Reading Burch’s “To the Distant Observer”

Markus Nornes

We are often asked by people interested in Japanese cinema what to make of Noel Burch’s To the Distant Observer. This book marks an important break in the study of Japanese film, and initiated one of the more interesting debates in film studies. Anyone interested in learning about Japanese cinema has to make their way through Burch. However, his writing style is thick with jargon and detailed close analyses. Combined with its involved argument about the history of world cinema, it is a particularly perplexing read for anyone outside of film studies proper. One of our future projects for this space is a lengthy critique of Burch’s book to be written by A.A. Gerow and Abé Mark Nornes. In addition to a chapter-by-chapter analysis of To the Distant Observer, we will summarize the debate the book sparked. This project will take some time, and will be posted gradually as it is written. For those who can’t wait, following are more compact reading notes prepared by Markus (warning: they are lengthy and may take a minute to download). These notes basically summarize the book, rather than concentrate on the critique it was greeted with.


Notes for

Noel Burch’s To the Distant Observer

In this book about Japanese cinema, Burch intends to couch the discussion of the history of film styles not in terms of universal values but in norms and deviations in practices within a specific social context. More specifically, he identifies essential differences between Japanese and Western modes of representation through a Marxist approach. He argues that since the Japanese seem to have a disdain for film theory (an erroneous assumption), one must look at the art itself, identifying a few “masters” who 1) de-construct Western modes of filmmaking and, 2) refine and systemetize specifically Japanese traits. Burch argues to shift the “Golden Age” of Japanese cinema from the 50’s to the 30’s. At the same time, his sights are set on a bigger picture; he intends to look at the national context of Japanese cinema to change the way we think about film history as a whole.

1. A System of Contradictions

Burch contends that the pertinent traits of Japanese aesthetics were defined almost entirely between the ninth and twelfth centuries (in the Heian period). He asks why other countries (like China, India, and Egypt) adopted Western modes of representation wholesale, along with all the limitations and ideological baggage that come with it. He partly attributes this difference of filmic and traditional modes to the historical circumstances of colonization. Japan had to luck to avoid being colonized, and even created an infrastructure for the film industry independent of outside forces.

In this chapter, Burch points out a pair of contradictory traits that often come up in discussions about Japan, that is the Japanese “faculty for assimilation” or “lack of originality” (depending on the writer’s inclinations). Burch rightly calls them stereotypes that mystify the culture, and he intends to reveal the underlying ideological assumptions behind such claims. Whether Japanese are adept at assimilation and transformation (“making things uniquely Japanese” as it is often put) or are mired in stagnant conservatism (miming China before and the United States in the postwar period), each notion invokes the value of originality. However, Burch argues that in Japan originality has never been a virtue. Before the Meiji Restoration and the entrance of capitalism, artists were not the sole creator and proprietor of their work. There was no concept of plagiarism. Tied to this are the terms superposition and supersession. In the West, one period replaces another. In Japan, Burch identifies a fixative effect in which different types of art did not supplant each other, but co-existed to the present day (superposition). These factors are crucial for understanding the development of cinema in Japan.

2. A System of Signs

Because of superposition and the lack of a concept of plagiarism, artists may relate their art to other everything that came before it. Burch turns to the writing system and Heian poetry as examples. He describes the adoption of Chinese characters and their adaptation to Japanese language. Most important is the development of the two phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana. In order to construct a sentence, one must combine at least hiragana with Chinese characters (katakana is reserved for foreign loan words). You can think of the difference between the kana and characters (kanji ) as analogue vs. digital. What Burch finds significant is that both co-exist simultaneously. Neither the phonetic or non-phonetic components are privileged. The language may thereby afford access to both a linear mode of linguistic representation, such as that in the West, and to an “Oriental mode” which it is an implicit critique of linearity. The inspiration for this argument ultimately comes from French philosophy and literary criticism, especially Derrida’s critique of Western metaphysics and Barthes’ fanciful essays on Japan. Combining these ideas with his own understanding of the development of cinematic narrative, Burch writes: “The linearization of writing and the linear conception of speech are rooted in the Western sense of time based on movement in space.” (p. 40) Arguing that the “digital” linguistic mode of Chinese characters provides the foundation for a very different basis for narrative, Burch draws a connection (an analogy? metaphor?) between non-linear language and the indifference to linear causality he finds in the modes of filmic representation in the silent period. In the next chapter he shows how this works in poetry.

