Menu Close

Review of Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History

By Andréa L. Gilroy

Nygren, Scott. Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

In his ambitious 2007 book, Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History, Scott Nygren argues that Akira Kurosawa’s internationally acclaimed 1951 film Rashomon created an “epistemological break” in the way the West understands modernism and postmodernism in Japan. Drawing from Western (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze) and Eastern (Takeo Doi, Tadao Sato, Kojin Karatani) theory and criticism, Nygren identifies “representations of time in Japanese film and cultures, the inflections of history […] and the dislocations across cultural difference” (xvii). His work is a sprawling and impressive text that fulfills its purpose by accomplishing nothing less than a substantial destabilization of the cultural constructions of Japan, Film, and History.

Nygren’s argument outlines the difficulty of understanding Modernism (and hence, postmodernism) in the Japanese context. While the process of modernization in the West was slow, modernization in Japan was a “sudden” and “simultaneous” series of inversions (27). The speed of these inversions did not allow the Japanese subject to create an opposition between Kantian idealism and Marxist materialism, resulting in the “aporia” of Japanese Modernism, which Nygren argues can only be “deconstructed paradoxically, by the introduction of construction” (39). While many in the West disregard Japanese films of the 1920s as derivative, in fact the humanist values and conventions of realism seen as par-for-the course in the West acted to deconstruct the pre-Modernist traditions of representation and elements of feudalism still at work in Japanese society at that time. These films are, therefore, effectively postmodern, using pre-Modern tropes to flip Western Modernism on its side.

Having troubled the waters of history, Nygren turns to Derrida and Deleuze’s seemingly radical claim that cinema is language. In order to contextualize this claim in terms of Japan, he moves backwards through their arguments by beginning not with film, but with the Japanese language. Written Japanese is a complex conglomeration of kanji (Chinese characters), two phonetic syllabaries (hiragana and katakana), Arabic numbers, and even Latin letters. Thinking of written Japanese as a language requires a radical rethinking of what constitutes writing and language itself. The study of kanji—Chinese characters used in Japanese—is “heavily invested with ideological modes of language and abjection, in conflict with grammatological consideration” (62). This is further complicated by kanji’s own doubleness in the Japanese context: it can be read doubly, as onyomi (a phonetic reading connected to the character’s Chinese pronunciation) and as kunyomi (a native Japanese reading).

Japanese film (a language of its own) can help navigate this complex task of theorizing the “construction of agency and self in non-Western cinema” (80) created by kanji where traditional psychoanalysis may not work. Nygren examines the far-reaching effects of kanji-as-language on the Japanese psyche through the work of Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi. Amae, self-regulation via social dependency, splits the Japanese psyche into omote (the public self associated with writing) and ura (the private self associated with interpretation). Derrida’s claim that writing comes before language is intimately connected to Doi’s explanation of the split Japanese self, for “the writing omote precedes the interpretation of ura and constructs a position outside différance of kanji and kana, where an unrestricted flow of feeling occurs” (78). Nygren specifically reads Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 film Yukinojo Henge (An Actor’s Revenge), disregarded at the time as sub-par melodrama, as an exposure of the internalized, diametric discourses of Japanese and Western theories and practices of representation, gender destabilization, doubling, and intertextuality. Ichikawa’s film shows us that just as kanji radically alters the relationship between signifier and signified,

The cinematic apparatus reproduces the logocentric metaphysics of an interiorized subject through its perspectival point of view, subordinates an unrestrictive or uncoded formation of nature to the centrality of the viewing subject, and moves that relation through time according to the diachronous prioritization of logocentrism […] In a non-Western society, cinema functions to introduce such logocentric values unanticipated by those expecting a neutral recording device, while bypassing the alphabetic writing that shaped cinema’s origin. (77)

Nygren’s argument establishes Rashomon as a decisive moment in Japanese cinema and history, and structures the book so that its fourth chapter—the first that deals explicitly with Kurosawa—is a turning point for the work as a whole. Careful to distinguish Rashomon not as a teleological fulfillment or transcendent masterpiece, Nygren claims the film is a fulcrum in our understanding of film/history. Rashomon-as-language exemplifies humanity’s subjective writing of history through its narrative mise-en-abîme and conflicted, doubly encoded sense of time. Building on Deleuze’s theory of le pli, Nygren argues Rashomon replaces a time line with origami: “I do not suggest a casual metaphor, but rather a recognizable process, for a multiple refolding of discursive fields according to a design or figure that is not visible until the work of the folding is completed or forgotten” (113). The circumstances of the film itself exemplify this idea of “folding.” Based on a conglomeration of two Ryonosuke Akutagawa short stories from the 1920s, the 1951 film folds over the militaristic “aberrations” (116) of the 30s and 40s. By returning to the golden age of the Heian period (794-1185), Akutagawa’s stories themselves “fold over” (among other things) the bloody Sengoku period (1467-1573) and tumultuous modernization of the Meiji restoration (1868-1912). Though the film was lauded in the West (and is often credited with singlehandedly bringing Japanese cinema to the world stage), Japanese critics were unimpressed and surprised by Rashomon‘s acclaim. Nygren cautions that reading the film’s reception as “imperialist appropriation” writes off the film’s unconventional yet visionary understanding of Japan’s “postcolonial culture” (116).

