PRINT October 1985


Whatzit of Tokyo

Tokyo . . . reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others.
—Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, 1970.

IS THERE ANY SIGN SYSTEM more naturalized, less apparently arbitrary, than that of the narrative film? We hold its truths to be self-evident, and this is why Yasujiro Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo, a silent made in 1933, looks to us as if it fell from the moon. Woman of Tokyo is a movie unlike any other—even Ozu’s. Only 47 minutes long, the film is a riot of subtly discordant formal devices.

Woman of Tokyo begins with a dolly shot from one tabletop to another, then cuts to a third; it ends with a sequence whose effect film scholar Donald Richie has aptly compared to “a parenthetical clause with no final parenthesis.”1 Two-character crosscutting is complicated by bizarre spatial jumps and weird eye-line matches. Paired in reverse angle shots, characters seem to look not at each other but at the same mystic point in space—particularly disconcerting in that the narrative unfolds through a series of conversations. The plot, meanwhile, comes straight from Kenji Mizoguchi—ville: a sister supports her student brother by secretly moonlighting as a prostitute; when he discovers her shame, he kills himself for his. (Reportedly, in one version of the script the sister was also a member of the illegal Communist Party, suggesting that this deep-Depression film is not only the most outrageous but the most apocalyptic of Ozu’s social nightmares.)

Perhaps the film’s most shocking moment is the abrupt and lengthy interpolation of credits from an unidentified Hollywood feature—in fact, the 1932 Paramount release If I Had a Million, an anthology incorporating segments by several directors, including Ernst Lubitsch. A cutaway reveals two of Ozu’s principals watching this exercise in glossy wish-fulfillment. Another cut plunges us into the Lubitsch segment, with Charles Laughton working in an oppressively enormous office. As the preceding sequence in Woman of Tokyo is similarly set in an office, this quotation from If I Had a Million has the effect of violently foregrounding the encompassing film as representation. Was this Ozu’s intention? Or was he out to establish a bogus universality, suggested in Woman of Tokyo’s credits by his use of the pseudonym “Ernst Schwartz” as the source for this thoroughly Japanese story?

And why is a crucial scene dominated—or, rather, torn asunder—by a giant close-up of a teapot? Ah, that mysterious teapot! “In A Woman of Tokyo the teapot is bubbling away in the background, steam rising,” Richie writes. “Ozu cuts to, of all things, a close-up of the pot itself. No steam, no bubbles, an apparently cold teapot. Then again back to the heroine: no time has passed, it is the same scene.”2 Citing this and other enigmatic discrepancies (Woman of Tokyo also includes a phone conversation that blithely continues after one party has hung up), Richie observes that “for a director with a style so severe, an outlook so austere, Ozu could be incredibly untidy” He speculates that, however “meticulous about his script, rigid about his editing, severe with his actors, [Ozu] relaxed when it came to the actual shooting. There is no other way to account for the lapses in continuity in his films.”3

But isn’t there? What about the Japanese taste for theatricality, artifice, and formalism, that confounding mixture of minimalist austerity and the outrageously baroque for which we have no vocabulary? Or the possibility that Woman of Tokyo was Ozu’s noholds-barred avant-garde fling? “A Japanese master never explains anything,” Ian Buruma writes in his study of Japanese popular culture, Behind the Mask (1984), “The question why one does something is irrelevant. It is the form that counts.” And so it must be—for the time being—with Woman of Tokyo.

In his study of Japanese film, punningly titled To the Distant Observer (1979), Mel Burch argues that until the American occupation that followed World War II the Japanese cinema was distinctively non-Western in its modes of representation—this difference including, of course, its approach to narrative continuity. Moreover, certain Japanese films from this classic period seem to deliberately distance the observer by foregrounding their narrative conventions—dissolves, cutaways, reverse angle shots—as Ozu did his teapot. Citing Bertolt Brecht and Sergei Eisenstein, Burch proposes that classic Japanese film offers an alternative to bourgeois representation, and indeed a crypto-Marxist critique of it. In Burch’s view the prewar masterpieces of the Japanese cinema are not just inherently antinaturalistic, they are objectively Brechtian. Roland Barthes made a similar observation about the Bunraku theater,4 and Burch’s position is anticipated by Barthes’ L’Empire des signes (Empire of signs, 1970), a curious book which empties Japan for “the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.”5 Barthes traces the antinaturalism of Japanese esthetics to the language itself, noting that Japanese distinguishes animate from inanimate mainly through the verb “to be,” and that fictional characters take the same form as inanimate things: “whereas our whole art struggles to enforce the ‘life,’ the ‘reality’of fictive beings, the very structure of Japanese restores or confines these beings to their quality as products. . . . ”6