3. A Boundless Text

Burch quotes a Heian poem at length,  laying out the concepts of polysemy and intertextuality. These two processes engage the reader in an act of creation in which “the profound equivalence of reading and writing speaks directly to modern artistic practice and theory. (he quotes Eisenstein)

The “boundless text” he offers contains, explicitly or implicitly, all the basic theoretical challenges that Japan offers Western thought and practice:

·  An inclination to read a given text in relation to a body of texts.

·  No value placed on originality and no taboos on “borrowing,” both of which are based on Western individualism.

·  No privileging of a linear approach to representation.

·  No precedence of content over form as in the West.

Part 2 A Frozen Stream?

4. A Machine Appears

Burch lays out a very brief summary of the early Japanese cinema based on Anderson and Richie’s book, placing it in the context of a fascination for things Western after the Meiji restoration, and one facet of the Pure Cinema Movement. He mentions, in passing, the influence various arts felt from the West and describes the shinpa movement in theater. This is a theater based and what the Japanese thought Western theater was like, which produces oddities such as Hamlet on a bicycle. It is this transformation of the art by way of Japanese ideology that Burch leaves dangling before us; he’ll assert the differences between Western and Japanese modes of representation in silent film are based on this ideological difference.

5. A Parenthesis on Film History

But first, he’s going to examine the process by which 19th century ideologies of representation came to determine the representational modes of Western film. This is probably the most important chapter of the book, as it constitutes a radical repositioning of the major figures at the dawn of cinema by looking at them from the ground of Japanese cinema. Nearly all narratives of the invention of cinema identify Lumiere with non-fiction and Melies with fiction. Burch intends to switch the historical division in film to Lumiere & Melies vs. Americans Dickson & Raff & Gammon et al.

“I regard the work of Melies and Lumiere, however, as two aspects of the same phenomenon. Conversely, the contradiction between the films shot by the Lumieres and their cameramen, and some of those produced for the Edison company during the first few years by Dickson and Raff and Gammon is I believe absolutely fundamental” (p. 61).

The people working for Edison were interested in the “total reproduction of life,” an “essential aspiration of the bourgeoisie with regard to representation.” (p. 61). The Lumieres were still the direct heirs of Muybridge and Co., as they were interested in the silent reproduction of perceptual movement. Burch describes the Lumiere’s work as non-centered spacially (not guiding the gaze of the spectator) and temporally (often having no beginning or end). The films were also non-linear viewing experiences, since the clips were often showed more than once. Burch compares these early films to recent modernist films.

Burch also points out differences in their methods (Edison and Dickson put the camera in their Black Maria, prefiguring the sound stages of the 30’s) while Lumieres set it up outside, recording things with an almost scientific impulse. Melies worked in a studio, but to “construct a world as radically and avowedly artificial as possible.” (p. 62) Even the language they used reveals the difference: “The neologisms coined by Edison (Vitascope) and the Lumiere brothers (Cinématographe) are also emblematic of their antithetical positions: a ‘vision of life’ as opposed to ‘an inscription of movement’.”(p. 62) Burch places Porter in a middle ground between the “Lumiere/Edison contradiction”, citing the medium close-up of The Great Train Robbery (1903) (which could be tacked on either the beginning or end) and the bedroom rescue in The Life of an American Fireman (1902) (shown two times from inside and outside) as impulses toward the Lumiere mode of representation. At the same time, Porter’s work in the development of reverse field, cross-cutting and ellipsis places also puts him on the Edison side as they were to constitute the future Hollywood style. By WWI, the adoption of reverse field editing and the eyeline match were the last steps in breaking down the barrier of ‘alienation’ which informed the relationship between the early film and its essentially working-class audience. With the search for a better audience (which brought middle-class norms into the mode of representation) and the coming of sound, the project initiated by Smith, Porter, Griffith and Co. was completed.

