Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hiroshi Kitamura's "Screening Enlightenment"

Hiroshi Kitamura is Assistant Professor of History at the College of William and Mary.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan, is a full-page image from a movie ad of Rhapsody in Blue, a biographical film of George Gershwin. Like a standard publicity text of U.S. film studios, it highlights the faces of the stars (Joan Leslie and Robert Alda) and boasts of the film as an “exceptionally crafted” production. But the ad also comes with an interestingly highbrow-sounding Japanese title, “American Symphony,” together with a snapshot of composer Paul Whiteman on stage, clinging to his baton. In addition, we can spot the names of other real-life performers who also appear in the film – including Oscar Levant and Al Jolson. They are treated as key protagonists of this “eighteen-reel, magnificent flood of jazz music!”

This visual ad reveals a lot about Hollywood’s expansion in early post-World War II Japan – the subject of my book. During the six-and-a-half year occupation period, U.S. studios chose not to sell their films as “pure entertainment,” but extended their influence as a source of both “amusement” (goraku) and “intellect” (kyoyo). This wide-reaching filmic campaign disseminated over 600 feature films, helped render Japan a lucrative film market, and assisted Douglas MacArthur’s efforts to “reorient” the former Axis enemy. Once the floodgates of U.S. cinema opened, scores of movie-goers flocked to the theaters to savor the newest Hollywood releases. Many of them formed fan clubs to appreciate U.S. cinema as members of a larger community.

Studying Hollywood in early postwar Japan aids our understanding of some broader trends and themes. First are the workings of U.S. soft power. In my case study, we see the American film campaign as a systemic process, achieved through close working relations of the U.S. government, military, and film industry. Second is the widespread popularity of U.S. cinema, particularly among the elites but also among many other consumers (including the youth). Finally, we see the rapid penetration of American popular culture – a trend that we continue to see in Japan after the occupation. In this sense, the Rhapsody in Blue ad helps illustrate a larger institutional process that has contributed to the growing transpacific influence of Hollywood and the United States over the past several decades.
Learn more about Screening Enlightenment at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue