siren songs of 1958

This is a short film made in 1958 by Alain Resnais, who would later become famous as the director of the short film Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) and the feature film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I have always admired the way his films use counterpoints of sound to show us what we, in fact, do not see–or what is no longer there to be seen, and has paid a price, usually of life and lives.

In this 13-minute pipeline to the past, I love the gap between the regal intoning, usually reserved for scarce luxuries in CMs and from old times, and the massive glut of plastic flow that comes from the factory, and is traced back to its origins in rocks and geological time. It’s a song of eternal nature and how to regard it as a human product, one that fits just right for our age.

This film, as opposed to others of Resnais and his crews, is full, and then some. I am riveted by it, to start, because of its mock-heroic narration. (This tone is preserved in a few English terms like “captains of industry,” but maybe the new world has not yet processed enough of its past deeds to have narrated its distance with such a full voice.) The script is an epic poem composed by Raymond Queneau, the alchemical poet of Oulipo who invented new words based on old forms for this script, to tell the epic story of The Origin of Plastics (plural, for the possibilities). This flexible medium also enabled the torsion of words into new forms, some kinetic, some just vividly imagistic, in the medieval and oral tone of alexandrine verse, the “leading measure of French poetry,” says 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. A formidable explication of the film is found in Edward Dimendberg’s “These Are Not Exercises in Style,” originally published in October. Here is a rewarding passage from this exceptionally rewarding article (worth reading in its entirety for its close attention to form vis-ā-vis the experience of consumer ideology and ubiquity).

Already in its title Le Chant du styrène introduces intertextual allusion, manifesting what Michel Riffaterre calls the dual sign, the first of many in both poem and film.7 For as any speaker of French notices, styrène rhymes with sirène and proposes the collaboration of Resnais and Queneau as a contemporary song of the sirens. Its mermaids—the consumer products and industrial objects in the newly emerging culture of plastics in 1950s France—beckoned to both men with irresistible charm. Apprehending and granting them voice with ironic bemusement, Resnais and Queneau’s film simultaneously grasps the deeper stakes implied by the turn to synthetic materials. At once advertisement and public relations effort, a primer on the manufacture of plastic compounds that had begun to transform postwar French life, The Song of Styrene is also…an allegory of material and semiotic production. It provides a revealing window onto the French political and global economy of the late 1950s, rewarding close reading with a veritable return of repressed geopolitical relations.

Evoking the chansons de geste, epic poems of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that celebrated Charlemagne and recounted illustrious heroic deeds, Queneau’s narration for the film, his chant, basks in the incongruity between its style and subject matter (65).

This film came out in 1958, also something like the annus mirabilis of Japanese cinema–the year with the highest number of movie-goers, soon to cede slowly, if not epically, into the more home-bound realm of TV viewers. At present I am watching many science films from 1958 Japan, sponsored, like this one, by large industries, with bricolaged crews of artists, scientists, doc film people, and bureaucrats (or their business-like and educational equivalents). Many of these films, known as 科学映画 (kagaku eiga)、are now preserved on line at the Science Film Museum, where you may see them.

imperial godzilla, part 1

One of the most intriguing works of the so-called “new academicism” era in 1980s Tokyo  analysed the ways that the “image” of the emperor was inscribed into the very fabric of the city itself–in sign systems like hotel names (imperial hotel, etc.), and subway planning, infrastructure that skirted around the imperial palace grounds. On a topical note, that author, INOSE Naoki, was just elected mayor of Tokyo on December 12. Infrastructure is very much on his mind, and in his history. He was a big player in the privatization of highways under the Koizumi administration in the early 2000s, and is very attuned to the novelty of micro-media such as Twitter. What he means by wanting to “reform” TEPCO, though, remains to be seen.

Inose’s book on “images of the emperor,” along with Taki Kōji’s book on imperial portraits, really shook up the cultural studies world. Both drew on visual and material-culture sources to show how ubiquitously sign systems (記号) of imperial messaging were written into daily life, in both site-specific ways (portraits in schools), and in infrastructural ways, connecting things (subway lines). The links that connect imperial sign systems to infrastructures, though, seem to me to emerge in even earlier contexts–namely, in the Godzilla films of the mid 1950s. My class last quarter did a little experiment with Google–we “got directions” for the monster’s rampage into Tokyo, and found something astounding: Godzilla tippy-toed around the imperial palace, and just kept going. Before getting into deep monster-ology, let’s refresh with a bit of plot summary…

The first Godzilla film in 1954 ends with a paean to national communications infrastructures, at the expense of an older sense of communication and ritual. The eyepatched hero, mad scientist Serizawa, descends to the deep to set off his mysterious and powerful Oxygen Destroyer as a last-ditch effort to fend off the monster. He does so from the deck of a ship on which stand the ethical paleo-historian, who only wants Godzilla for research purposes; his daughter, who has dumped Serizawa in favor of a less brooding, more entreprenurial salvage operator who is poised to make a fortune with wartime scrap metal; and a fleet of reporters with armbands that more or less look like “NHK.” Serizawa, despondent, cuts the tube on his oxygen supply, a deep-sea-diver’s high tech update of the old ritual of hara-kiri.

Serizawa flanked by the paleo-historian; the scholar's daughter; his rival; and a nosy reporter and some SDF troops.

Serizawa flanked by the paleo-historian; the scholar’s daughter; his rival; and a nosy reporter and some SDF troops. Minutes later, he will cut his own lifeline

A triumphal news report announces the “victory,” focalized by a radio announcer and the nosy newspaper reporter who acts as the film’s structure of “witnessing.” Meanwhile, the characters closer to Serizawa mourn, for various reasons–for his sacrifice, and for the fact that another Godzilla may yet re-surface.

Serizawa is clearly the “feudal remnant” in the story, banished and celebrated by the civic sphere of journalists and quasi-military men. I’d like to suggest that the identification of him with the monster, so strong at the end, shifts our worry from a nuclear bomb appearing again to another spectre–Japanese imperialism. As elegant and disciplined as Serizawa is, he’s clearly too grotesque and archaic himself to live. This reading is strengthened when we think of how Godzilla’s stroll through the realm formally reprises the traditional imperial journey of the junkō, or imperial progress.

As scholars like Takashi Fujitani and Gyewon Kim have shown, the imperial “progress” through the countryside took a number of routes and was shown in a variety of media forms, from woodblocks to paintings to photos. There was a variety of scenes, and different demands to show the emperor in the landscape or looking at local scenes. The effect was to localize and nationalize him in a national panorama, represented as well as implied.

Let’s take a walk, and see the sights that Godzilla stomps through, and the images they conjure…

If Godzilla were to “get directions” to the Imperial Palace…

The 1954 film Godzilla is many many things. It is a demo of how the housewife “bicycle citizens” make demands on public officials, as they did in many grass-roots health and consumer movements. It is about how monsters are represented on screen, and it is about possible terrifying figures. Because Godzilla is so much about speculation, and contains within it many possible futures, the connections to the past have, for good reason, been eclipsed.

In last quarter’s film class–the star system in Japanese films, including Godzilla–we introduced Godzilla to the twenty-first century, and one of its key technologies–GPS. In tracking its movements (it’s never really been made clear whether G is male or female, so I”ll leave it open), we find an interesting habit–Godzilla avoids the imperial palace, tippy-toeing delicately around it, even when rampaging through many other swaths of the city, high and low.

Godzilla first burbles up from the watery deep in the Philippine Sea, about halfway between Guam and the main islands of Japan.

…on the approach to the mainland

The next sighting finds us approaching the mainland, in Tokyo Bay…from where Godzilla rampages into the city itself. Tokyo is marked “A” here, because the film teaches us to watch from the mainland point of view–something out there is closing in on “us,” and for mainland residents, that narrowing distance comes with a spike in anxiety.

...nearing the mainland

…nearing the mainland

Finally, the monster alights outside Shinagawa, near the water, as a group of office workers goes on a booze cruise with—eerily—Polynesian-sounding music.

The rampage continues as Godzilla climbs up on land. The first casualties are against civilians, as it stomps a train before getting tangled in a network of transmission wires. This landscape features some of the more stunning of designer Tsurubaya Eiji’s scale-models—the cityscape modeled at 1:25 size.

You’ll notice that the itinerary of Godzilla’s path has led from periphery to center, past to present. The monster’s breath lasers in on electrical towers, melting them, as the monster journeys in to the center of the city, where houses erupt in flames, and entire streets burn.

city streets erupt in flames, with destruction reminiscent of the fire-bombing of Tokyo

city streets erupt in flames, with destruction reminiscent of the fire-bombing of Tokyo

In the second part of this two-part essay, I’ll look at the tour within the city, and make some speculations about what the patterns of stomping and avoiding mean.

multi-planar camera in the first Japanese full-length animation

…and here is a trailer starring the president of Tōei–center of full animation in Japan–as he touts the release of the first animated “manga movie” in Japan, 1958’s Hakujaden (The White Snake). He, too, showcases the multi-plane camera (around 2:00). The production scenes are great here, with the gloved colorists and overhead shots of the camera.

The writing at the bottom of the frame that is cut off here indicates who is staffing all these desks: traceists on the left, and colorists on the right.

walt disney explains the multi-plane camera

This is how the characters–Mickey, here–appear to have a dimensionality that makes these landscapes seem, in Disney’s word, real–“how to take a painting and make it seem like a two-dimensional piece of scenery.” The diagrams and demos also clearly demonstrate how much time and labor-power, not to mention machinery, go into creating full animation.

japanese taste, c. 1915

I have been teaching the life and times of the actor Hayakawa Sessue this week. He’s plunged into the melodramatic scene of silent cinema in 1915, becoming an unexpected hit in the same year as The Birth of a Nation comes out. A critical history I have been reading (by Daisuke Miyao), goes into detail about the fad for Japanese taste among the middlebrow media world who sought to make film, also, into art.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the taste for Japanese taste as a backdrop in this 1915 short–one of the Keeping up with the Joneses series, wherein an Irish Ma and Pa try for upward mobility based on the template of the Joneses, who remain forever offscreen. This short is only about 3:00 long, so look at the bottom left corner–Japanoiserie!

Here’s a screenshot–you’ll have to watch the whole thing on the Library of Congress website here.

from the 1915 Gaumont production


love and crafts

This week I went to see a one-woman show by Kristina Wong, Going Green the Wong Way. It’s a standup-performance hybrid that dramatizes her travails driving one of the french fry cars of NELA, old Reagan-era Mercedes that were converted by a now-defunct garage called Lovecraft Biofuels to burn re-purposed vegetable oil. I went with my friend D, who is big on peak oil politics, the concern that underwrote the half of the show that was about Wong and her french fry car.


Back in 2006, in sunnier days of her big Pepto-Bismol pink ride, Wong gave an interview to the LA Weekly that located her oil of choice squarely in the alt.fuel movement as it connected to global politics in the era of Bush 43: “At least we don’t have to go to war to get it.” Alas, the car exploded in a fit of smoke and flames on the Victory Boulevard exit of the 405. Lovecraft’s reputation, in general, left a trail of cinders not far behind in the form of one- and two-star Yelp reviews (the domain name is now for sale).

So I was intrigued to find out that Wong is also a regular-old actress, of parts in fictions of other peoples’ making. This 5-minute short features some of the same DIY, retro homages to bygone technologies in the service of a genre story–melodrama, here. Melodrama is known for being the repressed genre where objects and bodies say what the characters’ lips cannot express in words. That unforgettable jar of flowers, for instance, in the time-lapse series of cold, cold meals between Charles Foster Kane and his first wife in Citizen Kane. The urn of flowers seems to get bigger and bigger, more baroque and ornate, to express the greater and more topiary nature of the obstacles that impede communication between Kane and Emily over a span of years, meal after meal. In Yarning for Love, a mysterious cache of yarn appears to first tie, then bind, a courting couple. It is a natural outgrowth of their desire, as well as a limit of their ability to move together. It starts as his magic trick gambit, like pulling quarters out of ears, but then she realizes, with a start, that she is producing it too.

I really like the way that it first surprises, then outpaces them, almost with a tangled mind of its own. And then finally, the ties that bind are cut in the most eternal of melodramatic climaxes–the girl on the tracks. Only this time, the boy lies alongside her, paralleled in limbo, and the train wreck that follows sunders not them, but their ties and their emotions. This short is at once a very of-its-moment 21st c. story about how objects define our worlds beyond us in networks of connection and mutual worlds, and an update of one of the oldest dramas of cross-cutting downloadable here). In the original, the girl is tied to the tracks and waits to be rescued by the hero. Yarning one cites the silent aesthetic and retro-ness via costume, editing and lighting, but whatever the yarn stands in for (desire, attachment, craft, contexts that bind, etc.) the yarn is immersive and all-consuming to the point that it demobilizes them both. It ultimately leads to a breakup scene that follows on a lot of exhaustion for both of them. The yarn ends up in chopped piles hanging off both of them. The only thing keeping them together is the fact they are apart. She brushes the yarn detritus off and vanishes into the distance, while he just vanishes all together.

posters and/as street art

I recently caught an exhibition of black film posters by my friend/collaborator Ron Finley at the Museum of African American Art on Crenshaw in LA. It’s a kind of visual chronicle of posters for films that featured black casts, not only in Hollywood, but in films made elsewhere (France, “Orfeo Negro” from Brazil). It also includes posters for Hollywood films whose ad campaigns were coordinated and localized to the graphic and print languages of particular countries (there are many examples from Italy). The museum is a bit of a sleeper–literally on the same floor as sheets and bedding, the third floor of the Macy’s, next to Housewares. I helped a bit with grantwriting and concept stuff (my name’s on the wall, even!) and believe me, there are concepts aplenty to work with. This short YouTube of the opening shows some of the variety of posters–a selection of the 10,000–yes, ten thousand–that comprise Ron’s collection.

Some of the real standouts are the six-sheet of Cabin in the Sky–a milestone of style–and the multilingual posters from each of the countries where the films stopped. Also of note is the cursory image-less poster for Green Pastures, where someone could not be bothered to frame and pull out stars or plotlines. Many if not most of the posters were lithographs from Cleveland, an industry concentration I found fascinating.

And what came across most strongly, in keeping with the four-sheet or rare six-sheet dimensionality, was the way the posters were designed to be seen from different distances–the beholder as a staggered line of pedestrians or passers-by of city streets, who might come at them from any of a number of angles. The “lightbox” effect was most intriguing to me.

Here is a poster featuring the Nicholas Brothers, the celebrated tap-dancing team from Tin Pan Alley, Stormy Weather and many more, who appear, nonetheless, as the “Fratelli Nicholas” in small letters at the bottom right, beneath performers who are technically lesser lights. Check the way the red and yellow draw and then scatter your eye.

I’ve long had an interest in experimental typography. (In Tokyo every year, there is a fanfare to announce the kanji of the year, and you can’t really understand print culture without understanding calligraphy and the way everybody from fiction-writers to social movements have used it.) And wrote about it at length in my book, with reference to Japanese lit and its ways of portraying hyper-visible people through typography and the demands/lures it offers to readers and narrators through its interface. In the works I looked at, they were learned, long story short, in no small part through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. What this exhibition really brought home to me anew was how much a part of the streetscape posters are–on par with graffiti art, the advertised city, and the varying scales and filters they inhabit as we see them, from different vantage points.

The exhibition is up till April 22, and anyone within range should take a trip to see it–the museum is open Thursday through Sundays. Spike Lee’s poster designer, Art Sims, will be giving a talk on the anatomy of the movie poster on April 14–come see for yourself. The exhibition is quite a thing to behold, and I am sure the talk will be in keeping with the high aesthetic bar these materials have set.


NPR / hunger games and battle royale

Born to run (as per one of the novel's epigraphs): schoolgirls in the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale. Source: NPR website.

The NPR piece on the film versions of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale aired yesterday. It’s available online, as we speak, here. I’ll be posting a more full-on follow-up later, but wanted to post a few thoughts. It was a really fun 45-minute conversation with Neda Ulaby, and the timing of a short radio feature didn’t have room for some contexts we might see the film in. And, just as important, some contexts through which we might see the 1999 book that inspired it.

For starters, here is the trailer for the 2003 Japanese film, with the inspired casting of comedian/actor/director Beat Takeshi as the dazzling and sinister teacher. I’ll say straight out that I don’t think The Hunger Games is a ripoff of Battle Royale (BR), the film. It actually bears much more resemblance to the novel, which stresses consumer culture (the market value of retro-artifacts like Keds tennis shoes) and living in the malaise of a declining empire. BR is set in a fictional place, the Republic of Greater East Asia, whose name is strongly reminiscent of the pre-war Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. This riffing on Japan’s rise and fall as an empire could be likened to how US journalists and writers have used the Roman empire to understand the economic and military battles of contemporary America. Rome, of course, is the classical point of reference for The Hunger Games; it is set in Panem, after all, a hat-tip to the legendary practice of bread and circuses. But even then, I think The Hunger Games‘ similarities are much more rooted in the way that the plots, crossings, images and tropes of myth and genre fiction have become familiar as story-telling rules and structures to people watching movies (and reading comics, and genre fiction, and playing video games…) since Joseph Campbell met George Lucas in the Star Wars saga.

I want to note 3 things from the trailer:

BR is not about reality TV like The Hunger Games is. You’ll note that the trailer focuses on the teacher figure. It is about living in a military-electronic surveillance culture whose audience is highly restricted to certain high-ups of the military who work in concert with the teacher, played by Beat Takeshi. Given that Takeshi usually plays gangsters of a very violent bent, we know it does not bode well for his young charges to see him standing in front of the classroom. In BR, there is very little sense of mugging for the camera in the way that The Hunger Games‘ Katniss is hyper-aware of manipulating her image–say, how her actions might lead to gifts bestowed on her by viewers who want to reward her virtue. Nor are there visually lush setpiece stunner scenes like the ones that feature Katniss’ growing awareness of herself as a performer through fashion. These are especially showy and film-ready in a sequence of performance art creations crafted by the fashion designer Cinna. These amalgams of the “am-I-a-floral-or-a-woodsy?” kind of self-awareness come partly from the playbook of teen magazines. And partly from the performance interludes of contemporary reality TV.

