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Ishin Denshin or the Banality of Japanese Film Studies

(Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

Watching GURURI NO KOTO (All Around Us) brought back a question that had piqued my curiosity since I first arrived in Japan 10 years ago. Does the sort of sixth sense called ishin denshin really exist? And if it does, how reliable is it? Ishin denshin is described "as an intuitive understanding, without the use of words or signs, a peculiarly Japanese form of telepathic communication as a result of some intimate relationship of bond"(1). Note here the designation of ishin denshin as "a peculiarly Japanese form of telepathic communication". Meanwhile, as Pulvers contests "The Japanese have no monopoly on ishin denshin" and "it is present in every society on Earth in the way people look at each other and go through a variety of nonverbal gestures peculiar to their nationality, ethnicity or shared cultural background"(2).

A survey published on June 6, 2010 in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper illustrated some vital points about the way the Japanese relate to people of other nationalities living and working in Japan. This survey found that the reason given by fifty per cent of those Japanese who viewed the presence of non-Japanese coworkers as a liability was the inability to have Japanese-style ishin denshin communication with non-Japanese workers. Since we are not dealing here with an innate sensorial attribute but with a communicative tool developed through a shared cultural background, then, perhaps members of the same nationality, regardless of their country of origin, would find it easier to engage in non-verbal communication among themselves than with members of other countries. However, this still leaves the question open to how good Japanese really are at understanding each other without the need of words, how efficient and reliable this apparently unique asset of their national character actually is. Can we not just conclude that ishin denshin is found in highly sensitive people notwithstanding their racial or cultural background? That "depending on the culture, sensitivity can be perceived as an asset or a negative trait" (3), and that this trait in the Japanese context is highly valued, perhaps more that in the rest of the world, being put forward as another excuse to the ad nauseam description of the Japanese as a unique people.

In his book Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto points out how, during World War II, Japanese cinema was studied by the American military intelligence to "grasp the Japanese national character, and their thought and behavioral pattern" (4). During the 1950s and 1960s, however, the Japanese national character was used "as a means of correctly appreciating Japanese cinema" (5) as in the works by Joan Mellen and Donald Richie. What I am intending to do with this short essay is quite the opposite, that is, to use Japanese cinema to challenge, in an obviously ironic way, some attributes that are widely believed by the Japanese to be unique to their own national character. If facile notions of giri-ninjo, uchi-soto, honne-tatemae or ryosai kenbo are still regarded by film scholars as relevant and current terms to explain characters' motivations and conflicts in such diverse films as BATTLE ROYALE, JISATSU SAKURU (Suicide Club), GOJIRA (Godzilla), YOTSUYA KWAIDAN, UGETSU MONOGATARI, KURONEKO, SEIDAN BOTAN-DORO (Hellish Love), RIRI SHUSHU NO SUBETE (All About Lily Chou Chou) or KOROSHIYA ICHI (Ichi the Killer), then, one could easily perform the inverse operation. Pick up any badly interpreted concept describing Japanese national traits and the Japanese character, set them up against any given film and point out at scenes where the description does not apply.

(Koji Maeda, 2011)

The banality of Japanese Film Studies is best illustrated in a series of clumsily researched books focused on Japanese horror, rushed into print to cash in on the boom of the J-horror genre, a boom to which many of the films under study in these works have nothing to do. Moreover, some could hardly be considered horror at all, such as (ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU). Among this selection of works, one contends that the films are surveyed "within a specifically Japanese cultural context that takes into account both the radical economic and political fluctuations of the last half century" (6), although, in reality, it clearly shows a complete disregard to any kind of socio-cultural historical specificity. Meanwhile, others are filled with "stock images of national character, tradition, and fixed cultural traits" (7), resulting in studies of cross-cultural analysis which are often "predictable and repetitive" (8), as for example Colette Balmain's Introduction to Japanese Horror Cinema and Jay McRoy's Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. Regarding Colette Balmain's book, Jasper Sharp succinctly says that it "really makes one question the purpose of Film Studies as an academic discipline." (9). Jay McRoy's Nightmare Japan, on the other hand, also reveals a current practice in Film Studies: the cut-and-paste approach. Thus, material previously published on-line (The Yakuza Movie Book by Mark Schilling), or in journal articles (Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History by Scott Nygren), is put together into book format. In the case of Jay McRoy's Nightmare Japan, the chapters on Sato Hisayasu's NAKED BLOOD and Shimizu Takashi's JU-ON are reproduced, as well as a large amount of its introduction, verbatim from his previous work as editor, Japanese Horror Cinema.

