Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism

Hey there! Here is my final piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon. I hope that you have enjoyed these pieces and perhaps donated a little money along with the your time spent reading them. I appreciate and so do the people of Japan. Thanks again to Japancinema.net and Cinema-Fanatic.com for putting this blogathon together so quickly. Great work, guys!

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The historical relationship between cinema, the state, and nationalism is as complicated as it is far reaching. In reality, these things have always been intertwined; although, for reasons that will be made clear, this fact has not always had the greatest outcome. As the state governs the finances of any given country, and many countries’ film industries are at least partially sponsored by those monies, many a country has seen economic state involvement in their filmmaking. Film is essentially a cultural product and, as Benedict Anderson states, the cultural products of a country have always shown immense dedication to a sense of national spirit or pride[1]. Following this logic, whatever involvement the state might have had with film has also been an involvement with a strong sense of nationalism. Amongst the many examples of this, the two most explicit examples of the historical involvement of politics and national identity in cinema can be seen in the cinemas of Italy and Japan.

According to Paolo Cherci Usai, Italian film production began fairly late compared with the rest of Europe. However, after 1905, the “rate of production increased dramatically in Italy, so that for the four years preceding the First World War it took its place as one of the major powers in world cinema.”[2] From this point up until Mussolini came into power and the talkies began, the Italian national cinema was fairly free and successful, barring the periods of hefty competition that it suffered from other nations such as the US and Germany. When Mussolini and fascism got involved, the entire industry and its product altered dramatically.

As sound was being introduced, the national cinema that had previously ranged from historically-based films (such as Alberini’s La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870/The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870 or Pastrone’s Cabiria)

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

to socially concerned literary adaptations (like Ambrosio’s Cenere/Ash, based on a book by Grazia Deledda) shifted its content as a result of being under complete state control. Although the “official sanctioning” of censorship passed in 1923 and was “honed and perfected” throughout the next few years, the committed involvement of the Fascist regime was, as Morando Morandini notes, late in arrival.[3] However, once they got involved, they effected harsh and quick changes to the entire Italian cinema culture. While previous Italian films had definitely promoted a sense of nationalism, the fascist state sought to gear Italian cinema toward its own concept of national identity, through censorship and other means.

As far as the silver screen was concerned, Mussolini’s slogan, paraphrasing Lenin, and mirroring the sentiment of the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was “For us, cinema is the strongest weapon.” He advocated a strong censorship code as well as economically facilitating a complete restructuring of the Italian film industry. In 1935, the Direzione Generale per le Cinematografia was established to “co-ordinate film industry affairs.” As Ephraim Katz relates, by the onset of World War II,

The government had taken firm control of the film industry…an ingenious scheme made it illegal to show foreign films in their original language versions or subtitled: they had to be completely dubbed into Italian, a process that made it easy to substitute whole sections of dialogue, thus purging the films of any “harmful” ingredients.[4]

The vast quantity of Italian films during this era belonged to (primarily) one of two categories. The first category was the telefoni bianchi films or “white telephone” films, known as such because of the continual presence of shiny, white telephones.

"White Telephone" movies

These movies were primarily made up of  “glossy” escapist comedies or dramas, emphasizing upper class values and glamour. The second category was the propaganda film, which Morandini divides up into four types: patriotic and/or military films, films about Italy’s “African mission,” costume dramas that were a “parade of precursors of the ‘Duce,’” and anti-Bolshevik/anti-Soviet films.[5] All of the propaganda films concentrated heavily on a nationalistic spirit, proving the “superiority” of Italy and Italian culture through cinematic representation.

Whether a propaganda film or a telefoni bianchi film, it is clear that Mussolini’s influence altered cinematic product. Within these genres that either emphasized complete negation of contemporary realities or centered solely on the government’s definition of national identity, the incestuous relationship that had been forged between government, nationalism, and cultural product was obviously at the forefront. Mussolini’s censorship laws and dubbing laws made it impossible for any outside product to enter the country without being tampered with, not to mention the fact that any and all films with “questionable” content were considered illegal and therefore not allowed to be made. There was even a law that stated that for every three foreign films shown (which were “fixed”, censorship-wise), an Italian film (also “fixed” due to national cinema-creation laws) must be projected, reiterating the nationalism that Mussolini wanted to instill in his subjects. The state maintained complete control over what the Italian public was exposed to. It is not surprising then, that shortly after this period, the Neo-Realist movement came along to try to break free from governmentally imposed ideologies of national identity.

Italy, however, was not alone in being affected by the relations between cinema and state. The Japanese cinema culture had been dealing in national identity since it began, and, at approximately the same time that the Italian Neo-Realists moved in to try to shatter the hold that Fascism had on their cinematically developed national identity, a group of directors in Japan attempted to do the same thing.

Audie Bock identifies the Japanese cinema as having three significant periods: the “first golden age” in the 1930’s, the generation that “emerged from the moral chaos after the war,” and what she calls the “new mood” in the 1960’s, that spawned a “new wave.”[6] Within the first two periods, the three most common genres in the Japanese cinema were jidai-geki (period dramas),

Hibari Misora, famous Japanese Enka singer who starred in many jidai-geki.

gendai-geki (modern dramas), and, the lesser known, shomin-geki (films mainly portraying the daily life of the lower-middle class). After the war, the United States occupied Japan, outlawing any film that seemed to possess nationalistic rhetoric, thus the jidai-geki, seen as supporting the feudal system and celebrating Japanese historical events, were made illegal.

