Date: Tue, 20 May 97
From: Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow
Subject: Suzaku and Zen
Bonjour mes amis,
Not much reaction to my flurry of Cannes articles. Maybe I’m the only one excited. But it is big news in Japan and it’s not everyday when a friend of yours wins a prize at Cannes.
But just to continue on the issue of continuing Orientalism in the reception of Japanese film, I actually looked for reviews of _Moe no suzaku_ in the French papers on the net and found this one in _Liberation_. This is just the beginning:
_Moe no suzaku_ pushes to the length the logic of Zen which is the ideal of absolute void. The radical non-action of its sequences is without equivalent….
Come on! Kawase has absolutely nothing to do with Zen, nor do any of the other young filmmakers like her. One could argue for a larger, cultural influence based in Zen, but I think we all realize how tenuous that is. In addition, describing the “radical non-action” of the film is not only an exaggeration, such parts are actually the least “Kawase-esque” portions of the film.
I make this point not only to show how rampant orientalist visions of Japan still are, how they still affect a lot of what is written about Japan and its cinema, but also to point out that such comments are an insult to the director. Koreeda has spoken about how uncomforable he felt when people abroad started talking about _Maboroshi no hikari_ only in terms of Ozu, of how bad it felt when his film was being praised for all the wrong reasons. Next time I meet Naomi, I’ll ask her about some of the reactions, but I’m sure she’ll not only laugh at the Zen comparisons, but express some consternation over all the fuss. (Her own disappointment over the film was reflected in the fact that she went back to the same location in the mountains around Nara and filmed her own vision of the place in an 8mm documentary called _Sumado monogatari_.)
Insisting on only seeing Japanese film through the narrow looking glasses of Zen, ukiyo-e, kabuki and other “traditional” arts is not only self-delusion (and a problematic form of self-construction), but also a refusal to engage in a dialogue with filmmakers and audiences of other cultures. It is myopic and deeply disturbing.
Date: Tue, 20 May 1997
From: (Joseph Murphy)
Subject: Re: Suzaku and Zen
>Insisting on only seeing Japanese film through the narrow looking glasses >of Zen, ukiyo-e, kabuki and other “traditional” arts is not only >self-delusion (and a problematic form of self-construction), but also a >refusal to engage in a dialogue with filmmakers and audiences of other >cultures. It is myopic and deeply disturbing. —Aaron
Sorry about the lack of comments. I don’t know about the rest of you, but as for me, I HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIES and am feeling acutely the pain of being isolated from the metropolitan centers. I think you’re right, though, Japanese film still seems to be a kind of exotic object, a taste to be savored by connoisseurs rather than something that participates in the same world. I’ve been doing a study of sorts on the motif of food in media coverage of East Asia (looking forward to the Nagano Olympics) and its surprising in postwar newspaper reviews of successful Japanese films in Variety, NY Times, etc. how often the experience of Japanese film is described by the critic in terms of the taste of exotic food. This is probably not accidental in terms of orientalism, the act of eating food being the prototypical subject-object relation for Hegel (the object is consumed) on the way to the Master-slave dialectic. i.e., in that reading the persistent appearance of food as a major site of representation of east asia would be symptomatic of an anxiety to maintain the East in a subject-object not a subject-subject relation.
I remember an article in the Asahi Shinbun last year quoting Koreeda (I think) on how strange it was to have Italian critics asking him about the “aesthetics of death” in relation to a film about suicide (read, “Mishima”), so even for readers of mainstream media in Japan, I think there’s a widespread sense that the success of Japanese film abroad says more about the needs of the west than any genuine interest in Japan.
I agree with you, though. That’s also why I’ve been interested in Q. Tarentino’s interest in Kitano Takeshi. I remember an interview on Newstation 10 when Tarentino was in Japan in 1995 and someone asked him who his favorite Japanese director was and it went over really well when he said Kitano and was able to articulate the similarity in their concerns. There’s some anticipation of “Sonatine“ ‘s release in the US in SPIN/Wired type magazines too, and I’ve seen little orientalist cant. I did see “Kid’s Return” though, and worried that it was evidence of a sad decline in Kitano Takeshi’s faculties since the accident (his TV commentary is losing its bite too).
Well, anyway, there are some reactions, far distant from Tokyo or Cannes, down here in the primordial subtropical forests just north of Disney World.
