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The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

by Daisuke Miyao

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In this revealing study, Daisuke Miyao explores "the aesthetics of shadow" in Japanese cinema in the first half of the twentieth century. This term, coined by the production designer Yoshino Nobutaka, refers to the perception that shadows add depth and mystery. Miyao analyzes how this notion became naturalized as the representation of beauty in Japanese films,


In this revealing study, Daisuke Miyao explores "the aesthetics of shadow" in Japanese cinema in the first half of the twentieth century. This term, coined by the production designer Yoshino Nobutaka, refers to the perception that shadows add depth and mystery. Miyao analyzes how this notion became naturalized as the representation of beauty in Japanese films, situating Japanese cinema within transnational film history. He examines the significant roles lighting played in distinguishing the styles of Japanese film from American and European film and the ways that lighting facilitated the formulation of a coherent new Japanese cultural tradition. Miyao discusses the influences of Hollywood and German cinema alongside Japanese Kabuki theater lighting traditions and the emergence of neon commercial lighting during this period. He argues that lighting technology in cinema had been structured by the conflicts of modernity in Japan, including capitalist transitions in the film industry, the articulation of Japanese cultural and national identity, and increased subjectivity for individuals. By focusing on the understudied element of film lighting and treating cinematographers and lighting designers as essential collaborators in moviemaking, Miyao offers a rereading of Japanese film history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Aesthetics of Shadow is sophisticated and superbly researched, breaking new ground with the richness of its historical detail. Daisuke Miyao's innovative approach opens up the field beyond the usual focus on genre, stars, and key authors. It will serve as an example for the writing of histories outside of Japanese cinema."—Frances Guerin, author of A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany

"The Aesthetics of Shadow tracks through Japanese film history with an eye on the cultural and technological underpinnings of aesthetic change. Many people have written on the aesthetic transformations of Japanese film in the first half of the twentieth century, but no one has done it with such close attention to the material basis of cinema. It is a refreshingly new approach to Japanese history. Daisuke Miyao delivers a lively and fascinating account of cinematography in the first half century of Japanese cinema."—Abé Mark Nornes, author of Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary

Slant Magazine - Clayton Dillard
“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…[H]e 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.”
Media International Australia - Jessica Balanzategui
“The book is grounded by exhaustive research; Miyao captures the debates surrounding shifts in lighting trends impeccably, … [it has an] interdisciplinary applicability to the fields of film, cultural studies and art history. The work articulates such a detailed understanding of cinematography and lighting practices that it would also be of great interest to cinematographers and related film practitioners.”
Journal of Japanese Studies - Isolde Standish
"In conclusion, the central thesis of this book problematizes much of what has been published in English on early Japanese cinema to date. As such, the work is a welcome addition to existing studies by Joanne Bernardi, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, and Aaron Gerow."
Pacific Affairs - Timothy Iles
"This is a solid work, creating an insightful and persuasive argument for the relationship between a particular aesthetic and a particular ideological environment."
Sight & Sound - Jasper Sharp
"[Miyao] provides an... abundance of detail, but the overall approach is revelatory, culminating in a chapter about Japan's most celebrated cinematographer, Miyagawa Kazuo..."
Monumenta Nipponica - Diane Wei Lewis
"The Aesthetics of Shadow is an important contribution to the scholarship on cinema and modernity in Japan.... Anyone with a basic knowledge of Japanese film history will find the book accessible, but specialists in particular will welcome this study as an important and comprehensive new reference, especially as it pertains to Shochiku and Toho."

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Lighting and Japanese Cinema

By Daisuke Miyao


Copyright © 2013Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5422-2




Shochiku and Hollywood

The Man from Hollywood

On July 19, 1920, a sophisticated-looking man from Hollywood arrived at a newly established film studio in Japan. Emerging from a luxurious car, the man passed by an ongoing film shoot by director Kako Zanmu at an open set. He picked up a reflector from an assistant of the veteran cinematographer Taizumi Yasunao, climbed up to the top of a high wall of the set, and raised the reflector high. All of a sudden, the reflection of a bright and shiny light beam ran around the rectangular set and created a clearly three-dimensional statue of the main actor of the scene. Everyone on the set was astonished at the effect.

This is the legendary "enlightening" tale about the day of the arrival of "Henry" Kotani Soichi at the Kamata studio of Shochiku Company (Shochiku Kinema Gomei Gaisha) on the outskirts of Tokyo. According to the legend, Kotani brought effects lighting of depth from Hollywood to Japan, where flat lighting had been dominant. Even though reflectors, with white cloth or tin plates, had already been used in Japan after 1918, they only had been placed near the floor or on the ground, and only to make the major objects and background of the set look brighter.

