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Genji to Godzilla: Using Art and Film to Teach Japan

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Articles in past issues of EAA have suggested effective strategies for using Japanese film in the classroom to introduce Japanese culture.1 These include the works of internationally recognized masters of the format, as well as popular anime, Japanese animation, which has only recently attracted similar scholarly attention. In this essay, I propose that expanding the scope of the visual culture we discuss, and applying art historical pedagogy, can further students’ understanding of Japan, past and present. As educators, one of our primary goals is to address the perception of Asia as strangely exotic and unfathomable, to take students beyond their comfortable Eurocentrism, and spark an interest and curiosity in the unfamiliar that will continue throughout their lives. Combining art with film effectively advances these efforts.

The examples suggested here serve to introduce aspects of Japanese culture to students. Altering the selections and modifying the topics would make the methodology appropriate to the high school level as well.


In the classroom, art historians generally have two primary objectives: first, to teach students to see art objectively, to recognize how artists manipulate form, composition, and media to create their works; and, second, to educate our students in the why of art-making. To do this, we consider the impact of religious beliefs, historical developments, politics, economics, audience, and literary traditions to contextualize art-making in a given time and place.

Understanding filmed narratives entails similar multidisciplined approaches. Nevertheless, the study of film is usually a discipline separate from the study of art.2 It is the purpose of this article to demonstrate that learning is enhanced by combining both formats, pictures and moving pictures, to introduce Asian topics to non-specialists. As David Bordwell explains in a recent edition of Film Art, “Artworks . . . provide organized occasions in which we exercise and develop our ability to pay attention . . . to draw conclusions, and to construct a whole out of parts . . . the artwork and the person experiencing it depend on one another.” (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004), 48.

Bordwell directs his remarks toward film, but they are equally applicable to earlier forms of image-making. The primary tools of the art historian, visual analysis and image comparisons, can be effectively applied to the analysis of film as well, to teach Japan more effectively. Space constraints limit the factors I consider here, but my examples should be sufficient to demonstrate the efficacy of this methodology. The works range from one of the most significant monuments in Japanese art to popular films generally dismissed by serious scholars; all can be used to prompt discussion and address questions students often raise about Japan, including the operation of multiple religious affiliations, seemingly demeaning gender hierarchies, and the sometimes incomprehensible disregard for naturalism in most of Japanese art. Can’t these people draw? Or act, for that matter? All these issues can be investigated in the context of visual culture.


Raised in a society with exclusive and sometimes antagonistic religious traditions, students find the flexibility of Japanese syncretism confusing and difficult to understand. A brief, and necessarily simplistic, description of the basic tenets of Shintō, and the teachings of Confucius and the Buddha, serves to acquaint students with these unfamiliar ideas. Myths recorded in the primary texts, the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki,3 demonstrate the uniqueness of Shintō in many respects. Shintō is irreducibly coterminous with Japan and the Japanese, (contrasting with the universality and the imprecise locale of Adam and Eve’s misdeeds). Kami number in the “millions,”4 are neither all good nor all evil, and are identified with particular locales, natural phenomena (such as thunder, earthquakes, and drought), and less often, people. Since we are studying visual material, it is worth noting that kami are rarely depicted figuratively, as either anthropomorphic or fantastic theriomorphs, but are suggested by things—a mirror, a jewel, a string tied around a tree or rock. Students can be encouraged to theorize the ways in which these fundamental concepts may inform Japanese culture, such as the interconnectedness of the Japanese people with nature and its cycles, the perception of existence as “gray,” rather than the clear “black and white” that dominates Western thought, the emphasis on cleanliness and ritual as opposed to good thoughts and deeds, and the preference for arcane symbolism that requires the collusion of the audience. That Shinō is not particularly efficacious dealing with the pollution of death helps explain the role of Buddhism in Japanese society. Initially, most students have heard of Zen (probably in connection with motorcycle mechanics), and they visualize the Buddha as the grinning figure of the rotund Hotei (C. Putai). The teacher can broaden this (mis)understanding of Buddhism by introducing a few fundamental concepts. For this discussion, these would include the sobering recognition of the ubiquity of suffering and the impermanence of happiness, the illusionary nature of this existence, and the common plight of all sentient beings.

