Comparative Cultural Criticism

Monday, April 8, 2013

Author: Michael Raine
Institution: University of Iowa

This course was created to provide an interdisciplinary alternative to traditional ways of studying other cultures. Since professor Andrew and I are both from the Film Department, we want particularly to investigate new ways of looking at Japanese cinema. The course material overlaps with or falls in between the established disciplines of Anthropology, History, Politics, Cultural Studies, and Aesthetics. We do not pretend to expertise in all these areas, and throughout this semester we will be turning to anthropologists, historians, political analysts and aestheticians for help in reaching a cultural understanding of our main focus; Japan. More than that, we will be using these theorists to interrogate our own assumptions as we practice comparative cultural criticism. What does “comparative cultural criticism” mean? Not an easy question to answer, I hope that by the end of this class we will have some idea of the epistemological and ethical stakes involved in trying to understand other societies, and unfamiliar forms of cultural production. We might begin by investigating the title of the course more closely.

In a sense cultural criticism has always been comparative - whether we mark its beginning with Herodotus’ ethnographic collections, with Augustine’s dictum that “the world is a book; he who stays at home reads only one page”, or more recently with the rise of capitalism and international trade, the recognition of what we now call “culture” was predicated on its difference from the writer’s own way of life. It is only recently that anthropologists (for theirs is the discourse in which accounts of other cultures are usually housed) have turned inwards to examine their own culture. I hope that during this course we will be able to recognize not only the difference of Japanese cultural artifacts from those produced in the West, but also the differences lurking within those two categories, “West” and “Japan”, as well as what is at stake in comparing them with each other. According to Raymond Williams, “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. While I don’t propose to give any glib definitions, just as I don’t pretend to know the truth of “Japan”, we will ask repeatedly during the semester just what this obscure word might mean. In the modern world, cultural criticism has seldom been an innocent practice. It rose to prominence with the rise of the global capitalist economic system and was complicit, as Edward Said argues, with the “information machines” of colonial bureaucracies. While we may not fully agree with his critique of “orientalism”, I hope that we can keep the critical edge which the title of this course echoes.

On a more practical level, this is a great time to be studying Japanese culture at Iowa. Over the past year, the Institute for Cinema and Culture has been gathering material, in English and Japanese, for a conference on “Japanese Image Culture” (sponsored by CAPS and the ICC) to be held at the University during March. This material includes rare Japanese films and books on film and popular culture; since attendance at the conference is required of all class members, you should visit room 162 of the Communication Studies Building during my office hours and take a look at what we have. In addition to film screenings during the Thursday class period, there will also be a film series provided by the Japan Foundation, to be shown on Sundays, from February 9th to March 8th. The Institute for Cinema and Culture will supplement these with rare and classic Japanese films to be shown on other Sundays during the semester. These screenings are not required, but I strongly recommend that you take this opportunity to experience Japanese film culture.

Class Requirements:

There will be three assignments and a short take-home midterm. In addition, you will be graded on short oral presentations of your research and of articles read in class, and on class attendance and participation. The breakdown of marks is as follows:

  • Assignment 1 - 15%
  • Assignment 2 - 15%
  • Midterm - 10%
  • Oral Presentation - 10%
  • Attendance/discussion - 10%
  • Final Project - 40%

The first assignment will be a short essay (less than 5 pages for undergraduates) on western narratives of Japan in the Meiji period, a few examples of which we will read in the first two weeks.

The second assignment will be an exercise in textual analysis, comparing a prewar Japanese film (or a genre) with a contemporary film (or genre) from another country.

The midterm will be a single question on a topic raised during class, to be answered over a weekend

Oral presentations will be required of all class members. They will consist of short (5 minutes maximum) discussions of an article assigned for class reading that day. The purpose of the presentation is NOT to reiterate the contents of the article for the benefit of those who haven’t done the reading: you should aim instead to identify the main arguments that the writer is using, and present your own response to them. I will also be asking people to present their own research in class, as well as occasionally to work in groups.

The final project will concern some aspect of postwar Japanese image culture. The exact details of the project are up to you, in consultation with Professor Andrew and myself. This project is worth a large proportion of the marks for the course, so we expect your research to be of commensurately greater depth.

A word on class format: since there is so much ground to cover, I will be giving short, summarizing lectures on the historical and cultural background of the four “moments” in recent Japanese history that we will focus on. However this is a seminar, rather than a lecture, and so stands or falls on the quality of the discussions which WE create. Please come to class prepared, and prepared to contribute.