Date: Tue, 20 May 1997
From: (Joanne Izbicki)
Subject: Re: Suzaku and Zen
Hi, re Aaron’s comments on Cannes and a Euro-Am gaze,
Like Joe, I haven’t seen most of the films you’ve been talking about (re Cannes and your reviews, too, which are my main way of keeping touch with what’s new in Japanese film these days, gratias), except Maboroshi, but I can relate immediately to the problem of a foreign gaze emanating from film festivals. I think we need to distinguish between film critics, filmmakers, and moviegoers, however. I think Joe may be on the mark when he says it’s a matter of calling critics/judges on “not doing their homework”, that is not working at keeping track of what’s been going on in Japanese cinema and not making an effort to see more Japanese films so that when the big festivals come around the judges have more of a viewing experience than the few films that show up at that one event (I take it the submissions from Japan at a given festival are not numerous?). But to be fair to some writers, at least in English, the Ozuesque-y school of critical approach is what’s been mostly published on Japanese film in English, so even a homework-doing film critic in the US for instance might not have much in the way of resources, at least not as far as Japanese film criticism is concerned. Of course that doesn’t address the issue of why limit the assessment of a Japanese film to the categories/criticism done on Japanese film. Why are they not viewing a Japanese film in terms of whatever criteria they use for judging Euro-Am films? Well maybe they are to some extent and maybe that’s why not the best of Japanese output is being selected. After all, how often is the really best of Euro-Am films honored? Aaron, you’re not only coming from a position of knowing a great deal more about Japanese films (especially contemporary) than the vast majority of the journalistic film critics in the US (and in Europe, too?), but from that of a film scholar with standards for film quality beyond what many in the film or journalism industries will hold to (even if maybe they harbor them deep down).
As for moviegoers, I’m not sure their expectations are the same as the critics. Maboroshi actually showed in this cinematic near-backwater (at a theater that lends screen time to the local film society) and most of the audience at the screening I went to walked out with a ‘say what?’ look on their faces or actually in their comments (I had mixed feelings myself). I don’t think most of them would have known what a description of Ozuesque would mean–which is not a put-down. What I mean is that the moviegoers might be less encumbered cinematically than the critics. The problem with not-so-good or orientalist-satisfying films winning big international prizes is that they are then the movies that get picked up for distribution, thereby limiting what the more open segments of the audience can see.
But that doesn’t exactly address the ‘orientalist’ issue of a ‘western’ gaze. I think Aaron’s right that that there are certain expectations among Euro-Am critics for what a Japanese film is supposed to look like. It’s very possible that Kitano is just too dynamic and current to be molded (distorted) to those expectations and therefore he gets dismissed. I can’t speak about Kawase since I’m not familiar with her work, but perhaps the judges (and subsequent critics) found the film appealing because they could force their orientalist expectations (e.g., Zen) on her work and pursuade themselves that they were calling it correctly–however little she may make her work available to such interpretation. But the zen thing certainly supports your argument, Aaron. But let’s face it, this isn’t just a problem with film criticism, it’s a problem with the overall American gaze toward Japan. I’m thinking of banning the adjective “unique” from discussions and papers in my Japanese history survey classroom this fall. Banning Zen would be a little more problematic, but I wish I could: students grasp for whatever they can from their repertory of knowledge in order to help order their understanding. They simply come to class loaded down with a lot of baggage that’s very hard to shed. Students might have some excuse, since at least their whole raison d’etre for being students is that they still have a lot to learn, but the baggage is the same with film critics–except they ought to know better. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I taped many many hours of US television coverage of Japan–news stories, feature films, variety, sitcoms, etc–whenever I happened upon something and had the time or energy to slip in a tape. Although I wound up never viewing all that stuff systematically, the real touchstone of it all was the coverage of Hirohito’s funeral. Sure, the stuff on the funeral itself was all funnelled through NHK (and therein lies a tale in itself), but the filler wasn’t and it was stuffed with what you might expect: national treasures, crafts, ‘traditions’ and rituals, etc.; or else the “Japanese Version” type of mockery on how the Japanese can’t get ‘Western’ practices, products, philosophies. etc. ‘right’. What Aaron’s bringing up is a problem not confined to the cinema.
But the cinema is what this site is about so the issue just rises again: what do we need to publish to encourage more of a mix? Should we be discussing such an issue (orientalist gaze on Japanese cinema) in a more open forum? Should we start discussions of each other’s work on this closed site? Ouch, that could become rambunctious, but it might be a good way to start a focused inquiry into where studies of Japanese cinema might be heading or channeled and where our own respective work fits–for better or worse– into such studies. Should we be enhancing the Burch file, expanding the problems his work raises to the larger issue of criticism (at least in English) of Japanese cinema–and it’s relationship to the history of scholarship on Japan in general (especially re post-war, occupation-emerged scholars trying to reconcile the US government and public to their former ‘enemy’)? Aaron identifies that the Cannes’ awards do point to a serious problem. Maybe this goes back to the flurry of messages about the Japan film encyclopedia a way back (have we all recoiled in terror over where the time would come for such a worthy project?). There’s a problem out there, and let’s make sure we’re not part of it.
