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Lars-Martin Sorenson’s Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa

Stray Dogs

Stray Dog (1949)

A Book Review by Matthew Fullerton. 

Lars-Martin Sorenson is probably best known to cinephiles for his interview on censorship during the American occupation of Japan, which accompanies Criterion’s 2007 release of Drunken Angel (1948). At the time, he had just completed his PhD, and Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), a study of the impact of censorship on the films of two of Japan’s most prominent directors, is a revised version of his dissertation.

When I first encountered this book, I was skeptical about what more Sorenson could add, seeing how Kyoko Hirano had already treated the history and organization of American censorship programmes in Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo (1992). Though Sorenson himself admits to having drawn extensively from Hirano’s book, he criticizes it for being overly broad in scope and for its rudimentary approach to values and themes offered to contemporary Japanese audiences. Through the examination of case files, script notes, and censors’ directives, Sorenson ultimately reaches controversial answers on how the filmmakers reacted creatively to American censorship, and exploring his book convinced me of new ways of appreciating postwar Japanese films; in particular, recognizing instances where Ozu and Kurosawa resisted censorship by inserting hidden criticisms.

Censorship of Japanese Films falls into six chapters. Chapter 1 addresses the state of research while emphasizing the importance of the censorship archives, which had only recently been opened by the time of Sorenson’s dissertation, in the filmmaking process. Sorenson stresses that resistance existed in the form of ‘codes and concepts’ that the American censors were unable to decipher because of cultural-linguistic barriers. An item worthy of criticism, perhaps, is Sorenson’s decision to analyze films from only two directors, especially considering that approximately 1000 fiction films had been made during the occupation. His justification? Not only were Ozu and Kurosawa’s films popular at the box-office, but they have also been scrutinized by western critics, thus allowing them to be addressed ‘meta-critically’.

Chapter 2 defines the core audience and how it constructed meaning, while 3 explains the dual-censorship system that was in place from late 1945 until summer 1949. Since the majority of Japanese moviegoers by the late forties were in their twenties, with most males having done military service, Sorenson looks specifically at the impact of pre-war nationalist indoctrination, much of which would have been internalized. To highlight this, he delves into elements of pre-war life that had disseminated patriotic values and served to indoctrinate, such as schooling and military training. Sorenson then uses the framework of a sociocognitive analysis to demonstrate that although Japan’s militaristic past was denounced after defeat, its ways and values continued to influence how directors made films and audiences undertook meaning-making. The power struggles and inconsistencies between the two branches of censorship, according to Sorenson, allowed filmmakers to sneak provocative ideas past censors. Of particular value in chapter 3 is the list of official dos-and-don’ts.

Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to censorship’s impact on the work of Ozu and Kurosawa, respectively. Ozu, often considered a traditionalist whose films capture ‘timeless Japaneseness’, was, according to Sorenson, incorporating indirect critiques not only on living conditions, but also on the Americans, in his two earliest occupation films. Squalid postwar settings are conspicuous in both oeuvres, and the earlier of the two has a surprisingly subversive scene: an orphan fanning out a urine-stained futon that resembles the American flag. Sorenson goes even further with this scene, which is set among war ruins, pointing out how the stain looks like a mushroom cloud. But, Sorenson’s most controversial conclusions about Ozu occur in his analysis of Late Spring (1949), a film that seems to comply with censorship standards, including the promotion of ideas from the new Constitution. Sorenson argues, however, that Ozu resisted and subverted censorship both during production, as revealed by the documents, and in the final product, which the contemporary audience likely picked up on. An analysis of Late Spring’s urban and rural settings and the contrasts between the two leads Sorenson to conclude that the film’s politico-historical message is ultimately subversive.

Studies of Kurosawa’s occupation films are equally controversial. Following an analysis of Kurosawa’s first occupation film, No Regrets for our Youth (1946), which Sorenson argues is not the quintessential ‘democratization film’ scholars often frame it as, Censorship of Japanese Films delves into the censorship documents related to Drunken Angel. These, according to Sorenson, reveal that Kurosawa entered into a ‘collision course’ with the censors and the film, which strives to capture the criminal underworld and postwar chaos, was largely the result of a ‘tug-of-war’ between Kurosawa and the censors, who had wanted him to denounce the feudal ways of Japanese gangsters. Sorenson believes that Kurosawa thwarted recommendations by presenting his characters as Americanized, a code likely lost on the censors but understood by the audience. Sorenson thinks that the setting of the film itself could have also aroused anti-American sentiment and that the pan-pan girls at the film’s opening the audience possibly associated with GIs, setting the tone early, perhaps, for this sentiment. With Stray Dog, Kurosawa managed to get away with criticizing the occupiers and negating recommendations and objections, despite the fact his relations with the censors had deteriorated to the level of being ‘strained’. Kurosawa, as Sorenson tries demonstrating, achieved this through the Americanization of gangsters, punning and homonyms to convey multiple meanings, and a highly ambiguous resolution. He concludes that Kurosawa’s resistance in Stray Dog is ‘carefully calculated’.

The most provocative claims, however, happen in the analysis of Rashomon (1950), which differs from Kurosawa’s earlier efforts in that it is set in Japan’s distant past and is part of a ‘flood wave’ of period films that arose during the occupation’s final years, when censorship was relaxed considerably and the swordsmen genre, once banned for being feudal, witnessed a resurgence. But, as Sorenson points out, Rashomon was released when attitudes toward the occupation were at an ‘all-time low’ and anti-Americanism was on the rise. It is with this contemporary scenario in mind that he re-contextualizes the film’s reception to conclude that, though a period film, Rashomon deals with contemporary problems by paralleling, theatrically and didactically, past and present. Some of his conclusions on meaning-making, notably the judge representing the flawed Tokyo Trials, Tajomaru’s ‘unconstrained individualism’ and lust caricaturing a ‘hairy western barbarian’, and Masako representing women who fraternize with Americans, are, at first glance, far-fetched. But, Sorenson drew me back into his argument when he paralleled the film’s title with a derogatory expression for mistresses of American GIs from the era, rashamen, which also referred to a postwar film genre that treated such relationships. His theories on the symbolism of Kurosawa shooting the sun straight on during the kissing scene, on the contrary, I found a case of over-interpretation.

 

What makes it difficult accepting all of Sorenson’s theories on Kurosawa films is the fact he disregards Something Like an Autobiography (1981), which he claims should be considered a fiction, since its primary purpose, according to him, was to secure Kurosawa’s reputation abroad. This, in my opinion, is overly harsh. When the ‘autobiography’ was released, Kurosawa was in his early seventies, had garnered numerous international awards, and had a number of renowned Hollywood directors as vocal admirers. To pass it off as Kurosawa’s way of securing his international reputation is somewhat arbitrary seeing how there are few, if any, surviving witnesses to Kurosawa’s opinions of American censorship and to his overall mindset during the occupation. It begs the question: Does Sorenson disregard it because Kurosawa’s virtually muted reactions to American censorship would appear not to substantiate his conclusion that he was frequently at loggerheads with the censors?

Censorship of Japanese Films’ publisher has, unfortunately, garnered a reputation in recent years for launching lawsuits against critics. But, there are elements that are not above reproach and I shall not be censored: Firstly, several noticeable spelling and syntax errors left me wondering if what I was reading was actually the original manuscript. It must be stated that this is likely no fault of the author. Secondly, there are no plates and figures; and these would have been very effective in helping Sorenson get his points across.

Regardless, Censorship of Japanese Films is a fine contribution to film history, and its approach could easily be used as a framework for the study of other resistance cinemas. Sorenson’s theories on post-occupation ‘outburst’ films could also have larger implications for world cinema, particularly as they apply to industries recovering from periods of censorship, foreign or otherwise. Furthermore, Censorship of Japanese Films is not the be-all-and-end-all of scholarship of the American occupation: Sorenson himself suggests avenues scholars could follow, such as private collections containing filmmakers’ unofficial responses to censorship. He also theorizes that there may exist internal memos from studios, which could shed light on the Japanese side of censorship. Sorenson’s work is certainly an act of uncensored scholarly generosity, and for that we should be grateful.

Matthew Fullerton (MA, BEd, BA) has a particular interest in the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming a French and History Educator in Nova Scotia, Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4, 2015. He has also had interviews in the realm of Tunisian cinema appear on the website. This is his second Book Review for Film International. 

1 Comment for “Lars-Martin Sorenson’s Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa

  1. Thanks, for the excellent review. I have always wondered about this period of transistion from militarist and nationalist rule to post-war democratic multilateralism… We know there was intellectual resistance–Mishima… But even among those very willing to make the transition there would have been a need to assert national pride and artistic independence in the face of an alien occupation and regime of censorship.

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