Burch takes on previous film historians, who describe Japanese cinema as constantly catching up to the rest of the world until its “golden age” in the 1950s. He asserts that the creative lag most experts see in the silent Japanese film is based on an ideological assumption, a “fundamental incompatibility between the West’s developing ‘codes of illusionism’ and Japanese indifference to ‘illusionism’ in the Western sense.” (p. 66) At the end of the chapter, he once again draws a line between the films of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Shimizu, and Naruse and the most radical films of the 60’s and 70’s (including Godard and Warhol). Before tracing the development of Japanese separation from Western codes, however, he wants to look for its origin.

6. A Rule and its Ubiquity

This chapter introduces presentational vs. representation styles in a discussion of kabuki. Some characteristics:

·  Audience shouts comments during the performance

·  Use of oyama, female impersonators

·  Use of visible stage hands dressed in black outfits

·  Free contraction and dilation of narrative time

·  Polysemy and intertextuality of the ‘libretto

·  Rejection of illusionist depth in set design and blocking

Burch then quotes Barthes on bunraku puppet theater and asserts this presentational style in traditional arts directly influenced silent, and even sound, film.

7. Bulwarks of Tradition

Now Burch begins discussing presentational style in Japanese cinema. He talks about the benshi , the narrator who “translates” the film at one side of the screen. In the West, the benshi had always been credited with holding Japanese film back from what it could have been. Burch wishes to recoup their position, claiming they played an historically positive role in the resistance to Hollywood codes. He sees Japanese film of the 20’s and 30’s as a “store house” of the Primitive modes of representation. The benshi’s political maneuvering preserved this style and their act of reading the film relieved the film itself of the burden of narrative. In the dominant cinema of the West, the titles suspended representation momentarily; in Japanese cinema, the benshi often made up lines and changed the meaning of the story. Every film, foreign or Japanese, lost the possibility of transparency because the benshi was simultaneously reading the film for them. In addition, some seats in Japanese theaters were turned toward the projector, allowing the spectator to view both the “effective and effected gestures” (using the language Barthes described bunraku with, implying a connection between the two).

Many scholars have accused early Japanese film of remaining primitive, simplistic, rough. Burch once again wants to expose the ideological assumptions underlying such assertions. He gives examples of Japanese silents which reveal a mastery of Western style, then says, “the Western codes had impinged upon Japanese perception, but Japan was on the whole not interested in them as a system; they were merely used on occasion to produce special dramatic effects.” He gives three Japanese attitudes toward Western mode of decoupage : utter unconcern, occasional use of specific techniques in their Western signifying context (swish pans, dissolves), and mastery (by directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi).

Burch then brings kabuki back into the discussion, identifying several conventions that appear in early film (sets, symbolic actions, oyama, tableaux (a kabuki version of what you see in American silents like A Corner in Wheat ), etc. These codes, which had become naturalized in the cinema, began to be systematically excluded in the teens and twenties. Burch speculates a conflict between them and emerging Western codes and tastes whose outcome would determine the entire course of Japanese cinema.

Part 3 Cross-Currents

8. Transformational Modules

Burch asks, what do we make of Japanese use of a Western machine in a medium largely influenced by capitalism in in light of their faculty for assimilation and transforming elements borrowed from foreign culture? He calls this a process of radicalization (first of Chinese culture, then Western) and he will inventory “transformational modules” which “bear directly upon the ways in which the codes developing in the cinema of the West between 1900 and 1920 were transformed, displaced, and truncated in Japan during the 1920’s and 1930’s.” (p. 90) Japanese react to foreign ideas, artifacts and techniques by wholesale acceptance, global rejection, or transformation/adaptation. Burch says acceptance or rejection depends upon a given element’s usefulness to the ruling class. The catagory of adaptation and transformation concerns him most and he cites three examples: the ritualization of Indo-Chinese Buddhist logic, introduction of linear perspective, and adaptations of Western clothing during the Meiji era. These three attitudes — acceptance/rejection/adaptation — co-exist and comprise the underlying forces in the development of Japanese modes of cinematic representation in the 20’s and 30s.

