Fragile Memories

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 1 (Book review 3 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 19 May 2005.

Nornes, Abé Mark (2001), Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, paperback, 248 pages, index, illustrations, ISBN: 0816640467.

Film does many things well, but none better than preserve images, impressions, and even ideologies of a given age. This is true for all its forms, of course, but especially so for the genre which aims specifically at being a record of its time: the documentary. While Japanese documentaries do not receive the type of international exposure that anime does, for example, they definitely deserve to. It is to bring the history of Japanese documentaries to a wider audience that Abé Mark Nornes has written this work, Japanese Documentary Film: the Meiji Era through Hiroshima.

The book's seven chapters plus introduction and conclusion chart, in good detail, the historical development of the documentary in Japan, and while the book ends most tantalisingly at the point where, arguably, it could become the most interesting—with the aftermath of the atomic bombings of 1945—it presents an excellent first step in bringing this development to the attention of film scholars working in English. As Nornes himself puts it, "This is as much about the story of how people thought about documentary film as the story of documentary film—of what was made and when and by whom.Åc This book explores the prevailing conceptions of the relationship of cinematic representation to the world and cinema's function in society. Thus this is a history of the documentary in Japan and writing about documentary in Japan, the films and the criticism" (p. xviii). In structuring this project, Nornes has "rather arbitrarily halved the history of Japanese documentary into two periods of five decades each. Not surprisingly, many of the key issues and ideas coursing through the first half of this history continue to the present day" (p. 224). The book, whose only flaw is that it deals with only the first half of Japan's documentary-film development, presents with great skill those key issues and ideas, in a readable, highly informed style.

Japanese Documentary Film is chronologically structured, a logical approach given its own aims to document Japanese documentary, and is pitched at film scholars and scholars of Japan alike. As such, Nornes has kept his style casual though intelligent, as well as highly personal: the introduction describes his own start in documentary film studies through his involvement with the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and the colleagues he met there. However this personal style in no way detracts from his obvious respect for his subject—this is not a book which sacrifices its focus for the aggrandisement of its author, but rather one which uses its voice to humanise and revitalise the historical material it presents. Very early on we can see the benefit of this approach:

For example, two of the Japanese documentaries that left lasting impressions on me are Nippon News No. 177 (Nippon nyūsu #177, 1943) and The Flying Virgin (Tonderiru shojo; 1935). We programmed the former, a military spectacle recording the ceremony for thousands of students being sent to the front, for the 1991 World War II event at Yamagata. This history came very much alive after the screening, when documentary filmmaker Yanagisawa Hisao approached me and tearfully thanked me for selecting the film. He had never seen it, but his brother was among the students in the film. Yanagisawa peered into the grain of the images in a fruitless attempt to get one last glimpse of his brother, who had never returned from the front (p. xvi).

This type of contextualised recollection highlights the point of documentary itself: to keep alive to human memory the range of emotions inherent within human events by preserving the images of those events as fully as possible. Of course for the most part Nornes recedes, allowing the story he's telling to unfold with a minimum of intervention, but when such authorial commentary arrives, it's quite a welcome addition to the work.

Another welcome addition is the amount of detail Nornes includes in his chapters. Because works in English on Japanese documentary are relatively scarce—and the best existing articles or books are by Nornes himself—the depth and range of the material presented are a fine introduction to an area which could sustain much more research. For example, in the final chapter dealing with films of the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nornes discusses at length the fascinating story of "the first major documentary of the postwar period: The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (p. 191). This work was very nearly lost to history, being continually suppressed in Japan and confiscated by American authorities—however, "[Daniel] McGovern, an army-air force cinematographer who had shot William Wyler's Memphis Belle" (p. 199), and who had become aware of footage shot by Japanese documentarians, surreptitiously duplicated the material and "quietly deposited it at the US Air Force Central Film Depository at Wright Air Force Base. Had he obeyed his orders," (p. 204) the complete film would have been lost. While Nornes in Chapter Seven details the story of the film's production, its principal creators, its subject matter, and its reception, the amount of information he conveys about the film's tortuous development and subsequent preservation from obscurity spills over into a footnote that itself covers two pages in tiny print. This depth of coverage is truly impressive—as is Nornes's erudition and obvious passion for his subject, which he expresses in a smoothly-flowing, narrative style that nonetheless never backs down from theoretically-informed issues.

