A whole new world in Japanese texts

Japan projections (2/3)Japanese cinema as a distant observer

Where Western critics initially only sought confirmation of their own in the foreign and limited themselves to adding a few Japanese titles and names to the list of masterpieces and directors, in the 1970s they elevated Japanese film aesthetics to the fetish of the absolute other . In both cases - and in many respects to this day - the complex normality of a fascinating film culture is left by the wayside.

In his essay on Japan Projections, Lukas Foerster examines the history of the European and American reception of Japanese cinema.

Lukas Foerster studied film studies and Japanese studies at the Free University of Berlin. He lives in Zurich and works as a film journalist, media scientist and freelance curator.

(Part 1 from 01/08/17)

The complete manuscript for reading:

A cinema screening is always a projection in two senses: On the one hand, moving images are thrown onto a screen by means of technical equipment; on the other hand, the viewers are not simply passive consumers who merely absorb audiovisual stimuli - on the contrary, they also project their fantasies, desires and passions onto, over and into the images that appear in front of them. If then there is also a cultural difference; When the pictures on the screen show a reality that is fundamentally different from that of the audience, things get even more complicated; because then other, collective projections come into play: the images and ideas that every society makes of another. And which are always closely linked to the image that society makes of itself.

Shooting a film that - hopefully - never was made

Such considerations also form one of several starting points of Christian Kracht's novel "Die Toten", which was published in 2016. The first chapter describes the shooting of a film that - hopefully - was never made. The novel imagines a so-called snuff film: a hidden camera records a ritual suicide, in all bloody details. The action takes place in Japan.

"A young, handsome officer had committed this or that misconduct, which is why he now wanted to punish himself in the living room of a completely inconspicuous house in the west of the city. The lens of the film camera was guided to a corresponding hole in the wall of the next room, its edges they had been padded with strips of cloth so that the humming of the machine would not disturb the sensitive scene: the officer knelt, opened the white jacket on the left and right, found the place he was looking for with almost imperceptibly trembling but precisely searching fingertips, bowed and felt after the extremely sharp tantō lying on a sandalwood block in front of him. He paused, listened, hoped to hear the sound of the falling rain again, but it just rattled softly and mechanically behind the wall. "

Die Toten spins a literary tale along the political and aesthetic upheavals of the early 1930s. It's about Swiss film directors and Japanese film politics, about Charlie Chaplin and Siegfried Kracauer, about the cinema metropolis Berlin on the eve of fascism and about Hollywood. Within a very short time, all the characters involved have become hopelessly entangled in their mutual projections.

Shocking border crossing as a salient feature

The rampant narrative does not place too much emphasis on historical care, nor does it care much about internal inevitability. It is hardly a coincidence, however, that it begins with the fantasy of a Japanese cinema, the most striking feature of which is the shocking crossing of boundaries. The fantasy of the absolutely different, of what is rigorously incompatible with European culture and moral concepts, appears regularly to this day when the European imagination deals with Japan and Japanese cultural production - occasionally openly, more often under cover, camouflaged. Needless to say, such a fantasy says less about its supposed object than about those who give themselves up to it.

Of course, Christian Kracht knows that too. The real punch line of the passage quoted at the beginning is that the bloodthirsty, morbid film fantasy with which Die Toten opens is not an authentic example of Japanese filmmaking even within the narrative world of the novel. The producer of the fictional film, the ministerial official Masahiko Amakasu, has commissioned it for export. Later he sends the film roles, which are banned from the ritual suicide, to Germany - in the hope of finding comrades in a transcontinental film project. He has carefully studied his target audience.

"He would send the film to Berlin first thing tomorrow. In the end it came down to the fact that real feelings crystallize around a photograph or a film rather than a verbal utterance or even a slogan. The officer's suffering in the film was ecstatic and unbearable at the same time, a transfiguration of horror to something higher, divine - the Germans would understand that well in their flawless longing for death. "

Amakasu speculates at the same time on the attraction of the exotic and on its reverberation in the assumed German national soul. In this, Kracht gets to grips with something crucial about the mechanism of transcultural projections:

The European view of Japan always corresponds to a Japanese counter-view, the projection to a counter-projection.