Students also need to be acquainted with Confucius, the sixthcentury BCE Chinese philosopher whose pronouncements on individual and social conduct are incorporated, in varying degrees, in all East Asian cultures. Confucius thought that social harmony could be procured by the acceptance of a hierarchical set of loyalties and recognition of individual and communal duties. Confucianism is fundamental to relationships between the sexes, between family members, between Emperor and citizen, and employer and employee. Its operation is often apparent in the interaction of protagonists in the narratives considered here, past or present.


Emakimono, pictorial narrative scrolls, began to appear in Japan in the eighth-century AD.5 The twelfth-century Tale of Genji is invaluable in exploring Heian Japan, (794–1185). The source text is a Japanese literary classic which, in its English translation, runs more than 1,000 pages. It weaves stories of romance and intrigue set in the Imperial court in Kyoto, revolving around the life and loves of a fictional “Shining Prince,”6 Genji, and his family. Written by an aristocratic woman, Murasaki Shikibu, it is rich in the erotic undertones, refined tastes, and elegant pastimes of the idle rich. Only twenty illustrations from the original set of scrolls survive, but it is thought that each of the novel’s fifty-four chapters was originally interpreted with one to three scenes. The “Oak Tree” chapter is one for which multiple illustrations survive. Students should read the chapter; it is full of nuanced poetry, emotional probing, and obliquely-suggested relationships. In the first illustration, Genji’s wife has just given birth to a son, but the boy is not his. Genji knows the real father is his wife’s brother-in-law, Kashiwagi, but feigns ignorance. After all, Genji is not a pillar of moral righteousness either, as we know he is the biological father of the future emperor, a consequence of his own affair with the emperor’s wife.

illustration of many robed people laying about under tents
FIGURE 1: Drawing by the author, the Illustrated Tale of Genji, scene from the “Oak Tree” chapter.

The illustrations are fraught with emotional turmoil that captures the undercurrents of the novel. The Third Princess is sick with guilt; she wants to take the vows of a Buddhist nun to atone for her actions. Her father, the retired emperor, (now a Buddhist monk, himself) visits, concerned over her health. Although angry and indignant, Genji sits stoically nearby. In the second scene, Genji holds the infant as he stages the prescribed ceremonies acknowledging the child as his. The final illustration for the chapter shows Yugiri, Genji’s son by another wife, visiting the dying Kashiwagi, while remaining unaware of the cause of his friend’s melancholy.

The scroll (fig. 1) employed conventions that would continue for centuries. Not constrained by the requirements of visual verity, the unknown artists rip the roofs from the palaces, allowing us to enter the world of the imperial court. Floors are crazily tilted to serve as backdrops for figures shown from the side. Colors symbolize moods, and the degree of angles in the compositions reflect the emotional agitation of the participants. Faces are stylized in a practice called “slit-eye/hook-nose,” which portrays each character with virtually identical features. The departures from naturalism are so extreme that students require help to initially decipher the images: a black triangle is a woman’s hair, while a rounded black oblong marks the hat of a courtier. Those abstract, patterned rectangles are the edges of the tatami; the flowing curves are ribbons held aloft by room-dividers, which serve to segment the scene. Parallel bands in rainbow colors are the hems or cuffs of multiple kimono, which reflect the status of the women wearing them. Sometimes the presence of a woman is indicated only by these multiple layers, peeking out from between curtains.

Once the narrative techniques are explained, the illustration is seen to clearly capture not only the events described in the chapter, but the emotional entanglements, as well. As in the novel, little activity actually takes place. The scenes are frozen, both practically and physically. While Confucian dictates of status are clearly defined in both novel and illustrations, it is the overriding impression of the transient nature of happiness that permeates them both. The sensibility is one of sadness, of mono no aware, “pathos of things,” a kind of poignant acquiescence to events. The birth of a son should be a happy event, but circumstances converge to make it otherwise for the principals. To live is to suffer, even in the Heian court.

This type of imagery is referred to in Japan as onna-e, or “women’s art,” and students readily perceive the similarities to contemporary “chick-flicks.” Both concentrate on the relationships of the principals and use subtle cues to suggest them.

