AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 76

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Session 76: A Panorama of Japanese Film Theory: Social and Political Practices of Cinema

Organizer: Miryam Sas, University of California, Berkeley, USA

This is an alternative format panel, with five panelists summarizing their main points (10-15 minutes each) and sociologist/media theorist Ueno Toshiya responding, followed by open discussion. Each panelist addresses, from the perspective of a different key moment in Japanese film theory, a central problem: the impact of socio-political issues on the medium and practices of cinema and its theorization. This interrogation considers socio-politics not as external to cinema, but instead views the theorization of cinema as inherently a mode of questioning the social and political, with film as a political medium and participant in social and political movements. Aaron Gerow sets the stage with an analysis of key prewar figure Nagae Michitarō. Patrick Noonan then bridges the prewar and postwar with an analysis of Proletarian Film theory in comparison with the theories of cinematic movement of Adachi Masao. Other key postwar moments include the debates on experimental film and documentary of Matsumoto Toshio (Miryam Sas), theories of documentary and subject-object relationships of Hani Susumu and Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Justin Jesty), and the “cine-clubs” that held their own theorization of spectatorship as a political act (Ryan Cook). What emerges is a nascent intellectual history of Japanese film theory drawn through these five key moments. We work against the tendency, also sometimes visible within Japanese film theory, to polarize “art” as Japanese and “theory” as Western (Japanese film as an “object” of analysis by Euro-American “tools”) and thus push forward an emergent area in the field of Japanese film and media study.

The Loneliness of the Leftist Theorist: Nagae Michitarō and the Cinematic Everyday
Aaron A. Gerow, Yale University, USA

After the proletarian film movement was suppressed by 1933, theory became one of the last remaining realms for radical cinematic practice in prewar Japan. Nagae Michitarō, once a leftist student at Kyoto University, turned to film theory in the 1930s as a means of contemplating a re-appropriation of the everyday present through cinema. His theory, culminating in the monograph Cinema, Expression, Formation, published in 1942, looked to cinema as a mode of overcoming the spatial and temporal divisions of bourgeois art, becoming the first amongst the various media to allow for the projection, tracing, transmission, and commuting (in the sense of kayou) of a live, present envelope of meaning connecting human beings and the world. The irony, however, is that the theoretical imagination of cinematic transcendence of alienation masked a loneliness in practice. While many other leftists, from Gonda Yasunosuke to Tosaka Jun and Nakai Masakazu, also attempted to conceive of a cinematic return to the everyday, Nagae exemplifies how these efforts became increasingly solitary and isolated from the everyday as the war approached. In that, we can see not only the tragedy of prewar leftist film theory, but also the continuing problem of pursuing film theory in a political and cultural climate that, even after the war, was not conducive to the project of theory.

Moving Masses: Ontology and Ideology in Revolutionary Japanese Film Theory
Patrick Noonan, Northwestern University, USA

Movement and the masses have been key concepts in debates over the political and social potential of cinema. Some critics have contended that the cinema should functions as a means to harness the masses’ transformational capacities, while others have argued that the cinema should contain it. In this paper, I examine a particular strand of film theory that sees “movement” in cinema, on and off screen, as a means to transform the masses’ perception of themselves and their social being. I trace prewar Leftist film theory (the Proletarian Film Movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s) and compare it to Adachi Masao’s 1974 book, A Battle Strategy For Film. I thus explore how revolutionary film theory in Japan understood movement in the cinema as both an ideological and an ontological device for instigating a new social reality on national and global scales. For the theorists I consider, the capacity for film to function simultaneously as a means to deliver information and to emotionally affect an audience – in short, to function as propaganda - makes it an ideal tool for organizing the masses and instigating political change. Although I locate instances where prewar and postwar theories intersect, I also consider how the relationship between cinematic “movement” and the masses in each particular theory addressed issues specific to their historical and political situations. Key subjects addressed include the shifts in parts that affect the whole; representations of revolutionary movements; and the organization of people to shoot, screen, and watch films.

