Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit “Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh: Ways of Pointillism,” a remarkable exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (open through 8 January 2017). It was an eye-opening show on a couple of levels.
First, it disabused me of a vague notion I had carried around for decades that modern painting originates with Impressionism–that, in other words, twentieth-century visual art descended more or less in a direct line from Monet, Renoir, and company. The Albertina show argues forcefully and persuasively that we should look rather to Pointillism, which arose in direct opposition to Impressionism, as the seminal moment. It was Pointillism that finally liberated the painted image from any obligation to represent the external object as it appeared to the painter. Its aesthetic was governed instead by an autonomous logic that governed the interrelationships between dots of different colors arranged across the surface of the canvas. Moreover, as the impressive range of paintings assembled in the show demonstrates, virtually every major figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western painting went through a Pointillist phase: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and more.
Second, it suggested that the bifurcation in post-1960s Japanimation styles between full animation (represented most famously by Miyazaki Hayao) and limited animation (e.g. Tezuka Osamu’s work for television) was a rehashing of a debate that happened in oil painting nearly a century earlier. I have in mind here the argument Thomas LaMarre makes in his brilliant 2009 book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. According to LaMarre, full animation attempts to direct attention away from the gaps between the different planes of the animated image by centering itself on the movements of characters, drawn in loving detail against lush backgrounds. This technique generates a panoramic perspective that provides the illusion of a certain, albeit ambiguous, sense of depth. Limited animation, on the other hand, collapses the different planes of the animated image into a single flat surface to produce an effect that LaMarre calls “superplanarity”: all movement and energy now diffuse across the horizontal surface of the image rather than simulating some sort of depth.
According to the Albertina exhibit’s explanation, Pointillism aimed at something similar. Countless dots are arranged in non-hierarchical order across the surface of the canvas, each carrying an equal value. Through the contrasts and harmonies of different colors situated in relation to one another, a visual energy is unleashed across the flat plane of the image. The painting comes alive in the eye of the viewer with a kind of luminous oscillation that vibrates between the dots spread across its flat surface.
LaMarre critiques previous theorists who have tried to link the ‘superflat’ aesthetic of limited animation to Edo period visual art, usually assuming an essentialist West vs. Japan binary to link Japanimation to a seemingly ahistorical national aesthetic. The Albertina exhibit suggests that even within the ‘Western’ canon of painting, a similar conflict has long been at work. In their gorgeous works from the 1880s and 90s, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac produced a visual logic that Tezuka Osamu would have appreciated.
Yesterday afternoon, we attended a nearly sold-out screening of Shin-Gojira (Godzilla Rusurgence), the new reboot of the Godzilla movie franchise directed by Anno Hideaki (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and Higuchi Shinji. The film argues —- almost passionately — for the bureaucratic state apparatus as the highest form of subjectivity. In fact, the narrative is much more interested in how successful bureaucracies function then it is in how monsters appear in the world in the first place. Or, oddly, with how they look: in the first part of the film, Godzilla strangely resembles a Chinese lion-dance costume.
The directors borrow the narrative and editing style of the old NHK “Project X” series, celebrating the triumphs of Japanese corporate history, down to the camera angles and use of text captions to identify key players. The old family-romance melodrama subplot that characterized the original Godzilla series is completely replaced here by story lines driven by characters’ desires to rise within state bureaucracies. As with the original films, clearly this monster is a commentary on contemporary Japan, especially 3/11 (some shots of Godzilla’s destruction eerily match footage of the tsunami water sweeping through urban streets). But the fantasy here is that the state rises to the occasion, even as the actual Japanese state’s failures during the Fukushima nuclear accident are savagely parodied.
And it’s not just any old state that is being celebrated as the triumphant end of history: it’s specifically the military state. Tsubaraya Eiji started out doing special effects for wartime propaganda films like Hawai Mare oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, 1942). After the surrender he took his skills over to the Godzilla series, with its inherently pacifist message. But with this latest revision, things come full circle: Shin-Gojira is an unabashed celebration of Japanese military bravery and can-do prowess. We cheer as a vast bureaucratic network of scientists, technocrats, politicians, and military brass pull off an improbable victory, solve the problem, and neutralize the monster.
