To The Distant Observer: Form and meaning in the Japanese cinema, Noël Burch
Burch aims to do something akin to Bordwell/Thompson/Staiger in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, namely, a formally driven approach to constructing a system of standard narrative film within the bounds of a particularly nation during it’s so-called “golden age.” Burch notes that the period he wants to identify as the golden age (1917-1945) has no consensus, but he offers what is at least a compelling possibility for reconsideration. Japanese cinema’s golden age has historically been considered to begin in the postwar period, but Burch notes that the ideological shift that Japan underwent during its “democratization” following occupation allowed Western audiences to identify with the films in a way that they did/could not prior to 1945. Burch argues, following a number of months in Japanese film archives reviewing hundreds of films, that this earlier period constitutes Japanese cinema’s golden age by its more essentially Japanese character. As this suggests, Burch does imply an essentialist view toward national identity, ideology, and form. He uses Roland Barthes’s theoretical un-reading of Japanese culture as a beginning point, noting, for example, the decentered nature of Japanese homes, a fundamental shift from a more Western ideology that focuses on content rather than form and conceives of space in terms of capital and property. Burch acknowledges that his approach is geared toward particular auteurs, although he promises to explain why this is necessary later in the book. Revealingly, however, Burch recounts his time spent in film archives by noting that he attempted to see at least one film from every Japanese director from 1917-1945. It would seem that, however much the form of the films (or any other factor) supported an auteur-driven approach, Burch’s loyalty to the auteur existed a priori. (That is to say, Burch does not lay out any other self-imposed requirements, such as films including certain actors, a percentage of films produced by particular studios, and so forth.) Burch’s historical moment in 1979, during the heart of the Cold War, and his biography, having lived some time in France during the period of Theory, situate the context of the book. By following Barthes, Burch subjugates content to form and argues that “theory” is a European construct, something that can only be derived from Japanese art and culture rather than from theoretical writings, as such. Burch identities auteurs like Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima as noteworthy in the context of postwar, post-golden age Japanese cinema. In Kurosawa’s case, we have a director who was able to transcend, or at least surpass, the ideological norms of the postwar period. In Oshima’s case, a radical new subjectivity came to bear, shifting from victimization to aggression and updating Japanese film form. This update referred to history while untethering itself from it. In so doing, Burch reconceives of Japanese cinema and finds in its golden age a period of relative lethargy, sandwiched between the formally pure period before the war and revolutionary period that Oshima trailblazed.