- Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925
Motion pictures, wrote the poet Yanagisawa Ken in September 1918, move the hearts of the general population more powerfully than the lofty ideas expressed by Woodrow Wilson (about human liberty) or Leo Tolstoy (about pacifism). His enthusiastic testimonial to the societal impact of cinema was in reaction to a call by the editors of the monthly periodical Chūō kōron. The influential journal had invited numerous "men of culture" to comment on the most prominent symbols of modern life, namely, motion pictures, automobiles, and cafés. Other commentators displayed a different attitude toward contemporary Japanese cinema. They complained about the distasteful atmosphere of theaters and criticized the clamor of film narrators who provided superfluous explanations for inferior "moving pictures" (katsudō shashin) produced domestically. Such comments echoed the criticisms of [End Page 184] the Pure Film Movement (Jun Eigageki Undō), which is the focus of Aaron Gerow's Visions of Japanese Modernity.
Gerow, the author of this thoroughly researched and visually appealing book, taught for several years at Yokohama National University and Meiji Gakuin University. In 2004, he joined the faculty of Yale University, where he teaches in the Film Studies Program and in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures. He has published numerous articles on such topics as early Japanese film, contemporary directors, censorship, nationalism, and the representation of minorities in Japanese cinema. His previous monographs focused on the director Kitano Takeshi and the silent film Kurutta ippeiji (A Page of Madness; 1926).1 A particularly important contribution to the field is also his Research Guide to Japanese Film (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2009), coauthored with Abé Mark Nornes. Recently, he acted as guest editor for a special issue on Japanese film theory published by the Review of Japanese Culture and Society.
Visions of Japanese Modernity evolved out of a Ph.D. dissertation presented to the University of Iowa in 1996. The resulting book is a tour de force in the study of early Japanese film culture. Characterizing this tome are a well-structured argumentation, carefully selected images, and a comprehensive index that illustrates the book's impressive thematic repertoire.
The vibrancy of early Japanese cinema is legend. Any attempt to approach this cinematic heritage, however, must grapple with the challenge that virtually no physical evidence of the films remains. In discussing source materials supporting the study of Japanese silent film, Mariann Lewinsky has estimated that fewer than one percent of those produced are extant.2 This is partly a result of business practices of that era. The number of prints per film was kept low, and after its release in urban entertainment centers a print would be screened in provincial cities and rural areas until it literally fell apart. The remaining fragments, relates Gerow, would be cut and sold at temple fairs.
Other authors have had to face the problem of sources as well. Joanne Bernardi, for example, who has also written about the Pure Film Movement, made a virtue of necessity and demonstrated the promise of film scenarios as source material.3 Gerow, however, goes one step further and embarks on a "discursive history" of early Japanese film. In the thirty-nine-page introduction to the book, he reviews approaches to the study of early cinema and modernity in Japan and other nations. Against this backdrop, the author develops an innovative project that draws on Michel Foucault's discourse analysis, Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture, and historical perspectives on film formulated by scholars such as Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Iwamoto Kenji, and Komatsu Hiroshi. Earlier histories of Japanese cinema, holds Gerow, focused on textual or auteurist analyses of film style and generally featured a "reflectionist" model of the interactions between cinema and society (pp. 4-5). By comparison, Visions of Japanese Modernity explicitly turns to "the discursive basis on which films would have been created, watched, understood, and discussed" (p. 7). Thus, oral and...