The Critical Event of Director Ozu Yasujiro
Work, now? Never, never; I’m on strike.
– Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Georges Izambard, May 13, 1871
What is film criticism today? Its very existence has been put in question so insistently and for so long that film criticism now seems like part of the mythology of a soon-to-be-extinct tribe. When someone starts to discuss film criticism these days, it is predictable that he or she will cite the often recycled reasons why it is in a crisis: the Internet with its economy of ‘free’ information and its culture in which ‘user comments’ have displaced professional cultural experts; the decline in readership and advertising revenues for print newspapers and magazines, further limiting the space available for arts coverage; etc. Sometimes also mentioned, though less often, is the emergence (in the English-speaking world) of a powerful institutional rival to film criticism in the form of academic film studies in the 1970s, a development that film scholar Geoffrey Nowell-Smith called a ‘disaster’ that ‘nearly killed film criticism’. (1) Can anyone believe that Hasumi Shigehiko was wrong to write, in 2006, that ‘At the beginning of this 21st century, the profession of film critic is quasi-fictional’? (2) Even when it seemed to be thriving, however (in the 1960s and ‘70s), and could compel at least the modicum of respect accorded to that which is acknowledged to exist, even during that time, it could have been suspected that there was something fictional and evanescent about film criticism. Perhaps we should take its current non-existence as settled, and instead ask the question: What was film criticism?
In a 2004 conversation with Aoyama Shinji originally published in Japanese in Intercommunication and partially published in French translation under the title ‘Dans un monde où la critique tend à disparaître’ (‘In a World Where Criticism Is Disappearing’), Hasumi said:
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ‘The Rise and Fall of Film Criticism’, Film
Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Fall 2008), p. 11.
de Tokyo’, Trafic, No. 58 (Summer 2006), p. 132. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from
French in this essay are
|In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when new films, foreign as well as Japanese, were released for the first time in Japan, I wondered how to make them known and understood through criticism. I’m doing the same thing today, against the current trend in which criticism is replaced by short promotional phrases that are called ‘commentaries’. (3)||3. ‘Dans un monde où la critique tend à disparaître’, translated from Japanese by Hirotoshi Ogashima, Vertigo, Vol. 2, No. 34 (2008), p. 92.|
This is a good, succinct statement of the purpose and the declined cultural place of criticism. It does not say anything, however, about the act of criticism. Although, in what follows, I wish to concentrate on this act, let me acknowledge at once that, being mainly limited to those works of his that have been published in French or English, I am not in the best position to say what Hasumi’s views on it are. Fortunately, the list of such publications can be considered short only by comparison with Hasumi’s output in his native language. In English, he has contributed to the collectively written Movie Mutations, to the online journals Rouge and LOLA, to anthologies on Hou Hsiao-hsien, Daniel Schmid, Victor Erice, Kato Tai and Naruse Mikio. The works available in French include several substantial essays for Trafic and Cinéma, many texts on literature, and Hasumi’s interviews with Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Most importantly, the major book-length monograph whose Japanese title is Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro (Director Ozu Yasujiro) was published in French as Yasujiro Ozu. It is on this text that I will base my study of Hasumi’s view of the act of criticism.
In doing so, I am aware of the danger of placing an undue emphasis on a book that is intended as the study of a single director, and not as a theoretical treatise on film criticism. Nevertheless, the Ozu book is rich in statements of general validity on film and film criticism. Hasumi writes of Ozu: ‘When one sees his films, one cannot remain comfortably in the middle of an event, because the filmic experience in the present has neither beginning nor end’ (19F/7J). (4) This observation might be valid not just for Ozu’s films but for cinema in general. Hasumi considers Ozu not merely as a great director but as one whose work ‘reveals the limits of the form of expression called cinema. It’s because it confronts, as a productive “sign”, the impossibility of cinema, that Ozu is modern and innovative’ (31F/21J; italics in original). Ozu’s work is moving ‘because, at moments, it ceases to be cinema’ (32F/21J).
If Ozu’s films are privileged examples of cinema because they are at the limits of cinema, threatening to cancel the very relation between the film and the viewer, perhaps film criticism is a privileged form of the viewing experience because it is at the limit of that experience, claiming its validity in acknowledging its own impossibility. Hasumi begins his short text called ‘Eiga to Hihyo’ (‘Film and Criticism’) with the phrase: ‘Criticism does not exist, because criticism is an experience that can live only as an event.’ (5) This is a provocative equation. It would be less surprising to read that criticism is a genre of writing, or a form of thought, or even a mode of life. Hasumi seems to regard criticism not primarily as an activity directed toward an end (such as the production of a critical text) but as an activity that might be called, to use Giorgio Agamben’s formula, a ‘means without end’. (6) As such, the adventure of criticism might be compared with that of the poet, as described by Rimbaud in the Lettre du voyant: ‘He reaches the unknown, and when, maddened, he ends up losing the intelligence of his visions, at least he has seen them!’ (7) Let’s recall that the ‘unknown’ is not a category unknown to the writing of Hasumi, who writes: ‘Liberation is precisely the duty of which all discourses on cinema should acquit themselves’ (38F/29J). Perhaps it is not wildly inappropriate to see the film critic’s task in Rimbaldian terms, as a Promethean mission that follows a path to foredoomed failure.
* * *
4. Page references to the Ozu book will be given in
parentheses in the text. A number followed by ‘F’ refers to the French edition, Yasujiro Ozu,
translated by Ryoji Nakamura, René de Ceccatty and Shiguéhiko Hasumi (Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile/Cahiers du cinéma,
1998). A number followed by ‘J’ refers to the Japanese edition, Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro (definitive edition, Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2003).
