Jun 8

JQ Magazine: Book Review—‘Cinema of Actuality’

"Artists often make great sociological commentators, and Furuhata’s book sheds new light on the insights of these filmmakers." (Duke University Press)

“Artists often make great sociological commentators, and Furuhata’s book sheds new light on the insights of these filmmakers.” (Duke University Press)

By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.

Yuriko Furuhata’s Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics examines a turbulent and disruptive period in Japanese history. As in other areas of the world, Japan in the late 1960s-early 1970s marked an era of youthful rebellion against the establishment, in both its public and private spheres. Furuhata’s analysis examines this period through the alternative Japanese film movements going on at the time, from New Wave figures like Masahiro Shinoda, Yasuzo Masumura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, to avant-garde filmmakers like Toshio Matsumoto and Kiyoteru Hanada. However, most of the films studied in the book are by Nagisa Oshima, largely considered to be the father of the Japanese New Wave and the “Jean-Luc Godard of Japan.” By eschewing the more traditional tendencies of the directors from Japan’s Golden Age such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, these directors incorporated such formalist experiments as jump cuts, disjointed angles, shaky handheld camerawork, pop music and, most importantly, the inclusion of television news footage. 

Since many of these directors were relatively young, they shared the political sensitivities of the student protesters, who sanguinely staged media events to garner attention. The “season of politics” era was prominently displayed in nightly television newscasts, which covered a wide spectrum of politically disruptive events, from hijackings to hostage crises to mass student rallies and protests. The aesthetics of this new generation of film appropriated this contemporary media coverage in attempt to both reflect and critique it. By converging with other media cultures, these filmmakers engaged in a theory-filled dialog with the nature of representation itself, in effect becoming simultaneously media practitioners as well as theorists/critics. By making this powerful argument, Furuhata—an Assistant Professor of McGill University’s Department of East Asian Studies and World Cinema Program—forcefully disputes film scholar Noël Burch’s often-quoted notion that Japan was a cinema culture devoid of theory and serious study.

A key term in Furuhata’s text is the eizo, loosely translated as “image” in English, but devoid of the pre-technological and Judeo-Christian epistemological roots of that word. According to her, the term was widely circulated among Japanese media discourse in the 1960s and was often invoked to articulate cinema’s relation to television, which had economically disrupted the vertically integrated movie industry. By the 1960s, television had come to dominate viewing habits, both in terms of entertainment and in information (before the mid-1960s, theatrical newsreels were quite common in Japan). This time period also marked the first translations of such eminent media theorists as Daniel J. Boorstin (The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream?) and Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media: The Extension of Man).  Furuhata demonstrates that the directors studied were familiar with these academic theories and successfully integrated them through stylized representation into their films.

For instance, the author offers a fascinating discussion of Oshima’s appropriation of real life media events in his experimental films Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969). The most interesting portion of the book, however, involves her analysis of fukeiron, or “the theory of landscape.” Here she examines works such as Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) and Masao Adachi’s A.K.A. Serial Killer (1970) as they depict images of Japan’s modern cityscape from the vantage point of encroaching state power. While these directors may not have been the first to use urban space as narrative commentary (one thinks especially of Michelangelo Antonioni’s work in general and the ending to his film The Eclipse in particular), Furuhata compellingly argues that Japan’s postwar urban planning designs reinforced political power and control. Artists often make great sociological commentators, and Furuhata’s book sheds new light on the insights of these filmmakers. This group also anticipated later postmodern tendencies such as intermediation and representational variance.

While the author mentions how this group disrupted the film establishment—even Akira Kurosawa had difficulty financing films during this period—one wishes she could have spent more time on this issue. For instance, Oshima worked both within the studio system and independently. There is no mention on why or how the studios worked with such a rogue director like Oshima, nor is there a discussion on how more traditional directors like Kon Ichikawa continued to have successful studio careers. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise compelling and necessary addition to cinema scholarship.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

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