Therefore, within the limitations of this short essay, I intend to dispute the effectiveness of the almost mystical quality of ishin denshin, and highlight how plain lack of communication, it would also happen in any other national culture, eventually leads to misunderstanding, uncertainty and ignorance, something which ishin denshin cannot make up for or fill in the gaps. For this purpose, I have selected a few scenes from two recent Japanese films, GURURI NO KOTO (All Around Us, dir. Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008) and KONZEN TOKKYU (Cannonball Wedlock, dir. Koji Maeda, 2011), though other numerous film works could have been used just as well. Think of BATTLE ROYALE for instance, a film in which, Colette Balmain puzzlingly argues, "It is the conflict between obligations towards the outside world (giri) and towards oneself (ninjo), specific to Japan, that leads to violence and apocalyptic destruction rather than a simple clash between the value systems of adults and adolescents" (10)(11). Simultaneously, BATTLE ROYALE exhibits the total failure of ishin denshin as, scene after scene, it features feelings of love, going undetected by their young protagonists, and which are finally revealed in dramatic and bloody endings.

(Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

We begin with GURURI NO KOTO. It is 1993, Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) are expecting the arrival of their first child. Shoko thinks that Kanao does not seem to take seriously his imminent fatherhood. He runs a little shoe-repair shop where he makes advances to all his female customers. He also keeps breaking the promise made to her of returning home before ten on the designated days they have scheduled to have sex. He has also decided, without consulting her, to quit the shop and switch to a job as a courtroom sketch artist. After losing her child, Shoko struggles with depression. During one of their multiple "kibun tenkan" (literally, change of mood), or change of residence, and while going through the removal, she drops some of the drawings made by her husband in the courtroom. Among them she also finds a drawing of a baby. As she looks at it she murmurs, "So he was happy" (about the baby), and visible annoyed she continues, "He should have said that". Quite clearly, though both being Japanese, Shoko has been all along incapable of reading what Kanao really felt about having a baby. Did her ishin denshin malfunction this time? Or was it that a little more of verbal communication between both of them would have avoided this unfortunate late discovery?

Let's look at another scene to better illustrate my point. Later in the film, when their relationship has hit rock bottom, she asks him if he was sad about the death of the baby. He coldly responds it was just too bad. "Too bad?", she snaps back, "So if I died, would you cry? Or would it be just too bad?. Kanao then confesses that he did not even cry when his father hanged himself, as he felt his suicide was a sort of betrayal. "Even today, nobody knows why he did it. Nobody knows what goes on in someone's heart", he concludes, exposing the limitations of this peculiarly Japanese form of telepathic communication. For the sake of argument, some might reason that Kanao and Shoko are still a newly-wed couple, although already in their early thirties, and consequently they have not had the time to develop ishin-denshin communication. A valid point that, however, one of the last scenes in the next film under study, KONZEN TOKKYU, would disallow.

In this film, Chie (Yuriko Yoshitaka) is a 24-year-old office worker hanging out with five different men. One day, Chie's best friend, Toshiko (Anne), announces that she is getting married and encourages Chie to do so. While she initially rejects this idea, she cannot but notice Toshiko's happiness at the wedding ceremony and begins to rank her boyfriends according to their good and bad qualities. Then, she decides to break up first with the ones having the lowest scores. The first one she gets rid of is Takumi (Kenta Hamano), whom Chie after, a long list of negative qualities, can only find a good point: raku (easygoing). As it turns out, Takumi comes in the end as the best choice. Following much trouble, jealousy games, mutual deceit and misunderstanding, the climactic scene arrives at Takumi's apartment. Here a fight breaks out between them when Chie gets angry at Takumi for not giving her a reason of why he loves her. After some wrestling, we see them both crashing through the wall and landing on the floor of the neighbor's apartment, an old lady living alone who was quietly having her breakfast. The lady asks them what had happened and they commence to blame each other. The lady tells them to stop and listen to her story. She confesses them that she had a really kind husband who always and quietly put up with her anger and selfishness. Just before he got sick and bedridden, he got angry just once and threw his tea at her, the stain still visible on the wall. During all those years of marriage he had held back and kept his temper, something that extremely shocked her. So, she advises the young couple that, as long as they are alive, they must quarrel with all their strength.

(Koji Maeda, 2011)

What could pass for silent mutual agreement could just be unwillingness to risk confrontation. A long marriage did not secure her a better understanding of her husband true feelings, ishin denshin did not sense what a ticking bomb her husband was turning into, and could not foresee the consequent explosion. One of those cliches surrounding the long-lasting Western-Japanese dichotomy is the Japanese's view that Westerners talk too much and tend to overanalyze everything exhaustively, and that, on the other hand, Westerners feel that the Japanese talk too little and hardly never seriously about themselves or any other important matters. With these three scenes I wanted to bring to the fore how with lack of "verbal" communication the lives of the Japanese, as well as the ones of any other human being living on this planet, are mired in confusion and misunderstanding. Here, therefore, is my small contribution to the banality of Japanese Film Studies.


  1. Davies, Roger J. and Ikeno, Osamu The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, p. 103. (return)
  2. Pulvers, Roger, Japanese betray some blinkered views of their foreign coworkers. (return)
  3. Chan, Amanda L., 16 Habits Of Highly Sensitive People. (return)
  4. Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, p.17.(return)
  5. Ibid., p. 18. (return)
  6. McRoy, Jay (editor), Japanese Horror Cinema p. 5. (return)
  7. Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, p. 36.(return)
  8. Ibid, p. 36.(return)
  9. Sharp, Jasper, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. (return)
  10. Balmain, Colette, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, p. x.(return)
  11. In my essay Fukasaku and Scorsese: Yakuzas and Gangsters I also succumbed to the allure of searching for traces of the moral conflict giri-ninjo in a film like MEAN STREETS (Martin Scorsese, 1973). There I argue that the character interpreted by Harvey Keitel (Charlie) clearly showed the classic tension between these two opposing values of the ninkyo-eiga ("chivalry films") of the 1960s. "Mean Streets in many ways shares the giri-ninjo conflict that prevails in the yakuza eiga. The giri is evoked as Charlie tries to remain loyal to his uncle Giovanni (an oyabun-like figure who oversees order in the community). The ninjo aspects are his deep-rooted Catholicism, which supports his inclination to help Charlie (Robert de Niro), and his love for his cousin Teresa". (page 345) (return)


Balmain, Colette Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Chan, Amanda L. 16 Habits Of Highly Sensitive People, in The Huffington Post, posted: 02/26/2014.

da Silva, Joaquin Reseña de The Yakuza Movie Book,s published 27/09/2004.

da Silva, Joaquin Fukasaku and Scorsese: Yakuzas and Gangsters, in Gangster Film Reader edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 2007.

Davies, Roger J. and Ikeno, Osamu The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture,Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

McRoy, Jay (editor) Japanese Horror Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

McRoy, Jay Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema, Rodopi, 2007.

Nygren, Scott Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Pulvers, Roger Japanese betray some blinkered views of their foreign coworkers in Japan Times, July 4, 2010.

Sharp, Jasper Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, book review in Midnighteye, Published 9 March 2009.

Schilling, Mark Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films, Stonebridge, 2003.

Yoshimito, Mitsuhiro Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000.

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©Joaquín da Silva
Fecha de publicación: 24/3/2014