Monthly Archives: May 2010

Global film admissions and box office 2009

Every year, the European Audio-Visual Observatory publishes its annual review of film industry trends in time for the Cannes Film Market. You can download the Focus 2010 report as a free pdf. I thought it would be helpful to ‘re-present’ some of the figures in a variety of ways. Over the last few years there have been some significant changes in the global film market. Table 1 shows the different national markets ranked by number of admissions in 2009.

Table 1: Global box office by territory 2009

The significant trends here are quite noticeable:

1. India had a poor year with the strike/boycott which meant that major films were not released to multiplexes for several weeks.

2. France had an excellent year topping 200 million admissions for the first time for several years. The UK also did well, following several territories boosted by the success of 3D releases. This didn’t prevent France and the UK slipping down the table, however.

3. Overall, the biggest increase in admissions was in China where audiences have been growing at 20-30% over the last few years. Cinema in China is still a relatively urban middle-class experience. With less than 1 cinema visit per head, the Chinese industry has plenty of growth possible in the next few years.

4. The other big increases are in the traditional territories of mass audiences which had previously collapsed. Mexico has been on the rise for some time (though there was actually a slight fall on 2008) but the Russian and Brazilian advances are more recent.

5. High ticket prices inflate the position of some territories in the box office revenue rankings. This is especially the case in Japan– the second market by value, but only seventh in admissions. Germany similarly overstates its position.

6. The final column represents admissions per head of population. I’m not sure exactly how this is calculated – does it include the whole population or only those over 5 years of age, 7 or 14? I mention this because the highest figures (over 5 in Venezuela and Chile) don’t always seem to correspond to even a crude division of population into admission numbers. Nevertheless, some trends are obvious – generally, the English language territories have the highest per capita attendances – US, Australia, Canada, UK, Ireland (3.97). Is this just because of the common language base encompassing the most profitable industry? Perhaps, but it doesn’t explain Singapore (4.63) South Korea or Iceland (5.3). More likely, is the spending capacity of cinemagoers. Perhaps prices in Japan or Germany are too high? But why are the figures so low in Italy? It would seem that local factors still matter – Italy has a less developed multiplex sector and until recently the industry in many parts of the country tended to keep a low profile in the summer months when the international industry generally tends to put out the blockbusters. Air-conditioning looks like the answer.

7. Beneath the ‘Top 15’ are some significant territories. For instance, most territories in South East Asia are on the rise. Most have low per capita figures so expansion is possible, especially in Indonesia. Top at the moment is Philippines with 65 million admissions, followed by Indonesia (50 mill) and Malaysia (44 mill).

8. Some of the South East Asian figures are for 2008 and gathering data is a serious problem. Some territories are not represented in the guide at all – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka once had significant film industries with a mass audience. All have declined according to occasional reports, but no official industry data is available.

African Cinema Reports

A Screaming Man

It was heartening to see that a new film from the increasingly beleaguered group of filmmakers working in Sub-Saharan Africa was in competition at Cannes this year. A Screaming Man by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad screened last week and won the Jury Prize. Here’s the synopsis:

Present-day Chad. Adam, sixty something, a former swimming champion, is pool attendant at a smart N’Djamena hotel. When the hotel gets taken over by new Chinese owners, he is forced to give up his job to his son Abdel. Terribly resentful, he feels socially humiliated. The country is in the throes of a civil war. Rebel forces are attacking the government. The authorities demand that the population contribute to the “war effort”, giving money or volunteers old enough to fight off the assailants. The District Chief constantly harasses Adam for his contribution. But Adam is penniless; he only has his son. [Synopsis courtesy of Pyramide International]

Interesting that the Chinese should figure so prominently as they seem to be all over Central and West Africa right now. As far as I know, the only cinema screen in Chad is in the French Cultural Institute (it features in Haroun’s earlier film, Abouna (2002)). Perhaps not surprisingly, Haroun has to get funding from France and Belgium to make his features. No news yet as to whether this film has been bought for UK or US distribution. Here’s a YouTube clip from the Cannes screening:

(There are two further extracts on YouTube.)

The lack of cinemas in Africa was highlighted in a recent Cineuropa Report Focus on Africa by Susan Njanji. She estimates that outside of South Africa and Kenya there are perhaps 50 screens left across Sub-Saharan Africa. Each month another screen closes to become a church or a night club. Even in Francophone countries such as Senegal which spearheaded the development of African Cinema in the 1970s are down to a handful of screens and in many countries cinemas have disappeared altogether.

But there is a plus to this story. What is replacing cinema is ‘video cinema’ in the form of Nollywood and its associated industries. A UNESCO report suggests that Nollywood has now displaced the US as a producer with over 800 films per year – a figure which will threaten the India production figure soon. Of course, these video films are generally shorter than Hollywood/Indian features and are completed in around a month. But crucially they are now selling throughout Africa, often in dubbed form on television, but also in co-productions. Njanji points to the popularity of these films on “South Africa-based pay television MultiChoice. It has four 24-hour channels dedicated to African content, predominantly Nigeria productions. Two of the channels run movies in two of Nigeria’s main languages, Yoruba and Hausa.”

All of this at least means that African audiences are increasingly watching African content instead of Hollywood and that can’t be a bad thing. Nollywood is still struggling to get the media coverage it deserves around the world. In a recent article, the Guardian‘s Africa correspondent, David Smith referred to Nollywood as a ‘nascent industry’. I think that suggests a ‘new’ industry, but in fact it has been established for 18 years according to Njanji. However, Smith’s article is well worth reading as it introduces a new South African venture by a group of filmmakers who have named their movement Sollywood.

The first Sollywood Movement film production is IngxoxoThe Negotiation, a ‘romantic drama’. There is an interesting website for the movement and its first venture – promoting Ingxoxo. Here’s the trailer on YouTube:

Stones in Exile (US/UK 2010)

This is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of rock biopics and archive features covering bands from the 1960s, 70s etc. The short (60 mins) documentary was shown on BBC1 last night, will be on iPlayer in the UK for the next 6 days and re-broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday 29 May. It’s certainly worth a look, not least for the still photography and home movie footage from the period.

In 1971 the Rolling Stones left the UK to go into exile in France, partly because the kind of English country house style living some of them had followed was becoming difficult to manage and partly because their finances were so messed up by poor financial management that they felt that they needed to escape the progressive tax regime of the new Labour government – Bill Wyman makes the usual completely erroneous claim that the tax rate was ‘93%’ (erroneous because the full ‘super rate’ only applied to a proportion of earnings). I’d been a big fan up until then, but lost interest in the early 1970s.

With a contractual obligation to produce an album, the Stones decided to try to make one in the South of France. With band members scattered across Provence they tried to hire various recording facilities but couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up using Keith Richard’s mansion Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer. They rehearsed and performed in the basement and recorded instruments played in different rooms in the house – with everything pulled together in a mobile recording studio truck parked in the drive. The whole process took forever but eventually produced a raw new sound which after tarting up in Los Angeles became one of their best albums, Exile on Main Street.

The documentary is both intriguing and frustrating. The montage technique of Super 8 film, black and white contact prints and hand drawn graphics used throughout the film matches the design of the eventual album sleeve and provides a strong nostalgic kick for anyone with brain cells left to remember the era. It was truly another world at that time – but perhaps only if you were in your twenties and deeply engaged with rock culture. Someone in the film argues that rock – and music culture generally – was much more dominant then and I think that is probably accurate.

The narrative of the film is confused and incomplete. We learn something about the characters and the working conditions, but not a lot about exactly why this was a ‘new sound’. In some ways the strongest statement is about the differences between the band members. Jagger is absent a lot of the time – unsurprising perhaps because he’s about to marry a pregnant Bianca. When he does turn up he is organised and more seems to get done. Bill and Charlie play up to their ‘ordinary blokes’ status and it’s sad to hear Bill whingeing on about having to import PG Tips and Bird’s Custard.  They live some distance away and presumably have families. Meanwhile Keith plays the resident musical genius operating to a different biological clock and imbibing far too much of everything. His partner Anita Pallenberg is the only woman actually living in the house and seems to look after the logistics of daily life. Finally the younger men – Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, saxophonist Bobby Keyes, recording engineer Andy Johns etc. just enjoy the access to drugs, booze and girls. It doesn’t add up to much. The interest is in the snippets of information about the locals. What did they make of the Stones? France never had the same kind of rock culture – though it did have Johnny Halliday and Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways the Stones were just another bunch of wealthy Brits strutting about the Riviera where they were tolerated. Pallenberg comments that you could hear the music from the centre of the town and we see scenes indicating their celebrity attraction – but without the obsessive media intrusion they might attract in the UK or US.

My biggest disappointment was the lack of reference to the visit made to the villa by Gram Parsons. He appears in some of the photos taken by Domenique Tarlé and posted on Rolling Stone‘s website. According to an Observer article by Sean O’Hagan, Jagger was jealous of Parsons’ influence on Richards. Around this time I guess I was more interested in Gram than the Stones and I do wonder what he and Richards could have come up with if Jagger had been kept away. But, of course, that didn’t happen – Gram was “asked to leave”. The film includes various talking heads giving making fairly banal points. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Jack White and Don Was I’m sure have interesting things to say, but not here. I think what I learned most was about how the album artwork was designed and put together by Robert Frank.

The film was premiered at Cannes and the BBC screening is bookended by Alan Yentob and Mick Jagger – the latter introducing the Cannes screening in French. It was made by Passion Pictures, produced by John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak. According to IMDB, the film has been sold for TV around the world so you should get to see it wherever you are. Fans on IMDB are rather lukewarm. One suggests watching it with the sound turned off on the original album playing through. (The film was released to go with yet another digital re-issue of the album with 10 extra tracks.) Another suggests that at least there are clips from films that haven’t been properly released – Cocksucker Blues?

Robin Hood (UK/US 2010)

Cate Blanchett takes direction from Ridley Scott (shame on Universal – this was the only decent image of Ms Blanchett I could find).

I remember Russell Crowe in The Insider, a movie in which he successfully represented a three-dimensional human being – a vulnerable central character in a wonderful male melodrama. He also rose to the challenge in Master and CommanderAmerican Gangster was worth watching for Denzel (and Chiwetel Ejiofor) rather than Mr. Crowe and I thought Gladiator vastly overpraised apart from Joaquin Phoenix – although I’m probably in a minority on that. Crowe needs a decent script and a director who knows how to construct a strong narrative. I’m not sure that Ridley Scott can do that consistently and I’m equally unsure as to whether Scott and Crowe together is really the perfect marriage they seem to think it is.

I found this film to be flabby and confused, though the production design and the lesser characters kept my attention throughout. At its centre was a much more interesting film trying to get out – the one with Max von Sydow and Cate Blanchett, who with a little more time allocation (in what is a long film) might have humanised Crowe. This plot strand rehearsed ideas from Sommersby – the man who turns up after years away from war and assumes a dead man’s identity – before occupying the narrative space of Robin and Marian, Dick Lester’s lovely film about an ageing outlaw and his lady. This would have been much more fun than the weird re-writing of Saving Private Ryan offered here.

I hope someone can explain to me why we need this juddering camerawork with the missing frames in order to represent action. There are several fight sequences in the film and none were particularly interesting as fights – my interest was in the ideological import of portraying the baddies as truly evil in their prosecution of the peasantry. I remember some critics praising Ridley Scott as a true heir to Kurosawa after the battle scenes in Gladiator. I don’t think so. Kurosawa and Peckinpah are still the masters for camerawork and editing of large-scale action scenes.

There is no reason why an historical adventure film should be historically accurate or particularly realist – ‘Robin Hood’ is not, after all, an historical figure. But any film electing for ‘Hollywood realism’ does need to be plausible. The plot was riddled with holes in this film. I have no idea where the battle on the beach took place but it seemed physically impossible to get there. Surely the whole point about warfare in England in the 12th Century is that it took a long time to get your army from one part of the country to another – and in that time all kinds of other things could happen.

Of course, this film isn’t for me – although I’m not sure why I can’t be part of a mainstream audience. I watched the film in a sell-out crowd for one of three early evening shows at the swanky new multiplex in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre. It was a mixed audience. A man a couple of seats away from me brought a tiny baby which he tried to lull to sleep on his shoulder. What are Vue cinemas doing letting him in? Most cinemas have separate parent and baby screenings. The film appears to have cleaned up on its first weekend, but I have heard rumblings that the core audience is not impressed – I wonder if we will see a big fall in Week 2?

