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On Hasumi

Richard I. Suchenski

I first became seriously interested in the critical method of Shigehiko Hasumi

while studying in Kyoto in 2003. Aware of his towering reputation and influence, I
began exploring his published writings, and was thrilled to discover the prominence
accorded to three filmmakers whose seemingly inexhaustible body of work has
remained of vital importance to me: John Ford, Yasujirō Ozu and Jean Renoir. The
first seminar I organised when I became a professor was a comparative study of
these three filmmakers, which gave me the welcome opportunity to introduce my own
students to the handful of Hasumi essays that are currently available in English.

Refreshingly, Hasumi’s critical style is neither belletristic nor the product of a

reductive formalism. Instead, it operates by a quietly rigorous process of
accumulation, beginning with the close observation of small details and gradually
generating layers of associations that provide insight into the nature, structure
and experience of cinema, even as they make the films themselves seem even more
mysterious. This method is all too rare in film studies, but there are analogues in
art history. One could, for example, productively compare Hasumi’s discussions of
thrown objects in Ford’s films with the reflexive discussions of painter’s hands in
books by Michael Fried or André Malraux. (2) My hope was that Hasumi’s supple,
nuanced essays would help students understand that it is not enough simply to
identify a recognisable stylistic signature, that true criticism entails a
rigorous, creative, dynamic process whose interpretive boundaries and potential for
illumination are delimited by the particularities and preoccupations of the
cinematic worlds constructed by great filmmakers.

This is especially true for filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, who elegantly
connect aspects of montage and mise en scène into integrated stylistic patterns
that reflect their distinctive approach to cinema. Hasumi has written eloquently
about Godard’s use of lamps, and his treatment of books is equally revealing.

1. Among others, see these two essays published in Rouge: ‘Ozu’s Angry Women’
(Issue 4, 2004) and ‘John Ford, or the Eloquence of Gesture’ (Issue 7, 2005).

2. See especially the final section of Malraux’s The Voices of Silence (Paris:
Gallimard, 1951); Fried’s Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1990) and The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
Tellingly, JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December (1994) includes a dialectically
paired set of tracks across Godard’s bookshelves. During both the right-to-left and
left-to-right tracks, the attentive viewer’s eye is drawn to the two books
positioned at an angle next to the photograph of Orson Welles (the presence of the
yellow lamp makes them easier to spot).

The books are Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, works that are quoted at length in
Nouvelle Vague (1990) and are crucial reference points for the Histoire(s) du
cinéma (1988-1998) project that JLG/JLG was designed to be seen with. (3) In this
respect, Godard’s practice can best be described by one of Robert Bresson’s maxims:
‘Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most
hidden’. (4)

Other filmmakers, less inclined to emphasise concepts and genealogies, have made
more playful use of these sorts of objects. In the films of Ozu, they take on an
unusual double function, grounding his narrative spaces in everyday reality, while
simultaneously pushing them into another, more abstract plane. Smokestacks, tea
kettles, brooms, shop signs and telephone wires all register as physical things in
Ozu’s films, but their arrangement frequently suggests the geometric abstraction of
De Stijl or the Bauhaus.

3. In ‘Le Bon Plaisir de Jean-Luc Godard’, Godard said that he ‘would

prefer that JLG/JLG be shown at the same time as Histoire(s) du cinéma. One could
see at the same time the work and one way that the author has signed the work, by
making [his] self-portrait’. From Alain Bergala, ed., Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc
Godard, tome II: 1984–1998 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1985), p. 312 (translation

4. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin

(Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1997), p. 44
Ozu also structured his films with an astonishing level of formal consistency. As
an experiment, I once asked a projectionist to run randomly selected reels from two
Ozu films made a decade apart back-to-back; even though one was shot in black-and-
white and the other in colour, there was an almost perfect match of eyelines and
spatial arrangement, and the transition from one film to the other was virtually

Was Ozu then a modernist artist masquerading as a studio craftsman? One partial
answer is provided by the décor in his films. The interiors of Tokyo Chorus (1931),
for example, include both a post-Cubist still life and a modern portrait of a woman
in a kimono, and these paintings are made to rhyme with the desks, bookshelves,
tatami mats and doorways that define the rooms as both lived spaces and as
constitutive parts of cinematic compositions.

