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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. (1)


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 mine).  

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 seamless.


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.