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Given to See:
A Tribute to Shigehiko Hasumi

Adrian Martin


  Cinema is what we see on the surface of the screen, after all.
– Jean-Pierre Coursodon, ‘A Film By’ (Internet discussion group), 23 June 2008

A Train Advances

‘A train advances toward us, drawn by a steam locomotive, and slows down at the end of the platform of a small station’ – so begins Shigehiko Hasumi’s 2004 text ‘John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture’. (1) Note the complete absence of technical language: no mention of long shot or close-up, no talk of the camera lens, the angle, or even the framing of the mise en scène. Simply, an event, an event on the screen: a train advances … with the casual inclusion of the spectator’s position, that ‘us’ which constitutes the point of reception for this film, for any film.


Hasumi often begins his texts and lectures in this way. He describes an action or gesture, as simply and clearly as possible. Films invite us in, directly and effortlessly. They give us something to see, something to behold, something to witness. A train advances: what could be more basic, accessible and comprehensible to every spectator? Finally, there will be much more involved in this act, this ritual gesture by a film of giving to see. It is never a simple showing, but rather a complex, layered demonstration, reached by the end of the movie. From a modest act of showing, we will arrive at the full power and complexity of cinema as an art.

  1. I had the privilege of publishing the English version of this text, translated by myself from French (with reference to an earlier draft in English) thanks to Prof. Hasumi’s assistance: see Rouge, no. 7 (2005), This French version appears in Cinéma, no. 8 (2004), pp. 86-99. All subsequent quotations from Hasumi concerning Ford are from the Rouge text.

And Hasumi will lead us to this understanding, this revelation – many times over, throughout his fifty-five years (so far) of practicing criticism. But, each time, he does this gradually, by stages, in steps – in some sense, mimicking a film’s own quality of gradual demonstration and unveiling. This is the great rhetorical art of Hasumi’s analyses, and his own, very special gift to the world of film criticism.


Archaeological Rapture

Immediately after introducing this train of Ford in Doctor Bull (1933), Hasumi interjects a memory-association, the very first and most famous train in cinema history: L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895) of the Lumières. This is another gesture characteristic of Hasumi: to evoke what he elsewhere calls the archaeological rapture of the earliest, silent films, and the reprise of this thrill in later cinema. (2) He finds this rapture in many places: in the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Pedro Costa, to cite only two examples. (3) It is a powerful evocation: the first films not only showed us things, they performed the historic action or gesture of showing. They gave us something to see, and we marvelled accordingly.


Hasumi is always in search of the rekindling of that particular sense of wonder in cinema – not nostalgically (for, alongside Nicholas Ray, we can’t go home again), but as an ideal. And this ideal also reminds us what is, for Hasumi, essential: that the cinema is essentially a visual art, images, gestures and actions in motion. (4) In his long-considered view, the soundtrack is a kind of afterthought in the medium’s history, a technological prosthesis never truly integrated into what Raymond Bellour calls the ‘body of cinema’. (5)



The thing is there, given to see, to be seen by us. A physical object (the advancing train) or a human gesture (and Hasumi has catalogued many of these across the years: like Vilém Flusser, he has created for us a veritable, semiotic encyclopedia of gestures). It’s on the screen – the type of visible evidence that critics including Jacques Rivette, Jean Douchet and William Routt have often, richly evoked when analysing cinema. Sometimes this evidence is quiet, dormant, not ‘activated’ by action or event: Michel Chion, after making the point that characters’ emotions in narrative cinema are often revealed by the faulty functioning of familiar, quotidian objects (like a telephone that won’t work), is led to notice precisely the absence of this typical mechanism in Stanley Kubrick’s final masterwork:

  2. See Hasumi, ‘Café Lumière’, Rouge, no. 6 (2005), – an excerpt from ‘The Eloquence of the Taciturn: An Essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 9 No. 2 (2008), pp. 184-194.