5. Eiga yuuwaku no ekurichuru (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1990), p. 353.
‘Notes on Gesture’, in Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: Minnesota
University Press, 2000), pp. 49-59.
7. Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871.
To understand the power of Hasumi’s book on Ozu for a Western readership, it must be understood that the view of Ozu in the West has been shaped by three writers, Paul Schrader, Donald Richie and David Bordwell. (8) (The impact of Noël Burch on the Western reception of Ozu has been less decisive, partly because of Burch’s commitment to a reading of Ozu’s work that completely dismisses his postwar films.) (9) Schrader’s account of Ozu as one of the models of ‘transcendental style in film’, Richie’s reading of Ozu’s films in terms of the grand narrative of the decline of the traditional Japanese family, and Bordwell’s detailed examination of the stylistic procedures that set Ozu’s work apart from the norms of classical cinema, continue to influence the way Ozu is viewed and discussed.
What does Hasumi’s Ozu book offer to challenge the dominant constructions of Ozu in the West? First, Hasumi puts the question, ‘What is it to watch an Ozu film?’, into the foreground of his concerns. In doing this, he criticises the approaches of Schrader and Richie. (10) Hasumi reproaches Richie for using a kind of ‘negative discourse’ that defines Ozu in terms of absence and lack (e.g., the camera rarely or never moves). Turning this discourse around, Hasumi asserts, ‘the view that is applied to his films is what suffers from an enormous lack’. In fact, Ozu’s ‘fecundity’ is ‘incontestable’ (25 F/13-14 J). Against Schrader, Hasumi argues that it is mistaken to see Ozu’s films as the reflection of a ‘transcendent’ spirituality imbued with the values of Zen and Japaneseness. The highpoint of this counter-argumentation takes place over the so-called shot of the vase in Late Spring (1949), a locus classicus in the discussion of Ozu’s work. Hasumi calls the attraction of this shot for Western commentators ‘disproportionate’, and observes (following Yamamoto Kikuo) that whereas Japanese viewers are more apt to notice other areas of the shot of the vase, Westerners such as Schrader and Richie tend to ignore everything but the vase (219-220F/244J).
This discussion of the contradictory interpretations of the ‘image of the vase’ in Late Spring implicates (without naming the discipline) cultural studies. Hasumi insists on the poverty of interpretations based on cultural prejudices: ‘when the meaning of an image is not deployed fully, the interpretation belongs to the cultural domain’ (221F/246J). He further remarks that: ‘To the extent that seeing is a cultural gesture, the look is not free’ (217 F/241J). These remarks have a broad significance, since a concern for the cultural dimension of seeing distinguishes the approaches of academic film studies, as directed and dominated by cultural studies, from film criticism. For Hasumi, the cultural dimension is a distraction and a lure that can cause viewers to fail to see a film. When Hasumi considers the sign the mother puts on her child’s back in I Was Born, But … (1932) – ‘Don’t feed him, he has a stomach ache’ – as ‘a real document of the history of the city of Tokyo’ (45F/35J), he performs a characteristic inversion. Ozu’s films are documents of their times not because of the grand symbolic themes so often used to explain his films (e.g., the postwar collapse of the multi-generation family), but because of a visual detail that belongs to the Ozuian thematic system of eating/not eating. (11) Similarly, the social problem presented by I Was Born, But …, that of the lowly office worker, is made manifest because of the children’s decision to go on a hunger strike, which expresses the situation in terms of the same thematic system (45-46F/35-36J).
In Early Summer (1951), after Hara Setsuko unexpectedly agrees to marry Sugimura Haruko’s son (Nihonyanagi Kan), Sugimura impulsively proposes to celebrate by sharing anpan (a bun filled with red bean paste, generally thought of as a homely, popular snack). Hasumi writes: ‘we feel a deep emotion on hearing this unexpected word: anpan’ (42F/32J). Can a viewer who does not understand Japanese share in this emotion, and thus properly appreciate Hasumi’s account of Early Summer? Though it is certainly possible for viewers from whatever culture, whether they understand Japanese or not, to feel emotion at this scene, probably it would not occur to a non-Japanese to ascribe this emotion to Sugimura Haruko’s utterance of the word ‘anpan’. The English subtitles can do no more than convey what the food is, while leaving its cultural connotations unexplored. The surprise a native Japanese speaker might feel at hearing anpan named at such a moment is almost totally inaccessible to most foreigners. Consequently, Hara Setsuko’s laugh as she declines the offer of anpan must remain completely ambiguous. On the other hand, for both Japanese and non-Japanese viewers, this ambiguity is not limited to her laugh, but extends over the entire matter of her decision to marry Sugimura’s son, for, as Hasumi writes, ‘the psychological necessity of the situation is hardly justified over the course of the narrative’ (43F/33J). Hasumi’s location of the word ‘anpan’ at the centre of the narrative is justified by his identification of eating (and not eating) as belonging to the thematic system of Ozu’s work.
Respectively, Transcendental Style in
Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); Ozu: His Life and Films (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1974); and Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988).
Revised and edited by Annette Michelson, To
the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1979).