One of the nicest features of the new film is the way at key moments it deploys some of the indelible soundtrack music composed for the original series by Ifukube Akira. And there’s another very nice moment at the end when the soundtrack falls dead silent and we simply take in the horrible spectacle of the destroyed monster. Then the final credits roll — interminably long credits in the contemporary Hollywood style (the audience at our screening sat quietly to the end, watching them all). With the credits, we’re reminded that this film itself is also the product of a massive bureaucracy composed of committees, crews, technicians, programmers, and financiers. In other words, with Shin-Gojira, form equals content: the film is a successful bureaucratic product about how successful bureaucracies produce results. It’s the perfect Hegelian aesthetic resolution.
Recently I’ve been thinking about film director Wakamatsu Kōji （若松孝二）. In part, this was because of his role as an early advocate for the music of Hayakawa Yoshio and JACKS; he hired them to provide the soundtrack for his 1968 independent “pink” film, Haragashi Onna 『腹貸し女』.
This all nudged me into finally watching Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” 『実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程』. I’d been wanting to see this one since it first came out to great acclaim in 2008–it ended up being ranked #3 on that year’s Kinema Junpō Best Ten list. Finding an opportunity was always difficult, though, in part due to its epic length (three hours plus). But we sat down with the DVD last Saturday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I’m especially fascinated by what Wakamatsu intended by the first word of the Japanese title: jitsuroku 「実録」. A more literal translation of the title would be, “True Record: United Red Army–The Road to the Asama Sansō Incident.” As someone tangentially involved in 1960s leftist politics, Wakamatsu in his later years clearly felt an ethical, political, and artistic obligation to leave behind a “true record” of the violent faction that became notorious for a series of terrorist acts in early 1970s Japan and elsewhere.
The film begins with a kind of documentary survey of the history of the radical left in 1960s Japan, intercut with shots introducing us to the main characters we will follow. We find ourselves in the hands of a voice-over narrator who speaks in grizzled, weather-beaten tones. I thought the speaker might be Wakamatsu himself; the film has that sort of very personal feel to it. It was only when the closing credits rolled that I realized the voice actually belonged to the actor Harada Yoshio, certainly an apt choice–but one that also foregrounds the fictional, acted-out elements of this “true record.”
The middle hour uses actors to trace in horrific, numbing detail the self-destructive lynchings that took place as the possibility of actual revolution faded and the increasingly isolated faction sought to enforce impossible standards of ideological purity. Then the last hour of the film recreates the infamous 1972 Asama Sansō standoff, the incident that is conventionally depicted as the last gasp of 1960s radicalism in Japan. For the most part, we view the unfolding crisis from the perspective of the five gunmen and their hostage inside the mountain lodge, but at key moments — especially the final police assault on the villa — we see things from the external perspective of the police.
The soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke provides one set of clues as to how we are meant to take the film. In the first hour or so, it consists mainly of psychedelic guitar jams that convey a sense of liberation and possibility; by the last hour, it is almost entirely elegiac string quartet.
The climax of the film, the police raid, calls to mind nothing so much as the final shot in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the heroes are tragically misguided and doomed. What is striking is the non-judgmental tone of the presentation. For all the problems inherent in the idea of a partially fictional film as jitsuroku, it is clear that it was the driving concern behind the work. Wakamatsu neither celebrates nor condemns; he wants us to understand how the participants ended up doing what they did. He wants to leave behind a true record of what happened.
The last visual image in the film is a brief clip from news footage of a JAL jet being blown up on an airport tarmac at the end of a hijacking. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take this. Should we revel in the visceral excitement of the explosion footage? Or is it a meditation on the ultimate nihilism of violence as political means? Does it signal victory or defeat? Again, the answer seems to be: jitsuroku. It is what it is.
Apologies for the dearth of posts recently: it’s been a busy couple of months. The coming weeks and months promise to be just as busy, with many exciting Japan-related events on the horizon here at the University of Chicago. If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for some of the following events:
March 11: William Marotti (Associate Professor, History, UCLA) will be giving a public lecture on “Perceiving Politics: Art, Protest, and Everyday Life in Early 1960s Japan” (5:00 p.m., Wieboldt 408). He’ll discuss his new book, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press, 2013).
