The ‘Seer’ in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962)

by Matthew Airey

In the summer of 1960 Italy hosted the Olympic Games. For many Italians, the Games marked the highpoint of Italy’s post-war programme of regeneration, which was set in motion following the defeat of fascism by the Allies in the mid-1940s. The Games showed the world at large that Italy had forsaken its fascist past to emerge as an economic powerhouse in Europe. As the Games showed, the years of the ‘economic miracle’ in Italy had been a success, bringing hope and prosperity to an invigorated middle class. In cinema, meanwhile, the gritty neorealism of Rossellini and De Sica gave way to a sense of ‘the good life’ and the glamourous world of Fellini’s Rome. Yet for some the post-war ‘economic miracle’ came at a cost. The new order that emerged in the post-war years brought about urban alienation and isolation. The post-war Italian cityscape became an unfamiliar site of industry and intensive capitalism.

In this context of modernisation and its consequences, Michelangelo Antonioni made four films that explored the condition of the alienated self in post-war Italy; L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La notte (The Night, 1961), L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964). Due to their concern with alienation, Chatman (1985), Nowell-Smith (1997), Gandy (2003) and Williams (2008) assess the four films as constituent parts of a tetralogy. In L’eclisse, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) separates from her fiancé Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), a middle-aged intellectual, and later takes up with the brisk young stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon). Between two relationships, Vittoria is an alienated self wandering the streets of post-war Rome.

Positive Alienation

Breaking from typical investigations that view Antonioni as the gloomy chronicler of a post- war ennui, this piece seeks to link alienation to new sensory experiences. As Moore (1995: 22) reminds us, ‘talk of alienation in Antonioni’s cinema is more often than not negative’. Extending this line of enquiry to consider new ways of ‘seeing’, I shall argue that Antonioni presents a ‘new optical drama’, which comes about through the condition of alienation from the modern world.

For this discussion of L’eclisse, the basic understanding of alienation is taken from Kevin Moore (1995). Moore (1995: 22), writing about the ‘logic’ of alienation in the films of Antonioni, argues that ‘alienation arises when the self becomes disenchanted with the world and retreats into itself, oftentimes to reflect upon its relations with the world and its relationship with others’. This disenchantment with the world is often motivated by modernisation, which, through its concomitant process of urbanisation, makes spaces, for some individuals, unfamiliar and uninhabitable (Moore 1995).

However, Moore (1995: 23) understands that alienation can be experienced in both a positive and a negative sense. That is to say that alienation from the world is not an end in itself. Retreating from an uninhabitable world is the first stage ‘of a process which, ideally, re-places the self back into a world of its own devising’ (Moore 1995: 23). Through alienation the individual rejects the ‘commonplace’ to discover what for Moore is the ‘novel experience’ and new emotional state, or what to my mind is a new sensory perception.

I would suggest that Antonioni presents us with an image of the estranged modern individual, a feature typical of the modernist cinema of the 1960s (Kovacs 2007: 66). Often residing in a city, through which he or she wanders aimlessly, this individual belongs to the upper- or lower- middle classes and is free from material concerns and able to think about life (Kovacs 2007: 69). Above all, this estranged person has lost all essential contact to others and to the world (Kovacs 2007: 66). It is such an individual who appears across Antonioni’s tetralogy—Claudia (Monica Vitti) in L’avventura, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) in La Notte, Vittoria in L’eclisse and Giuliana (Monica Vitti) in Red Desert.

However, following Moore (1995), I contend that this individual is engaged in a process. In the example of L’eclisse one does not find the individual completely estranged from society, forever alienated, perennially doomed to a state of wandering. The film is not so much about alienation as it is about purposeful searching and discovering. Alienation is a transitory stage through which one passes in search of the novel experience. In Antonioni’s L’eclisse, alienation is a positive condition, through which Vittoria discovers new ways of seeing in the modern world.

Deleuze’s ‘Cinema of the Seer’

With his notion of the time-image, Gilles Deleuze (2013 [1985]) provides us with an interpretative stance on the way in which alienation motivates change. In presenting the post-war crisis of alienation, Antonioni presents what Deleuze terms the ‘cinema of the seer’, replacing ‘traditional drama’ with a new kind of ‘optical drama’, in which the alienated self wanders around spaces, unable to absorb those spaces in which she finds herself. Yet finding herself in this state, she is propelled toward thought, which in turn takes her to a new sensory experience. With the post-war crisis of alienation comes the discovery of the new.

After the Second World War the sensory-motor schema that underpinned the movement- image—or ‘traditional drama’—slackened. From 1945 cinema was in the realm of the time- image, and to Deleuze, the genesis of the time-image can be found in the films of the Italian neorealist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. What emerges in neorealist films such as Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) to replace the disintegrating sensory-motor schema is the pure optical situation (Deleuze 2013: 3). The preoccupation of the neorealist films is not with acting but with seeing. In terms similar to Deleuze, Wagstaff (2000: 40–41) argues that the function in Italian neorealist films becomes one of enquiry. Space does not exist as it did in the movement-image for action. It is there to be explored. Perception is now no longer extended to action but put into contact with thought (Deleuze 2013: 1–2).

This results in a ‘cinema of the seer’, a pure optical situation in which the individual gazes at the environment but is unable to act within that environment. The individual is now located in a post-war any-space-whatever. As Niessen (2012: 131) points out, the any-space- whatever and its emergence are not ahistorical. Deleuze (2013) explains the significance of the Second World War in giving rise to the cinema of the seer:

Why is the Second World War taken as a break? The fact is that, in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to react to, in spaces which we no longer know how to describe. These were ‘any spaces whatever’, deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction. And in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers. (Deleuze 2013: x, trans. Tomlinson and Galeta)

One could characterise this ‘seer’ that populates the post-war any-space-whatever as the alienated self described by Moore (1995). This is the individual who cannot comprehend the new post-war environment. Devoid of its pre-war structures, the any-space-whatever is the unfamiliar and uninhabitable post-war cityscape. The ‘seer’ is alienated from this space, at best wandering through it aimlessly and at worst retreating from it entirely.

To Deleuze, Antonioni inherits this concern with ‘seeing’ from the neorealist movement (2013: 4). ‘Any-space-whatever’ and the accompanying ‘seer’ are also to be found, in Deleuze’s view, in the films of Antonioni. However, I would argue that the relationship between landscape and character in an Antonioni film is different from the relationship between landscape and character in the films of the neorealist movement. As Williams (2008: 50) points out, landscape is used in the neorealist films in neo-Marxian terms as the site for collective social and political struggle. In an Antonioni film, on the other hand, landscape is the site on which the individual’s existential crisis is played out (Williams 2008: 50).

Still, one should not overstate the connection between the individual and the landscape in Antonioni’s films or claim, as Chatman (1985: 90) does, that the landscape ‘reflects’ the individual’s state of mind. Chatman (1985: 90) argues that Antonioni used the technique of ‘setting-as-state-of-soul’. Yet the landscape is not simply the projection of the character’s inner state. On the contrary, Antonioni’s landscapes ‘create a contrast between beauty and liveliness in the material world and the depressed or even neurotic psychic states of mind of the characters’ (Kovacs 2007: 152, emphasis mine). It is the discrepancy between the character’s depressed inner world and the lively outer world that conveys the sense of alienation.


Characters in Antonioni’s films see rather than act. They are, as Perez (1991) argues, witnesses, looking at the unfamiliar space around them. This dynamic between the alienated self and the post-war any-space-whatever is most fully at work in the opening scene of L’eclisse, when Vittoria informs Riccardo that she wishes to end their relationship. The film opens in a sitting room in a bourgeois apartment in Rome’s EUR district, which was built by the fascist wartime government to house Rome’s middle class and which was redeveloped in the late 1950s for the Olympics of 1960.

The opening shot shows a lamp and a row of books. The camera pans to the left to reveal an inert Riccardo. His eyes heavy from his demanding work as a writer, Riccardo looks off- camera. Antonioni’s next shot shows Vittoria’s back. A morose expression on her face, Vittoria turns and moves into the foreground of the shot. She picks up an object on the table before her. Antonioni cuts to a mid-shot of the table, on which a picture frame, an ashtray and a sculpture are placed. Vittoria’s tapered hand then moves into the shot and starts to rearrange the objects, placing them inside and outside the frame. This rearranging of objects becomes an interesting activity to an otherwise listless Vittoria. Antonioni cuts to a mid-shot of Vittoria’s face. She is engaged, moving objects around as she pleases.

In this opening sequence she is a ‘seer’ in her own home. The familiar domestic space of the apartment becomes, for Vittoria, a place of isolation. At first she does not recognise the domestic space and therefore explores it. Ordinary household items—a picture frame, an ashtray and a sculpture—in this instance provoke thought. The action she performs, that is, the placing of objects, is seemingly meaningless and does not logically move her on to a new situation. Sitting inertly in the corner of the room, Riccardo looks on as Vittoria explores the space. The sequence goes on for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds without dialogue. Vittoria and Riccardo quietly examine each other as well as their environment.