Four Lions (UK 2010)

Riz Ahmed as Omar – 'leader of the gang'

Cards on the table first – although I was a big fan of the early work of Chris Morris on UK radio and TV (On The Hour and The Day Today), I haven’t seen much of his later work. I’ve also avoided the whole Sacha Baron-Cohen thing, so I can’t make comparisons. I  came to this film with an open mind, fully aware of the interest in it, but not really knowing how the film would pan out. At first, I was wary, keeping stumm when two groups of people in the sparsely occupied auditorium were happily chortling to themselves. Eventually though, I burst out laughing and for the last half hour I could barely contain myself (despite the possibly sobering shocks offered by aspects of the script).

Outline (no spoilers)

Most people in the UK will know the score by now (the film has been very successful on a relatively limited release so far with a £5,000 plus screen average over the first weekend on 115 screens). There are actually five would-be jihadists from Sheffield. The five cover the spectrum from the relatively sane through the delusional and deranged to the completely confused. Bad taste writ large, the plot entertains suicide bombings in various locations/occasions.

I’ve read reviews that suggest that the film is intermittently funny but overall incoherent. I couldn’t disagree more. I found it be thoroughly coherent and brilliantly written (and performed). Morris and his co-writers have several targets and specific aims. Bull’s-eye one is the challenge to show that there are no taboos in comedy. If you can tut-tut at all this film’s scenes and manage not to laugh during the shocking moments, you may have a humour problem.

The comedy comes via an attack on several fronts. The satire on surveillance, security, police hit squads and politicians is perhaps an easy target, but Morris hits it consistently. The idiocies of popular culture, junk food and consumerism get the same treatment (these jihadists communicate via a children’s social networking game and the title refers (I think) to The Lion King). The more contentious targets are of course the extreme conservative elements of Islam in the UK (which are attacked and then the conservatives themselves are treated with some humanity). The five lads are indeed inept, but so are most of the other groups of people. In fact, the only group Morris finds difficult to attack are the real jihadists in Pakistan – and perhaps that is the right approach? The reports of the research Morris undertook point to a belief that in the UK there are more fantasy and inept would-be terrorists than the real thing.

The crunch finally comes with the relationship between Omar (Riz Ahmed) the leader of the five and his wife and son. I’ve seen arguments that suggest that this is the weakest part of the film and also others that suggest that these are the most chilling scenes because they deal with a seemingly rational family that can contemplate martyrdom. I’m not sure. I still think that the film overall hangs together, but any exploration of the ‘real’ psychological study of suicide bombing pushes Morris towards the rather different comedic elements of the Palestinian film Paradise Now. This issue feels like the real heart of the film that we might discuss with students.

The reason everything else works is because, as in all the best films, Morris gives his five characters humanity. These are not crude stereotypes but recognisable lads from South Yorkshire. We know these guys and, daft as they are and utterly misguided, we are on their side. (OK, one’s not from Yorkshire and he’s a dickhead, but we are with the other four.) What this actually means, I’m not sure, but it is a step on from simply demonising Muslim youth in the North of England. I can’t comment on what West Yorkshire Muslims are making of the film, but I’ve heard reports of Muslim audiences who laughed long and hard. I certainly felt better after watching the film – more confident that we (all of us, not the Con-Dems in Whitehall) could sort something out. Putting something like this out so that audiences can engage both their emotions and their brains seems like a good thing.

All the performances are very good and I enjoyed the music. After this film and Shifty, Riz Ahmed has certainly risen to the top of the pile of young male leads in the UK. Researching a little, I’ve learned that a lot of the cast are UK TV stars from programmes that I don’t watch (including Nathan Barley from Chris Morris). That might explain why they work so well together in an ensemble way.

