Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics

Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics

by Yuriko Furuhata

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During the 1960s and early 1970s, Japanese avant-garde filmmakers intensely explored the shifting role of the image in political activism and media events. Known as the "season of politics," the era was filled with widely covered dramatic events from hijackings and hostage crises to student protests. This season of politics was, Yuriko Furuhata argues, the season of image politics. Well-known directors, including Oshima Nagisa, Matsumoto Toshio, Wakamatsu Kōji, and Adachi Masao, appropriated the sensationalized media coverage of current events, turning news stories into material for timely critique and intermedial experimentation. Cinema of Actuality analyzes Japanese avant-garde filmmakers' struggle to radicalize cinema in light of the intensifying politics of spectacle and a rapidly changing media environment, one that was increasingly dominated by television. Furuhata demonstrates how avant-garde filmmaking intersected with media history, and how sophisticated debates about film theory emerged out of dialogues with photography, television, and other visual arts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822355045
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/13/2013
Series: Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Yuriko Furuhata is Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies and the World Cinemas Program at McGill University.

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cinema of actuality


By yuriko furuhata

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5504-5


intermedial experiments and the rise of the eizo discourse

On 25 February 1967, Oshima Nagisa's experimental film Band of Ninja (Ninja bugeicho) premiered at the Art Theatre Guild's main theater, Shinjuku Bunka in Tokyo. Based on the comic writer Shirato Sanpei's 1959–62 manga (a Japanese term for "comic book") of the same title, the film Band of Ninja is a meticulously filmed and edited version of the original manga, sitting somewhat uncomfortably between comic book and animation. The film strikes one as odd not only because it is entirely composed of motionless drawings, but also because these drawings bear the marks of original sketch lines. The drawings contain parts of word bubbles and graphically rendered onomatopoeias (which are so prevalent in Japanese manga) as well as the speed lines used to designate the movements of characters or things. Arguably, the very visibility of these sketch lines, word bubbles, onomatopoeias, and speed lines contribute to the incipient "intermedial" look of this film. Made in 1967, the year when one of the first events bearing the word intermedia (intaamedia) in its title took place in Japan, Oshima's formal experiment in Band of Ninja offers a useful vantage point from which to consider a shifting conception of cinema amid a growing number of border-crossing experiments undertaken by avant-garde filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, and graphic designers in the late 1960s.

The term intermedia is often evoked in relation to the confluence of Japanese and North American performance-based arts, exemplified by the eponymous activities of Fluxus in the 1960s. Coined by the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins in 1966, the term quickly entered the vocabulary of Japanese music, film, and performance discourses, forming a close semantic network with related terms. As Tone Yasunao, a musician and another Fluxus member, explains, unlike neighboring terms such as happening and event, the use of the term intermedia was initially associated with an underground film movement. By the early 1970s, however, its connection to cinema was no longer apparent. The following definition of intermedia—offered by Ichiyanagi Toshi, an avant-garde composer who worked closely with Fluxus members, in the 1972 article "Encyclopedia of Contemporary Situations of Cinema"—is suggestive in this regard.

There are many auteurs whose works exude an intermedial style or attitude, though it is hard to name those who are specializing only in intermedia. For instance, we can include filmmakers who are engaged in the practice of expanded cinema, multiprojection, and environmental cinema, musicians who work on aleatoric music, live electronic music, theater work, and so-called events, or visual artists who do happenings, light art, kinetic art, and light shows. In one way or another all of these people are working in the field of intermedia.

This inclusive sense of intermedia, which encompasses various mediums and platforms, emphasizes its eventfulness and multiplicity of style. Cinema is in no way privileged. Instead, intermedia came to refer more broadly to various kinds of artistic experiments that aim to facilitate mutual transformations of the multiple media involved in a single work, a process through which generic expectations and aesthetic conventions accompanying a particular medium are overturned or challenged. This gradual decentering of cinema as a primary site of intermedial artistic experiments is reminiscent of a similar process that had taken place a few years earlier when the word eizo (image) entered the discursive milieu of Japanese film theory and media criticism. Examining this process prior to the introduction of the intermedial discourse is crucial, because it allows us to see how the boundary of cinema started to shift, as the technologically produced image became a theoretical problem in its own right.