3. See ‘Café Lumière’ (ibid.), and‘Adventure: An Essay on Pedro Costa’, Rouge, no. 10 (2007).

4. See his ‘Fiction and the “Unrepresentable”: All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film’, trans. David Buist, LOLA, no. 1 (2011).  

5. I debate this idea, from my own perspective, in Chapter 6 (‘Sonic Spaces’) of Adrian Martin, Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave, 2014), pp. 108-126.

  In Eyes Wide Shut [1999] all objects – every lift, every telephone – work perfectly; taxi drivers take you to your destination and everyone does their job properly, right down to the humblest nurse or the desk clerk at the Hotel Jason. So the protagonists have no excuse or motive to attribute their problems to the external world, or project their lack of satisfaction onto it, and no physical ‘mediator’ (object, animal) that can express their troubled state. Nor is there any rain, snowfall or sudden storm when their feelings reach their highest pitch of intensity. The world goes on turning in the same old way. (6)  



6. Michel Chion, trans. Trista Selous, Eyes Wide Shut (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 23.

But such evidence can remain unseen, ‘unacknowledged’ as philosopher Stanley Cavell (and, after him, film scholar Andrew Klevan) would say. Hasumi occasionally allows himself a discreet cry of exasperation in this regard: ‘the critics have never noticed it’ in Ford, the majesty of his art is fully ‘visible, but what is specific to this filmmaker is rarely perceived’. Victor Perkins’ wise words (formulated in response to David Bordwell’s rather crude, empiricist notions in his 1989 book Making Meaning about what can count as pertinent ‘cues’ or 'data’ in a movie) come to mind here:


  Once I have seen some meanings in a gesture, I have taken one step forward. My understanding of the film may continue to grow but completion cannot be more than an aim. That is because completion would have to consist of accounting for all the data, but what will come to count as data cannot be known. I cannot now tell what may in the future come to notice as needing to enter into my understanding. (7)  


7. V.F. Perkins, ‘Must We Say What They Mean? Film Criticism and Interpretation’, Movie, issue 34 (October 1990), p. 4.  

So, something has to be noticed, taken into account – isolated so as to be examined, and subsequently followed throughout a movie. Hasumi is the Great Noticer, if I may put it that way. He notices what you or I have not yet noticed, which is the mark of a great critic or teacher. Once he has pointed it out, made it the special object of our rapt attention, we are primed to notice it – and to keep on noticing it, in action, in movement and flight, in all its variations and (crucially) its metamorphoses. Indeed, perhaps we will even find it difficult, once we have been initiated into seeing (and knowing) in this way, to notice anything but the unique detail or gesture that Hasumi has pointed out – a sure sign of how a voracious desire can seize the analytical faculty of our mind and being.


And here is what Hasumi especially notices, underlines, picks out at the start of Doctor Bull: ‘a black postal bag suddenly thrown from the carriage, landing brusquely’. Throwing: something, in itself, quite unspectacular, mundane, everyday – just like the gestures of women removing handkerchiefs from their necks, or people endlessly remarking on the weather, in Ozu’s films. (8)


What can be made of, figured out from, this simple gesture? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Maybe even the entire Cinema of John Ford.


The System, Logic and Network of a Gesture

Hasumi most often starts from the small, singular detail, and then works outward. (An essay from 2000 on Hawks is an exception: there he begins with broad comparisons between films and between genres, in order to then work inward to ‘surprisingly small but specific events that occur on the screen’.) (9) After noticing, it is a matter, first, of watching, reviewing, searching, noting, researching, accumulating: we shall find the gesture of throwing, once we are looking for it, in possibly every John Ford film, from the silent days right through to 7 Women in 1966.


Then comes the act of discernment: the observation of variations in the performance of this gesture, and the classification of these variations into groups or types. On this level, Hasumi is the best Structuralist ever to have drawn up a table of fine distinctions, all those differences within similarities or repetitions. But he does this not in diagrams or columns; rather, it is in prose, a flow of words, swift and precise evocations.









