The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan

picture: The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan
22 January 2006


The recent growing mainstream interest in Japanese cinema has spawned a score of new books on the subject. The more popular and more known of these focus primarily on historiographical descriptions of genres, such as the samurai film or the horror film, and on describing specific filmmakers or the events of film history in general.

Less known amongst the general public is the rise in academic interest, which of course parallels the rise in general interest, and the scholarly works that emerge from this. The reason for their obscurity is the self-sustaining myth about academic books: that they are boring and hard to read, and written for a small and specialized group of readers. This may well be the case for some academic tomes, but it is especially untrue for Eric Cazdyn's The Flash of Capital. Although not a casual read, as it presupposes certain knowledge of film and cultural theory, it is a vigorous analysis of Japanese film within the context of crucial economic and cultural developments. Developments that have not only shaped films themselves, but have also shaped the analysis and opinions of audiences and of journalists and academics writing on Japanese film alike. A subject that should interest anyone that would like to know more about Japanese cinema and culture.

In The Flash of Capital, Cazdyn analyses the relationship between capitalism and culture in the modern Japanese society. He examines one hundred years of film and capitalism in Japan and focuses on the relationship between these two at three particular moments of historical transformation:

  1. Colonialism: between being colonized and being a colonizer of the pre-World War II moment.
  2. Post-war reconstruction: between the individual and the collective of the post-war moment.
  3. Globalisation: between the national and the trans-national of the contemporary moment.

This relationship is especially noteworthy because film and capitalism in Japan are contemporaries, unlike in for instance Europe where capitalism predates film by one hundred years. Not only did these two domains grow up together in Japan, they are very much alike in nature as well as adhering to similar production values such as repetition, reproducibility, exchangeability, simultaneity, distribution, and mass production.

The method of analysis in The Flash of Capital is based on form and context rather than on content. What films are about seems less interesting than how films are about. By placing formal filmic categories (for instance acting and adaptation) within the three periods Cazdyn attempts to read the work of Japanese film history as so many symptoms of the most pressing social problems of Japanese modernity. For instance in the chapter on adaptation he shows how adaptations of the same source material can differ over time.

An important argument in this book is that not only are films influenced by the cultural, economic, and political climates in which they were made, but histories are also tied to the historical and political situation from which each history is produced. This is not explicit from the content of these histories but is figured in their respective forms (the historiographical methods). Cazdyn explores this by examining six different historiographies and placing them in the three categories. Two of the historiographies he discusses are Richie and Anderson's The Japanese Film: Art and Industry and Nagisa Oshima's Sengo 50-nen, Eiga 100-nen (Fifty years after the war, one hundred years of film). The last chapter is the culmination of the previous five. In chapter six Cazdyn re-reads six canonical films that engage the dominant socio-historical problem of their moment. He places two films within the context of each period. Although each analysis has its own merits I have limited my discussion of this subject to three films, one from each period.

The first film, Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness, is placed within the context of colonialism and Cazdyn focuses in his analysis on the border between being colonized and being a colonizer of the pre-World War II moment. Page of Madness tells the story of the mental illness of a woman and how her husband relates to her treatment and her illness. There are two dominant readings of Kinugasa's film: the first emphasizes the surrealism of the film and the portrayal of the subjectivity of the sick wife and can be seen as a statement about Japan's militarist project. This analysis supposes the interiority of the violence. Cazdyn focuses more on the second reading that examines the exteriority that shaped this violent interiority. He places the trauma of modernity in relation to exterior factors (the world system) that produce an ultranationalist interiority. This shows how the war and the Japanese colonial project are linked to the very logic of modernization itself.

The second film, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, is figurative of the post-war reconstruction and the conflict between the individual and the collective of the post-war moment. Rashomon is mostly known for narrating the separate perspectives of the protagonists on the same event. Most analyses focus on this point and how relative truth is. However, Cazdyn feels it is more interesting to examine how individuals come to term with the truth and how they represent it. We are defined by our background (language, gender, social order) and our actions are thus defined by this background. A woodcutter must always act like a woodcutter, a bandit like a bandit, and a woman like a woman. This poses a problem to the notion of the individual. What about the agency of the individual over and above the social structures that they themselves have constructed?

The problem of the individual that is essential to the plot of Rashomon draws a parallel to philosophical and political controversies over representation. About the relation between that which represents, that which is represented and the event. Or more concrete how to represent the event of World War II (Japanese aggression against Asian neighbours or liberation from the colonizing West?) at a time when groups from both sides of the political spectrum are appropriating the meaning of the war for their own political agenda. Kurosawa places his hope in the extraordinary individual who can exceed structural limits by sheer willpower and earnestness.

The third film, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell, focuses on a world in which Japan no longer exists. The period of globalisation: between the national and the trans-national of the contemporary moment. The dominant reading of Ghost in the Shell focuses on the break-up of the subject. Cazdyn feels that it must be seen as allegorizing the break-up of the nation. In short the "I" is to the "cyborg" as the "nation" is to the "global" - the latter categories destabilize the former.

First Cazdyn discusses AIDS as an example of a global event, as it is not defined by borders and it takes no notion of the concept of the nation. Ghost in the Shell stresses how individual and biological events are simultaneously social and political events. The second point that Cazdyn makes is that Ghost in the Shell also shows that although political economy exceeds the nation, culture and ideology are still deeply rooted in it. He exemplifies this by giving to examples of the relationship between the characters in Ghost in the Shell. The characters have exceeded the human subject in terms of the technology of the body, while the culture and ideology is still rooted deeply in it. This is illustrated in two scenes both relating to Motoko and gender. In the first she refers to menstruation and in the second Bateau recoils when he glimpses her naked body.

More than an analysis of the history of film and capitalism, Cazdyn offers a method of (re)reading the past. The Flash of Capital is a meta-analysis of film history. An analysis about analysis, a historiography about historiography. Cazdyn has been looking for a new language to describe Japanese film and culture and at the same time aims to be sensitive for the places where these categories exceed themselves. Not by looking at the narratives and the stars of the films, but by looking at the form and the context more than the content.

As a whole Cazdyn's analysis remains rather descriptive, which suggests that The Flash of Capital will be reread (re-examined) and rewritten in the future, as the definitive words on this intriguing subject have not yet been said.


The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan

picture: cover of 'The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan'

Duke University Press