Any number of otoko-e, or “men’s art,” can be contrasted with the Genji scroll. These are remarkably analogous to the “action films” of today. A set of thirteenth-century emakimono depicting the Heiji rebellion can serve as an example here. The subject is a violent, ongoing feud between two Imperial lineage groups. Most of the scrolls’ action takes place outdoors, in a continuous montage of raging inferno, rampaging soldiers, frightened civilians, and explicit carnage, with gory details depicted in voyeuristic excess. The panic includes the image of a bare-breasted woman, cowed by the violent assault.7

Our viewpoint is consistently high, although we still view the participants from the side. The artist uses abbreviated contour lines, flat color, exaggerated gestures, and faces distorted by emotion. Where Genji is nuanced and under-stated, here the action is blunt and non-stop. Yet each approach effectively captures the character of its respective narratives, while simultaneously eschewing visual verity.

The two sets of scrolls invite exploration of changing social structures, one based in court protocol, the other in samurai society. Confucian duties are not always clear and easily distinguished, whether it’s Genji’s possible compromise of the imperial succession, or the kidnapping of an emperor. The portrayals of women in the novel and the scrolls also serve to spark questions and discussion.


Examples drawn from the Edo period (1615–1868) demonstrate continuity with earlier traditions, even in the context of a new narrative form. It is useful to outline the economic and social upheavals occasioned by the move of the center of power to Edo to explain how the themes of Ukiyo-e prints developed. The popularity of portraits of actors and wrestlers, as well as erotica, can be attributed to the tastes of the new merchant class. It is worth noting, as well, that such prints were considered devoid of aesthetic merit at the time. Images with popular appeal are often dismissed by contemporary critics.

Although art described by the term Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) refers to a bourgeois clientele, it originally had a Buddhist connotation, alluding to the sadness of an existence floating between the tangible and ephemeral. The merchants, indeed, seemed to inhabit an unanchored and direction-less world, characterized by wealth and excess, but no social status or legitimate authority.

Edo-period Japan blended the antithetical forces of affluence and authority, tradition and novelty; of Confucian honor and independent morality. Many of these themes were expressed in kabuki, a unique theatrical form, and the printed images it inspired. As performance employing action, music, and speech, it serves as a transitional art form from “stills” to film. Taped episodes from modern kabuki plays can be used to introduce the genre, and invite comparison with Western drama. Since the plays usually allude to actual events, past or contemporary, they reflect the ebb and flow of influences discussed here. For our purposes, then, kabuki, and the contemporary images that illustrate it, can serve to elucidate change in Japanese society.

illustration of a painting of an angry man
FIGURE 2. Drawing by the author, Toshusai Sharaku, The Actor Otani Oniji III as the servant Edohei.

Once again, the story-telling requires the audience to be complicit in the narrative form: the extravagant costumes and symbolic make-up, the codified movements and exaggerated posturing, the stylized vocal delivery and music, all contribute to a performance that is anything but lifelike. In particular, the onnagata, men playing female roles, requires the approbation of the audience. Kabuki substitutes stylized narrative for mimesis. The contrast with Western theater is extreme, even when kabuki is compared to Italian opera or English musicals. The degree of “suspension of disbelief” required of the viewers is exponentially higher.

Kabuki employs all available means to best tell the story, not to mimic nature or approach naturalism. One of the most notable of these patently anomalous practices is the frozen mie pose, as effective a narrative tool as the “blown-off-roof” of the Genji scrolls, and equally unrealistic.

The Tokugawa government attempted repeatedly to restrict the activities of the merchant class, in the guise of Confucian ethics. Expensive display was curbed by sumptuary laws; theaters and brothels were confined to certain parts of the cities, and the prints that illustrated these activities were similarly subjected to regulation. Nevertheless, the actor prints of the Torii family (late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century) and Sharaku (active 1794–1795) manage to capture the sensory overload of kabuki, depicting their stars with contorted faces, extraordinary histrionics, and heavyhanded burlesque. In contrast to the exaggerated posturing of the kabuki actors, courtesans, and the men and women depicted in (selectively chosen) shunga prints8 of Harunobu (1725–1770) and Utamaru (1753–1806), reflect the reserve and subtlety of the Genji illustrations. Nuance is preferred to action, and (here) clothing to nudity. These prints can be used to stimulate discussion of the status of women in pre-modern Japan. Both types of imagery, bombastic kabuki actors or subdued sexual liaisons, abide by the appropriate conventions, selected to best tell the story.


