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Japanese Film at Georgetown: Professor Michael McCaskey


Professor Michael McCaskey teaches courses on Japanese film at Georgetown. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)


By Akoto Ofori-Atta

For the first time in history, Japan took home two Oscars this year in categories never before won by Japanese film—evidence that this genre of film is growing in recognition and popularity. The timing could not be more perfect for Georgetown professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures Michael McCaskey, whose current research focus is on Japanese film.

“It’s a good time to write about him and his work,” McCaskey said of legendary Japanese filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Akira Kurosawa.

According to McCaskey, English books and research about Kurosawa have always been simple summaries of his films in chronological order. But as film professionals prepare to celebrate what would be Kurosawa’s hundredth birthday next year, McCaskey said he wants to write about Kurosawa’s life in a way that has not been done in English. As a base for his research, McCaskey will use a complete seven volume edition of Kurosawa’s work, consisting of Kurosawa’s own notes and scripts for all films in which he was involved—many of which have never been discussed or even summarized in English. Through this method, McCaskey hopes to bring something new to academic discussions about Kurosawa’s ingenious work.

“I’m more interested in studying Kurosawa and his work in terms of the socioeconomic and political changes he lived through,” McCaskey explained. “Kurosawa himself wrote a short autobiography taking these perspectives into account, but it is more like a series of short stories he wrote about selected incidents in his life.”

McCaskey’s research on Kurosawa acted as the perfect preparation for a new course he will teach this coming fall entitled “Kurosawa: A History of Film,” which covers all of Kurosawa’s major works.  

“I’ve seen all Kurosawa’s films, either in theaters or on Japanese DVDs, and I was very impressed by how different many of the films are from each other, and how great all the films are,” McCaskey said. “I’m now able to deal with all of them in this course, and it’s a very exciting opportunity.”

Having his research interests and his classes so closely related is a bonus, and successfully teaching courses based on his interests in Japanese film is a perk he credits to the advent of the “staple of home entertainment—the DVD." The technology allowed McCaskey to see films shortly after they open in Japan, and gave him the opportunity to cover subjects and movies that are not offered in conventional textbooks. 

“Since the mid-1990s my main interest has been the study of Japanese film, and the DVD made it possible to study films on a scale that would only have been possible in a large film museum.”

Although McCaskey’s interest in Japanese film peaked in the ‘90s, he has long had a deep interest and passion for film studies. At the undergraduate level, he studied at New York University, where he notes he learned much about film, theatre and “the arts in general.” He then attended Stanford University to focus more on Asian culture, and completed an M.A. program in Asian Languages. He finished his education at Yale University, where he earned a PhD in East Asian Languages and Linguistics.

His extensive background in language and linguistics afforded him the opportunity to be involved in other interesting projects, including the compilation of two dictionaries; one Chinese to English, and another electronic Japanese-English-German dictionary. While he was Director of Georgetown University’s Language Research Center for three years, he wrote encyclopedia articles about Japanese history and culture, as well as Japanese linguistics.

“I also wrote a long study of ‘Medieval Japanese Buddhist Pilgrimages’,” McCaskey said. “But movies are much more enjoyable for me.”
 
And film is where McCaskey wants to stay. As a child growing up in an international community in Kobe, Japan, his interest in film has never waned. At one point, it even led him to try out his own filmmaking abilities.  

“I was involved in making two films, both of which were shown in LA, but were forgotten soon after that,” McCaskey joked.   

But he is certain that he will continue to study film, and to give Georgetown students who take his courses a rich and fruitful experience. He noted that he while living in New York, San Francisco and Japan, he would regularly visit theatres to see European and Asian films. It’s that kind of experience that Professor McCaskey wants to leverage to give his students a unique perspective.

“Now I’ve been able to use the knowledge I’ve gained from my movie-going experiences to create courses I very much enjoy teaching.” He continued, “I’d like to go on studying and teaching about film for the rest of my life.”
 

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