BR‘s characters shun the radar. They are kept under constant surveillance by the dog-collar-like chokers around their necks that they can’t remove–unless they want to be blown to smithereens. There is no feedback loop of pop audience enthusiasm whose input or caprice might determine their future. That caprice is channeled through the whims of Takeshi as sinister and casually rage-filled teacher, the standin for state authority (and all its out-of-it sloppiness…he is wearing a grotty track suit and can barely manage to work a cell phone to maintain a wreck of a relationship with his own teenage daughter). Reality TV in The Hunger Games enables the toggling between home and island, a “‘meanwhile’…back in the District” way of keeping family and home just out of reach. This toggling is not central to the BR story.

the novel, and later film, BR is very aware of its literary roots. Some key works here are the island sci-fi fictions of Jules Verne and the totalitarian stories of George Orwell. My friend/former colleague Tom Lamarre reminded me that Jules Verne was massively popular in Japan, and that his adventure story Deux ans de vacances (Two Years of Vacation, 1888), set on an island in the South Pacific, has inspired a number of anime. Shimmering from the pirate crate of stories that have been distributed through the global translation market since the 1800s, there is also an entire genre called the Robinsonade, after Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel of life on a deserted island after a shipwreck. A wonderful site devoted to these Robinsonades at the University of Florida’s children’s lit collection defines them as follows:

In the archetypical Robinsonade, the protagonist is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilization, usually shipwrecked or marooned on a secluded and uninhabited island. He must improvise the means of his survival from the limited resources at hand. The protagonist survives by his wits and the qualities of his cultural upbringing, which also enable him to prevail in conflicts with fellow castaways or over local peoples he may encounter. Some of the titles here may appear more tangentially related; for instance, collections of stories that include Robinsonades...Later works expanded on and explored this mythology. Though Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is set within tropical environs, several of the Robinsonades collected here tell the Crusoe story in settings as different as the Arctic, the American west, and other global locations.

Cover of Jules Verne's pioneering island story, 1888.

Obviously the Crusoe/Friday racial hierarchy is a little difficult to support these days. But the Robinsonade’s questions about collaboration, doubt and belief in other human beings, use of technology and tinkering to engage with the island terrain and make it one’s own territory…these all remain in both Japanese and English-language story-telling repertoires. Another difference in how earlier genre conventions like the Robinsonade were interpreted is that all the examples that BR draws on–and we could also throw in Lord of the Flies, among others–are thoroughly modern and have multiple iterations in Japanese anime and pop culture. These roots are somewhat different than the agrarian and Gaia-tinged mythic structure that filters through The Hunger Games. The invented language for people and rituals found in The Hunger Games recalls goddesses and fertility (Cornucopia, the Reaping) as well as the hunting-and-gathering survival stories of early American captivity narratives, and the post-apocalyptic eco-landscapes of someone like Margaret Atwood. It is not the electronic screen- and cable-based imaginary whose interfaces feature so strongly in the form of both the novel and film versions of BR–with its embedded infomercials, legal proclamations, intertitles and chapter breakdowns like the different levels of a video game.

and finally, the Bonnie and Clyde nature of the love story in both BR and The Hunger Games is different. Both end with a possibly doomed violent and youthful couple on the lam. Both couples are part of serial structures, to be continued. Both have female characters that are as technically capable and proficient at the arts of war as the male characters. This parity is not celebrated as a great stride in feminism in either work. But the gender/sexual politics are complicated and play out differently in BR and The Hunger Games. Unlike the heroic sacrificing parents and elder siblings of The Hunger Games (think of Katniss and her sister, and Rue), there are very few adults in BR. The few who appear are all wildly inappropriate and corrupt as role models: one father commits suicide, one teacher in a cameo role is buddy-buddy with the students purely in the service of his own ego; and Takeshi, the lead teacher, not only chaperones this whole undertaking, but escapes its grueling awfulness through fantasies of walking on the beach eating popsicles with the “good girl” who survives the film. The subject of adult corruption deserves a blog post of its own, given the weird scrutiny on youth crime in late 1990s Japan. Long story short, BR‘s characters are truly launched into a great unknown when they end in the consumer neighborhood of Umeda, in Osaka; we’re left pretty sure the story is anti-war, and anti-empire, but not so sure it’s pro-peace. Whereas there is something very pastoral about The Hunger Games‘ longing to get it all over with, go back to the domestic scene, reunite, make your peace with things and memories, and sort things out from a usable past…which of course crescendoes to a revolution that might unhinge the whole domestic project. So, to be continued…