The Politics of Subjectivity: Matsumoto Toshio on Materiality and Film
Miryam Sas, University of California, Berkeley, USA

How can one theorize “things”? Why is it that materiality (busshitsusei) has such a prominent role in the writings of 1960s theories of film, art, and animation? There is a strong political dimension in the ways theorists of experimental animation, visual arts (Mono-ha), and documentary film wrote about artistic practices as they related to technology, to the material world of objects, and to the rapidly transforming urban landscape. This paper centers on the debates of Matsumoto Toshio with other filmmakers and writers of his time, as he articulated the role of film in the world of commercialized media, documentary, and experimental arts. Aspects of Marxist thought meet psychoanalytic theories of the subject and media theory within Matsumoto’s deft and complex formulations that (nonetheless) had a powerful impact in their time. Matsumoto writes of the “dépaysement” of the image in the urban landscape and the “critical laugh” in cinema that interrupts everyday time and space. A politics emerges through a critique of given frameworks of thought and perception, as social space comes to be interrupted and defamiliarized in cinematic work. This paper attends to Matsumoto’s dialogue with key moments international film and film theory, as well as his central participation in local and specific cultural and historical “scenes” (ATG, the experimental documentary movement) in order to understand the particular kind of alternative “politics” of subjectivity Matsumoto espoused within the milieu of more adamant and overt expressions of protest in the 1960s.

The Work of Living Things: the Films and Theory of Hani Susumu and Tsuchimoto Noriaki
Justin Jesty, University of Washington, USA

This paper traces the connections in theory and practice between two seminal documentary filmmakers. Hani Susumu is regarded as a postwar pioneer, the first to use a non-scripted, observational approach to filmmaking. His innovations opened the door to a generation of independent filmmakers, including Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, who worked under Hani as an assistant director. I outline the development of Hani’s film theory and practice, which drew from sources ranging from pragmatist psychology to Italian neo-realism, to the work of Okada Susumu, who was Japanese translator of Andre Bazin. I then consider how Tsuchimoto took on and altered certain of these ideas in his more activist filmmaking, especially his Minamata documentaries. The paper focuses on the directors’ interest in embedded positions and –emic forms of knowledge, while highlighting how this did not degenerate into a romance for the margins, or an attempt to efface the filmmaker’s agency. Both directors were highly conscious of filmmaking as a practice and art. I argue that their primary interest lay in film’s ability to represent emergent social realities – relations among children in a classroom, the development of a social movement, and most importantly, the relationship between the filmmaker and filmed subject – in such a way that the potential for change always seemed present, and the social body always available to the work of living things.

Film Appreciation in Crisis: The Postwar Japanese Cine-Club Movement and the Resistance to Cinephilia, at the Crossroads of Aesthetics and Politics
Ryan Cook, Yale University, USA

From the mid-1950s, when film exhibition in Japan was under studio control, an alternative film culture took shape in the form of cine-clubs and film circles. Operating on membership dues and in donated facilities, these non-professional groups exhibited films independently, and through the 1960s many also published journals, hosted seminars, and even produced films. By the end of the 1960s the movement began to unravel amidst self-criticism, which in extreme cases renounced film itself. Looking to ways cine-clubs (especially Kyoto Documentary Viewing Society and Suginami Cine-Club) theorized film and their own engagement with it, I trace how the movement always eschewed mere “film appreciation” in search of an ideal that attempted to unify “maker and receiver,” “creation and appreciation.” Paralleling the 1950s “Life Document Movement” in literature, in which amateur writers’ circles emphasized individual experience, the cine-club movement also sought to put film in the hands of the non-professional individual. But it was not sufficient to reclaim film from commercial industry. Cine-club statements reveal a profound conflict between film enthusiasm and a “movement” mentality not content with cinema as an end in itself, but which saw in film a means to an end. I argue that the suspicion with which many cine-clubs regarded “cinephilia” speaks to a paradox, one that reflects not only the difficulties of a film theory that sought to elevate the viewer to the subjective position of author, but also a broader struggle around the relationship of aesthetics and politics in postwar cultural reconstruction.