Spaces of sympathy: The role of Asia in contemporary Japanese popular cinema

Seán Hudson


This paper provides an overview of two discourses in the study of Japanese popular film, while also bringing the two into conversation with one another in relation to their constructions of “Japan” and “Asia” as conceptual spaces. The discourse known as “victims’ history” is discussed first, drawing on a few relevant films as examples of how the war period is articulated in terms of Japanese suffering. The contemporary political implications of this apparatus within Japanese film are explored. For example, films such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Hotaru no Haka) have been internationally lauded for their pacifist stance, despite the fact that this pacifism is, I argue, constituted by the same victim’s narrative that sustains feelings of distrust towards Japan’s East Asian neighbours. In other words, we must consider these films not only in terms of passive victimisation, but also in terms of active erasure. The second discourse considered is that of “New Asianism”, or the modern boom in representations of Asia in popular films. Various commentators have forcibly challenged the idea that the internationalization of Japanese cinema (from the late 1980s to the present), both in terms of industry and narrative representation, has had a decolonizing effect on the Japanese cultural sphere. On the contrary, these films are accused of the exoticisation and Othering of Asia, and therefore are similar to victims’ history films in their positioning of Asia “outside” of the space of subjectivity.


Japanese popular cinema; Victim’s history; New Asianism; Cosmetic multiculturalism; Othering; Erasure; Orientalism

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Mutual Images Journal by Mutual Images Research Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.