AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 172

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Session 172: Material Things: Objects in 1950s and 1960s Japanese Film and Fiction

Organizer and Chair: Helen F. Weetman, University of Denver, USA

Discussant: Stephen H. Dodd, SOAS, United Kingdom

From the roots of the era of high-speed growth to the first fruits of the economic miracle, the 1950s and 1960s are clearly an important period in the history of the object. As Japan turned its back on the shortages of the immediate postwar years and looked instead forward to success measured in material terms, the decades following the Occupation years came to be represented by their ever more luxurious lists of desirable commodities, from the so-called “three sacred regalia” to the “three Cs” and beyond. During the same period, we can perceive a marked turn to the material in avant-garde literature and film. Objects, always present in the mise-en-scène of both literary and cinematographic worlds, are now brought to the center of the frame, repositioned in a critical exploration of developing relationships between people and the things around them. As we can see in the readings presented here, the focus on objects often appears as a critique of the new social and economic order, suggesting the commodification, reification, or articulation of the human as the inevitable outcome of our treatment of things. From stories of people turning into things, to stories of objects imbued with agency, the works to be discussed deal in transactions – actual or perceived - between the human and material worlds, and share a tendency toward anti-naturalist, at times comic, treatment of both person and object. Our panel considers the political and cultural influences shaping these works, as well as the significance of their stylistic choices.

Pavlov, Marx and Surrealism: Abe Kobo’s Objects in his Metamorphosis Stories
Koji Toba, University of Tokushima, Japan

In this paper, I will consider the significance of Abe Kobo’s metamorphosis stories, focusing on the relationships between things and human beings within them. These stories were written at a time when Abe had joined the Japanese Communist Party and become an active organizer within it. While it might appear contradictory to be a materialist JCP member, and at the same time to write surrealistic stories, it does not appear to have been so for Abe. Here I will examine the various sources of Abe’s surrealist materialism. One of the sources of his ideas of metamorphosis was the controversy over realism in art, argued between socialist realists and avant-garde painters and critics. Politically Abe was near the former, but his standpoint as an artist was near the latter. Metamorphosis stories such as Dendrocacalia, in which a man turns inside out to become a plant, derived from these arguments. At the same time, as a Bachelor of Medicine Abe's understanding of surrealism was deeply connected to Pavlov. For him, surrealism was not the technique of automatism or the logic of dreams. It could be explained as a physiological phenomenon which Pavlov mentioned, so totally compatible with his materialism. Abe also read Marx and took metaphors from him to use in his stories. He read The Capital as an exposition of the chain of transformations of commodities rather than as the Bible of Marxism. Abe was not a socialist realist, but his method was materialistic and socialistic in a very unique way.

Animated Objects: Transforming the Material World in 1950s Fiction.
Helen F. Weetman, University of Denver, USA

This paper considers the treatment of “things” in Japanese fiction of the 1950s, focusing on the literary uses of the animated object in the anti-naturalistic work of Ishikawa Jun. The obsessive treatment of inanimate objects as a driving force for the development of narrative is already evident in Ishikawa’s Occupation period fiction, but it is given new possibilities as Ishikawa’s work moves into the realm of the fantastic in the following decade. Exemplified by the car that no longer obeys its driver when it falls under the influence of an acquisitive businessman in the 1954 “Narukami” (Thunder), things in these stories take on lives of their own, but lives that are intimately tied up with (or tied up by) human aspirations and struggles. The dynamic of consumer and consumed that emerges can be related to the socio-political circumstances of Japan in this decade, marked as it is both by economic growth and labor issues. Beyond this political reading, however, my paper will examine the literary effects of this animation of objects, contextualizing it within a broader repositioning of the material in cultural production both in Japan and abroad. Taking into account recent studies of material culture in literature, anthropology, and history, I will consider the importance of the non-human to the 1950s avant-garde, and the techniques explored in its representation.

Caramel Dreams, GDP Nightmares: Characters as commodity in Masumura Yasuzo’s “Giants and Toys”
Patrick A. Terry, University of Oregon, USA

My paper assesses the questions and criticism posed by Masumura Yasuzo’s 1958 film Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu). Specifically, reading this film through the reification of each character in connection with the products they sell or promote provides a deft satire of Japan’s pursuit of economic growth throughout the 1960s. I argue that, in this film, Japan’s national goals come at the expense of the physical health and mental well being of the individuals working to achieve it. The film centers around three candy companies as they market a new line of caramel. Through the eyes of a new hire, Nishi, all levels of the corporate ladder are questioned and skewered. Dividing his attention between three groups - corporate bosses, salary-men, and celebrity figures - Masumura utilizes multiple techniques to highlight each group as an expendable commodity. Much like the bosses in Chaplin’s Modern Times, Nishi’s bosses are the robotic machines of the candy they produce. The salary-men are seen only as the products they sell, the caramel. Celebrity figures are presented like dolls on a shelf, but discarded as quickly as the next model is produced. The culmination of these representations and the film has Nishi literally become the image on the candy wrapper, parading down the streets in the advertising garb of his company. With strong focus on these groups Masumura takes biting satirical aim at the state of Japan’s economic desires, forcing viewers to question the possible effects such pursuits can have on an individual and the nation.

A “Viewing Cure”: Teshigahara Hiroshi’s “Ruined Map”
Peter Tillack, Montana State University, USA

Slavoj Zizek describes the detective as one faced with a problem the traumatic nature of which lies outside the symbolic order. In solving a crime, he narrates the events in question such that they come to accord with that order, “making sense”. A person “supposed to know”, the detective finds his being in the exercise of an evaluating gaze. In this paper, I discuss filmmaker Teshigahara Hiroshi’s 1968 adaptation of Abe Kôbô’s The Ruined Map (1966). If, of Abe’s novel when the detective-- on the verge of finding his missing man-- disappears, we can say that the detective has been “cured” of his “symptom” (“detective”), then we can assert that Teshigahara’s use of the city’s surfaces evokes how the millions of Japanese living through Japan’s “economic miracle” have been articulated by the reigning discourse of “managed society” (kanri shakai) through which they live out their symptoms as non-alienated, productive “members” of society. I focus on Teshigahara’s shots of various objects, such as the mirrored windows of Tokyo’s new skyscrapers, as well as shots from hubcaps and curbs (“impossible” POV loci) to argue that such things are used to attribute Tokyo itself with a disembodied agency. Depicting the detective as observed rather than observer, such shots effectively convey the detective’s creeping awareness that his identity as such is illusory. As I argue, Teshigahara’s non-realistic shots are one way of engaging a milieu which, at this historical juncture, one critic described as having become “too amorphous to be circumscribed by documentation and observation”.