In his 1979 book To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, film theorist Noël Burch said “the very notion of theory is alien to Japan; it is considered a property of Europe and the West.” With clarity and a multitude of supplementary examples to back her up, Yuriko Furuhata systematically dismantles Burch’s Eurocentric, haphazard claims throughout Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics, a remarkably researched and argued case for Japan’s complex theoretical contributions to the field of cinema studies, often by the filmmakers themselves.
However, this feat is all the more impressive, given Furuhata’s multifaceted approach to myth-busting Japan’s deficiencies in providing thoughtful film theory not just through historical evidence (such as interviews and primary texts), but by re-conceptualizing the very nature of Japanese documentary and avant-garde practices over roughly a two decade span to reveal early examples of converging media cultures. Nagisa Oshima, the book’s primary focus, summarized these tendencies himself, proclaiming in a late-’60s interview that “everything can be made into cinema.” The implication for Furuhata, and it seems the correct one, is that cinema “has the capacity to absorb and subsume other media forms.” In the case of Oshima, Furuhata uses his 1967 film Band of Ninja to explain such capacities—what Furuhata calls “remediation”—in which the film calls attention to medium specificity by “heightening the materiality of the original comic-book medium rather than concealing it.” That lack of concealment, or disinterest in concealment, separates Oshima’s work from other mangas of the time and provides a foundation to define “actuality,” which essentially constitutes the limits between cinema, documentary filmmaking, and journalism. Jacques Derrida calls it “artifactuality,” but whatever name one ascribes, the filmmakers discussed here are dedicated to questioning and, perhaps even, dismantling the political power attained through such neat separations.
The prominent filmmakers discussed throughout further serve to refute Burch’s blanket dismissal, primarily because each of these directors not only made films, but also published articles and books of film theory. For example, although Toshio Matsumoto is best known for his 1969 film Funeral Parade of Roses, in 1958 he published an article entitled “On the Method of Avant-Garde Documentary Filmmaking,” which examined the dialectical function of synthesizing documentary filmmaking with the avant-garde, by focusing intensely both on an external social reality, while taking a surrealist approach to “internal psychic reality.” Oshima likewise spoke and published extensively on the matter, while Wakamatsu Koji appropriated the “pink film” as a means to examine “the temporal proximity between the widely circulated media event and its calculated reception.” Oshima wrote an essay defending Koji entitled “Wakamatsu Koji: Discrimination and Carnage” six years before Oshima’s own In the Realm of the Senses, praising Koji’s work in its difficult, oppositional nature.
As can be seen through even these brief examples, Furuhata’s revising of historicized falsities is perfectly adept at navigating the sociopolitical context informing the works of these Japanese filmmakers. Were the line of argumentation to end here, Cinema of Actuality would remain an essential text of revisionist history in film studies, but without the theoretical heft to elevate it beyond this already considerable stature. The final three of five chapters are devoted to such an elevation—to thoroughly fulfilling the implications of the book’s title, but, in many ways, going beyond it by offering an interdisciplinary approach that not only examines the synthesis sought by these directors, but synthesizes various methodological means for examining films and their contexts. Chapter three examines “image politics” in journalism and the “media event,” but does so through the films of directors more commonly associated with art cinema. The result is suggestive of “the critical potential of cinema to interrupt the smooth flow of the journalistic economy,” an insight that provides concrete evidence of what Henry Jenkins would term “convergence culture” some decades before the ubiquitous image-making of new and social medias. Chapter four follows these claims by examining Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film, from 1970, as a “landscape film,” that segues into chapter five’s outstanding discussion of television and media coverage with relation to landscape, followed by a conclusion that positions these representations within the context of mapping and urban space.
The totality of Furuhata’s work is a benchmark of attained, wide-reaching scope that any serious academic work should ascribe to achieve, particularly in its explicit articulation of key theoretical terms, but also, and perhaps most impressively, in its implicit suggestion that historicizing from a materialist, evidentiary-basis prevents the kind of emptier formalisms that presumably lead Burch to make his fallacious claim. Furuhata provides cause to reexamine postmodern discourse in light of these accounts; the emphasis on intermediation and representational variances suggest postmodern tendencies as existent well before Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition appears in 1979. Perhaps if, as John Caldwell wrote in 1995, “television has always been postmodern,” the same could be said for cinema following television’s cultural emergence, already providing the tools for critical thinkers and filmmakers to complicate and disassemble the margins. At least, Furuhata’s riveting historical approach suggests this could very well be the case.
Yuriko Furuhata’s Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics is now available from Duke University Press Books; to purchase it, click here.