Zahlten – The End of Japanese Cinema

978-0-8223-6944-8_prZahlten, Alexander. The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2017. Publisher’s website.


I hadn’t been planning on doing a write-up of this book (I should be dissertating, after all!), but it’s such an interesting piece of work that I wanted to get some thoughts down one way or the other.  My own methodology in my dissertation tracks very closely with “the sociology of culture” or “magazine studies” or whatever it is you want to call it when you treat the magazines in which texts were published as themselves being media objects, with equal analytical weight given to them.  I sometimes wondered about the portability of that framework to a more mixed media phenomenon like science fiction, whether it could be taken outside the context of magazine publishing, and what such a study might look like.  Turns out Alexander Zahlten had me covered.  His book, now three years old (!) looks at the industry of Japanese cinema without simply being an industrial history, as well as at film texts without being tied to close readings.  It’s – in my experience – an incredibly fine line to walk successfully, but Zahlten does so really satisfyingly and ends up with strong conclusions about media, industry, history, and the nation-state.  Read on to learn how! 

In some ways, the polemically-titled The End of Japanese Cinema reads like a 224-page term paper.  Zahlten sets us up with a very general outline of his argument and theoretical ammunition in the introduction before going through three evidentiary case studies split across six chapters, before wrapping it all up again in the conclusion.  In some ways, this felt reminiscent of Seth Jacobowitz’s book on Meiji literature and media technologies, insofar as I sometimes felt a little lost in the middle of both with regards to the stakes of the evidence being presented, though I think Zahlten does a better job of leaving a bread crumb trail of his key terms throughout the chapters.  But I also raise this similarity for positive reasons: at the end of both books, there is an “ah-ha!” moment where all the little cogs and gears they’ve been so laboriously laying down begin to click into place and whir into movement.

Key to Zahlten’s argument is the term “industrial genre,” which he coins to refer to an industrial formation in which a recognizably unique pattern of production, distribution, and exhibition exists for a set of texts, and that pattern in turn is also reflected in their aesthetics.  In other words, Zahlten’s industrial genres are genres that perfectly map message onto medium, albeit inevitably temporarily.  By virtue of their unique industrial formations, these genres arise on the margins of the mainstream film industry in their given historical moments before eventually reaching a crisis point and being subsumed within the conventional confines of the industry.  Yet in the case of the three industrial genres covered in this book, the very fact of their existence and success – however brief and however qualified – fundamentally alters the film industry with which they are in implicit or explicit conversation and competition.

What are these genres?  The most recognizable of the three within Japanese film studies is also the earliest historically: Pink Film, the sometimes-avant garde softcore pornographic genre of hyper-low budget, initially independent films that flourished in the 1960s as the studio system was threatened with collapse.  After this, Zahlten takes up Kadokawa film – films produced by the media mogul / embodiment of surrealism Kadokawa Haruki in the 1980s-1990s when he was arrested for cocaine smuggling – and finally V-cinema, a genre of direct-to-video releases that were new to me but apparently a much bigger business in the early 2000s than I ever would have guessed.

These genres share a remarkable number of conceptual overlaps, and Zahlten’s study thus represents at one level a fascinating history of the late 20th century as repetition with difference.  In each decade covered, the film industry faces financial crisis, which spurs innovation from outside the studio structure in the form of a new industrial genre, which in turn forces the industry to react, thus altering the landscape of Japanese film until the next crisis.  In the process, the counter-hegemonic edge that allowed the industrial genre to succeed gets worn away, and the genre either gets co-opted by the studio structure (as with the co-optation of Pink Film’s popularity and aesthetics by Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno strategy), or shrinks significantly (as with V-cinema’s virtual replacement by DVD).  A further parallel that I found extremely interesting was the role of sexuality in each case.  Each industrial genre traded readily in commodified sexuality, and especially in the female body objectified for a heterosexual male gaze.  Thus, whether big budget Kadokawa blockbusters or shoestring Pink Film and V-cinema, industrial genres in each case come bearing industrial-aesthetic innovation and sexually charged narratives.

But just as much as Zahlten’s is a story of repetition, it’s also a story of progression, namely toward an ever-increasingly casualized labor force behind the film industry.  Where this ends us up is the present moment of platform capitalism, which Zahlten glosses as the end of industrial genres insofar as it is the end of the industry’s ability to cohere enough to put together a unified theory of history and nation, something Zahlten argues each industrial genre has done.  Up until all “contents” production becomes radically decentralized in the case of platforms, Zahlten sees a continuous re-articulation of history and space in industrial genres, be it a claim of nihilistic and hedonistic confusion, postmodern global simultaneity, or nostalgic (reactionary) “rewinds” to the cinematic past.  Without an industrial structure that can coordinate between production, distribution, and exhibition to deliver a commodity in which a political and historical argument is enacted, Zahlten argues that industrial genres – at least as they have been analyzed in this book – cannot meaningfully arise within the platform economy of the 2010s and (now!) 2020s.

All in all, The End of Japanese Cinema pulls together a really thought-provoking parallel history to the Japanese film industry, using a methodology that takes both halves of the phrase “film industry” equally seriously.  It offers a new angle from which to approach the rapidly expanding platform studies subfield of Japanese cultural studies (or, if you like, the Japanese studies subfield of platform studies).  One thought that’s been tugging at me since I finished it, though, is whether Zahlten’s pessimism that the platform economy is the “end of history,” so to speak, is justified.  Not to say that his argument is wrong vis a vis industrial genres, but his characterization of media platforms, especially digital ones, is as all-encompassing, thoroughly de-centralized, de-hierarchized ecosystems in which all content is free-flowing, produced by (presumably) individual users, in which user activity itself is capitalized as “engagement” and no collective politics are thus possible.  He repeatedly characterizes sites like Nico Nico Douga as “purportedly” or “supposedly” democratic, seeming to point to non-politics as the reality.

And yet, I can’t help but think about bad actors within platform ecologies and their abusive relationship to the platform and to other users within it.  He specifically brings up Kitada Akihiro’s study of 2Channel as an example of platforms in which the engagement, not the content, is the point.  Yet the ability of users to organize and enact, for example, a DDoS attack on the platform architecture itself, or to spread misinformation like false hashtags and fake trends, seems to me to indicate the limits of the platform as “all-encompassing” (and thus implicitly all-powerful).  I’m reminded of Tobi Hirotaka’s “Autogenic Dreaming” tetralogy, specifically of the character Alice, a “poet” whose medium is – more or less – Google.  I think the case of users specifically turning on the architecture and algorithmic underpinnings of platforms points us toward something different, in which the platforms themselves become media, as in materials that users manipulate toward some end.  Whether this could ever result in something like an industrial genre for platform-based contents industries is beyond me, but I’d be curious to push Zahlten a little farther in his thoughts on platforms and history with this in mind.


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