Ozu’s slyly comic approach is exemplified elsewhere in the film by a scene in which
a rebellious child disrupts this carefully calibrated sense of spatial balance by
poking his hand through a shōji screen and eating it.

Similarly, in watching a group of John Ford’s most important Westerns, one will
undoubtedly be struck by the frequent adoption of virtually identical vantage
points in Monument Valley. Ford was not the first director to shoot there, but he
cinematically re-invented the location in the cycle of films that begins with
Stagecoach (1939). The treatment of scale and motion in those films builds upon the
visual strategies of 19th century precursors like painter/sculptor Frederic
Remington and photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, but the formal rhythms and serial
transformations of space are uniquely Ford’s. By contrasting the stasis of the
buttes with the rapid movement of the horses below, and reinforcing their
geological immensity through framing, Ford was able to imbue Monument Valley itself
with a range of complex associations, making it part of an internal network that
would resonate across and between films.

In this way, the memorial quality of Ford’s first postwar Western, My Darling
Clementine (1946), is strengthened by the parallelism of the slightly tilted
gravestone and the natural monument in the background, which in turn deepens the
implications of the surprising transition from the dance to the graveyard in She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
This use of visual echoes also enriches the iconographic transformations in Ford’s
darkest Western, The Searchers (1956).

Close attention to Ford’s obsessive returns to these spaces can also help us
understand the ways in which artistic developments intersect with historical
circumstances. In the most visually arresting moment of Sergeant Rutledge (1961),
Ford freezes on a low-angle close-up of the protagonist’s face, framed so that the
arc of his bald head precisely mirrors the curve of the butte in the background.

The ennobling function of this juxtaposition, in a film that explicitly attempts to

redress the racial balance of the genre, is clear. Yet, in comparison to similarly
iconic shots of John Wayne in earlier films – shots in which the human figure
derives strength from the phallic peaks, but retains a full-bodied distance that
make the relationship organic – the later image can be seen as over-reaching its
objective, giving the Rutledge character an impersonal, sculptural solidity. (5)

5.This association is made even more explicit in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), which
begins and ends with a shot of a Native American statue that is unintentionally
suggestive of the manner in which the sensuous widescreen images of Monument Valley
can be made remote and ponderous by the overloading of meaning.

Even the most ekphrastic criticism, however, will be unable to fully convey the
affective register of a film – the complex interplay between, for example, Wayne’s
tightening cheeks, his flickering scarf, and the swelling music that makes Ethan
Edwards’ discovery of the massacre in The Searchers so startlingly powerful.

Hasumi recognises this difficulty, and his work shows how criticism can be
constructively reoriented around the evolution of exemplary gestures within and
between bodies of work. By focusing rigorously and intensively on these seemingly
minor details, his writings simulate a dialogue between the (not always fully
conscious) creative imaginations of auteurs, and the experience of a viewer
actively engaged with the moment-to-moment flow of an unspooling film. The hypnotic
concentration encouraged by the projection situation is paramount – and Hasumi’s
film criticism is an implicit testament to the vitality of cinematic spectatorship
– but the emphasis is on the way the viewer/reader/critic transforms salient
details into patterns when they are recalled. Appropriately, the stakes of many of
Hasumi’s essays become clear only at the end.

This is certainly true of the beautiful analysis of Flowers of Shanghai (1998) that
Hasumi contributed to the book I edited on Hou Hsiao-hsien. (6) Fortuitously, Café
Lumière (2003), Hou’s subtle and inventive homage to Ozu, had premiered in Japan at
the time I made my first trip to Tokyo in December 2003. It was thus especially
meaningful to have both Hasumi and Hou present for a lecture I gave at Yurakucho
Asahi Hall twelve years later. What I remember most was the question Hasumi asked
after I finished speaking. The lecture was about Hou’s use of montage and point-of-
view, and Hasumi asked how what I had said might apply to the three comedies Hou
made before the stylistic breakthroughs of The Sandwich Man and The Boys from
Fengkuei in 1983. It was a moving reminder that, in criticism, sometimes moving
away from the centre is the best way to bring our object into focus.
6. Richard I. Suchenski, ed., Hou Hsiao-hsien (Vienna: Österreichisches
Filmmuseum & New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

© Richard I. Suchenski, 2016.

Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.


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