Comparing two works of ostensibly similar subject matter is common in art historical analysis; applied to film, it yields equally insightful results. For this essay, we’ll consider two films ostensibly depicting the same 400-foot monster, Godzilla, in similar plots. Teachers can contrast the 1954 Japanese Godzilla and the 1998 American remake to explore many issues, including gender, family, and the basic characteristics of the different cultures that produced them. The comparison serves to bring this discussion into the modern era.

In order to avoid box-office deadening subtitles, or a continuous barrage of awkward dubbing, twenty minutes of the 1954 original was excised and replaced, in the American release, with an equal amount of Raymond Burr as a serendipitous American reporter. Ignoring these clumsy distractions, the original can be interpreted as a pointed, tightly-edited struggle between “nature-requiring-containment” (Godzilla) and the need for Japan to develop Western-style technology. After all, technology had created the monster; only more of the same can defeat it. This “gray” denouement reflects the inconsistencies in post-war Japan’s perception of itself, of the roles of Shintō vis-à-vis “foreign.”

The work abounds with Shintō references: The “natives” attempt to assuage the monster with a ritual performance of appeasement, which might just work if Godzilla were a manifestation of a disgruntled kami. During the night, Godzilla’s appearance is presaged by typhoon-like winds and rains, phenomena traditionally associated with a malevolent spirit. None of these references would be meaningful to a Western audience, and so do not appear in the later version.9

The 1954 film delineates the traditional relationships between government and citizens, parents and children. Godzilla is eventually defeated by a combination of communal effort and individual genius. The Japanese army and government throw all their might unconditionally into the defense of Tokyo—to no avail. It is the inventiveness of a single scientist that ultimately brings down the monster and saves Japan.

Although women do little but scream and attend to the comfort of men, the film hints at pending social change, especially the possible erosion of Confucian obedience, at least within the traditional Japanese family. Emiko Yamane is the daughter of the prominent paleontologist who connects the monster with atomic bombs. She was betrothed by her father to the intellectual genius who will ultimately save Tokyo (and the world), but prefers to marry another. This ultimate betrayal of filial piety is avoided, however, by the suicide of her fiancé. The question remains, does the scientist sacrifice himself for the greater good, to keep his awesome weapon from falling into less responsible hands (a Confucian ideal behavior), or is it a selfish act designed to shame his fiancée and simultaneously assure his place in history? Both interpretations have precedents in Japanese customs which can be explored and debated.

The most readily apparent difference between the two films is the credibility of their special effects. We might conclude that it took nearly fifty years to bring Godzilla to America because only recently could filmmakers convincingly portray his state-side melee: American audiences expect realism, and now we can give it to them. Yet that verity often distracts viewers from the plot development. When the illusionism slips, students feel cheated, even insulted. On the other hand, the original monster is sufficiently monstrous to convey the meaning and advance the narrative. It isn’t necessary that the train looks less like a child’s toy, and the audience accepts that the man in the dinosaur suit represents a nuclear menace. When viewers concede to the abstractions employed by the film, the narrative dominates, not the special effects.

manga illustration of godzilla (a large dinosaur/reptile/lizard) shooting atomic lazers out of its mouth at an area that reads "civilization (or at least, Japan) crumbles"
Drawing by the author, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Much of the extended running time of the 1998 film is filled with the development of characters and their interaction. Unlike in the original, the New York principals have no families, or none worth mentioning. Rather, independence and individual achievements are stressed. The mayor is not motivated by a Confucian concern for the safety of his people, but by anxiety over how events will affect his chances for reelection. Matthew Broderick’s Dr. Nick Tatopoulos warns of the dangers posed by nature’s fecundity, but the military powers-that-be arrogantly ignore this civilian input, despite the disastrous loss of life and catastrophic consequences if his observations prove accurate. The public good is not as overriding a concern as demonstrating superior insight.

