SOAS University of London

Japan & Korea Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Culture

Japanese Cinema: A Critical Survey

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Full Year


There are no prerequisites for this module.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The focus of the module concentrates on the post-war period which permits a more in depth study over a more limited time frame (1952 to the present).  Students should, upon completion of the module have a greater critical understanding of the transnational nature of the contemporary industry as well as an in-depth understanding of the 1960s.  

Student will develop a clear understanding of how Japanese films circulate in the world market as well as current government film policy. As to the 1960s, this was both the period in which box-office takings were at their highest and also a period when a politically conscious avant-garde emerged in the independent sector to challenge the ‘conservatism’ of the mainstream industry. By the end of the module students will have a sound understanding of the political significance of this period.

The module will be taught entirely in English.


Total of 20 weeks teaching with 3 hours classroom contact per week comprising of a one hour lecture and a two hour tutorial. Students are expected to watch any film screenings in their own time.

Scope and syllabus

This survey module examines Japanese Cinema from 1952 to the present. It is divided into two discrete segments corresponding to the two teaching terms. In the first term , we look at the transnational nature of contemporary Japanese Cinema; focusing on the films of Kurosawa Akira, the Tartan Video “Asia Extreme” label and Studio Ghibli. The analysis centres on the dynamic that operates between the cultural specificity of the Japanese aesthetic and the increasingly transnational nature of the film industry. Since the 1960s and the decline in domestic box office takings, the major Japanese film companies increasingly sought distribution markets outside Japan. Therefore, this module, although centered on questions of the aesthetic in relation to contemporary Japanese Cinema , is framed within the wider understanding that industrial factors influence content – hence this segment of the module is concerned with the transcultural nature of the Japanese aesthetic in a transnational economy of production. On a broader level, it is also concerned with the appropriation of the Japanese aesthetic by international audiences through, for example, the nurturing of a fan-(boy) cult following around Tartan Video’s “Asia Extreme” imprint in the 1990s.

In the second term the module shifts to a study of the Japanese avant-garde cinema of the 1960s and 1970s as a political backlash against both the conservatism of the major film studios, the conservative LDP government, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Just as in Europe, Japan underwent a period of radicalisation in the 1960s. In the world of Japanese Cinema a new generation of directors were coming to the fore at this time – Ōshima, Nagisa, Imamura Shōhei, Yoshida (Kijū) Yoshishige, Hani Susumu, Fukusaku Kinji and Wakamatsu Kōji. A generation that sought through the intellectualisation of cinema to challenge, what many of them perceived to be a corrupt society that had learnt nothing from the experiences of World War II. One of the strategies they employed was to politicise ‘sex’. At this time, the film industry also faced the challenge of television and the prospect of declining audiences. Studios, such as Nikkatsu made a deliberate policy decision to attract audiences by exploiting ‘sex’ in films through the creation of the roman porno genre. We will also consider the avant-garde’s reworking of popular genres such as the jidaigeki and yakuza films.

Method of assessment

An essay of 1,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week after reading week, term 1 (15%); an essay of 3,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week, 1, term 2 (35%); an essay of 1,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week after reading week, term 2 (15%); an essay of 3,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week, 1, term 3 (35%).

Suggested reading

  • Indicative reading A New History of Japanese Cinema: a century of Narrative Film, Isolde Standish.  
  • A Study Pack of weekly readings is available from the SOAS bookshop.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules