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October 1996, Week 5


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Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 30 Oct 1996 11:54:06 +0900
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At  2:03 10/29/96 +0000, lang thompson wrote:
>******  This may be the most interesting point:  can a film (or book)
>be a Western if it's not set in the West?  It sounds pretty trivial but
>it goes right to the heart of what we mean by "Western."  Is Outland an
>honorary Western because it's modelled after High Noon or because the
>plot/thematic elements (law/civilization, individual courage, etc) are
>considered the proper subject of Westerns.  (Just as science fiction is
>often concerned with the effects of technology or comedy with
>disorder.)  One especially convoluted example would be Yojimbo/Fistful
>of Dollars/Last Man Standing group.  Is the first a Japanese film
>inspired by or based on American Westerns?  Would it have existed
>without that example?  Fistful of Dollars is the same plot/structure
>but this time actually moved to the traditional Western time and place
>so there would be little question that it actually is a Western.  Last
>Man Standing is Western in setting but not time and has numerous
>elements of the gangster film incorporated.  In fact, it would be easy
>to imagine Last Man Standing actually set in New York City, so if the
>plot can be easily converted, what is essentially Western about it?
>Lang Thompson
All this depends on how one is defining genre.  If one defines the
perameters of genre only through iconography, then one can object to
certain films being called Westerns because, while they borrow plot
situations, do not exhibit the essential iconography and perameters of
setting.  But there are difficult examples in the case of non-American
films.  For instance, what would one do with Japanese films like _Rider
with a Guitar on the Plains_ ("Daisogen no wataridori," 1960) or
_Quick-draw Kid_ ("Hayauchi yaro," 1961) which, while clearly are set in
modern Japan, have gun fighters on horses, saloons, Indians, singing
cowboys, etc.--most of the iconography defined as typical to the Western?
It is such difficulties with the iconographic definition of genre that
prompt some, like Tom Schatz, to pursue a more structuralist definition in
line with Levi-Strauss, seeing genres as myths, as mythic solutions to
inherent social or cultural contradictions.  One can wonder, however,
whether such structural definitions are sufficient to distinguish between
genres, to divide films between genres when defining a corpus.
Another interesting solution is what I call a semio-pragmatic definition of
genre, one which focuses on the reading patterns of spectators, the
expectations and semiotic structures they use to process films that are
often defined by discourses external to the text, such as advertising and
criticism, or by industrial structures.  In this case, one can argue that
not only the above two Japanese films, but also work by Okamoto Kihachi
(set in the war in China during WWII) and _Yojimbo_ are Westerns because
they do consciously call on the same reading patterns that Japanese
spectators use to process the American Westerns they see.  (One can also
argue in the case of Nikkatsu that the studio structure also defined some
of this work as "Westerns.")  An analysis of contemporary discourses may
help in this applying this definition.
Finally, I would object to even posing the question about whether _Yojimbo_
would have existed without the example of American Westerns.  Westerns were
shown in Japan from the very beginning, so it is useless research to
imagine a pristine situation in which Japanese cinematic culture has not
been sullied by foreign influences.
Much more profitable is to consider the amorphous quality of genres, how
they are molded and transform while shifting between cultural contexts
while still maintaining exchangability with its other manifestations.
Aaron Gerow
Yamagata Film Festival/Meiji Gakuin University
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