Under Foreign Eyes, James King

Jan 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

geishaThe Other

This book (Under Foreign Eyes, James King) is about the perception of Japan in the sixty films set there by gaijin (foreigners) — outsiders who almost always do not speak or read Japanese. My area of interest is centered on films depicting post World War II Japan and the Japanese, and, in many cases, films showing how foreigners in the same time frame respond to Japan. Why have a substantial number of films been set there by strangers? As a body of work, what do they tell us about contemporary Japan and about cinema? These films certainly provide a new cultural history of the West’s reaction to Japan, but, even more, they are constructions that demonstrate how the West gazes at Japan. As such, more information can often be derived about the onlookers as on those looked-upon.

As a form of mass media, films influence the ways in which a culture is seen, and, generally speaking, in these films the exotic of Japan is characterized as something that has not only the potential to be liberating (in the sense that it is has values different from the West) but also as an entity lacking safe, Occidental values. From the outset, this issue becomes an often double-edged sword wherein Japan is both valorized and castigated.

Furthermore, most of the films under consideration seek to create a version of a “true” Japan that they will attempt to portray realistically. The storytelling may be of various kinds, but all the films repeatedly tell of Japan from the perspective of outsiders: what it is, what it should be, and what it is capable of being.

My basic approach has been to create a comprehensive, interpretive history for the general reader, arranged generically, of the constructions of postwar Japan in foreign-made films (mainly by American and European directors). In the first instance, my method has been to analyze the films themselves by providing close readings incorporating clear plot summaries. Since just over sixty films are involved, I have not given equal weight to each. Rather, I have tended to emphasize those that require detailed treatment because they raise significant artistic and cultural issues.1 Again, because so many films are treated, I have felt it crucial to provide the reader with a synopsis of the plot trajectory of each because, to do otherwise, might make it difficult for the reader to follow my arguments.

The discussions of individual films arise from the contexts in which each evolved. Since these films have extremely varied ways of loveintokyocoming into being, I have tried to be pragmatic in order to provide the best way into each narrative. Any Orientalist project such as mine has theoretical implications, and mine venture in the direction of postcolonial in that I emphasize the fact that the filmmakers—no matter what their personal or political convictions—tend to objectivity Japanese experience in order to speak of its differences from their own. (I sometimes mention other kinds of critical approaches in this book, but I do not offer a specific, theorized reading of these film texts because they contain far-ranging, often-contradictory views of Japan.)

Specifically, I define postcolonial to refer to that area of academic discourse that focuses on the fact that so-called advanced Western (technologically superior) nations, cultures or races have for three centuries colonized and exploited weaker nations, cultures or races in order to extract natural resources or other advantages from the resulting relationships. For example, countries such as England, France, and Germany took over large portions of land in Africa and the Americas to benefit themselves economically. In the case of Japan, the situation is more complicated because up until 1853 the Tokugawa regime had been successful in closing the country off from the world. With the arrival of Matthew Perry and his black ships, Japan was forced by the United States to become part of the community of nations. The Meiji restoration followed and so did the Westernization of Japan.2

In postcolonial terms, Japan is a form of the Other, the exploited.3 In Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes which envision all “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to “Western” societies. This “a priori” knowledge establishes the Oriental as antithetical to the Occidental. Said’s conjectures are best applied to the Middle East, but they can also be useful in studying Japan, which has been seen as both gloriously different and treacherously different from the West.

Orientalism began in the West as the collecting of objects—mainly ceramics and furniture—from Egypt, Arabia, India and the Far East. This accumulating of objects fetishized the East by assigning a mysterious quality to those things. In one sense, they were glorious artifacts, the ownership of which ennobled both the collector and the collected. Of course, this almost always means that a great distance is maintained between the East and the West, a distance that ultimately allows the adult West to condescend to the beautiful but ultimately childlike East.

cafélumiereThe Other is also often figured as feminine. This is because colonial regimes often see themselves as masculine entities coercing reluctant females into submission. This point of view reflects how male, hegemonic power looks upon women in society, and a correlation has been developed in postcolonial studies between women and subjugated states.4 In the male eyes of the West, Japan is often gazed upon as female.

Japan retains a unique place in the Occidental consciousness because it was the Asian country that most influenced the course of art in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and subsequently became fetishized in the West as a civilized, advanced society.6 Then, beginning especially in the Thirties, Japan was seen as a rogue nation that had bitten the hand that had nourished it.7

In the imagination of the West, Japan has been perceived as a different kind of Other than, say, Barbados, a British colony, but this status nevertheless means that it is in a subordinate position to a more powerful entity: it is condescended to, seen as someway inferior, and, in general, conceived of as subordinate. This subordination means that Japan remains the Other and is perceived as a satellite, a moon to the West’s sun.

Japan’s special Other status makes it unique, and leads filmmakers from the West to gaze upon it differently than they do, for instance, China. In the case of Japan, modernization led to a rejection by nativists of this status and the desire to be a nation that looked upon rather than being looked at.

Thus, many Western intellectuals and artists classified Japan as a place of Enlightenment; during and well after the Pacific War, the grudgeJapanese were stereotyped as barbarians. However, some forms of pigeonholing can provide useful tools in demarcating what is Occidental from what is Oriental or Japanese. (In saying this, I am also aware that the concept of the West is a huge term with all kinds of possible meanings; in this book, I employ the word to refer to American and European attitudes towards Japan.) Ultimately, works of art create their own distinct realities, and this is certainly the case in the Western interpretations of Japan studied in this book.

