Dr. Karen Gygli, Chair of Communication and Theatre Arts

What can students learn from your course regarding Mexican and Japanese film?
So many of my students have only seen big Hollywood blockbuster films, and those films increasingly have become formulaic and dull, in my opinion. Unfortunately also, some U.S. students really think that the Hollywood model is the only filmmaking model in the world, and the best one. By seeing films from Japan and Mexico, films that have influenced and inspired many Hollywood filmakers such as George Lucas and Quentin Tarentino, students hopefully gain a broader sense of what film can do, and also learn that Hollywood is not the only, nor is it the best, film industry. Also, a film from another culture is like a little window into a whole new world. You can begin to appreciate and learn about how other cultures see and do things.

What are some of the movies that students can expect to explore in your class?
In my course, I try to present both classic and contemporary films of today from Japan and Mexico. I also try to show a variety of filmmakers and genres. I show Kurosawa’s famous Rashoman, but also his lesser known film Drunken Angel, which was the first to feature international star Toshiro Mifune as a young yakuza or gangster dying from tuberculosis in the post-World War II American-occupied Tokyo. We watch anime like My Neighbor Totoro along with art house films like Onibaba about two women who survive by murdering samurai warriors and selling their armor. The Mexican “golden age” of cinema is represented with a Pedro Infante musical called Nosotros Los Pobres (We the Poor), but we also watch the controversial contemporary film Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama Too). In both these films, Mexico’s class and racial tensions drive the story.

What are some of the main themes the films cover?
I guess I was most interested in how people in these films create and maintain their sense of identity, but also what happens when that sense of identity is threatened by either external events or internal changes. By seeing what is important to these characters, we can learn not only about fellow human beings,but about specific elements of Japanese or Mexican culture that might be different from how Americans see themselves or behave.

What do you find most interesting about Mexican and Japanese culture?
In Mexican culture, I am very interested the relationship between indigenous culture of the Aztecs or the Mayas with the Spanish/European culture, and the “mestizo” sense in Mexico of being a mixture of these cultures. In the films, there are interesting racial and class differences that come to light. In Japanese culture, I am interested in the sense of nature, of history and of community. I find that some of the aesthetics of filmmaking are very different. For example, some of the most suspense-filled and exciting moments in a samurai film such as Sanjuro is the moment BEFORE the actual big fight takes place. There’s a scene before the final big fight between Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai where they stand and stare at each other for what feels like a really long time. In other words, a moment where NOTHING seems to be happening is even more exciting than the actual fight itself. In both cultures, I find it interesting to notice how my assumptions about space, community and filmmaking are culturally-determined when I thought they were just “the natural way of doing things.”