The imperialistic action taken by the US in banning the jidai-geki was not only one of the catalysts towards the creation of the Japanese New Wave, it also serves as an example of how governmental incursions (even from foreign governments) can have a serious effect on a given cultural product and its influence on national identity. The removal of the jidai-geki was a huge blow to Japan’s national image. Censoring or outlawing this genre was one of the ways that the US was able to humiliate Japan, and maintain power. Like Mussolini, by controlling the images, the US was attempting to control national identity, as well.

Not everyone took too kindly to being occupied by the US. In fact, a cadre of filmmakers objected to it and its impact on Japan with fervor, and displayed that in a set of films made in the 1960’s. In his incisive work on Japanese New Wave cinema, David Desser defines the New Wave as a movement “concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society and with isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances.”[7]

Japanese poster for Ko Nakahira's film, Crazed Fruit (1956). This film is widely considered to be one of the first films in the Japanese New Wave movement.

Annette Michelson historicizes this movement for us in a very insightful manner. She addresses the political events and resultant student protests that sparked the hearts, minds, and cameras of these New Wave filmmakers into action, stating

It was in the struggle of 1959-60, against ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in both its original and revised versions, that the movement reached its culmination. Ending in defeat, the struggle, which left its mark on the Japanese polity- and upon its artistic practices-must be seen as linked to the more general movement of opposition to the United States’ Cold War policy. [8]

By identifying the movement as being located within the confines of this protest against imperialism and political policy, Michelson catalogues the location of this film movement. In doing so, we are shown the development of a new Japanese national identity, based not on past oppressions, but upon breaking free of those bonds.

Ironically, most of the Japanese New Wave filmmakers were not independent. Like the US, the Japanese film industry had a system that involved not only vertical integration, but contracted directors. Thus, most of the films that are considered “New Wave” were actually studio films! Directors like Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, and Nagisa Oshima all subverted the system from the inside out, although eventually leaving the big studios like Shochiku, to search of a more autonomous creative environment.

Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships (1961) directly confronted issues having to do with the US military and the Japanese class system.

Out of all the New Wave directors, the one who exemplifies and reveals the most in regards to the movement is Nagisa Oshima. Not unlike Sergei Eisenstein, or many of the young men at Cahiers du Cinema, Oshima was not only a skilled director, but he was a frequent contributor to many film publications. Throughout his career he wrote extensively, not only about his own work and films he enjoyed, but also about the state of Japanese cinema and its relation to politics and history. His film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), is an exquisite example, not just of a New Wave film, but also of the relationship that Japanese cinema and its “studio system” had to the political situation at the time.

Night and Fog in Japan (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

David Desser describes Night and Fog in Japan as

One of the paradigmatic films of the Japanese New Wave Cinema…The film is explicitly about the political protests surrounding the renewal of the Security Pact and about the politics that characterized the immediate postwar era. As if to insist on the difference between the generation of the 1960s and its immediate predecessor in the postwar era, Oshima’s film juxtaposes two groups of student radicals- student Communists in 1952 and student protestors in 1960.[9]

Four days after the film was released, Shochiku, the studio Oshima was under contract to at the time, pulled Night and Fog, claiming “poor box office.” Oshima was livid. He knew that it was not the box office that was the problem. After four days? It wasn’t even given a fighting chance! In a highly passionate article in Film Criticism, Oshima addresses Shochiku, directing his protest to their “executive offices.” With “unrelenting anger,” Oshima writes,

This massacre is clearly political oppression. This is demonstrated by the film’s having been withdrawn in spite of the fact that its box-office figures were only slightly lower than usual, and by the sudden way it was withdrawn. If this isn’t political oppression, let even one theater, one independent screening group, give it one opportunity to be shown! Lend it out!…If this isn’t political oppression, what is it?[10]

Oshima continues, stating that Shochiku has “succumbed to political oppression” and that Night and Fog is a crucial film if for no other reason than the Japanese audiences have been given “foolish movies” for too long. Oshima ends the article on a determined note. He grimly states that he is not about to give up, because he believes “in the potential of the audience- that is to say, of the people. I believe they can change…I will continue to make work like this.”[11] The fortitude that Oshima shows, as well as his populist stance, exhibits a sense of strong national identity against the workings of the state. In addition, this article shows Oshima’s immense dedication to the cinema, even within a system of politics that was seeking to undo him, and disassemble the power of a movement designed specifically to stimulate a new kind of nationalism for the Japanese people.

Within the cinematic histories of Japan and Italy we can see two explicit examples of the relationships that are formed between cinema, nationalism and the state. Viewed in a larger perspective, there is a relationship between the two countries based on time period and global history. Italy was not alone in its experience. Many countries previous to and during World War II experienced periods of forced artistic submission, creating feelings of oppression that built up and exploded onto the creative world in the 1960s. Even the United States film industry was a victim of the state, dealing with the Production Code Administration and its censorship techniques. The Japanese New Wave demonstrates the next stage in this process, showing the ultimate effects of a country’s subjugation to an unwanted authoritative power.


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

[2] Usai, Paolo Cherci. “Italy: Spectacle and Melodrama.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Morandini, Morando. “Italy From Fascism to Neo-Realism.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[4] Katz, Ephraim. “Italy.” The Film Encyclopedia, 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

[5] Morandini, ibid.

[6] Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978.

[7] Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[8] Michelson, Annette. “Introduction.” Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[9] Desser, ibid.

[10] Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[11] Oshima, ibid.

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3 Comments

  1. [...] Sinamatic Salve-ation discusses Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism [...]

  2. [...] her love of Gojira (Godzilla) films MarcC at Go, See, Talk!  presents “Miyazaki Madness” Sinamatic Salve-ation discusses Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism Raymond Owen reviews Yasujiro Ozu’s 1931 silent film Tokyo Chorus Daniel at The Ghibli Blog [...]

  3. Might I ask what you disagreed with?


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