Past Event: Kinema Club Workshop

Bantsuma movie poster

This event has passed.

Dates: Friday, March 26, 1999 to Sunday, March 28, 1999

Venue: University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

City and State: Ann Arbor, Michigan

Organizers: Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (NYU) and Abé Mark Nornes (UM)

Japanese Cinema Studies in the Rear View Mirror: Re-Viewing the Discipline

The purpose of this workshop is to enable participants to engage in collaborative reflection on a series of papers on the subject of Japanese cinema studies. It will use the occasion to prepare this work for a publication in the form of a journal issue or edited book.

The idea of a workshop with a publication as the final objective took shape over the last year, however, it has been the culmination of several years of discussion about the state of Japanese cinema studies in the United States. It is evident to all researchers and teachers in the field that we are in a state of flux. While the scholars who established the field came from film studies proper or from without academia, there are now people approaching Japanese cinema from a variety of disciplines including history, literature, area studies, anthropology, and comparative literature. It is apparent that the study of Japanese cinema now has no “home”—-this may be a unique strength, but it also has serious implications for anyone turning it into an academic career. At this moment of blurring disciplinary boundaries, many have come to feel the need to take stock of the situation: ask where we have come from and where we are going. What is the shape of our field, and what are the most pressing issues for future work?

Unlike film conferences where papers present research projects or analyze films, this workshop will deal specifically with meta-critical and methodological issues concerning the disciplinary and institutional problems of Japanese film scholarship. Likely discussion points include, but are certainly not limited to:

Papers that deal with questions of canon, specialization, research method,translation, theoretical paradigms past and future, pedogogy, historiography, the relationship to scholarship in Japan and the possibilities for collaboration, the problems and potentials of institutions, and the role of archives and libraries (paper and video tape collections). Authors may address topics like the avant-garde or melodrama, as long as they ask meta-critical questions: “Why has the avant-garde been ignored by Japanese cinema studies?” “What does this absence tell us about the underlying assumptions of Japanese cinema studies as a field?” “What needs to be changed?” To approach canon would be to ask if there is one, what its shape is and why, if we need one, or if there is none, why? After such discussions of substance, the group will devote the end of the workshop to drafting plans for a publication that explores the state of Japanese cinema studies in order to reconfigure it.

  • Deadline for proposals: September 30, 1998
  • Announcement of papers and presenters: October 15, 1998
  • Workshop: March 26 (Friday) through March 28 (Sunday), 1999

This workshop will feature six papers, which will be distributed and read beforehand. The number of participants will probably be larger, although our ability to support the visits of non-presenters will depend upon our success in receiving grants. (In any case, non-presenters who don’t mind sleeping on couches or floors can certainly be accomodated.)

Inquiries by mail should be directed to A.M. Nornes, Program in Film and Video Studies, University of Michigan, 2512 Frieze Building, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285 (Phone: 734-764-0147; FAX: 734-936-1846).


Papers at the workshop were pre-distributed and pre-read. Abstracts and final papers were put online on Kinema Club. This allowed us both to save the time and expense of copying and mailing the papers. More importantly, it meant that people unable to attend the workshop could still read the papers. In that sense, this experiment in distribution worked extremely well. However, writers were understandably nervous about putting such early drafts on the internet. The abstracts below were all written before the papers, and thus are now only gestures to the writers’ work as it is developing.

  • Eric Cazdyn (U of Oregon), “Film Historiography’s Other Object: Theorizing the History of Writing Japanese Film History”
  • Darrell Wm. Davis (Hong Kong), “Re-igniting Japanese Tradition with Hana-Bi” 
  • Aaron Gerow (Yokohama National U), “Japanese Cinema Studies Here and There: The Academic Subject in Global Culture” 
  • Jonathan Hall (UC Santa Cruz/U of Tokyo), “Sexual Worlds in National Films: Sexuality, the Dilemma of Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Stakes of Theory”
  • Kato Mikiro (U of Kyoto), “What is Japanese Cinema Studies as Such?: Some Tendencies of the Discipline in Japan” 
  • Joseph Murphy (U of Florida), “Is There a Discipline Called Japanese Cinema Studies?”

Some continuing/concluding thoughts from Yoshimoto and Nornes

The workshop met last week to consider the past, present and future of “Japanese cinema studies.” At the end of the weekend, a number of participants asked us to post come concluding remarks. After a week of off-line discussion, we offer this summary along with a set of possible points of action. Needless to say, we can only make gestures to the contours of the complicated discussion that took place. We hope that participants can post their own responses and conclusions, and extend that discussion to the wider audience.