8. See, respectively, ‘Ozu’s Angry Women’, Rouge, no. 4 (2004); and ‘Sunny Skies’, trans. Kathy Shigeta, in David Desser (ed.), Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Cambridge Film Handbooks, 1997), pp. 118-129. I have discussed this latter text by Hasumi at length in my chapter ‘Incursions’, in Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan (eds), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 61-64.  

9. ‘Inversion/Exchange/Repetition: The Comedy of Howard Hawks’, in Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003), p. 85. This essay first appeared in a booklet accompanying a National Film Centre (Tokyo) Hawks retrospective in 2000.

Throwing in Ford, for instance, can be seen to perform many functions, to work on many levels. It can open or close narrative sequences (the throwing of a postal bag opens a story; the throwing of a spear might end it). It can have an expressive, emotional function, as an index of a character’s surprise, or anger, or lust. It can demonstrate the pure beauty – again, the archaeological rapture – of an object or body in movement within a space, or against a landscape like Monument Valley. And there are pertinent variations on throwing that have to be intuited, grasped: spitting (the ‘hurling’ by the mouth of chewed tobacco into a spittoon), for instance.


At a particular, exact point in the forward-movement of his rhetoric – so persuasive is his technique as a writer – Hasumi will be able to risk a bolder assertion than he could at the very beginning of his critical journey: ‘Only those characters capable of throwing an object at decisive moments are truly Fordian’; just as, ‘in Ozu’s films, the sky can only be sunny’. (10)


No gesture is entirely discrete; it inevitably creates physical and semantic chains with neighbouring, interrelated gestures. Fast walking or running will take your breath away and alter your posture; entering a warm room will necessitate you removing some of your clothing. Good directors know how to find, and shape, these seemingly natural, quotidian chains of action in a meaningful, deliberate, systematic fashion. Good critics, like Hasumi, know how to spot the shaping process in action.


Smoking, for instance, is linked to throwing: lighting a cigarette necessarily entails throwing away the match. The time it takes for an actor like John Wayne to perform these interlinked gestures (smoking/throwing) on screen creates the opening, the possibility for a scene: such as when Maureen O’Hara suddenly materialises in The Quiet Man (1953), and ‘it is as if, in lighting his cigarette, he has provoked the apparition of this dreamlike creature’.

  10. ‘Sunny Skies’, p. 120.

Gestures, as they form a system, can also enter into what Hasumi calls a logic – which involves not merely a pattern of repetitions, but crucially, a lively process of transformations. One might see here the influence of, or at least an affinity with, Gilles Deleuze’s spinning-out, in 1967, of the logic of structuralism into a veritable hyper-logic, where serial chains of signifiers cross, swap elements, and create new sequences and associations – what the philosopher calls a multi-serial structure. (11) In his work on Hawks, for instance, Hasumi traces the movements of inversion, exchange and repetition across the director’s comedies. Inversion can become a literal screen event: Hawksian men frequently find themselves (in a comedic mode) up-ended, upside down.


Moreover, armed with such logics, Hasumi gives the secular religion of auteurism in cinema studies a particular, special dignity and refinement – qualities it has so often lacked. Not only does the individual film form its own expressive system; the diverse films of a true auteur – no matter how manifestly different they may seem, across time and changing production circumstances – also then form a genuine network, speaking to, sparking off, and enriching each other. ‘Our thematic perspective’, he writes in relation to Ford, ‘allows us to recognise what connect’ such apparently disconnected films as Doctor Bull and The Informer (1935). But we are not dealing here with the noting of mere regularities or consistencies, those ‘personal obsessions’ and self-homages in a filmmaker’s oeuvre that are the stock-in-trade of auteurist critique. Rather, in that more Deleuzian, post-structuralist spirit, we trigger, with Hasumi, the hyper-logical, multi-serial field of analytical operations.



11. Gilles Deleuze, ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?’, in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp.170-192, 305-308.






For example, Hasumi reaches the point, in ‘The Eloquence of Gesture’, of stressing the solitude of the Fordian hero. His gestures of throwing tend to enact or underline his separation from a given community. Commentators, in Hasumi’s view, err when they view any one Ford hero (like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, 1955) in isolation, deciding to sympathise with or find fault with him as an individual. Rather, these figures, separate in each film, ‘are in solidarity via the emotion that is expressed by throwing an object far into the distance’. The films form a crowd.


We have returned, now, to that ‘us’, we spectators toward whom the train advanced on screen. Films solicit us with their potential to be activated, which is exactly what Walter Benjamin meant by an artwork’s ‘criticisability’ (Kritisierbarkeit). Because if we do not notice, if we do not connect, if we do not play, if we do not bear witness to what we have been given to see … then, in some sense, the films in question cannot truly exist in all their richness. Films call out to us to be analytically inventive, and to testify, through this creative reconstruction which is the act of criticism, to the breadth and depth, the resonance, of what is there on screen.


Move to the Modern

With his long-nurtured love of the old Hollywood directors like Griffith, Ford, Hawks or Walsh, with his appreciation of simplicity and clarity on screen, with his avoidance of ostentation and the baroque in aesthetics – could we call Hasumi a classicist? Quite the contrary is the truth. For there is a key step he takes, at some decisive point, in many of his analyses – where he leaves the tenets of classicism in cinema far behind, and makes a move to the modern. It is a gesture that defines him as a critic, and recapitulates aspects of the cinematic and social history he has lived through, from the 1930s until now.


John Ford? It will surprise some aficionados of this director (especially in America) to learn, from Hasumi, that ‘Ford’s mise en scène does not resort to a psychological and narrative logic, but to a succession of isolated gestures’; just as the comedy mechanisms in Hawks’ movies are ‘essentially formalist … the real issue with Hawks is not the results of his inversions and exchanges but the process itself’. (12)


As for any alert student of Lubitsch, Hitchcock or Lang who also sharpened their ‘close reading’ skills on the intellectual theories of the 1960s and ‘70s (structuralism, semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstruction), there arrives a moment for Hasumi when the filmic object, in all its glittering, formal intricacy – no matter how commercial, industrial, professional or classical its context of production – comes to mirror, and often outrun, the dexterity of the analysis itself. At this moment, the classical cinema itself makes its move to the modern.



12. ‘Inversion/Exchange/Repetition’, pp. 83, 84.




What Deleuze called, in a fully positive sense, the ‘production of the original and specific theoretical object’ (13) – in our context, the mutant combination of film, analysis and spectator – also ties in with another founding gesture of Hasumi’s work: its rigorous ban on importing ‘outside knowledges’ (such as sociological commonplaces about nation, society, history – ‘the easy solidarity of those who would ignore the screen’) (14) into the analysis of a film. Rather, any good movie creates its own, total structure and experience, which is (to use the daily, populist term for this) its ‘world’. No other illusion of a world is necessary for the work and play to begin … that is, not if we can intuit in a film ‘a combinatory formula supporting formal elements which by themselves have neither form, nor signification, nor representation, nor content, nor given empirical reality, nor hypothetical functional model, nor intelligibility behind appearances’. (15) That last phrase of Deleuze, especially, has the ring of Hasumi, and helps bring our speculation back down to earth: as the train advances, as the hero or heroine throws something, what we seek (and this is a point also made by Perkins) is the intelligibility in appearances, not behind or beyond them.


13. ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?’, p. 173.  

14. ‘Sunny Skies’, p. 128.  

15. ‘How Do we Recognize Structuralism?’, p. 173.