For Burch, Woman of Tokyo occupies a privileged position in Ozu’s oeuvre, being the first of the director’s films in which two key elements of his representational system are used together. The first, which Burch terms the “pillow shot,” is in fact Ozu’s stylistic signature: the narrative flow of a film is interrupted by a cluster of shots focusing on some inanimate aspect of the environment, as in Woman of Tokyo’s opening montage, its disruptive teapot, and its final shots. The latter instance is particularly stunning: as a pair of reporters leave the dead man’s house, the camera pans with them down the street. They stop at a corner, read a tattered sign posted on a telegraph pole, round the corner, and leave the frame. Ozu then cuts first to the base of the telegraph pole and then to a closer, equally “empty” shot of it which ultimately becomes a slow pan along the gutter, fading into the end title.

The second element is more subtle: “it was in Woman of Tokyo,” Burch writes, that Ozu “began systematically to set up his camera in such a way as to produce invariably incorrect eyeline matches.” By misaligning the directional vectors of the characters’ gazes "he challenged the principle of continuity, for the ‘bad’ eyeline match produces a ‘jolt’ in the editing flow . . . Even more fundamentally, by undermining the verisimilitude of face-to-face reverse-field situations [the fiction, produced by the editing, that the characters are looking at each other], Ozu challenged the principle of the inclusion of the viewer in the diegesis as invisible, transparent relay in the communion of two characters.7

Burch’s radical formalism literalizes Barthes’ fantasy of knowing a foreign language without understanding it. This, of course, is an impossible dream, and To the Distant Observer has suffered much earnest criticism. Burch, it has been pointed out, underestimates the impact of American cinema on Japan, offers no evidence that Japanese audiences in the ’30s rejected the Hollywood model, and not only misconstrues the development of Japanese cinema (specifically the role of the benshi, or narrator), but appropriates that cinema as purely anti-Western critique. But despite this, or even because of it, Burch’s misunderstanding produces films that are neither Western nor, the experts tell us, even Japanese. They are only Other. Suppose that Woman of Tokyo is Hollywood as misunderstood by Ozu, Ozu and Japan misunderstood by us. Does that diminish it as film? In the spirit of creative misunderstanding, let’s just call this enigmatic movie a key text of a hypothetical “japant-garde.”

Ozu claimed to have shot Woman of Tokyo in eight days (starting before “we’d even finished the script”8), thus perhaps accounting for the mismatches that Burch considers deliberate. Woman of Tokyo might be considered a fluke were it not for the fact that, as Burch points out, Ozu continued to mismatch eye-lines for the rest of his career.

Yoshima Point?

Conversing with foreigners is fun.
—Nagisa Oshima, in American Film, September 1983.

Nagisa Oshima may be the most enigmatic international commercial film-maker of his generation. “I have never been interested in people who are conscious of what they are doing,” he remarked during the course of a 1983 visit to New York. Burch considers Oshima the first self-consciously “avant-garde” film-maker in Japanese history, more usefully adding that Oshima’s “chief importance lies in the reflective quality of his work as a whole.”9

Oshima has no style—or rather he has many. Night and Fog in Japan, 1960, is a long-take tour de force fashioned out of a mere 43 setups. Eye-line matches are irrelevant here; the film is virtually without reverse angles. Violence at Noon, 1966, whose more flavorsome Japanese title can be translated as “Floating ghost in broad daylight,” is 99 minutes long and has over 2,000 shots, for an average length of under three seconds each; past and present are densely integrated in a constant barrage of rapid-fire cutting.

The tabloid sensationalism of Oshima’s early films is a kind of anterior appropriation of punk. Both Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial, both 1960, are set in a teenage japant-garde wonderland of strident rockabilly and lurid neon, synthetic fabrics and flashy automobiles, turquoise telephones and motorcycle toughs, where tough girls wearing pointy brassieres vie for CinemaScope screen space with brooding pimps in stingy-brimmed hats. Cruel Story of Youth, released briefly on the West Coast under the suitably steamy rubric Naked Youth, seems less Japan’s Rebel Without a Cause than its Brave New World. American cars, clothes, and music are emblems of Modernism. The center of the screen is often a mocking Zen absence. Oshima followed these early hits with the least compromising commercial film one could imagine, Night and Fog in Japan. The harbinger of such New Left analyses as Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, 1967, or Miklos Janscó’s The Confrontation, 1970, it’s a film of continual, impassioned talking, a blandly exhortatory youth anthem segueing from one foggy nighttime flashback to the next. The title is absolutely literal; Oshima permitted no daylight in his next film after The Sun’s Burial.

Did Oshima anticipate Burch, or was it vice versa? In Three Resurrected Drunkards, 1967—an amalgam of H. C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin, 1941, and Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1973, filled with random cartoon noises and chipmunk singing—a trio of Japanese soldiers whose clothes have been stolen are taken for Korean and arrested as deserters. Midway through, in a maneuver no less shocking than the interpolated credits in Woman of Tokyo, the film starts again in the same way, with the soldiers referring to their cues as actors (and, even so, winding up in Vietnam). Another tour de force of shifting representational modes, Death by Hanging, 1968, starts out as a polemical documentary on capital punishment and soon switches to absurd comedy when an executed Korean rapist/murderer refuses to die.

For Burch, Death by Hanging is “perhaps the first Japanese film which makes explicit the affinities between the national cinema’s chief historical tendencies and a Marxist concept of a reflexively critical representation. . . . ”10 Oshima hasn’t always accepted historical tendencies, however—Dear Summer Sister, 1972, blandly attacks the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, in 1972, in the neutral style of a travelogue. With this film, Oshima’s independent production company went under and he became the host of a morning television show on which he interviewed abused and abandoned women. This phenomenally successful program—for which, until recently, Oshima was better known in Japan than for his films—not only made the director a japant-garde Phil Donahue–like personality but, he says, inspired his most notorious movie, In the Realm of the Senses, 1976—the La Région Centrale of hardcore porn.

A French production (its French title, L’Empire des sens, seems a deliberte echo of Barthes’ L’Empire des dsignes), In the Realm of the Senses is characterized by copious sexual acts and continual spying—a juxtaposition Oshima associates with a specifically and traditionally Japanese exhibitionism. This exhibitionism implies a subject as well as an object, and In the Realm of the Senses goes beyond mismatched eyelines to, as the British critic Stephen Heath puts it, produce and break “the apparatus of look and identification.”11 All narrative films are characterized by three “looks,” according to Heath—the looks of the characters, the look of the camera, and the looks of the spectator. But, for Heath, In the Realm of the Senses produces “a ‘fourth look’—why not call it an Other look?—”which sends back and loosens the relay circuit of camera-viewer-character, the security of ‘looking at looking.’"12 As japant-garde as Woman of Tokyo, In the Realm of the Senses is a film that looks back.

Oshima's most recent film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983, set in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, is more programatically japant-garde. The Japanese title, Senjo No Merry Christmas—literally, “Merry Christmas on the battlefield”—is far more in keeping with the film’s atmosphere of subtle delirium than its peculiar English rubric. Adapted from a novel by the South African writer Laurens van der Post, the film is clamorous with the cries of wounded national narcissism, as well as with signs of ambivalent interracial attraction. As the Japanese title suggests, Merry Christmas thrives on the clash and misreading of alien cultures: “I was fascinated with how this foreigner’s view of the Japanese would change when seen through my own perspective,” Oshima told one interviewer.

This film is nowhere at home; Oshima ensured as much through his casting. Willowy, platinum-haired David Bowie (whom Oshima first saw in a Japanese television commercial) impersonates a tough soldier’s soldier. The popular Japanese TV comic Takeshi enacts the prison-camp sergeant, while the elaborately made-up rock idol Ryuichi Sakamoto costars as Bowie’s opposite number. Against an incongruously idyllic (not to mention stagy) background of shimmering emerald foliage and aquamarine sea, the denizens of the world’s preeminent tight little islands—each with an elaborate tea ceremony all its own—attempt to comprehend each other’s mystifying codes of honor, with inadvertent parody a frequent result. (Bowie continued to explore the issue of misunderstood others in the 1983 videos for his songs “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance.”)

For all the role-model fascination Britain and Japan exert for Americans, Merry Christmas flopped in the United States. Perhaps this is because the film short-circuits our history. If the British invented the industrial revolution, the Japanese bid to design its postindustrial sequel. We took our institutions from one sceptered isle and passed them on to the other. Book-ended between the two, the American pundit moans in his sleep, alternately titillated by Britain’s shabby decline (our Ghost of Christmas Future) or tormented by Japan’s ascendant glow (our Ghost of Christmas Past). Merry Christmas on the battlefield to be sure.

Call Me Pac-Man

Not understanding obviously adds to pleasure.
—Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1983.

There’s a juicy allusion to “Tokyorama” in Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal Alphaville, 1965, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972, was evidently the first film to actually use the Japanese capital as a ready-made futuropolis. Since then the idea has become common currency. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, the only Hollywood sci-fi film of the ’80s with anything resembling a look, posits the 21st-century Los Angeles as a sort of`Shinjuku district run amok. It’s Cruel Story of Youth in reverse.

