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Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan

Book Review: Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan by Hiroshi Kitamura (2010)

While many scholars have covered the Allied occupation of post-WWII Japan in detail, Hiroshi Kitamura has taken up the cause to enlighten Americans of the way in which Hollywood films operated as an arm of U.S. soft power, directing Japan’s cultural and ideological re-education. Kitamura’s Screening Enlightenment illuminates how everything from ideas of democracy to kissing in public to cultural packaging to “romance seats” in theaters (124) seemed to flow from the silver screen to permeate the country. Whereas World War II had been abysmal for filmmakers in Japan, the postwar era proved fertile ground for rekindling some movie magic, thanks in large part to the popularity of American imports.

However, as Japanese-born Kitamura demonstrates, bringing Hollywood movies across the Pacific wasn’t as direct as it may seem. There were many competing interests at play: those of the U.S. government, movie corporations, and even Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur took a deep interest in “re-orienting” Japanese audiences and directly oversaw the reshaping of film content in cooperation with a number of U.S. cinematic organizations. Kitamura highlights the hardened general’s role in waging a different kind of war, one that aimed to capture the hearts and minds of the Japanese people for the long-term benefit of the Stars and Stripes.

Screening Enlightenment is aptly-titled, though the introduction muddies the waters as Kitamura claims to cover a great many aspects that are beyond movie consumption in postwar Japan. However, the main premise is clear enough: Hollywood was a significant conduit of Americanization in Japan and is one reason that the United States continues to hold such strong influence and power in the region today. “Despite its obvious entertainment value, Hollywood furnished its patrons with more than mere escapism.” (167) Efforts were made to create “shrines of culture” out of less than pristine viewing spaces and follow the Central Motion Picture Exchange’s competitive policy of “good movies to good theaters.” (113) “It is the better strategy … to screen movies in the better-quality theaters,” according to a United Artists representative. (11)

And what was the effect of having these American movies in the more prestigious locations? Naturally, there were connections made in the minds of the Japanese people: American culture is high-brow and desirable, something to which to aspire. Kitamura does an excellent job making relevant to American readers a Japanese-centric account on audience reception of Uncle Sam’s cinema.

One of the many fascinating Japanese cultural organs he dives into is Eiga no tomo — “friends of the movies” — a Hollywood-specializing magazine produced in Japan from 1931 which suffered during the war but experienced a grand rebirth in the postwar era. A remarkable publication that enjoyed a young fan club, Eiga no tomo came to depend on monetary assistance from the Central Motion Picture Exchange, which allowed its editors to freely focus on Hollywood. (158) This mutually beneficial relationship helped to explode the readership of the magazine and certainly promoted American culture to a wide demographic, albeit predominantly comprised of youth who most readily embraced the Hollywood cult. The publication “outlasted the occupation,” which itself proved the power of the visual imports. (176) This transpacific dialectic facilitated by film with a reconstruction agenda has generated a powerful connection between Japan and America, surviving the test of time and the permeation of a broad mix of cultures, ideas, and products.

If there are any drawbacks to Screening Enlightenment, it is the underselling of MacArthur’s personal motivations and the overabundance of acronyms on every single page as if this were a military manual. But with all the organizations involved in re-educating Japan (and reinventions of those organizations), Kitamura could hardly have spelled out each mention letter for letter without raising his word count significantly. He does such a good job explaining how Hollywood was an influencer in Japan that I am filled with curiosity as to how that iconic institution (with brand names that were trusted for over half a century) has evolved away from enriching and educating and serving as a voice for America to one of pure entertainment and stooping to the lowest common denominator.

But I am also curious as to how this relationship between the United States and Japan, developed in the mid-20th century, brought about a reciprocity of ideas flowing from Japan. In more recent decades, Studio Ghibli, an anime movie company, has grabbed the attention of Disney and enjoyed huge success in the United States: Their films are surprisingly fresh and creative in all the ways Hollywood movies were presumably perceived to be in postwar Japan. While the United States isn’t in a postwar state, we are arguably in a creative and political crisis. Perhaps this could be Kitamura’s sequel: Screening Enlightenment 2: Japanese Cinema and the Re-animation of post-Cold War Hollywood. I can already see the book cover.


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