Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Our Problem Cinema: The Challenge of Japanese Cinema

Chris Berry

David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, (London, British Film Institute, 1988 406 pp.)

David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre - An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, (Bloomington: lndiana University Press, 1988)

In 1979, David Bordwell wrote a bibliographical review of work on Japanese film by Western scholars entitled "Our Dream Cinema". [1] In it, he offered a proto-Saidian argument that Japanese cinema had been studied as an Orientalist projection. Auteurists wished to see it as an institution that offered directorial autonomy rarely found in Hollywood; anti-illusionists saw it as a realm of purely material signifiers; but no one had studied the concrete materiality of Japanese cinema, either as a textual phenomenon or as an institution.

Now, a decade later, Bordwell's magnum opus on Ozu and Desser's introduction to the Japanese New Wave have appeared . These two very different contributions to film scholarship both attempt to position themselves against the bankrupt tradition of fantasy and projection Bordwell identified in his earlier essay, and both are major achievements testifying to the established and central place of Japanese cinema in film studies. However, both also manifest a new set of problems and challenges facing scholars of Asian cinema. Although I will argue that Bordwell's book tries to present itself as the last word on the subject, I would also argue that this production of new problems and therefore new directions is part of the immense productivity of these two works. It is in this sense, then, that Japanese cinema, and indeed Asian cinema as a whole, can be said to be "our problem cinema."

Over four hundred pages long, half devoted to credits and discussion of every film Ozu is known to have made, Bordwell's book is clearly intended to be exhaustive and definitive. It is unquestionably a remarkable achievement; the end product of many years of painstaking and careful research. ,Packed with reference information and definitive analysis of Ozu's textual system, Bordwell's book will surely be the new starting point for Ozu scholars for many years to come. Perhaps not surprisingly given Bordwell's record, it is his analysis of the textual system that forms his centrepiece. In three remarkable central chapters devoted to narrative, cinematic style and the way in which Ozu systematically breaks his own conventions, Bordwell documents the precise features of this system with his usual outstanding rigour. He sees Ozu's system as a positive one rather than just a negative to Hollywood, and includes patterns of narrative structure, framing camera angle, editing patterns (the famous 360 degree system), and so forth. Unlike some of his predecessors, he is careful to avoid accusations of generalisation, noting the first appearance of each feature, and, if appropriate, the date of its disappearance

These sections of the book are surely definitive, and a tremendous contribution to correcting the many myths Bordwell reminds us have been constructed by less careful scholars. For example, there is the question of Ozu's alleged low camera angle, supposedly at the level of someone sitting on a tatami mat. Systematic observation reveals the angle is not low but level, and that the position of the camera is "not absolute but proportional, always lower than what it films but varying in relation to the subject's height" (p.77).

Bordwell's analysis goes well beyond the formal, although he certainly derives great pleasure and excitement from the purity and originality of Ozu's stylistic system. He also devotes considerable space to an investigation of the context surrounding and helping to determine Ozu's work. Predictably, he eschews any presumptive correlation of texts to broad social factors, which he dubs "the outermost circle," and states "the concentric circles in between represent the more pertinent and concrete forces impinging on the films - such forces as Ozu's working situation, the film industry, and the proximate historical circumstances of his milieu" (p.17). Each of these concentric circles in between is given considerable attention. Other works arguing Ozu's traditional Japanese values are countered with precise evidence of Ozu's personal infatuation with the West, and the general orientation of the film industry and much of Japanese urban society to Western values perceived as modern. Again, there is much here that will prove authoritative and definitive for future scholars and teachers alike.

However, for all the value of Bordwell's work, it is not without problems. Bubbling beneath the surface of his assured exposition lies aggressive polemic. We should all be grateful for the correction of misapprehensions grounding the theories and arguments of others, and Bordwell is certainly careful not to omit any of these targets. However, he goes out of his way to demolish even the weakest of previous works and theories, and one cannot but wonder what anxiety provokes him to drag long-discredited approaches like expressionism and reflectionism through the mud all over again (pp. 166-167).

