Archive for the ‘Cinematography Blog’ tag
The history of Japanese cinema and photography is, as in most cultural contexts, deeply interconnected and related. In the post-war period a number of important films make direct or indirect reference to photographic movements. For instance, the existential meditation on sand and desire in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s classic Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1964) is strongly reminiscent of the surrealist photographs taken in the Tottori sand dunes by Shoji Ueda in the 1950s; Woman in the Dunes would be filmed in the Tottori sand dunes, not far from Ueda’s childhood home, as the location was the perfect backdrop for Teshigahara’s study of man’s confrontation with the elements.
Similarly, the fast camera movements and improvised cinematography in Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no sôretsu, 1969) appear to be linked to the photographic style ‘are, bure, boke’ (rough, blurry, out-of-focus) that was popular among photographers such as Daido Moriyama in the late 1960s. Moriyama himself worked as a stills photographer on the set for Funeral Parade of Roses and a number of his subsequent photographs reference Matsumoto’s eclectic cinematic style (I have written about this elsewhere). From the many occasions throughout modern Japanese history in which a relationship between cinema and photography can be established, this essay will focus on more recent films which, like Woman in the Dunes and Funeral Parade of Roses before them, make distinct references to photographic trends.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) depicts the lives of four children abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment, with Kore-eda’s employing dreamlike cinematography to underline the highly-subjective experience of childhood trauma. Long segments are shot at close-up range, with a macro lens and wide open aperture, creating a narrow depth of field. The result of this technique is that the camera focuses only on a small part within the frame while the rest falls out of focus. The effect is comparable to the visual experience of focusing on an object closely held in front of the eyes. Similar to the tatami perspective employed by Yasujiro Ozu, Nobody Knows is consistently filmed from a low vantage point mirroring the height of the abandoned child coping with alienation. Kore-eda’s highly subjective cinematography functions as a visual allegory for the plot itself: the world is represented from the perspective of a child focusing on small details which, in sum, creates a rich variety of visual layering and textures throughout the film.
The cinematic technique of tight framing and selective focusing appears to be borrowed from the photographer Rinko Kawauchi, who also worked on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer. Born in 1972 and initially operating as a commercial photographer, Kawauchi’s emergence as art photographer began in 2001 when she published, in parallel, three celebrated photography books, Utatane, Hanabi and Hanako . In all these works, Kawauchi employs a highly imaginative viewpoint to scenes of the everyday. Photographing in square format, Kawauchi’s vision turns seemingly insignificant details into visually appealing and abstract observations: a dead wasp lies on a windowsill, a half-eaten watermelon rests on a plate, and a spoonful of salmon roe is photographed from a low vantage point. Part of the attraction of Kawauchi’s work is that she photographs subjects that might otherwise be overlooked.
It is precisely this focus on mostly ignored details that has also been employed in Nobody Knows: the camera focuses in tightly on the children playing on a miniature piano, painting their nails with varnish, or nurturing plants that are growing on the balcony of the apartment. The visual similarities of selective focus and tight framing in Kawauchi’s photography and Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows fulfil the function of fragmenting the environment into neatly divided narratives. In both cases, an emphasis is placed on experiences of the everyday: while Kawauchi focuses on representations of the natural world, Kore-eda focuses on the children growing older in the course of the movie. Photography and film act as technological devices to arrest an unstoppable process dictated by nature. Although it might appear that Kawauchi and Kore-eda work in the tradition of documentary practices, it can be argued that their representations of the everyday are more closely situated within a desire to create visual abstractions of an easily overlooked and subjective experience. The optical characteristics of the camera are consciously utilized to further underline a narrative that thrives on subtleties and quiet observation.
