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Introduction to 'Nouvelle Vague Manifesto'

Aaron Gerow


Although Noël Burch once claimed that ‘the very notion of theory is alien to Japan; it is considered a property of Europe and the West’, (1) filmmaking and theoretical considerations have long gone hand in hand in Japan. The Pure Film Movement, the 1910s reform movement that established the groundwork for much of subsequent Japanese film culture, was begun by film critics, (2) and the Japanese ‘Nouvelle Vague’ of the 1960s was feuled by directors such as Ōshima Nagisa, Yoshida Yoshishige, and Matsumoto Toshio who were as active in published debates on cinema as they were with the camera. (3) One can argue that in the 1990s filmmakers such as Aoyama Shinji, Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Shinozaki Makoto took up this critical mantle at a time when trends in Japanese cinema were being labeled a ‘new new wave’. Aoyama’s ‘Nouvelle Vague Manifesto’, originally published in 1997, is a crucial text that introduces the conceptual and political issues that informed not only his filmmaking, but that of many of his contemporaries.


Nouvelle Vague can be a term both loaded with and bereft of meaning. The use of nouvelle vague or new wave for the early films of such directors as Ōshima, Yoshida, Shinoda Masahiro or Imamura Shōhei – a usage evident in Japan as well (4) – has often implied some relation to the French Nouvelle Vague, in the form of influence, world-historical simultaneity or homology. Yet the term new wave has been so frequently used it fails to sustain a common meaning: does it refer to a coherent movement? A style? A political opposition to dominant commercial cinema? Or simply a brand name attached to a new set of films from a country we have not heard from in a while?


In ‘Nouvelle Vague Manifesto’, Aoyama attempts to radically reappropriate the term by severing it from its Japanese contexts and redefine it through referencing French cinema, particularly the films of Philippe Garrel. Aoyama, born in 1964 after the emergence of such directors as Ōshima, is from a generation of filmmakers that came to prominence in the 1990s, in part by announcing concerns both political and cinematic that are consciously different from those of their elders. The essay was published in August 1997, just one month after Aoyama’s debut film Helpless was released in Japan, and thus represents the aims of a filmmaker beginning his career. Originally printed under the title ‘How I Became a Disciple of Philippe Garrel’ in Cahiers du Cinema Japon, it was included in Aoyama’s 2001 book We Have Found Cinema with the phrase ‘Nouvelle Vague Manifesto’ added, underlining how this was as much a statement on what Japanese cinema should be, as an analysis of Garrel’s work.


1. Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), p. 13.  

2. See Joanne Bernardi, Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001); and my Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).  

3. For accounts of some of these debates, see David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Isolde Standish, Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Continuum, 2011); and Yuriko Furuhata, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).  

4. The new directors emerging from the Shōchiku film studio, including Ōshima, Shinoda and Yoshida, have in Japanese been commonly referred to as the ‘Shōchiku Nūberu Bāgu’.

Far from recalling the lineage of the 1960s Japanese Nouvelle Vague, Aoyama boldly asserts that, ‘There was no Nouvelle Vague in Japan’. To him, a ‘nouvelle vague as a mode of thought’ is ‘a discourse dueling over the sole point of how to treat the Other from a political perspective, with the individual being the subject in struggle in the end’. He stresses that the individual is that ‘unitary existence that possesses no meaning and is a representative of nothing’ – that which ‘cannot be generalised or universalised’.


To Aoyama, then, politics – the true nouvelle vague – is the ‘struggle to protect the individual as an individual’. This protection of the individual may imply a rejection of solidarity politics, but it also participates in a resistance against what in Japan has been called the emperor system (tennōsei), a dominant modern discourse which effaces the individuality of the Other in an all-encompassing national self located around an often-unspoken term (the emperor). Representing individuals resistant to generalised categories is also a cinematic issue. If an individual is ‘a naked state that represents nothing other than itself’, then the film presenting the individual should pursue a ‘materialistic cinematic practice that conflicts with what is generally called “depicting humanity” or “depicting emotions”’. In practical terms this means a cinema that avoids explanation (setsumei) and that leaves world and image equally bare. Aoyama writes here that ‘the individual is words; the individual is not the image’, and by ‘words’ he means the materiality of language that resists the categorisable ‘image’ (meaning) a person can have.