I. It seems evident that there was an academic field called “Japanese Film Studies” starting from around the era of auteurism, and it was held together through the exercise of various film studies methodologies that found use value in films from Japan. This “use value” was something people like Stephen Heath were quite self-conscious about in their work, but it is something you can trace back to the writings of Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson whose writings were prominent for advancing certain critical and theoretical agendas within film studies. While there is a heterogeneous advance of debates over several decades, we can identify a period in which Japanese cinema signified more than just the cinema of Japan­the era of Richie’s “Kurosawa,” Bordwell/Thompson’s “Ozu,” Heath’s “Oshima,” Burch’s “golden age of Japanese cinema.” Put simply, film studies deployed “Japanese film” to consolidate itself into an institutionalized field of study.

II. This field of “Japanese film studies” has disappeared. Of course, many of these scholars are still quite productive, however, the identity coalescing around that earlier field is gone. Some may feel an impulsive nostalgia for some “golden age of Japanese film studies,” but at the workshop it was evident few people had given it much thought at all. One reason is probably that, ironically enough, despite the “disappearance of the field” there are more people researching and teaching Japanese film than ever before. While there seems to be a generalized lack of interest in Japanese film at SCS functions, there is a pronounced shift to lit, anthro, history, etc. that produces conferences, conference panels, research programs, articles and books. Anyone on the job market has noticed that the position announcements mentioning Japanese film are coming from various area studies and language & literature departments.

At the workshop, participants noted a “sense of crisis,” an expression we have not used. Rather, we think it is important that in the midst of this change, we proceed first with a sure sense of our own history. We can’t really talk about the field of Japanese cinema studies, various disciplines which claim their stake in this field, and institutional sites where knowledge on Japanese cinema is produced, disseminated, and consumed, without discussing the specific history and current state of the field and other concrete aspects of knowledge production (names of scholars, representative or canonical works, etc.). As an important corollary, it seems the participants at the table talked as if they knew what film studies, Japanese literary studies or area studies are….terms that are less than obvious to us. Further, participants working in Asia remind us that the new connections between Japan-based scholars and those in other institutional contexts mean that there is a politics of critical and institutional interaction that requires attention.

Exploring these questions is the first step in harnessing the energies that are creating today’s flux. We note that while a surge in Japanese moving image media pedagogy is occurring in undergraduate teaching, it is unclear that the same thing is happening at the graduate level. More importantly, it is not clear that the new contact with this media is having any lasting effects on these various disciplines. For example, as long as anime is studied as just another example of the exotic cultural text called “Japan,” the fundamental structure and values of the discipline using it will remain basically unchanged. Exactly what “use value” does Japanese “film” now have for area studies, literature, and other segments of the academy?

Furthermore, with an eye to the disappearance of the field, we also need to (1) reintroduce Japanese cinema into Film Studies or (2) radically transform Film Studies into something else. In a certain sense, the latter is already in process, but as of today no serious attempt has been made to articulate Japanese cinema studies with the uncertain conditions of Film Studies itself. If there is some “crisis” in Japanese cinema studies, it is inseparable from the “crisis” of Film Studies itself. The decisive difference is that while Japanese cinema studies is just a sub-field and as a result extremely vulnerable to the institutional sea change, Film Studies as a firmly established discipline can afford to ignore its own predicament by turning itself into a more conservative discipline.

What we need is interesting research agendas, issues, questions which go beyond the boundaries of Japanese cinema studies. If Film Studies “used” Japanese cinema for its disciplinary formation and expansion, is it possible for us, scholars of Japanese cinema, to “use” Film Studies and area studies for our agendas?

III. The workshop described this situation, asking people to consider its implications for:

  • pedagogical issues at both graduate and undergraduate levels 
  • ­job hiring and the conceptualization of positions ­
  • the institutional demands on undergraduate teaching to support film teaching (often large lecture courses or language teaching) vs. film being exploited to fill seats 
  • peer review and tenure
  • ­how work in film and other visual cultures will interact methodologically and theoretically with the fields that are integrating it institutionally
  • the academic book market and its review process
  • the stunning paucity of Japanese film publications in American libraries, and the lack of access to them in Japanese archives and libraries
  • ­the impact of writing and film & video distribution on canon and pedagogy
  • ­the growing communication between American and Japanese scholars

***how do we intervene, direct and channel the change?

It was pointed out by one guest that the workshop participants share an object, but not a methodology or epistemic common ground. This is certainly an effect of trends toward interdisciplinarity in the American academy and the legitimization of popular culture as an object for area studies. However, a field that shares an object and not a discipline is fated to fail at the institutional level, because the institution relies on peer review which will ignore arguments that the object itself (its beauty or social agency) justifies its place in the academy. The guest pointed to the example of another field which suffered so many retirements and failed tenures that it has no senior professors; the consequence is that competitive research universities with graduate programs an find no one to hire and the schools are not producing new students, and so the field has in some way self-destructed in the institutional sense.