The European view of Japan always corresponds to a Japanese counter-view, the projection to a counter-projection. Not only does Europe get an idea of ​​Japanese cinema, Japanese cinema also gets an idea of ​​Europe. In concrete terms, this means that when Japanese cinema leaves its national borders and introduces itself to a European audience, it takes into account its effect on this audience.

The prerequisite for such mutual projections onto one's own and others is of course that one even perceives one another. It cannot be taken for granted that there will be intercultural communication. In the field of cinema, for example, it has not always been taken for granted that there is such a thing as international film historiography, which includes Japanese films. Cinema was celebrated as a new world language as early as 1910, as a medium of international understanding that was able to transcend the artificial barriers between the nation states; The example of Japan shows, however, that such hopes were largely unfulfilled, especially in the first decades of cinematography.

In Japan, indigenous film productions were made as early as 1898, and a rich film culture with its own genres and star system established itself in the first decades of the 20th century. And even an independent screening practice was developed, which can be seen, for example, in the specifically Japanese figure of the film counter, known as benji.

The rest of the world, especially the European one, saw next to nothing of all this. The Japanese cinema market was almost completely isolated in the first half of the 20th century - at least externally. That means: American and occasionally European productions were shown in Japan, but the other way around, hardly any Japanese film copies reached European soil.

A milestone: Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

The film director Akira Kurosawa during an interview at the Plaza Hotel in New York on October 7, 1980. (AP) That changed suddenly in 1951, when Akira Kurosawa's multi-perspective historical thriller Rashomon was presented at the Venice International Film Festival. Rashomon won the main prize there, the Golden Lion, and was then exported to numerous international film markets. In the years that followed, a number of other Japanese films reached the European festival and cinema scene.

The Japanese films, which were mostly shown as isolated masterpieces in Europe in the 1950s, did not even remotely represent the breadth, not even a kind of average, of Japanese production and were hardly even perceived as the products of a complex, differentiated film industry.

Godzilla: first of many export successes in Japanese popular culture

The first wave of cinephile enthusiasm for Japan was not limited to the then and now manageable film art scene. The lizard monster Godzilla, which first hit the canvases in 1954, became the first of many export successes in Japanese popular culture - the predecessor of Super Mario, Sailor Moon and Pokémon. The focus of the (European) imports, however, was on lavishly produced films with historical subjects.

Kurosawa, the "westernmost" of the Japanese master directors?

The central protagonist of Japanese cinema in Europe and the USA in this first phase is Akira Kurosawa. The audience success, which Rashomon was still denied, he catches up with his more straightforward, action-oriented samurai films such as The Seven Samurai or Yojimbo - The Bodyguard. It has been pointed out again and again that Kurosawa is the "most western" of the Japanese master directors, which is understandable at least insofar as Kurosawa's work actually interacts in a variety of ways with traditions of European and American art and popular culture Writers like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky; on the other hand, his own films have been repeatedly adapted by directors in Hollywood and elsewhere. Kurosawa DNA is even in the supposedly original American pop culture myth Star Wars: the two robots R2 / D2 and C3PO are two characters from the historical film The Hidden Modeled after fortress.

Kurosawa himself was not always happy with his role as the figurehead of the whole film culture. In particular, he was of the opinion that foreign countries celebrate the wrong things in his films:

"In 1951, when I accepted the Golden Lion for Rashomon, I had stated that the award would have meant even more to me if I had received it for a film that shows as much of contemporary Japan as De Sica's bicycle thieves do of contemporary Italy Today I still think so, because Japan actually produces contemporary films that can compete with De Sica. And not just those historical dramas, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, which are usually all that the West gets from Japanese cinema. "

Marching through Hollywood since 1954: Godzilla (picture alliance / dpa / Michael Nelson)
In fact, film genres that were more closely oriented towards everyday Japanese culture had a hard time at European festivals for a long time - if they were ever shown there.

