Bridging the Pacific gap: Hollywood in post-WWII Japan

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“February 28, 1946: Tokyo. On a late winter afternoon, crowds of Tokyo-ites packed the movie houses for a much-awaited treat. The rumor had spread widely: Hollywood was returning to town! In a city laid low by the air raids and black market chaos, passionate fans crowded the dingy theater spaces, itching to see the new American releases: His Butler’s Sister (1943), a light-hearted Deanna Durbin comedy, and Madame Curie (1944), a sentimental biopic about the Polish-born scientist."

This is the opening line to chapter two of Hiroshi Kitamura’s Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of a Defeated Japan (Cornell University, 2010). Kitamura depicts post-World War II Japanese moviegoers, lining up to see the films of the former enemy. Hollywood, with its glamour, provides them with an escape, despite it being an American product. This ushers in the age of American occupation after the end of the war.

Kitamura, an associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary, explores Hollywood's influence on Japan during the American occupation in the 1940s. As a citizen of Japan, Kitamura became interested in the topic due to his surroundings growing up.

“I grew up in a society that seemed to be saturated with American culture,” Kitamura explains. “And as a Japanese person, I started wondering why that is."

His research took him back to the 1940s. Japan, defeated and in a state of destruction after the war, sought solace in movies. Surprisingly, a growing number of movie-goers turned to American movies during the occupation era, despite having just fought a deadly war against the United States.

“American culture was seen as  a higher culture,” he says. “Many Japanese looked upon American culture as something that was modern -- and sophisticated -- in contrast to their culture.”

So, Japanese fans not only packed the theaters, but also passionately wrote to readers' columns in fanzines and formed their own fan clubs to enjoy the movies as a community. However, some Japanese, bitter after having fought a war with the United States, did not accept American culture entering their country.

“Hollywood achieves about a 40-percent share during the occupation era, but that means there’s a remaining 60 percent,” Kitamura reasons. “The remaining popularity of Japanese cinema during this time that Hollywood’s share was expanding might suggest some resentment.”

Yet, according to him, the messages in Hollywood's movies, concerning "democracy" and "humanism"--among other ideas--reached across a wide audience and inspired many Japanese.

“[Democracy's influence] can be judged from the hundreds and hundreds of fan letters, magazine articles, critics' reviews of American films, and fan-clubs activities,” Kitamura says. “We see here that Hollywood helped created a bond that bridged two societies in very substantial ways.”

Near the end of his book, Kitamura highlights the beginning of the second golden age of film in Japan, which partially came in response to Hollywood’s influence. Japanese filmmakers took lessons from Hollywood’s impact on Japan and transformed their films so that they surged again in popularity in the 1950s.

“The Japanese, through their attempts to imagine and re-imagine America through the movies, actually play a very significant role in inventing American culture,” he says. “Japanese movie fans try to do that, so when you think about Hollywood, it’s a transnational institution.”