This paper examines essayistic practices by female filmmakers in 1990s Japan as a locus for the formation of a corporeal mode of thinking or philosophy of “feelings.” Recent scholarship on the essayistic mode of film often frames it as a “thinking cinema,” “cinema as thought,” or “filmed philosophy,” emphasizing its engagement in a self-theorizing register emerging from the active presence of its creator, and the corresponding possibility for critical reflection on the nature of the text within the text itself.
Building on this conception of the essay film, this paper aims to redraw the delineation between the mode of “thinking” and “feeling” by examining how women’s participation in the essayistic mode foregrounds corporeality, more specifically, not only thinking but also feeling on these filmmakers’ gendered and sexuated experiences and their embodiment. Specific attention will be paid to Kayo Takefuji’s autobiographical essay film, Bone and Flesh Cognition (Kotsuniku-shikō, 1997) that revolves around the filmmaker’s reflections on her pregnancy and childbirth. Through the representation of the embodied maternal experiences, the film tactically seeks alternative forms of “filmed philosophy” that blur the boundary between an intellectual process of existential questioning and affective narration of feeling. By incorporating knowledge of feminist cultural studies of emotion and affect theorized by scholars such as Sara Ahmed, this paper hopes to clarify the strategy of female filmmakers intervening in the masculine sphere of independent documentary filmmaking in 1990s Japan. By doing so, this paper argues that the feminist intervention represented by Takefuji’s works is characterized by depictions and exploration of embodied subjectivities in the private realms of affectivity and desire.
Wakae Nakane is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her research focuses on the essay film and Japanese feminist documentary, developing questions around feminist historiography and promoting previously marginalized woman filmmakers. She has been an active participant in Japan’s independent film scene, working at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Her publications include Constructing an Intimate Sphere Through Her Own Female Body: Naomi Kawase’s Documentary Films in Female Authorship and the Documentary Image (2018).
This paper explores Japanese documentary filmmaker Haneda Sumiko’s documentary practice with reference to her debut Women’s Study Group in the Village (1957), a film intended for visualizing Japan’s post-war democratization. Three points of Haneda’s filmmaking is of particular importance to my analysis. First, Haneda’s career at Iwanami Production—a major provider of postwar educational films and PR films—provides a key vantage point to examine the tension between agency and institution, and between individual subjectivity and public sphere. Second, as one of the few female documentarists in Japan, Haneda’s experience in the industry not only informs her cinematic practice about women but also sets up an interface through which she and her subjects co-shape each other through alienated, gendered labor in front of and behind the camera. Third, Haneda’s search for a kind of subjective realism, achieved by observation, becoming familiar with her subjects, improvisation, and an exploration of the psychological dimensions of their quotidian life, simultaneously recalls and problematizes “life composition” (seikatsu tsuzurikata), a democratic educational model practiced in Japan.
I argue that Haneda’s film, despite its original agenda, paradoxically reminds us of the limitation of post-war democratization because women cannot yet be collapsed into the happy narrative of the rebirth of the nation. Moreover, I trace the changes Haneda’s film brought to the local community and the life-long relationship she formed with her subjects via her revisits to the village and repeated screenings of the film, I highlight the process of what I call inter-becoming—the democratization of the village, and a new, yet not fully articulated realization about Haneda’s own subjectivity. To film historians, I conclude, the study of Haneda’s film raises interesting avenues to interrogate not only the film but also democratization itself as an always unfinished process rather than as a closed project.
Xinyi Zhao is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University with a focus on Japanese cinema and literature. Her dissertation traces the emergence of film spectatorship in colonial Manchuria under the rubric of visuality, gender, and colonial modernity. Her recent work on the first Japanese female director, Sakane Tazuko, will appear in The Routledge Companion to Queer Theory and Modernism.
Composed of short vignettes in different techniques and materialities, Untitled Sequence of Gaps uses the form of an essay film to approach trauma-related memory loss via reflections on light outside the visible spectrum – on what is felt but never seen. By centering the gaps in between the images, the film acknowledges the limits of the documentary image as evidence, and instead considers violence and its workings, class and queerness through their opacities.
Deploying thermal imaging technology, but also discussing other electromagnetic radiation and the processes with which the invisible is translated into the visible realm, the essay film’s underlying questions are: Within documentary practices, how can one address imageless forms of violence that are structural and systemic? And: how can one approach ‘invisible’ violence that contradicts the paradigm of visuality as well as the politics of visibility?
The self-centering Western subjectivity presumes that violence is something that can be seen, at the very least through images of its effects. Yet the truth may be: depending on where we stand we may not be able to see all violence, and just because it cannot be seen from where we stand doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
Vika Kirchenbauer is an artist, filmmaker, writer and music producer based in Berlin. In her work she examines violence as it attaches to different forms of visibility and invisibility.
Recently, the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, has presented a comprehensive solo exhibition of her practice. Her work has also been exhibited in group shows and screenings at, among others, the Tainan Art Museum, Taiwan; the Whitechapel Gallery, London; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin; the Berlin International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival.