Transcending national boundaries,
the Japan Foundation Asia Center carries out
cultural exchange programs to build up heart-to-heart
relationships between people and enrich the future of Asia.


From Film Adaptations to Young Vietnamese People's Growing Interest in Japanese Literature―Dao Le Na

Report / Asian Literature Project "YOMU" (Vietnam)

Thanks to the advent of cinema, stories have been given a new platform, through which to make their journey and, in doing so, bring a multitude of experiences to their audiences. The discourse of a particular narrator is encoded within a film's cinematic language, creating layers of meaning that enable viewers to explore each story from various viewpoints. By their very nature, films have both a visual and an auditory impact: they easily attract an audience, making cinema an effective medium for complex stories, cultural issues, and the specific aesthetics within each area to be conveyed.

1. The Process of Watching a Film Adaptation before Reading the Source Text

For a considerable time in adaptation studies, researchers have been very interested in the modifications necessitated by adapting a literary source into a film: a filmmaker's means of interpreting and changing the story and the audience's reaction after watching the film adaptation. Therefore, it could be said that film adaptation is simply a means of reading the literary work developed by the filmmakers themselves. These filmmakers perceive and communicate with issues expressed in the content of literary works that they take an interest in. A novel can contain a wealth of different messages, and equally, each reader can be inspired by different issues. Therefore, audiences who read a book before watching the film adaptation often cannot help but compare the story of the film with their experience of reading the source text. If the audience recognizes that particular details included in the source text have been omitted, for instance, or if the film adaptation does not in some way meet their expectations, they may dislike it. This assessment could be viewed as inherently unfair toward these film adaptations, as each person has an entirely different experience; just as each reader's reception of the same literary work will be different. Besides, although the film adaptation was born after the literary work—but told in another language—audiences must understand the cinematic language to decode the messages contained in the film. However, many viewers are likely to only pass judgment upon the film's story and, in doing so, ignore the cinematic language and consequently not grasp the true meaning of the cinematic work.

In recent years, the development of digital technology has attracted an increasing number of young people to cinema. In the past, many viewers tended to watch film adaptations because of the reputation of literary works. Recently, however, younger audiences choose contrarily to watch a film adaptation before deciding whether to read the source text. This dynamic has enabled these younger audiences to empathize to a greater extent with the film adaptations, to be more receptive to their content, and, for the most part, to avoid any tendencies toward judging a film adaptation as simply better or worse than its literary counterpart.

Watching a film adaptation first and then reading a literary work afterward, therefore, enables one to more easily accept newly added details that may have been omitted or changed: because the reader has not read the literary work before, they are not aware of any of these modifications to begin with. Since some have not read the book before watching the film adaptation, they may not, therefore, have quite such high expectations as those who have.

In the digital age, young readers can often be distracted by the ever-increasing variety of forms of entertainment: movies, television, social media, etc. Taking the time to read a full-length novel in such circumstances could be considered quite a challenge. Therefore, many of these young people decide to watch film adaptations to make initial contact with the literary work. If the film adaptation is interesting enough, they may well decide to then read the source texts to learn more about the story or to explore other aspects of the work. Sometimes, for instance, a source text may help its reader to understand more deeply a particular character's psychology. Aspects of the source text, such as inner monologues, dialogues, actions, etc., cannot always be covered through cinematic language. Furthermore, due to a film's time constraints and the continuous showing of the film in a certain period, audiences can be prevented from fully grasping its intended meaning.

2. Impact of Film Adaptation on Reading Japanese Literature

Over the years, Japanese cinema and literature have become increasingly popular in Vietnam. Cultural exchange programs, Japanese film festivals, talks on cinema, art, mini-lecture series, Ikebana workshops, the Inoue Yasushi Prize, Japanese and Vietnamese Haiku contests, and also the Kurosawa Akira Film Week have all contributed to creating a strong attraction for young Vietnamese people toward Japanese culture. Japanese topic books are constantly being published, such as The Other Face of the Moon, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, and so on. However, of all media, cinema can be considered one of the most powerful and effective tools with which to promote Japanese culture and literature to another country.

