Atomic Light (Shadow Optics)

picture: Atomic Light (Shadow Optics)
3 May 2006


I remember when we were discussing whether or not to add a book review section to the site. There was some concern that we would have enough material to regularly fill the designated space on the Midnight Eye homepage. Since then, the number of publications that have dealt with Japanese cinema in any way, shape, or form has now accumulated from a small but steady trickle to a veritable deluge. This has predominantly been made up of auteur studies or monographs centred on individual directors, enthusiastic overviews of the various areas of the perennially popular exploitation genres, and more in-depth academic studies of aspects of the country's film history that had hitherto been glossed over in the seminal texts that first appeared in the English language by Donald Richie, Joan Mellen, Noel Burch, Audie Bock, and Tadao Sato.

But few have tackled the irreconcilably broad subject of Japanese cinema from such a breathtakingly original new angle as Lippit's Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), nor have they brought so much new food for thought to the table along with it. Emerging from "the new field of visual studies", Lippit's intriguing treatise is not so much about Japanese cinema per se, though the author does make regular allusions to Japanese films in illustrating the various points being made in the text. A cursory read of the back-cover blurb doesn't really give much of a clue as to what its sometimes esoteric contents consist of, comprised as it is of such academic jargon as "a historical optics of avisuality" and "speculative readings of secret and shadow archives and visual structures of phenomenologies of the inside, charting the materiality of what both can and cannot be seen in the radioactive light of the twentieth century." In fact, having read and mulled over its ideas for several weeks now, I am still not entirely sure what the book is really "about" as such, but I certainly feel the more enlightened for reading it.

The story begins right at the beginning of film history in 1895, or rather with the arrival of "the set of institutional, economic, and technological conditions known as cinema". Cinema, with its ability to both reflect the real world and project the imaginary worlds of its makers, arrived simultaneously with several new developments that blurred the divisions between the material world and the way in which it is visually conceived, perceived, and interpreted by individuals within it. The first was Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's discovery of X-rays, which not only unveiled the hidden structures behind the living skin, but also drew attention to the fact that the light waves which render us capable of seeing are but a small part of the spectrum of existing light. These two revelations are both encapsulated in the double meaning of the word invisible - that which can't be seen because it is hidden, and that which can't be seen because it exists outside of the domain of human perception.

The second new "phenomenology of the inside" emerged from a dream Sigmund Freud experienced on 23rd July 1895, the first of his subjective visions to be submitted to his own analysis and later documented in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud's pioneering ideas took hold throughout the following century to dramatically reconfigure the popular conception of the relationship between mind and body and the continuum between external and internal worlds. Concerning his most famous hypothesis, the division of the psyche into the three components of id, ego, and superego, Freud was later to write "The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself a projection of a surface", or as Lippit puts it "from the duality of inside and outside that rests on the body's surface, the ego forms," acting as a screen that mediates our outer and inner worlds. In 1915, Freud elsewhere stated that "a dream is among other things a projection, an externalisation of an internal process". It is difficult to resist drawing a relationship between the development of Freud's own thoughts and the evolution of cinema.

The apparent synchronicity of the arrival of these three new modes of seeing that "transformed the conditions of visuality" forms the thrust of the narrative. And indeed narrative is perhaps a more apt choice of word here than thesis; Lippit is less concerned with stringing together a series of causally related events that lead teleologically to a fixed and definite conclusion than providing a context in which the whole notion of what cinema is and what it does is given a thorough overhaul. Was it some cosmic coincidence that these three revelations whose impact would be felt throughout the entire twentieth century all happened in 1895? Or that "the direct effects of radiation on the human surface would be re-enacted exponentially fifty years later when the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned these cities, in the instant of a flash, into massive cameras; the victims grafted onto the geography by the radiation, radiographed", events which "unleashed an excess visuality that threatened the material and conceptual dimensions of interiority and exteriority"? Or even that exactly 100 years later in 1995, "the desire of total visibility returned" as the Visible Human Project attempted to map out a detailed 3-dimensonal cartography of the physical human body, the same year that the Kobe earthquake wreaked devastation on the city on a level not seen since Hiroshima, or that the internal spiritual malaise felt by a small invisible sector of society erupted in the Aum sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway?

Piquant and poetic, Lippit's book is so jam-packed with ideas that you often find yourself stepping back from the page blinking to fully absorb its implications. It is telling that he covers in some depth Junichiro Tanizaki's famous dissertation In Praise of Shadows (Inei Raisan), which similarly hops from seemingly unrelated topics and ideas - from toilets to lacquerware to the sushi served at the author's favourite restaurant - yet for all that remains strangely coherent. Written as it was in 1933, Tanizaki's essay has been interpreted variously as a retreat into nationalism and as an ode to traditional aesthetics and architecture, but like Lippit's book, it is far more than the sum of its individual parts. The individual reader will probably draw different conclusions and lay different emphases on the barrage of facts and thoughts hailing from this densely-packed, rich mine of ideas.

For my own part, the digressive peppering of ideas plucked from writers or philosophers like Derrida, Barthes, and Borges, about whom, being the layman reader that I am, I know little more about than their names, proved a little of a smokescreen. But analogies are like stick figures; anyone can draw them, and ultimately they are intended to act as illustrations, not proofs or correlations. This is worth keeping in the forefront of one's mind during Lippit's unorthodox evaluations of the handful of Japanese films that shed light upon these historical events, from the introductory description of the Hoichi the Earless section of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1965), in which Buddhist prayers "exscribed" on the skin of the blind biwa-playing monk act as barriers between the world of shadows and of light, to the final chapter on Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari, 1995) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1997), where the divisions between the mental projections of the characters and their own view of reality are distinctively laid open to question by the two filmmakers. Of particular interest is the section on the rarely-discussed cycle of Japanese Invisible Man films (whose original title Toumei Ningen actually translates as "transparent" rather than "invisible" man) and their situation in the aftermath of the atomic bombings when they were made.

Despite, or maybe because of, its more tangential moments, it is sure that every reader is going to come out of this maelstrom of ideas with more than they came in with. By approaching Japanese cinema from outside of the standard approaches of auteurism and cultural comparisons, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) makes for a challenging, thought-provoking, and highly satisfactory read, with the power to make one question the very nature by which these entrancing flickering images that comprise the cinematic art form come to find themselves inscribed within our minds. Books that make you look at cinema in a new way are a rare thing indeed. For that reason, Lippit's is one of the most exciting additions to my bookshelf in a long, long time.


Atomic Light (Shadow Optics)

picture: cover of 'Atomic Light (Shadow Optics)'

University of Minnesota Press