10. If Bordwell
is treated with greater reticence, this can be explained by the fact that his
book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema was not
published until 1988, five years after the first edition of Hasumi’s
Ozu book. (The chapters added for the expanded
edition of Hasumi’s book contain four references to Bordwell.) In the 1983 edition, and its French translation,
Hasumi argues against the approach taken by Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in their Summer 1976 Screen article ‘Space and Narrative in
the Films of Yasujirô Ozu’,
claiming that the interest of Ozu lies not, as they
assert, in his deviations from the cinematic norms of his period, but rather in
that Ozu’s work, at moments, ‘ceases to be cinema’
(32 F/21 J).
11. Hasumi's Ozu book makes use of a conceptual terminology that is highly unusual within the Western context. The ‘thematic system’, for Hasumi, is that which operates a displacement of the interest of Ozu’s films from the narrative to a different level characterised by a rich fusion of elements, the perception of which is ‘a concrete event’ in which ‘narrative duration is articulated in a living rhythm’. At that point, Ozu’s work ‘accords with the cinematographic sensibility of our look, as a movement internal to the film. This is what happens when we are moved by a film’ (38F/28-29J). The thematic system is of tremendous importance: it is what makes the cinema a cinema of auteurs. ‘Let’s say that the place where all authors – and not just Ozu – give free rein to their imagination is precisely the thematic system’ (119F/102J).
Another element whose appreciation would seem to require a knowledge of Japanese culture is the paper carp in Early Summer, of which Hasumi writes (in the same terms he used concerning the word anpan in the same film): ‘the viewer feels a profound emotion’ (141F/126J). Is this emotion as deep if one does not know that the carp is a symbol of boys in Japanese culture? In any case, Hasumi explains the power of the shot in a way that dispenses with its cultural meaning. The shot of the paper carp can be seen simply as an indication of the passage of time (rather than as the image of the object the grandparents are looking at together). The emotional power of the scene comes not from any symbolism, but from the unidirectionality of the two people’s looks, which always, in Ozu, introduces ‘departure and death’ (141F/127J). In other words, the cultural significance of the carp is secondary and insufficient to arouse the emotion of the spectator: only what belongs to the thematic system of the film can move us.
The critical act in Hasumi’s book is directed toward what is moving in Ozu as a sign of the limits of cinema. To proceed in this direction, Hasumi starts from a willfully simple level of inquiry into the minimal structural constituents of the experience of watching a film. There are two: looking and time. Seeing cinema reduced to these terms, it is quite possible to say, as Hasumi has, that ‘all movies are but variants on the silent film’. (12) In this recall to first principles, Hasumi reminds us of the closeness of cinema to life.
In the scene near the end of Early Summer in which the grandfather (Sugai Ichiro), going out to buy birdseed, stops to sit on a bench and wait for a train to pass, then continues sitting after the train has passed, Ozu lays emphasis on these two minimal components, in order to bring his cinema into the closest possible connection to life. (Hasumi briefly mentions this scene in the Ozu book, 186F/156J.) Even before we reach the train crossing where the grandfather’s progress comes to a stop, the scene is marked by a sense of places watching humans: first in the shot of Sugai walking between the house and a tall fence; next in the shot, immediately following, in which he walks past a group of monuments. The act of looking, strongly echoed by the camera angles, is not attributed to any human subject within the film, until the moment when the grandfather reaches the train crossing and, seeing the gate lowering itself before him, slows his pace and looks first to his right, then to his left. Since no shot corresponds to his vision at this point, we realise that whether the train is approaching from the left or the right is a matter of indifference. After the grandfather sits down on the bench, there is a cut to the first of three close shots of him: looking forward, he sighs audibly, but his facial expression suggests that he is looking at nothing in particular. In the second such close shot, separated from the first by a long shot of the train hurtling by, his head is now turned slightly upward, away from the direction of the train (which completes its passage across the background). This shot is followed by another appearance of the long shot, in which the gate rises. Then the third close shot of the grandfather appears: this time, his gaze is again parallel to the ground; he blinks and swallows; it is impossible to tell what he is looking at or whether he is looking at anything. This shot is followed by a shot of the sky, which is bright, but partly covered with a crisp and delicate cloud formation. The entire scene gives us a precise image of time in cinema in its connection with the look, in a situation more or less detached from the narrative movement of the film. Two elements produce time: the passage of the train and the intentionality of the grandfather. Apart from that intentionality, he is viewed in a context of timelessness, as an object whose passage is indifferent, just as the passage of the train is indifferent to him. His intentionality itself flickers into life not in relation to the movement of the train, but in relation to an object that the film leaves unspecified, allowing us to identify it after the fact (after he has apparently ceased to be preoccupied with it) as the sky. The lack of contact between the time of the grandfather’s look and the time of the train passing threatens to suspend the narrative of Early Summer; we sense that we have reached, or are perilously close to reaching, the limits of cinema.
12. ‘Fiction and the “Unrepresentable”: All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film’, LOLA, issue 1 (2011),
Watching all these scenes in Early Summer, one can only agree with Hasumi that, in Ozu’s cinema, ‘everything is on the surface: nothing is hidden’ (104F/90J). Hasumi’s book seeks to remain true to this realism of the cinematic sign. The title of Hasumi’s book in Japanese is Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro. These words are reproduced in the frontispiece to the Japanese edition, which is a reproduction of the card bearing Ozu’s credit in the titles of Tokyo Story (1953). If this illustration is absent in the French edition, which otherwise follows the Japanese edition in its use of illustrations, no doubt this is not only because the French reader is presumed not to be able to read kanji, but also because, even if it could be read, this title card no longer corresponds to the title of the book, which has become simply Yasujirô Ozu. Whereas the French title merely identifies the book as a monograph on a filmmaker, the Japanese title emphasises that the text will be concerned with what is to be experienced through apprehending the letter of Ozu’s films, the reality of what is visible in them. The emphasis on the word ‘director’ indicates that the book will be about Ozu as an exemplary principle of the organisation of the material of cinematic experience.
