How useful is film classification to Film Studies? A Case Study of The “New Wave” in Japan and Britain
by Lois Barnett
Superficially, there are striking narrative and stylistic similarities between Karel Reisz’s
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Ōshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) both released in 1960. However, while both of these films depict the turbulent lives of marginalized youth, they also exhibit marked differences emblematic of the different socioeconomic contexts in which they were produced. Exploring the “New Wave” as a global phenomenon, referring to the specific contexts of Japan and Britain via a direct comparison of the circumstances of these works and their directors’ backgrounds, allows us to identify the specificities of the Japanese and British New Wave cinemas respectively. By attempting to isolate underlying factors motivating similar characterization and style, we may suggest some parallels between the ‘New Wave’ as practiced around the world. I acknowledge the term “New Wave” as problematic, but employ it here to link these films as members of the commercial “Shōchiku New Wave” and “British New Wave” cycles respectively, and to refer to linked avant-garde conventions globally. However, this study aims to problematize the use of such classificatory terminology, and ultimately to question whether the use of terms such as ‘New Wave’ detracts more from our understanding of popular cinema than it elucidates.
The term “New Wave” itself is frequently applied to works by external influences rather than directors themselves:
There can always be a debate as to what constituted a new cinema…I have started by treating under the rubric ‘new cinemas’ those films and film movements which had the label attached to them, formally or informally, at the time of their emergence, any time from the late 1950s onwards. (Nowell-Smith 2008: 1)
Nowell-Smith cites Ōshima’s work as emblematic of “new cinema” in Japan, alongside ‘the breakout into feature film-making of the British Free Cinema’, a moniker applied by Lindsay Anderson to a group of British documentarists of the 1950s, including himself and Reisz (Nowell-Smith 2008: 125). The term “New Wave” is an umbrella concept beneath works from a variety of different regions may be categorized: not only those which are self-defined as “New Wave” works by their directors, but also those which have the term applied to them externally by others for either critical or marketing purposes.In contrast to the self-appointed British Free Cinema filmmakers, the Japanese “New Wave” (“nūberu bāgu”) was branded by Shōchiku studios as a ‘primarily economic’ move; an attempt to change the public opinion of the studio as ‘conservative’ in its output in order to attract youth audiences (Roberts 2007: xxvi). Clearly, it is is too simplistic an approach to considering only those films popularly discussed as “New Wave” as emblematic of the stylistic trends of the movement. An analysis of the film’s directorial intentions and visual or narrative styles may be more valuable.
There was no such (“New Wave”), in the sense that there was no clearly defined conscious movement with set aims, technical or thematic… If the “New Wave” was a phrase dreamed up by journalists, it nevertheless broadly designates a sudden change in the cinema industry: a change in production methods, a change in subject matter, a change in moral attitudes perhaps; certainly a change in the style and appearance of the film. (Reisz and Millar 2004: 323-4)
While Reisz primarily describes the characteristics of the French New Wave, he argues that the classification had ‘international repercussions’, relevant not only to his own work, but to cinemas simultaneously arising globally. The French influence extends to the work of Ōshima, who cites Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), a work described by Reisz as ‘typical of the early days of the movement’ (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324-325), as a key inspiration for his Cruel Story of Youth. What Ōshima draws from Breathless is how its style is affected by the director’s intention, enabled by the independent circumstances within which it was made, a reference to the same ‘change in production and technology’ described by Reisz:
Breathless is a truly wonderful film, in that it reminds us that the appeal of the film lies in the continuity of discontinuity. The beauty of the work is that the artist is not trying to earn his living as a film director. And perhaps that is why the filmmaker’s active involvement penetrates the work so splendidly. (Ōshima 1992: 46)
Ōshima’s description of the filmmaker’s involvement reflects the cinéma d’auteur theory adhered to by critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma. Reisz describes auteur cinema as ‘a cinema in which one man would be creatively responsible for conception and execution of his own idea’ – although Reisz states that there were ‘no set aims’ of the “New Wave” movement, it is clear that regardless of location, directorial independence is an ideal across the spectrum of New Cinema directors (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324). We may infer from both directors’ statements that a work which may be considered “New Wave” by critics or audiences is a concentration of directorial intention and how that intention is expressed, shaped by the circumstances in which the film was made in terms of budget, technological developments and external economic pressures. Via this negotiation of expression and intention films may be considered “New Wave” despite the different external factors influencing their production; Galt and Schoonover describe this as the New Wave’s ‘mongrel identity… [which] intersected with popular genres, national cinemas, revolutionary film, and the avant garde, (mixing) corporate, state, and independent capital…a global field of industry and aesthetics’ (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4). This mode of ‘expression’ described by Reisz, embodied through shared visual and narrative styles, unites these two narratively similar films; the question as to how and why these shared characteristics arise can shed light on the transnational potential of avant-garde cinemas. Galt and Schoonover’s description of ‘how the economics of cinema’s transnational flows might intersect with trajectories of film form’ suggests such a link between external circumstances and visual form regardless of geographical location (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4).
In his overview of the “New Wave”, Reisz notes ‘a change in subject matter’ alongside ‘a change in moral attitudes’ (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324). This concept of cinema tracking social change is an example of external circumstances affecting narrative and visual film structures; the global “New Wave” cinema’s manifestation in culturally specific forms encompasses the cinemas of Japan or Britain respectively as avenues of externally-influenced critique focused on socio-political events occurring simultaneously within both the global and local spheres. Galt and Schoonover argue that the “New Wave” ‘from its beginnings forged a relationship between the aesthetic and the geopolitical, or, in other words, cinema and world’ (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4). David Desser suggests that this shift in focus reflected sociological developments in the Japanese cinema ‘concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society…isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances’ (Desser 1988: 4). This concept of the “New Wave” cinema as a global movement expressing culturally specific concerns is also evident in the British New Wave cycle: ‘it is clear that films like…Saturday Night and Sunday Morning… have a specifically British context and grow out of a linked series of historical and cinematic events and movements’ (Desser 1988: 4). The motif of the problematic youth character, exemplified in this case study by
the characters of Arthur Seaton and Kiyoshi and Makoto respectively, is a fundamental element of this international ‘change in subject matter’ described by Reisz . These characters function as vehicles for social critique and change, however the purpose of their selection as central figures varies in reference to both the films’ geo-political, directorial and production contexts. ‘Almost without exception the new cinemas were a rebellion’ against both aesthetic and political norms (Nowell-Smith 2008: 3); in both these films youth are depicted as rebellious figures. However, Reisz and Ōshima’s focus on youth transcends simple allegorical analysis, acting as an outlet for each director’s auteuristic “New Wave” sensibilities within his own specific socio-economic circumstances. While Ōshima states in 1960 that he uses youthful imagery as a means of discussing post-war Japanese subjectivity (‘Cruel Story of Youth will focus on the cruelty of our situation and most particularly on youth as victims of the contradictions arising from it’), he also notes that as ‘a new director… you really begin to worry about whether a film will be successful…if a director is to do the kind of work he wants to do in the film industry, he absolutely must have the support of the audience’
(Ōshima 1992: 42; 46). Considering the controversial nature of Ōshima’s first full-length film, A Town of Love and Hope (Ai to Kibō no Machi, 1959) within the Shōchiku studio (Yoshimoto 2007: 168), it is understandable that Ōshima would seek redress in the youth film genre, which was known to be popular with domestic audiences. In the late 1950’s Japanese studios ‘began to take advantage of an emerging youth culture…questioning post-war affluence and humanistic society’ as a reaction to declining cinema audiences, a result collectively of ‘television and demographic shifts’ (Gerow 2002: 71). Saturday Night And Sunday Morning has been similarly described as a fictionalized continuation of the Free Cinema documentaries which Reisz produced, most prominently We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959), funded by the British Film Institute’s Experimental film fund; ‘the first picture (We Are The Lambeth Boys) attempted a picture of a world, the second a portrait’ Gardner 2006: 107).
Nowell-Smith notes that initial Reisz’s choice to make documentaries such as this was a result of the restrictions imposed upon him by the BFI’s funding conditions; ‘Reisz…made documentaries in the 1950s because that’s what (he) had the opportunity to do, not because of an ideological commitment to the documentary ideal’ (Nowell-Smith 2008: 125). Considering that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning drew its subject matter and filming style directly from Reisz’s documentary efforts, it is impossible to separate the film from the influence of these initial funding constraints.
However, the very conception of a restricted director is in conflict with Reisz’s critical definition of ‘a cinema in which one man would be creatively responsible for conception and execution of his own idea’ – which implies total creative freedom. While obvious in the case of Ōshima, as a director working in a major studio, the above observation of motivations for Reisz’s choice of source material for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning indicates that the independently-funded sector was hardly immune to external influence on film content. Ōshima himself learned this when he left the studio system and became subject to controls imposed not only by Japanese censorship but by external funding entities (for example, the involvement of French funding bodies in selecting both the subject matter and title of In The Realm of The Senses/Ai no Korīda, 1976). Ōshima does recall producer Anatole Dauman allowing him a large amount of creative authority, quoting him thus; “I’ll leave the content and the actual production all to you. I’ll pay for it, that’s all” (Ōshima 1992: 258). While both Reisz and Ōshima aspired to the auteur ideal associated with the “New Wave” movement via the Cahiers du Cinéma, the subject matter and characterization of these two films is a result of a shared goal, to work as ‘true auteurs’, rather than a shared achievement. I’m arguing here that the films’ narratives and themes manifest so similarly as a result of global filmic trends concerning youth and similar socio-political developments.
