To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema


Already in this new electronic age we seem to take for granted the ease with which we can dip into the vast pool of visual or textual information that flows virtually unhampered across geographical borders. Just reading the foreword of Burch's scholarly analysis of Japanese film aesthetics, now published over 25 years ago, really brings home the changes that such simple technology as even the humble VCR has had on the field of film studies, yet alone DVD and the internet. The sheer amount of legwork involved in putting together a cohesive work such as this, travelling to Japan and interviewing directors, visiting film archives and performing shot-by-shot analyses of unsubtitled 16mm prints, for a man who readily confesses a lack of any ability in the language, must have been phenomenal.

One of the earliest significant academic studies of Japanese film, provocative and forcefully reasoned, To the Distant Observer has over the years found many of its ideas contested and hotly debated. But the book's very title readily acknowledges that for the majority of Western viewers at the time the book was written, Japanese films represented, and indeed still do, something fundamentally different from the Hollywood standard. It is this sense of divergence that accounts for much of their enduring fascination. The questions which the author addresses are what exactly these differences are and how do we account for them.

The limited demand for specialist academic books means that many seminal titles have unfortunately gone out of print after only a few runs. Subsequent revisions, reprints, and reissues are so unprofitable that it becomes a tricky and expensive business for new students to trace the necessary steps that Japanese film studies has had to go through to get to where it is now. A quick online search for used copy of this book, for example, came up with an average price of $50.

But now, thanks to a valuable initiative by the Center for Japanese Studies Publications Program at University of Michigan, to make readily available seminal out-of-print resources, you can actually download Burch's book as a PDF file for free as part of their Motion Pictures Reprint Series.

The series, set to expand significantly in the future, at present also includes Donald Richie's Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character from 1971, another book whose methodology, constructed around that problematic concept of "national character", renders it a difficult one for reprint, yet whose informative factual content makes it just as valuable and readable to modern readers as it ever was. The site comes equipped with a powerful search tool - so you can dig out the information you need from within the books' pages - and contextualising annotations and introductory essays, including one by Harry Harootunian for Burch's book. Another thorough critique of To the Distant Observer by Mark Nornes can also be found online.

It should also be mentioned that the Michigan University website at present also carries other vital material not readily available elsewhere, firstly in the form of production materials from the film The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about whose problematic production history Mark Nornes wrote in detail in his book Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, and secondly some of the films, in Quicktime Format, produced by the independent proletarian film movement Prokino prior to the war (and also covered by Nornes).

But what of the book itself? With such works as The Theory of Film Practice, Life to Those Shadows, and In and Out of Synch: The Awakening of a Cine-Dreamer to his name, it should be pointed out that Japanese film, history, or culture is not Burch's original field. From the very offset Burch announces frankly that this 368-page work is not intended as a new history of Japanese cinema. Nor is it intended to provide a thorough historical, sociological or political background to the films under discussion in the same way that Alain Silver's The Samurai Film or David Desser's entrancing study on the Japanese New Wave, Eros Plus Massacre do, though he doesn't entirely divorce these contemporaneous factors from his discussion of the films. But this leaves Burch space to conduct a more formal analysis of the films he selects as being particularly representative of his argument.

It is also worth mentioning that this book is heavily academic in its tone, and those who don't know their signs from their signifiers and for whom terms such as "diegesis", "alien modes" and "pro-filmic space" don't trip easily off the tongue, might find this book tough going. Its arguments are so densely reasoned and its approach so esoteric that the casual reader might, now and then, find themselves blinking and needing to go back and read full paragraphs over again to catch their full weight. Fortunately Burch provides us with a brief few pages introducing "Some Terminological Indications" to fall back on lest we forget exactly what is meant by "substance of expression" and "mode of representation", and those well-versed with the ideas of Roland Barthes, the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Marxist film theory should find themselves in familiar territory.

Barthes' L'Empire des Signes, his 1970 study of "Japan" (in quotes) provides the model for Burch's approach, a work less concerned with the daily reality behind the country or looking at it through its own culture and language than isolating the specific components of its culture as if the country were an alien planet. As James Murphy states in his essay On Reading Burch: "He idealizes an imagined Japan, just as Barthes did before him, and creates a veritable virginal land on the other side of the Pacific". Burch consciously draws the reader's attention to his paradigm and the theories of analysis that were popular at the time the book was written, approaches which have now fallen out of favour following the publication of Edward Said's influential Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient.

The basic thesis is that, prior to the war at least, Japanese cinema evolved along distinctly different lines to that of the West, defined as Hollywood Realist Narrative Cinema, or Dominant cinema - "that body of films subordinated essentially to the interests of the dominant class and hence informed at every level by its ideology."

Japanese film aesthetics therefore derived from the nation's own unique historical situation and cultural tradition, which is sketched out in some detail in the opening chapters. "The pertinent traits of Japanese aesthetics were defined almost entirely between the ninth and twelfth centuries, known as the Heian period. It was, however, under the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns (1633-1867), the first of whom, Ieyasu, is celebrated as the consolidator of national unity and the initiator of three hundred years of peace, that Japan became the most integrated large-scale society in the world", and this "long isolation of the country created a uniformity of habits, beliefs and tastes among all classes… Identical tastes were so widespread that, until modern times, the body of artistic canon did not differ significantly according to social stratification".

Another unique factor, Burch points out, lies within the Japanese writing system, a unique combination between a phonetic script, similar to that of Western languages ("the linearization of writing and the linear conception of speech are rooted in the Western sense of time based on movement in space") and the ideographic/hieroglyphic characters imported and adapted from the Chinese, "distinguishable from phonetic writing by its (semantic) non-linearity." That these two systems coexist and are used in tandem is posited as a fundamental difference between the way that the Japanese visualise and articulate the world, and therefore how they "read" a film.

All of this is followed by a detailed history on the early evolution of film in the West, looking at how the establishment of the Hollywood norm, or Institutional Mode of Representation came about, and how, just as easily, it might have happened quite differently. "Our presupposition is that Cinema is One, just as Man is One, that the Hollywood codes are those of Cinema, East and West, the Codes of Man!"

All of this makes for fascinating reading and provides plenty of food for thought. But it assumes the fact that Japanese cinema evolved in complete isolation to Western cinema, whereas we know that even that "most Japanese of directors", Ozu, was heavily influenced by Hollywood films. This approach dogs the later chapters as Burch analyses the work of a number of directors, from the silent period through Ozu, Shimizu and Kurosawa to an eclectic selection of films from directors from the 1960s and 70s like Koji Wakamatsu, Toshio Matsumoto, and Shinsuke Ogawa.

For all that, Burch puts forward some thought-provoking arguments and includes a wealth of detail to support them. Some of the conclusions he draws might not entirely hold water, but nevertheless, there's much to be gained from reading this book, and not just because it is emblematic of the intellectual approach through which certain writers approached foreign cultures at a certain period of time.

The fact remains that, as Burch points out, Japanese films from the 1930s and before are substantially different from those of most of the world. For all his book's critics, no one else has yet to give any more satisfying explanations as to why this might be so. Given how high-profile Japanese directors like Takeshi Kitano are still trying to promote a specifically "Japanese" filmmaking style overseas, To the Distant Observer still has the power to spur on further thought on the question, what exactly is "Japanese film"?