between them. I think its fair
to say that society and the government have failed the youth in Battle
Royale, and yet the young are the ones being punished it. For me, it
is little wonder therefore that the pupils of Battle Royale have rebelled.
Thankfully, Japanese society has not yet reached this point, although
the country is in the midst of a ten-year recession. Perhaps Western
influences and modernization have unbalanced Japanese society to such
an extent that the long-term effects are still being realised. Time
only will tell what will these effects will be.
© Richard Stirland June 2006
Richard is a recent
graduate from the University of Portsmouth
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