Imamura Taihei (1911–86) is considered by many to be the first film theorist in Japan, and he is known chiefly for his two grand theories on documentary film and animation. Yet, at the same time, Imamura also developed a third, no less ambitious theory, that of “Cinema and Japanese Art,” in which he specified the national characteristics of Japanese cinema. This essay concentrates on this third and less studied thesis. Although the argument Imamura puts forth in the thesis is elusive, aspects in it enable an interpretation of Japanese cinema along lines of phenomenological critical theory. From this perspective, it appears that Imamura establishes a theorization of national cinema that is predicated not on film as a product, or ontological aspects of what films project, but rather on the phenomenology of the film-watching experience. In effect, the thesis thus defines Japanese cinema not as the total sum of films produced in Japan, or by Japanese filmmakers, but as a shared watching experience of films regardless of their country of origin. Measuring Imamura’s thesis against other theories of Japanese national cinema that were published around the same time, during World War II, the essay argues that his theorization is in fact flexible enough to withstand more recent critique leveled against the notion of national cinema, and even allows radical new ways of thinking about national cinema in the contemporary moment of a new media environment and increasing transnational cultural flows.

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