Still, one must consider the positive qualities of this time-image film. At first Vittoria is alienated: she is estranged from the apartment, which should be a familiar domestic space, and she can only observe the actions performed by males within the city. She is the quintessential seer in the post-war any-space-whatever. Yet Vittoria’s wandering is linked to discovering. Commenting on Deleuze’s notion of the time-image cinema, Rushton (2012) makes the following point:

They [the situations in the time-image film] are problems which lead characters to being frozen, confused, disappointed, fractured and alienated, but also to their being reborn, rejuvenated and strengthened. (Rushton 2012: 60, emphasis mine)

In other words one must understand that Vittoria’s wandering through home and city is part of a process, the first stage of a process. Ultimately,

Antonioni does not criticize the modern world, in whose possibilities he profoundly ‘believes’: he criticizes the coexistence in the world of a modern brain and a tired, worn-out, neurotic body. (Deleuze 2013: 211)

According to Deleuze, in Antonioni’s films, the modern brain can no longer coexist with the worn-out body. The modern brain has capabilities and inclines towards new experiences. It is forced to confront difficult situations in the time-image film, placed in a post-war any- space-whatever. Yet in that crisis it is propelled towards thought. It can think anew and transform situations. At the same time it is attached to a worn-out body that anchors itself to the commonplace world.

As a ‘seer’, operating through the pure optical situation, Vittoria sees a different type of image. As Moore (1995) notes, when she plunges her hand into the picture frame and rearranges the geometric shapes, Vittoria shows that the ‘aesthetic’ is not fixed so much as open to choice and human determination. As Deleuze (2013: 21) points out, when one’s sensory-motor schema ‘jams’ or ‘breaks’, which is the fate of the ‘seer’, a different type of image can appear. This image is one without ‘metaphor’, one that brings out the thing in itself. A sensory-motor image of something is, to Deleuze (2013: 20), a ‘cliché’. One does not perceive that something in its entirety. One perceives less of it. It is only through the pure optical image that one can view something in full, free from cliché and association. To Vittoria, reassessing her own surroundings, the objects appear no longer in their commonplace form, liberated from ‘cliché’.


In this piece I have sought to link a modernist, existential alienation to creative possibilities in Antonioni’s 1962 film L’eclisse. To my mind this film presents us with an image of the estranged modern individual. However, identifying the ‘seer’ of Deleuze’s time-image cinema as the alienated self, I have argued that the individual enters into a process that ultimately takes her to a new sensory perception delinked from clichéd forms. It is my hope that by drawing on Deleuze’s philosophy of cinema, this piece contributes in some way to the rethinking of a core theme of 1960s modernist cinema. Alienation was not treated by Antonioni as a negative condition. Alienation was at times a necessary condition if one desired to experience the modern world anew. His understanding was that a retreat from the uninhabitable world could open the way for a new experience and appreciation of that world.


Chatman, Seymour. 1985. Antonioni or, the Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2013 [1985]. Cinema II: the Time-Image. Translated from the French by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

———. 2013 [1983]. Cinema I: the Movement-Image. Translated from the French by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gandy, Matthew. 2003. ‘Landscapes of Deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert”.’ In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series vol.28 no.2 (Summer): 218–237.

Kovacs, Andras Balint. 2007. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, Kevin Z. 1995. ‘Eclipsing the Commonplace: the Logic of Alienation in Antonioni’s Cinema.’ In Film Quarterly vol.48 no.4 (Summer): 22–34.

Niessen, Niels. 2012. ‘Why he Really Doesn’t get her: Deleuze’s Whatever-Space and the Crisis of the Male Quest.’ In Film-Philosophy vol.16 no.1 (Winter): 127–148.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 1997. L’avventura. London: BFI Publishing.
Perez, Gilberto. 1991. ‘The Point of View of a Stranger: an Essay on Antonioni’s “Eclipse”.’ In

The Hudson Review vol.44 no.2 (Summer): 234–262.
Rushton, Richard. 2012. Cinema after Deleuze. London: Continuum.

Wagstaff, Christopher. 2000. ‘Rossellini and Neo-realism.’ In Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real, edited by David Forgacs et al, 36–49. London: British Film Institute.

Williams, James. S. 2008. ‘The Rhythms of Life: an Appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni, Extreme Aesthete of the Real.’ In Film Quarterly vol.62 no.1 (Fall): 46–57.


L’avventura (The Adventure), 1960. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni – Cino del Duca, Produzioni Cinematografiche Europee, Societe Cinematographique Lyre.

L’eclisse (The Eclipse), 1962. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni – Cineriz, Interopa Film and Paris Film.

La notte (The Night), 1961. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni – Nepi Films, Sliver Films and Sofitedip.

Il deserto rosso ( Red Desert), 1964. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni – Film Duemila, Federiz, Francoriz Production.

Umberto D, 1952. Director: Vittorio De Sica – Rizzoli Film, Produzioni De Sica, Amato Film.

Matthew recently completed his MA in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural at SOAS, University of London. His research to date has explored the stylistic and thematic affinities between European modernist cinema and the New Iranian Cinema. His doctoral research will consider the representation of the mother figure in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. After two years at the London Iranian Film Festival, he is an occasional lecturer on the new Film degree at UCS.

Selling anti-heroines: Jenji Kohan’s ‘Weeds’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’

by Jenny Coates

Coming up to one year of Reflexive Horizons, we’re making a few changes; in next year’s writing, we’ll be including television and other screen media in line with our affiliation with the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Centre for Film and Screen Studies. But we’re keeping some things the same too, strengthening our focus on philosophical approaches to screen imagery. I’m attempting to kick us off here with some new material and old theory, thinking about the popular appeal of Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black (2013- ) in light of her previous work on Weeds (2005-2012).

While scholarship on Weeds and Orange is the New Black has tended to focus on the shows’ alternative depictions of gender (Snyder 2014), race (Gillota 2012) and criminalized counter cultures (Lavoie 2011), online media has concerned itself with issues closer to the concerns of this blog, focusing particularly on what makes the shows so watchable. Netflix’s original content format makes this an engaging topic, as all thirteen episode of Orange is the New Black are ‘dumped’ on the site on release date, making it perfectly possible to watch straight through the series, work commitments, internet connection and, crucially, interest permitting.

Many viewers, myself included, did almost exactly that (McNamara 2013; Lyons and Weber 2013). (Is that a wise admission so soon after starting a new job? I watched on weekends. Mostly.) So what makes Orange is the New Black so engaging? From ‘highbrow’ to ‘lowbrow’, print and online media has noted the diversity of female representation on the show, and singled out its treatment of gender and sexuality-related issues for widespread praise. Race and class issues in the show’s two-series narrative have been received with slightly more skepticism, as the melting pot of Weeds, which regularly featured mixed race couples and countered many dominant representations of ethnicity on screen, is replaced by the definitive ethnic segregation of prison life as presented in Piper Kerman’s original memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (2011), on which the show is loosely based.

The recognition factor – can we see a version of ‘ourselves’ onscreen – certainly has

Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) as suburban mother in the first series of 'Weeds'
Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) as suburban mother in the first series of ‘Weeds’

an impact on our appreciation of any given visual text, as does how closely that text chimes with our ideals, values, and our political affiliations, real, imagined or idealized. If we identify as loosely left-leaning humanists (as many hipsterish Netflix viewers do), humanistic representations of minority persons and issues that challenge dominant representative conventions will of course grab our attention. But what keeps us hooked? Miriam Hansen’s work on the intersections of screen media and social change, from which this blog takes its title, argues for cinema in the 1920s and 1930s as ‘the single most inclusive, cultural horizon in which the traumatic effects of modernity were reflected, rejected or disavowed, transmuted or negotiated’ (Hansen 2000: 341-342). The visual media that holds our attention today often does something similar, testing and working out social issues and anxieties on the big or small screen. Like Weeds, Orange is the New Black may represent recognizable realities, but the show also subjects these themes to a series of tests, pushing them one way and then another, before presenting the viewer, not with a resolution, but with greater confusion than there was before. Character arcs pass through sympathetic and beyond into the realms of horror, before curving back into something spookily recognizable. Weeds’ Nancy Botwin developed over the course of eight seasons from a timid suburban mother to a character explicitly recognized by others as borderline psychotic, addicted to danger and sabotage, both of the self and of others. Piper Chapman may have begun Orange is the New Black as another nervous “skinny white lady”, but her journey to the extreme edge of socially acceptable behaviour has been more rapid, ending season one in a violent fury leading to blackout and memory loss.