  • Week 1: Comparative Cultural Criticism: the case of Africa
    • Tuesday: Introduction
    • Thursday: Lecture: Africa, colonialism and the rise of cultural analysis
      • Film: La croisiere noire
  • Week 2: Cultural Interpretation and Orientalism in Meiji Japan
    • Tuesday: 
      • Edward Said. Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, 1985
    • Thursday: 
      • Frederick Penfield. East of Suez: Ceylon, India, China and Japan. New York: The Century Co., 1912
      • Basil Hall Chamberlain. Things Japanese: Being notes on various subjects connected with Japan for the use of travelers and others. London: John Murray, 1902
      • Lafcadio Hearn. Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation. New York: McMillan, 1904, 1928.
      • W. E. Griffis. The Mikado’s Empire. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1896
      • Maj. Knollys, R.A. Sketches of Life in Japan. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887
  • Week 3: Tourism and Orientalism in Meiji Japan
    • Tuesday:
      • Richard Minear. “Orientalism and the Study of Japan” in Journal of Asian Studies 39/3 1980
      • James Clifford. “On Orientalism” in The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988
      • Robert Young. “Disorienting Orientalism” in White Mythologies. London: Routledge, 1990
    • Thursday:
      • Pierre Loti. Madame Chrysantheme. New York: Current Literature Publishing Co., 1910
      • Rev. J. LL. Thomas. Travels Among the Gentle Japs in the Summer of 1895. London: Sampson, Low, Marston Co., 1897
      • Isabella L. Bird. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, c.1880.
      • Alice M. Bacon. A Japanese Interior. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1893
      • Film: Yoshiwara (Max Ophuls, 1937)
  • Week 4: Theorizing Comparative Cultural Criticism
    • Tuesday:
      • Ruth Benedict. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946, 1989
      • Clifford Geertz. “Art as Cultural System” in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983
    • Thursday:
      • Lecture: Ukiyo-e and Japanese image culture.
      • Film: Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna (Utamaro, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1946)
  • Week 5: Theorizing Comparative Cultural Criticism
    • Tuesday:
      • Group reports on theories of ethnography and cultural criticism
      • Thursday:
      • Lecture: Some observations on popular culture in Meiji Japan
      • Reports on western narratives of Meiji Japan.
      • *** First Assignment Due ***
  • Week 6: Japanese image culture in the 1920s and 1930s: Taisho Modernism and Gender ambivalence
    • Tuesday:
      • Donald Roden. “Taisho Culture and the Problem of Gender Ambivalence” in Culture and Identity: Japanese Intellectuals During the Interwar Years. J.Thomas Rimer (ed.). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990
      • Jennifer Robertson. “Gender-Bending in Paradise: Doing ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ in Japan” in Genders 5 (1989)
      • Noel Burch. To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema. London: Scholar Press, 1979
    • Thursday:
      • Robert Cohen. “Toward a Theory of Japanese Narrative” in Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Spring 1981
      • Scott L. Malcolmson. “The Pure Land Beyond the Seas: Barthes, Burch and the Uses of Japan” in Screen
      • Film: Orizuru Osen (The Downfall of Osen Mizoguchi Kenji, 1934) and Naniwa Ereji (Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1936)
  • Week 7: Japanese image culture in the 1920s and 1930s: Ozu and the Nansensu genre
    • Tuesday:
      • Edward Seidenstecker. “The Decay of the Decadent” in Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake, 1867-1923. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
      • Miriam Silverberg. “Constructing a New History of Prewar Japanese Mass Culture” in Boundary 2 (Spring, 1992)
    • Thursday:
      • David Bordwell. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988
      • Film: Rakudai wa shita keredo (I Flunked, But…, Ozu Yasujiro, 1930)
  • Week 8: Japanese image culture in the 1920s and 1930s: Militarism, Mizoguchi and the Monumental Style
    • Tuesday:
      • Tetsuo Najita and H. D. Harootunian. “Japanese Revolt Against the West: Political and Cultural Criticism in the Twentieth Century” in The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988
      • Anon. Kokutai no Hongi. Tokyo: Monbusho, 1937
      • Watsuji Tetsuro. A Climate. Tokyo: Japanese Government, 1961
    • Thursday:
      • D. William Davis “Back to Japan: Militarism and Monumentalism in Prewar Japanese Cinema” in Wide Angle 11/3 1989
      • Film: Genroku Chushingura I (The Loyal 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1941)
  • Week 9: Discussion of Conference “Image Theory, Image Culture, and Contemporary Japan”, March 12-15, 1992
    • Tuesday:
      • Reports on conference panels
    • Thursday:
      • Reports on conference panels
    • Film: TBA
  • Week 10: *** Spring Break ***
  • Week 11: Ozu and the anthropology of Postwar Japan
    • Tuesday:
      • J. Victor Koschmann (ed.) Authority and the Individual in Postwar Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1978
      • Tsurumi Shunsuke. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan. London: KPI, 1987 Fukutake Tadashi. “The Development of Mass Society” in The Japanese Social Structure. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Press, 1981
    • Thursday:
      • Short stories: Kojima Nobuo’s “The American School” and Oe Kenzaburo’s “The Catch”.
      • Film: Banshun (Late Spring, Ozu Yasujiro, 1949)
      • *** Second Assignment Due ***
  • Week 12: Postwar Japanese Subjectivity
    • Tuesday:
      • Masao Miyoshi. “Who Decides and Who Speaks? Shutaisei and the West in Postwar Japan” in Off Center: Power and Cultural Relations between Japan and the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991
    • Thursday:
      • Maureen Turim. “Psyches, Ideologies, and Melodrama: The United States and Japan” in East West Film Journal 5/1 1991
      • Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. “Melodrama, Postmodernism, and Japanese Cinema” in East West Film Journal 5/1 1991
      • Film: Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds, Naruse Mikio, 1955)
  • Week 13: Post-postwar Japan: Modernization and Nihonjinron
    • Tuesday:
      • Harumi Befu. Japan: An Anthropological Introduction. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1971
      • Hamaguchi Esyun. “A Contextual Model of the Japanese: Toward a Methodological Innovation in Japanese Studies” in Journal of Japanese Studies 11/2 1985
    • Thursday:
      • H. D. Harootunian. “Visible Discourses/Invisible Ideologies” in Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
      • Film: Yasha ga ike (Demon Pond, Shinoda Masahiro, 1980)
  • Week 14: “Postmodern Anthropology” and “Postmodern Japan”
    • Tuesday:
      • Robert Young. “White Mythologies” in White Mythologies. London: Routledge, 1990
      • Roland Barthes. Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982
    • Thursday:
      • Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
      • Film: TBA
  • Week 15: “Postmodern Anthropology” and “Postmodern Japan”
    • Tuesday:
      • Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
    • Thursday:
      • Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
      • Film: TBA
  • Week 16: “Postmodern Anthropology” and “Postmodern Japan”
    • Tuesday:
      • Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
    • Thursday:
      • Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke UP, 1989
      • Film: TBA
    • *** Final Project Due ***