Making Personas

A Book Review by Carmen Siu.

Earlier this year, Avril Lavigne garnered considerable negative attention for her ‘Hello Kitty’ music video. Filmed in Tokyo, the video features an enthusiastic Lavigne jumping around in stereotypical Japanese locales, like a clothing boutique, a candy store and a sushi bar, backed by four expressionless dancers. When met with allegations of racism, the singer tweeted, ‘RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.’

While the tastefulness of Lavigne’s salute to one of her most successful sales territories cannot be covered here, I wondered what film scholar Hideaki Fujiki thought about the controversy. Fujiki is the author of Making Personas: Transnational Film Stardom in Modern Japan, a well-researched study of celebrity culture from the 1910s to the 1930s. For him, ‘[t]he star is not simply an actor, but a peculiar historical phenomenon that comes about because of an actor’s attractiveness, the circulation of his or her identity […] in media, and the support of the consumers of that media’ (3). Moreover, Fujiki argues that film stardom is never simply the product of a production studio; a star’s image is also shaped by the needs or desires of fans, critics, corporations and even governmental institutions.

Fujiki adopts an historical approach to film stardom in Japan. He examines several important performers – benshi film narrators, Onoe Matsunosuke, Kurishima Sumiko, Tachibana Teijiro, Clara Bow, Natsukawa Shizue and Ri Koran – to explain that stardom is a conflation of powerful, and often contradictory, forces of modernity.

Fujiki begins by considering a unique feature of early Japanese cinema: the benshi narrators who provided exposition and character voices for silent films. The benshi were praised for their vocal artistry, and many became cinema attractions in their own right. Although the benshi cannot be considered film actors per se, many of the factors that informed their popularity can also be found in later examples of the Japanese star system. For example, the benshi’s performance rested largely on his dynamic vocal skills. The demand for virtuoso performances extended to film acting proper, as in the many films starring Onoe Matsunosuke. However, with the influx of films from Europe and the United States, Japanese viewers were struck by the performers’ comparatively natural acting style, which served the film’s narrative rather than showcasing the performer’s virtuosity. Eventually, the stylization associated with the Japanese theatrical tradition — and the use of onnagata, the male actors performing female roles — began to fade.

Social respectability was another major component of film stardom in Japan. At the time, the benshi’s success was unique — it was based on the capitalist principle of demand, while the success of theatre actors had been based on the iemoto system (generally, a self-contained hierarchy sustained by family lineage or master-pupil teachings). To maintain their social respectability, the benshi were usually photographed much like businessmen, and Matsunosuke promoted shuyo (self-cultivation) and loyalty to one’s country on and off screen. Similarly, Kurishima Sumiko was regarded as a ‘Japanese sweetheart’ (188) — the national answer to Mary Pickford. Fujiki also shows that the films of Ri Koran, who was born in China to Japanese parents but was widely held to be of Chinese ancestry, affirmed a pro-empire position despite some superficial transnational elements. The educational role of Japanese film actors was particularly significant considering major recent geopolitical events, including World War I.

Fujiki devotes two chapters to western celebrity images and their ambivalent reception in Japan. American celebrities were admired for their natural acting style, and it was widely accepted that western beauty — both male and female — was superior to Japanese features. However, Japanese film critics chastised fans of Hollywood stars for being ‘pervers[e]’ (146) when they admired celebrities’ physiques. This tension between traditional values and the rising commoditization of celebrities’ images could be observed in the popularity of Clara Bow, who was often linked to the moga (‘modern girls’) phenomenon, and in the success of Natsukawa Shizue, who was able to embody an exciting sense of modernity along with an air of ‘spiritism’.

Studying early film stardom in Japan reveals a system of national influences and aspirations. The persona of a star was adopted, and adapted, based on the needs it fulfilled for an audience that was just developing its tastes in a marketplace that would become laden with choice, not unlike the settings in Lavigne’s music video. Lavigne herself might say that transnational film stardom in Japan is ‘complicated’, but in Making Personas, Hideaki Fujiki offers readers an impressive breadth of research and analysis.

Carmen Siu is an independent scholar from Toronto, Canada.

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