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.

Modular futures, black robots in Showa Japan




…aaaand, below is the audio, in MP3 format. 3 versions–collect them all!

Text and audio from scratched talk @ UCLA, for a conference in June 2015 on robots, called Machine Dreams. It was a great event organized by Margaret Rhee with tons of poets, art people, scholars…a great event I was supposed to participate in, over these high wires. As it turned out, I got sick, for the first time in–15? 20?–years, and the new software and hardware I was learning to record the talk for broadcast only came together at the very last minute (neighbor’s dog going off during recording, my stupid dyslexification of the actual time difference, everything happening sooo slowly), and I showed up an hour late to my 2am time slot. I ended up delaying the whole thing, as they waited patiently, and then never gave the thing. So I blew it. BUT, it’s still a good summary of a book chapter I just published, and pulls in some current events from Japanese diplomatic use of robots, and is a decent archive.

visual apostrophes

Posters are one of the most vivid and important kinds of public “face” that the urban ag movement presents to the public. I’m giving a workshop @ UCLA this weekend, to members of student food collectives from all over California, discussing this very issue–the public face of urban ag, as seen through its posters. I see posters as the visual equivalent of an apostrophe–the poetic device that in love poems, pop songs and here–in propaganda posters–addresses itself to you, and beseeches you to do something, write yourself into a story. Ideally, a story that involves a dialogue with the person who wrote it.

Much of this research is informed by my work excavating kinds of “rhetorical activism” deployed by writers, designers and politicos in modern Japan to make connections between text and world. It also draws on much recent work by Japanese feminists on the role of woman on the home front during wartime.

Here is one of the posters, dating from 1918, that has long been on my mind. Note the imperative, with exclamation, in the address.

The visual style of Liberty combines tropes of Columbia with the look of Lillian Gish.

Other posters of the day use human figures in their compositions, like this familiar fellow.

Sam is not so closely tied to the act of doing as Liberty is. The headline emphasizes his role in exhorting–he “says,” but does not plant.

The first poster is especially interesting to me because of the complex of icons it uses and cites–tons of neo-classical referents (Athena, Ceres), as well as other national symbols (Marianne). The statuesque nature and draped cloth, though, suggest something more along the lines of Columbia. Her image–the personification of America, just as Marianne personifies France–is likely familiar from movie credits.

And here is where things get interesting in terms of historiography, and in the way that the poster conjures as well as eclipses a community of roused, participating, planting citizens.

It turns out that the person who brought the classical rhetoric of poetics into dialogue with the contemporary American scene was none other than Phillis Wheatley–the (eventually) freed slave who was the first published African American poet, and a key neo-classical poet in the genre at large. She invented the trope of the Columbiad in a poem she wrote that was an apostrophe to George Washington, in 1775, when the United States were not yet a bona fide nation.

You can read the full text of the poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington,” here. But for now, here are the first two stanzas, with flourishes of militant Athena fortified by heavenly authority:

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

I would like to think about what this kind of claim on the president–an issue very much on time, given Michelle Obama’s symbolic stand on gardening and nutrition–might imply for the kind of public face we see and respond to in urban ag movements today.

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


Food hubs, then & now

Doing some research, legwork and reading on the subject of “food hubs,” and how urban ag might shift their sourcing a bit. SFO is, as usual, on top of things. Urban ag/food systems folks are weighing in on the expansion of the city’s wholesale produce market, built about the same time as LA’s. Food hubs are also cropping up in the most unlikely places these days. I’m seeing local-ish food distribution talked about in Forbes, and not only online GOOD dispatches, which makes me think there is money to be made…

I recently came across this 1963 documentary of the Central Produce Market in LA. It’s a bit Vertov, with its dawn-to-dusk timeline. And a bit “new american cinema,” with the gloamy lighting and the photographic look of the amazing Vilmos Zsigmond, working under the name “William Zsigmond.” This was apparently one of his first films in the US, shortly after his emigration from Hungary. It’s interesting to think how this industrial background infused the look of other LA pictures like the Robert Altman adaptation of The Long Goodbye.

