Devising a national cinema module.

Slightly earlier than usual in the academic calendar I am thinking about new modules. The protocol at my current institution is that you validate a module in the year prior to when you wish to commence teaching so most of us put in vague module descriptions in the broad topic area and then you flesh it out in the weeks before the modules commence. At the current time I am focusing on my Japanese Cinema module. Although I have taught East Asian cinema for years this is the first one that is solely devoted to Japanese cinema that I have taught here in Bangor. Whilst putting the module outline together I have been contemplating how and why we continue to teach national cinema at undergraduate level.

For me Japanese cinema has been a longstanding passion and research interest but writing the module got me thinking about what ideas and concepts I wish the student to take away with them by the end of the course.

We have to put in Learning Outcomes as part of the validation and examining the ones I have to hand (well I wrote last year when I was not really concentration on the topic) you have the aims and objectives to be as follows:

  1. To provide a historical overview of Japanese cinema and its relation to society since 1940.
  2. To introduce students to representative Japanese directors and film genres of the post-war period.
  3. To explore social continuities and change in Japan through the medium of film.
  4. 4. To examine the relationship that exists between Japan and the West and how that relationship has been played out vis a vis film.
  5. 5.to examine question of local, national, international and global as they engage with a national cinema.

 

All in 12 weeks…you can see the issue.

1280px-Ichiban_utsukushiku_poster

I have long given up the lecture/seminar approach believing (and this has been born out over the years), that in the current age of twitter feeds and facebook most students are incapable of taking in, and benefiting from, a 60 mins talk. I have not quite gone towards flipped learning but I am more inclined in that direction. I believe that an active learner is a productive learner but problems arise when you are trying to impart a large amount of new information in a short period of time. Things would be a lot easier if students did the required reading but most of the time we struggle to get them to sit on their backsides and watch a one and half hour film so working on the assumption people will attend with any prior knowledge is a false assumption. (Apologies to all my good students who do the reading – I appreciate you greatly but you have to admit – you know you are the minority…) So we have limited time to teach the entire modern cinema of a nation and the needed cultural and historical information that is required to be able to see and appreciate that cinema in situ. So what approach do you take? Historical? As you move safely though the decades and cover nicely in 12 weeks the 1940 to the 2010s. The problem with that is you are asking students to evaluate the films that are the furthest from their lived experience first. Whilst a modern manga is part of their cultural knowledge that they can link into existing schema, a black and white shōmin gekisuch as Gosho Heinosuke’s Oboroyo no onna/Women in the Mist (1936) or even Kurosawa Akira first notable feature the propaganda film Ichiban utsukushiku/The most Beautiful (1944) has many unfamiliar and complex connotations that students will take time to process. In the historical approach however we are asking them to look at the most difficult films first when they don’t have the tools with which to examine them. So you take the thematic approach and the student duly studies gender, politics, warfare and economics etc. as are they are visualized via the cinema of a nation. Issue that lie with this approach is that you run the risk of essentalising the product you are examining. They become only about that issue and you are missing the wider nexus into which ‘themes’ take place. Do you take the genre approach, the auteur approach or the industrial approach? All have their positive and their negatives. Are you using this nation to debate ALL national cinema theory? Thus you are asking student to make links and connections across the wider cinematic world and run the clear risk of flattering out any cultural specificity to your texts.

Take Suzuki Seijun’s film Nikutai no mon/Gate of Flesh (1964).

A film focusing on a group prostitutes living in a post-war Tokyo ghetto can offer a variety of readings. You could examine it from the viewpoint of the role of women, a political commentary on the state of post-war Japan, a study of post-Imperial Japan, a key example of the Nikkatsu production process, a work of the auteur, star theory with the key presence of Shishido Jo, a genre film that can link into other genre films of its ilk globally…the list goes on. What is the best approach to give to student is open to debate. As I develop the module I will post materials for open discussion but one thing is clear – teaching a national cinema is far from straight forward.

Some sources I have found interesting have included:

Teaching French National Cinema by Christopher Faulkner, Cinema Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Summer, 1999), pp. 88-93

The Cinema Journal Teaching dossier

and this rather weight tome – I have not bough it due to exorbitant cost (plus nearly everything is available elsewhere) but the list of articles is rathe useful depending on what approach you are taking!!

 

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