Does national culture determine moviegoing habits?

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From Yasujiro Ozus Late Spring
  • From Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring
"The Japanese film audience still behaves much as it does at the theater," wrote Donald Richie in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. "Members . . . rarely leave the theater during the projection and often remain seated until all the credits have been viewed and the lights go up. For whatever reason, the film is watched in silence, in marked contrast to film-viewing habits elsewhere, but much in keeping with Western theater-going behavior."

I came across this passage last week while preparing a blog post about Yasujiro Ozu; it made me recall my own impressions of going to the movies in Japan. I attended both a multiplex and a cinematheque when I visited Kyoto in 2006, and I found in each the respectful sort of environment Richie describes. I didn't hear anyone so much as move his feet—whenever someone sneezed or coughed, he quickly muffled the sound, as he might in a symphonic hall. The air of propriety was so thick I could sense it even before the show began. Not only did theaters advertise when the movies started, they listed the precise minute at which they began seating. (It was never a round number, as I recall, but something like 5:07 or 9:01.) Spectators would line up single file in front of the screening room, getting themselves properly becalmed for the occasion.

The first movie I saw in Kyoto was the Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I Fucking Shot That!, whose frequent cutaways to screaming fans made the silent viewers around me seem that much odder. I couldn't tell how the movie appealed to them, if at all. I only knew that they were giving it their full attention—it practically seemed that they were studying the movie to gain insights into American culture. Perhaps this was what they were doing: throughout his book Richie writes of the Japanese appreciation of learning for its own sake, noting how this attitude inflects activities that Westerners typically regard as entertainment.

Richie also notes that "the most traditional aspect not only of Ozu's films but also of Japanese cinema as a whole is its long-lived and still continuing concern for composition . . . This presentation of a unified view is one of the elements in Japanese culture—the garden, ikebana [flower arrangements], the stage—and it is not surprising that an acute compositional consciousness should be part of the visual style of the country." I'm impressed that this visual style extends to the arrangement of Japanese audiences, even though this consistency is surely unintentional on their part. But that's the thing about cultural generalizations—the most astute ones rarely come from people who are part of the culture in question.

I wonder what foreign observers might deduce about American culture from our moviegoing habits. One could say our acceptance of latecomers reflects our commitment to personal liberty (No rigid timetable for us!), or that the tendency of some moviegoers to talk back to the screen reflects our love of spirited debate. Those jerks who rest their feet on the back of your seat? I suppose they're invoking the Manifest Destiny.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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