Monday, August 9, 2010

thinking with Sontag, Butler, and Kurosawa

I’ve been recently reading Judith Butler‘s Frames of War and Susan Sontag’s On Photography, watching DVDs of almost all the works by Akira Kurosawa and David Lynch, and thinking about things revolving around photographic way of seeing and frame, without expecting to formulate an idea. Sontag’s essays in On Photography were written and revised between 1973 and 1977, and Butler’s 2004 and 2008. In Butler’s there is a chapter titled Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag, in which she writes about the Abu Ghraib photos. Her main point is how we perceive and respond to the other’s suffering when a certain norm restricts our perception and distinguishes whose lives are “grievable” and whose are not. In the chapter she examines some Sontag’s writings, including the books such as On Photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, and an essay titled Regarding The Torture Of Others, which is available online (The New York Times), and thinks about Sontag’s question whether photographs have an ability to mobilize people against war, which Sontag is more or less pessimistic. Butler points out Sontag’s tendency to compare photography and writing, and then decide which is better. According to Butler, Sontag says that photograph cannot interpret, and then Butler argues that framing itself involves interpretation.

I think Butler is right, but Sontag in On Photography actually says photograph interprets. What problematic for Sontag is that photography appears for her rather to disintegrate an event: photograph (including cinema) captures only a certain moment through a certain angle, therefore it does not capture the whole event; moreover, this photographic way of seeing affects our way of seeing in the real world, and this way of seeing also connected with Orientalism, how the first world people perceive the other world, which refers to an enthusiastic, but also detached, and voyeuristic way of seeing. Sontag analyzes an incident that in the 1970s Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Cina, the documentary of China during the Cultural Revolution, angered the Chinese press. If photographic way of seeing refers to a certain kind of voyeurism, I can find it in the 17th century Dutch genre paintings and Japanese woodblock paintings. I know that there is no such a thing as pre-modern cinema and photographic way of seeing is deeply connected with the modern world. But, in my view, photography and cinema merely externalized the function of our seeing. It can be said that seeing seeing, or moreover, seeing what the others see probably became everyday experience. On the other hand, what Sontag thinks problematic is that photograph is a kind of visual property, visual possession, and then part of the body photographed, so it is not merely the representation, but also “trace,” “like a footprint or a death mask.” Photographic images are fetishized (like “a nail from the True Cross”) and consumed. Photography is a new opium in Marx’s sense: “What defines the originality of photography is that, at the very moment in the long, increasingly secular history of painting when secularism is entirely triumphant, it revives--in wholly secular terms--something like the primitive status of images. “ Photograph is also “an interpretation of the real,” through its framing. It is “a method of hyping up the real” “with discontinuous way of seeing (the point is precisely to see the whole by means of a part--an arresting detail, a striking way of cropping).” And Antonioni captured the Chinese people this way. His sympathy for the people might have been genuine and was much better than those tourists shooting a tiger to bring home its skin, but his aesthetic was not shared by the Chinese.

The Antonioni’s film is actually very beautiful, but, in Sontag’s view, the fact that I feel it beautiful, in other words, the way Antonioni’s gaze or my gaze captures the Chinese village is problematic. In 1972, indeed, just filming beautiful villages, innocent school children, and citizens in everyday streets made the Chinese authority furious. Marxists Internet Archive shows how hostile the Chinese press then to Antonioni was. Sontag, who also visited China in 1973 and saw the similar sites to those described in the film, including a surgery in a hospital, discusses why such a reaction happened. In her view, Antonioni’s striking angles, including close-ups, capturing the people not prepared for shooting, these ways of seeing were not shared by the Chinese at that time. Photographing was a formal affair for them, like those of family photos and portraits around the time photography was invented: the people photographed have to dress up; the children have to march strictly in line or sit still without any spontaneous movements. Spontaneity was not seen as beautiful by the Chinese authority. Sontag appears to conclude that photographic way of seeing is in the first place capitalistic and therefore it was natural that the Chinese authoritarianism viewed the film as anti-China and also anti-Communist. But it is not clear for me whether it was the authoritarianism or just an old habit the people in the world used to have before photography became so common who prefers formality to spontaneity as the object of recording. For today’s Chinese authority the way Antonioni frames appears to be no problem. In 2004, the Beijing Film Academy screened this film to the public and honored him. Even I can find this film in some Chinese video-sharing websites. Watching the clips appearing in those websites often entails watching also annoying advertisement videos, which are very similar to the Japanese TV’s.

I was too young to know what was going on in the 1970s, but I somehow know the war journalism were often the subject of parody in the subculture. For example, a black comedy in which tourism escalates the Vietnam War was popular. I also remember an obsolete term like the idiot box, which refers to TV, of course. Sontag reminds me of all this, because she warns war photographs are clichéd. But, I imagine that, even if the virtual technology brings all the sensations from Afghanistan, knowing an event is not an easy task. What WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary reveals is not the reality of the war, but the stark fact that perceiving an event is rather a collective action, involving discursive individual acts. This war is a Humpty Dumpty even in our perception.


I can imagine that, from the point of view of the Chinese authority in the 1970s, there is no significant difference between Kurosawa and the French Nouvelle Vague or Dogume 95, even though the French Nouvell Vague preferred Kenji Mizoguchi to Kurosawa, claiming that Mizoguchi is more authentically “Japanese.” In my view the important difference between the two camps (if ever were) is whether frame itself should be framed, in other words, whether audiences should know the fact there is a camera (or cameras) between the audiences and the representation. Those of the Nouvelle Vague and Dogume directors often tried to break “the fourth wall,” also to let the audiences know that there is things not framed. In a way, they and Sontag may share the question about gaze and its political implication in common. What Sontag argues in On Photography can roughly be summarised like this: photographic way of seeing refers to a kind of voyeurism, detached from the object and enthusiastic to see the object at the same time, and that way of seeing is inherently capitalistic; photographing means controlling over the photographed; photograph is not only image, but also trace, very close to part of the object. So, breaking “the fourth wall,” placing action out of the frame, letting the audience be aware of montage, and the shaky camera can be an ethical choice. Though I like this kind of images a lot and at this moment don’t dig this further, my question here is if this kind of film making and watching of it could become redemption from being a consumer of images. Is it a kind of indulgence?

Then, were those who accused Kurosawa of being “too Western” similar to the Chinese authority in the 1970s? Especially in terms of those Japanese critics who criticized him, did they view that he distanced himself from the Japanese society and saw it in an enthusiastic, but also voyeuristic way? It may be possible to say that he, if I borrow from Sontag, “hyped up” the real of the Japanese society (and economy), but I also add that the hyped up real may be indeed the real. He exaggerates. His framing shows many striking ways of seeing. His characterization is clear, like in commedia dell’arte, there is protagonist, antagonist, moralist, etc., also like in Greek theater, there is chorus: they are often people on the street who observe an event and comment on it. But, these characters are not inherently Western, since there are such roles in the Japanese traditional theater. During the time he kept releasing his work every year, he kept interacting with what was going on in Japan. For me, his works, especially until 1965, are accurate incision of the Japanese society. I can see how Japan changed after the war. For example, Ikiru (1952) first struck me the fact that the people used to fear (or even be prepared for) dying at the war managed to become able to worry about dying of cancer (and think of meaning of life) less than a decade. Worrying about dying of cancer is a kind of luxury allowed only for “the first world people.” Red Beard (1965) shows even a rich sedentary samurai (Kurosawa’s samurai films are not at all about the feudal Japan, but clearly mirroring--even satirizing--the contemporary Japan) who is obese and appears to be potentially type 2 diabetes, and doctor Red Beard tells the samurai not to eat meat. But, these are just shallow examples.

