Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism

Hey there! Here is my final piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon. I hope that you have enjoyed these pieces and perhaps donated a little money along with the your time spent reading them. I appreciate and so do the people of Japan. Thanks again to Japancinema.net and Cinema-Fanatic.com for putting this blogathon together so quickly. Great work, guys!

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The historical relationship between cinema, the state, and nationalism is as complicated as it is far reaching. In reality, these things have always been intertwined; although, for reasons that will be made clear, this fact has not always had the greatest outcome. As the state governs the finances of any given country, and many countries’ film industries are at least partially sponsored by those monies, many a country has seen economic state involvement in their filmmaking. Film is essentially a cultural product and, as Benedict Anderson states, the cultural products of a country have always shown immense dedication to a sense of national spirit or pride[1]. Following this logic, whatever involvement the state might have had with film has also been an involvement with a strong sense of nationalism. Amongst the many examples of this, the two most explicit examples of the historical involvement of politics and national identity in cinema can be seen in the cinemas of Italy and Japan.

According to Paolo Cherci Usai, Italian film production began fairly late compared with the rest of Europe. However, after 1905, the “rate of production increased dramatically in Italy, so that for the four years preceding the First World War it took its place as one of the major powers in world cinema.”[2] From this point up until Mussolini came into power and the talkies began, the Italian national cinema was fairly free and successful, barring the periods of hefty competition that it suffered from other nations such as the US and Germany. When Mussolini and fascism got involved, the entire industry and its product altered dramatically.

As sound was being introduced, the national cinema that had previously ranged from historically-based films (such as Alberini’s La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870/The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870 or Pastrone’s Cabiria)

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

to socially concerned literary adaptations (like Ambrosio’s Cenere/Ash, based on a book by Grazia Deledda) shifted its content as a result of being under complete state control. Although the “official sanctioning” of censorship passed in 1923 and was “honed and perfected” throughout the next few years, the committed involvement of the Fascist regime was, as Morando Morandini notes, late in arrival.[3] However, once they got involved, they effected harsh and quick changes to the entire Italian cinema culture. While previous Italian films had definitely promoted a sense of nationalism, the fascist state sought to gear Italian cinema toward its own concept of national identity, through censorship and other means.

As far as the silver screen was concerned, Mussolini’s slogan, paraphrasing Lenin, and mirroring the sentiment of the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was “For us, cinema is the strongest weapon.” He advocated a strong censorship code as well as economically facilitating a complete restructuring of the Italian film industry. In 1935, the Direzione Generale per le Cinematografia was established to “co-ordinate film industry affairs.” As Ephraim Katz relates, by the onset of World War II,

The government had taken firm control of the film industry…an ingenious scheme made it illegal to show foreign films in their original language versions or subtitled: they had to be completely dubbed into Italian, a process that made it easy to substitute whole sections of dialogue, thus purging the films of any “harmful” ingredients.[4]

The vast quantity of Italian films during this era belonged to (primarily) one of two categories. The first category was the telefoni bianchi films or “white telephone” films, known as such because of the continual presence of shiny, white telephones.

"White Telephone" movies

These movies were primarily made up of  “glossy” escapist comedies or dramas, emphasizing upper class values and glamour. The second category was the propaganda film, which Morandini divides up into four types: patriotic and/or military films, films about Italy’s “African mission,” costume dramas that were a “parade of precursors of the ‘Duce,’” and anti-Bolshevik/anti-Soviet films.[5] All of the propaganda films concentrated heavily on a nationalistic spirit, proving the “superiority” of Italy and Italian culture through cinematic representation.

Whether a propaganda film or a telefoni bianchi film, it is clear that Mussolini’s influence altered cinematic product. Within these genres that either emphasized complete negation of contemporary realities or centered solely on the government’s definition of national identity, the incestuous relationship that had been forged between government, nationalism, and cultural product was obviously at the forefront. Mussolini’s censorship laws and dubbing laws made it impossible for any outside product to enter the country without being tampered with, not to mention the fact that any and all films with “questionable” content were considered illegal and therefore not allowed to be made. There was even a law that stated that for every three foreign films shown (which were “fixed”, censorship-wise), an Italian film (also “fixed” due to national cinema-creation laws) must be projected, reiterating the nationalism that Mussolini wanted to instill in his subjects. The state maintained complete control over what the Italian public was exposed to. It is not surprising then, that shortly after this period, the Neo-Realist movement came along to try to break free from governmentally imposed ideologies of national identity.