World Cinema Directory: Japan

The World Cinema Directory is an ambitious project set up by the UK publishing house, Intellect. It aims to publish print volumes on every national/regional film industry/culture over a period of 3 years. The innovative idea is that each volume will first appear as a FREE download for a limited period, after which the print version will be published and an online pdf will be purchasable by libraries. But more than that, each volume will actually be written by volunteer contributors. There will be an online database of entries that will eventually become a volume. The aim is not to replicate IMDB etc. but to target the academic market with contributors expected to conform to certain academic protocols. Intellect hope that this will be a contribution to increasing diversity in scholarly work. I guess you need to read all the blurb to make sense of this.

I downloaded the first free Directory on Japanese Cinema and then promptly forgot about it because I was busy. I’ve just noticed that it is free no more, although I think a version on Scribd is still available. The print version can be purchased via Intellect. I thought I would now review the Japanese Directory but also urge you to download Volume 2 on American Independent Cinema (see the link at the head of this post).

The Japanese Directory is 301 pages of material with an epic scope – sweeping across Japanese film history. It’s a massively ambitious undertaking and it looks very good in design terms. The structure offers essays on aspects of Japanese Cinema – specific directors, genres, time periods etc. followed by brief entries on selected films – synopsis, credits and critique over one or two pages in total. The contributors are a mix of younger film scholars and researchers and film journalists. The best-known name is probably Mark Schilling, who writes for The Japan Times and Variety, but all the others appear well-qualified to write about film. There is a contributor list and a detailed bibliography plus a list of useful weblinks and a quiz. Overall, this is clearly going to be useful, especially for students and film fans approaching Japanese Cinema for the first time. The breadth of material is a real attraction.

But is this the right format – how does the balance between breadth and depth work out? What can you reasonably say in 400 words on a film like Tokyo Drifter (1966)? If you’ve just watched the film and want a quick view from somebody else and you found the 400 words here, you’d probably be very pleased. But if you’d bought the guide, you might feel that the analysis was restricted. Similarly, the essay on Yakuza films which precedes the analysis of Tokyo Drifter is around two and a half pages – perhaps 1500 words.

My other main concern is about the quality of the writing and editing. Before starting this post, I read several articles and reviews in Intellect’s various film journals, most of which have at least one freely downloadable issue on offer. I came across a review of the Japanese/Korean entry in the Wallflower Press series of ‘24 Frames‘ – I reviewed the Middle Eastern and East European volumes some time ago (the books offer substantial essays on 24 significant films). The review was by the distinguished Japanese Cinema scholar David Desser and he savaged the book for its sloppy proofing and terrible indexing, especially in accuracy over names, film titles etc. So, I approached the Japanese Directory with trepidation. How accurate would it be? My knowledge of Japanese Cinema is not vast, but I know small segments reasonably well and I concentrated on those.

On the whole, the Directory looks pretty reliable, but I did find errors, mainly in the editing. Just to pick out one, in the critique of Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring) a well-known scene is described as taking place at a kabuki performance. Even the dialogue tells us that this was a noh play. OK, we’ve all made mistakes, but Desser has a point when he says that these kinds of books have to get the facts right. If there is a mistake in an entry on a film you know, it makes you wonder how accurate are the descriptions of the films that you don’t know. But I repeat that on the whole the Directory does seem reliable. A more serious charge is the lack of depth.

Nothing is left out in terms of the types of films covered: dramas (old and new), New Wave and alternatives, anime and horror, monsters and yakuzas, blockbusters and chanbara (swordfight – samurai films) ‘pink films’ and auteur films are all present. There will be quibbles over the sections some films appear in (Desser will be outraged again that Realm of the Senses is described as a pink film) but at a basic level, anyone who comes to the Directory expecting to learn about Japanese Cinema will at least start with a clear sense of the terrain.

This is the first Directory in the series and in some ways, it is like the first episode of a new TV series – there is a lot of ‘backstory’ and introducing of characters to get through. Presumably, future updates of this volume will be able to spend more time going into some of the issues that run across Japanese film industry and culture and less on making sure that readers know about key directors. The inevitable imbalances will then be ironed out. So, for instance, this volume touches on nearly every Kurosawa Akira film, but only one from Naruse Mikio and Masumura Yasuzo and two from Ichikawa Kon. The issues that need more coverage are the Japanese film industry (just the one here on the 1960s Art and Theatre Guild) and a much greater concentration on social and cultural context – either by increasing the number of essays or allowing writers more space on individual films.

My conclusion is that if you want a clear, basic understanding of the breadth of Japanese Cinema, this Directory will be useful, especially if you are prepared to search for film titles on DVD and import some (US-based authors clearly have access to films not easily available in the UK). If your interest is specific and related to a handful of genres or auteurs, you may well be disappointed because although your hopes will be raised by sight of the entries, you might not learn as much as you would like. Will the Directory be helpful and motivating for students? Again, yes, I think so, initially, but they’ll then need to get stuck into the bibliography and weblinks.

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto Japan 1956)

The Japanese soldiers in their prison camp are addressed by their music-loving officer. (Image grabbed by DVD Beaver.)

Ichikawa Kon’s The Burmese Harp is one of the films that promoted Japanese Cinema to the world in the 1950s. I’ve been waiting to see it for almost 40 years and it’s not available in the UK (although I discovered that it had been shown on BBC4 in 2002 – presumably when I was on holiday). It’s been available on a Criterion Region 1 DVD since 2007.

Taken from a novel written only a year or so after the events it covers, the film offers a beautifully photographed and sensitively played narrative about the moment of defeat and humiliation for the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945. The novel by Takeyama Michio was intended as ‘young adult fiction’ and first serialised in a literary magazine. This might explain the fairy tale/folk tale style of the narrative.

Plot outline (possible spoilers!)

A company of Japanese soldiers are first seen crossing Northern Burma in an attempt to reach Siam (now Thailand), a Japanese ally (but actually occupied by the Japanese). This unusual company is led by a captain who is a draftee from a music school and who has taught the men to sing as a formal choir. One soldier, the company scout Mizushima, has learned to play a Burmese instrument, a saung or traditional harp which he carries on his back. The singing helps to keep up morale.

When the company reach a Burmese village, they seek shelter but are surprised by the approach of an Indian Army company. The Japanese sing to cover their preparations for the expected attack, but they are surprised when the Indians and British respond with the same song ‘Home Sweet Home’. Conflict is averted when the British inform the Japanese that the war has ended. The Japanese company are taken to a holding camp but the Captain persuades the harpist to undertake a mission (approved by the Brits) to try to get a Japanese company holed up in mountain caves to surrender. When they refuse, they are all killed in a final British assault and the harpist goes missing. He survives and is nursed back to health by a monk. Taking the monk’s robes he later decides to look for his comrades. His search and his comrades actions in trying to find him (they seem to have a fair amount of freedom in the camp) take up the rest of the narrative.

Here’s the trailer for The Burmese Harp:

Commentary

The film is generally discussed in terms of Ichikawa Kon – as his first film to be seen in the West – and as a possible anti-war film in the context of 1950s humanist cinema (the dominant mode of international art cinema at the time). I’m not going to rehearse all of these arguments as there are some excellent reviews out there already, not least the two Criterion essays by Japanese Cinema experts Tony Rayns and Audie Bock. Of the two the Rayns is far more useful, I think – though that may be because it is more recent and attuned to the possibilities of internet publishing.

I want to develop some points that aren’t covered so much in these essays. Despite Rayns’ essay, there are relatively few British commentaries on the film and this intrigues me as the war in Burma and the experience of the Japanese occupation of Burma and Siam was more of a British than an American affair. The Errol Flynn film Objective Burma! in 1945 caused more offence to British audiences than most Hollywood films. It appeared at a time in 1945 when the ‘forgotten 14th Army’ in Burma were still fighting (or had just got leave in India). There is a long discussion on IMDB bulletin boards. I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film, but I’ve certainly been ‘warned off’ it. As far as I can see it is a quite legitimate film about an American Special Forces Group (cf.  Merrill’s Marauders (1962)).

My point here is not to criticise Hollywood but to explore the hurt felt by British commentators and audiences in 1945. The history of the Second World War in this South/South East Asian sector is perhaps the least known of all the major campaigns and the British in particular were humiliated by the early losses to the Japanese. 130,000 British, Australian and India troops surrendered to the Japanese in the three weeks of  fighting in which British forces suffered their biggest ever military defeat – losing Singapore and Malaya and then most of Burma with the Japanese advance finally halted in North-East India.