There are the other criticisms that Kurosawa is often too naive, sentimental, moralistic, and didactic. His characters too often directly talks about their own “humanistic” view. In fact his characterization aimed to let the audiences, the minute a character enters the scene, grasp what kind of character he or she is. And the narrator or some of the characters even talks about the central idea of the story. In my view, Kurosawa is to some extent Brechtian, and this is also an aspect of his modernism, but this is meant to be neither Western nor Japanese. I think Kurosawa’s narrative of Japan disagreed with a ruling narrative of Japan told by those who said he was too Western. After 1965, he might have lost chorus, not only for himself, but also for his characters. I like Dodes’ka-den (1970), a depiction of an imaginary shanty town. There is no central story, but several stupid, funny, cruel, and sad stories sitting side by side. I imagine these characters used to form a chorus in Kurosawa’s previous works, but now they are exiled and live here.

I compare Kurosawa with, for instance, David Lynch (often described as postmodernist). I’ve been watching how much different those directors are in terms of their themes and how much similar in terms of cinematography. In nearly the end of High and Low (1963), the kidnapper emerges from the flower garden where the radio plays music similar to Elvis Presley’s (both like old songs), I feel this scene is very much Lynchian. In Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), a scene in which a dog carries the decapitated hand in its mouth of course reminds me of Yojimbo (1961). Perhaps, unlike Lynch, Kurosawa might have been not very good at dealing with sexuality, but when I watch Rashomon (1950), I feel that part of the story deals with male anxiety about sexuality which Lynch’s male characters may have as well. In Rashomon, the bandit, who raped a woman, and the samurai, the woman’s husband, both seem in a way impotent according to the woodcutter’s later testimony: impotence is a motive Lynch often uses in his works, such as Blue Velvet (1986) and Lost Highway (1997). The big difference between Kurosawa and Lynch maybe that Kurosawa tends to explain “meaning” of story by his dramaturgy. In Ikiru, there is a scene that, in a cafe, Kanji, who knows he is going to die within several months and has been in search of what to do the rest of his life, finally is determined what to do during the conversation with a young healthy woman. At this eureka moment, suddenly the other customers burst out singing Happy Birthday. This is very dramatic moment and I like it very much, but I also feel it explains too much. Ikiru starts with a narrator (none of characters in the story) naively talking about meaning of life. It is in a way refreshing for me because no one talks about meaning of life that way. Kurosawa’s works are filled with full of meaning. Every shot, every angle, every effect has meaning. In Lynch’s works there is no meaning in Kurosawa’s sense. Lynch’s cinematography often reminds me of Edward Hopper’s paintings, which often contain anxiety. What if that anxiety is fully materialized? I don’t know how Lynch conceives his work, but his works anyway work that way for me. In Lynch’s works, “meaning” may be void, but this void is the eye of a hurricane screwing up things (and I remember his reference to the Wizard of Oz, and the tornado).

Kurosawa’s “meaning” is, in a way, a lost cause. I feel more familiarity with Lynch whose nightmarish vision I perceive as “real.“ On the other hand, I adore Kurosawa’s works as something very far from me, and probably because of this distance I can do so. I say myself “We don’t speak that way anymore!” when watching the characters in his works. My generation is of the four children appearing in his second last work Rhapsody in August (1991). And I feel these children are a bit idealized. He is interested in describing not complexity of an individual, but complexity of an event. His characters serve for this, a bigger purpose. It is worth emphasizing that his aesthetic and even political affiliation were build during the pre-war period (that of the pre-war progressives) and his modernism and progressive cinematography was never a result of the post-war democracy and promotion of individualism.

Both The Most Beautiful (1944) and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) are to some extent propagandist. Both are about a girl’s (or girls’) self-sacrifice. The former is created under the military regime and the latter under the American occupation. The former praises solidarity of girls working in a factory which produces lenses (very much like a filmmaker’s choice). The latter appears to praise the dissidents under the military regime, but things are more complicated in this work.