So how does Kohan maintain our engagement with these characters and those around them who show equally disturbing tendencies? While scholarship and journalism alike have focused on the aspects in which these shows break new ground, online media indicates how Kohan also plays on more familiar affects to keep us hooked. Like many shows with a devoted viewership, Weeds and Orange is the New Black are linked to the world outside the show by the work of journalists and bloggers who connect the viewer to its content as consumers as well as viewers; we can buy the music on the soundtrack or (some of!) the outfits worn by the stars, both on and off-screen. The volume of this media speaks to two aspects of Kohan’s work neglected by academic critique: soundtrack and star persona. In the second part of this article, I’ll consider how soundtrack, star persona and a visual and narrative motif I’ll call banal magic-realism combine to make a highly affective appeal to the viewer.

Breaking our hearts: Kohan’s soundscapes

Both Weeds and Orange is the New Black use music to shape the affective impact of scenes that tread a fine line between comedy, tragedy and horror. Kohan’s music (selected by a variety of people over the long-running shows) is often diegetically- linked even when it is not strictly diegetic; Andrew Bird’s ‘Pulaski at Night’ ,with its refrain of “Chicago, city of light” plays over Piper’s realization that she is being transported to Chicago in the first episode of season two, while Rilo Kiely’s ‘With Arms Outstretched’, playing over the final scenes of the first and last episodes of Weeds, links Nancy’s characterization to themes of struggle, failure, impatience, and her proxy Jewish identity (“Its been sixteen miles/ To the promised land/ And I promise you/ I’m doing the best I can”). Scenes in which characters sing along to diegetic music, such as Lorna Morello’s rendition of ‘Almost Paradise’ along

Celia Hodes, with Martin Creed's 'I Can't Move' on the soundtrack
Celia Hodes, with Martin Creed’s ‘I Can’t Move’ on the soundtrack

with the prison van radio, shade from comic to sinister as we line the lyrics up with events in the narrative. Music can also lull us into a false sense of security; ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ plays over Rosa’s escape, lightening the mood until she runs down Vee brutally and without regret. Online in fan communities, viewers most often write about and seek out the songs that they say ‘broke my heart’, music that expresses the complex feelings of a taciturn character. But there are some pretty hilarious musical moments as well, usually related to the perfect timing of non-diegetic imagery – the pause between the last outrageous events of episode three of season one of Orange is the New Black (‘Lesbian Request Denied’) and the first lines of Boss’ ‘I Don’t Give a Fuck’, or the pained vowels (“aaaaaaah!”) of Martin Creed’s ‘I Can’t Move’ played over Cecilia Hodes’ incontinence in the third episode of season one of Weeds (‘Good Shit Lollipop’).

Star persona as anti-affect

It may seem strange to be arguing for the affective impact of Kohan’s shows as a reason for their popularity given the non-communicative traits both the central protagonists and many other characters share. From Nancy’s weak efforts at verbalizing affection – she tells her bereaved ten year old, “I am very fond of you” (‘Lude Awakening’, season 1 episode 5), to Piper’s tough prison resolve, Kohan’s characters rarely deliberately articulate truthful emotion. Star persona works both for and against this trait; Mary Louise Parker’s highly emotional performances in previous work such as Fried Green Tomatoes (John Avnet, 1991) and Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003) suggest that Nancy’s calm is reigned-in rather than lobotomized, a reading supported by her quickness to anger and knee-jerk violent reactions. Her turn as Amy Gardner in the West Wing (23 episodes, 2001-2006) associated her star persona with quick-witted sarcasm, which Kohan plays on in giving Nancy lines which in other contexts could be read as racist (Dealer: “You calling black people dumb?” Nancy: “And they’re lazy. And they steal”, in season 1, episode 1, ‘You Can’t Miss the Bear’). The feminist tone of these previous noted performances also mediates Nancy’s romantic and sexual exploits throughout Weeds, which often tread grey areas in terms of consent, and moral and ethical choices.

By contrast, Orange is the New Black stars the relatively unknown Taylor Schilling, more famous for being cut out of major films than for being in them (Argo, 2013). The Lucky One (2012), a Zac Efron vehicle, was aimed at a very different audience demographic than Orange is the New Black, which followed the Netflix-commissioned House of Cards (2013- ) and so carried some of the marketing expectations and audience demographics of the earlier series starring ‘high brow’ star Kevin Spacey and directed in part by David Fincher. Netflix’s commissioned titles are building a ‘high brow’ aura closer in many ways to film than TV, as are HBO series such as True Detective (2014- ). In this realm, Schilling was relatively unknown – Kohan has spoken of her as a “trojan horse” in that she is both a way into the stories of the other prisoners and a blank slate of a star persona (Nicholson 2013). Schilling’s unknown status diffuses viewer affective response among the characters rather than having us side with Piper, as we are not encouraged to place our sympathies with Schilling on the basis of previous performances, as we are with Parker. This casting shift is also due to Kohan’s growing auteur persona; from early one-off stints on Sex and the City (1998) and Gilmore Girls (2000), Kohan’s signature brand of unhinged lady protagonist has become too recognizable to allow for a repeat of the shock factor of our slow realization that Weeds’ Nancy was very much Parker playing against type. In Orange is the New Black, the technique is reversed to present an unknown star/protagonist whose self-interest paradoxically leads the camera into the lives of other characters.

Banal magic-realism as character-audience bonding

Difficult, unemotional protagonists are made accessible to the viewer in Weeds and Orangeindex is the New Black using soundtrack and star persona, but also by a narrative motif I’ll call a sort of banal magic-realism. Magic realism, or ‘when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe’ (Strecher 1999: 267) is used in literature and film to interpret or express everyday events or feelings too complex to put into words, for example, in Pan’s Labyrinth (El laborinto de fauno, Guilermo del Toro, 2006) where

Piper spots a cigarette-smuggling cockroach.
Piper spots a cigarette-smuggling cockroach.

the child protagonist both escapes and comes to understand Franco’s Spain by communing with a magical world in which fascist persuasive tropes are allegorized through fairy-tale. In both Weeds and Orange is the New Black, characters make wild claims about the existence of things, usually animals, in the everyday world, which the central protagonist dismisses as fantasy. These dismissals, such as Nancy’s disbelief at her son’s claim to have shot a mountain lion (season 1 episode 3, ‘Good Shit Lollipop’) or Piper’s refusal to believe that cockroaches can be trained to smuggle cigarettes (season 2 episode 1, ‘Thirsty Bird’), initially posit the protagonist, usually in a period of emotional turmoil, as the sanest of a group of delusionals. However, a later shot in which the protagonist, alone, confirms visual evidence of the claim, suggests to the viewer either that the world is more magical, in a banal sense, than we have believed, or that the protagonist is losing her grip on reality. As the viewer is always the only other witness to these encounters with the banal-magical, either interpretation (or both) creates the feeling of a shared secret or experience, and adds an element of the magical to our relationship with the protagonist, strengthening our investment in their story.

Selling anti-heroines

While popular media and scholarly approaches alike have championed Kohan’s protagonists as anti-heroines changing the limits of acceptable female representation on screen, there hasn’t been much discussion of how these representations are made acceptable, or enjoyable to watch. Weeds ran for eight seasons, and Orange is the New Black has already been commissioned for a third, so we have to ask, how does Kohan sell these challenging female characters so successfully and to such wide audiences? I’ve tried to draw out a few elements which run continually throughout both series to examine how these difficult characters are made appealing to viewers at a highly affective level using sound, star persona and narrative motifs.

Works cited:

Bullock, Darcey. ‘8 Ways ‘Orange is the New Black’ is Breaking TV Barriers.’ Mic, 1 August 2003. Available at

Gabrielson, Teena. ‘The End of New Beginnings: Nature and the American Dream in The Sopranos, Weeds, and Lost,’ Theory & Event 12: 2, 2009.

Gillota, David. ‘”People of Colors”: Multi-ethnic humor in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Weeds.The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45 pp. 960-978, 2012.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. ‘The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism.’ In Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (eds.), Reinventing Film Studies, London: Arnold, 2000, pp. 332-350.

Hernandez, Brian. ‘Oh, Memories: 25 Songs Used in ‘Orange is the New Black.’ Mashable, June 2014. Available at

Lavoie, Dusty. ‘Smoking the Other: Marijuana and Counterhegemony in Weeds.Substance Use & Misuse, vol. 46, pp. 910–921, 2011.

Lyons, Margaret and Lindsey Weber. ‘So, Is Orange Is the New Black’s Opening Song Catchy or Annoying?2013

MacNamara, Mary. “Review: Lock yourself up with ‘Orange Is the New Black.'” Los Angeles Times. 10 July 2013.