“Japan has become the leading capitalist country,” Ryuichi Sakamoto declares in Elizabeth Lennard’s Tokyo Melody, a 1985 documentary portrait of the musician, and, given Japan’s production of cars, steel, and televisions, even Ronald Reagan might think twice before disputing him. With its vanguard capitalism, taste for appropriation, advanced video civilization, headlong march into the information society, and survival of nuclear war, Japan has inherited the future-oriented technological optimism of American post-Modernism.

Solemn as a sibyl, a graceful dab of black paint accentuating his lips, Sakamoto pronounces the first phase of post-Modernism dead: “The season of politics is over. People don’t think of rebelling. On the other hand, they have a real hunger for culture.” We see him composing on a computer, making phone calls from his limo, taking pictures of nothing: “Technology is proceeding by itself.” Sakamoto’s peers Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, the most popular of young American post-Modernists, are fascinated by the japant-garde. Lesser-known video artists make the trek to Japan the way northern painters journeyed to Italy during the Renaissance. Like washed-up major leaguers auditioning for the Yomiuri Giants, film-makers in need of an image-fix gravitate toward Tokyo. Chris Marker and Wim Wenders (not to mention Paul Schrader) have seen the future—does it work?

Watching Marker’s Sans Soleil you suspect the film’s protagonist is speaking for the entire Western world when he observes that “more and more, my dreams find their settings in the department stores of Tokyo.” Marker’s Japan may be sans soleil, but it’s not exactly night and fog. This is the most Barthesian of Japanoramas. “It’s planet Mongo,” Sans Soleil’s unseen protagonist, and Marker’s alter ego, exclaims of his colossal found object. “The entire city is a comic strip,” he is quoted saying, as the camera selects television screens, posters, faces emblazoned on shopping bags, “and the giant faces with eyes that weigh down on the comic-book readers—pictures bigger than people, voyeurizing the voyeurs.” Then follows his description of a day spent in front of the TV: “The more you watch Japanese television, the more you feel it is watching you.” Again, the uncanny fourth look, this time removed from Heath’s psychosexual nexus and given a Shinto backbeat.

Why shouldn’t the television look back? Marker’s Japan is profoundly animist. Its citizens are seen to build temples to cats, create singing simulacra of John F. Kennedy, hold ritual cremations of broken dolls. In this sense, Marker contradicts Barthes. The Japanese language may equate fictional character with inanimate beings, but Japanese metaphysics reverse the process by attributing to these inanimate things what we would call souls. (Now we remember our fond legends of Toyota workers who treat the robots on the assembly line like colleagues—talking to them, patting them, giving them nicknames.) In one of Sans Soleil’s most beautiful sequences, bits of the Japanese cartoon Galaxy 999—a ferociously popular, robot-ridden sci-fi animation—begin to insinuate themselves into the camera’s leisurely observation of dozing commuters. It’s instructive to compare this tender dialectic of city life to the opposite, as found in Godfrey Reggio’s hysterically antiurban Koyaanisqatsi, 1982; Tokyo has taught Marker what nature is.

Marker’s Tokyo is not quaintly exotic; it’s the dolphin world of Atlantis. European Modernism is even less relevant here than in ’60s New York. Sans Soleil offers a heightened sense of passing time, but although the film is suffused with a romantic nostalgia for the present, Marker’s view of the future is not pessimistic. The synthesized video that makes film obsolete represents one more refinement in the development of consciousness; the ubiquitous PacMan offers “the most perfect graphic metaphor of Man’s Fate, [putting] into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment . . . ” Sans Soleil locates the essence of japant-gardism in the Western experience of Japanese TV, familiar yet strange: “Not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure’: Marker’s narrator says of the commercials that billboard this two-way perceptual street. And with a proviso to keep his film from being too uncreatively misunderstood—just another exotic travelogue rather than a japant-garde manifesto—he adds that on Japanese TV ”the images most difficult to figure out are those of Europe."

J. Hoberman writes regularly for The Village Voice.



1. Donald Richie, Ozu His Life and Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, p. 130.

2. Ibid., pp. 112–13.

3. Ibid., p. 112.

4. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, p. 54.

5. Ibid., p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 7.

7. Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, revised and edited by Annette Michelson, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979, p. 159.

8. Ibid., p. 217.

9. Burch, p. 328.

10. Ibid., pp. 333–34.

11. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, p. 148.

12. Ibid., p. 151.