Throughout the book, but particularly in the later chapters, a wide range of alternative approaches to cinema studies is mentioned, in most cases only to be dismissed. Any symptomatic reading, be it psychoanalytic or Marxist, is out of bounds; "One can argue that neither Macherey nor the Cahiers writers even have an adequate theory of literary or cinematic form. Furthermore, the symptomatic approach sets no constraints on how it will interpret formal features" (p.173). Semiotics comes in for a drubbing (p.139), enunciation gets short shrift (p.138), and indeed, the whole idea of interpretation is pulled down a peg or two; "To treat interpretation as the highest goal of criticism is to foreclose the possibility that a work may challenge us not through new meanings (what new meanings are there?) but through new patterns, processes and effects" (p.137). Sexual difference and feminism do not even merit a mention. It seems Bordwell not only wishes to discredit past work but also to close off the possibility of other approaches. He is not trying to lay the foundations for other studies; rather he wishes to have the last word. Why?

There is more to this than mere mean-spiritedness. To indulge in the sort of symptomatic reading Bordwell disapproves of so much, his aggression suggests not just insistence on rigour but also implicit self-defence. Using another approach he wants to rule out, one might say there is a structuring absence in his work: although he lines up nearly all alternative works on Ozu for demolition, he notably omits those that have previously criticised his own approach. Further investigation indicates that these criticisms often rest on the theoretical and methodological foundations Bordwell tries so urgently to undermine

To take one issue up, Peter Lehman has pointed out in his recent essay on Western scholars of Japanese film that various writers, in particular Joseph Anderson and Paul Willemen, have called Bordwell's claim that Ozu's alternative practices constitute some sort of progressive modernism into question. 2 Bordwell's claim still underlies this new book, and is based on corresponding Japanese literary movements, Hollywood as a dominant oppositional paradigm within the Japanese film industry, and argument that Ozu's textual system operates autonomously, in a manner not subordinated to narrative for example, props such as bottles may move around in the frame from shot to shot for purely compositional reasons. Counter-arguments point out that modernism is not merely an alternative but also a radical practice, and that there is nothing radical about bottles bouncing about the screen. Second, there is the whole issue of quasi-modernist practices in traditional Japanese culture, which undermines claims that similar practices by Ozu are progressive or original, and indeed helps to explain the dominant reception of Ozu's work as traditional within Japan.

It is Bordwell's theoretical premises that enable him to evade direct rebuttal of the second set of criticisms. He sees traditional culture as one of the "outermost circles," and therefore considers it largely irrelevant. First, he claims that broad cultural determinations can be ignored because Ozu is unique and therefore none of the distinctive characteristics of his work can be seen as typically Japanese, or else all Japanese films would possess them, (see, for example, pp.146, 168). This is clearly a specious argument, for, to take up Bordwell's metaphor, an outermost circle common to all Japanese directors will of course be mediated in different ways by more specific inner circles, but that those concentric circles are effective in different ways does not demonstrate they are not effective at all, or indeed not very important.

Second, Bordwell is keen to rule out considerations of traditional culture because of problems of evidence. Take for example the issue of the relationship between Buddhism and Ozu's work. Bordwell quite rightly dismisses much of what has already been written on the grounds of either inaccurate observation of the texts or else a monolithic and uninformed approach to Buddhism in Japan that fails to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions of multiple schools and interpretations (see pp.26-8, for example). However, even with correct observation of the texts and a full knowledge of Japanese Buddhism (if such a thing is possible), it would still be impossible to produce direct, proximate and material evidence of the type Bordwell privileges. Furthermore, it is one thing to note the impossibility of finding such evidence and another to suggest that lack of evidence means such links do not exist, cannot be discussed, or are somehow irrelevant. Claims of rigour cannot cover up the lack of logic in this argument. Bordwell's stance here is a methodological conjuring trick designed to render invisible his inability to deal with the arguments raised against his claim for Ozu's progressive unconventionality.

If Ozu's status as a progressive innovator, even a modernist, remains unproven, one has to question whether Bordwell's work has fully escaped the crimes of projection and fantasy that he identified back in 1979. In addition to the problems of trying to attach Ozu to modernism, there is the inevitably auteurist impulse behind this work. Certainly, Bordwell does not fall into the romantic traps of crass artist-worship, but a project that centres entirely around one artist and dismisses efforts to fit him into broad cultural patterns on the grounds that this cannot explain the specificity of his work seems to play into the romantic game all too easily to me.

