Report: Kinema Club XIII

Julia Alekseyeva, Ryan Cook, Verina Gfader

Report: Kinema Club XIII is a write-up of the January 2014 Kinema Club conference at Harvard University, tracing some of the overall concerns of this multilayered conference—on the potentials and limits of historiography—through the voices of three presenters.

Although the 13th edition of the Kinema Club conference centered on three (plus one) years of Japanese history largely seen as pivotal in the context of film and media studies—1927, 1962/3, and 1992, with the addition of 1973 in honor of the Reischauer Institute’s founding—the talks themselves displayed more heterogeneous approaches than an adherence to important dates. As evidenced by the concluding roundtable, led by Alex Zahlten, Mark Nornes, Hikari Hori, Aaron Gerow, and Diane Lewis, the theme of historiography was an especially prevalent one for the conference, and was arguably also intrinsic to a number of the presentations. Emphasis on historiography has often been a pronounced characteristic of studies of national cinema, where researchers have been tempted to categorize a country’s film history as a series of “periods” and “shifts” (Lewis). However, the presentations marked a different tendency, moving away from such teleological models of film history into less bound/territorialized debates, on the condition of an expanded geopolitical space and knowledge space. One exciting effect of listening to these talks was the sense we shared that they were, as a whole, simultaneously working within and pushing against the productive limitations of periodization. The conference left us with the impression that the Kinema Club group was rising to the organizer’s challenge of rethinking Japanese film history by re-exploring the basis for understanding important historical shifts as such, with the effect of putting a more traditional Hegelian teleology–defined by retroactively analyzing historical moments as leading up to an important event later seen as inevitable—into question.

This, however, does not imply that the talks given were against periodization in its own right; many seemed to be working toward different, provocative, or more challenging, historical (or historical–conceptual) models. In the roundtable talk, Nornes reflected on the history and presumed contemporaneity of Kinema Club itself and the coinciding trends in film historiography and Japan Studies. He noted that the present moment in Japanese media research seemed to be one increasingly comfortable with its role in both cinema and media studies, and moreover that current research seemed to be able to use theory as an object while also considering its place in history. This tendency in part describes an emergent segment of researchers in the field, though more seasoned scholars continue to forge such paths as well. One generational characteristic highlighted by Nornes was the fact that the training of many junior Japanese film scholars now involves formal Japanese language training and/or coursework, joint Ph.D. programs, or other forms of institutional support and credentials that place film research in relationships of one kind or another to the disciplinary framework of Japan studies or area studies. Today’s graduate students also have the benefit of studying with mentors whose careers have already navigated between these two orientations, whereas Japanese film research at the time when Kinema Club originated in the early 1990s was a much more pioneering enterprise, as Nornes recalled.  It strikes us that there may be exciting possibilities for future research in the shift (if that is in fact what has happened) from charting territory and forward expeditions toward reflection, rethinking, rewriting, and speculating on trajectories of historical sense and established knowledge systems. In their concluding remarks, both Nornes and Lewis focused on the necessity to view history as “shifting constellations” and “synchronous histories” rather than settling for a teleological view of historical eras and boundaries. Relatedly, Gerow emphasized that local histories should not be overlooked amid the currency of transnational approaches, and signaled that many local-level subjects (that may require local-level research methods, such as gathering oral histories) await the attention of scholars.

Questioning historiographical categorization, however—especially by rhetorics of ‘shift’ and ‘turn’ which seem to prevail in today’s artistic and cultural readings (educational turn, curatorial turn, and so on)—can lead to different ways of engaging with materials and material agency. Without going into a detailed theoretical argumentation here, two references can illustrate the currency of this concern. Thomas Lamarre (2002) in his essay “Between Cinema and Anime” talks about a “relational” approach to anime, which itself tends to emphasize “relations rather than objects,” (p. 186) and the potential of “material” as a discursive construction. He reminds us of the traps of defining and typologizing, which “invariably construct objects [and] foreclose thinking about relations” (p. 186), thereby underlining ontologies of cinema, animation, and anime; within scholarship this translates into a feeling of obligation to construct objects of knowledge.

Secondly, in his book Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (2008), Brandon W. Joseph discusses the phenomenon of a so-called minor history, as opposed to a major one, and emphasizes the different kind of development minor history enacts: it is not as anonymous, neutral or independent, as one may think, but operates alongside an existing major historical form. It “impacts or passes by each categorical point, each acknowledged grouping.” (p. 51) These minor histories are not necessarily counter–histories in the sense that they do not seek to represent a clearly defined model of resistance or counter–model, and they are not as such an active critique or position toward major history; rather these minor histories are understood as deviations from a major history, and as transforming major histories on the level of estranging and discretely expanding them toward a future. Essentially, they are a model of (collective) creativity and are processual by nature.

How then could our contemporary use of historiography within the context of Japanese film and media studies be further expanded or imagined differently? What are its internal and external limits? These are questions raised by the explorations (including the willful neglect) of periodization and history in the presentations and discussions at Kinema Club XIII, where Japanese film and media studies emerged as a field full of possibilities for relational approaches and minor histories.

The conference as a whole was among the largest of recent Kinema Club events, attracting participants from around the world. Markus Nornes and Aaron Gerow used the occasion to announce the launch of a new (or rather, a revived) web presence for Kinema Club.  The conference concluded with a call for contributions to the web site, which is envisioned as a public database of materials related to Japanese film studies: syllabi, bibliographies, documents, translations, reports (like this one!), reviews, and so on. Several individuals also expressed interest in hosting Kinema Club conferences in the near future: there are initial plans for upcoming events in Japan and Canada.

PS: The recent Kinema Club XV at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt (June 5-6, 2015), timed to correspond with the Nippon Connection Film Festival, took up the theme of Film and Moving Images From Japan NOW - Film in the New Media Ecology.  This may point to further attempts at rethinking historiography.

Works cited:

Branden W. Joseph (2008) Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage. New York: Zone Books.

Thomas Lamarre (2002) “Between cinema and anime,” Japan Forum, 14: 2, 183–89. Published online December 9, 2010.­