March 15-16: Remediations II: A Japan Anthro Workshop. Michael Fisch has organized this exciting event, featuring presentations by a number of up-and-coming Japan scholars. I’ll be a discussant for Panel 2: “Rethinking the War Machine: Remediations of Violence.”
April 22: 2013 Najita Distinguished Lecture in Japanese Studies with Ueno Chizuko(5:00 p.m., International House). A public lecture by the respected sociologist and influential feminist critic, one of Japan’s leading public intellectuals.
April 25-26: “The Cold War in East Asia,” a conference organized by our graduate students featuring a number of guest speakers. I’ll participate as a respondent for one of the panels.
May 10-11: “The Russian Kurosawa,” an innovative event organized by Olga Solovieva that brings together specialists in Russian literature, Japanese film, and other disciplines to reconsider Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptations of Russian literary works. The event will include free screenings of several of Kurosawa’s films.
Spring quarter will also see screenings and events surrounding the films produced and distributed by Art Theater Guild, the primary force in independent Japanese cinema during the 1970s and 80s.
October 18-20: The Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting: Performance and Japanese Literature. The call for papers and other information are available here.
(Recycling something originally posted here in 2009)
In 1967, Group Sounds superstars The Spiders recorded a song composed by their rhythm guitarist, Kamayatsu Hiroshi. Not much was expected of “Ban Ban Ban,” a crude three-chord rocker with throwaway lyrics and a riff supposedly lifted from a song by The Mindbenders. The tune was originally used as the B-side for a single and later included on the band’s fourth album. Here’s the original Spiders’ version, taken from one of their movies:
There was something about “Ban Ban Ban,” though, that made it stick in people’s minds: the rhythm, the catchy chorus, the sheer joy of it all. It’s become a J-rock classic now, one that every J-Rock band has to know, something akin to the status of “Wild Thing” or “Smoke on the Water” in the West.
Here are 1990s rockers Flying Kids performing the song on a drive through Tokyo. They get bonus points for digging up replicas of The Spiders’ old red doorman costumes:
And here are today’s fave-rave indie rockers Go!Go!7188 performing the song live.
Probably the most memorable cover of the song comes from “Monsieur” Kamayatsu himself. In early 1990, he was recording a new album in London. Word came down that all hell was breaking lose in Berlin, and so Kamayatsu headed over to Germany to see what was happening. The Wall had been breached, but not torn down yet, and there were still military patrols on both sides. Kamayatsu writes in his autobiography that he figured out that patrols walked by at two-minute intervals. Timing it carefully, he waited for one patrol to pass, then scrambled up to the top of the wall with acoustic guitar in hand. He dashed off an impromptu rendition of “Ban Ban Ban” for the assembled crowd, and luckily the moment was captured on video.
Apologies for the radio silence around these parts in recent days. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks since last I posted here.
I was in Tokyo for six days last week, meeting with other scholars and visiting archives and bookstores. I also had a chance to get together with the good people at Byakuya Shobo, the publishing house that will be bringing out the Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop next month. It’s the same team that was responsible for the Japanese edition of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler a few years back.
Along the way, I also attended Day 10 of the May sumo tournament. I was disappointed that the new Kakuryu bento lunchbox was sold out by noon, but had an enjoyable day at the Kokugikan nonetheless. I also saw a couple of current films while in Japan: Waga haha no ki, adapted from Inoue Yasushi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a novelist’s relations with his aging mother and featuring a very strong cast headed by Yakusho Koji and Kiki Kirin; and Rentaneko, an engaging independent film by Ogigami Naoko (of Kamome Shokudo fame) about a young woman who rents out cats to lonely people. It’s a low key, often humorous, meditation on the pleasures and agonies of repetition in everyday life. Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times can be found here.
I flew back to Chicago last Saturday and was immediately plunged into adventure: trying to negotiate my way from O’Hare International Airport to the South Side through a maze of traffic closures in effect because of the NATO Summit.
This past Monday night, we took the whole family downtown to see the reunited Beach Boys in concert at the Chicago Theatre. Once again, the commute was a challenge: the Metra trains didn’t start up at 6:30 as promised, and Lake Shore Drive was still shut down. After some hasty improvising, we managed to get there in time. The show was terrific fun. The first half was heavy on early surf numbers, but things really came alive after intermission. Highlights included a lovely version of “Disney Girls,” a plaintive “In My Room,” and the final encore number of “Fun Fun Fun,” when Brian Wilson came out from behind the grand piano to (at least temporarily) strap on a bass guitar and resume his original position in the band.