This title, or rather the frontispiece, already alerts us to one of the key themes of Hasumi’s book, which can be stated in a single sentence: ‘Literally, there is nothing but the image, and this image conceals nothing: everything is on the surface of the screen’ (215F/239J). There is nothing for the look to do but to slide over the image in search of the other, virtual, images that it conceals, or ‘remain in suspense’ (216F/240J) alongside the actualised image. Ozu does not flatter the illusion, commonly purveyed in narrative cinema, that it is possible for the spectator’s look to go beyond the image.
Made uncomfortable by Ozu’s denial of this illusion, viewers lose themselves, Hasumi claims, in seeing Ozu’s films in terms of other illusions such as mono no aware (sensitivity to things), yȗgen (mysterious depth), haiku, or ‘what is typically Japanese’ (216F/240J). Instead of pursuing these fantasies, Hasumi advises viewers to use their eyes: literally, to ‘think about what they see’ (217F/241J), instead of subjecting their vision to a prejudicial thought. The vase in Late Spring is a perfect example: we may think we are seeing a shot of a vase, because we are predisposed to understand the meaning of the vase according to certain preconceptions; but, in so doing, we blind ourselves to the background of the shot and to an entire network of elements, within which the vase is merely a part. We could say that Hasumi asks us to watch a film as Jean-Luc Godard watched Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory: ‘One is no longer interested in objects, but in what lies between the objects and which becomes an object in its turn. Nicholas Ray forces us to consider as real something that one did not even consider as unreal, something one did not consider at all.’ (13)
What is it possible to see in the image, and what is it not possible to see? Hasumi writes that the look is unrepresentable in cinema (151F/132J). This proposition at first seems difficult to agree with. One does not have to search one’s memory long to find examples of the cinema’s seeming to show nothing so movingly and powerfully as looks: James Stewart’s look at Kim Novak emerging from the bathroom in Vertigo (1958); Dorothy Comingore looking up from her jigsaw puzzle floor at Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941); John Wayne looking down at Dean Martin at the beginning of Rio Bravo (1959); in the same film, Angie Dickinson looking at Wayne as he holds a pair of red women’s bloomers against his body; Tanaka Kinuyo looking at the face of a statue in a temple in The Life of Oharu (1952) ... When Hasumi writes, however, that ‘seeing is not a visual object’ (151F/132J), it is to force us to take a second look and see what is actually visible in the image. In the cinema, we can see, strictly speaking, that a person is looking: the eyes are open and oriented in a certain direction. What remains necessarily invisible is the look as an act of perception, uniting noesis and noema. This cannot be seen or photographed, any more than can be seen or photographed the internal awareness of the passage of time. In the face that we see in a film, or even in real life, looking at us, there is an absence where the act of seeing should be, an absence that the face both reveals and hides. (14)
It is in the context of this dislocation, one of the privileged terrains of cinema, that Hasumi considers the structure of shot and reverse shot, a structure with an affinity for situations of love and of action (154F/136J). Hasumi guards himself from calling this structure the essence of cinema, preferring to say that this structure reveals the limits of cinema. Watching the ‘duel of looks’ between Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko in Floating Weeds (1959), Hasumi writes, ‘we become aware that the cinema is impotent in the face of this simultaneous phenomenon of the exchange of looks’ (197F/169J). The failure of the cinema to capture the look itself is particularly acutely revealed at this moment.
Why does Hasumi isolate this exchange of shots in Floating Weeds as singular? The frequency with which Ozu’s cinema resorts to the shot/reverse shot structure is, after all, extremely well known, as is the sense of discrepancy created by Ozu’s refusal to obey the so-called 180-degree rule. If the sequence in Floating Weeds is remarkable, it is because it is raining, and weather is identified as a major theme of Hasumi’s Ozu book, in which a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Nice Weather’ (or, as a translated excerpt in English puts it, ‘Sunny Skies’). ‘When, without apparent reason, the weather changes drastically, Ozu’s work places itself perfectly at the limit beyond which the cinema ceases to be cinema. It is not merely the paroxysm of the film we are witnessing, but the paroxysm of cinema itself’ (198F/169J). It is through its participation in Ozu’s ‘thematic system’ that the scene reaches this paroxysm. It is also here that Ozu’s thematic system departs from the framework of the personal universe of an author to reach the limits of cinema.
13. Tom Milne (ed. & trans.), Godard on
Godard (London: Secker & Warbrug,
1972), p. 65.
14. Cf. Agamben, ‘The Face’, in Means Without End,
In Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), there is a moment when Tom Neal, driving a car at night while its owner (Edmund MacDonald) sleeps in the passenger seat, fantasises about his girlfriend singing. Before the fantasy, which is triggered by a track-in toward the rearview mirror of the car, we are, as usual in this film, unaware of any particular weather conditions. After the fantasy ends and the camera tracks back from the mirror, it suddenly starts to rain. The sudden rain proves to be an ill omen for Neal, who, on stopping the car to put up the convertible top, finds that his companion has died. The advent of rain coincides with the appearance of a brightly lit, white fence hurtling past in the background of the shot. This fence is the metaphorical revelation within the film of the apparatus of cinema. The evenly spaced, white posts of this fence resemble frame divisions, rushing by in the uncontrollable movement that gives to a succession of still images the appearance of animation. Moreover, the image of the fence is perceptibly back-projected. Our recognition of the back projection as such threatens to expose the visual world of the film as entirely fabricated, no more real than Neal’s fantasy of his girlfriend: a threat that is converted into narrative terms by the danger to Neal that the death of Edmund MacDonald represents. The fence thus doubly inscribes cinema within the film Detour, marking out what, following Hasumi, we can recognise as the limit of cinema – for which continuous motion is the condition of existence or, at any rate, the condition of belief in the reality of the narrative. As with the shot/reverse shot confrontation in Floating Weeds, the unexpected rain causes the break in our relationship to the image that suddenly enables us to perceive this limit.