Italy, however, was not alone in being affected by the relations between cinema and state. The Japanese cinema culture had been dealing in national identity since it began, and, at approximately the same time that the Italian Neo-Realists moved in to try to shatter the hold that Fascism had on their cinematically developed national identity, a group of directors in Japan attempted to do the same thing.

Audie Bock identifies the Japanese cinema as having three significant periods: the “first golden age” in the 1930’s, the generation that “emerged from the moral chaos after the war,” and what she calls the “new mood” in the 1960’s, that spawned a “new wave.”[6] Within the first two periods, the three most common genres in the Japanese cinema were jidai-geki (period dramas),

Hibari Misora, famous Japanese Enka singer who starred in many jidai-geki.

gendai-geki (modern dramas), and, the lesser known, shomin-geki (films mainly portraying the daily life of the lower-middle class). After the war, the United States occupied Japan, outlawing any film that seemed to possess nationalistic rhetoric, thus the jidai-geki, seen as supporting the feudal system and celebrating Japanese historical events, were made illegal.

The imperialistic action taken by the US in banning the jidai-geki was not only one of the catalysts towards the creation of the Japanese New Wave, it also serves as an example of how governmental incursions (even from foreign governments) can have a serious effect on a given cultural product and its influence on national identity. The removal of the jidai-geki was a huge blow to Japan’s national image. Censoring or outlawing this genre was one of the ways that the US was able to humiliate Japan, and maintain power. Like Mussolini, by controlling the images, the US was attempting to control national identity, as well.

Not everyone took too kindly to being occupied by the US. In fact, a cadre of filmmakers objected to it and its impact on Japan with fervor, and displayed that in a set of films made in the 1960’s. In his incisive work on Japanese New Wave cinema, David Desser defines the New Wave as a movement “concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society and with isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances.”[7]

Japanese poster for Ko Nakahira's film, Crazed Fruit (1956). This film is widely considered to be one of the first films in the Japanese New Wave movement.

Annette Michelson historicizes this movement for us in a very insightful manner. She addresses the political events and resultant student protests that sparked the hearts, minds, and cameras of these New Wave filmmakers into action, stating

It was in the struggle of 1959-60, against ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in both its original and revised versions, that the movement reached its culmination. Ending in defeat, the struggle, which left its mark on the Japanese polity- and upon its artistic practices-must be seen as linked to the more general movement of opposition to the United States’ Cold War policy. [8]

By identifying the movement as being located within the confines of this protest against imperialism and political policy, Michelson catalogues the location of this film movement. In doing so, we are shown the development of a new Japanese national identity, based not on past oppressions, but upon breaking free of those bonds.

Ironically, most of the Japanese New Wave filmmakers were not independent. Like the US, the Japanese film industry had a system that involved not only vertical integration, but contracted directors. Thus, most of the films that are considered “New Wave” were actually studio films! Directors like Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, and Nagisa Oshima all subverted the system from the inside out, although eventually leaving the big studios like Shochiku, to search of a more autonomous creative environment.

Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships (1961) directly confronted issues having to do with the US military and the Japanese class system.

Out of all the New Wave directors, the one who exemplifies and reveals the most in regards to the movement is Nagisa Oshima. Not unlike Sergei Eisenstein, or many of the young men at Cahiers du Cinema, Oshima was not only a skilled director, but he was a frequent contributor to many film publications. Throughout his career he wrote extensively, not only about his own work and films he enjoyed, but also about the state of Japanese cinema and its relation to politics and history. His film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), is an exquisite example, not just of a New Wave film, but also of the relationship that Japanese cinema and its “studio system” had to the political situation at the time.