The experience of British POWs was terrible and is represented in several films, most famously perhaps in The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) but more interestingly perhaps in A Town Like Alice (UK 1956) and the TV series Tenko (1981) – both of which deal with European women held in Japanese prison camps. The notorious film of the period was Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and the ‘revised’ view came in the intriguing UK/Japanese production of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) directed by Oshima Nagisa and starring David Bowie. In all of these films (and implicitly in a number of other action films and melodramas with a similar setting) there is a potential clash between British and Japanese culture. It manifests itself in several ways – the different military traditions, attitudes to colonialism, the position of women in society, attitudes towards religious beliefs.

When I was a child in Blackpool in the 1950s, I was particularly conscious of all of this as many young men from the town had been captured in Malaya/Singapore as part of the 137th Field Regiment and the stories about the Japanese prison camps were well-known. What did Ichikawa Kon know in 1956, I wonder? As Tony Rayns points out, the author of the original novel, like most Japanese in 1946, would not have been aware of what went on in the camps in Burma/Siam/Malaya. And it’s fair to guess that even by 1956, unless they were particularly interested in Western literature, most Japanese might not have realised the extent to which the Imperial Army misbehaved (the films over the next couple of years presumably created some sort of reaction in Japan). But surely by 1985 when Ichikawa re-made The Burmese Harp in colour, he would have realised how strange the film felt (he was using the same script-adaptation of the novel by his wife Wadda Natto)? The film was clearly shot partly on location in Burma (which in 1956 was a free nation and no longer part of the British Commonwealth – and not under the control of the military as today). Whether it was a second unit or Ichikawa himself, the shooting of temple scenes can be seen on the trailer. If he was in the country, Ichikawa must have learned more of what went on – I’d be surprised if the Burmese didn’t say something.

What we see is a Japanese company of soldiers presented like any other group of ordinary men pressed into military service. The only ‘fanatical’ soldiers are the Japanese that Mizushima attempts to persuade to surrender. The British, Indians and Australians seem remarkably composed, tolerant and almost bemused by the behaviour of the singing soldiers. The re-patriation of Japanese soldiers from the holding camp is orderly (and seemingly swift). In reality, many soldiers took months to get home and the British authorities had many other issues to deal with that were perhaps more pressing.

So, the narrative of this film feels almost like a fantasy. This doesn’t mean it has no relevance to what was happening in 1956 when it was released. But it might explain why some readings focus more on the spiritual undertones and the discourse of comparative religion. Burmese Buddhism is clearly different from the Buddhism in Japan, so that Mizushima’s adoption of a Burmese Buddhist perspective on the war and its aftermath is different from those of his comrades. At the same time, one of the most moving scenes in the film comes when Mizushima observes a Christian burial attended by a group of British nurses, seemingly for an unknown soldier. On his travels through Burma, Mizushima discovers the rotting corpses of Japanese soldiers in many places – in the mountains, by the river, in the forests. The local Burmese seem impassive, but do help bury the dead when Mizushima leads by example. We don’t see any British/Indian dead.

I’m trying to think about the Japanese films that are set abroad and specifically those that deal with the colonial/imperial relationship. I’m stuck really. I can remember a Naruse melodrama with scenes set in Indo-China where the protagonist is working for the Japanese Forestry service and there are some films which show the Occupation of China, but in neither case do I remember anything about the interaction between the Japanese and colonised peoples – e.g. in Korea, Manchuria, Formosa and then in Siam and the conquered territories in 1942-5. In this sense, The Burmese Harp stands out. Come to think of it, I haven’t really seen any Japanese films about being Japanese outside Japan in a peacetime situation. Anyone any ideas about films I should explore?

Tony Rayns points out that The Burmese Harp was released in two parts in 1956 with each part forming part of a double bill. The film was then cut down from 148 mins across the two parts to a single 120 minute film (which explains why it carries the Nikkatsu 1957 credit) for export. It would be interesting to know a) what was in the missing 25 minutes and b) what the films were paired with on release. I will look out for Ichikawa’s Fires On the Plains (about the war in Manchuria, I think). He is one of the most interesting Japanese directors of the post-war period and went on making films until 2006 – he died in 2008 aged 93.