This approach can be considered part of the legacy of his teacher at Rikkyō University, Hasumi Shigehiko. (5) While famous for advocating cinematic specificity – to study films as films, and to make films that rely only on cinematic devices – Hasumi's vision of the motion pictures, as evinced by his 1983 book on Ozu Yasujirō, (6) rejected such categories as the ‘Ozu-esque’ for a cinema radically defined by its resistance to categorisation and generalisation. This is not simply because cinema, as an audiovisual medium, cannot be expressed in language, but more pointedly, because cinema to him only subsists in the ever-changing (revolutionary) present, as a singular ‘incident/event’ (jiken) that cannot be repeated, one that even exists before the categories of subject and object. The strategy of Hasumi’s ‘surface criticism’ (hyōsō hihyō) is then, in Ryan Cook’s words, ‘to surrender to the text’ (7) – to make criticism itself what Hasumi calls ‘an experience that can only live as an incident’. (8) This was part of the reasoning behind Hasumi’s radical use of the Deleuzian concept of ‘stupidity’, which ‘abandons subjectivity and knowledge and submits to cruel stupidity in order to encounter cinema as change and movement’. (9)


Aoyama is similarly exploring cinematic representation as an incident/event, as representation which re-presents nothing, or which cannot be universalised or generalised. The Polaroid camera – photography without a negative – is thus emblematic in his work, in that it is a representation that is also a unique existence. This impossible grasping of singularity in a medium that inevitably ‘re-presents’ is what Aoyama in a 2001 piece eventually calls jikkan or ‘the sense of reality’. Jikkan is an in-between strategy of gaps and fissures, which is why he aligns it with Roland Barthes’ ‘third meaning’, all the while distinguishing it from the processes of meaning. ‘I want to call jikkan’, he writes, ‘that fragment of reality that one confronts, that “something” similar to an unknown Other, an indifferent Other that you can only say is there when subjectivity has been removed’. (10) Aoyama emphasises that jikkan is a matter of representation, but ‘jikkan in representation exists as a kind of indistinct and troublesome “ghost” (yūrei)’, (11) haunting the edges of signification.


Aoyama’s ‘Nouvelle Vague Manifesto’ was one attempt in the mid-1990s to think through the relation of cinema to meaning and politics, one firmly placed in a longer line of cinematic thought and practice that goes back to Hasumi and before. On a practical level, it provides a powerful framework for understanding forms of filmmaking prominent in Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s, represented by such filmmakers as Kitano Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Shiota Akihiko, Hashiguchi Ryōsuke, Zeze Takahisa, Suwa Nobuhiro, Kawase Naomi and Koreeda Hirokazu. As I have discussed in my book on Kitano, (12) it particularly offers reasons for their prominent use of long takes and the relative absence of point-of-view shots and other cinematic means to explain and apply singular interpretations – to represent the Other and make it subject to meaning. This was one way of rethinking a politics of style in a post-bubble Japan confronting the effects of both globalisation and domestic turmoil, from natural disasters to the Aum terror attacks.


Japanese cinema has changed since then, as has Aoyama. On the one hand, his embrace of Yoshida Kijū shows that he has reappraised his relation to the 1960s New Wave (to me, reading Yoshida’s ‘My Theory of Film’ alongside Aoyama’s manifesto can bring forth many points in common). (13) On the other hand, films such as Tokyo Park (Tōkyō Kōen, 2011), which features digital, not polaroid photography, also reveal him rethinking the issue of representation in a digital age. However, just as Aoyama could re-read the New Wave in 1997 to understand his own filmmaking, we can re-read ‘Nouvelle Vague Manifesto’ in 2015 to reappraise what was new and different about Japanese cinema not only of the 1990s, but also of recent years. Echoing Aoyama, we can still wonder whether ‘a nouvelle vague’ has or will soon begin in Japan.


5. Hasumi, one of Japan’s most prominent post-1960s intellectuals and a central figure in introducing French post-structuralism to Japan, was a professor at the University of Tokyo, but taught a film course adjunct at Rikkyō for many years and helped influence a number of the Rikkyō students who eventually became filmmakers, including Suo Masayuki, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Shinozaki Makoto, Manda Kunitoshi and Aoyama. For a magisterial example of his work, see ‘Fiction and the “Unrepresentable”: All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film’ in LOLA 1 (2011).  

6. Hasumi Shigehiko, Kantoku Ozu Yasujirō (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1983); the French edition is Yasujirô Ozu (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998).  

7. Ryan Cook, ‘An Impaired Eye: Hasumi Shigehiko on Cinema and Stupidity’, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 22 (December 2010), p. 141.  

8. Hasumi Shigehiko, Eiga: Yūwaku no ekurichūru (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1990), p. 353.  

9. Cook, ‘An Impaired Eye’, p. 137.  

10. Aoyama Shinji, Ware eiga o hakkenseri (Seidosha, 2001), p. 326.  

11. Aoyama, Ware eiga, p. 325.  

12. Aaron Gerow, Kitano Takeshi (London: BFI, 2007).  

13. Yoshida Kijū, ‘My Theory of Film: A Logic of Self-Negation’, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 22 (December 2010), pp. 104–109.  

from Issue 6: Distances


© Aaron Gerow 2015.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.