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Diaspora of the Avant-Garde and its Traces
Diaspora of the Avant-Garde and its Traces
Special Feature──Research on the development of Pre-War Japanese Avant-garde Cinema: Discussing Avant-garde Cinema in Germany, France, and Soviet Union (VI)

Translated by Chang Chun-Yu (張竣昱)


The focus of German avant-garde film movement on lines, including emphasis on shadows, mainly features the embodiment of a character’s inner activity. The French avant-garde films bring new perspectives by breaking the existing meanings, and to bring other artistic elements in more obvious way as the German ones. The Russian ones develop various methods to make the movie a more direct way of education.

Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (小津安二郎), for instance, is inspired by avant-gardism, but in a rather “downplayed” way, if not in “direct” one. Let us take “discontinuity” shots in Late Spring (晩春, 1949) as an example here. In a train to the city, the protagonist Noriko’s father Shukichi asks her: “You wanna sit?”, “No, I’m fine.” Their sights are obviously connected in a “wrong” way. However, these scenes are taken in a closed space, and the two protagonists are the only focus, and thus it is not that significant whether the editing strictly lives up to the rule of view connection. Here, Ozu calls the attention of the viewers to the significance of continuity editing by illuminating time gaps, that cannot be avoided between different shots during filming. By appropriating the existing form, Ozu reminds the viewers that at least one abstract interval may exist between shots of questioning and answering, and so does between the father and the daughter; the question and the answer may happen at different times, so the father may ask her not only one time whether she wants to sit, which indicates and turns out later to be true that her health condition is not that well.

【Click here】“discontinuity” shots in Late Spring (晩春, 1949).

To put it in a simple way, if the “avant-garde” refers to battle and to argue, then the same spirit may well being contained in Ozu’s seemingly “moderate” story films by challenging the audience: asking them to be more concentrated while viewing, or to understand with more intellect.

Some records have stated that director Kenji Mizoguchi tried to apply German Expressionist elements in his work but failed. These works are hard to find now. But in his later works, traces of avant-gardism are still left more or less. For example, in The Water Magician (滝の白糸, 1933), when young protagonist coachman Kinya tells water magician Shiraito his humble background, the whole scene is taken while camera is moving, a method Mizoguchi often adopted in his works. In a tracking shot, a pier is at the foreground while the characters are moving. Several huge geometric lines are set between the characters and the camera, filling their dialogue with gloom, and their relationship uneasiness.

【Click here】Several huge geometric lines are set between the characters and the camera in The Water Magician (滝の白糸, 1933).

Certainly, applying shadows is the easiest one among various avant-garde methods, which is easy to understand. For one thing, it is due to visual elements and quality inherent in black-and-white motion pictures. For another, selection of themes and expression tends to be gloomy in a gradually complicated atmosphere (first Great Depression in Europe and America, then negative power around the world forming before WWII). Shadows are appeared in feature films still in an appropriate but not glaring way. In The Water Magician, shadows of intruders catching Shiraito reinforce their threatening feature, and in a court scene, light beams also looks like a great shock to her.

【Click here】In The Water Magician, shadows of intruders catching Shiraito reinforce their threatening feature.

【Click here】In The Water Magician, light beams also looks like a great shock to her in a court scene.

Ozu also applies thick shadows naturally in his crime films. In his That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, 1930), in which a father starts robbery to pay for cure of his child, shadows take part in world building from the very beginning. It is an overwhelmingly dark world, even a light in a hand (or white gloves) of a patrol officer is bright as road lamps, where the father is extremely oppressed by social systems to the utmost and bursts out committing crimes.

【Click here】The opening scene of That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, 1930).

But there is another impressive scene of dream in Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician before Shiraito is given the final sentence at the court. The camera slowly comes close to her, the bars of her cage in front of her are slowly pushed aside, symbolizing that it is a dream of being set free. The dream starts without any reminder (that is, no transition effect) from four scenery shots, which gives the impression that “the little saplings are strongly growing despite the harsh environment.” But what follows that strong spirit is actually her “wish” to have a family with Kinya, showing an impossible scene of them feeding fishes in a lake without worry. From here, we can infer that a flowing river appearing before Shiraito’s part symbolizes a warm flow as ice melting in springtime; it brings her much joy, not only from the vitality of the fishes, nor from doing “at her own will”, but from being with Kinya and their child. Finally, the dream coming out of nowhere abruptly ends when jailer takes her to court. The last scene we see is that the court image, previously having appeared, is superimposed on Shiraito; the light beams imposed on her seems like that they bring her hope, but also pierce her through.

【Click here】Shiraito’s dream in The Water Magician.

In Mizoguchi’s The Downfall of Osen, the protagonist Sokichi, after becoming a medical doctor, is startled to see his beloved Osen at waiting area in train station. The plot here is to go back and forth between the past and the crowded station platform. At the end of the film, Sokichi saves a woman who suddenly breaks down, and finds out that she is Osen, and she has already been mentally disordered. As other works we have discussed, superimposition is used here to present her illusions. In the last shot, Sokichi’s image is imposed beside her hospital cot, which may indicate that he has never encountered her in reality.

【Click here】Osen’s illusions in The Downfall of Osen.

The amount of Ozu’s works preserved to date is rather much, making it easier to see more traces of the “avant-garde cinema.” In addition to That Night’s Wife, another one also produced in 1930, featuring gangster and boxing, Walk Cheerfully, is also infused with shadows naturally.

【Click here】Walk Cheerfully, is also infused with shadows naturally.

But Ozu’s works, even comedy ones, also play with shadows. Of course, they are used in a joking way as in I Flunked, but… (落第はしたけれど, not surprisingly an work of 1930) using silhouettes to signify an action of ordering food from a next-door vendor.