Incidentally, the lack of initial response to your spurt of messages, Aaron, is probably related to many of us just finishing the spring semester. I’m flacid with exhaustion from the last weeks of the semester and did nothing yesterday but read a really bad, old mystery someone gave me called “The Japanese Corpse”–a book that epitomizes the orientalist gaze. But yes now I really can get to that data base list. How are we doing on that?
Does anyone know if any of Takeshi’s films are subtitled in English and distributed in the US at this time? I’ve lost touch with the distributors because the 35mm screening possibilities are limited at WFU, but I’d like to try to get the local film society to show one of his films.
Date: Wed, 21 May 97
From: Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow
Subject: Re: Suzaku and Zen
>Sorry about the lack of comments. I don’t know about the rest of you, but >as for me, I HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIES and am feeling acutely the pain of >being isolated from the metropolitan centers.
Sorry to all of you for spouting so long about films I know you haven’t seen. Heck, they haven’t even started press screenings of _Suzaku_ in Japan yet (the only reason I saw it is because Naomi’s a friend and I saw it at the first screening at the developing lab), so few people have seen it here as well. Still, I just thought I’d give you my opinion in order to bring up the larger issue.
> I remember an article in the Asahi Shinbun last year quoting Koreeda (I >think) on how strange it was to have Italian critics asking him about the >”aesthetics of death” in relation to a film about suicide (read, >”Mishima”), so even for readers of mainstream media in Japan, I think >there’s a widespread sense that the success of Japanese film abroad says >more about the needs of the west than any genuine interest in Japan.
You’re right, there is widespread awareness of the problems in what the West sees in Japanese films, but I think we still see the double-sided nature of the narrative of national identity that I find in 1910s discussions of cinema and the foreign imagination. People are fully aware that Westerners look on Japan either as an exotic object, or as an object of revulsion (the anxieties about Japan bashing), but at the same time, there is a sense that any recognition by the West is something to be thankful for. Everyone still puts in big letters on their posters/ads at what film festivals the film has shown and what foreign prizes it has won. In constructing the Japanese subject through the mirror of the Western gaze, any appreciation is a thankful one and must be appropriated in the construction of the self. I think that’s one reason that it is Japanese cultural institutions themselves that are some of the biggest promoters of Orientalist visions of Japan (Remember that it is often the film companies that choose which films are to be shown at Cannes. Kawase was an exception in this case: Cannes invited that, I heard.) This is part of the fundamental ambivalence in the construction of Japanese modern national identity. National IDs are in a way constructed through the Hegelian master-slave dynamic, but most discussions focus on how the master’s ID is constructed. What is going on with the slave in this power dynamic? Clearly, Japan is still not in a power situation vis a vis the West where it can simply use the West as a mirror: it must, at the same time, play the mirror to the West and produce itself as appropriately “reflective.” As such, Japanese national identity has always involved an element of performance in the international theater. I’m still thinking this through, but this does obviously connect with the issue of the identity of the colonized, although Japan’s case is quite different in certain regards. Anybody else thinking about the same things?
…Still, to get back to the issue, I am painfully aware these days how much “homework” or “viewing context” affects one’s way of viewing films. It’s not simply a question of seeing different things in films, it also means that gaps have been created in one’s discourse on cinema that are not always easy to bridge. Some things I say about Japanese film just cannot be understood by a French critic who only sees one Japanese film a year at Cannes. True, there are always these problems in discourse, but it is precisely these gaps, these divisions between discursive territories, which help reinforce Orientalist visions when they are articulated within discourses of the nation, etc.
>I agree with you, though. That’s also why I’ve been interested in Q. >Tarentino’s interest in Kitano Takeshi. I remember an interview on >Newstation 10 when Tarentino was in Japan in 1995 and someone asked him who >his favorite Japanese director was and it went over really well when he >said Kitano and was able to articulate the similarity in their concerns. >There’s some anticipation of “Sonatine“ ‘s release in the US in SPIN/Wired >type magazines too, and I’ve seen little orientalist cant. I did see >”Kid’s Return” though, and worried that it was evidence of a sad decline in >Kitano Takeshi’s faculties since the accident (his TV commentary is losing >its bite too).
This is the question I wanted to ask, too. True, there is still the rampant Orientalization of Japan through visions of it’s traditional exoticism. But in the West these days, there’s also the boom in anime and manga. Ueno Toshiya has tried to explain that through Morely’s concept of Techno-Orientalism, so maybe we can theorize that. But what of the popularity of Takeshi, not only with QT, but in France and England? In some ways, this also relates (especially in QT and his ilk) with the popularity of Hong Kong action film. How can we explain this? There is a kind of cult culture around this, but why has HK and Takeshi become the object and how does that function within aspects of Western (sub)cultural imagination? Is there a different articulation of orientalism here?