Night and Fog in Japan (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

David Desser describes Night and Fog in Japan as

One of the paradigmatic films of the Japanese New Wave Cinema…The film is explicitly about the political protests surrounding the renewal of the Security Pact and about the politics that characterized the immediate postwar era. As if to insist on the difference between the generation of the 1960s and its immediate predecessor in the postwar era, Oshima’s film juxtaposes two groups of student radicals- student Communists in 1952 and student protestors in 1960.[9]

Four days after the film was released, Shochiku, the studio Oshima was under contract to at the time, pulled Night and Fog, claiming “poor box office.” Oshima was livid. He knew that it was not the box office that was the problem. After four days? It wasn’t even given a fighting chance! In a highly passionate article in Film Criticism, Oshima addresses Shochiku, directing his protest to their “executive offices.” With “unrelenting anger,” Oshima writes,

This massacre is clearly political oppression. This is demonstrated by the film’s having been withdrawn in spite of the fact that its box-office figures were only slightly lower than usual, and by the sudden way it was withdrawn. If this isn’t political oppression, let even one theater, one independent screening group, give it one opportunity to be shown! Lend it out!…If this isn’t political oppression, what is it?[10]

Oshima continues, stating that Shochiku has “succumbed to political oppression” and that Night and Fog is a crucial film if for no other reason than the Japanese audiences have been given “foolish movies” for too long. Oshima ends the article on a determined note. He grimly states that he is not about to give up, because he believes “in the potential of the audience- that is to say, of the people. I believe they can change…I will continue to make work like this.”[11] The fortitude that Oshima shows, as well as his populist stance, exhibits a sense of strong national identity against the workings of the state. In addition, this article shows Oshima’s immense dedication to the cinema, even within a system of politics that was seeking to undo him, and disassemble the power of a movement designed specifically to stimulate a new kind of nationalism for the Japanese people.

Within the cinematic histories of Japan and Italy we can see two explicit examples of the relationships that are formed between cinema, nationalism and the state. Viewed in a larger perspective, there is a relationship between the two countries based on time period and global history. Italy was not alone in its experience. Many countries previous to and during World War II experienced periods of forced artistic submission, creating feelings of oppression that built up and exploded onto the creative world in the 1960s. Even the United States film industry was a victim of the state, dealing with the Production Code Administration and its censorship techniques. The Japanese New Wave demonstrates the next stage in this process, showing the ultimate effects of a country’s subjugation to an unwanted authoritative power.


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

[2] Usai, Paolo Cherci. “Italy: Spectacle and Melodrama.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Morandini, Morando. “Italy From Fascism to Neo-Realism.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[4] Katz, Ephraim. “Italy.” The Film Encyclopedia, 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

[5] Morandini, ibid.

[6] Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978.

[7] Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[8] Michelson, Annette. “Introduction.” Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[9] Desser, ibid.

[10] Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[11] Oshima, ibid.

Silence=Death (to Feminism & Sexuality)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a dinner table in Santa Barbara, California with many amazing women who were, like me, presenting at the Console-ing Passions conference. We had phenomenal discussion, some laughs, and great times. Over the weekend, I was incredibly impressed with many things, but that meal stood out in my mind as it drew me to some incredible panels and introduced me to intensely interesting new scholarship I was previously unaware of.

One of the primary figures at that meal was a woman named Tristan Taormino. Not only was she well-spoken and funny, but she was quick, smart and incredibly incisive when discussing issues in and around feminism and sexuality. I remember sitting across from her and thinking, “This is what a successful woman looks like.” It was a fabulous time, as right beside her sat another woman who I have greatly admired throughout my academic career, Constance Penley. Needless to say, the fact that I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot would have been enough for me, but we ended up having some very intriguing conversations on the projects that Taormino was working on and the state of the adult industry  in general. I learned quite a lot. I would like to think I contributed, but who knows?

Since then, I have followed Taormino’s career in earnest, having seen her presentation at the conference and found it to be like her: bold, intelligent, and necessary. While being a feminist does not mean that you have to be interested in pornographic content or the film work that she does, I feel that her work is incredibly helpful on many levels to many groups of people. She is sex-positive (refreshing in a world that seems to hate the body and sexuality so very much), and has made the attempt to use that in a very productive way to help others, through books, articles, and cinema. This is a very basic and shallow description of her, and I would ask you to inquire further into her career if it seems like something that would be of interest to you. Be warned, it is all adult-themed (not work-safe), but it is all worthwhile, as is she.

