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July 2, 2005

In Praise of Shadows

(Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933)

"One need only compare American, French, and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and coloration in motion pictures. In the photographic image itself, to say nothing of the acting and the script, there somehow emerges differences in national character. If this is true even when identical equipment, chemicals, and film are used, how much better our own photographic technology might have been suited to our complexion, our facial features, our climate, our land. And had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage."

The preceding passage from Junichiro Tanizaki's unstructured essay In Praise of Shadows presents an interesting frameworkpraise_shadows.gif for the causality and evolution of indigenous culture. On the one hand, there is clearly an isolationist tone to his argument (although it should be noted that this was not an uncommon sentiment in 1930s Japan): one that proposes that a nation, left to its own devices, would have inevitably developed analogous technologies that similarly solve the presented problems of modern civilization, but more importantly, would do so in a manner in keeping with the aesthetics and philosophy of that culture. On the other hand, Tanizaki also raises a provocative question on how the assimilation of "borrowed" technology, in itself, is not only a subconscious act of cultural dilution, but also prescribes a certain integral, non-native conformity in its implementation and usage. In other words, people learn to adapt to a technology in which the parameters and specifications are externally defined by dissimilar societies, and as a result, those characteristics that fall outside the limitations of the technology are suppressed, while those that complement - or at least work within - its limitations are cultivated and preserved.

In another passage on the Japanese adoption of the fountain pen over a modern adaptation of the traditional, Oriental writing brush, Tanizaki ruminates on the idea of altering the course of national literature as an extrapolated consequence of changing the method of writing. In essence, by changing the mere act - and therefore, the ritual - of the manner of writing, the substance and content of the writing - and in turn, the indigenous culture that has produced it - also becomes irreparably altered.

Characterizing the Japanese aesthetic as an overall penchant for impureness, irregularity, agedness, and asymmetry, Tanizaki describes traditional Japanese architecture as a culmination of these factors, integrating natural materials as a means of diffusing (and regulating) natural light (such as those from paper lanterns) and creating spatial design based on the structural casting of shadows. According to Tanizaki, minimal decoration is not, in itself, the aesthetic but the integrated design to avoid detraction and fragmentation of continuous shadows cast on blank walls.

The essay introduces an intriguing perspective with respect to the evolution of Japanese film. Setting aside issues of distribution, availability, and even prewar and postwar censorship, has the mere fact that film is a Western invention already filtered and transformed the "natural" evolution of the Japanese film? What would Japanese film look like had the technology and artform developed independently? In particular, is it more appropriate to describe Yasujiro Ozu, often described as "the most Japanese of filmmakers", as instead perhaps the most adept at subverting the Western medium in order to retain the most indigenous aspects of the culture? In this case, how would Tanizaki reconcile the implicit "technological distillation" of Ozu's films with the philosophical validation inherent within them? Does not the articulation of loss, inevitable change, and cultural transformation conversely validate each other's sentiments?

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005