Michlin, Monica. ‘More, More, More.’ Mise au point vol. 3, March 2011. Available at:

Nicholson, Rebecca. ‘Orange is the New Black: Web Tv’s breakout moment.’ The Guardian, September 2013. Available at

Paige, Alexis. ‘Seeing Orange.’ Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction vol. 16 issue 1, pp. 143-151, 2014.

Robinson, Joanna. ‘Orange is the New Black: What Was that Great Song from the Premiere?’ Vanity Fair, June 2014. Available at:

Snyder, Katie. ‘Burn one down: Nancy Botwin as (post) feminist (anti) heroine.’ In Norma Jones, Maya Bajac-Carter and Bob Batchelor (ed.) Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture. Plymouth: Rowan and Littlefield, pp. 17-30, 2014.

Strecher, Matthew C. ‘Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.’ Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 263-298, 1999.

Zuckerman, Esther. ‘The Best Musical Moments from ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 2,’ June 2014

Jennifer Coates

Jennifer Coates
Jennifer Coates

Jenny has just been awarded her PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for a thesis on “National Crisis and the Female Image; Expressions of Trauma in Japanese Film 1945-1964.”  She is now based at the Hakubi Centre for Advanced Research at the University of Kyoto. Her research interests include gender, visual media and memory studies.  She’s often up all night, so forgive her the odd typo.

Classifying Genres, Identifying Movements

How useful is film classification to Film Studies? A Case Study of The “New Wave” in Japan and Britain

by Lois Barnett

Superficially, there are striking narrative and stylistic similarities between Karel Reisz’s

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz, 1960
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz, 1960

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Ōshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) both released in 1960. However, while both of these films depict the turbulent lives of marginalized youth, they also exhibit marked differences emblematic of the different socioeconomic contexts in which they were produced. Exploring the “New Wave” as a global phenomenon, referring to the specific contexts of Japan and Britain via a direct comparison of the circumstances of these works and their directors’ backgrounds, allows us to identify the specificities of the Japanese and British New Wave cinemas respectively. By attempting to isolate underlying factors motivating similar characterization and style, we may suggest some parallels between the ‘New Wave’ as practiced around the world. I acknowledge the term “New Wave” as problematic, but employ it here to link these films as members of the commercial “Shōchiku New Wave” and “British New Wave” cycles respectively, and to refer to linked avant-garde conventions globally. However, this study aims to problematize the use of such classificatory terminology, and ultimately to question whether the use of terms such as ‘New Wave’ detracts more from our understanding of popular cinema than it elucidates.

The term “New Wave” itself is frequently applied to works by external influences rather than directors themselves:

There can always be a debate as to what constituted a new cinema…I have started by treating under the rubric ‘new cinemas’ those films and film movements which had the label attached to them, formally or informally, at the time of their emergence, any time from the late 1950s onwards. (Nowell-Smith 2008: 1)

Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun zankoku monogatari), Ōshima Nagisa, 1960
Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun zankoku monogatari), Ōshima Nagisa, 1960

Nowell-Smith cites Ōshima’s work as emblematic of “new cinema” in Japan, alongside ‘the breakout into feature film-making of the British Free Cinema’, a moniker applied by Lindsay Anderson to a group of British documentarists of the 1950s, including himself and Reisz (Nowell-Smith 2008: 125). The term “New Wave” is an umbrella concept beneath works from a variety of different regions may be categorized: not only those which are self-defined as “New Wave” works by their directors, but also those which have the term applied to them externally by others for either critical or marketing purposes.In contrast to the self-appointed British Free Cinema filmmakers, the Japanese “New Wave” (“nūberu bāgu”) was branded by Shōchiku studios as a ‘primarily economic’ move; an attempt to change the public opinion of the studio as ‘conservative’ in its output in order to attract youth audiences (Roberts 2007: xxvi). Clearly, it is is too simplistic an approach to considering only those films popularly discussed as “New Wave” as emblematic of the stylistic trends of the movement. An analysis of the film’s directorial intentions and visual or narrative styles may be more valuable.

There was no such (“New Wave”), in the sense that there was no clearly defined conscious movement with set aims, technical or thematic… If the “New Wave” was a phrase dreamed up by journalists, it nevertheless broadly designates a sudden change in the cinema industry: a change in production methods, a change in subject matter, a change in moral attitudes perhaps; certainly a change in the style and appearance of the film. (Reisz and Millar 2004: 323-4)

While Reisz primarily describes the characteristics of the French New Wave, he argues that the classification had ‘international repercussions’, relevant not only to his own work, but to cinemas simultaneously arising globally. The French influence extends to the work of Ōshima, who cites Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), a work described by Reisz as ‘typical of the early days of the movement’ (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324-325), as a key inspiration for his Cruel Story of Youth. What Ōshima draws from Breathless is how its style is affected by the director’s intention, enabled by the independent circumstances within which it was made, a reference to the same ‘change in production and technology’ described by Reisz:

Breathless is a truly wonderful film, in that it reminds us that the appeal of the film lies in the continuity of discontinuity. The beauty of the work is that the artist is not trying to earn his living as a film director. And perhaps that is why the filmmaker’s active involvement penetrates the work so splendidly. (Ōshima 1992: 46)

Ōshima’s description of the filmmaker’s involvement reflects the cinéma d’auteur theory adhered to by critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma. Reisz describes auteur cinema as ‘a cinema in which one man would be creatively responsible for conception and execution of his own idea’ – although Reisz states that there were ‘no set aims’ of the “New Wave” movement, it is clear that regardless of location, directorial independence is an ideal across the spectrum of New Cinema directors (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324). We may infer from both directors’ statements that a work which may be considered “New Wave” by critics or audiences is a concentration of directorial intention and how that intention is expressed, shaped by the circumstances in which the film was made in terms of budget, technological developments and external economic pressures. Via this negotiation of expression and intention films may be considered “New Wave” despite the different external factors influencing their production; Galt and Schoonover describe this as the New Wave’s ‘mongrel identity… [which] intersected with popular genres, national cinemas, revolutionary film, and the avant garde, (mixing) corporate, state, and independent capital…a global field of industry and aesthetics’ (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4). This mode of ‘expression’ described by Reisz, embodied through shared visual and narrative styles, unites these two narratively similar films; the question as to how and why these shared characteristics arise can shed light on the transnational potential of avant-garde cinemas. Galt and Schoonover’s description of ‘how the economics of cinema’s transnational flows might intersect with trajectories of film form’ suggests such a link between external circumstances and visual form regardless of geographical location (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4).

In his overview of the “New Wave”, Reisz notes ‘a change in subject matter’ alongside ‘a change in moral attitudes’ (Reisz and Millar 2004: 324). This concept of cinema tracking social change is an example of external circumstances affecting narrative and visual film structures; the global “New Wave” cinema’s manifestation in culturally specific forms encompasses the cinemas of Japan or Britain respectively as avenues of externally-influenced critique focused on socio-political events occurring simultaneously within both the global and local spheres. Galt and Schoonover argue that the “New Wave” ‘from its beginnings forged a relationship between the aesthetic and the geopolitical, or, in other words, cinema and world’ (Galt and Schoonover 2010: 3-4). David Desser suggests that this shift in focus reflected sociological developments in the Japanese cinema ‘concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society…isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances’ (Desser 1988: 4). This concept of the “New Wave” cinema as a global movement expressing culturally specific concerns is also evident in the British New Wave cycle: ‘it is clear that films like…Saturday Night and Sunday Morning… have a specifically British context and grow out of a linked series of historical and cinematic events and movements’ (Desser 1988: 4). The motif of the problematic youth character, exemplified in this case study by

Albert Finney and Shirley Anne Field in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Albert Finney and Shirley Anne Field in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

the characters of Arthur Seaton and Kiyoshi and Makoto respectively, is a fundamental element of this international ‘change in subject matter’ described by Reisz . These characters function as vehicles for social critique and change, however the purpose of their selection as central figures varies in reference to both the films’ geo-political, directorial and production contexts. ‘Almost without exception the new cinemas were a rebellion’ against both aesthetic and political norms (Nowell-Smith 2008: 3); in both these films youth are depicted as rebellious figures. However, Reisz and Ōshima’s focus on youth transcends simple allegorical analysis, acting as an outlet for each director’s auteuristic “New Wave” sensibilities within his own specific socio-economic circumstances. While Ōshima states in 1960 that he uses youthful imagery as a means of discussing post-war Japanese subjectivity (‘Cruel Story of Youth will focus on the cruelty of our situation and most particularly on youth as victims of the contradictions arising from it’), he also notes that as ‘a new director… you really begin to worry about whether a film will be successful…if a director is to do the kind of work he wants to do in the film industry, he absolutely must have the support of the audience’

Kawazu Yūsuke and Kuwano Miyuki in Cruel Story of Youth (1960)
Kawazu Yūsuke and Kuwano Miyuki in Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

(Ōshima 1992: 42; 46). Considering the controversial nature of Ōshima’s first full-length film, A Town of Love and Hope (Ai to Kibō no Machi, 1959) within the Shōchiku studio (Yoshimoto 2007: 168), it is understandable that Ōshima would seek redress in the youth film genre, which was known to be popular with domestic audiences. In the late 1950’s Japanese studios ‘began to take advantage of an emerging youth culture…questioning post-war affluence and humanistic society’ as a reaction to declining cinema audiences, a result collectively of ‘television and demographic shifts’ (Gerow 2002: 71). Saturday Night And Sunday Morning has been similarly described as a fictionalized continuation of the Free Cinema documentaries which Reisz produced, most prominently We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959), funded by the British Film Institute’s Experimental film fund; ‘the first picture (We Are The Lambeth Boys) attempted a picture of a world, the second a portrait’ Gardner 2006: 107).