A similar apprehension of cinema beyond cinema, of the danger of cinema ceasing to be cinema, overwhelms the viewer of the famous scene of the father and son fishing with identical movements in There Was a Father (1942). (15) Hasumi’s analysis of this scene is extraordinary. The look, identifying with the rhythm of the movements of the scene, ceases to be a look, and ‘we have the impression that the father and son, while fishing, feel the flow of time’ (158F/140J). For Hasumi, the on-screen characters identify with the movement of the river and with the flow of time. It is implied that the viewer joins them in this identification, which is an identification with the cinema itself. We feel, according to Hasumi, that this movement must stop if the film is to remain a film. Our identification with cinema risks taking us out of cinema. A ‘suffocating tension’ (158F/140J) is introduced that is relieved only when the regularity of the characters’ movements is interrupted. Indeed, there is a certain pitilessness in the regularity of the movements, an impression perhaps amplified by the dazzling light reflected from the surface of the river.
15. As Hasumi observes, the scene was sketched earlier in Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and will be repeated for the last time in the remake Floating Weeds (158F/140J).
This moment, as analysed by Hasumi, can be compared with another famous scene, the long take in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954) in which the river carries away Marilyn Monroe’s suitcase. The scene is filmed from the river bank where, throwing them a rope, Robert Mitchum saves Monroe and Rory Calhoun from being carried away on their barge by a swiftly moving current. Disembarking, Monroe loses hold of her suitcase, which is borne away out of frame by the river. Later in the same shot, as the camera tracks to follow the characters walking, the suitcase becomes visible again in the far background. The scene owes its fame to the late British critic V. F. Perkins, who analysed it as a seminal example of CinemaScope mise en scène. (16) In this scene, it is impossible for the viewer to identify with the movement of the river, which is simply a fact of the scene. It carries with it, not Monroe herself, but her belongings, which, in that movement, cease to be important in themselves and appear merely as something that has been discarded, though it is only because ‘discarding’ belongs to the thematic system of Preminger that it is possible to feel that his highlighting of the suitcase is important. We may, or may not, ‘read’ the lost suitcase (still visible in the far background as Mitchum and Calhoun walk back from the riverbank) as symbolic. What is important is that the flow of the film has ceased to be wedded to the flow of the river: the movement of the characters, and the camera, away from the river creates a new movement that is freed from that pitiless, objective flow. The suitcase being carried away undergoes the fate of the object as such, caught up within the objective world and unable to liberate itself from it. This is the fate that threatens the father and son in There Was a Father. Thus, we can say that Monroe’s suitcase is sacrificed in place of the spectator, in order that the spectator may maintain a position apart from the objectivity of the natural flow. Whereas in There Was a Father, according to Hasumi, only the certainty that ‘such an image cannot be prolonged’ saves us from the oppressiveness of the scene (158F/140J).
16. V.F. Perkins, ‘River of No Return’, Movie, issue 2 (September 1962), pp. 18–19. Charles Barr cited and extended Perkins’ discussion of the shot in his influential 1963 essay ‘CinemaScope: Before and After’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Summer 1963), pp. 4-24.
In order to feel this salvation, of course, we must first feel the oppressiveness. Film criticism reminds us that such feelings exist and argues for their placement at the center of the experience of cinema. To talk about these feelings, it is necessary to make a leap that is not normally admissible today in the academic study of film. Under the power of cultural studies, academic film studies has turned away from cinema and toward the cinema audience as the empirical embodiment of the cultural dimension of seeing. Throughout the Ozu book, Hasumi does not consider the audience at all except in terms of a general misunderstanding of Ozu’s work. Hasumi is, of course, a famous academic, but when he is a film critic he is not an academic. It would be impossible in the context of English-language film studies for the Ozu book to be accepted as an academic work. This is true not only because of Hasumi’s complete lack of interest in the question of the audience, but because the priority his criticism gives to emotions is at odds with the ways in which film studies habitually situates emotion. By chance, there is before me an academic text on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Seeking to define the intensity of certain moments in this film, the writer insists repeatedly that this intensity is something different from, perhaps even unrelated to, emotion. A leaf to which Malick devotes a close-up ‘is not given an emotional coding, it is given a material presence.’ (17) The climax of the film possesses an ‘intensity [that] is not about emotion’ but rather the ‘orchestration of [the] material pulse’ of the image, of which the writer says that ‘to understand this as emotion is a misnomer’. (18) Whether or not this analysis is persuasive, it is certainly a world apart from Hasumi’s Ozu’s book (even though, for Hasumi, Ozu’s late films offer the ultimate in material realism: ‘an experience of here and now which has nothing to do with the beyond’ [104F/90J, italics in original]). The great climaxes of the book are moments when Hasumi refers to an experience that is powerfully emotional, perhaps even cruel, terrifying, and mortifying, that threatens to annihilate the experience of the film and to negate cinema – the experience Jacques Rivette described when he claimed that the purpose of cinema is ‘to take people out of their cocoons and to plunge them into horror’, (19) and which Gilles Deleuze also noted in citing the power of cinema to suspend viewers in ‘a purely optical and sound situation’ analogous to the paralysis experienced by the heroes and heroines of postwar cinema: ‘it makes us grasp, it is supposed to make us grasp, something intolerable and unbearable.’ (20) As a ‘living environment’ in a state of ‘continuous presence’, the Ozu film, for Hasumi, deprives the viewer of the ability to take up an optional ‘distance’ in relation to it, ‘threatens existence and carries the viewer away in the whirlpool of its play’ (106F/92J). Nor is the reinstallation of this distance envisioned as the task, or the privilege, of the critic. Hasumi is not explicit on this point, but nothing in the Ozu book leads us to assume that he regards writing on cinema as an activity that can overcome the ‘whirlpool’ of the film and install the viewing subject in a position of mastery. (I imagine that, instead, Hasumi would agree with Deleuze that the writer is one who avoids the ‘two traps’ of distance and identification.) (21)