But it is at this proudly high-formalist moment that a certain, defining self-consciousness is seen, by Hasumi, to enter the history of cinema and its forms. Perhaps, indeed, all cinema, as the art of the 20th century, is born under, imbued with, this sign of modernity and modernism – no matter its stated intentions. It is a cultural sign, a historic tendency, that coalesces particularly during the 1960s, in Godard, Oshima, Jerry Lewis, and many others … a period through which the critic Hasumi, like Frieda Grafe in Germany or John Flaus in Australia, lived with a particular intensity, attuned to everything in the air, in society and in the arts, that was new and radical. This cinematic self-consciousness that I evoke is not considered, by Hasumi, to be a bad thing. It needs to be deciphered and worked with but it is not, in the first instance at least, a problem as it manifests itself in filmic art. It is not (in the worst sense) mannerism, or decadence; it is nobler (for those of Hasumi’s generation) than what was to coalesce, several decades later, under the sign of postmodernism.


Self-consciousness is not a personal affliction or affected, pretentious game in Hasumi’s view of cinema. It is tied, rather, to the rich notions of any artistic medium’s self-definition, the evident and demonstrated sense of its own specificity, that have circulated in art history through self-proclaimed modernists such as Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and their many contemporary revisers and up-daters. In his book on Ozu, Hasumi offers a description of the director’s modernity and the self-consciousness of his films that relates obliquely and in a unique, inventive way, to this tradition of thought about modernism in art. ‘Ozu manipulates what we are watching without mediation and bypassing psychology by bringing to the surface the condition of the film’s being a film’. The director insisted on a ‘specifically filmic reality’, with his ‘almost reckless’ desire to be ‘filmic rather than realistic’. Ozu ‘chose a persistent approach toward film and its limits’. (16) It is this attention to limits – and the way a film points to and marks its limits – which makes Hasumi an endearing, inimitable blend of both measured classicist and medium-modernist.


The Act of Seeing as Arriving to Understanding

In much of the cinema beloved of Hasumi – the films of Erice, (17) for instance, or Mizoguchi or Ozu or (of course) Ford – we arrive, at the end of the film, at a moment of being given to see that is special and profound. It is always a limpid, simple, unadorned moment – no more underlined than that initial advancing train, or hurling hand. Something is shown, often without spoken words, or at least with few words: the cactus on the coffin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the little girl at the window in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), the return home of Louis Jourdan to his mute servant and a letter on his table in OphülsLetter from an Unknown Woman (1948), the mysterious, abrupt perspective on a character in Costa’s Ossos (1997) …


But these magisterial concluding moments of the greatest and richest films signal the triumph of what Hasumi calls (in relation to Ford or Hou) eloquence – that expressive power which is achieved or won by the film as the integrated sum of all its levels, gestures, forms and structures. We, the spectators, arrive to an understanding – that is, if we have been alert and sensitive, if we have truly moved with the film and grasped it in its complete, multi-layered unfolding.


16. ‘Sunny Skies’, pp. 122, 128. In the French edition of Yasujirô Ozu (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998) from which this chapter is taken, the pertinent passages (somewhat recast) appear on pp. 188, 205.  

17. See Hasumi, trans. Ann Sherif, ‘From Velázquez’s Mirror to Dream of Light: A Conversation About Film’, in Linda Ehrlich (ed.), An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2000), pp. 221-231.  

In his ceaseless quest to uncover and explain such moments, Hasumi here rejoins the similar but different critical parcours of Alain Masson, in his prolific contributions to Positif and his book La récit au cinéma. (18) Like Masson, Hasumi highly values what he calls ‘thematic surprise’ – when a thematic motif seems to exceed its mere, predictable function, and catches us unawares. Similarly, Masson grasps the cinema as that medium which continually builds its forms, on all possible levels, but just as continually dissolves them in motion. When a forceful moment of meaning – of signification – condenses itself in a great film, it thus seems as if it has happened almost by accident; suddenly, unexpectedly, all the threads, of action and implication, are pulled together. The result is both surprising and completely logical, as screenwriters like to say. Pialat, Resnais, Costa, Akerman, Cassavetes, Tarkovsky always reached for, always worked toward, such devastating final moments in their films. Many other directors fumble in this attempt, laying too bare their mechanisms of hoped-for pathos or poignancy.


