Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship

By Loftus, Ronald P. | Film & History, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship


Loftus, Ronald P., Film & History


Aaron Gerow Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 University of California Press, 2010; 323 pages; paperback; $24.95

Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 is a book not so much about film as about the discursive history of film in the context of Japanese modernity. There are times, he writes, when "what is not said-and what is not allowed to be said-can be just as important as what is [said]" (35). This statement suggests two points. The first is that what was said and written about Japanese film had a significant influence on how future audiences and critics would receive and understand it, for Gerow recognizes, drawing upon Michel Foucault, that discourses "systematically form the objects of which they speak" (7). The second point is that from quite early on, there were concerns in Japan about the impact of this new medium on social values and conduct, and this sparked an interest in regulating film, culminating in national state censorship in 1925. Therefore, one of the central objectives of the book is to "consider how the definition of the motion pictures itself helped mold not only a film culture but also a populace compatible with an authoritarian state" (15).

"Cinema did not become a problem," suggests Gerow, "because it was modern and visual; it became modern and visual through the process of being defined as a problem, one dialectically intertwined with many other facets of what was seen as modern" (65). So, what could be done about this problem? Why, research it of course! Enter the efforts to understand the place of film in everyday Japanese life made by indefatigable researcher, Gonda Yasunosuke (1887-1951), a topic Gerow takes up in Chapter 2. Gonda is a fascinating figure who sought to explore the concept of new forms of leisure or "play" in his 1914 book, The Principles and Applications of the Moving Pictures. A 454 page tome, Principles was among the first books of its kind to appear anywhere in the modern world. In Gerow's words, Gonda "not only uses cinema to conceive of culture as a construction of the new modern masses but also attempts to present in practice a form of film study that embodies the notion of productive play" (73). Gerow discovers, however, that Gonda was deeply ambivalent. He wanted to sing the praises of this new art form that could celebrate the role of the masses in modern society and mobilize them; but he also was aware that cinema presented a social problem for Japan that needed to be controlled, which means that his book had a role in "structuring film studies as a mode of correction" (93). It is worth noting that Gonda's writings have also attracted the attention of two other important scholars of modernity in Japan: Harry Harootunian and the late Miriam Silverberg. I find it intriguing when books speak to one another and there is an interesting "conversation" about modernity that can be found when reading Visions of Japanese Modernity alongside Overcome by Modernity (Harootunian), and Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (Silverberg).

Central to Gerow's study is his Chapter 2 examination of the role of the Pure Film Movement, a group of writers, filmmakers and critics who believed that they could raise the status of film in Japan. In particular, they wanted to see Japanese film evolve beyond the mere filming of theatrical productions and create instead works that took full advantage of the power of this new medium. But Gerow underscores that from early on the discourse on film portrayed the medium as a problem in need of a solution. Theaters were dark, smelly and unhygienic places. Moreover, films might include scenes of song, dance, music or speech that were contrary to "public morals" (69). Even more threatening to the state, perhaps, was that spectators sitting in these darkened theaters were processing images in an unmediated manner, creating an "interiority" that might not be so easily be regulated.

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