My fifteen-year-old daughter, who takes her singing seriously, complained that they were using Autotune to correct pitch on the vocals. I pooh-poohed the idea, but when I got home and did some Googling, I found out that many Beach Boys fans are up in arms about the same issue. Either way, it was a fun and historic show, as Greg Kot noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune.
The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic. […] In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.
A couple of other odds and ends:
The Atlantic has a nice story by Patrick St. Michel about the trend toward hits by young children in J-Pop, including a mention of my new book. You can read the article online here, and if you haven’t yet checked out “Make Believe Melodies,” St. Michel’s fine blog on contemporary pop music in Japan, you should do so right now.
JERO, the African-American Enka singer who was raised in Pittsburgh singing Misora Hibari numbers with his Japanese grandmother, will be making his New York debut in a concert/talk appearance at the Japan Society next month. Details here. It’s been a while, so to refresh your and my memories, here’s his wonderful 2008 debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean snow):
Next week marks the first anniversary of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. In recent days, we’ve been learning that the situation was in fact far more dire than the government or Tokyo Electric were willing to admit at the time. It’s come out recently that the Japanese government was even considering an unthinkable scenario: evacuation of Tokyo. The New York Times:
in the darkest moments of the nuclear disaster, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the [Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power] plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public.
Just today, a newly issued scientific report concludes that the total amount of radiation released into the ocean near Fukushima was likely much greater than previously estimated. The Asahi Shinbun:
A mind-boggling 40,000 trillion becquerels of radioactive cesium, or twice the amount previously thought, may have spewed from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 disaster, scientists say. […] The figure, which represents about 20 percent of the discharge during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas.
The disaster touched our own family in many ways. My wife was born and raised in Sendai, a city in the center of the affected region. I have lived there on three different occasions. In the early morning hours of March 11 last year, we watched in horror live pictures of the tsunami sweeping over neighborhoods that we know well. Fortunately, none of my in-laws were injured or killed. We did lose some very dear friends, though. And in the year since, we have watched old classmates, colleagues, and friends cope with the loss of children, spouses, parents. Their resilience has been nothing short of astonishing.
We are marking the anniversary with a number of events here at the University of Chicago. Earlier in the year, we hosted an exhibit of photographs from the region, highlighting the scale of the disaster and the enormous energy that has gone into the rescue and recovery efforts. (The same exhibit will be on display at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, March 4 through April 15: details here.)
On March 9 (7:30 p.m., Coulter Lounge in International House), we’ll host a free public screening of an acclaimed new documentary, “Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape” (『「相馬看花」-奪われた土地の記憶』) with director Matsubayashi Yojyu in attendance. Details are available here.
Then, on March 10-11 we’ll host a major conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who will be retiring from the university this summer. “What March 11 Means to Me: A Symposium in Honor of Norma Field” will feature five prominent public intellectuals and activists from Japan, each speaking on the personal and pubic dimensions of the disaster and its ongoing impact. The line-up of speakers is simply amazing:
Komori Yoichi: scholar of Japanese literature and leader of the movement to preserve Article 9
Ryusawa Takeshi: former editor-in-chief of Heibonsha, one of Japan’s most important publishing houses
Takahashi Tetsuya: a native of Fukushima and one of Japan’s leading scholars of ethics and philosophy
Yokoyu Sonoko: a well-known clinical psychologist and advocate for children’s rights
A schedule for the event and profiles of the participants can be found here.
Finally, on May 5 we will be hosting “Atomic Age II: Fukushima,” with two very special guests from Japan: Koide Hiroaki of the Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute, a scientist who became something of a public hero for his willingness to speak frankly about the risks of nuclear power, and Muto Ruiko, an activist in anti-nuclear citizen movements from Fukushima. Details are available here.
Remarkable progress has been made in recovery over the past year. People from the region I’ve talked to express deep gratitude for the support they’ve received from around the world. But the disaster continues: rebuilding efforts in the tsunami-affected region have barely begun, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster is still unfolding, despite glossy governmental declarations that the situation is under control. Shutting down the reactors and decontaminating the area will take decades. It will take many years to assess the real human cost, too: I dread thinking about what rates of cancer incidence in the region will look like six or seven years from now.
