Furuhata, Yuriko. Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2013. Publisher’s website.
My god, 2 reviews in one month??? Anything is possible when you’re living under quarantine! (In all seriousness, I hope everyone out there is staying well in the midst of All This). After my last review of Zahlten’s look at industrial genres, I decided to swim upstream in Duke’s East Asian series, going back four years to Yuriko Furuhata’s entry in the same. This is a book that, thanks to its historical and disciplinary frames, has been on my “to-read” list for…. an embarrassingly long time, so I’m glad to have finally gotten to sit down with it! Furuhata takes up avant-garde leftist cinema in Japan’s 1960s and ’70s, which while interesting in its own right, might not have been something that I would have thought would be relevant to my own work on SF. Nevertheless, with everything that’s happening in the world right now, I’m trying to cut myself some slack and just read whatever I want at whatever length I want. I read this one cover to cover, and I’m glad I gave myself the space to do so, or I don’t think it would have landed for me at all. Read on to find out why!
Cinema of Actuality is an interesting sort of book in that it seems to straddle the line between film history and media theory. Moreover, Furuhata gets so grand in her scope with those terms that I feel like I should capitalize them: she’s not just doing film history, she’s doing Film History. To try to relate her thesis succinctly, the book examines how leftist cinema reacted to the rise of television broadcast journalism, and how it reflected an increasingly postmodern (postmodernizing?) understanding of images and politics. The “image politics” in the title refers to the complex and intimate relationship that developed across the decade between politics and image media, especially in the case of media spectacles like the mass political demonstrations that were happening across the country. Incidentally, this makes Furuhata’s book an interesting pair with Kapur’s history of the same period.
Furuhata traces a discourse of “actuality” – a quality encompassing notions of reality, timeliness, newsworthiness, and spectacle – that took on profound importance to media in the 1960s. Actuality was a particular way of judging the political value of a media object, among other things, and it was scrutinized and theorized extensively as a means of differentiating cinema from its newfound competitor medium of television. Could cinema, in other words, still have value as a medium if television held a monopoly on actuality? Could film develop its own brand of actuality, and how would that relate to TV? Would non-fiction film always just be a degraded version of television, and could film escape the belatedness that television seemed to impose upon it?
In essence, Furuhata is tracing transformations in time and space surrounding leftist film in this moment. On the one hand, film began to think seriously about the temporality of actuality. We already saw one example of this in Zahlten’s book when he discussed the ability of Pink Film’s fast production system to incorporate current events into its scripts and have them shown in theaters within a month of the events in question. Furuhata discusses this, as well, but her emphasis is on the leftist filmmakers who leaned more heavily into theoretical considerations of the eventfulness of the mediatized spectacle. As other theorists of the postmodern have said, journalistic media (and especially broadcast TV), do not simply convey the Real to their viewers; they play an active role in shaping reality, deciding what is and isn’t newsworthy – or to use Furuhata’s term, actual. Filmmakers like Oshima Nagisa and Adachi Masao began toying with temporal considerations as their films remediated, appropriated, and commandeered televisual footage.
On the other hand, they also started to rethink the space of film, which for Furuhata becomes almost synonymous with the space of politics. While TV tended to focus on attention-grabbing spectacles like the Asama Sanso Incident, mass street demonstrations by students in the New Left, or plane hijackings by the United Red Army – incidents of spectacular political violence – the filmmakers Furuhata tracks were busy developing their “theory of landscape” (fukeiron). This discourse drew attention to the always already politicized nature of the mundane urban spaces of 1960s Japan, exploring how the built environment was a manifestation of governmentality and systems of social control. While eruptions of political violence would seem to be the most appropriate embodiment of the politics of space, for the fukeiron critics and directors, the spaces that governed and policed the movement of bodies going about everyday life was much more insidious. Films like AKA Serial Killer and The Man Who Left His Will on Film represent attempts to bring the invisible politics of the landscape to light.
One thing that kept pressing against the back of my mind as I read this book was how, in a strange way, Oshima, Adachi, Wakamatsu, and all the other leftist directors represented the flip side of the coin to the science fiction communities I study. One of the points Furuhata makes clear is that leftist and avant-garde film in Japan during this time was highly international, plugged in to the Third World movement and international proletarian movements. This is something of a mirror of the SF community, which also reached outside Japan constantly, but in a way that aligned itself more with the First World. Much as I hate to admit that the figures I study were anything other than political radicals, sometimes it happens. It makes sense, too: mainstream SF authors were almost universally college-educated elites of exactly the kind that the leftists wanted to bring down. It’s not even necessarily that their goals were opposed (SF is constantly positing a post-scarcity, pacifist utopia, either implicitly or explicitly), but rather the same problem today’s leftists in the US have with liberals: liberals in the upper and upper-middle classes have the privilege of being “non-political” because the status quo suits them, and they allow themselves to be blind to the problems facing those less fortunate than themselves. I think a very similar dynamic existed between people like the directors Furuhata examines and authors like the ones I do.
These points of overlap emerged slowly over the course of reading this book, which is why I’m glad I took the time to read it all the way through. Reading for exams (and much of the reading one does for a dissertation, too, if my experience can be generalized) is very surgical. Look at the table of contents, identify what’s of use, read those sections only, discard the rest. I think if I’d done that for Furuhata’s book, I would have come away not only with a worse understanding of what she was studying here, but also with the false impression that there was nothing here for me. The value of Cinema of Actuality for my work is how it fills in the negative space in my dissertation. While I’d normally look for moments in which an author is talking about the same materials or people or theories as I am, Furuhata’s book helps me precisely because she doesn’t do that, but instead gives me points of contrast. It’s a difficult sort of value to look for in secondary readings since just about anything could have it, but it’s rewarding to find, and it makes me feel like I should have allowed myself to read “unrelated” work sooner.