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The Aesthetic of Shadow: Lighting in Japanese Cinema (2013)

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Book Review by Brandon Konecny. 

Historically, the skillful manipulation of light and shadow has contributed to the distinctiveness of a number of canonical cinemas. From Weimar “street films” to the golden age of horror in the 30s, German Expressionism to detective noirs, lighting has provided filmmakers various ways with which to convey the surface manifestations of material reality. In encountering Daisuke Miyao’s excellent new book, The Aesthetic of Shadow: Lighting in Japanese Cinema, one learns that the early films of Japan, too, bare a similarly detailed attention to these two physical phenomena, particularly in their adherence to the “aesthetics of shadow,” a discursive tendency in the nation’s cinematic lighting. Drawing on historical, cultural, formal, and even theoretical perspectives, Miyao takes the readers through a rigorous analysis of the nation’s formative years of involvement with the seventh art. What materializes is an impressive historicization of Japan’s cinema in the first half of the twentieth century, and it shows that the aesthetics of shadow provides an appropriate rubric under which to evaluate the particularity of these fascinating works.

What’s especially refreshing about Miyao’s book is his engaging approach to Japan’s film history. Rather than follow a series of auteurs—Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima, Teinosuke Kinugasa, or Akira Kurosawa, for example—or assemble an inordinate amount of personal anecdotes from those in the industry, Miyao primarily concerns himself with the material conditions that allowed for the efflorescence of an expressive system of lighting. Appropriately, he devotes a large portion of his book to tracing a series of dialectics present within Japan’s film industry, such as tradition and novelty, clarity and expressivity, passive consumerism and participatory star-centered fandom, and material limitation and desire for Hollywood-style production, to name but a few. To explore each effectively, Miyao follows his thoroughly constructed chronology, and he convincingly demonstrates how lighting played a decisive role in the mediation of each of them. But the development of the aesthetics of shadow, as he goes at lengths to illustrate, was not a linear progression, but instead a jagged one, consisting of a series of deadlocks and detours.

In the first chapter, for instance, Miyao examines the nation’s earliest cinema, wherein films derived much of their stylistic framework from Kabuki theatre, a highly conventional style of Japanese drama that developed during the Edo period (1603-1688). These films, few of which are still extant, were thus not markedly distinct from their theatrical predecessor: many exhibit frontal playing and strong frontal lighting so as to illuminate the entirety of dramatic space, resulting in very flat compositions. With these stylistic dictates, which we can characterize as “pre-aesthetic of shadow,” any innovations in cinematic lighting were negotiated with the country’s dramaturgical tradition. In this sense, the proceeding achievements in lighting appear to have come from a most humble, if not unlikely, origin—which makes the emergence of the aesthetics of shadow all the more impressive.

However, with the industry’s capitalistic aspirations, greater exposure to foreign films, and the insistence of the industry’s workmen, the tightfisted fidelity to tradition eventually loosened. As the book progresses, Miyao shows how a series of compromises came to constitute a pronounced shift in the visual textures of many Japanese films, namely through their increased concern with light and shadow. Films like Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Crossways (1928) and Yasujiro Ozu’s That Night’s Wife (1930), contra their predecessors, display an acute attention to the directionality of light and its ability to imbue the mise-en-scéne with a degree of realism, giving their images a sense of tactility. Miyao unifies such case studies under the aesthetics of shadow, and illustrates how this notion became appropriated to embody such discursivities as ambivalence towards modernity, “documentary spirit,” and nationalistic aesthetics. It is through his consideration of the aesthetic of shadow, both as a critical notion and predominant visual style, that Miyao persuasively shows that it serves as an effective means of representing a shift in stylistic concerns in Japan’s film history.

Perhaps the only shortcoming of Miyao’s book—and it’s a small one at best—is its seemingly abrupt conclusion. He allocates numerous pages to recapitulating his prior arguments. Yet when it comes to wondering on the longevity of the aesthetic of shadow, it receives no more than a small paragraph, spanning roughly one quarter of a page. This, in consequence, gives his argumentation a lack of precision in the late stages of the book. As an example, he briefly mentions contemporary J-horror (Japanese horror) and these filmmakers’ preference for low-key, contrasty lighting. But curiously, he never links this claim, as he has consistently done throughout the text, with any citation, making it seem speculative rather than empirical. These concerns of the aesthetic of shadow’s endurance are, admittedly, beyond the scope of Miyao’s project. However, the hurriedness of the conclusion comes off as jarring, if not outright disappointing, since it’s contrastive to the remarkable thoroughness demonstrated by Miyao in the preceding chapters.

This criticism notwithstanding, the entirety of The Aesthetic of Shadow: Lighting in Japanese Cinema is a welcomed effort in the literature on both cinematic lighting and Japanese cinema. It is a historical examination of a national cinema that is, unlike its counterparts, not limited to the standard models of historio-cultural inquiry, instead expanding to include dense textual and theoretical analyses. In doing so, the reader gets a thorough understanding of this country’s rich cinematic history. Miyao’s work thus stands as a breath of fresh air in film studies, providing the field with a new perspective with which to historicize these films. For the enlightened reader of Miyao’s book, it puts this country’s early films on equal footing with other cinemas revered for their lighting schemes, giving them a privileged position in the seventh art’s history.

Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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