- Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895–1925 by Aaron Gerow
One major obstacle in attempting a comprehensive study of Japanese cinema before 1925 is a lack of primary texts. Prints of early Japanese films are a rare find, and those that do exist are often incomplete or lacking any sense of the very necessary narration that would have accompanied a screening. Luckily, printed matter on the subject of early Japanese cinema—articles in contemporary film journals, film how-to manuals, newspaper reports, and regulations and ordinances pertaining to film—is accessible. It is this material that Aaron Gerow analyzes in Visions of Japanese Modernity, a brilliant and exhaustive study of early Japanese cinema discourse. Gerow frames his discursive history along Foucauldian lines, using a lack of primary texts as an opportunity to focus less on the study of “things” and more on the study of “the discursive basis on which they would have been created, watched, understood, and discussed” (7). The result is a fascinating analysis of the ways in which the very words used to describe, define, and even regulate a new form of visual art ended up defining and refining the art itself. [End Page 149]
Gerow’s book is a welcome contribution to the small but growing English-language scholarship on the subject of early Japanese cinema, including Thomas Lamarre’s Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō on Cinema and “Oriental” Aesthetics (2005), which uses a selection of Tanizaki’s screenplays, fiction, and essays to provide an interdisciplinary analysis of film, literature, and modernity, and Joanne Bernardi’s Writing in Light: Japanese Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement (2001), which similarly focuses on the early screenplays of Tanizaki and Kaeriyama Norimasa as a means to analyze the conception and production of Japan’s earliest films and the Pure Film Movement (Jun’eigageki undō). While giving credit to Bernardi and Lamarre, as well as to the earlier work of Noel Burch, David Bordwell, and Peter High, Gerow argues that a weakness of English-language studies of the Pure Film Movement is their tendency to focus on specific films and film-related concepts without fully interrogating the discourse that shaped them. Gerow’s book, then, is the first to privilege the word over the thing, examining the often neglected question of how Japanese film as a concept was born out of a discourse that sought to define and regulate it. This early discourse sought to regulate and categorize cinema before the medium had even been clearly defined, and in the choosing and discarding of certain rules and descriptors, censors and lawmakers inadvertently began to articulate what cinema was.
Chapter 1, “Visions of Japanese Modernity,” provides an overview of the earliest discourse on Japanese cinema, which appeared from the early 1890s through the first decade of the twentieth century. At this time cinema was not yet defined as a distinct medium, and early discourse typically described devices such as the Vitascope and the Cinematographe as wonders of modern technology and a window to the world outside Japan while still grouping katsudō shashin (“moving pictures”) together with other misemono (“visual entertainments”) such as theater and magic lantern shows. Eventually the term katsudō shashin would not be distinct enough, and the word eiga (“projected pictures”) would be coined by members of the Pure Film Movement to describe “those films (mostly American and European) that fulfilled the essence of the motion picture medium” (1). In tracking the evolution of words used to describe Japanese cinema, Gerow illustrates the way in which the medium began as simply another form of visual entertainment, became a technological phenomenon known as “moving pictures,” and then distinguished itself further as a kind of moving picture that adhered to certain aesthetic standards.
The idea of cinema as a medium different from (and more problematic than) other misemono of the time would arrive quite [End Page 150] abruptly in 1911 with the release of the film Zigomar...