The aim of foregrounding the concept of eizo, a term that designates a class of images produced and mediated by a technological apparatus, is twofold. First, it helps situate increasing efforts by Japanese avant-garde filmmakers to appropriate and directly incorporate noncinematic media into films within the larger historical, cultural, and theoretical milieu of the 1960s. Second, the concept of eizo helps better explain how the incipient intermedial practice developed within the field of avant-garde filmmaking interacted with the emergent theoretical discourse on the image. At stake in the interaction between practice and theory is a familiar question of medium specificity, which the concept of the image helped to revive and subsequently undermine.

The rise of television in the 1950s also played no small part in this process. But while television was an obvious catalyst in reviving general interest in the notion of medium specificity, it was by no means at the center of "image theories" (eizo ron) that flourished in the late 1950s and the 1960s; cinema continued to occupy the privileged point of reference. However, in spite of the seeming centrality of cinema in the growing discourse on the image, cinema eventually lost its claim to singularity. This subtle shift in the privileging of cinema is reflected in the discourse. The fact that the technologically produced image was a common property shared by other media forms, such as television and photography, made it particularly difficult to maintain cinema's specificity based on this concept, even though earlier proponents of image theories tried to do so. The most symptomatic—and in some ways foundational—case in which this tension unfolded was the "debate on the image" (eizo ronso), a series of articles published in 1958-60. In this debate we find a curious conflation of the image and cinema, as if the former simply functions as a synecdoche for the latter; as if the image is a part that defines the whole of cinema. However, the hierarchical relationship between the two was eventually overturned, as cinema became one species of the larger genus of image-based media. It is this reclassification of cinema and its connection to intermedial experiments that I want to investigate in this chapter.

One filmmaker and theorist who played a particularly important role in shaping the discourse on the image and contributed to the gradual decentering of cinema was Matsumoto Toshio. It is not surprising that Matsumoto, who was an active contributor to Japanese film theory throughout the 1960s, became heavily involved in two of the most representative intermedia events of the decade: the symposium "expose-1968: Say Something, Search Now" ("EXPOSE·1968: Nanika ittekure, ima sagasu"), which took place at the Sogetsu Art Center in April 1968, and "Cross-Talk/Intermedia," an international art event sponsored by the American Cultural Center in February 1969. Matsumoto's theorization of avant-garde documentary filmmaking and his own experiment with the still-image medium of photography thus provide an especially useful context with which to interpret Oshima's comparable experiment with the still-image medium of the comic book.


Perhaps the slightly out-of-place look of Band of Ninja explains why this is the most rarely discussed film by Oshima, one that tends to be ignored by film scholars and critics. After all, Oshima is known for his innovative narrative filmmaking, but not for animation. The film's meticulous appropriation of Shirato's original drawings has led some critics to claim that Band of Ninja is his "most anti-auteurist" work. And yet for all the film's oddities and peculiarities, and despite its general neglect by film scholars in the past, Oshima felt it to be one of his major accomplishments. Oshima compares his undertaking of this project to Eisenstein's ultimately unrealized project of creating a cinematic version of Marx's Capital. Much like making Marx's Capital, argues Oshima, "making a filmic version of Shirato's Band of Ninja was considered to be impossible." But the direct filming of the original manga panels allowed him to realize this project, a success which led him to proclaim: "Everything can be made into cinema."

While we may simply take Oshima's statement as a self-congratulatory remark, we can also probe its underlying assumption. For instance, what does it mean to say that there is nothing that cannot be made into cinema? Implicit in this statement is a presupposition that cinema has the capacity to absorb and subsume other media forms, including the heterogeneous medium of the comic book. Combined with the intermedial look of the film, this positioning of cinema as a metamedium coincides with a key transitional moment in the history of Japanese film discourse, a moment marked by the rise of the image as a theoretical problem.