In the Ozu book, Hasumi is completely uninterested in characterising, predicting or controlling the responses of actual audiences. Who, then, is this emotionally sensitive spectator who is ‘discountenanced’ (89F/73J) by the wedding banquet in Equinox Flower, and who must hold his/her breath before the sight of the staircase down which Tanaka Kinuyo will fall in A Hen in the Wind (106F/92J)? In other words, who is the ‘subject’ of the book? In the French text, the word ‘on’ is frequently used. In the Japanese text, one finds ‘hito’ (a person) used; for example: ‘what a person [hito] learns from a film is not what is depicted on the screen’ (17F/6J). Here, hito is clearly an impersonal subject, a ‘non-person’. (22) Another term we find throughout Hasumi’s text is wareware (we), e.g., ‘This is what happens when we are moved by the cinema’ (29J/38F). (23) Which individuals might Hasumi be referring to when he writes wareware?
Hasumi says explicitly at the beginning of the Ozu book that it was written for Japanese people. Could, possibly, wareware refer to the Japanese people, and are foreigners merely to be witnesses at a conference to which it seems we were not invited? This is unlikely. In his preface to the French edition, Hasumi calls Ozu ‘the least Japanese filmmaker’ and explains for the benefit of his French readers that the original intention of the book was to correct the popular misunderstanding of Ozu, based on the overfamiliarity of his films in Japan – a situation Hasumi compares with that of Renoir in France (10F). If wareware designates a group subject, it’s one that does not share the group misunderstanding of Ozu.
Anne Rutherford, What Makes a Film Tick?: Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation (Bern: Peter Land, 2011), p. 31.
18. Ibid., p. 29.
19. Jacques Aumont, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni
& Sylvie Pierre, ‘Time Overflowing’, Order of the Exile, originally in Cahiers
du cinéma, issue 204 (September 1968), p. 20.
21. Gilles Deleuze & Claire Parnet, trans. H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, Dialogues II – Revised
Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 52.
(23) The French translation, which Hasumi helped prepare, seems to use ‘we’ or ‘us’ (‘nous’)
more freely than the Japanese text uses ‘wareware’. For example, on p.
164, of the scene of the family photograph being taken in Early Summer, we read: ‘Cette scène nous touche’ (‘this scene touches us’). But in Japanese, it is
merely: ‘kono koukei ha kandouteki de aru’ (‘this
scene is moving’) (147J). No doubt it is true that there is a difference in the
way the two languages convey the experience of emotion and, perhaps, in French
the experience is more likely to be attributed to a personal subject. On the
other hand, it is perfectly possible to say, in French, ‘Cette
scène est touchante’.
I would insist on the impersonality of Hasumi’s viewing subject – an impersonality that may be seen as paradoxical, since intense emotion is attributed to it. I would contrast this impersonal emotion-bearing subject to the ‘you’ of the American film critic Pauline Kael. She used the word ‘you’ constantly, often followed by the word ‘feel’, to describe how viewers in general supposedly respond to, or merely observe something happening in, a film. ‘Kinesthetically, the film gets to you’ (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981). ‘You feel emotionally filled by the first and second stories’ of the Taviani brothers’ Kaos (1984). Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987) ‘can make you feel close to deliriously happy’. (24) In these sentences, and in the innumerable other instances when Kael described what ‘you’ feel while watching a film, it is clearly Kael herself, or a member of her in-group, who is meant. (As Renata Adler commented in her scathing attack on Kael’s work, ‘“You” is most often Ms. Kael’s “I”, or a member or prospective member of her “we”.’) (25) Thanks to the influence that Kael exerted on the language of film criticism, not only through her own popularity but also through the circumstance that a number of her loyal disciples and stylistic imitators (the ‘Paulettes’, as they were called by some who were less susceptible to her influence) rose to positions of prominence in American journalism, ‘you’ has become ubiquitous in American film writing. It was, for example, standard usage at the Boston Phoenix, where I worked as a film reviewer for several years. I hated this ‘you’, hearing it as coercive and ideological, and, for a while, I tried substituting ‘we’, which I felt was less prescriptive. Whenever I wrote ‘we’, however, the editors changed it to ‘you’. (Arguing against this change to one editor, I was told that ‘we’ was no less presumptuous than ‘you’ – a point I conceded.) What form should I adopt, then, to express something definite about the emotional or intellectual response elicited by a film I was reviewing? As the Phoenix was a general newspaper and not a scholarly journal, writing ‘the viewer’ or ‘the spectator’ was rarely an option. The usage ‘one’ might have been possible, but in written English it tends to seem old-fashioned and formal; and adopting the first person singular would usually have been awkward (‘while watching the film, I had the feeling that ...’). So I adopted a strategy of going around the whole problem by avoiding pronouns altogether and instead using formulations such as ‘it’s hard to imagine not being moved’ or ‘by this point in the film, it is clear that ...’ or ‘most viewers would probably feel ...’.