Nowell-Smith notes that initial Reisz’s choice to make documentaries such as this was a result of the restrictions imposed upon him by the BFI’s funding conditions; ‘Reisz…made documentaries in the 1950s because that’s what (he) had the opportunity to do, not because of an ideological commitment to the documentary ideal’ (Nowell-Smith 2008: 125). Considering that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning drew its subject matter and filming style directly from Reisz’s documentary efforts, it is impossible to separate the film from the influence of these initial funding constraints.

However, the very conception of a restricted director is in conflict with Reisz’s critical definition of ‘a cinema in which one man would be creatively responsible for conception and execution of his own idea’ – which implies total creative freedom. While obvious in the case of Ōshima, as a director working in a major studio, the above observation of motivations for Reisz’s choice of source material for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning indicates that the independently-funded sector was hardly immune to external influence on film content. Ōshima himself learned this when he left the studio system and became subject to controls imposed not only by Japanese censorship but by external funding entities (for example, the involvement of French funding bodies in selecting both the subject matter and title of In The Realm of The Senses/Ai no Korīda, 1976). Ōshima does recall producer Anatole Dauman allowing him a large amount of creative authority, quoting him thus; “I’ll leave the content and the actual production all to you. I’ll pay for it, that’s all” (Ōshima 1992: 258). While both Reisz and Ōshima aspired to the auteur ideal associated with the “New Wave” movement via the Cahiers du Cinéma, the subject matter and characterization of these two films is a result of a shared goal, to work as ‘true auteurs’, rather than a shared achievement. I’m arguing here that the films’ narratives and themes manifest so similarly as a result of global filmic trends concerning youth and similar socio-political developments.

This conflict of auteurism versus socio-economic pressures suggests that we had better consider “New Wave” film not as a movement, nor as an intrinsically auteurist product, but instead as a pseudo-genre, analogous to, or perhaps within, the categorization of “art film” as described by David Bordwell. Bordwell highlights the ‘mediating structures – ‘reality’, character subjectivity, authorial vision – that allowed a fresh coherence of meaning in art film’ (Bordwell 1979: 724). All of these factors are present in Cruel Story of Youth and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, while both directors express an aspiration to artistic status. Such reoccurring tropes would indicate the presence of a genre or set of codes to which these films subscribe. Genre is often positioned in opposition to auteurism, however Raphaëlle Moine suggests re-imagining the relation between genre and the auteur; ‘an auteur film, even if it expresses the personality of a filmmaker, is often also a generically marked film’ (Moine 2008: 34). Moine defines the ‘criteria normally used to identify a genre (as) thematic elements and narrative structures’ which as has been established here unite both films despite their different geopolitical contexts (2008: 104). Particularly in the avant-garde context, there exists a ‘confusion between schools and genres (that) arises directly out of the theoretical approach of (Adrian) Piotrovski’ (Moine 2008: 34).

Considering this focus on expressivity, artistic intention and form, it is perhaps possible to harmonize this confusion between schools or movements (such as the “New Wave”) and genre in order to explain the narrative similarities between these two films by observing their similarities as culturally specific imaginings of global generic conventions. In short, I argue that perhaps the global “New Wave”” would be better categorized as a genre rather than a movement. Considering the longstanding relationship between genre and the commercial sphere –genre as a ‘means of “attracting and retaining audiences in a reliable way, so reducing commercial risk’ (Langford 2005: 1) –the term “New Wave” is a loaded categorization, implying a relationship with marketing and profit. Superficially, this places it in direct opposition with auteurism, however the effects of external socio-economic stimuli upon the shared narratives of these films need to be considered to a greater extent.  Use of the term “New Wave” as a commercial signifier is relevant to Ōshima’s context as a director described as “New Wave” (nūberu bāgu) by Shōchiku, though the director disputed the validity of the term itself; ‘Stop using the term “New Wave” once and for all! Evaluate each film on its own merits!’ (Ōshima 1992: 57). Returning to Reisz’s argument that ‘there was no clearly defined conscious movement with set aims, technical or thematic’ the reclassification of “New Wave” as a genre, with shared narrative structures, not only acknowledges the place of Reisz’s and Ōshima’s films within a socioeconomic context, but exposes the fallibility of the term. This fallibility suggests the necessity of reading both films within their particular contexts, with their narrative similarities influenced by globally recognizable conventions tempered by local and personal specificity.

In conclusion, the shared qualities of these films in terms of their subject matter and narrative are indicative predominantly of two directors working in different geopolitical and socioeconomic contexts wishing to comment upon socio-political developments which were occurring simultaneously across the modern world; most prominently those affecting, or posed by, nascent youth cultures. While it is impossible to ignore both directors’ acknowledgement of the auteurist and stylistic sentiments of the French “New Wave” and the Cahiers du Cinéma, it is equally impossible to describe their works as derivative; these directors instead utilise these sentiments as a framework to discuss global issues not only from culturally and geopolitically specific perspectives, but also perspectives informed by their own personal experiences and the specific socioeconomic and popular circumstances within which each film was produced. Furthermore, it is clear that preliminary definitions of “New Wave” texts as those films which having the term ‘New Wave’ applied to them externally for marketing or even critical purposes are lacking. Even if attempts are made to rationalize the occurrence of similarities across ‘New Wave’ film texts as manifestations of a global political movement or film genre, this only highlights the problematic nature of “New Wave” as a blanket term. While the similarities between these films effectively illustrate the true transnationality of themes and film trends, the evaluation of each film within its own specific context, considering not only artistic but also commercial climates, is vital to understanding these texts and transcending artificial categorization. Overall, this case study of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Ōshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth illuminates the importance assessing each film in its own right and on its own merits, reading marked similarities in their respective socio-political contexts rather than according to constructed ideals of “New Wave” auteurism or other filmic labels.



BUCKLEY, Sandra. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture, London, Routledge, 2002.

DESSER, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese “New Wave” Cinema, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988.

GALT, Rosalind and SCHOONOVER, Karl. Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

GARDNER, Colin. Karel Reisz, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2006.

LANGFORD, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2005.

MOINE, Raphaëlle. Cinema Genre, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

NOWELL-SMITH, Geoffrey. Making Waves: New Cinemas Of The 1960s, New York, Continuum, 2008.

ŌSHIMA, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Ōshima 1956-1978, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1992.

PHILLIPS, Alistair and STRINGER, Julian. Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, London and New York, Routledge, 2007.

REISZ, Karel and MILLAR, Gavin. The Technique of Film Editing (2nd Edition), Oxford, Focal Press, 2004.

SHARY, Timothy and SEIBEL, Alexandra. Youth Culture In Global Cinema, Texas USA, The University of Texas Press, 2007.


ROBERTS, Mark D. Masumura Yasuzo and the Cinema of Social Consciousness, Diss. University of California, California, 2007. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web. 28 February 2014.

Web Resources

BORDWELL, David. The Art Cinema As A Mode Of Film Practice, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, 1979, Retrieved 22 March 2014,

Lois Barnett
Lois Barnett

Lois Barnett is currently completing an MA in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, focusing on Japanese cinema. Following her MA studies, she will undertake postgraduate research considering the role of Western-inspired fashion and costume in the Japanese cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, funded by the Sasakawa Foundation. Her main research interests are fashion, modernity and gender representation onscreen.

A Record of Repeated Gestures: Leitmotifs in Shindō Kaneto’s films

by Lauri Kitsnik

Despite Shindō Kaneto (1912-2012) being one of the most celebrated and visible Japanese filmmakers over the last sixty years – both domestically and internationally – the lack of consensus as to whether his bulk of work bears enough thematic or stylistic unity seems to be a decisive factor behind the relative scarcity of scholarship on him. Alexander Jacoby claims that “[Shindō] never truly evolved a coherent visual style or a way of commenting on the world through images” (Jacoby 2008: 274).  It is true that Shindō’s output as a director is somewhat uneven in terms of quality, and the extraordinary length of his directorial career that spans from 1951 to 2011 has seen him tackling a plethora of subjects. Nevertheless, in this essay I would like to show that it is possible to detect a number of recurring images and visual techniques in Shindō’s work from different decades that can help us arrive at a more balanced evaluation of his merits as a film director and offer a glimpse of his worldview in general, that includes issues adjacent to cinematic representation of specific historical and socio-political concerns.

