Blurred boundaries: Ethnofiction and its impact on postwar Japanese cinema

Jennifer Coates

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This article explores the use of ethnofiction, a technique emerging from the field of visual anthropology, which blends documentary and fiction filmmaking for ethnographic purposes. From Imamura Sh¯ohei’s A Man Vanishes (Ningen j¯ohatsu, 1967) to Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Cafe Lumieré (K¯ohi jik¯o, 2003), Japanese cinema, including Japan-set and Japan-associated cinema, has employed ethnofiction filmmaking techniques to alternately exploit and circumvent the structural barriers to filmmaking found in everyday life. Yet the dominant understanding in Japanese visual ethnography positions ethnofiction as an imported genre, reaching Japan through Jean Rouch and French cinema-verité. Blending visual analysis of Imamura and Hou’s ethnofiction films with an auto-ethnographic account of my own experience of four years of visual anthropology in Kansai, I interrogate the organizational barriers constructed around geographical perception and genre definition to argue for ethnofiction as a filmmaking technique that simultaneously emerged in French cinema-verité and Japanese feature filmmaking of the 1960s. Blurring the boundaries between Japanese, French, and East Asian co-production films, and between documentary and fiction genres, allows us to understand ethnofiction as a truly global innovation, with certain regional specificities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2019


  • ethnofiction
  • Japan
  • documentary
  • non-fiction
  • dramatization

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