(24) 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide from A
to Z (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), pp. 613, 390, 496.
(25) Adler, ‘The Perils of Pauline’, New York Review of Books (August 14, 1980).
The above may seem a digression, but I want to consider why someone writing about a film – Hasumi, Kael, myself, or any other critic – would find it necessary to impute any emotional reaction or cognitive process whatever to a viewer of a film who is not the writer him/herself, and why this should cause linguistic controversy. I suspect that the sense of this necessity reveals something that has to do with the nature of the film experience: that what I am feeling is, or should be, shared by others, inasmuch as we are sharing an experience that has the same time and the same objective content. (26) The controversy arises out of the difficulty of establishing, in this situation, who or what the ‘subject’ is. Could criticism be defined as writing about an experience without definitely determining a subject of that experience? In criticism, the film experience is abstracted and depersonalised. It is not that the critic feels it necessary to call on others to share his own experience of a film, but that this experience is, from the beginning, not the experience of any viewer in particular, but an experience of cinema, an experience whose subject, if it has one, is cinema itself.
One hears in Hasumi’s writing on Ozu that we have the obligation to be moved. Wareware, or hito, is constituted by this obligation and has no other substantiality; i.e., it does not designate a community united by a common identity, to the exclusion of persons who do not share this identity. In this sense, being moved can be something impersonal, just as the sensibility that Ozu’s cinema touches is purely virtual. The emotion that the spectator of an Ozu film experiences is an impersonal emotion, not tied to any single person embodied at a certain time and in a certain place. There is a phrase that recurs throughout the Ozu book: ‘cinematographic sensibility’ (eigatekina kansei). Perhaps it is in this phrase that the true referent of Hasumi’s wareware is to be located. What can we make of this concept, which in the Ozu book so violently displaces the ignored concept of the audience? Let us consider once again the phrase at the beginning of the essay ‘Film and Criticism’: ‘Criticism doesn’t exist, because criticism is an experience that can live only as an event’. The audience is constituted as a group of spectators who share an encounter with a film at the same time. This encounter is, for that audience, the event of the film; the encounter is, for the film, the event of the audience. What would constitute this event as an event can only be the exercise of the cinematographic sensibility. If the cinematographic sensibility is not moved, then the projection of the film and the attendance of the audience are in vain.
(26) Even if
it should happen to become actualised at historically different times and
places. Whether Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) is viewed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1963
or in Asunción, Paraguay, in 2013, Susan Kohner
always reaches her mother’s funeral procession at the same moment in the film.
Hasumi identifies the shot of the staircase near the end of An Autumn Afternoon (1962) as a privileged moment in Ozu’s work. With the appearance of this staircase, it’s no longer just the solitude of the father, but the absolute solitude of the ‘work’ of Ozu’s last period that resonates in us (107F/93J). (27) ‘One no longer knows how to speak of cinema’ after having seen such an image (109F/95J). Clearly, Hasumi is not here recommending a certain way of responding to the films of Ozu, nor is he merely describing his own response for autobiographical purposes. We might say that he is prescribing his own subjective response as objectively valid for the film, claiming the same universality and necessity for his experience of the film that Kant claims for judgments of beauty. There is more to it than this, however. Criticism is ahistorical. It is not that the critic makes the claim that his or her judgment is valid for all viewers at all times. For Hasumi, it is only at the point where the Ozu film confronts the limits of cinema, and where cinema is disrupted and threatened, that any universality and necessity can be claimed for the experience of cinema. At this point, where ‘one no longer knows how to speak of cinema’ (109F/95J), the critic’s function arises. This function, then, as the Ozu book leads us to define it, is paradoxical enough: to apprehend and live through the experience of the end of criticism by becoming incapable of speaking of cinema.
* * *
Hasumi’s account of the experience of an Ozu film clearly makes problematic any account of ‘cinephilia’ that would theorise it as a fetishisation of the film image that entails certain preferred or necessary modes of encountering it (notably, theatrical projection) for the ulterior purpose of affirming and validating the cinephile’s personal, neurotic structure. (28) Hasumi’s interest in the encounter with cinema is entirely different from such a self-bolstering activity. For Hasumi, the spectator encountering Ozu’s cinema finds the highest degree of emotion at the moments when the cinema almost ceases to be cinema. Rather than strengthening the personal, neurotic structure of the viewer, the function of Ozu’s cinema, at its highest moments, is to threaten the viewer’s very relationship with cinema.