The Most Beautiful goes like this: the factory sets a new production target: to increase by 100% for the men; by 50% for women (they are schoolgirls... students had to work that time). The girls complain that they can do more: “By two-thirds!” Their boss finally allows them to set a higher target. Despite their enthusiasm, some of them get ill, some of them mishandle something, it becomes unlikely for them to achieve the goal. The boss calmly trusts the girls trying to solve their problems by themselves, because he thinks that, although it is not really necessary for the factory to achieve the goal, it is important for them to grow up as a responsible individual. There are some famous actors in this film, but none of them are treated as a star. It is a half documentary and filmed at a real factory. All the characters in this film are very good people: ”one for everyone, everyone for one.” Even the way the girls discuss about their problems is in a way democratic. If there was no mentioning about the war, this would be a good socialist or communist propaganda film. Every morning the girls march from their apartment to the factory, playing drums and flutes. If Chung Kuo, Cina was made in this manner, the Chinese authority could be satisfied. Even some may say, “Look at the horror of fascism! Those innocent girls sacrifice themselves for the irresponsible war!” But Kurosawa’s political view here is ambiguous. He probably made this film, picking up what he could agree with the regime. After all many socialists and feminists supported the military regime, and ironically equality and solidarity were partly materialized because everyone became poor and every means of life was equally restricted. The people had to share things. This situation might have continued after the war, probably until Japan’s economic recovery. In a way, the war did not end by the surrender and the American occupation.

Japan did not become democratic overnight. After the surrender “democracy” became the people’s vocabulary for first time in more than a decade, but I think the manner the people talked about democracy was very much like the way they had talked about their support for the military regime. During the American occupation (1945-1950), freedom of speech promoted by the occupier was ambiguous. Depicting in cinema the fact that Japan is occupied by Americans was virtually forbidden: things such as American military personnel, destroyed and burnt houses, and signboards in which English was written were basically not allowed, let alone Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the people didn’t really know about the atomic bombs until the end of the occupation). And also depicting traditional Japanese culture, especially samurai, was not allowed on the grounds that such things could stimulate Japanese nationalism. And also, talking about those prohibitions was of course not allowed, since it was supposed to be the time everyone was allowed to say anything. Praising the new era of democracy and freedom was encouraged. The people were supposed to be free.

What the characters argue in No Regrets for Our Youth is very similar to those in The Most Beautiful: “One for everyone, everyone for one.” And then, “Freedom requires a huge responsibility” is added to it. Freedom is a burden. The protagonist (played by Setsuko Hara), a daughter of a sacked professor for his opposing to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) and the authority’s repression of his university, chooses freedom to live with a man she likes. After the man has been arrested for espionage and killed in prison, she decides to carry the burden: she stays with the man’s parents who are bullied by the villagers for their son’s deeds and tries to convince the parents that their son did right thing and help their work at their paddy field, which she has never done. The war ends. She remains in the village and becomes a leader of the community. Feminists can criticize this role. Perhaps the best story for them may be that the protagonist also works with her lover as a femme fatale and leads the Japan’s surrender. But that is not the point. Kurosawa here is existentialist. There is a long scene describing the protagonist planting rice in the paddy field. The scene is even absurd, but absurd in a sense that the ending scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is so.


Japan is (I hesitate to use “was”) a hub for suffering. It transfers much suffering to Asians. But the center of this hub is always empty. The empty center of the power is actually not characteristic of Japan, on the contrary to significant people's view. I think I’ve just noted something irrelevant here. To be honest, my complaint is that Kurosawa never made a work about relation between Japan and the other Asian countries. But, it is not fair to criticize about what one has not done, instead of what one has done. Actually I was planning to write something about Kurosawa’s second latest work Rhapsody in August, which is about the victims of the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki. But, before that I dwell with the relation between war and the media, and ongoing “Rashomon effect” (a stupid term... well, this term doesn’t explain Rashomon itself, anyway) revolving around it. I have many questions about how an event becomes an event and how number of death matters when atrocity happens.