9. Lines and Spaces

Burch describes the Pure Cinema Movement, a movement in the 1920’s to emulate Hollywood cinema. Shochiku Co. turns from live performance (kabuki and shinpa) to cinema, importing technicians from Sessue Hayakawa’s Hollywood entourage. They begin to replace oyama with real women, use real locations and hope to control, if not eliminate, the benshi. This movement is an instance of wholesale adoption. They also adopted Western codes of editing as they perceived them. This was all consistent with the spirit of the Meiji Restoration, although Burch attributes it to a political climate affected by a fast-rising proletariat and a new liberal middle-class who united to oppose the post-feudal oligarchy. The movement was shortlived because of political pressure from benshi and oyama groups, the 1923 earthquakes affect on the film industry, and — most important for Burch — Japanese ultimate rejection of Western modes of representation.

10. The Fate of Alien Modes

The films in the pseudo-American style emphasized visual aspects of Japanese society that appeared Western: clothes, make-up, gesticulations, sets, etc. But Burch is more interested in the transformation of modes of representation, which he analyses along three axes: surface/depth, centering/decentering; continuity/discontinuity. He has already discussed how the West resolved these issues in chapter 5, now he’ll look at Japan.

He describes in detail Souls on the Road (1921), which was influenced by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and which he feels is far more complex. It’s a film designed to imitate Western codes and, at the same time, be so complex and use so many titles that it would make benshi obsolete. For Burch, it actually ended up radicalizing the Western modes.

11. Displacements and Condensations

This chapter covers the early development of chambera or swordplay films, particularly those of Ito and specifically in the adoption and radicalization of editing codes.

12. Surface and Depth

Burch attributes the frontality of Japanese images to the force of modes of representation in traditional art, as well as the mixture of primitive Western editing and the architecture in Japanese homes (which naturally take 90 degree angles on rectangular surfaces and contain little or no furniture). Depth producing oblique angles in cutaways and close-ups would destroy a perceived unity. Aspects of the pro-filmic space which lend themselves to a Western approach (the hallways with their sliding doors) seem to have been ignored.

Part 5 A Chain is Broken

23. Film and Democracy

In 1852, Perry opens Japan “in the name of Western mercantile imperialism.” In 1962, samurai kill a Brit and an English ship razes part of Kagoshima in retaliation. The Japanese are impressed and respond by establishing deep economic ties. After the war, the Americans have a similar experience as they are welcomed with a obsequiousness no one had expected. Burch quotes a journalist for a range of explanations, one of which he singles out as a dominant factor in post WWII cinema: “The Occupation program sought to restore and extend the trends which had existed in the 20’s. The ruling class was now able to exploit the workers unimpeded by feudalistic mores and structures. The workers, in turn, enjoyed unions, parliamentary democracy, social security, etc. The peasants were given ownership of land. Out of this class struggle, mutations arise in the cinema. As was seen before in the 20’s, when the contradictions of capitalism developed, so did a need for “Western-style” films. A similar process occurs following the war. Masters of Burch’s Golden Age (Naruse, Mizoguchi et al) “cleave closely to the Western mode of representation.” Only Ozu remains true to the 20s, yet becomes “fossilized”.

Burch offers a sketchy history of the post-war period against which he’ll place Kurosawa. He divides films here between those which serve and contested bourgeois interests. On the right, he identifies “pure vehicles for dominant ideology”: Western-style dramas and Western aesthetizations of traditional material (Rashomon, Gate of Hell ). On the left, he sees films dealing with problems censored in the past. The best known ones are Shindo’s Children of the Atom Bomb (1953) and The Human Condition (1959-61) by Kobayashi.

A third catagory develops out of these basic two near the end of the occupation. He describes it as a sociological film of various shades, not committed to any particular class position, and represented best by the films of Kinoshita. Related to this catagory is the ‘human drama’ set in the lower classes (often called rumpen mono, literally “lumpen thing”). It is here that Kurosawa began working.

Burch sees little work of any worth in any of the directors of this period, outside of Kurosawa and Ichikawa, “a director who never developed a systemics comparable to those encountered in the major films of Kurosawa but who must nevertheless less be counted as the first stylist of the period.” This period in the 50s is generally considered the golden age by most critics. Burch calls it a “dark period” marked by only one lasting body of work, the mature films of Kurosawa.