Understanding history as origami requires a fundamental renegotiation of Japan/Film/History. Rashomon is often read as a seminal film in the 1950s movement of Japanese cinema labeled “Japanese Humanism.” Leftist filmmakers of the 50s rethought the “institutionalized atrocities that modernized Japan had become” (117) and imagined an ideal Japan by combining historical narrative with cinematic language. The title of the movement is misleading, though, and Nygren turns to another Kurosawa film—1952’s Ikiru—to portray the problems inherent in this Western categorization. Ikiru, a seemingly straightforward tale of a man discovering himself and the meaning of life after he is diagnosed with terminal cancers, is yet another example of origami. The events of the film take place in the 20s (again eliding the 30s and 40s), and the narrative itself is non-chronological. Ikiru “defies the humanist ideology of authenticity and transparency by narrativizing the difficulty and obscurity of becoming a humanist individual” (118). Among the multitude of ways Ikiru accomplishes this goal are its aforementioned non-chronological time, its anticipation of the French New Wave, its exposure of the Western exclusionary preference for jidaigeki (samurai-era) films, and its examination of a postcolonial hybrid identity split between the Western emphasis on individualism and Japanese emphasis on social obligation.

In the last two chapters, Nygren continues to upset Western attempts to label Japanese cinema. He troubles the idea of New Wave as an inherently Western phenomenon of late Modernism. Following films through the 1960s to the early 80s, in particular Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (Shinju ten no Amijima, 1969), Nygren examines the way Japanese films of the time, regardless of their superficial differences, also respond to the radical counterculture movements of the late 60s that define what is usually considered New Wave. In addition, Nygren reads denial and contradiction into the World War II narratives of the early 1980s and examines the exilic nature of avant-garde painter/sculptor/performer Yayoi Kusama’s work (particular her 1967 documentary Kusama’s Self Obliteration). Nygren then shifts his focus to films of the 1980s (both mainstream and art house) which appear to embody a return to 1950s “Japanese Humanism,” but which in fact display a postcolonial relationship to space and place, focusing particularly on Tokyo as a site of multiple inversions and displacements.

Nygren concludes with a gesture towards the future. Newer Japanese film and media remain as impossible to categorize and define. Even manga, a word known today almost as well outside Japan as within its borders, is a hybrid form that defies summarization in its very definition and history. Manga has been applied to cartooning for hundreds of years, and in the last century has grown to include comics and animation. The continual disability to understand cultural production of the Other leads Nygren to the problematic question of culture itself. Rather than a united and monolithic force, culture is a continually changing array of experiences, time, history, forces, and reactions. Nygren praises a heterological approach to culture—examining a culture not by attempting to unify it with easy to digest labels, but by tracing the maze of contradictions and incomplete connections that exist within a culture in an attempt to grasp its complexity and act against attempts of simplification. At the same time, Nygren understands that “heterology,” “hybridity,” and “postmodernism” are as ideologically laden and imbued with networks of assumptions and significations as “culture” and cultural labels are. He nonetheless ends by turning to the reader, asking us to try, as best we can, to take up the task he has left undone: to explore Japanese cinema and history while understanding the instability of the very ideas themselves.

Nygren’s call to action is admirable, but it also epitomizes the most frustrating aspect of his book: it is difficult to determine exactly what it is about. Time Frames sets out to explore Japanese film history, however the work is less productive than it is deconstructive. A reader coming to Nygren’s text seeking to better understand Japanese film history as it is generally understood will leave sorely disappointed. Nygren not only destabilizes, but destroys even the most basic assumption about the definitions of Japan, Japanese history, history, cinema, and Japanese cinema. The book’s genealogical approach is counter-intuitive, and it skips between works, time periods, directors, Western criticism, and Eastern philosophy with gleeful abandon.

This seeming weakness, though, could also be seen as Nygren’s strength. Any serious scholar understands the danger of academic comfort zones—and Nygren steadfastly refuses to simplify or remove context. The structure of his argument refuses to allow the reader respite—you never know what to expect and are forced to remain engaged with the text. The structure also enacts the very argument of the book: not only by using Rashomon as a turning point, but by enacting the inherent difficulty of labeling a culture and art form. Nygren displays theoretical sophistication exemplified though the complexity of the book’s argument; rather than being a work of theory or criticism, Time Frames is a book embodying the practice of a theorist and critic. At times frustrating and dizzying, it is precisely the incisions, occlusions, and fractures that make Nygren’s exploration of Japanese film an intriguing, impressive, and original work.

Related Articles