The audience and the film critics of the 1950s evidently had different expectations when they were confronted with a Japanese film. One reason may have been that Japan and Europe were alien to one another in a way that one can hardly imagine today. Japan had opened up to European and American modernity as early as the second half of the 19th century, and in the post-war period, after the self-imposed fascist isolation in the meantime, once again accelerated efforts to achieve democratic ideals and connection to the world market.

But for many Western observers, Japan was still an archaic realm of miracles and strange rituals. There is no other explanation for the short review that Spiegel dedicated to Rashomon in 1951 on the occasion of the premiere in Venice:

"The oldest samurai theater and fascinatingly silent landscape shots in a film without a plot. For those who are not Japanese, the most informative film of the Biennale."

This is an absurd description given the fact that this supposed "film without a plot" is celebrated today primarily as a narrative experiment.

On the occasion of the start of Germany nine months later, again in the mirror, it reads quite differently:

"For European eyes a strange, yet fascinating visual and sound style, few external backgrounds: only forest and temples that do not distract. Few faces, all of them grading their expression between rigidity and ecstasy, sword fights and wrestling in the transition to dance theater, a lot of rhythmic gasping , Scornful laughter and howls of pleasure. Connoisseur sensation, award-winning at last year's Venice Biennale, but - according to the vote - not an audience success at the Berlin Film Festival. "

"Strange but fascinating", "connoisseur sensation", but "no popular success". - The perceived otherness of Japanese films is named and sometimes also appreciated, but only in the sense of an enthusiasm for the exotic and the spectacular. The standards by which you measure the films remain your own. And are then leveled by vote.

In the first comprehensive book on Kurosawa in English, published in 1965, the American film historian and Japan expert Donald Richie is primarily concerned with adding the director to the list of master directors in world cinema. He writes about Rashomon: "In this film [...] the director did not allow himself to be restricted by the limitations of Japanese thought and thereby opened himself up to the world. Rashomon speaks to everyone, not just Japanese."

With this, Richie sums up the expectations that were placed on Japanese cinema in the 1950s and well into the 1960s: It is viewed as a kind of treasure chest that, after having been closed for decades, is now finally opening up to the world and should share their riches with this one.

The horizon of such considerations is a humanistic universalism, which for large parts of the film criticism still represents an ideal that cannot be questioned. From such a perspective, like the cowboy and the femme fatale, the samurai and the geisha are transculturally readable typifications, and the stories in which they are placed concern us all.

The democratic idealism that is expressed in such a view has a lot to do with the specific time in which it emerged: with the hopes of the immediate post-war period for a new form of not only political but also cultural world community. Seen in this way, the film festivals that flourished in the 1950s and their extensions in the film clubs, later in the Arthaus cinemas, represent a parallel development to the political integration of the nation states in institutions such as the United Nations or the European Community.

Cinema as international understanding

Donald Richie can exemplify a first generation of European and American film enthusiasts and critics who discovered Japanese cinema for themselves in the 1950s. Richie first traveled to Japan in 1947 as a companion to the American occupation forces, and then spent most of the rest of his life there. His extensive work includes writings on various aspects of Japanese culture and aesthetics, from a book about Japanese cuisine to a historical novel about the warrior Kumagai.

His enthusiasm for Japanese cinema can be understood from such a universalistic perspective, which is committed to international understanding: As the central popular art form of the 20th century, cinema is also particularly well suited to conveying two cultures to one another.

Together with Joseph L. Anderson, Richie wrote a book in 1959 that is still considered the standard work on classic Japanese cinema: The Japanese Film: Art and Industry is a comprehensive account of Japanese film history from its beginnings to the 1950s.

The foreword of the volume says: "The really good Japanese films were and are made, like the films of all other countries, in the face of commercial restrictions and the indifference of the management level. [...] And, as in every country, these great films are made by the dedication and courage of a few men: a handful of directors, a handful of producers, a handful of screenwriters, a handful of staff and actors. "

The heroic struggle of a handful of upright men against the mills of the system - this form of telling film history actually works in any place and any time. However, it is also obvious that the element of the alien, that which cannot be integrated, or even just any concept of difference, is completely lost.

The absolute difference

It shouldn't be surprising that the European and American views of Japanese cinema changed radically when, from the mid-1960s, this very difference became the central concept of cultural criticism. Following Jacques Derrida's reflections on différence, but also the political decolonization movements in South America and elsewhere, humanistic and universalistic models of explaining the world come under pressure or, more precisely, under suspicion of ideology.

Radical political criticism sees the talk of international understanding only as a concealment of the geostrategic power, which is still really powerful; and radical aesthetic criticism does not long for a world language that everyone understands, but for experiences of alterity that question what is taken for granted.

For film theory, difference means above all: difference to Hollywood

In the narrower field of film theory, difference means above all: difference to Hollywood cinema. Hollywood: From the perspective of the politically ambitious film critics of the 1970s, this is not just a film industry power that makes the filmmaking of other countries and alternative forms of cinema invisible. For theorists like Laura Mulvey and Jacques Aumont, mainstream cinema - dominated by Hollywood - is also an audiovisual finishing machine that manipulates our perception and thus our view of the world.

In short: mainstream cinema is and produces ideology, not only through the stories it tells, but also and especially through the way in which it tells these stories.

Of course, this is followed by another question: How can cinema escape the stranglehold of false consciousness? Where can you find alternatives to the ubiquity of the Hollywood idiom?

The answers vary: some critics turn to abstract avant-garde cinema, others to the politically radical cinema renewal movements in what was then known as the Third World. And still others, even if that seems less obvious at first, the Japanese cinema.

Indeed, European and American film critics in the 1970s became more intensely and obsessively concerned with Japanese cinema than ever before or since. Of course, this criticism is no longer interested in the universal about Japanese cinema, in what Japan could make contact with the rest of the world; but especially for what separates, for what irritates our perception.

Beyond the brightly colored monster films and dark samurai epics: Yasujiro Ozu

A scene from the 1959 film "Ohayo" directed by Yasujiro Ozu. (Imago / Entertainment Pictures)
If the central director of the first phase of Japanese cinema reception was Akira Kurosawa, then the central director of the second phase is Yasujiro Ozu. Not in brightly colored monster films or in gloomy samurai epics, interestingly also not in the extremely productive Japanese avant-garde scene, but in Ozus shomingeki, his everyday dramas about the worries, sorrows and hopes of the Japanese petty bourgeoisie, very different authors make their personal experiences of difference.

Paul Schrader, director and avowed Japanophile, declares Ozu a master of the transcendental style. The French film philosopher Gilles Deleuze declares him the inventor of the time image. David Bordwell, probably the most influential film scholar of his generation, shows how the formal design of the director's films destroy cause-and-effect relationships, even if only through the strategic placement of a red flower that unbalances a carefully arranged tableau of figures .

More specifically, such a criticism is interested, for example, in the way in which the characters in Ozu's films seem to look past each other when they are talking to each other - even when they are family members. Or for the way in which, also in the films Ozus, clotheslines, telegraph poles and trains passing in the background often seem more important than the problems of the main human characters.

Such observations also form the central starting point of a book that is probably the purest and most radical expression of this type of Japanese projection: Noel Burch's study To the Distant Observer: "Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema". Burch, an American-born film scholar and filmmaker who has lived in France since his youth, is not a recognized expert on Japan - unlike Donald Richie. His varied interests are in very different cultural and political formations that he considers suitable for questioning hegemonic ideas. In "To the Distant Observer" he reconstructs an alternative film history of Japanese cinema, which is essentially a cultural history in the name of difference.

"There is no doubt that Japan's singular history, influenced by unique forces and circumstances, has produced a cinema that is essentially different from that of any other nation."