People at work: a poetics of repetition

The Naked Island
The Naked Island

Perhaps the most lasting sequence of images that Shindō as a director has ever come up with can be encountered at the beginning of The Naked Island (1960). A peasant man and woman (played by Tonoyama Taiji and Otowa Nobuko) living on a small island in the Inland Sea are hauling buckets of water on yokes from a neighbouring island, taking them home in a rowing boat, and finally carrying them up a steep slope in order to water their field. There is no dialogue (as in the whole film), only extradiegetic music, shots of the perspiring bodies of the couple and the same gestures of walking, rowing and watering the plants repeated over and over again. Physical labour and its representation through images of routinely repeated movement can be seen in most of Shindō’s films. For instance, Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959) starts with a minute long sequence depicting fishermen’s everyday work. In the autobiographical Tree Without Leaves (1986) the whole peasant family (in contrast to The Naked Island, a wealthy one) is engaged in various acts of processing agricultural products. The New Year’s Eve is spent preparing rice cakes (mochi): cooked rice is pounded into paste and then molded into smaller buns. This happens in a large open space of the family house, with all members except the patriarch participating. When autumn comes, we find them sitting in the same room, peeling basket after basket of persimmons. While always hinting at the seasonal pattern and ritualistic character of these activities, these images present both the livelihood of the family and the way communality is created.

On the level of narration, this manner of repeating certain gestures goes well beyond the length conventionally allowed for establishing shots. In Roland Barthes’s terms, these passages shift from being part of the semic code to contributing to the proairetic one instead, and thus becoming one of the activities that sustain the narrative of the film. Drawing attention to the activities per se rather than using them for establishing characters and situations, these sequences often seem to function as a statement on human life in general and how (only) the routine of labour is able to create meaning to it. Satō Tadao has pointed out that Shindō, descended from an agricultural family, maintained the mindset he inherited from there for the whole of his career as a filmmaker. If we remember this, it becomes easier to discard criticism by Ōshima Nagisa that with films such as The Naked Island, Shindō was forging his brand of naïve Marxism and presenting an overidealised picture of the Japanese with foreign audiences in mind. For Shindō, siding with the working people might not have been a conscious (and at the time a trendy) ideological choice but simply part of his heritage. Indeed, his very first published screenplay, Farmers Who Lost Their Land (1937) tells the story of a village that is about to be flooded by land developers to make way for a new water supply for the rapidly growing Tokyo. More than seventy years later, the last scenes of his final film, A Postcard (2011) have another couple carrying water on yokes much like the one in The Naked Island to start anew and cultivate the land left behind by a disintegrated peasant family. This attests to Shindō’s self-referential style but also to his most persistent metaphor on human existence.

Nevertheless, this preoccupation with images of people at work does not stop with farmers and fishermen, and in addition has even something to say about the way Shindō perceived his own lifestyle as a film director and scriptwriter. Even when in mature age he turned to making films about the cultural heroes of Japan such as Mizoguchi (The Life of a Film Director, 1975), Hokusai (Edo Porn, 1981) and Kafū (The Strange Story of Oyuki, 1992), Shindō seems to have been more interested in the craftsman-like qualities, presenting them as artisans rather than artists. Diligent work that does not wait for the moment of inspiration was at the centre of Shindō’s understanding of his own occupation as a screenwriter. There is an anecdote about a fellow scriptwriter who was staying and working at the same inn as Shindō. He developed writer’s block after hearing a steady rhythmical pattern through the sliding door from the neighbouring room all night long. That was Shindō turning and finishing yet another page of a manuscript in an almost mechanical manner. The production of more than 230 of his screenplays seem to testify that there might be more than a little truth to this story.

In his memoirs, Shindō writes about having rented a working space for a number of years in an inn next to a small printing house and the rhythmic sound of its machines that accompanied him working on screenplays day and night long. This kind of tiny printing house appears as the main location in Mother (1963), where a couple, once again played by


Otowa and Tonoyama, runs the small business by operating a number of machines in the shack and then delivering the product in a shabby three-wheeled van. During this hot summer in Hiroshima, their perspiring bodies are caught by the black- and-white camera as suggestively as in The Naked Island. Shindō’s fascination with machines can be traced back to his first experiences working for the film industry. He has written about the ambiguous feelings he had when he first entered a film studio to be employed at the film developing section; his very first peek into the secrets of filmmaking revealed an enormous rattling machine behind a glass door. This moment of witnessing the mechanical reproduction behind art seems to have had a lasting impact on young Shindō who later went on to make an aestheticised version of repeated motions one of the more salient features of his visual style.

Farewell to a soldier: images of war

Children of Hiroshima/ A Postcard
Children of Hiroshima/ A Postcard

Another sequence of images that Shindō will probably always be associated with is a passage from Children of Hiroshima (1952) that recreates the atomic explosion and its immediate aftermath with a Soviet montage influenced, highly stylised shots of disfigured bodies. Shindō revisited the events of those days in the semi-documentary Sakuratai 8.6. (1988) about the members of a traveling theatre troupe that shared the fate of the citizens of Hiroshima; interviews with victims’ colleagues and friends are juxtaposed with reenacted footage of the past events shot in black and white, creating an uncanny mixture of documentary and fiction film styles. Something similar is at work in his last feature, A Postcard, set in the year 1945. The final stages of the war are represented by a brief passage with a clock striking, a quote from the aforementioned Children of Hiroshima montage sequence, treated here as if already a form of documentary footage. An excerpt from the emperor’s radio address from August 15, 1945 over an aerial shot of the islands in the Inland Sea follows this shot. Although Shindō has often been described as an overtly political filmmaker, his takes on the events surrounding the nuclear attack on Hiroshima are largely confined to seeing it as the destruction of an ecosystem, visualised by barren landscape, orphaned children, a disbanded group of actors, or even individual bodies that are disintergrating after being exposed to radiation. This might be seen as contrasting imagery to that representing sustained order through repeated gestures.

Whereas human figures on the verge of disintegration surely allow for some striking cinematic images, I would argue that the depiction of the consequences of the atomic bomb has never been a central device for Shindō when commenting on war. Instead, there is a much more intimate and subdued image that he has relied on in a number of films. In his first directorial effort, The Story of Beloved Wife (1951) about a fledgling scriptwriter much like Shindō himself and set during the war years, there is a scene towards the end that has no strict connection to the main plot of the film. While the scriptwriter is trying to finish his final draft, outside on the street people have gathered to wave flags and sing songs to bid farewell to a young man from the neighbourhood who has received his conscription orders. “Banzai” is shouted but the general mood is somber. This episode serves as a thematic parallel to the main plot, as a premonition of the approaching death of the scriptwriter’s wife. A few scenes later, heavy rain is falling on the same street and there is a silent funeral parade for the young soldier who has returned home in a small white wooden box carried by his mother.

The Strange Story of Oyuki
The Strange Story of Oyuki

A somewhat more humorous use of the same motif can be found in The Strange Story of Oyuki. To this the story adapted from Nagai Kafū, Shindō has added the character of a brothel owner, a lady with a scar over her eye reminiscent of the swordsman hero Tange Sazen, and her adopted son who is to be conscripted. This time, the singing and hoorays are conducted by the prostitutes living in the Tamanoi red-light district, contrasted with documentary footage of the prime minister Tōjō Hideki on a military parade greeting schoolboys who have recently joined the army. In another scene from the same film, a group of soldiers marches into Tamanoi, their commanding officer summons them and asks whether they all have condoms, then discharges them with orders to return in exactly an hour. Shindō revisited this motif in A Postcard, again in an ironic vein, with a hint of black humour. The elder son of a peasant family receives his orders and is given a farewell ceremony in front of the family house. In the next scene, the same people walk into the same frame, this time in silence and carrying a small wooden box containing the soldier’s bones. Not before long, the younger brother is also drafted, and all the rituals are repeated in an identical manner, frame by frame.

Shindō is by all means not the only Japanese filmmaker to use images of a soldier sent to war. In fact, there have been certain periods when this was an almost indispensable presence on the screen. First, starting from the late 1930s when even films relatively devoid of military ideology such as Naruse Mikio’s Sincerity (1939) would end with a man receiving his conscription papers, congratulated on this occasion by everyone starting with his own teenage daughter. After the defeat, popular anti-war films such as Kinoshita Keisuke’s Morning of the Osone Family (1946) or Imai Tadashi’s Until We Meet Again (1950) had drafting as seminal plot points. What distinguishes Shindō from all these, is the stark contrast he establishes between the clamorous farewell paid to the soldier and the silent homecoming of his remains. Presented without much sentimentality are the images depicting the simplest chain of cause and effect.