By the way, I personally think _Kid’s Return_ was great, through I prefer _Sonatine_. Instead of a decline, I see a very different perspective. Why did you think it was a decline, Joe?
Date: Wed, 21 May 97
From: Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow
Subject: Re: Suzaku and Zen
Wow!! Great to get long comments from Joanne and Joe!
>I think we need to distinguish between film critics, >filmmakers, and moviegoers, however.
>But to be >fair to some writers, at least in English, the Ozuesque-y school of >critical approach is what’s been mostly published on Japanese film in >English, so even a homework-doing film critic in the US for instance might >not have much in the way of resources, at least not as far as Japanese film >criticism is concerned.
Joanne hit part of the problem right on the button. It is we and our predecessors who have created some of the Orientalist visions of Japanese film. That’s why it’s imperative that, while we will probably never be able to completely confront the problem in ourselves, we must continually address it in our teaching and writing.
>Of course that doesn’t address the issue of why >limit the assessment of a Japanese film to the categories/criticism done on >Japanese film. Why are they not viewing a Japanese film in terms of >whatever criteria they use for judging Euro-Am films? Well maybe they are >to some extent and maybe that’s why not the best of Japanese output is >being selected.
Good point. But, to use _Suzaku_ again, there are some basic lot problems in that film: for instance, a main character dies and then the entire family gathers to watch the 8mm film he made with the camera he “always” carried with him. But no where in the film before that did we see him with that camera: this just comes out of the blue (others have cited the same problem and I have heard that some problems on the set created this and other “errors”). We can argue about how to deal with such problems (whether they can be critically resurrected, so to speak), but I have the sense that a somewhat Orientalist perspective can take what to many Japanese spectators is a mistake and turn it into “Zen” mysticism (though, maybe not necessarily in the case of this error). True, many do look at Japanese film with the same standards they use for Am-Euro films, but there is always the expectation that it will be something “different,” a perspective that can turn even “errors” into “art.”
>What I mean is that the moviegoers >might be less encumbered cinematically than the critics. The problem with >not-so-good or orientalist-satisfying films winning big international >prizes is that they are then the movies that get picked up for >distribution, thereby limiting what the more open segments of the audience >can see.
>But let’s face it, this isn’t just a >problem with film criticism, it’s a problem with the overall American gaze >toward Japan.
Joanne’s right. Personally, I have always thought that my writing about cinema is not simply an intervention in film studies or even Japan studies, but part of a larger effort to change popular Western views about Japan. (Now that I write for a newspaper, I do realize my audience is much broader these days). What we write, what films we add to the canon, what we teach all do contribute to the construction of views of Japan, not only by Americans/Europeans, but also Japanese. (I was recently asked to give a public lecture in Tokyo offering the “foreign” view of Japanese film. I will try to change the talk’s direction.)
>Sure, the stuff on the funeral >itself was all funnelled through NHK (and therein lies a tale in itself), >but the filler wasn’t and it was stuffed with what you might expect: >national treasures, crafts, ‘traditions’ and rituals, etc.; or else the >”Japanese Version” type of mockery on how the Japanese can’t get ‘Western’ >practices, products, philosophies. etc. ‘right’.
Right. This is part of the problem in the Japanese national construction of itself: it is done both in terms of satisfying Orientalist visions of the exotic and in terms of trying to become the same as the West (with a few other contradictions thrown in.) This produces the ideology here that Japanese are “surface” Western, but “Japanese” at the “core.”
>But the cinema is what this site is about so the issue just rises again: >what do we need to publish to encourage more of a mix? Should we be >discussing such an issue (orientalist gaze on Japanese cinema) in a more >open forum? Should we start discussions of each other’s work on this >closed site? Ouch, that could become rambunctious, but it might be a good >way to start a focused inquiry into where studies of Japanese cinema might >be heading or channeled and where our own respective work fits–for better >or worse– into such studies.
I think we should follow Joanne’s proposal to start discussing how we ourselves should shape our own work to deal with these issues. One way is to discuss the canonical work written so far. Another is our own work published so far. Finally, proposals for the future.
Maybe we can make this one of the first topics of discussion for the open list. I have prepared most of the documents that are necessary for the open list and, waiting for responses from Maureen and Markus, we should be able to get started by the end of the month.
>Does anyone know if any of Takeshi’s films are subtitled in English and >distributed in the US at this time? I’ve lost touch with the distributors >because the 35mm screening possibilities are limited at WFU, but I’d like >to try to get the local film society to show one of his films.
Miramax bought _Sonatine_ and, as Joe mentioned, is scheduled for US release (I heard it was the end of May. Any news on that?) Others might have bought rights to his other films (I would not be surprised if _Kids Return_, which is doing good BO in France, was not bought), but I have no info on that. Anyone?