Many young Vietnamese people have expressed difficulty in reading Japanese literary work because of the complexity of the plot and the philosophical issues contained, and so they have chosen to watch the film adaptation first and then read the literary sources afterward. This can be a useful and effective technique when it comes to classic literary works or for especially picky readers. A student studying Japanese literature shares the impact of watching the film adaptation of Beauty and Sadness by KAWABATA Yasunari first and then reading the source book after. He remarked, "After watching the movie, and then reading Beauty and Sadness, I easily grasped the story and [could] imagine the setting and the characters. My experience is much more vivid. In addition, I did not react negatively when I found the change in the content of the film adaptation in comparison with the book."*1 Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness is not an easy read: it delves into the inner world of people through the beauty of literary language, and because the work does not focus upon drama and moral issues, its pace is consequently quite slow. This issue can inadvertently become a barrier, with younger people often not patient enough to read the entire work because they find it difficult to grasp. In addition, the film adaptation often uncovers the "soul" of literary works: when the audience watches the film adaptation, they will perceive that soul, even if the film adaptation changes the plot or details. Therefore, when watching the film adaptation first, readers may see the characters, setting, and atmosphere of the story. The images and sounds from the movie will directly affect the viewers, enabling them to better grasp the story and remember it more easily. Consequently, watching a film adaptation first can be considered essentially the first reading of a literary work, helping readers grasp the story and the soul of the work. Reading a book after watching a film adaptation can, in a sense, be considered a second reading, helping readers add information not covered in the film and to better understand a particular character's psychology, to more easily follow the story because the images from the movie still linger in their minds. A young Vietnamese student who read KITO Aya' s 1 Litre of Tears after watching the TV series of the same name commented, "I used to read the book 1 Litre of Tears after watching the movie. The film has provided me with many images, making me to be touched by the actor's acting easily. However, the book helps me to see the inner self of Aya—the main character. When I watched the movie, I thought that she has felt very hopeless, but when I read the book, I realized that the protagonist was always optimistic, and hopeful. Watching the movie first seemed to help me read the book faster because it didn't take long time to draw the scene in my head, the words just flowed and the pages of the book turned into real footage. Even the dialogue seems to be heard by the character's voice."*2

*1 Shared by a male student, born in 2004, who frequently watches film adaptations before reading books

*2 Shared by a female student, born in 2000, who sometime watches film adaptations before reading books

In the process of learning and studying Japanese literature, many young people also read books first because of the attractiveness of the titles and the covers, and often they may be introduced to them by a friend. However, many young people tend to give up midway because the pace of the story was too slow or the story was too difficult for them to understand. Therefore, when the books' film adaptations are released, they then decide to watch the movie first, and then return to complete the unfinished literary work or re-read it from the beginning. Another reader elaborated on this process when she talked about ICHIKAWA Takuji's Be With You: "To be honest, I initially bought the book because of its good title and beautiful cover, but after reading a few chapters, I was not very interested because of the opening paragraph. The description of daily life scenes is not very attractive. However, when watching the movie, I was touched and cried a lot. I began to patiently re-read the book, then I understood every emotion hidden behind the simple, normal things of this love story. I really realized the beauty of the novel, gently cooling down like a summer shower, then it still fascinates me."*3

*3 Shared by a female reader, born in 1991, who sometime watches film adaptations before reading books

Even MURAKAMI Haruki—an author whose works have been translated and loved by many Vietnamese students—is often considered to have works that are not always an easy read. Therefore, many readers have to decide whether to watch the movie first to find inspiration; even though after reading the book, readers may prefer the literary work to the movie. Another student did not hesitate to share her experience in this regard: "With Norwegian Wood, my experience was a bit rough. I read more than half of the book but for some reason I didn't continue reading. By the time the film adaptation was released, I went to see, and after that re-reading the whole book. With Norwegian Wood, I like books more than the movie. The film adaptation is interesting but it was too influenced by Tran Anh Hung's style, it doesn't make me empathize as much as the book."*4

*4 Shared by a young reader, born in 1994, who frequently watches film adaptations before reading books

It can be said that watching the film adaptation first and then reading the book afterward not only inspires audiences to read literary works adapted into movies but also helps readers better understand the story from the film. It satisfies their curiosity about the source text being made into a movie and also promotes literary works. Many people know Akutagawa's short stories from watching Rashomon, MURATA Kiyoko's work from watching Rhapsody in August, Princess Kaguya Hime from watching the animation film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and NOSAKA Akiyuki's novel from watching the movie Grave of the Fireflies.

It can be demonstrated that the advancement of digital technology has changed the way many young people read books and watch movies, and the tendency to watch film adaptations before reading books has increased in turn. Whether reading books or watching movies first, literature and film remain effective forms of media that help to spread stories, knowledge, lifestyle, culture, and so on to a wide range of young people.

Translated from Vietnamese by the author

Dao Le Na
Dr. Dao Le Na is currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar for academic year 2021-2022 in the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the United States. She is also a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Literature of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City. She has published several books in adaptation studies and has written numerous essays in various academic journals. She was also the chief editor for Contemporary Japanese and Vietnamese Cinema: Cultural Exchanges and Influences (The Information and Communication Publishing House, 2019).