Flash-lights and witnessing: the ubiquity of media

Live Today, Die Tomorrow!
Live Today, Die Tomorrow!

Another one of Shindō’s persistent thematic preoccupations is the role he assigns to print media and reporting in his films, both as a context and a narrative device. An example of this can be found in Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (1970), based on true events about a juvenile killer. After newspaper headlines report his capture, his mother, led by a police officer, is shown getting off a train. The platform is swarmed by news reporters and photographers who all try to get a hold of her for any comment about her son’s past. In order to do that, they run in flocks over the tracks, climb over fences and follow her down the stairs to the waiting lobby. All this is captured by a hand-held camera that adds both intensity and a documentary feel to the sequence. The old mother, looking very tired, is eventually cornered by the members of the press and pushed against the wall of the train station. A montage of close ups from different angles shows her closing her eyes and fainting, while the camera lights keep flashing over her pale face. The criminal acts that her son has committed suddenly become thematised within the violent behaviour of the press craving to report them.

Lucky Dragon No. 5
Lucky Dragon No. 5

Shindō’s films tend to be well contextualised socio-politically: they are not universal stories unfolding in a historical void. When basing his films on factual material, like Live Today, Die Tomorrow! or Lucky Dragon No. 5 about a ship crew that was exposed to nuclear fallout near Bikini Atoll five years earlier, Shindō has made sure to incorporate the way these events were witnessed and reported at the time, turning media coverage into a crucial part of the film’s narration. In Lucky Dragon No. 5, it is through the gradual uncovering of the evidence by the press that we as omniscient viewers first find out about the consequences of what occurred to the ship crew, and upon reading a newspaper, so does the crew. When the ship’s captain is taken to a hospital in Tokyo for treatment, we find out about the changes in his condition by cross-cutting between his hospital room and reports on the radio. When his health deteriorates suddenly, we see him in his bed surrounded by doctors, while the reporters wait at the staircase. A word comes in that the patient’s wife is arriving at the hospital, which she does, followed by a crowd of reporters. A quick cut from his agonies to a violently swaying ship and ash in the rafters, then back to the hospital. Then to a radio announcement about his critical state, followed by a view of Tokyo at night, a calmer sea and a message on the radio asking him to keep up his fight for life. When he regains consciousness, this information is once again transmitted to us by the image of a reporter running up the stairs and telling his colleagues about it. We are told that he was saved for this time; and later, when he finally succumbs to the radiation disease, it is again radio that is first to make the final announcement.

By making the press such a visible presence on the screen, Shindō is also making an inquiry into media ethics. Whereas in the case of Lucky Dragon No.5 it might be argued that the writing press was working within the confines of public interest, being the first to bring the devastating facts of nuclear fallout encountered by the fishing crew to the attention of the public, its treatment of the captain’s struggle for his life, although clearly sympathetic to the victim and his family, could also be accused of sensationalism. The latter tendency becomes much more evident in films such as Live Today, Die Tomorrow! and The Strange Story of Oyuki. In the latter, an adaptation of Nagai Kafū’s A Strange Tale from the East of the River, the timeline of the story is extended all the way to Kafū’s death, and a famous last photograph taken by the yellow press of the already deceased Kafū collapsed on the floor of his room is reenacted in detail.


Whether employing images of people and machines at work that reflect a worldview embedded in his agrarian background, or the devices he uses to comment on the consequences of war and workings of the media, Shindō has over the years kept returning to a number of motifs while always finding new ways and nuances to how to present them. Delineating the persistence of these recurring concerns would be a good starting point for a wider reconsideration of his work as a film director.


Works cited

Iida Shinbi. “Shindō Kaneto-ron.” Kinema junpō (October 1956): 56-57.

Jacoby, Alexander. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day.  Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2008.

Satō Tadao. Nihon eigashi. Zōhoban, vol. 3. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2006.

Shindō Kaneto. Shindō Kaneto no ashiato, vol. 1: Seishun. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1993.

——. Shindō Kaneto no eiga chosakushū, vol 2: Watashi no ashiato. Tokyo: Pōrie Kikaku, 1971.

Lauri Kitsnik
Lauri Kitsnik

Lauri is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, currently completing his dissertation on the history and practices of screenwriting in Japan. He enjoys films best when they are pre-1964 and/or black-and-white and/or silent, or better yet, lost (so he can read the screenplay instead).

Pokémon and a Fandom of Nostalgia

by Laz Carter

Introduction: Pokémon and Intratextuality

Some may argue that this article doesn’t concern cinema or Film Studies, that Pokémon may be better understood within the field of Sociology or Cultural Studies. David Surman writes that ‘the tendency in academia is to understand Pokémon through its social effects, though at the same time hesitating from scrutinising what is issuing from the cartridge to the LCD screen’ (2009:162). I refute such positions, primarily because an understanding of Pokémon’s ‘social effects’ is necessary before one can meaningfully textually analyse a given product. Furthermore, the very ‘franchise’ model propagated by Pokémon wherein one can consume the Pokémon universe through not only film but also animated television series, videogames, comics, trading card games, theme parks, merchandise and a plethora of other Poké-paraphernalia – means that any attempt to usefully separate one medium from the rest remains a futile endeavour that does not benefit any serious study. Henry Jenkins postulates that the Pokémon franchise adheres to what he terms the ‘convergence culture’ model (2006:133). In other words, the various avenues through which one may encounter Pokémon influence each other to such an extent that one cannot truly comprehend any given individual element in isolation, but rather as part of a larger ‘supersystem’ (Iwabuchi 2004:64). Can one, for example, truly appreciate the eternal struggle between Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) and Shigeru (Gary Oak) in the anime series without battling one’s own rival in the Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue videogame

Gengar vs. Nidorino, opening sequence of Pokémon, Season 1, Episode 1, 'Pokémon! I Choose You!’, (00:01:09), [online], available at:
Fig. 1: Gengar vs. Nidorino, opening sequence of Pokémon, Season 1, Episode 1, ‘Pokémon! I Choose You!’, (00:01:09), [online], available at:
cartridges? Does one have the same emotional attachment to a Pikachu ‘plushie’ soft toy if one has not endured the epic ordeal of Satoshi’s Pikachu in Pokémon: The First Movie (Myūtsū no Gyakushū, Michael Haigney and Kunihiko Yuyama, 1998)? I would argue that the success of the Pokémon franchise can only be explained through an awareness of interconnected inferences and intratextual in-jokes. The producers of Pokémon were well aware of the necessity for a synergised product release; Pokémon: The First Movie cinema-goers were rewarded with a special edition trading card (Electabuzz, Pikachu, Dragonite or Mewtwo). Other connections are far more explicit, such as the opening sequence of the first episode of the animated television series (Fig. 1) which very deliberately mimics the introductory video of the original Game Boy software (Fig. 2).

Having established that the Pokémon universe relies on constant

Gengar vs. Nidorino, opening sequence of Pokémon Red/Blue, (00:00:11), [online], available at:
Fig. 2: Gengar vs. Nidorino, opening sequence of Pokémon Red/Blue, (00:00:11), [online], available at:
references to itself, one should now be able to see how cinema plays a key role in a contemporary analysis of Pokémon. When examining examples of ‘franchise fandom’, one must account for the fact that a consumer’s experiences of any given aspect of the product will affect their appreciation of the remainder. Thus, whilst examples from Pokémon’s many cinematic achievements are not the main focus of this study, they inherently inform and imbue the points raised here, even if only to a peripheral degree. I argue that 2014 has seen a revival of ‘Poké-mania’, albeit a different brand of the fervour which had been evident during the peak of Pokémon’s success.

1. Pokémon in the Past: What Once Was

Before moving on to the main thrust of this discourse, it is first necessary to briefly provide a historical context for the extraordinary success of the Pokémon franchise.

Pokémon is the most successful computer game ever made, the top globally selling trading-card game of all time, one of the most successful children’s television programs ever broadcast, the top-grossing movie ever released in Japan, and among the five top earners in the history of films worldwide. (Tobin 2004a:3)

Depending on which information one chooses to focus on, these observations may well prove to be out of date one decade after Tobin’s time of writing. Continue reading Pokémon and a Fandom of Nostalgia

Anime and the internet: the impact of fansubbing

by Alicia Wurm

While Japanese anime has experienced a boom in recent decades, its history is longer than you might think. The anime industry flourished in Japan in the late 1910’s with pieces such as Kitayama Seitaro’s short Momotaro (1918) and Chikara To Onna No Yononaka (1932), influenced by Disney shorts and the increasingly explosive and animated nature of Japanese manga (illustrated books). While anime itself grew more popular than ever domestically, and began to achieve international fame through collaboration with Disney in the mid 1950’s, there were many televised anime series that never would have made it overseas if it hadn’t been for dedicated fan communities. In order to address the current gap in extant scholarship on animated film, this article will present a comprehensive account of fan involvement in bringing Japanese anime to wider audiences.