It is a hallmark of Hasumi’s own, deft rhetoric that, like the films he most admires, he tends to downplay his own conclusions. They are not convulsive, dramatic, sensational or apocalyptic; their final flourish is quiet, diminuendo. Rather, Hasumi aims, in his arrival at the end of a text, for a simple but brilliantly rhetorical restatement of his original proposition or premise. Such as the way he locates the true ending of Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in the action, attitude and posture of James Stewart as he ‘blows out his match and begins to throw it away. Nothing is more specific to Ford than this suspended gesture of a character, an extinguished match in his hand’. Or, in Ozu, the beautifully observed fact that ‘everyone’s fate is to die on a hot, sunny, midsummer day. And those present at the funeral and memorial services must wear mourning clothes’. (19)


The critical eloquence is unmistakeable: things have always been as they were from the start, when we were first given to see them; only now, it is our understanding, including our emotional understanding, which has caught up with the intelligibility of appearances. We have trained ourselves – led by the film, and by the master critic – to comprehend, to admire and appreciate, to truly see and respect the achievement of what we have seen. That is the real ‘journey’, in fact the only journey, that we embark on when we watch a film.


Like any auteurist with a strong passion, Hasumi is sensitive to the final films of beloved directors as their likely or possible testament – whether or not they were intended that way. How does Ford’s 7 Women end? With a gesture of throwing, of course, on the part of its central heroine played by Anne Bancroft:


18. Alain Masson, Le récit au cinéma (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1994). For a typically brilliant article by Masson which bears close comparison with Hasumi’s work on Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse, see ‘Idées du plan’, Positif, no. 557/558 (July 2007), pp. 9-12.  








19. ‘Sunny Skies’, p. 127.







  The throwing theme illustrates, to the highest degree, the central character’s solitude. Recall her final gesture: downing a poisoned wine glass, which she then throws to the ground with a resigned smile. A fade-out slowly effaces her image from the screen, as the words ‘The End’ appear on the black screen. This disappearance, echoing the signs of farewell characteristic of the Fordian thematic of throwing, marks not only the end of this film, but the entire Fordian oeuvre. No other filmmaker has ended his career with such mastery.    

Magical Intuition

My exposure to the totality of Shigehiko Hasumi’s work is, alas, very limited; I have read and studied him only in English and French. I am very envious of all those who can read his voluminous writing in Japanese, those who have heard his lectures, introductions to screenings, and classes. We, in the rest of the world, have a lot of catching-up to do.


As I began this text of tribute, a marvellous fragment of Hasumi’s past surfaced in English: his interview with the great French critic/essayist Roland Barthes, recorded and first published in 1973. This superb interview is notable for revealing many insights about Barthes and his work, but I shall mention none of those here. Rather, what is most striking to me is how genuinely impressed Barthes is by his distinguished interlocutor. His praise and compliments go well beyond mere, polite, diplomatic kindness. In fact, Barthes’ pleasure in this interview evidently builds in stages, like a Hasumi analysis:


  I’m grateful to you for such a clear question … Yes, that’s very much the case … What you say is very true. And very insightful … Precisely. You’re a very perceptive critic … Well, it really seems you have some magical intuitions and premonitions. (20)   20. ‘For the Liberation of a Pluralist Thinking’, trans. Chris Turner, Cultural Politics, Vol. 11 No. 3 (November 2015), pp. 301-314.

Barthes was totally right: our insightful, perceptive master in film analysis and criticism, Shigehiko Hasumi, has magical intuitions. Now we must learn to cultivate and practice similar divinations into cinematic art, developing our own insights and perceptions, right alongside his prodigious example.


© Adrian Martin, February/September 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.