Another eloquent divergence of the two narratives is the identification of the ultimate source of the monster. The Japanese film left no doubt that the atomic experiments of the United States resurrected this paleolithic nightmare, but in the 1998 film, it wasn’t “us;” it was the French! This observation can be used to stimulate discussion of many topics, including the re- (or de-)construction of history, the dichotomy of “us” and “them,” and how this view of the “other” affects our perception of contemporary world polities.


This essay demonstrates that Japanese art and Japanese film can be combined to make Japan and its history more accessible to students. Comparing similar works points out differences, which in turn, prompt questions and stimulate discussion. Teachers can select examples to illustrate a broad spectrum of issues. In this way, art can be instrumental in teaching students to accept plurality and difference, and see how perception and expression build on past traditions. Nothing, not film, gender relations, or business ethics, develops in a vacuum, not in Japan, or anywhere else. Contemporary Japanese society is a heterogeneous mix of indigenous and imported beliefs and practices, of the millennia-old seen through last week’s lenses, and visual culture, past and present, reflects this.


I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their careful reading, invaluable advice, and insightful observations.


Many classic and recent Japanese films are currently available, or will be soon, in DVD format. These are invaluable resources, as they offer the film in both dubbed or subtitled versions. Many also include useful supplemental information on the making of the films, bios and oeuvres of the director, stars, etc.


Stephen Addiss, How to Look at Japanese Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996). Christine Guth, Art of Edo Japan (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).

Penelope Mason’s History of Japanese Art (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993).

Timothy Screech, Sex and the Floating World (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1999).


Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).

Chon A. Noriega, “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When Them! is U.S.” In Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film. Mick Broderick, ed. (New York: Kegan Paul International) 1996: 54–74.


Of course, search engines such as Google reveal new sites almost daily. Some good Web-based links of particular note:—Provides extensive links to museums and image sites.—Excellent source for Japanese films, along with threads to forum discussions on individual works.


1. See for example, James R. Keating, “King Lear and Ran,” EAA (Fall 2002), 39–44; Paul Otis, “Japanese Folklore and Kurosawa’s Dreams,” EAA (Spring 1997), 42–43; Kyu Hyun Kim, “Girl (and Boy) Troubles in Animeland,” EAA (Spring 2002), 38–45; Alan Chalk, “Rash¬mon Revisited,” EAA (Winter 1999), 45–47; and Antonia Levi, “The Animated Shrine,” EAA (Spring 1997), 26–29.

2. “Pictures” are studied in the Department of Art History, while the study of films (moving pictures) usually is conducted by a department dealing with communications media.

3. These two works comprise the earliest compilations of indigenous beliefs and events. The Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihongi (or Nihonshoki: The Chronicles of Japan) both date to the early eighth century CE. Expurgated or original texts may be used, depending upon the maturity of the student audience. The version quoted in Marianna McJimsey’s essay in this journal (EAA 6.1 Spring 2001, 42–45) would be more appropriate for younger students than the language used in the primary sources.

4. Students generally view religious traditions as evolutionary; that simple societies believed in multiple gods, and through time, through intellectual exploration and increasing social sophistication and complexity, this “superstition” came to be replaced by belief in a single deity. That many in Japan, a model of modern technological society, still accept the existence of “eight-million gods” may be surprising and somewhat disconcerting, as it challenges the accepted norm.

5. In some sense, these scrolls are already a form of moving pictures, since the reader must unroll the images, from right to left, viewing the scenes in sequence or, in some examples, a single narrative that unfolds chronologically.

6. The widely recognized appellation is somewhat inaccurate, as Genji, the son of an Emperor, is not within the primary kinship line. The sobriquet comes from the title of Ivan Morris’s work The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

7. A less well-known but equally effective example of the genre is the Mongol Invasion Scroll. A soldier commissioned the scroll to publicize his role in the campaign, and he is repeatedly included in the action.

8. Literally, “Spring Pictures” erotic and often graphically pornographic images of sexual activities.

9. In fact, the only component of the original film retained in the American version is the monster himself, and the name Godzilla, although this designation is never explained.