“Swamper” is not a job description you hear much these days–it’s the term for all the guys unloading the trucks. The color scheme of this division of labor is pretty stark. A very revealing look at many kinds of market forces seen behind the scenes…

Seibu @ Wilshire and Fairfax

Doing a bit of research on Japanese retail history, I was shocked to come across some photos in a March 1962 issue of Time Magazine. The article documents the opening of a branch of Seibu department store on the miracle mile as follows:

Even in Los Angeles—the city of gala premières for everything from Hollywood spectaculars to hamburger stands—the “grand opening” last week of the U.S.’s first big Japanese-owned department store created quite a splash. Within 15 minutes after Seibu of Los Angeles unlocked its door, 5,000 shoppers were inside, women were fainting, policemen had to bar all entrances to slow down the rush and traffic was backed up for four blocks along Wilshire Boulevard. By day’s end Seibu’s clerks had been buffeted by 40,000 Angelenos, who bought $25,000 worth of merchandise ranging from obi cloth theater coats to men’s silk suits tailored in Japan to Ivy League specifications.

Apparently there was even a beer garden on the roof (natsukashii!). The photos were quite wonderful, though I didn’t catch any sights of fainting matrons, or the basement-level food halls known as depa chika, most sadly. The location is now occupied by the Peterson Auto Museum.

Exterior of the Seibu LA branch.

It only lasted two years, though. Seibu impresario Tsutsui was freed to up go create the retail revolution back in Tokyo, with its boutique shops, pioneering credit offers, and links with the new fads of copywriting and youth culture.

admiring eyes / student projects

In 1965, photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi, born and raised in Aoyama, published Take Ivy, a book that has become a cult item in the world of clean cut jet-set men’s fashion. Morphing its title from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, it introduced a kind of jazz-adjacent fashion that differed even from the kinds of jazz then entering the Tokyo scene through John Coltrane and other free improvisers (Coltrane first visited Japan in 1964). Take Ivy is a series of photos and essays taken on a road trip through the 8 Ivy League campuses (except for Penn and Cornell). If you wanted to, you could probably trace a line from here to the (much much more wan, in my opinion…) garb and vibe of the jazz aficionados in Murakami Haruki’s consumer worlds.

Last year, Powerhouse Books put out a new edition with an English translation.  The book is essentially a replica, except for the new translation—it preserves the original type, layout, and scrupulously ethnographic tone of the text…

"It appeared to us that Ivy Leaguers are big fans of classic cars. In particular, a Packard attracts their admiring eyes."

(This photo also appeared in a longer spread in GQ a few months ago.) Two of the writers were connected to the Japanese fashion brand VAN jacket, which introduced Ivy style and made the t-shirt a garment suitable for streetwear.

Here I quote at length from David Marx’ excellent breakdown of the Miyuki-zoku subculture that took up Ivy fashion when it first hit Tokyo, and became popularized with the new magazine Heibon Punch. Marx makes an interesting connection between the street sweeps that went along with prepping Tokyo for its Olympic visitors in 1964, redeeming the nation from the ignoble cancellation of the Games in 1940, the heyday of wartime. Though these kids are from the “right” side of the tracks, it seems, I also can’t help but note a bit of zoot suit-like defiance in the exactitude of pant length, closed circle back-to-the-camera stance, and legs akimbo slouch …

…[Heibon Punch] was targeted to Japan’s growing number of wealthy urban youth, and part of its editorial mission was to tell kids how to dress. The editors advocated the Ivy League Look, which at the time was basically only available in the form of domestic brand VAN. Kensuke Ishizu of VAN had discovered the look in the 1950s and pushed it as an alternative to the slightly thuggish big-shouldered, high-waisted, mismatched jacket-and-pants look that dominated Japanese men’s style throughout the 1950s. As an imported look, Ivy League fashion felt cutting-edge and sophisticated to Tokyo teens, and this fit perfectly with Heibon Punch’s mission of giving Baby Boomers a style of their own.

When the magazine arrived in the spring 1964, readers all went out and became Ivy adherents. Parents and authorities, however, were hardly thrilled with a youth tribe of American style enthusiasts. The first strike against the Miyuki-zoku is that the guys — gasp! — would blow dry their hair. This was seen as a patently feminine thing to do.