This might be seen as a kind of game. After all, the cinema does not fully cease to be cinema; something holds Ozu’s cinema back from a complete negation of cinema. It might perhaps be argued that Hasumi is describing the fetishistic pleasure of going as close as possible to the edge and then pulling back, that what is valued in this experience for its reaffirmation of the personal structure is merely the avoidance of annihilation at the most extreme moment survivable. It should be clear, however, that this is not what motivates Hasumi. In his 2004 conversation with Aoyama, Hasumi says that the cinematic culture of Tokyo in the 1970s made it possible to experience ‘the surprise and terror of seeing a film on its release’. (29) Hasumi’s cinephilic nostalgia is inseparable from this terror, which is the condition, Hasumi says, for forming a rich ‘cinematographic memory’:
The reference to the illusory accessibility of films on DVD should be noted. Observing in the preface to the French edition that, as of 1998, fifteen years after the original publication of the book, all Ozu’s extant films have become available on video, Hasumi asserts that, nonetheless, ‘even if I had used a videotape player, my essay would have been identical to what it is today’ (11F). This assertion claims a primacy and permanence for what was, for the author, the original mode of encountering Ozu’s cinema – a claim that is grounded in time. Hasumi writes that he was born in 1936, the year (he points out) of The Only Son, and thus belonged to the generation that first discovered Ozu with Late Spring. He recounts the experience of learning of Ozu’s death in ‘a foreign city’ in December 1963, by reading a newspaper obituary while sitting on the frozen bank of ‘a pond full of ducks and swans’ (20F/9J). This Mallarméan reminiscence forms an irrevocable bond between Hasumi’s time and Ozu’s time. The event of Ozu’s death is an incorporeal wound, necessitating the writing of a book that would appear twenty years later.
In this sense it is understandable why Hasumi asserts that the possibility of studying the films on video would not have made the book any different. Hasumi points out in the preface to the French edition that the Ozu book is probably one of the last monographs on film directors not to benefit from use of video (11F). This remark is of extreme significance. Ultimately it has come about that a film is an object that is consultable under conditions similar to those under which the scholar consults a literary work, and with as much liberty regarding the point at which the ‘reading’ is to commence and the point at which it finishes, the repeated review of passages, the rate of reading, etc. Video has, moreover, transformed film into an object that can be owned and domesticated.
In view of the fate that has befallen cinema, it becomes possible to imagine that the encounter with the film as such (rather than the video representation of it) was never anything but fictive. The film that is encountered always passes us by, like the white fence back-projected behind Tom Neal sitting in a car in Detour and, if ever it stops to let us examine it at leisure, that can mean only that the film has ceased to exist in time and now exists only in space. During a theatrical projection, such a moment does not occur, and all spectators are caught up together in the continuous flow of the film. That, at any rate, is what the myth says, for today, after the advent of video, and especially after the installation of digital video (with its liberation from the linearity of tape) as a primary mode of encountering cinema, the conditions of theatrical projection have assumed an all-but-mythical status. In this light, the Ozu book becomes readable as a tragic text: an effort to assert the value of the impersonal and non-possessive encounter with the flow of the film, in the face of the historical transmutation that will have transformed this cinematic encounter into a personal one with space.
is the word sakuhin (‘work’, in ‘the work of Ozu’) suspended in brackets
throughout the text? Perhaps it
is to remind us that the film as a ‘work’ does not enter directly into our
filmic experience; in this sense, the bracketing of the word ‘work’ would be
related to the principle of avoiding discussing Ozu’s ‘style’ (cf.
56F/47J). Also, the word ‘work’ confers on the film a fixed and constant
status, denying its mobility. Perhaps Hasumi, in
questioning the application of the word ‘work’ to the films of Ozu, has in mind the alternative of claiming for them the
status of a Barthesian ‘text’, which is ever in
motion – ‘the Text cannot stop (for example, on a library shelf)’ – and which ‘always
involves a certain experience of limits’ (Roland Barthes, ‘From Work to Text’, in Stephen
Heath [ed. & trans.], Image-Music-Text [London: Fontana/Collins, 1977],
p. 157). It has to be recognised, however, that Hasumi’s
avoidance of making such a claim in so many words has a certain force, and that
it belongs to what seems to be a definite strategy, pursued consistently
throughout the book, of refusing to subject Ozu’s
films to any theoretical framework. Hasumi never
cites Barthes or Deleuze, for example, in the Ozu book, with the single exception of one mention of
Barthes in the Epilogue, using his term ‘mythology’ to designate the ‘stiffening
of thought and sensibility’ that can cause viewers to become unable to see Ozu’s films (217F/241J). Nevertheless, when Hasumi calls Ozu’s cinema ‘a
magnetic field fertile in meanings’ (56F/47J), I am reminded of Barthes’
definition of the text as ‘an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural’ and his description of the experience of
the reader of the text in terms of his own experience of an idle walk along a
valley: ‘what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a
disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives [...] All
these incidents are half-identifiable:
they come from codes which are known but their combination is unique, founds
the stroll in a difference repeatable only as difference. So
the Text.’ (‘From Work to Text’, p. 159). By putting ‘sakuhin’ in
brackets, Hasumi shows that he does not utterly
reject the term as applied to Ozu’s films. As a
plurality and a multiplicity, Ozu’s cinema also
retains, however, the force of something that is not a work, something that
Barthes called a text, which is encountered only in the dimension of time, and
which for Hasumi is the proper object of criticism.
See Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2006); Dale Hudson & Patricia R. Zimmermann, ‘Cinephilia, Technophilia, and
Collaborative Remix Zones’, Screen,
Vol. 50, No. 1 (2009), pp. 135-146.
29. ‘Dans un monde où la critique tend à disparaître’, p. 91.
I will conclude with a question that is not explicitly posed in Hasumi’s text, but that may be said to underlie it: when does criticism happen? One possible answer would be an inverted paraphrase of the last line spoken in Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965): (31) that it is still to happen, now that it has become impossible.
31. ‘Sleep well, now that you exist’.
© Chris Fujiwara 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.