Kotani worked as a cinematographer in Hollywood in the 1910s under the renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. In 1920, eagerly pursued by the representatives of Shochiku and highly recommended by DeMille, Kotani returned to Japan. Shochiku, a company that originally owned and operated Kabuki theaters in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, was about to expand its business to film. Otani Takejiro, who established Shochiku in 1895 and would become the president of Shochiku in 1921, claimed in February 1920, "We are engaged in artistic business, and so we need to be fully ashamed that our films are inferior to and less artistic than foreign films." Otani was most concerned about "foreign films" from Hollywood from his perspective as a businessman. Hollywood films dominated the film market when World War I prevented the export of European films. Otani quoted the author "Paul Brune" and wrote, "It is motion pictures that occupy the fifth-largest industry in the United States of America. The industry reaches every corner of the world. It comforts billions of people. It shows the way of living to many people. It is fated to become one of the largest organizations that combine entertainment with education." Otani declared that Shochiku would produce "artistic films" so it could "improve motion pictures in Japan" and "introduce the truth of our lives in Japan to foreign countries." Shochiku, aspiring to catch up with the standard of foreign films, make its own products exportable, and become competitive with the Hollywood film industry, was preordained to adopt the American-style capitalist-industrial modernity and the Hollywood production process, including filmmaking techniques and technologies, distribution practices, and the star system.

In this sense, the desire for publicity drove Shochiku to hire Kotani from Hollywood with an unprecedented salary of 1,500 yen a week. In addition to Kotani, Shochiku invited other prominent figures to its studio, such as George Chapman, the set designer for Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s films, including The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920), and "Edward" Tanaka Kaneyuki, from Fairbanks's management staff. Shochiku also relied on new technologies— Bell and Howell, Mitchell, Akeley, and Eyemo cameras; American lighting fixtures; and Eastman raw film stock, both negative and positive. The studio executives Tamaki Chonosuke and Taguchi Oson were sent to Los Angeles to observe production methods. Scenarists were urged to study Hollywood scripts, and cinematographers counted and timed shots as they watched American films. Shochiku's attempt to modernize Japanese filmmaking thus originally imitated the Hollywood film industry.

Under such conditions, Kotani's impact should have been as large as the legendary tale relates. Pedagogically, the influence that Kotani's Hollywood-trained work had upon Japanese cinematographers was a typical example of the "liberatory impulses" of classical Hollywood cinema that Miriam Hansen pointed out. According to the cinematographer Miyajima Yoshio, there was a "feudalist system" among film technicians in Japan; any knowledge of lenses, focus, lighting, angles, compositions, and chemicals was secretly taught by masters to disciples only or was completely hidden from assistants. Even in 1929, nine years after Shochiku entered film business, the cinematographer Aoshima Junichiro of Nikkatsu Company (Nihon Katsudo Shashin Kabushiki Gaisha), Shochiku's main rival, said in a film journal's discussion of Skyscrapers (Matenro, Murata Minoru, 1929), "I cannot tell you what my new devices are because they are my secrets."

Kotani opposed such secretive conditions, viewing them as obsolete. In 1924, Kotani wrote an essay, "How to Become a Mature Cinematographer" ("Ichininmae no satsuei gishi ni naru made"), and insisted that cinematographers "must be familiar with all the knowledge about tinting, developing, and exposing.... With all of this knowledge," a mature cinematographer "is capable of freely capturing any scenes with his camera that any director wants." Kotani was prepared to deliver all of this knowledge to his colleagues in Japan. The cinematographer Miki Shigeru wrote in a chapter for Cinematography Reader (Eiga satsueigaku dokuhon; 1940), a textbook published by the Nipponese Society for Cinematographers, "Particularly, the influence of cinematographic techniques that Henry Kotani, a Japanese cinematographer who had worked successfully in the United States, taught to his disciples was tremendous."

There are numerous confessions from Shochiku filmmakers on the significance of Kotani on their early careers. Ushihara Kiyohiko, a popular director during the 1920s and 1930s who started his career as a cinematographer at Shochiku, stated, "I learned most of the technical things from Mr. Henry Kotani (Soichi) when I was studying filmmaking.... I always participated in Kotani's seminars and ruthlessly absorbed new information from Hollywood, particularly theories and techniques of editing." Ushihara also wrote for Eiga Hyoron's special issue on film technologies in 1933: "We should remember that the return of Mr. Kotani Henry to Japan made it possible for the first time to educate and develop numerous cinematographic technicians." Similarly, Saito Torajiro, the acclaimed director who specialized in nonsensical slapstick comedy at Shochiku, recollected, "Mr. Henry Kotani, returned from America, was in charge of cinematography [for the film Father (Otosan, a.k.a. Chichi, 1923)] and taught us the American techniques. His mentoring was so effective that it was as if we all had gone to an American studio to study for a year."18 Nomura Hiroshi, another director at Shochiku, said, "I was Mr. Henry's assistant for four months.... During the shooting of Woman of the Island [Shima no onna, Kimura Kinka or Matsui Shoyo, 1920], he taught me how to use reflectors in detail." The cinematographer Mochida Yonehiko also wrote, "[Kotani's] genuinely trained camerawork absolutely shone and informed an epoch of film technology in Japan. We learned a lot from him, including how to freely operate cameras, from long shots to close-ups and how to effectively use reflectors." Kotani also standardized the sixteen-frames-per-second camera speed while Japanese filmmakers previously had used only twelve or thirteen, or even eight, frames per second to reduce cost.

However, even with such unanimous applause from his disciples for his Hollywood-style techniques, styles, and

Excerpted from THE AESTHETICS OF SHADOW by Daisuke Miyao. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Daisuke Miyao is Associate Professor of Japanese Film/Cinema Studies at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, also published by Duke University Press.

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