Spectacular battle scenes filled with samurai on horse back, a touch of American western film flare with Japanese storytelling at its core. Fantastic animated undersea worlds that embrace contemporary issues of environmental degradation, while spinning the whimsical re-imagined tales of Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen.
“There are a lot of deep themes in these films, things like honor and justice,” said Glenn Norio Masuchika, an information literacy librarian at Penn State’s Pattee Library and the creator of the library’s “Sumi and Samurai” exhibit. It showcases the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Kurosawa died in 1998 and Miyazaki retired from animation in recent years, but neither left film before creating an impression on their art and others, both in Japan and North America, Masuchika said.
Kurosawa was mentioned in the 1998 Barenaked Ladies’ song “One Week,” which was the Canadian band’s only No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. On a more serious note, Kurosawa’s films explored gritty, difficult subject matter, endearing him to American filmmakers.
Kurosawa looked at a changing, modern Japanese society, including themes of individualism and strong female characters, in early films during American occupation after World War II. In films such as 1948’s “Drunken Angel,” he looked at gangsters. His samurai films in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” earned him praise and recognition beyond Japan.
“He’s like the grand old master of Japanese film making,” Masuchika said.
Likewise, Miyazaki’s embrace of timeless western tales such as Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” helped spread Western appreciation for Japanese animation. The story of a mermaid that falls in love with a human was the basis for Miyazaki’s 2008 animated film “Ponyo,” which was released in the U.S. and Canada by Disney.
Even as these filmmakers’ reputations grew both at home and abroad in the 20th century, embracing western themes was controversial in post-World War II Japan, Masuchika said.
“Both artists were criticized for Western influences in their films,” he said. “There would be people who said they weren’t Japanese anymore because they did that.”
Masuchika, who is third-generation Japanese-American, said that while growing up in Hawaii, he was always fascinated by Japanese films, so it was a lot of fun to share that with others. The “Sumi and Samurai” exhibit will close on Sept. 2, but the films are available in the library’s collections even after the exhibit comes down.
A learning experience
“We like to draw attention to the collections we have here that most people don’t know about,” said Jenna Gill, the exhibit coordinator at the library.
The library system has immense resources, including foreign and domestic films, and top-notch research in its vast collection of online and physical materials, Gill said. The library has about six exhibits a year. The next exhibit will highlight Pattee’s electronic resources, she said.
For example, the library has an immense amount of information available online — including agriculture, nutrition and global health research — that will be featured as part of the next exhibit, Gill said.
“I’m learning new things every time we do an exhibit,” she said.
It’s a challenge to present exhibits in an interesting way, because some material can be a bit dry, she said. Not everything can be fantasy worlds and samurai battles.
“So far, this film exhibit has been my favorite just because they’re so much fun,” Gill said.
Masuchika was aiming for fun when he arranged the exhibit, but there’s so much people can learn from the library exhibits, too. The exhibit on Japanese film and animation illustrates the effect that foreign filmmakers have on domestic movies, including graphic novel-inspired films such as “Sin City,” he said.
“I wanted to entertain people who came into the library,” Masuchika said, “but also, I wanted to illustrate the diversity of the collection we have here at the library.”