【Click here】In I Flunked, but… (落第はしたけれど, 1930) using silhouettes to signify an action of ordering food from a next-door vendor.

Indeed, shadows are quite comedic here. But apart from that, silhouettes are based on a “dehumanizing” technique, which also appears in his other works at times. Maybe it is in this way in Walk Cheerfully that Ozu elaborates on the “order” among gangsters and also criticism of its ossification; all the people watching a billiard game look like robots with the same feet, same expression, even the “dance” of different gangs. The more mechanic they seem, the more obvious their emotionless expression is.

【Click here】The billiard game’s scene in Walk Cheerfully.

Dehumanizing is helpful in visually assimilating protagonists and objects, making two different processes of objectifying human and humanizing objects harder to differentiate. In Days of Youth (学生ロマンス 若き日, 1929), two downhearted roommates preparing for an examination look out the windows at times to relax. Objects in the outdoor scenery are full of vitality (maybe too much of it) and they seem like having their own “interactions” or “conversations” regardless of any subject’s perspective.

【Click here】Two roommates look out the windows at times to relax in Days of Youth (学生ロマンス 若き日, 1929).

The dehumanizing has gradually become Ozu’s style embedded in his films. At the beginning of his Dragnet Girl (非常線の女‎, 1933), we see a hat not quite clear, and then three following shots. The first one is to move from right to left on some typists, and from left to right on hats on the wall and one blank space, and then another one from left to right on another row of typists, and lastly stops at a blank position, the protagonist Tokiko shows up.

【Click here】The opening scene of Dragnet Girl (非常線の女‎, 1933).

An absent object may indicate the absence of a subject: the absent Tokiko will show up, but her hat placed in a corner rather than on the wall signifies another identity – head of mafia after work. Some objects are able to condense the meaning of a “peak” state of characters into themselves, and maybe it is because Ozu has found how they can be great implications or formalistic tricks plays that his sustaining interest of objects and scenery shows in the rest of his films. For example, in Bakushû (麦秋, 1951), a piece of cake reflects concerns of a brother’s wife about his sister’s marriage. In Akibiyori (秋日和, 1960), another piece of cake but not opened symbolizes someone the daughter does not want to be acquainted with in a blind date. Finally, in An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, 1962), characters walk into an alley with an Izakaya bar sign “heart” but do not go in there, which means it is not really a place to confide as it suggests. The protagonist Hirayama meets the female bar owner, who looks like his deceased wife, but he does not tell anyone his feelings for her, including the female bar owner.

【Click here】In Bakushû (麦秋, 1951), a piece of cake reflects concerns of a brother’s wife about his sister’s marriage.

【Click here】In Akibiyori (秋日和, 1960), another piece of cake but not opened.

【Click here】In An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, 1962), characters walk into an alley with an Izakaya bar sign “heart” but do not go in there.

In the feature films Teinosuke produced in his late career, for instance, Gate of Hell (地獄門, 1953), the most obvious thing is his magnificent color experiment, which is actually significant in terms of the plot.

【Click here】The magnificent color experiment in Gate of Hell (地獄門, 1953).

This experience enables him to handle colors in his later works. Here we take coloring of the aftermath of a battle in Shin, Heike Monogatari: Yoshinaka o meguru sannin no onna (新・平家物語 義仲をめぐる三人の女, 1956) as an example here. Red cloths in water are a metonymy of cruelty of warfare, and white color appears after wind blowing and bird flying reinforces intensity. When morning glow comes out, tone of ink painting without vibrant color brings only threatening bleakness.

The coloring of the aftermath of a battle in Shin, Heike Monogatari: Yoshinaka o meguru sannin no onna (新・平家物語 義仲をめぐる三人の女, 1956)

Gate of Hell features innocent protagonists, Morito, agonized by love, and a vulnerable woman Kesa. Color on the surfaces of objects is itself a kind of material, whose meaning depends totally on subjective feelings, and thus is an embodiment of character’s agony. Apart from that, chiffon curtains under Kinugasa’s arrangement are also one of them. In scenes when Kesa hears about Morito’s reward of suppressing rebellion is her, the moment when her husband Watanabe is  comforting her after knowing that Kiyomori summons her, and when she plays the music to the latter, and in many other scenes, the chiffon curtains are either swinging at times at the front, back, or the two sides; they create “layers” in a scene, also condense characters’ (specifically Kesa’s) uneasiness and uncertainty.

【Click here】Color on the surfaces of objects is itself a kind of material, whose meaning depends totally on subjective feelings in Gate of Hell (地獄門, 1953).

In a scene when Kesa plays the music, a complex combination of sound and image is also at play. The sound of the strings literally changes its own timbre along with different motives of characters. As an off-screen but also incidental sound, the music also reveals Morito’s state of mind. Although it is hard to identify, the music in this scene is reminiscent of the audiovisual one in A Page of Madness (1926). On that account, Kinugasa’s avant-garde experience seems to be a sort of preparation for color and sound in works like Gate of Hell or Shin, Heike Monogatari, which is a transfigured reward for those experiments.


  • This article is an inviting article from ET@T’s criticism project “Archive Eyes: Taiwan’s Avant-Garde Culture and Its International Perspective” (2018-2020), which was subsidized from “Visual Arts Criticism” project in 2018, by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
  • Sponsors of “Visual Arts Criticism” project: The National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), Winsing Arts Foundation, and Ms. So Mei-Chi.

Editor: Yeh Hsing-Jou
Proofreading: Yizai Seah

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肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
電影文字修行者,畢生研究歐弗斯和小津影片。著有《在巴洛克與禪之間尋找電影的空缺:馬克斯歐弗斯與小津安二郎電影中美學的呈現》(2014)與《尋常——小津的女系詩學》(2020)。