Book Review

Daisuke Miyao, Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema (Duke University Press, 2020)

Author: Ruoyi Bian (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

  • Daisuke Miyao, Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema (Duke University Press, 2020)

    Book Review

    Daisuke Miyao, Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema (Duke University Press, 2020)

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Bian, R., (2022) “Daisuke Miyao, Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema (Duke University Press, 2020)”, Film Criticism 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2716

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Published on
22 Jun 2022
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Although Japonisme, as an influential trend in late nineteenth-century Europe, has been well-discussed in the context of visual arts, media, and Orientalism separately, in Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema Daisuke Miyao provides a new perspective to the interdisciplinary discussion of the history of cinema and the discourse of Orientalism. Based on a large number of Lumière films, photographs, and paintings, Miyao examines the birth of cinema with special attention to Japonisme (the popularity of Japanese elements in the Western art designs) in late nineteenth-century France, considering how Japanese society and the Western gaze influence each other. By bringing Japonisme, film history, visual arts, and Orientalism together in one book, Miyao presents the historical dialogues between Europe/America and Japan within the context of the Lumière films as an inspiration for today’s discussion on challenging Eurocentrism and cultural essentialism.

Miyao starts with the examination of specific techniques that the Lumière films borrow from Japanese art. In Chapter 1, Miyao discusses the influence of Japanese paintings of ukiyo-e on the impressionist and postimpressionist painters in the compositional principles of kinzō-gata-kōzu/chūkei-datsuraku/en=kin-hō, which emphasizes the contrast between the frontal layers and the back. He argues that not only the impressionist painters like Monet and Cézanne have included this compositional principle in their paintings, for instance, Monet’s The Banks of the Seine or, Spring through the Trees (1878), but many Lumière films, including Panorama pendant l’ascencion de la tour Eiffel (Panoramic View During Ascension of the Eiffel Tower) (1897), have also adopted this composition to create the “à travers” effect to mobilize human eyes. Juxtaposing Japanese paintings by ukiyo-e painters like Utagawa, the impressionist paintings, and different types of Lumière films that are engaged with the kinzō-gata-kōzu/chūkei-datsuraku/en=kin-hō composition, Miyao points out in this chapter that Lumière films use the motion picture camera instead of the painter’s brushes to reclaim the physicality of human eyes.

In Chapter 2 Miyao further digs into the mutual influence and communications between Japanese culture and society and French cinematography through nativized Orientalism and internalized Orientalism. Miyao borrows the term nativized Orientalism from art historian Norman Bryson’s essay “Furansu no orientarizumu kaiga ni okeru ‘tasha’” (“The Other” in French Orientalist paintings) to discuss the real scenes of the Japanese family, street, and people appearing in the thirty-three films produced in Japan by Constant Girel and Gabriel Veyre, two cinematographers sent by the Lumière Company. As Miyao observes, although the scenes are filmed in Japan, many of them do not conform to the real Japanese custom. Instead, the “Japanese tradition” reflected in these films is staged or invented by the Western cinematographers and the Japanese actors, with the purpose of catering “to the Orientalist fantasy that the Western gaze owned,” also the so-called nativized Orientalism.1 Instead of passively being watched, the Japanese actor Inabata Katrsutarō helps create a dialogic moment between the photographer and the photographed by giving a self-conscious performance of the exotic Other.

Following nativized Orientalism, in Chapter 3, Miyao proposes another related concept: internalized Orientalism. Different from the outward focus of nativized Orientalism, internalized Orientalism is more related to the self-recognition of the modernizing Japanese nation within the Western gaze and the Orientalist fantasy. Japan starts its full modernization and Westernization after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century is the period when the Japanese government strives to find a place for itself among the Western countries and to establish an ideal cultural image for not only the international society but also its domestic audience. Through a detailed analysis of Momijigari (1899), a film photographed by Shibata Tsunekichi, Miyao discusses the turning from nativized Orientalism to internalized Orientalism and takes the film as an example of the combination of catering to the European Orientalist gaze and re-examining its own culture from a Westernized point of view.

Although Miyao mainly focuses on the two-way conversation between Japan and French cinematography in the trend of Japonisme in the late nineteenth century, he brings the discussion of Japonisme and film beyond France and Japan in the epilogue. Looking into the stardom of Aoki Tsuruko, a Japanese actress in Hollywood, Miyao expands the negotiation of the Orientalist fantasy between Japan and the Western world into the United States and indicates an even broader space for the re-examination and further development of this topic in the future.

Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema fills a gap between film history, Japonisme, and the Orientalist discourse and brings a new perspective into these fields. Backed up by a close examination of a large number of primary sources, including the 1428 Lumière films and plenty of photographs and paintings, Miyao not only presents a solid statement about the correlation between Japonisme and the birth of cinema and the two-way communication between Japanese culture and the Western world but also provides a unique approach to the discussion of Eurocentrism and the West/East opposition. The careful examination and classification of the Lumière films that Miyao undertakes in this book would also inspire further recognition of the potential value of historical studies and its role in examining the developing trajectory of Orientalism and Eurocentrism discourse.

Moreover, Miyao’s discussion of nativized Orientalism and internalized Orientalism goes beyond the field of Japanese studies. Closely engaged with Orientalism and Nationalism discourse, researchers in such fields as region studies and cultural studies can also benefit greatly from Miyao’s book. Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema gives a clear demonstration of Miyao’s statement in the Introduction: “Orientalism was a one-directional gaze from the West toward the East, but Japonisme was a two-way conversation.”2 Although Miyao’s discussion does not touch upon the intricate international relations in terms of politics as a vital background and condition for the transcultural communications, the accurate language and expression in this book, together with ample pictures, provides a pleasant and beneficial reading experience for readers from varied knowledge backgrounds.

Author Biography:

Ruoyi Bian is a Ph.D. student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with research interests in Chinese modern literature, gender studies, film.

Notes

  1. Daisuke Miyao, Japonisme And the Birth of Cinema (Duke University Press, 2020), 13. [^]
  2. Ibid., 7. [^]