Oshima envisioned making a filmic version of Shirato's Band of Ninja as early as 1962, when the scriptwriter Sasaki Mamoru first brought the comic to his attention. However, it was only after Oshima made an experimental short film, Diary of Yunbogi (Yunbogi no nikki, 1965), entirely composed of rephotographed snapshots, that he realized the feasibility of turning Shirato's comic into an actual film. A brief memo published in 1966, the year Oshima started to film Band of Ninja, notes that he had discovered a radically new, "unparalleled" method of making a film. What he calls an unparalleled method refers to a double process of mediation that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have elsewhere called remediation. According to Bolter and Grusin, all historically new forms of media were developed by appropriating and absorbing the formal traits of earlier media, and, conversely, older media appropriate newer media in order to refashion themselves, even if these processes are not always acknowledged. What Oshima does in the production of Band of Ninja is to make this process of remediation explicit to the point that the presence of the appropriated medium of the comic book becomes conspicuous and visible.

Instead of adapting the comic book and redrawing its images in order to make an animated version of Shirato's work, Oshima directly films and remediates the original drawings. This cinematic remediation of the comic book, which Oshima claims to have pioneered in Band of Ninja, is produced by simply photographing each panel of the original comic book in succession. However, the inventiveness of Oshima's Band of Ninja lies in its refusal to be animation. Strictly speaking, none of the figures that appear in this film are animated. There is no attempt to create an illusion of movement through the drawings themselves. Instead, any motion that appears on-screen remains extrinsic to the drawings. The impression of movement one perceives in viewing this film derives solely from camera movement (mostly from the pan). This is why Noël Burch calls Band of Ninja "an exercise in dynamizing still pictures." Oshima also occasionally crops and reframes Shirato's motionless drawings in Band of Ninja. But precisely because it is the camerawork that adds a semblance of movement to otherwise motionless images, the film constantly draws the spectator's attention to the material gap between the filmic images and the images that serve as its profilmic objects. This material gap also surfaces through the film's preservation of audiovisual redundancies.

A brief comparison between Oshima's remediation of the comic book and the standard practice of animation would be useful. One thing to keep in mind while making this comparison is the fact that by the mid-1960s the style of limited animation had become solidified primarily through the works of television animators, such as Tezuka Osamu and his production team. In spite of the similar emphasis placed on the stillness of the image in television animation (or anime), however, there is a notable difference between Oshima's cinematic experiment in Band of Ninja and the conventional style of limited animation that was used on television: Oshima refuses to redraw manga panels onto cels or to draw in-between frames to supplement missing motions. Instead, he opts for the direct filming of Shirato's original drawings frame-by-frame, using not a professional animation stand, but a makeshift device. Oshima and his crew placed the original drawings against the wall in the living room at his home, and filmed over 10,000 images drawn with paper and ink. Since they were not filming transparent cels, they had to use high-key lighting and overexposure to emphasize the whiteness of the paper and to reduce smudges, extraneous pencil lines, and uneven brushstrokes. Nevertheless, the finished film is far from devoid of these elements. Tactile textures of paper, ink, and pencil not only come through in Oshima's remediated version, but semiotic markers of the comic book medium (word bubbles, speed lines, onomatopoeias) are also prevalent on-screen. The presence of these visual elements—highly irregular from the perspective of the mainstream practice of animation at the time—contributes to the intermedial look of the film. The animation style of Band of Ninja is quite unusual in this regard.

For instance, Oshima does not try to compensate for the lack of movement in the original drawings by adding extra drawings. Instead of concealing this lack of movement, he highlights it. He does this in ways that significantly deviate from the standard practice of animation. The standard practice of animation involves, initially, drawing "key frames" that serve as a reference point for onscreen movements, and subsequently filling in the movements by drawing "in-between" frames. Since it is the "in-betweens" that generate the sense of movement in animation, we might analogize the use of still images in Band of Ninja as the creation of an animated film solely through a sequence of key frames. The resulting effect is a curious one. The film forces us to direct our attention to the jarring gap or dissonance between two media: cinema and the comic book. What is at stake here is hence not the complete absorption of one medium by another, but their coexistence.

