Title: The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan
Author: Eric Cazdyn
Publication Year: 2002
Publisher: Duke University Press
For all of the back-breaking piles of academic books I read, I sure don’t get around to reviewing many. I suppose this is because I spend so much of what passes for my real life writing about them that I don’t have many nice things to say at the end of the day. The Flash of Capital is an exception. Perhaps I feel this way because I was inspired to read every word of the book – and Cazdyn’s book is not easy to read. Interesting and thought-provoking, yes, original, yes, lots of fun, yes, but not easy to read. If you are at all interested in Japan, film, or even Japanese film, though, it’s worth the trouble.
Cazdyn’s basic thesis is that the major trends of Japanese film correspond with the major developments of capitalism in Japan, which is only natural, considering that both movies and modern capitalism came to Japan at roughly the same time. The first five of the six chapters explore these intersections by examining certain key questions of film studies. For example, the second chapter is concerned with film historiography and how the discourses surrounding the Japanese state have shaped the way that critics and scholars have talked and written about film. The fourth chapter discusses how economic development, especially as it has engendered interest in socialism, has affected the agency of the actor. It also touches on the politically utopian and dystopian implications of the professionalism or amateur status of the actor. And the fifth chapter, which focuses on pornography, completely changed the way I think about the meaning of visual representation in film. The sixth chapter takes the various concepts presented in these five chapters and uses them to give new, interesting, and politically significant readings to the canonical films of canonical directors, like Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon, Ozu Yasujirō’s Late Spring, and Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell.
My favorite part of the book, however, was not the theoretical acrobatics or the micro-analysis of non-mainstream films and directors, but rather the information regarding the cultural context surrounding each topic. For example, the first chapter, which concerns the relationship between actors, spectators, and the medium of film, begins with a discussion of kabuki, which is linked to a discussion of the wanted posters for the members of the Aum Shinri-kyō cult (responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks). And the discussion of the pornography industry in Japan in the fifth chapter is beyond fascinating.
Unfortunately, the valuable ideas and information presented by Cazdyn occasionally become mired in the language of post-structuralist theory. Some of his sentences derailed me for days at a time. I will give an example:
The problem, instead, lies in the way Iwasaki works through the problematics, which ultimately betrays (the dialectical implications of) his work’s title and resembles a teleological history more than a relational one, with the telos being the birth of the proletarian film or even a later moment of actually existing socialism.
Excuse me, what? I’m feeling a little stupid and uneducated here. Also, as you might be able to tell from the above passage, Cazdyn is a bit of a Marxist. Although he vehemently denies such an affiliation, his ideology comes on fairly strong at points, such as at the close of the fourth chapter:
What Ogawa’s Sundial Carved by a Thousand Years of Notches (and the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival that it inspired) suggests is that new transnational networks must be built, no matter how unprofessional and utopian, in order to wrest at least some of the power away from the core of brokers whose monopoly on world power grows increasingly consolidated by the day.
To be honest, though, I find Cazdyn’s occasional ideological outbreaks inspiring. Even if they are sometimes uncomfortably Marxist, they make me think that Cazdyn is one of the good guys, and that simply by watching movies and thinking and writing we can make a difference and triumph over the evils of the world. Even if you’re not entirely convinced that this is true, it’s still fun to read The Flash of Capital solely for the thrill of encountering new ideas and tackling big intellectual concepts. And did I mention the awesome chapter on porn? In any case, this book isn’t for the casual reader, but if you think you’re interested, you definitely want to read this book. Go for it.