It is with a discussion of these issues that Nornes brings his work to its intellectual climax, in Chapters 5 and 6, entitled "The Last Stand of Theory" and "Kamei Fumio," respectively. In Chapter 5, Nornes presents ways in which "the terms of domination build resistance into the substance of that domination, and [in which] public discourse always contains coded versions of dissonant discourse from hidden spaces, a polysemy that public forms of representation strive to cover with ideological clarity and iconographic images of naturalised domination and willing submission" (p. 123).

These chapters form the crux of the book's engagement with Japan's war years, and describe ways in which filmmakers reacted to increasingly drastic pressure to conform to state-sanctioned creative forms. While this material could quickly digress into, on the one hand, banal dismissals of contemporary documentaries as mere state-authorised propoganda, or, on the other, equally banal dismissals of the filmmakers as mere turncoats or political opportunists willing to revise their projects at the whims of changing national fortune, Nornes handles his task with both directness and sensitivity to the times in which his subjects were working. His first issue is to deal with the phenomenon of tenkō, or "conversion"—"ideological apostasy," (p. 123) as Nornes puts it. This was a very common act for many of Japan's intellectuals during the 1930s and 1940s, whereby—usually after arrest—their views suddenly changed to match the prevalent governmentally-endorsed position.

After discussing tenkō in a general, historical context, and providing figures on the extent to which it affected filmmakers—thirteen thousand people forced to "convert," five hundred members of various filmmakers' groups—he describes the case of Iwasaki Akira who was arrested in 1940 after the publication of his book, Eiga to genjitsu (Film and Reality), in which he criticised feature films as being in a "pitiable, atrophied condition" (p. 128). Iwasaki was required to write a lengthy confession, as well as a statement of "conversion"—a seventy page document which took one month to complete but which was immediately rejected by the police as inadequate for being too short. "After eight months in jail, and after he had written a second memo for tenkō, Iwasaki was convicted, sentenced, and transferred to prison. By this time, he was suffering from malnutrition; he also had a skin disease and was losing his sight. He spent another five months in confinement" (p. 129). Given the lengthy prison terms which awaited filmmakers (or writers, journalists, teachers, intellectuals, or citizens in general) who actively resisted the government's project, the act of tenkō takes on a sympathetic air—but Nornes here certainly does not propose that this was the only avenue left open to documentary producers hoping to continue in film production.

While Iwasaki's case makes clear the conditions in which people tried to work, Nornes focuses his attentions on the "moments when the hidden discourse of discontent emerges" (p. 130) to highlight the type of resistance possible even within the framework of seemingly officially-sanctioned documentary. These attentions are the strongest contributions of this work to the history of Japanese documentary film, and these attentions—as fascinating, detailed, and compelling as they are—are what could easily form the basis of Nornes's next study, for this period in Japan's film industry holds many stories not yet told, or told only in passing.

Nornes concludes with a situation of Japanese documentary within the history of world documentary film as both a recipient and creator of international influence, sharing "many of the broadest historical patterns" (p. 220). While the work ends with the productions of 1945/6, it is clear that the innovations and aesthetics of pre-war documentary still run through contemporary works—"one of the greatest pleasures of contemporary Japanese documentary," Nornes states, "is the faint resonance of past practices, the echoes of both noisy and whispered debates, and the traces of harder styles and harder times" (p. 224). This book, which has recorded the origins and developments of those resonances, echoes, and traces in such careful and involved detail, is a valuable precursor to work still to be done to bring postwar and current Japanese documentary filmmakers to critical international attention. I, for one, eagerly look forward to Nornes's next book, and expect the same rigorous scholarship and entertaining, informative presentation.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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