IV. A few things became evident in the course of discussion.

­People coming out of film studies may be forced to think about such problems before those working in fields that are “just arriving” to the topic

­People on (competitive) tenure tracks may feel higher stakes in the issue

­Since no one has given all these problems previous thought, and since it’s always difficult to describe something from your lived world in such immediate transformation, workshop participants were constantly groping for common ground on which to speak to each other (this in itself is somewhat troubling when it comes to peer review issues)

V. In conclusion: We are, in a certain sense, “euphoric.” We face multiple possibilities and that’s good. We don’t mourn the passing of that old field and its sense of institutional comfort. And despite the fact that it has left us groping to comprehend the consequences for our lives as teachers, intellectuals and as intellectual workers, we sense something very interesting on the horizon in a decade or so. The senior scholars who have already done a lot of research on Japanese film will be publishing the best work of their careers. Many newly arriving people will have published books and secured tenure. We will have read and engaged each other’s work. It will not configure itself in a discipline, but we will have a much easier time talking to each other.

VI. Some practical first steps.

Since our institutional situation is complicated and will play itself out over many years of teaching, writing and publication­not to mention reviews of one sort or another­the workshop ended by raising some concrete possibilities for increased interaction and collaboration that will help direct the current transformations we are beginning to identify.

At the same time, we assert these “practical” projects need to be integrated into a more meta-critical discussion and debate. It is necessary for us to engage ourselves with the institutional formation and disciplinary politics squarely while working on multiple, concrete fronts.

Here they are in no particular order:

  • Communication: We need to meet as a group more often, bring more people to the table, and keep the discussion going. It is crucial for us to talk face-to-face. Thus, there is a real need for more workshops, symposiums, conferences, and the like. For those of us at schools with budgets for guest lecturers, we should consider appropriating these mechanisms to invite each other to give lunch-time seminars and the like. Another route is to organize panels for conference. In addition to this, while writing and publishing as much good work as we can, we should read each other’s works and offer constructive comments. KineJapan is one forum for this, but so is individual discussion and comment and criticism of manuscripts. Finally, we should think about a conference in Japan.
  • Kinema Club and KineJapan: Most of the energy has shifted from Kinema Club to KineJapan, and quite understandably. However, a recently installed log system has revealed that Kinema Club is being used far more than we imagined. It is getting well over 2,000 hits a week! A graph of the monthly usage from the site’s inception to the present reveals a uniformly steady growth to the present. At the moment, Aaron Gerow’s reviews and the database are receiving the most use, however, we could certainly imagine many other ways to use both Kinema Club and KineJapan. They are conceived to be flexible, collaborative, and non-territorial. (This is an invitation to innovation.) As we consider the other items in this list, keep in mind how Kinema Club and KineJapan can facilitate these projects and agendas.
  • Subtitling: Our canon­such as it is­is incredibly narrow, and the distribution systems for film and video mitigate against expansion. We need to take the situation into our own hands and subtitle films. Films over 50 years old are public domain and could be distributed openly and commercially, and newer films would have to be done on a more informal basis. This can be done on the anime fan model or professionally. Anime fan subbers produce subtitled video tapes using PCs and make free dubs for anyone that sends them blank tapes and a stamped return envelope; they stop this activity any time a commercial distributor picks up a film (although there is a question about whether this creates a chilling effect for distributors). This route could also use Kinema Club’s original model: to have access to any of the tapes, one would have to contribute a new translation of a worthy film.

    The professional route would create tapes or DVDs that could be inserted into the commercial system. Our collective effort would defray the expense of translation and print acquisition for distributors (at least for public domain films). A tape of subtitled clips for pedagogical purposes would also be useful, as would tapes of silent films with benshi soundtracks in English and/or subbed Japanese.

  • Translation of Theory and Criticism: Ironically, despite the increased communication between scholars within and without Japan, there is a dearth of translations. A volume of key essays from Japanese criticism and theory would open up many pedagogical possibilities. It would stimulate new research agendas by calling attention to a rich aspect of Japanese film relatively untouched until recently. And it would certainly provoke new attention from Film Studies in general, which has a notoriously Euro-centric conception of the history of film theory.
  • Encyclopedia: Routledge has just released an encyclopedia of Chinese film, and is interested in producing one for Japanese film. Considering the kinds of “encyclopedias” that have already been published, this could be an opportunity to revise the canon. It would also be an opportunity to think through the “encyclopedia” itself, critique and experiment with its form. However, there are considerable practical and theoretical issues to hash out first. Are there enough dedicated and competent collaborators to produce several hundred short (but excellent, critical) entries?

There must be other projects people can think of. We invite anyone reading this to start a thread on KineJapan. Such collaborative projects, including our march into the future, will start right there.