This conflict of auteurism versus socio-economic pressures suggests that we had better consider “New Wave” film not as a movement, nor as an intrinsically auteurist product, but instead as a pseudo-genre, analogous to, or perhaps within, the categorization of “art film” as described by David Bordwell. Bordwell highlights the ‘mediating structures – ‘reality’, character subjectivity, authorial vision – that allowed a fresh coherence of meaning in art film’ (Bordwell 1979: 724). All of these factors are present in Cruel Story of Youth and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, while both directors express an aspiration to artistic status. Such reoccurring tropes would indicate the presence of a genre or set of codes to which these films subscribe. Genre is often positioned in opposition to auteurism, however Raphaëlle Moine suggests re-imagining the relation between genre and the auteur; ‘an auteur film, even if it expresses the personality of a filmmaker, is often also a generically marked film’ (Moine 2008: 34). Moine defines the ‘criteria normally used to identify a genre (as) thematic elements and narrative structures’ which as has been established here unite both films despite their different geopolitical contexts (2008: 104). Particularly in the avant-garde context, there exists a ‘confusion between schools and genres (that) arises directly out of the theoretical approach of (Adrian) Piotrovski’ (Moine 2008: 34).
Considering this focus on expressivity, artistic intention and form, it is perhaps possible to harmonize this confusion between schools or movements (such as the “New Wave”) and genre in order to explain the narrative similarities between these two films by observing their similarities as culturally specific imaginings of global generic conventions. In short, I argue that perhaps the global “New Wave”” would be better categorized as a genre rather than a movement. Considering the longstanding relationship between genre and the commercial sphere –genre as a ‘means of “attracting and retaining audiences in a reliable way, so reducing commercial risk’ (Langford 2005: 1) –the term “New Wave” is a loaded categorization, implying a relationship with marketing and profit. Superficially, this places it in direct opposition with auteurism, however the effects of external socio-economic stimuli upon the shared narratives of these films need to be considered to a greater extent. Use of the term “New Wave” as a commercial signifier is relevant to Ōshima’s context as a director described as “New Wave” (nūberu bāgu) by Shōchiku, though the director disputed the validity of the term itself; ‘Stop using the term “New Wave” once and for all! Evaluate each film on its own merits!’ (Ōshima 1992: 57). Returning to Reisz’s argument that ‘there was no clearly defined conscious movement with set aims, technical or thematic’ the reclassification of “New Wave” as a genre, with shared narrative structures, not only acknowledges the place of Reisz’s and Ōshima’s films within a socioeconomic context, but exposes the fallibility of the term. This fallibility suggests the necessity of reading both films within their particular contexts, with their narrative similarities influenced by globally recognizable conventions tempered by local and personal specificity.
In conclusion, the shared qualities of these films in terms of their subject matter and narrative are indicative predominantly of two directors working in different geopolitical and socioeconomic contexts wishing to comment upon socio-political developments which were occurring simultaneously across the modern world; most prominently those affecting, or posed by, nascent youth cultures. While it is impossible to ignore both directors’ acknowledgement of the auteurist and stylistic sentiments of the French “New Wave” and the Cahiers du Cinéma, it is equally impossible to describe their works as derivative; these directors instead utilise these sentiments as a framework to discuss global issues not only from culturally and geopolitically specific perspectives, but also perspectives informed by their own personal experiences and the specific socioeconomic and popular circumstances within which each film was produced. Furthermore, it is clear that preliminary definitions of “New Wave” texts as those films which having the term ‘New Wave’ applied to them externally for marketing or even critical purposes are lacking. Even if attempts are made to rationalize the occurrence of similarities across ‘New Wave’ film texts as manifestations of a global political movement or film genre, this only highlights the problematic nature of “New Wave” as a blanket term. While the similarities between these films effectively illustrate the true transnationality of themes and film trends, the evaluation of each film within its own specific context, considering not only artistic but also commercial climates, is vital to understanding these texts and transcending artificial categorization. Overall, this case study of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Ōshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth illuminates the importance assessing each film in its own right and on its own merits, reading marked similarities in their respective socio-political contexts rather than according to constructed ideals of “New Wave” auteurism or other filmic labels.
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Lois Barnett is currently completing an MA in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, focusing on Japanese cinema. Following her MA studies, she will undertake postgraduate research considering the role of Western-inspired fashion and costume in the Japanese cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, funded by the Sasakawa Foundation. Her main research interests are fashion, modernity and gender representation onscreen.