So why this article? Well, this morning I awoke to some rather disconcerting news. Taormino, who had been scheduled to be the key-note speaker at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex Conference, was “uninvited” due to her resume and website.

Um, excuse me? So, let me get this straight- you booked her, knowing full well what she does for a living (which extends so far beyond pornography it’s laughable), confirmed the date, agreed to fees, did all the business-y type stuff, then you looked at the resume and website? And, OSU, I hate to split hairs, but I looked at your Modern Sex Conference and…you have some panels there that seem decently risqué. So can you explain to me why you are tossing Tristan Taormino, former editor of On Our Backs, the nation’s longest running lesbian-produced lesbian magazine, a woman who has been on a multitude of television channels discussing sexuality, a woman who lectures at universities from the east to the west coast (ones WAY more highly regarded than you), and (not that this matters, but if a pedigree means something to you) the niece of Thomas Pynchon??

They said something about fearing that they would have the university’s budget cut as it was being used to support pornography. Um, ok. Interesting that Tristan’s response to the entire debacle was:

“I’m extremely disappointed that OSU has decided to cancel my appearance. I’ve been protested before, but never uninvited. I have never misrepresented who I am or what I do. I am proud of all the work I do, including the sex education films and feminist pornography I make. The talk I planned to give at this conference, titled “Claiming Your Sexual Power” has nothing to do with porn, but the porn is such an easy target for anti-sex conservatives and censors. I find it ironic that one of the missions of the conference is to understand diverse perspectives of sexuality. Apparently, my perspective—one of educating and empowering people around their sexuality—isn’t welcome at OSU.”

I have two words for you Oregon State University: not cute. And actually I have one more word: CENSORSHIP.

See, here’s the really sticky part. And this is the part that got in my craw the worst. On Tristan’s twitterfeed today, she wrote:

“Several OSU staff have contacted me w/support but won’t support me publicly for fear of losing their jobs, they say.”

WOW. I don’t know about you, but that got me. As someone who got laid off from a job I liked, in a bad economy, I know how much a job means. So this is no joke. But I’m not going to mince words here: this is some fucked up shit. My gut reaction made me ill. Why? I didn’t know what I would do if I was in the position of one of those staff members. I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I realized that there was no way in the world that if I worked at OSU, I would ever pussyfoot my way around the situation.

What if this weren’t about sexually charged subject matter?

Would we allow censorship to take hold of us that hard that we would not stand up for ourselves and what we believe in? And if so, what will we become? I know that we have families, children, friends, lovers, pets, responsibilities. Hell, times are tough. But do tough times mean that we sell out each other? Some may say I cannot equate what happened today with Tristan Taormino/OSU to historic events like McCarthyism or Germany in WWII. And yes, it seems like hyperbole. Maybe it is. I haven’t eaten a lot today. But when I sit here, and think about the situation, it scares me. This is a mild situation. What if it were something larger?

The concept that fear overrides personal values frightens me. If every one of those staff members publicly came together in support of this women, they would not be afraid of losing their jobs. Yet, losing one’s job in this economy is a fate close to death it seems. Unemployment is an endless void that one does not want to fall into. “Keep that job at all costs,” the voice says, “even if it means sacrificing your own belief system.”

ROUGH.

In truth, the fact that they are not letting Tristan Taormino speak at a MODERN SEX CONFERENCE means that they are not so modern after all. Instead, she will be appearing at a place called She Bop in Portland, a female-friendly adult shop. Preaching to the converted, I guess, but at least still doing it.

If any of this bugs you the way it bugged me, please read this note from Tristan and respond in kind:

Note from Tristan:

Don’t Let the Anti-Sex Conservatives Win!

If you support free speech and my mission of sexual empowerment, please voice your opinion about OSU’s decision to cancel my appearance at the last minute (and not reimburse me for travel expenses) to the following people. I would really appreciate your support —Tristan

Larry Roper
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
541-737-3626 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: larry.roper@oregonstate.edu

Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
541-737-8748 (phone)
541-737-9160 (fax)
email: deanofstudents@oregonstate.edu
twitter: @deanmamta

Dr. Edward J. Ray
President
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128
541-737-4133  (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: pres.office@oregonstate.edu

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