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Behind the silver screen


THE FLASH OF CAPITAL: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, by Eric Cazdyn. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002, 316 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Those who dislike that branch of criticism and cultural studies that has come to be known as “theory” will probably not care for Eric Cazdyn’s “The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan.” In it he does many things that they are likely to deplore. He insists, for example, upon “pushing together into the same idea two elements [Japanese film and Japanese geopolitics] that seem to have nothing to do with each other,” and then uses these apparently unrelated items as a springboard from which to speculate about, for example: “other cultural forms, philosophical concepts, economic policy, the international division of wealth and labor, [and] aesthetic theory.”

The good news is, however, that those who can find it in themselves to give a project as daring as Cazdyn’s a chance will be pleasantly surprised. In prose more lucid than the antitheory grumps might have lead one to expect, Cazdyn, rubbing Japanese film up against Japanese geopolitics, produces many fascinating — to borrow his term — “flashes.”

One of the things at which the more theoretically inclined schools of literary criticism have excelled is in spotlighting what is not there — the lacunae — in this or that work of art. Postcolonialist critics, for example, have devoted a great deal of attention to the plantation slavery that makes the lives of so many of Jane Austen’s characters possible but that is seldom even hinted at in her novels. Cazdyn, too, is interested in lacunae. He is interested in how Japanese film in the prewar years does not explicitly come to terms with colonialism, how Japanese film in the postwar years falls short of a solution to the problem of the individual’s place in Japanese society, and how Japanese film in the 1990s does not quite resolve the problems posed by globalization. Cazdyn’s lacunae, however, are not simply absences. Rather, he argues that although these pressing issues are seldom addressed directly in the films of their times, nevertheless, the issues do insist upon poking their heads up. While they are most often ignored at the level of narrative — the stories tend not to be about colonialism, the place of the individual, or globalization — these issues, Cazdyn suggests, nevertheless manifest themselves in the forms the most adventurous filmmakers have, in different epochs, given their films.

The above might seem to suggest that the link Cazdyn is working to establish between geopolitics and film is a simple one: When X happens in the world we get Y type of film. Cazdyn’s analysis, however, is more complex than that. Films and the forms they take, he suggests, are more than mere responses to this or that geopolitical situation. They are responses, but they also at the same time, participate in constructing the geopolitical problems to which they are responding.

This is made concrete, for example, in Cazdyn’s fine analysis of pornography and its relation to Japanese society as a whole. He begins with the obvious — but seldom noted — point that pornography is related to Japanese society as a whole. That Japanese people, on some level, know this, Cazdyn argues, is precisely the reason that pornography is so much more tolerated in Japan than in, say, Canada or the United States.

As Cazdyn explains: “the totality of society . . . is more readily sensed in Japan than in the West. It is for this reason that many are quick to grasp the crucial sociological point that everything is connected to everything else, and to go after the pornography industry is at once to go after the heart of the Japanese capitalist system itself.” If for “the pornography industry” one substitutes “political corruption” or “polluting industries,” the above quote will be just as accurate. Cazdyn, it is clear, has understood something important about Japan.

He is good, too, on the other half of his equation — remember, he is not discussing politics and society in isolation, but always in tandem with film. Thus he goes on to identify Shohei Imamura’s “The Pornographers” (1966) as “a film of history,” a term he uses to describe “films that work through on their formal level the most crucial events of their historical moment before there is a common language to speak about these events.”

What Imamura “flashes” at the level of form — but does not articulate — is the manner in which the line between pornography and nonpornography was already growing fuzzy. Imamura signals this blurring by forcing his audience, who has come to watch a nonpornographic film by a serious director, to view, in addition and at the same time, the pornographic film that the characters in his movie have made. “The pornographic element,” Cazdyn helps us to see, “is contained not only in the content of the blue films [Imamura’s main character] makes but also in [the characters’] everyday life and in the feature film called The Pornographers.” Thus Imamura’s film is hinting at a situation that, in the ’60s, had yet to become dominant in Japanese society but that was beginning to become evident in television dramas, advertising and elsewhere.

Cazdyn’s analyses, if consistently interesting, are not always entirely compelling. For example, after noting that the inmates of the mental hospital in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “Pages of Madness” (1926) are not only mentally, but also physically sick, and that their physical states are read as products of their mental states, he goes on to spin a crude allegory: “Indeed, this is similar to a dominant view of Japanese foreign policy at the time: the original trauma [modernity] produced psychological damage [ultranationalist ideology], which then produced physical damage [aggression and imperialism abroad] . . .” and so on. All one can say is, well, maybe, then shrug and turn to the next page where, with Cazdyn, one can be certain there will be enough flashes of brilliance to make us forget these very occasional dimmer moments. Indeed so bright is this book with insight and intelligence that it just might serve to win over a diehard theory-phobe or two.