If Bordwell remains mired in orientalism despite (or even because of) an attempt at objectivity, this returns the Western scholar of Japanese film to the political/hermeneutic dilemmas of cross-cultural analysis. Unlike Bordwell, I doubt very much whether even the rigour he deploys in his work can ever solve this problem, because of the impossibility of erasing the specific bias of the scholar. Does this mean we are doomed to hopeless subjectivity? If so, there would be no way to avoid orientalist projections, and the Western scholar would be condemned to either cease work or acknowledge the incorrect politics of their work and forge ahead regardless.

However, there is another possibility. As E. Ann Kaplan has pointed out, it would be wrong to take up the attack on orientalism in such a way as to automatically invalidate all readings from outside the culture of origin, for this would be to presume that there is such a thing as a "correct" reading and privilege readings from within the originating culture on such grounds. Rather, she accepts that "Theorists outside the producing culture might uncover different strands of the multiple meanings than critics of the originating culture just because they bring different frameworks/theories/ideologies to the texts". 3 To be valid, such an approach takes a direction opposite to Bordwell's, acknowledging the specificity of all readers, including scholars, and making this explicit. In the case of cross-cultural film analysis, this can be extended by an examination of the reception of one's object-texts in their original culture of production and circulation. Although Bordwell acknowledges the vast body of Japanese writing around Ozu, it is notable that he does not attempt to confront and comprehend it in its entirety, but instead picks out those comments that suit his case and dismisses the rest in classic orientalist fashion. An alternative approach would not only enable comprehension of what aspects of Ozu's work have fascinated Japanese viewers, but would also retain the originality and interest of a Western perspective on Ozu without any pretence that either is the only valid perspective.

The type of research I'm suggesting here will presumably have to wait for scholars other than David Bordwell. Fortunately, this is one type of alternative approach he does not anticipate and condemn, but I hope that even the barriers he has attempted to place against other approaches will be ignored, not least because despite the theoretical and methodological problems of his work, the new knowledges his close and rigorous analysis has produced are indeed suggestive and fascinating.

To give but one example, I have long been interested in the construction and positioning of the viewer in Chinese film. For thirty years after the founding of the People's Republic, this tended to the communal and away from the subjective, both by means of group-oriented themes that represented the distinct individual as at best failed and at worst a class enemy, and by viewer positioning that worked against identification with any one character and instead towards a third position, so to speak.

For me, one of the most intriguing elements of Bordwell's book is the way in which many of the characteristic elements of Ozu's work seem to fit into a similar pattern, albeit operating through different techniques. Failed families are a specific form of a general ideal of community that runs through Ozu's films (p.43). Individualism is eschewed by a refusal to represent subjective states in any form (p.53), and indeed there is "no single subjective center" to Ozu's films (p.53) . Narrative structures manifest this concern with the coherence of the family in oscillation between union and separation (p.59). Although not so consistently based on the family, these features are also common to the classic mainland film. On the stylistic level, however, there are some specifically Ozu touches. His systematic violation of the 180 degree rule is frequently refined so that one character appears to take the exact same position and eyeline of another from one shot to the next (p.97) and point-of-view shots are frequently used playfully to make their point of origin obscure or even possibly multiple (p.115) . Bordwell notes that Japanese literary traditions include an ambiguity of narrative voice that slides from the first person to the third, and is often simply indeterminate (p.149), although he makes no obvious connection between this and the characteristics I have been pointing to, presumably for lack of direct, material evidence. For me, this opens up a whole series of questions about Ozu's relation to other Japanese films, underlying commonalities between Japanese and Chinese films and Japanese and Chinese culture, and, indeed, the changes that have occurred with the Japanese New Wave and the later Chinese Fifth Generation. I am sure other readers will find the wealth of reliable information in the book suggestive and productive.

David Desser's introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Eros Plus Massacre, is a tremendous contrast to Bordwell's book. It tackles the same long-standing problems in Japanese film scholarship that Bordwell fails to deal with in its basic structure and design. Desser explicitly positions his work against the auteurist tradition in Japanese film study (p.10), taking a movement and its texts as its object rather than the texts of certain individual film makers. As a result, the book is not organised into a series of chapters on certain directors, as has so often been the case in other books on national cinemas and cinema movements. Like Bordwell, he is also careful to locate the immediate mediations upon the movement he discusses, situating it precisely within its cultural context. In doing this, Desser does more than just offer a useful introduction to a body of overlooked texts. Rather, he pre-empts and prevents any unconscious orientalism that might abstract them from their original context in the way that even Heath's otherwise very interesting interpretation of Death By Hanging could be accused of doing. 4