I hope you can join us for some of these events. Please keep the people of Tohoku in your thoughts. One way we can help is to make sure that we all learn the lessons that the disaster is trying to teach us.
This 2008 film came up in a discussion yesterday following a workshop I led at DePaul University for K-12 teachers on using Japanese popular music in the classroom. I did a little web surfing after getting home and learned that it is now available on DVD in North America.
It’s a funny, cartoonish (not surprising, since it’s based on a successful manga) movie about a sensitive singer-songwriter (Matsuyama Ken’ichi) who wants only to record sunny Shibuya-kei style ballads about love and trendy Tokyo lifestyles, but who ends up trapped as lead singer for a death metal band. His fans worship him as the spawn of Satan, but all he cares about is trying to win over the squeaky clean girl (Kato Rosa) he’s had a crush on since college. Gene Simmons turns in a nice cameo appearance as the legendary American death metal icon who challenges our hero to a final showdown for supremacy.
Everything is played in a silly, over-the-top manner, dulling the emotional impact when it tries to go sentimental at the end. But the pop and metal songs are fun, affectionate parodies of the two genres. Around the time the movie came out in Japan, they actually released CDs purporting to be music by the fictional bands from the film.
Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times is available online here. Here’s a trailer for the film:
A few things I’ve been reading as of late:
Jim Harrison, True North (Grove Press, 2004). I’m a belated convert to Harrison’s fiction: I’ve known about him since a girlfriend in high school recommended him, but only started reading his work in the last few years. I inadvertently read Returning to Earth, the 2007 sequel to this, first and found myself mesmerized. So it was with high expectations that I picked this up–but I ended up mildly disappointed. It’s quite good, yes, but not at the level of Harrison’s best. Why? I guess I felt emotionally distant from the characters and from the whole notion of taking historical responsibility for one’s familial past. It’s a fine novel, but Harrison has produced more compelling work elsewhere.
Kirino Natsuo 桐野夏生, OUT (Kodansha, 2002; two volumes). My first foray into the land of Kirino, though I did see the fine film adaptation of this novel a few years back. The suspenseful plot (will our heroines be arrested for their heinous crimes of murder and corpse dismemberment?) works well, but most of all I like the gritty details of contemporary life that Kirino captures better than her more “Literary” peers: what it feels like day after day to endure a shitty night-shift job and a dead-end family life. Despite the, uhm, moral shortcomings of all the major characters, this reader ended up kinda liking them as people.
Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). An excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures from Japan’s 1960s, covering his work in poetry, sports writing, guerrilla theater performance and experimental film. Ridgely presents a sophisticated and highly readable study of the multiple ways in which Terayama creatively redrew the boundary between fiction and reality.
How ’bout you? Read any good books lately?
I am stunned to learn of the death of anime director Kon Satoshi. He was only 46; the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
Kon was for my money easily the best director in Japanese anime. Each of his remarkable films expanded the boundaries of what the medium was capable of. The first one I saw was Millennium Actress (2001), his second feature, and it knocked me out: it’s a stunning homage to the history of Japanese cinema. I immediately tracked down Perfect Blue, his debut film, and from that time on made a point of seeing everything he released. His art reached a peak with Paprika (2006), a truly mind-blowing film. Here is what I wrote about Paprika when I first saw it:
I’m convinced that Kon is the most important director of anime in the world, and I’ve been wanting to see this one since the day it was released. I wasn’t disappointed: it may well be his best film yet, and that is saying something. This is after all the man who has already given us Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. Stunning visually: the first five minutes had my jaw dropping. The plot is tangled, but that is appropriate since the film is about the logic of dreams: an experimental device that allows psychotherapists to enter the dreams of their patients falls into the wrong hands, becoming a deadly tool for manipulation. Dreams are the stuff that we are made of, and Kon’s story unfolds an allegory about life under conditions of mass media, consumerism, and technology. It all ends with one of the main characters buying a ticket to see a film directed by Kon Satoshi. I can’t wait for the director’s next film!
Kon was apparently close to finishing that next film when he passed away. I still can’t wait to see it, but will have a hard time accepting that it will be this master’s final work.