Gerow – Visions of Japanese Modernity

9780520254565Gerow, Aaron.  Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  2010.
Publisher’s page

Reaching back into the archives of “stuff I had already read before I started this blog” today, and coming out with Aaron Gerow’s 2010 discursive history of the origins of cinema in Japan.  I’d read bits and pieces of his book on A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ippeeji, which I’ll also be reading for this list, by the way), and found his investigation of the modernist film compelling, so I was interested to see how he would tackle not just one film text, but the industry as a whole.  Find out my thoughts on this take on cinema and modernity below.

My “Media Studies and Japan” list is, in many ways, a methodological sampler course meant to give me a wide view of how I might go about approaching the study of media objects and their relations to Japanese society.  Thus (as you might have noticed if you’ve read multiple reviews from that list that I’ve posted here), I tend to hone in on questions of method when reading these items: What boundaries are drawn around the research object?  What kinds of force can media exert on society in these researchers’ views?  What balance is being struck between close and distant reading strategies?  Are we looking at media texts from an aesthetic or economic position?  What is the role of the individual subject here?  We’ve seen a number of different takes already, from cultural anthropology to medium specificity theses, but this book is perhaps unique in how rigidly it sticks to a discursive-historical reading of film.  Indeed, close reading of individual film texts is entirely absent, which seems an odd way to go about studying film.

In place of textual analysis, Gerow focuses here on secondary writings, primarily by film enthusiasts.  How, he asks, was “film” constituted as a discrete object of knowledge in discourse?  When did “film” emerge as such in Japan, separated from other “attractions” (as Tom Gunning would phrase it)?  The experience of reading his investigation of those questions is a slightly surreal one for someone versed in an idiom of film studies that follows, say, Napier’s narrative-based approach.  Actual films drop out of the picture altogether, and one is left with the idea that Gerow could just as well be studying ukiyo-e or department stores or the concept of the housewife or just about any thing.  While this is perhaps a valuable approach to take if we’re interested in industry histories of film or something like that, it was a frustrating experience to read, for me, like orbiting a black hole.  What people say is all well and good, I thought, but what are the films doing?  What kind of life do they have?

So fine, the artistic value of films isn’t important to Gerow here.  So what is?  The practice of writing about them.  Gerow’s book is devoted to studying the people who studied film.  We might almost think of it as a study of proto-otaku, as his focus is on those “professional fans” who comprised much of the population of critics in the early days of film.  Indeed, their praxis of devoted study (much valorized by Gerow) is not unsimilar to those otaku who — Okada Toshio tells us — developed their enhanced visual acuity via obsessively watching and rewatching VHS tapes of anime to figure out which in-betweener did which frames of animation.

The focus on those critics makes an interesting move for Gerow.  He starts the book with the statement (repeated almost ad nauseam throughout the remainder) that film emerged in Japan as a unique discursive entity only when it was conceived as a social problem.  Starting with the infamous Zigomar panic in which juvenile delinquency was thought to be caused by/imitative of the cinematic criminal mastermind character imported from France, the film industry had to constitute its product as an object for bourgeois intellectual “study” to correct its ills and put it on an evolutionary path that supposedly led ever upward.  Self-proclaimed film connoisseurs like Gonda Yasunosuke become the heroes of the tale, saving the film industry from government suppression while also advancing the craft of filmmaking itself.  These figures (perhaps a forerunner of today’s film scholars and critics?) are elevated to the status of unsung heroes of Japanese film history, setting the course for the “pure film” movement that would become so central to Japanese film history.  Pay attention to the film critics, Gerow urges, because they’re the movers and shakers that demonstrate what film can really be.

As I’ve said, then, this methodology is one that I would find lacking for my own work.  The aesthetic force of each film text, the affective response it can engender in its viewer, is still critically important, in my opinion, to how we understand the social effects of film.  What the book does do, though, is remind us of the importance of context when thinking about film.  Films don’t happen in a vacuum, and there are a lot of institutional, intellectual, and cultural forces working on them.  Fair point.


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