The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan

Eric Cazdyn,
The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
ISBN 0 8223 2929 5
316 pp
US$21.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

As its title suggests, Eric Cazdyn’s new book brings together global economics and aesthetics to write a new history of Japanese film. The result is a stimulating and challenging attempt to produce a new foundation for the field. If it finds wide acceptance, it will significantly recast studies of Japanese cinema, moving them away from a self-enclosed national cultural framework of explanation, formalism, and an investment in the genius of the auteur. The dominant existing English-language histories are not only more than thirty years old now, but have also been challenged by various scholars, most notably by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto in Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000). It is therefore fitting that Yoshimoto’s publisher should have followed up with Cazdyn’s work, accompanied by a back cover encomium from Yoshimoto.

The Flash of Capital structures its history of Japanese film around three “moments” of Japanese modernity. Each moment is accompanied by a contradiction, which Cazdyn argues the filmic form and aesthetics of the time respond to. The first moment occurs with Japan’s encounter with Western expansionist capitalism and lasts until World War Two. Here, the structuring problem is whether Japan is colonized or a colonizer. The second structuring moment occurs after World War Two, and the structuring problem is the tension between the individual and the collective. The final moment is contemporary, and here Cazdyn believes the structuring problem is the tension between the national and the transnational.

Cazdyn finds these three moments manifesting themselves in historiography, adaptation, acting, pornography, and rereading, and devotes a chapter to each. In the chapter on historiography, he aligns the politically very different works, Iwasaki Akira’s Film and Capitalism (1931) and Shinko Film Corporation and Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Japanese film history (1941), with the first moment. Each of them is teleological, one leading to Japanese-led proletarian revolution and the other to Japanese colonial leadership of Asia. Anderson and Richie’s The Japanese Film (1959), Tanaka Junichiro’s A History of the Developments of Japanese Film (1957) are viewed through the lens of the second moment. Cazdyn argues these books resolve the tension between the individual and the collective by producing a focus on the auteur as a genius within the industrial system. Finally, various works populate the discussion on the present day tension between the national and the transnational. But special emphasis is given to Tadao Sato’s A History of Japanese Film (1995), in which a multiplicity of chapters on specific topics and themes manifests this tension and the impossibility of resolving it into a linear or chronological history.

Examining adaptation, the first moment corresponds to a common left and right wing anti-imperialist and nationalist revalorisation of Japanese canonical texts in the 1930s. The result in adaptation is an emphasis on fidelity to the original text. In the 1960s, when self-criticism was more current in Japan, adaptation was freer. Adaptations of Tanizaki’s work take centre stage in both of these sections. For the third moment, Cazdyn focuses on what he terms “transformative adaptation,” where there is not just a variation on the original but a process of deterritorialisation and reconstruction that parallels the ongoing deterritorialisation and reconstruction under globalisation. As examples, he focuses on Hara Kazuo’s documentaries.

In the course of mapping these and other manifestations of his “moments,” Cazdyn generates many fascinating and powerful insights. For example, in his chapter on acting, the idea of the amateur is investigated in regard to each “moment.” For the early period, Cazdyn provides a detailed argument contrasting the European fascination with Japanese acting, for example in Eisenstein’s work, with the tendency in Japanese film acting to move against those traditions. He argues that whereas kabuki provided European and American filmmakers with models for radical modern subjectivities, the Japanese structure ensured that the same models were always already part of the pre-modern. In these circumstances, Japanese filmmakers concentrated on constructions that signified the whole, coherent, and responsible individual modern subject. Citing a full shot of a man engaged in decision-making, he comments, “Pacing is a thoroughly modern act. It is literally about thinking on one’s feet, about weighing choices regarding a social decision” (137). Of course, ironically, it was exactly this kind of filmmaking that led Eisenstein to lament the opportunities he perceived Japanese filmmakers had passed up.

However, in the end, the book will be judged on the overall model Cazdyn proposes. Two issues arise. One is the question of the links between the larger social “moments” and their manifestations in film. The second concerns the basic commitment to a totalising model itself. In many cases the argument for the status of the filmic examples as manifestations of the larger social moment rests on a formal homology. An example is the argument that, whether left or right-wing, film histories written in the 30s and 40s share a teleological drive that corresponds to the logic of the larger social problem in this moment, namely the need to determine clearly whether Japan is colonized or colonizer. Some readers will find this textual method ingenious and convincing. Others will argue that without further analysis of the mediations between the socio-political order and these historiographies, these arguments are undemonstrated. Or they may find that the focus on these formal homologies leaves out too many other interesting and significant aspects. These readers may be made more sceptical by the tendency to set up the social pattern first and then pick texts that fit the moments, even though they may be exceptional texts like Hara Kazuo’s documentaries.

Second, there is the question of the commitment to totalisation itself. Cazdyn’s training is the Marxist school of cultural studies associated with Frederic Jameson, Masao Miyoshi, and others, which continues to be a very powerful force in studies of various East Asian cultures. Its determination to avoid the abstractions of formalism and locate texts as part of cultures and socio-political formations is persuasive. However, the commitment to understand those socio-political formations as totalities seems to be more an article of faith than demonstrated knowledge. In the same way as the religious believe that without God we cannot understand how we were created rather than asking why they assume we were created in the first place, many Marxists believe that without knowing how the totality operates we cannot understand the logic underlying phenomena rather than asking if a single logic has to lie under all phenomena. Cazdyn’s book operates according to this expressive logic, and this may be a stumbling block for those who perceive a more disaggregated world.

However, these very issues confirm the status of The Flash of Capital as an important intervention in the field. Its insistence on seeing films as part of larger socio-political formations delivers a challenge to all scholars in the field to abandon existing patterns of scholarship. If they disagree with Cazdyn’s way of understanding the connection to that larger socio-political formation, then it is to be hoped that the book will provoke further discussion of these indeed crucial questions.

Chris Berry
University of California, Berkeley
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: Friday, 28 May 2004