Another photographer whose work greatly impacted cinematic conventions is Mika Ninagawa. Born in 1972, Ninagawa was at the forefront of a new generation of female photographers, which included Yurie Nagashima and Hiromix, emerging in Japan during the 1990s. For their contributions to photographic discourse, Ninagawa, Nagashima and Hiromix received the Kimura Ihee award – Japan’s most prestigious photography award in 2000. To an extent, the combined impact of the so-called ‘girl photographers’ paved the way for female photographers such as Kawauchi herself. After publishing numerous celebrated photography books (the preferred method of photographic dissemination in Japan), Ninagawa directed Sakuran (2007). Based on the manga series by Moyocco Anno, Sakuran tells the story of a young courtesan battling for supremacy in the red light district Yoshiwara. Set in the latter part of the Edo period, Sakuran enters a well established genre of Japanese period dramas and movies concerned with the frivolity and promiscuity of a bygone era. Ninagawa’s take on the Yoshiwara, however, comes with an intriguing even confusing modern twist as historical accuracy is completely sidelined for an eclectic mix of rock music, derogatory language and cultural attributes associated with the Japanese idol system. In other words, Sakuran functions as a pastiche of the Yoshiwara.
Like Ninagawa’s photographs, Sakuran is filmed in rich colours, high contrast, flowery textures and sometimes comical excess. Goldfish are a recurring motif in Sakuran signifying the courtesans’ beauty and colourful appearance while, at the same time, signifying the courtesans’ condition of being trapped in a tightly-controlled environment. Like the goldfish – as Ninagawa explores in her visually rich cinematography – the courtesans are predominantly subjects to be visually consumed. The excessive colour in Sakuran also aids to highlight the flamboyant fashion and character of the main protagonist, Kiyohada. Like Kiyohada’s voice, the colours are ‘loud’. The cinematography thus informs the main plot of the movie based on Kiyohada’s continuous subversity and (sexual) aggression. The high contrast signifies, literally, Kiyohada standing out from everyone else in the Yoshiwara.
Often seen in the context of fashion or celebrity photography, Ninagawa’s photographic work does not initially attract a conceptually dense interpretation: the viewer’s experience appears to be based on looking at a subject deemed beautiful, cute, exotic and colourful. The conceptual void left by a lack of narrative in Ninagawa’s photographs is filled in Sakuran, which, seen alongside her photographs, lifts her body of work as a whole. Rather than giving into the codes of beauty, extreme colour and high contrast become signifiers for the subversion a dominant culture. In that sense, Sakuran is far more a reflection of modern life than it is a representation of the Yoshiwara. In this context, it is important to mention that the main protagonist is played by Anna Tsuchiya, a former model renowned for her controversial behaviour and a so-called hafu – of half- Japanese and half-Caucasian descent. The protagonist’s battle for recognition in Sakuran is thus mirrored in Tsuchiya’s own experience of working as a model/singer/actress endlessly touring various TV shows. Kiyohada’s battle to become a high-class Oiran courtesan is reflected in Tsuchiya’s own experience as idol situated within a patriarchal sign economy. Ninagawa’s exaggerated colours and visually rich cinematography underlines the fact that this sign economy is driven by a curiosity for the young, the exotic, the one that stands out from all the others.
What Nobody Knows and Sakuran have in common is that they employ a very specific visual strategy that supports the narrative of the film. This visual strategy, in both cases, is derived from a strong affinity with the medium of photography. While Nobody Knows openly references Rinko Kawauchi’s photographic methodology of fragmenting the world, Mika Ninagawa uses her own approach of depicting the world in an exaggerated culmination of colour and contrast. The result of this photographic approach is that in both cases the optical characteristics of the camera support the narrative of the film as a whole. The examples also point to the fact that film and photography, as being such related mediums, are best viewed not as distinctly autonomous creative economies but, rather, that they constitute regimes of representation that continuously feed off each other and create new spaces for exploration.
How to represent trauma? This appears to be the overriding question in the movie Nobody Knows, or Daremo Shiranai, by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Nobody Knows depicts the lives of four children who were left abandoned by their mother. The oldest child is the 12-year old boy Akira who is given the task of looking after his younger siblings. Used to the frequent absence of their mother, the beginning of the movie shows the children coping well with daily tasks of running the household.
