- The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema by Daisuke Miyao
In the early 1920s, Japanese cinema was still widely regarded as a form of entertainment for children and workers. The pure film movement of the 1910s gave rise to reform-oriented film companies, but these new studios, such as Taishō Katsuei (Taikatsu) and Shōchiku, initially struggled to win over foreign film fans, despite their employing Hollywood-trained technicians and imitating American-style brightness and buoyancy. By the mid-1930s, as Japan became increasingly involved in the Fifteen Years’ War, filmmakers and critics began to distance themselves from Hollywood film. Japanese filmmakers’ admiration for, and eventual retreat from, Hollywood cinema as an emblem of Western modernity is well established in the literature. Increasingly in the 1930s, Japanese lauded the aesthetics of darkness, simplicity, and restraint, in keeping with the rise of militarism and straitened times. In the book under review, which takes up Japanese cinematography from the early 1920s until the end of World War II, Daisuke Miyao enhances our understanding of this history. His analysis shows how an “aesthetics of shadow” was shaped by myriad social, political, and economic factors arising in the course of Japan’s modernization.
Miyao’s central argument in The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema is that transformations in Japanese lighting practices and their discursive framing [End Page 356] reflect conflicts over modernization and the meaning of modernity in Japan. However, Miyao points out, it would be a vast oversimplification to understand the emergence of the aesthetics of shadow in the mid- to late 1930s as simply a rejection of Hollywood glitz. He argues that the aesthetics of shadow did not just express an innate cultural preference for darkness and simplicity, nor was it simply an invented tradition formed in opposition to Hollywood’s brightness to serve the needs of wartime mobilization. Instead, he demonstrates, the discourse on deep shadows, limited lighting conditions, and high contrast lighting in wartime Japanese cinema should be understood primarily as a way to justify the kind of cinema that was feasible in Japan given scarce economic, material, and technological resources. At the same time, he convincingly argues that the aesthetics of shadow was modeled after American-style low-key lighting and reveals Japanese filmmakers’ suppressed Hollywood aspirations.
Chapter 1, “Lighting and Capitalist-Industrial Modernity: Shochiku and Hollywood,” explores the relationship between the pure film movement, the Japanese reform film company Shōchiku, and Hollywood through the lens of Henry Kotani, a cinematographer who was trained in Hollywood before he was hired by Shōchiku to “modernize” Japanese film. Already established as a kabuki production company, in the early 1920s Shōchiku brought in Hollywood technicians. Shōchiku’s new film studio used American lights, cameras, film stock, production methods, and editing techniques. Miyao asks why, despite Kotani’s importance in teaching Hollywood practices, Shōchiku did not renew his contract in 1922. Kotani’s departure contradicted Shōchiku’s proclaimed goal of reforming Japanese film by breaking away from what was considered “old” and embracing the “new,” in particular purging theatrical elements from its American-style films. Though Shōchiku advertised itself as pursuing the pure film movement’s goal of making modern “film-like” (as opposed to theatrical) films, Miyao shows that, at least where lighting was concerned, Shōchiku chose the flat brightness and clarity of kabuki-style lighting over the expressive, chiaroscuro lighting then popular in Hollywood (also known as “Lasky lighting” or “effects lighting”).
Kotani was trained in the three-point Hollywood lighting style, which creates a three-dimensional, modeled look through the use of (1) strong key light or directional lighting for highlighting, (2) fill light for general illumination, and (3) backlight to create additional highlights and shadows. In particular, Kotani used strong back-lighting to create silhouetting in Hollywood films such as The Hidden Pearls (George Melford, 1918) and The Heart of Youth (Robert G. Vignola, 1919). When interviewed for the Japanese film magazine Katsudō shashin zasshi in February 1919, Kotani (who...