Hyperventilating difference assertion

More difference, or perhaps better, more hyperventilating difference assertion, is really not possible. A passage a few pages further shows that this is basically meant as it sounds:

"Perhaps the greatest disturbance Japan can cause us is the question of originality. Because, as I will show, originality in Japan, and especially in Japanese cinema, has never been considered a dominant virtue. In particular, the bourgeois idea that the The artist is the creator and owner of his work, does not play a role in the traditional Japanese understanding of art The Japanese social system rejects the concept of originality and instead emphasizes the material dimension of the circulation of signs. This system destroys the foundation of our ideology of the Creator as the Ultimate Free Man, the Artist-as-God, the Book and the Word."

It is worthwhile to change the direction of view again at this point. Interestingly enough, the Japanese film distributors and officials in the 1950s had reservations about presenting Ozu's films at European and American festivals. The reason they gave was: Ozu is one of the best, but also the most Japanese of all Japanese directors, and therefore, unlike Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi, it is impossible to understand it abroad. As it turned out in the following decades, this was a miscalculation: Especially the supposedly or actually exhibited Japanese has turned out to be an even marketable attraction under certain circumstances.

Japanese cinema itself changed radically over the course of the 1960s. The film industry, which was one of the most productive in the world in the 1950s and at times produced more films than the Hollywood studios, is falling into a serious crisis. At the same time, there is a new generation of young filmmakers who are positioning themselves, sometimes in a radical manner, against their predecessors. From the point of view of the young savages of the Japanese cinema around Nagisa Oshima, Ozu in particular is a representative of a traditional form of cinema, a political and aesthetic reactionary.

You don't have to share this assessment to be surprised that left-wing critics in the USA and Europe are celebrating a director, of all people, whose films again and again depict a pre-modern, strict family model with a strict gender hierarchy. In fact, the twofold title of Burch's book suggests the paradox of his and many comparable arguments. To the Distant Observer. From a distance, Burch looks at a cinematography that is alien to him - at the same time he assumes that it is addressing a distant, distant observer. In some respects, his book does not find its way through to the last page of this circular argument, which has already been established in the heading. A difference set as absolute in the end misses the alien as well as the own.


Some of the debates that went on about cinema and ideology in the 1970s may only be of historical interest. Not least because today hardly anyone is likely to attribute the perception and world-changing power to cinema that it was accorded back then. The cinema has long been just one media offer among many, and its claim to exclusively bind its audience in terms of time and space seems almost no longer up-to-date.

Another reason for the apparent obscurity of such debates could be that Japan is now in some ways closer to the realities of our lives. Thousands of Japanese films and film clips can be viewed on the Internet in a matter of seconds; and of course order Japanese dishes; Even the physical reality of the country seems only a click or two away thanks to Google Maps and Streetview.

It is all the more astonishing, however, that in everyday European life one is almost less aware of Japanese cinema - and also of other aspects of Japanese culture beyond anime and video games - than it was 30 or 40 years ago. When it comes up, five Japanese films appear in German cinemas each year, rarely reaching more than a handful of screens; the television program and even the DVD and streaming market don't offer much more. And the once lively discourse about Japanese cinema, about its foreignness or familiarity, no longer takes place in feature sections and magazines.

Of course, this does not only apply to Japan, and certainly not only to Japanese cinema - one can generally assume that the alleged or actual availability of cultural productions, images, sounds, texts from distant countries does not necessarily mean that we in Confronted with them more often in everyday life. The preoccupation with the other, stranger is delegated to specialists and groups of enthusiasts, in the case of the cinema to film festivals, blogs and academic operations.

The leveling of expectations

This is accompanied by a normalization and, in particular, a leveling of expectations. Hardly anyone today would expect a Japanese film to promote international understanding and help establish a world language; even more so, no one will try to understand a Japanese film as a challenge to our patterns of thought and perception. There may be good reasons for both; that does not change the fact that the world becomes poorer as soon as certain forms of curiosity about the other disappear from it.