These films sometimes emphasize variants in customs (the Japanese addiction to politeness; the removal of footwear when entering a home; the fact that kissing in Japan is only erotic and never social; the prevalence of bowing; the veneration of experience and, sometimes, age and position; the valorization of community over self), but they almost always treat these customsas differences, not as sources for comedy, sarcasm or contempt. Paul Schrader put it this way: “Japan is a very codified little moral universe with very strict rules which govern all forms of behavior and decorum.”5 That is not to say that the West does not suffer from pernickety rules—the rules are merely different. Most filmmakers studied here attempt in various ways to go beyond the superficial in order to contemplate significant issues of discrepancy and, thus, no overriding reading can be assigned as to how cinematic foreign eyes re-imagine and reinvent Japan.

In this book, I show how Western filmmakers adapted this distinct Otherness of Japan. Moreover, I attempt to contextualize accurately the films under consideration so that their individual and varying treatments of Japan are brought to the fore. What, I am asking in each instance, is being claimed about this Other? (In this book, two non-Western films about Japan are included: Pramrod Chakravorty’s Love in Tokyo (1966) and Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Café Lumière (2003). Although Takashi Shimuzu directedThe Grudge (2004), I include it in this book because it is an American-produced film using American actors.)

letersiwoThis introductory chapter focuses on Japan as a locale that exerted an enormous, benign influence on the West and, during the Meiji reign, attempted to become the paradigm of an advanced, Western state. So successful was this transformation that Japan became a colonial nation that pursued China and Russia for disputed territory; later, it challenged the United States and its allies for domination in the Far East; after Japan lost that war, the United States, during the Occupation, attempted to make it once more a model Western state.

In many ways, then, Japan was seen to be a simulacrum of Western ideals and values and yet one that attempted to resist such influences. For the West, Japan became a Prodigal Son. The West desired conformity; the Japanese rebelled. That opposition of values is paramount. However, a filmmaker must take a position on this issue when he or she makes a film about Japan, and it is those shifting points of view that I have sought to elucidate in the films studied in this book. Although it may be futile to make any general statement about how Western filmmakers have situated Japan, it is certainly possible to see how a number of such filmmakers have imagined—or attempted to encapsulate—the entity of Japan.

In reading the various films, I have attempted to provide as much relevant information as possible on its accuracy or inaccuracy in displaying Japan. That is, I attempt to look at the appropriate surviving evidence to see how convincing or true a film is to historical evidence.

I use Japanese films in the first seven chapters mainly as a contrast to the “foreign” movies that are my real subject matter. Thus, the Japanese films have been employed as intertexts; they have been selected to show how Japanese directors treat or handle a subject under discussion in a given chapter; the contrast between how Japanese directors treat topics differently from their Western colleagues often throws into high relief how foreigners see and imagine Japan. The Japanese films are used, therefore, solely as guides or signposts. This approach has been abandoned in Chapters Eight and Nine because Japan in the films discussed there is now seen as part of a worldwide global village, an active participant in globalization. This phenomenon means that Japan (and some other nations) once perceived as the Other have seen their underdog status revised and sometimes eliminated. In any event, the introduction of Japanese films as intertexts does not serve a useful purpose in these two chapters.8


underforeigncoverUnder Foreign Eyes, James King

ISBN: 978-1-78099-048-4, $26.95 / £15.99, paperback, 350pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-049-1, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

This book is about the perception of Japan in the sixty films set there by gaijin (foreigners) —outsiders who almost always do not speak or read Japanese.  This book discusses films depicting post World War II Japan and the Japanese, and, in many cases, films showing how foreigners in the same time frame respond to Japan. Why have a substantial number of films been set there by strangers? As a body of work, what do they tell us about contemporary Japan and about cinema? These films certainly provide a new cultural history of the West and its reaction to Japan, but, even more, they are constructions that demonstrate how the West gazes at Japan. As such, more information can often be derived about the onlookers as on those looked-upon.

JAMES KING - B.A., The University of Toronto - M.A., Ph.D., Princeton

POSITION: Distinguished University Professor, Faculty of Humanities, McMaster University

DISTINCTIONS include: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow; Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada

BOOKS INCLUDE: NON-FICTION: The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ed with Charles Ryskamp, 5 vols. Oxford University Press, 1979-1986; William Cowper: A Biography, Duke University Press, 1986; Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987); The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990); Virginia Woolf: A Biography (Hamish Hamilton in London and Norton in USA, 1994); Margaret Laurence: A Biography (Knopf Canada, 1997); Jack, A Life with Writers (Knopf Canada, 1999), Farley Mowat (HarperCollins, 2003); Japanese Warrior Prints, with Yuriko Iwakiri (Hotei, 2007); Beyond the Great Wave: The Japanese Landscape Print (Lang, 2010). FICTION: Five published novels including Pure Inventions (Cormorant: 2007), which is partially set in Edo.

The biographies of Margaret Laurence and Farley Mowat were national bestsellers in Canada. The life of Virginia Woolf (Norton edition) was chosen as one of the best books of 1995 by Publishers Weekly.



 Category: Film & Video:


See also: Post Cinematic Effect, Laconia

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