A fansubber is generally an anime fan, or otaku, who spends a vast amount of time and effort putting translated subtitles onto anime episodes and then making them available to the general public, mostly through use of p2p (peer to peer) programs. Fansubbers advertise their work on forums or their own websites created especially for the purpose. In the past, fansubbing was a grueling process that involved a lot of expensive equipment, and a dedication that bordered obsessive behaviour. A fansubber would edit VCR copies of anime, and due to the reduced quality of said copies, only 4 or 5 at a time were really viable. They would then be physically mailed to waiting fans around the world. Often a shipping fee was charged through PayPal or some other such online service, but apart from this fee fansubbing was nearly always a free service, done for the love of the series and the desire to spread it to other fans.It was also common to have a standing arrangement where episodes would be swapped, an episode of Star Trek, say, in exchange for one of a popular anime series from Japan.

Fansubbing is a lengthy and involved process even now with the advent of DVDs, which make the amount of copies possible infinite, and the equipment required to edit the episodes digitalized and reduced to software. While fansubbing can be done by just one person, this is unusual;more often than not there will be a team of many people. Their roles are as follows Continue reading Anime and the internet: the impact of fansubbing

On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

by Lois Barnett

Writing from a sociological perspective in 2004, Richard Leppert describes modern life as indexbeing ‘marked and defined by an obsession with ‘evidence’, visual culture and personal visibility’ (2004: 19). Although Leppert’s understanding devised in accordance with a more contemporary context only nine years ago, his observations are concurrent with thought emerging both earlier in the discourse of modernity and in its later academic discussion, highlighting the longevity of these qualities which persist into the present day. These three concepts – a thirst for recorded proof and ‘evidence’, an emphasis on the visual and the rise of individualistic sentiment within an emergent mass culture – are fundamental attributes of the role played by cinema in the formation of modernity. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwarz describe ‘a developing mass audience,’ motivated by the desire to ‘freeze fleeting distractions and evanescent sensations’ via the visual methods facilitated by the ‘talismanic innovations…the telegraph and telephone, railroad and automobile, photograph and cinema’ (1995: 1-3).  Charney and Schwarz conclude that ‘modernity can be best understood as inherently cinematic’ (1995: 1-3).

… the cinema formed a crucible for ideas, techniques, and representational strategies already present in other places…a specific culture of the cinematic emerged from – yet also ran parallel to – other transformations associated with modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in such countries as France, Germany, England, Sweden and the United States. (Charney and Schwarz 1995: 1-3).

The concept of ‘an obsession with ‘evidence’’ is also prevalent in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who argues that:

With the beginning of modern times, religious belief was becoming more and more externalised as a lifeless convention; men of intellect were lifted by a new belief, their great belief in an autonomous philosophy and science. (Garcia-Gomez 2005: 225)

Husserl’s observation that religious beliefs were rapidly being replaced by a ‘new belief’ focused on an ‘autonomous philosophy and science’ describes a replacement of the Church as the source of reason and justification by a terrestrial and human-based form of ‘proven’ knowledge – at its most basic level, this simply depicts cinema as a locus for the invention of modern life due to its technological origins, not dissimilar to Charney and Schwartz’s assertion that cinema became the ‘talismanic innovation’ most symbolic of modern life itself (1995: 1-3).  However, the role of cinema as replacement for theistic power in the development of everyday life transcends its position as a symbol of scientific prowess in two ways: firstly, in its ability to visually capture the scientific ‘evidence’ described by Leppert, and secondly in its creation of a quasi-didactic public space for mass attendance.

The place of the cinema in documenting this ‘evidence’ must be ascertained. The constant thirst for ‘evidence’ itself, which in its very nature requires some kind of recording in accordance with the new thirst for ‘proof’ evoked by the emergent interest in new science described by Husserl, is enabled by the need to capture a ‘moment’ as envisioned by the philosophers of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century. Continue reading On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

Helianthophobia (Three Images of Fear)

by Seán Hudson

In the spirit of the season, let’s look at how horror works. I think we can isolate three images that recur in horror films, each creating affect in its own way. By “image”, I don’t mean a specific delineation that can only be static and visual, but a general delineating type that includes movement and affect. As a disclaimer, I’ll say that any systematising on my part aims not to provide a finalised explanation of how stuff works, but to provoke further thought on the matter at hand – that the following ideas lack rigorous analysis and a dedicated methodological origin can be foreshadowed with the knowledge that I identify precisely three images of fear on the basis that Three is the Magic Number, and it’s that playful time of year when illogical ritualism seems as good a reason as any to go about one’s thoughts.

First image: repulsion. The one that the popular consciousness most readily associates with the horror film. This is the reason that people will hide behind their hands, or if they’re nimble behind their sofas – what we experience is a fear of the image itself, testified to by the fact that we try and protect ourselves from the threat by not looking. This image has enjoyed a recent notoriety in the emergence of the “torture porn” sub-genre, which is all about the threat/promise of showing us what most people would not want to see. Films like Hostel (2005), in which we are forced to watch characters strapped to chairs undergo all manner of painful bodily disfigurement, while we are stuck in our chairs at home daring each other to watch. This voyeuristic image creates an interesting oppositional effect: it’s spectator versus image, the spectator taking on the role of hero and the image taking on the role of monstrous Other, only to be overcome by braving your way through the whole film, surviving in the face of so much death. Continue reading Helianthophobia (Three Images of Fear)

Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film; What does film do?

by Laz Carter

1. Introduction

Film functions in several differing and seemingly contradictory ways. Writing critically about Film Studies as a discipline can leave one feeling fragmented, as in order to focus on a given topic in any depth one has to inevitably ignore vast swathes of data covering topics outside a delineated purview. One could write in detail about Hitchcock’s aesthetics, framing and visuality (Mulvey, 1975) and not draw any attention to sound. One could focus in on the director’s aural style (Weis, 1978) at the expense of discussing his imagery. Neither approach is empirically more robust, each has its own merits, objectives, and pitfalls. Yet taken as individual scholarly texts they provide an incomplete picture of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. By bringing the two perspectives together – along with the abundant alternative approaches that discuss this singular auteur – one can begin to construct a more complex jigsaw of the ‘Hitchcockian’ style.

This example hints at a wider issue within Film Studies of being aware of one’s own limitations in choosing one approach over another. Perhaps more so than any other discipline, Film Studies has a huge array of categories and sub-categories in which to specialise, going far beyond the visual/aural divide. Yet one has to remain aware that these topics are not isolated: a revelation in one critical field can have implications upon several others. For me, this is the joy of the discipline: one has to always be reading (and re-reading) the work of other academics discussing film through differing approaches, styles and linguistic techniques. A discussion of American film in terms of zoom lenses and intricate technical detail (Hall, 2012) might seem completely separate from a discussion of gender identity in film noir (Krutnik, 2002), though they might be debating the same film texts, generic conventions and historical zeitgeists.

Preamble aside, one hopes to have contextualised the fact that what film ‘does’ is inherently subjective. Yet one still has to pick an angle to approach the topic, and for me the most interesting aspect of film has always been the manner in which industrial factors have made an impact upon reception. What does this mean? Continue reading Senses of Cinema, Functions of Film; What does film do?

Film and Hyphology

by Seán Hudson

We think too fast, while on our way somewhere, while walking or in the midst of all sorts of business, even when thinking of the most serious things; we need little preparation, not even much silence: it is as if we carried around in our heads an unstoppable machine that keeps working even under the most unfavourable circumstances. Formerly, one could tell just by looking at a person that he wanted to think – it was probably a rare occurrence! – , that he now wanted to become wiser and was preparing himself for a thought: one would set one’s face as for prayer and stop walking; yes, one stood still for hours on the street once the thought ‘arrived’ – on one or two legs. (Nietzsche 2003: 33-34)

Things happen and we put them into boxes – I think that might be an accurate way of describing the general human relation with experience. It’s very practical, of course; we wouldn’t get far in life, that chaotic whirl of sensations, without organising it into categories, like the self, or race, or gender, etc. No one can deny that humans are expert labellers. But then, conversely, we’ve also developed ways of bypassing our filters: of abandoning our boxes and indulging in their contents. Film has the potential to be one of these tools, to short-circuit cognition in the wake of the primacy of affect.

What does that mean, exactly? I like to think that it’s connected to the peculiar experience I had the other day, sitting outside a café, disoriented, sleep-deprived, and hung-over. I looked up and saw two giant red circles, white within the diametre, each bisected by a thick, blue line. Continue reading Film and Hyphology