24. Kurosawa Akira

Burch puts him in the company of Lange, Eisenstein, Sternberg, and Dreyer. He subscribes to the widely held notion that Kurosawa mastered the Western mode of representation before building on it and surpassing it.

He picks out a scene from The Most Beautiful (1944) (of a woman at a microscope) which he compares to Potemkin and Ozu’s so-called pillow shots. Burch identifies a second period in Kurosawa’s career from 1946-50, a new manner of social thought and representation based on neo-realism with a heavy dose of pathos. He gives examples and lists features common to Kurosawa’s mature work: disjunctiveness, pathos, excess, and stubbornness of this characters.

Rashomon : The first film to reach a Western audience is also the first to bridge the gap between the 50s and the 20s and 30s genre of chambera sword films. He also says it’s the first film to display the director’s “rough hewn geometry”. Before this, the films had an organic linearity and invisible continuity. Rashomon, on the other hand, is remarkably free from those rules.

At this point (pp. 298-299) Burch draws a rather surprising parallel between Kurosawa and Ozu. Kurosawa’s consistent employment of 180 degree jump cuts, with its accompanying abrupt change in eyeline and screen direction, harks back to Ozu and Naruse. Further, Kurosawa uses other editing techniques that foreground the articulations smoothed over in Hollywood style editing: frequent and sharply contrasting juxtapositions of CU and LS, of moving and fixed shots, or shots with contrary movement, as well as the hard edged wipe (this last point is mentioned quite often by other critics, though rarely contextualized). Ozu uses techniques like jump cuts freely without the slightest attempt to match anything (in the Western sense). Kurosawa, on the other hand, always resolves the disruptions his editing creates. “Ambiguity in Kurosawa — as in Eisenstein and nearly all the classical Western masters — is an element of tension to be answered by one of resolution; never is it a categorical indifference to univalence or linearity as it is in Ozu and more generally in the classical cinema of Japan.” (p. 299)

Eisenstein is another interesting connection Burch makes. He compares the reversals of position, eyeline and screen direction to Eisenstein’s dialectics of montage units, and compares the forest sequence in Throne of Blood to the baby carriage on the Odessa steps.

Burch then discusses Ikiru, particularly in relation to its structure and that ‘rough-hewn geometry’. Not surprisingly, the content doesn’t excite him, being “marred by its complicity with the reformist ideology dominant in that period” and the “typically petty bourgeois doctrine of the heroic individual as agent of social change.” (p. 306) Next he attempts to recoup Record of a Living Being, claiming it was attacked and/or ignored on ideological grounds by the bourgeois press.

“Cobweb Castle (Throne of Blood) …is indisputably Kurosawa’s finest achievement, largely because it carries furthest the rationalization process of his geometry.” (310) It is designed upon principle of juxtaposing moments of extreme violence with those of static, restrained tension (a characteristic of Kurosawa he discusses earlier). This occurs from scene to scene and even shot to shot (in the sequence where Washizu see Miki’s ghost). The resolution of this dichotomy between tension and relaxation is resolved in the last scene. “This bravura passage is usually recognized by Western critics as such, but nothing more; it is seen as grotesque and gratuitous or brilliant but gratuitous. On the contrary, it is the very keystone of the film’s formal structure. Here at last that tense, horizontal alternation between scenes of decentered frenzy and dramatic but static scenes is resolved into a vertical orgasm of on-screen violence.” (p. 317)

Burch mentions Hidden Fortress, observing that long after Hollywood shied away from wide-screen, Hong Kong and Japan continued using it. The Hong Kong approach to wide-screen is similar to Hollywood with respect for centering, for diagonal rather than symmetrical balance, and for the clarity of depth and the like. Japanese composition, on the other hand, is de-centered, centripetal, using geometrical foreground elements and frontal angles….all characteristic of the Golden Age of the 30s. He goes further to compare this composition to ukiyo-e wood block prints and screens as far back as the Muromachi period (14th to 16th century).

Burch then quickly passes over the films in Kurosawa’s “fourth manner”, which he says come nowhere near the masterpieces of the 50’s. He treats Yojimbo (1961) in the same manner: “it is truly nothing more than a fusion of the latter-day chambera tradition with the Hollywood Western, which gave birth to that Cinecitta hybrid, the spaghetti Western.” His denigration of Yojimbo is telling. For a writer interested in the juncture of East and West (more like the lack of it), one would think he would pounce on a film that stands between the Hollywood western, the samurai film, and the spaghetti western. Furthermore, despite his populist leanings, he ignores what was one of the biggest hits in Japanese cinema. However, there is the danger of finding a Kurosawa tainted by Hollywood codes.

He spends a couple paragraphs talking about High and Low (1963), a modern-day detective story. He admires the film’s structure and dislikes its humanistic themes. He dismisses Red Beard (1965) and praises Dodeskaden (1972) as an attempt by an old master to keep up with the times.

Part 6 Post-Scriptum

25. Oshima Nagisa

Burch compares Oshima to Godard, like everyone else, but asserts that characterization is not completely accurate. He perceives a contradiction between class struggle as the motor of history vs. ideology of the self-fulfilling individual; he also feels Oshima has been torn by the desire to reach a wide audience and the need to experiment. Oshima seems “to function within several separate ideological frameworks: that of traditional Japan, which obviously both fascinates and repels him; that of a Western (cosmopolitan) bourgeoisie, still problematic for the Japanese Left… And somewhere, in all of that, is Marxism.”

26. Independence: Its Rewards and Penalties

In this last chapter, Burch identifies and discusses film which support his final thesis: “that an authentically modern, revolutionary cinema in Japan must involve a conjunction of traditional artistic practice with elements of a materialist theory of art, dialectical and historical in nature, as it is developing in the West.” (pp. 359-360).

Some thoughts…….

These reading notes are intended more to help read through Burch’s dense text than summarize the barrage of criticism that the book inspired. A few things, at least, are worth noting:

Burch sets up a questionable polemic between Japan and the West, ignoring all sorts of Western influences that go back as far as the 16th century. He seems outraged that Japanese would allow themselves to be soiled by the West and in doing so, picks and chooses what he sees in traditional arts (his approach unwittingly ends up compatible with neo-nationalist idealizations of Japanese culture). For example, during the Meiji period, kabuki was undergoing changes in acting style, theater design, length of performances, management styles etc. all under the massive changes happening with the influx of ideas from the West; you’d never know it reading Burch. The same thing was happening in painting, literature, scultpture, and other traditional arts. However, Burch wants to avoid this Western convergence, using the ideas of superposition and intertextuality to portrays Japanese art as a “frozen stream”: either the art is fossilized, or it succumbs to Western bourgeois ideology (sells out). He idealizes an imagined Japan, just as Barthes did before him, and creates an veritable virginal land on the other side of the Pacific. Not surprisingly, his critics used Edward Said’s Orientalism to ground their attack.

What is most important about this book is not the practical criticism about Japanese film, but the attempt (in its theoretical criticism) to shift the big division in film history from the Melies/Lumiere split or Bazin’s Realist/Formalist split, to Melies & Lumiere/Porter & Griffith & Dickson etc….between representational and presentational modes. In that sense, his project is pretty impressive. His efforts also directed us to a body of prewar cinema that had been taken for granted up to that point, leading to a complete reevaluation of the films and the role of the benshi.

Those interested in the critiques should look to the following articles for starters: Whitaker, Sheila. review of TTDO, Framework 11 (Autumn 1969): 47-48; Bordwell, David. review of TTDO, Wide Angle 3.4 (1980): 70-73; Polan, Dana B. “Formalism and its Discontents, ” Jump Cut 26 (1981): 63-66; Cohen, Robert. “Toward a Theory of Japanese Narrative, ” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 6.2 (Spring 1981): 181-200; de Bary, Brett. review of TTDO, Journal of Japanese Studies 8.2 (Summer 82): 405-410; Malcomson, Scott L. “The Pure Land Beyond the Sea: Barthes, Burch and the Uses of Japan,” Screen 26.3/4 (May/Aug. 1985): 23-33.