- Implicational Spectatorship:Hara Setsuko and the Queer Joke
What does it mean to have evidence of someone's sexual activities? of their sexuality? How can one even begin the assumption of that kind of knowledge except through the structures of phantasmatic projection?—Irit Rogoff, "Gossip as Testimony: A Postmodern Signature"
The joke is the textual instance, which often seems most coercive in its production of reading effects.—Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis
To fans of the now classic Japanese cinema of the late 1940s through the 1960s, the name of Hara Setsuko is always evoked with a certain nostalgia. For the younger generation who discovered the "good old Japan" of her postwar films, she is a privileged object of nostalgia, a locus of an imaginary longing for something they never experienced. The myth of this actress as "a goddess of postwar democracy" and "an ideal daughter of the middle class family" is also associated with the name Noriko, given to three separate yet parallel characters Hara plays in the films of Ozu Yasujirō: Late Spring (1949, Banshun), Early Summer (1951, Bakushū), and Tokyo Story (1953, Tōkyō [End Page 287] monogatari). These three films, along with Hara's Garbo-esque disappearance, cemented her image as the timeless and quintessential Ozu actress in Japan's national fantasy.
Like many Ozuphiles, I have my own initiation tale. As a latecomer to Tokyo film culture, I watched this trilogy for the first time in the early nineties at Ginza's Namikiza theater.1 That tiny run-down theater, a now-destroyed landmark of Japanese cinema art houses, also introduced me to Naruse Mikio, nourishing my pleasure and imaginary nostalgia. Like many others, I was struck by Hara Setsuko, not so much by her legendary beauty as with what I can only now call a "queer" feeling, and the onscreen manner in which she evoked a seemingly conservative image of femininity. There was something odd, uncanny, and extravagant about the actress: the way she refused to marry, then suddenly changed her mind, and the extremely intimate manner in which she touched other women's bodies. The next two films of the Noriko trilogy continued to awaken the same feelings. Only now and retrospectively can I make sense of such an "illegitimate" sentiment that I strongly felt but was unable to then form into meaning.
This essay explores the possibility of queer spectatorship by "implication," in which I take up the Noriko trilogy as an intersection of film, actress, and audience. By implication, I want to address the historicity of the present viewer, whose specificity is no less important than that of the past text. Instead of recreating the unified, closed, past world of the text and the spectator of the time, I insert my "now" with its desire to read the past film. My arguments for bridging the historical and temporal gap between the Noriko texts and the present condition are indebted to the notion of renrui (implication) proposed by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, who calls up the responsibility of those who "have not stolen land from others, but who live on stolen land."2 Therefore, what I do here is reconstitute the queerness of the past film text and the Noriko character in the present. Rather than confining the meanings of the past text to its contemporaneous spectator, it is my hope to open it up to the present spectator, thus making the former relevant to the latter. The term "implication" signals such a temporal and historical specificity of reading. Conversely, I am interested in the ways in which the rereading of the Noriko text helps present-day spectators to imagine a past queer spectatorship.
Within film studies, the disciplinary master narrative of the 1980s "paradigm shift" around spectatorship theory is typically cast as a move from institutional theories (both apparatus and textual) to historical or empirical [End Page 288] studies of reception.3 Not only are the text and the viewer severed within this narrative, but the spectator is also divided into the conceptual and real. Following the lead of Judith Mayne, I use the term "spectator" to signify the point of tension between the cinematic...