[Report] Presentation by Antoine de Mena: "Yamanaka Sadao's Cinema and Records of War Experience"

11 November, 2013 Mark ROBERTS

On November 6th, filmmaker Antoine de Mena gave a presentation entitled "Yamanaka Sadao's Cinema and Records of War Experience: An Example of Resistance to Narratives of Empire".

Mr. De Mena's current research and documentary film practice explore visual representations of confrontation and resistance under the Japanese Empire. As a part of this event, De Mena showed work-in-progress excerpts of a documentary he is currently filming about Yamanaka Sadao.


In this presentation, De Mena begins by recalling the last year of Yamanaka's life, during which he was drafted to serve in China as a member of the Japanese infantry. It was during this period, from September 1937 until his untimely death in September 1938, that Yamanaka kept a war journal and took a large number of photographs in China. In this story of the war, Yamanaka conveys as lived experience what we often associate with the conflict of this period — the front, the battle of Nanking, the advance of the troops, the unspeakable atrocities of war — and with everything this experience implies: a witness who describes the experience of his own dehumanization for readers at a distance.

De Mena draws our attention to the fact that Yamanaka's war experience has received little attention in accounts of his film practice, and that no critics have attempted to link Yamanaka's documentary practice with his works of fiction, except in the service of cultivating the image of a humanist filmmaker who died as a martyr in resistance to the militarism of the 1930s.


Departing from the canonical image of Yamanaka, then, De Mena recalls Hasumi Shigehiko's characterization of Yamanaka as a member of the first Japanese nouvelle vague, proposing that we consider Yamanaka's works in this spirit. Here, De Mena argues that we can discern a striking continuity between Yamanaka's dramatic, fiction films and the documentary material he recorded in China during the last year of his life. More specifically, De Mena proposes that what we should notice and consider here is a specific form of the gaze [le regard] in Yamanaka's work. As an approach to understanding this gaze and these images, De Mena recalls the Benjaminian notion that images only become readable in a specific epoch, i.e., perhaps not in their own.

De Mena proposes, further, that the gaze we encounter across Yamanaka's production may be explicitly opposed to an "Imperial gaze" [le regard de l'Empire] associated with works of militarist propaganda. Inspired by the work of Michaël Lucken, De Mena suggests that we might think about this gaze in terms of what Pierre Legendre describes as a "mirror" function, by which the industrial production of cultural goods works to separate national subjects in East Asia — separating Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc. In the context of the cinema, this "Imperial gaze" also implies a certain logic of narrative which, for example, appears in a film such as Tasaka Tomotaka's Tsuchi to heitai (1939). On this reading, Yamanaka's films are remarkable insofar as they operate "against the grain" of this logic.


Another way to approach this, De Mena suggests, is as a question of the politics of the image [la question politique des images] and, as J.-L. Godard would describe it, the failure of cinema, as an institution, to confront this question. To underscore this, De Mena addresses Yamanaka's photographs, the subjects that he chose to study, and his interest in marginal subjects, for example. Here, there is a question of the "innocence" of the gaze and, implicitly, a question of an ethics of the gaze. As a way to elaborate Yamanaka's film practice, De Mena considers the hors-champ, that is, the space that is not shown, that is systematically excluded from view by practices of mise-en-scène. The dimensions of the hors-champ should be considered in relation to the "Imperial gaze", but there is also a proposition here about how what is not shown or not said to us is, precisely in its absence, shown or said.

Finally, De Mena recalls the opposition between Godard and Harun Farocki, as described by Georges Didi-Huberman, in which Godard draws attention to the failure of cinema to impede or slow the self-destruction of the human race — another way of speaking about the "loss of innocence" of the cinema —, while Farocki calls on us to never stop asking "how and why the production of cinematic images participates in the destruction of human beings." In this opposition, it may be more profitable, De Mena submits, to consider Farocki's injunction, that is, to take up anew our own critical interrogation of the film image.

— Report by M. Downing Roberts

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