Film-history texts can often be dull, lack real insight beyond a litany of factual information, and plod along to foregone conclusions, structured as simply a lecture, where content overrides form. Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema isn’t only an exception to these rules, but establishes a benchmark for which contemporary film-history research should aim. What separates Miyao from the rest? Numerous qualities, but above all, he’s constructed a historical work that isn’t simply another recasting of Japanese film, replete with a discussion of numerous auteurs and production stories as evidence; rather, Miyao is after the heart of the matter—the very circumstances, through Hollywood and Japanese interaction, which cultivated predominant visual styles, and how these processes of “transnational and cross-cultural negotiation” ultimately yielded certain aesthetic expectations, from producers and viewers alike. Moreover, he achieves this, at least in part, by structuring his scholarship as more of a thriller, than merely the standard (and soporific) fact-upon-fact approach.
Miyao’s begins with a fluid, though rigorous foundation of previous historians and theoreticians, which he appropriates in order to weave together his complex historiographies. Drawing upon the likes of film studies staples such as David Bordwell, Stuart Hall, and Noël Burch, but not simply trotting out their arguments as stand-alone methodologies, Miyao instead juxtaposes and employs them as means to unpack the geographical explanations that are central to linking an aesthetic (and its invention) with a specific time period, particularly on an international scale. Thus, Miriam Hansen’s “vernacular modernism” and Harry Harootunian’s “coeval modernity” are ultimately the kinds of historicizing concepts that compel his line of questioning—especially Haroontunian’s, which Miyao values for its emphasis on “contemporaneity yet the possibility of difference.” Nevertheless, though I have made Miyao’s setup appear to be thoroughly academic (in a theoretical sense), fear not: The bulk of Miyao’s work revolves around historical figures within a system, with recourse to numerous film titles and close-readings. Herein lies Miyao’s keenest eye; rather than having to consistently recall terms and provide extended definitions, the analysis balances the individual and the international. If there were something akin to an academic page-turner, Miyao has produced it here.
I want to stress, however, that aligning The Aesthetics of Shadow with a pop novel is not meant to suggest the scholarship as frivolous. On the contrary, the pace with which Miyao convincingly historicizes is responsible for that comparison, covering over 40 years of history with clarity and intrigue. Perhaps why this analogy also seems apt is that Miyao navigates the time period with chronology defying aplomb. Though the five chapters are ordered to provide linear renderings, the “narrative” of aesthetics is too multifaceted to proceed from point A to B. Therefore, Miyao wisely orders chapters by theme or emphasis, providing him the ability to jump from one line of reasoning to another, but without losing previous trains of thought. For example, chapter two looks at Japanese actor Hayashi Chojiro, whose presence and beauty in silent Japanese cinema earned him the label “Valentino of the East.” Of course, the reference is to Rudolph Valentino, whose cult following is well-documented, particularly in Miriam Hansen’s Babel & Babylon. Miyao discusses Hayashi in the context of female spectatorship, claiming women of the time did not passively consume the films, but dialogically engaged them and saw the actor’s work (and face) as integral to themselves. In these earlier iterations, lighting highlighted Hayashi’s delicate features; in fact, Miyao notes how actors of the period began to be covered with “feminine” lighting. Thus, the lighting trends of the late 1920s were dictated around absolute vision and clarity with the female spectator in mind—to see every pore of Hayashi’s glorious face.
Miyao seemingly switches gears into chapter three, which looks at similarities between the Weimar “street films” and Japan’s own variations, which introduced more innovative lighting techniques via filmmakers like Kinugasa Tienosuke (whose Gate of Hell was recently released by the Criterion Collection). Focusing on medium specificity and tactility through Ozu’s That Night’s Wife (1930), Miyao appears to be settling into the rather familiar territory of formal analysis as historical evidence. However, there’s more here. Though Miyao offers substantial insight into lighting techniques within that film, the discussion is actually a transition back to Hayashi, as chapter four begins with “Hayashi Chojiro was attacked!” The developing techniques within the “street films” are necessary context for the production battles brewing between studios Shochiku and Toho. Hayashi’s face is slashed in 1937, leaving him visibly and permanently scarred. Speculation abounds from historical accounts, ranging from the hysterical actions of a rabid fan to a “hit” ordered by Shochiku for Hayashi’s “betrayal” and association with Toho. Toho’s response to the attack was a significant shift in lighting style, to hide the scars on the left side Hayashi’s face, namely in Tojiro’s Love (1938). In fact, after the assault, Hayashi dropped his Shochiku name, now going by Hasegawa Kazuo. Miyao’s historicizing is convincing as is, but numerous still frames accompany the analysis as direct refutation of the full-coverage stills from chapter two. Implied is that this singular incident possessed the ability to alter the manner in which “star lighting” shifted for not just Hasegawa, but that his chiaroscuro treatment had ramifications on an international scale because of its radical aesthetic shift. By twisting the chronology of the information to better suit narrative interest, Miyao suggests proficient, non-biased historical work can be compellingly historicized without losing any of the detail-oriented analysis. In fact, the approach amplifies the specifics by making them inextricable from a shifted temporality; the way Miyao historicizes is equally, if not more, vital than the historicizing.
Unfortunately, chapter five functions as more of an afterthought, examining the career of cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, who worked with the likes of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and Ichikawa, among others. While Miyao explains Miyagawa in context to the book’s overall questions, the structure of analysis must be resigned to the more standard sorts of examination one expects from such texts. Although Miyao ends on too broad of a stroke (the final chapter covers more than twice the years of those previous), the material successfully concludes his examination of exactly how and why certain aesthetic tendencies were established during this crucial stretch of both Japanese and film history. Thus, even for those not particularly interested in his chosen topic, the middle chapters are mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of film history as practice, where Miyao is unquestionably an exemplar.
Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lightning and Japanese Cinema was released on March 4 by Duke University Press Books. To purchase it, click here.