Unlike Bordwell, who separates out his chapters according to the discredited form/content opposition, Desser opts for a scries of chapters each dealing with running motifs or themes to be found in a number of films. These include youth, social problems, identity, sexuality and so forth. This approach is vital to his basic argument that like its European contemporaries, Japanese New Wave cinema "bears a relationship to its cultural/political context and to the cinematic past from which it arises and rebels," (p.1) and gives the book great strength. While it is not difficult or particularly interesting for readers to comprehend that film makers like Oshima and Imamura mark themselves out from predecessors like Kurosawa, it is very enlightening for those of us who have no close knowledge of recent Japanese history to see how these textual strategies are closely tied into contemporary politics and particularly the Japanese student movement of the sixties.

Excellent though the resulting introductory text is, it is also different from Bordwell's book on Ozu in its lack of close, material textual analysis. Desser's discussion of individual films tends to be looser, talking of general narrative and aesthetic strategies within a film without any detailed demonstration. However, I think it is important to understand it as an enabling work rather than an effort at the last word. Desser's introduction pulls together various works and events that have been either overlooked or atomised in previous writings to provide an initial map, a set of hypotheses for other scholars to test and develop.

However, the new work in crosscultural analysis that I am suggesting both Bordwell and Desser's books lead towards also throws up new challenges. These are challenges not only for Western scholars of Japanese film, but for all scholars of Asian film. If we acknowledge that both Bordwell and Desser have felt the need to place their analyses in some sort of historical and cultural context, further progress along these lines requires film scholars to gain the skills and knowledges of Asianists. Interestingly, it is unclear whether Bordwell and Desser have both been busy learning Japanese or relying on the skills of research assistants for this direction in their work, but clearly this linguistic and cultural knowledge is a major prerequisite for further scholarly progress.

For too long now, Asianists and film scholars have operated in very separate spheres. Asianists have tended to be hostile to film scholars on the grounds that they know nothing about Asian cultures and cannot possibly work in the area without learning the relevant languages. Film scholars, on the other hand, have dismissed the work of Asianists on film as totally ignorant of contemporary film studies and the theories and methods that underpin it. Unfortunately, both are right. Both Bordwell's demolition of so much previous work on Japanese film, whether from Asianists or from film scholars, and some of the problems I have outlined in his own work are testimony to this.

Interestingly, after many years in which Japanese film has been the leading object of study among Asian cinemas, 1988's Ohio Film Conference on Asian film saw Chinese film emerge as a new object receiving equal attention

I believe that at least part of the reason for this lies in the ability of a body of new scholars of Chinese film to respond to the new demands of the field. Many like Esther Yau, Jenny Kwok Lau, Wang Yuejin, Ma Ning and others are emigres from the culture whose films they study, both educated in contemporary Western theory and also fully equipped with the cultural, philosophical and linguistic knowledges required to produce the type of sensitive and fully developed analysis I am suggesting an appropriate response to the anti-orientalist challenge requires. Just as Bordwell and Desser's work is setting new standards in Japanese film scholarship, their work is creating a new standard of scholarship in Asian film, and it is to be hoped that it will inspire other scholars, be they Western or emigre, interested in Chinese cinema, Japanese cinema, or other non-Western cinemas, to develop a corresponding combination of skills. In the case of Japanese cinema, Bordwell and Desser's books make it clear just how necessary this is. Their particular dialectic of achievement and limitation points the way towards the end of the demarcation between Asian studies and film studies as a starting point for the new work they encourage.


1. David Bordwell, "Our Dream Cinema: Western Historiography and the Japanese Film " Film Reader 4, 1979-1980, pp. 45-56.

2. Peter Lehman, "The Mysterious Orient, the Crystal Clear Orient, the Non-Existent Orient: Dilemmas of Western Scholars of Japanese Film," The Journal of Film and Video, 39:1, Winter 1987, pp. 5-15.

3. E. Ann Kaplan, "Problematising Cross Cultural Analysis: The Case of Women in The Chinese Film," in Chris Berry (ed.) Perspectives on Chinese Cinema (2nd edition), London: British Film Institute, forthcoming).

4. Stephen Heath, "Anato mo," Screen 17:4 (Winter 1976/77), pp. 49-66.

New: 27 March, 1996 | Now: 15 March, 2015