If there is no interpretation, there is no event. This is the problem of recent WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary which reportedly consists of more than 90,000 documents: my naive question is how to count the incidents; for instance having lunch consists of many acts, movements, and gestures. I sometimes eat seconds. I’m not watching every breath you take. It reminds me of the debate whether the WTC attack was one event or two (for the insurance company it was serious) and also a title of Jean Baudrillard’s book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (so he counted it as zero). I don’t have enough time to examine the details, and also think there would be no way for me to know what is going on even if I could. At this moment I’m looking around the summaries provided by The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the others. Spin doctors appear to be busy. The White House spokesperson appears to say the leaked information is not new, therefore does not reflect the present situation, though it is “potentially” harmful for the soldiers. I interpret it as there will be no imminent harm, but the authority just wants to make WikiLeaks “potentially” dangerous. I guess the authority will arrest someone again (whether the arrested is right or wrong actually doesn’t matter for the state....the question is ‘when’). A columnist of The Washington Post says Obama’s war policy is in the first place “a kind of exit strategy.” And I ask myself whether to begin with every war ever is a battle between different exit strategies (moreover, every war is a battle between different interpretations).

I’m glad that Baudrillard’s misguiding rhetoric became obsolete a long ago (that book was one of the reasons I didn’t like “postmodern” intellectuals when I was young). Whatever it entails, be it win-lose or win-win or lose-lose, these days we simply call it war. Most of us know relation between goals and instruments are not simple (in the 1980s, some critics ironically said Japan and West Germany were the winners of World War II, citing these countries’ robust economy at that time). But there may be one thing Baudrillard said in the book still relevant today: he said both sides (the US-led coalition and Iraqi under the Saddam Hussein regime at the first Gulf War) fought just in order to preserve their own systems. Nowadays we have a term to describe this, “shock doctrine,” thanks to Naomi Klein. A system needs disasters in order to survive.


In my view, Rhapsody in August is, if I borrow Butler’s term, about an impossibility of attending to the suffering of others. In the ending scene, grandmother, whose mind is on the day of August 9, 1945, precisely at the time when the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, suddenly starts running on the road from her mountainous village to Nagasaki through the stormy rain. Her husband died there by the bombing. Her children and grandchildren also run, following her, but mysteriously, despite their physical advantage, they cannot catch her. The point is that the grandmother cannot catch her dead husband as long as she is alive, and her children and grandchildren cannot attend to the suffering of their grandmother, even though how much they care about her. The film’s conclusion may be that, despite all this one must try to attend to the suffering of others. This scene reminds me of the other sad running in the end of François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), but the sadness Kurosawa depicts here is rather collective one, or impossibility of collectivity. The song in this scene, Franz Schubert’s Heidenröslein, also repeatedly sung by the grandchildren, is known by every Japanese, and it may provoke a collective memory of a certain generation of Japanese. Kurosawa often uses old song to revive a collective memory on the screen.

Critics denounced this film as “naive anti-American.” The contentious scene is that the grandmother’s Japanese-American nephew played by Richard Gere says to her, “Watashitachi, warukatta-desu (we were wrong),” which could be interpreted as Gere as a representative of Americans apologizing for the bombing. Actually, it appears to be more natural to interpret this as his apologizing for the fact that he has never asked about her experience. In my view, Kurosawa intentionally left it ambiguous. That is why Gere speaks in stuttering Japanese. If anti-nuclear weapons means anti-American, Kurosawa is definitely anti-American. So the critics put “naive” on top of “anti-American.” In this sense, “naive” is used as an instrument to repress a certain way of seeing: “We can tolerate his anti-Americanism, but what we criticize is that he is naive.”

Many victims of the atomic bomb were ashamed themselves (the similar thing often happens; it is victims who are ashamed), so they were reluctant to speak out. If I borrow Butler’s term, grievance was forbidden to them. In this film the grandmother also is reluctant to talk about her experience, instead, talks about her retarded brother who had obsessively kept drawing the eyes since the bombing. She explains to her grandchildren that it was the eye of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb framed her brother, so he in return tried to frame the frame for his own survival. It is not merely a metaphor: the light from the atomic bomb was very strong, so the bodies were really photographed on the stones and walls. When I was a child I saw it at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

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