From the earliest filmed version of the 47 rônin story to Princess Mononoke, Japanese filmmakers have shown a fascination for historical events. And despite constantly carping about the inaccuracy of most historical films, many historians are secret fans of the genre. But what happens to history when it is put on film? Can filmed history ever measure up to written history? Can written history ever captivate us the way a good movie can? What role do movies play in the formation and dissemination of ideas about history?

In this course we’ll try to come to terms with these questions as we view and discuss a number of films about Japan and its past. We’ll look at how different directors have conceptualized the nation and its history (Kurosawa’s epic portrayals of medieval Japan in Kagemusha and the Seven Samurai, for instance, or Mizoguchi’s rather different vision of the same era in Sanshô the Bailiff). We’ll consider filmmakers' attempts to address “difficult” topics (like World War II and the Occupation, as in Imamura Shôhei’s Black Rain or Kamei Fumio's A Japanese Tragedy), and we’ll read what historians have written about the same subjects. We’ll compare their strengths and weaknesses in order to judge how history changes as it moves from print to film and back again. And while we’ll see some samurai swashbucklers, the course will try to show that Japanese history isn’t just about swords and samurai.