- The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema by Daisuke Miyao
In world cinema studies, we see an increasing trend toward studies that seek to negotiate the place of national cinemas within the broader historical trajectory of the development of cinema in relation to technology and [End Page 465] the geopolitical economies of production, exhibition, and distribution. This welcome trend is fast replacing earlier studies which, to borrow Andrew Higson’s terms; “focus only on those films that narrate the nation as [a] … finite, limited space, isolated by a tightly coherent and unified community, closed off to other identities besides national identity.”1 In the case of Japanese film studies, a second major paradigm drawn upon is that of the auteur theory. Auteur studies have often tended to privilege the role of the director as representing a “charismatic image of the artistic activity as pure, disinterested creation by an isolated artist,”2 happily ignoring his role (until recently, apart from Tanaka Kinuyo all major Japanese directors have been male) as part of a commercial strategy for organizing audience reception.
Refreshingly, Daisuke Miyao’s study The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema approaches early Japanese film history through the prisms of technology, namely lighting, and the rationalization of the cinematic medium along capitalist lines of production based on Kido Shirō’s policies as head of the Shoōchiku Kamata Studios from 1924. In terms of methodology, the book is founded upon discourse analysis through critical readings of the writings of Japanese contemporary critics, fans, and technicians combined with Western film theory and selected, illustrative, textual analysis. These two core themes—lighting technology and the techniques of its use, and the “capitalist-industrial modernization of Shoōchiku”—form the basis around which Miyao weaves a discussion of visual style through staples of film analysis such as the studio system (Shōchiku versus Tōhō [chapters 1 and 4]), genre (shoōshimingekei and jidaigeki [chapters 2 and 3], and the star system), Hayashi Chōjiroō who later became known as Hasegawa Kazuo (chapters 2 and 4), and the director Kinugasa Teinosuke (chapters 2 and 3). These themes build over the first three chapters to a crescendo in the fourth chapter, where the significance of the technologies of lighting and the rationalization of the industry are brought into the political discourses of the 1939 Film Law and its subsequent amendments through an analysis of the “aesthetics of shadow” which, Miyao argues, became the dominant visual metaphor for the period. He distinguishes this “aesthetics of shadow” from the “low-key” lighting employed by Hollywood. This then becomes part of the wider discussion that claims that local films, to be successful both critically and commercially, must aim for the same production values as Hollywood. Miyao states: “with the concept of the aesthetics of shadow, Japanese cinematographers were grappling with the anxiety of the overpowering technology that Hollywood cinema brought to the reality of Japanese filmmaking” (p. 213). [End Page 466]
Chapter 4, therefore, boldly challenges the notion that Japanese filmmakers working in the industry in the late 1930s and early 1940s were engaged in propaganda filmmaking at a conscious level. Miyao thus complicates Darrell William Davis’s study of “monumental style”3 through an analysis of lighting effects that were as much a response to poor equipment and underfunding as an ideological re-imaging of the “nation” in accordance with government policy. As he states:
When Japanese cinematographers realized that it would be difficult to achieve such low-key [Hollywood-style] cinematography under the conditions of filmmaking in wartime Japan, they turned to one aspect of Japanese art [as articulated by the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiroō]—praise of shadows, which was easily available, and used it to justify their practices in the name of the “Japanese characteristics in cinematographic technology.” In other words, they strategically connected the aesthetics of shadow to a nationalist discourse. It was not their original goal to formulate “Japanese” cinematography—they wanted to perfectly mimic the low-key cinematography of Hollywood...