More critically, the Miyuki-zoku picked the wrong summer to hang out in Ginza. Japan was preparing for the 1964 Olympics, which would commence in October. Tokyo was in the process of removing every last eyesore — wooden garbage cans, street trolleys, the homeless — anything that would possibly be offending to foreign visitors. The Olympics was not just a sports event, but would be Japan’s return into the global community after its ignoble defeat of World War II, and nothing could go wrong.

So authorities lay awake at night with the fear that foreigners would come to Japan and see kids in tight high-water pants hanging out in front of prestigious Ginza stores. Neighborhood leaders desperately wanted to eradicate the Miyuki-zoku before October, so they went to Ishizu of VAN and asked him to intervene. VAN organized a “Big Ivy Style Meet-up” at Yamaha Hall, and cops helped put 200 posters across Ginza to make sure the Miyuki-zoku showed up. Anyone who came to the event got a free VAN bag — which was the bag for storing your normal clothing during loitering hours. They expected 300 kids, but 2,000 showed up. Ishizu gave the keynote address, where he told everyone to knock it off with the lounging in Ginza. Most acquiesced, but not all.

So on September 19, 1964, a huge police force stormed Ginza and hauled off 200 kids in madras plaid and penny loafers. Eighty-five were processed at nearby Tsukiji jail. The kids got the message and never came back, and that was the end of the Miyuki-zoku.

The look was something like this:

Lingering in the Ginza, beneath the sign for Cristal "lunettes"

All this lead-up was by way of introducing the subject of end-of-semester student work from my class—much of which involves US college students looking at Japanese kids of a certain age…

My class @ UCLA this semester has focused on food cultures/narratives/politics in Japan. We found that there were a curious number of “coming-of-age” stories—not unlike those pictured above—routed through food. Some of the projects my students cooked up include:

  • carbohydrate nationalism! analysis of Yakitate Japan, an anime series about a young man’s quest to represent Japan in the international sphere through the awesomeness of Japanese bread—putting the “pan” (bread) back in Ja-pan.
  • smells like teenage spirits! uses of nostalgia in Miyazaki Hayao’s anime Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し)
  • of men and maggots! food as a catalyst for revolution in socialist realist texts (Battleship Potemkin, The Factory Ship)
  • chūka ryōri as augmented Chinese food—or how to eat China in modern Japan
  • mystery meets mystery meats! the appeal of mysterious foods in Tanizaki and others


Review on *CHOICE*

Choice is the go-to magazine for academic librarians; reviewers rate books in a scale of recommendability so that librarians know whether to spend money, in these times, on the book. The journal ran a very gracious and positive review of my book in the October issue, and listed it as “highly recommended.”

McKnight, Anne.  Nakagami, Japan: Buraku and the writing of ethnicity.  Minnesota, 2011.  281p index afp; ISBN 9780816672851, $75.00; ISBN 9780816672868 pbk, $25.00. Reviewed in 2011oct CHOICE. From airport baggage handler to internationally known writer, Nakagami Kenji (1946-92) defied easy categorization–and intentionally so. Self-identifying as a member of Japan’s traditional underclass, the burakumin, Nakagami spent his career pushing against the borders of the literary mainstream, even while simultaneously securing a space for himself at its center. In this book, McKnight (Univ. of Southern California) explores Nakagami’s “doubleness” through the metaphoric lens of parallax, a term derived from visual arts studies, which allows her to read Nakagami from a variety of perspectives. Meticulously researched and deeply indebted to the theoretics of Gilles Deleuze, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karatani Kôjin, et al., this book enriches current studies on Nakagami by examining his interests in ethnicity and ethnography, his innovative use of monogatari, and his affiliation with outsiders from other cultures, primarily the “souths” of the US, Korea, and Asia. The book joins Nina Cornyetz’s Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers (1999) and Eve Zimmerman’s Out of the Alleyway: Nakagami Kenji and the Poetics of Outcaste Fiction (CH, Aug’08, 45-6601). The only shortcoming of this otherwise innovative study is the lack of a bibliography (the book does include bibliographical references). Summing Up: Highly recommended. Graduate students, researchers, and faculty. — R. L. Copeland, Washington University