The coexistence of the two media appears deliberate considering that Oshima invented a neologism, feature film–comic book (chohen firumu gekiga), to advertise Band of Ninja. The moniker is suggestive of Oshima's desire to differentiate his work from the television animation of the time. Bringing the words film and comic book together, this neologism explicitly draws attention to the intermedial quality of the film. Oshima's choice of the word gekiga also indicates his desire to further distance the film from televised animation series, most of which were adaptations of manga catering to children. The word gekiga refers to a particular genre of manga or comics that targets a young adult readership. When it first emerged in the late 1950s, its promoters presented the genre as a more grown-up alternative to the lighthearted current of mainstream manga. Unlike mainstream manga, which avoided elements considered inappropriate for children, gekiga emphasized dramatic (and often violent) actions, contained complex plot structures, and included nudity. Shirato Sanpei was a leading gekiga artist who brought popularity to the genre. His work often focused on socially marginalized characters and their struggles against oppression, and attracted high-school and university students hungry for comics with serious and subversive themes. In Oshima's words, Shirato's work offered "an alternative model of activism and philosophy" to the Left-leaning students. The term feature film–comic book, which Oshima used in the promotional materials, including trailers and a published script, invokes this countercultural positioning of Shirato's comics.

The timeliness of Oshima's filming Band of Ninja in the mid-1960s must also be noted. Oshima first used the method of remediation in his earlier experimental short, Diary of Yunbogi (Yunbogi no nikki, 1965), which bears an uncanny resemblance to Matsumoto Toshio's experimental short, The Song of Stone (Ishi no uta, 1963), a work composed entirely of rephotographed still photographs. But before comparing Oshima and Matsumoto, it is worth examining how the form of Band of Ninja differs from the mainstream television animation of the period. The television animation series Fujimaru of the Wind (Shonen ninja Kaze no Fujimaru) serves as a salient point of comparison. Fujimaru of the Wind was aired on the net channel (Nihon kyoiku terebi) between June 1964 and August 1965, and it was also based on Shirato's comic book, originally titled Ninja Whirlwind (Ninja senpu). The major production company Toei Animation adapted it to make a year-long animated television series. Oshima's Band of Ninja is in many ways antithetical to Fujimaru of the Wind, despite the fact that both are based on the work of the same author, Shirato Sanpei. The difference derives not only from their venues of exhibition (movie theater and network television) and from their formats (nonserial and serial), but also, and more importantly, from the ways in which Band of Ninja plays up the structure of redundancy between the original manga and its filmic version, while Fujimaru of the Wind strives to eliminate it.

The crucial difference between Band of Ninja and Fujimaru of the Wind indeed lies in the former's emphasis on audiovisual redundancies. Band of Ninja contains extraneous replications that are usually minimized in animation works that adapt comic books. The first and perhaps the most obvious element of this is the film's inclusion of word bubbles and written onomatopoeias. For instance, we often read onomatopoeias written on the margins of the panel (depicting sword fights and battle scenes, for example), as we hear sound effects corresponding to these onomatopoeias. This creates a distinct sense of redundancy (figures 1.1 and 1.2). The film's inclusion of such graphic onomatopoeias ends up heightening the materiality of the original comic-book medium instead of concealing it.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Intermedial Experiments and the Rise of the Eizo Discourse 13

2. Cinema, Event, and Artifactuality 53

3. Remediating Journalism: Politics and the Media Event 88

4. Diagramming the Landscape: Power and the Fukeiron Discourse 115

5. Hijacking Television: News and Militant Cinema 149

Conclusion 183

Notes 203

Bibliography 239

Index 255

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