However, as the absence of the mother turns into weeks and months, the movie also depicts that the life of the abandoned children is in a state of transition. The movie effectively represents the passing of time by focusing on small and detailed observations. In one scene, the eldest daughter holds up her hand to look at the nail polish her mom applied before she left. The same hand can be seen later when all but a tiny segment of the nail polish is visible. In other words, the vanishing of nail polish signifies the mother’s abondement of her children, but also, it signifies the child giving up hope that she will return. The nail polish reappears later in the film, when the mother returns one last time to pack her belongings. Instead of applying the bright red polish to her nails, the daughter paints her hand to make it look as if she is injured. Here, the polish signifies blood and the pain of alienation.
Filmed over the course of one year, the 2 hour 20 minute movie depicts the children not only growing older with regard to narrative of the movie, but also, growing older in a bodily sense. Thus, Nobody Knows not only focuses on the psychological, but also the physical transformation of the child. This transformation is most apparent in Akira, played by Yuya Yagira, who, in the process of the movie, turns from a boy into a young man. For depicting this transformation so realistically, Yagira won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2004. In the movie, his hair is getting longer, he adopts a defiant teenager attitude, but also, he is getting physically bigger and his voice is breaking up. The representation of time in Nobody Knows has the eery effect that the movie appears to be like a documentary film, depicting the lives of real children in their struggle to survive.
The filmmakers have adapted various cinematographic techniques to represent life from the subjective position of the child. The height of the camera rarely exceeds more than one meter, which, in the history of Japanese cinema and visual culture refers to Yasujiro Ozu’s signature tatami perspective. In Nobody Knows, the low height of the camera is used to stress the subjective vision of a child. Similarly, by using a long lens with a wide open aperture, the narrow depth of field emphasis an almost dreamlike perception of everyday minutiae.
In above example, the cinematography of Nobody Knows appears to borrow from the work of the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Not only did Kawauchi work on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer, but her photographic methodology of focusing on detailed observations from a child’s perspective appears to be the visual strategy applied in the film itself. In psychoanalytical terms, this photographically fragmented view of the world also refers to a psychologically fragmented memory of childhood. In other words, the photographic technique of tight framing and soft focus underlines the very process of remembering childhood.
As the director Hirokazu Kore-eda points out at the beginning of the movie, the plot is loosely based on a real life event that took place in 1988. The ‘affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo’, was, in reality, far more horrific than it is depicted in the movie. While in 1988, the youngest child was brutally beaten and eventually killed by two friends of the oldest son, in the movie the youngest child tragically dies in an accident. A fifth child, never referred to in the movie, died shortly after birth and was wrapped in blankets and stored in the flat by the mother. While the cinematographic techniques of soft-focus and close-ups evoke a romanticized version of childhood, the actual trauma inflicted and experienced by the children of Sugamo is completely sidelined in the movie.
In psychoanalysis, trauma is not necessarily referring to a horrific event, but rather, it describes the subject’s failure to place an experience in the symbolic realm. In his Seminar I, Jacques Lacan describes trauma as following:
“Trauma, insofar as it has a repressing action, intervenes after the fact (apres coup, nachtraglich). At this specific moment, something of the subject becomes detached from the symbolic world that he is engaged in integrating. From then on, it will no longer be something belonging to the subject. The subject will no longer speak of it, will no longer integrate it. Nevertheless, it will remain there, somewhere, spoken, if one can put it this way, by something the subject does not control.”
Trauma is therefore characterized by not being able to articulate, nor being able to represent the experience retroactively. The complete disavowal of any physical or psychological violence in Nobody Knows is therefore a conscious act of recognizing that trauma is unrepresentable. Hirokazu Kore-eda thus comments on a deeply felt human fear: the dread of loss of the mother is commonly thought of as the very first trauma experienced by the subject. This unrepresentability of trauma is even recognized in the very title of the movie: because trauma cannot be situated into the symbolic realm, ‘nobody knows’ about the actual experience of the child.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.