The Pre-Lit Film

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Lesley Chow

Aesthetics of Shadow, the retrospective at this year’s Berlinale, is based on the work of scholar Daisuke Miyao, who has identified a link between German expressionism and early Japanese cinema. In the 1920s, Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg were two of the most revered directors in Japan — the latter was particularly admired for his careful application of light and shadow to create tone, at a time when Japanese directors were increasingly fascinated by the uses of light.

The argument presented by this wide-ranging program is that Japanese films adopted the cinematographic techniques of German and Hollywood cinema, and then proceeded to change the meaning of that light. Japanese directors may have begun using chiaroscuro effects for a number of reasons: to make the films more “cinematic” and appealing to international audiences, and as a marker of modernity and artistic taste. But the use of imported techniques took on a specific cultural meaning as light was filtered through Japanese architecture and shoji screens, and combined with the deliberate pacing and mask-like effects of kabuki. Light and shadow could be coded as masculine and feminine, open and closed, familiar and foreign.

So many of the Japanese films of this era have titles which allude to moods pre-set by their lighting schemes: sunset, moonlight, dawn, twilight. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s early scripts refer to the glow of various objects within the frame: a bluish light, a bright kimono, and instructions for how light should be dispersed across a tree. Kinugasa’s most explicitly expressionist work, A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeji, 1926), works with the emotional impact of light and abstraction: the implied malice in a series of narrowing shapes, and the psychological implications of spiraling and repetition. It remains a gripping work, even if it occasionally feels like a tentative experiment: a test of the effect of Berlin light on a Japanese night.

Expressionist lighting finally reached the Japanese mainstream when it became a feature of swordplay scenes where, as Miyao puts it, the emphasis was not so much the “visibility of the star’s face but the transitory whiteness of the sword.” In films such as Kinugasa’s An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1935), the appearance of white is a coup: a sense of freeze generated by the flash of the sword. The strikes and sparks of the blade allow extreme whiteness and blackness to communicate on a near-abstract level.

The Berlinale also showed several Hollywood features which had a decisive effect on Japanese cinema. Among the most influential was Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928), which was remade four years later by Yasujiro Shimazu as First Steps Ashore (Joriku daippo, 1932), with the setting changed to Yokohama. Sternberg’s film is a master-class in creating atmosphere with a minimum of props and settings. In the nightlife scenes, he uses every means to tease out and diffuse the light: veils, mists and spangles are piled on like fascinations to entrap the eye. It’s a “floating world” which appears to be made out of nothing more than silvery dust particles. This fragile universe is juxtaposed with the underworld of the stokers, where everything is high-contrast black and white: fire, coal, and furnaces.

Finally, the Berlinale presents the case of Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese-born Hollywood star who appeared in dozens of US features. Praised by American critics as the breakout star of The Cheat (1915), Hayakawa had a controversial reputation in Japan, where his role as a sexually sadistic blackmailer was considered degrading to the national image. Yet the visual appeal could not be denied. In The Cheat, light and shadow conspire to give Hayakawa a glamor which none of the other actors possess. Out of the darkness, his character’s face is gradually unveiled, with its pointed brows and smooth forehead: a beautiful and cruel, if racially coded, image. The film may have received mixed reviews in Japan, but producers were sufficiently entranced to invite Henry Kotani, the film’s uncredited director of photography, to work at Shochiku. There he mentored cinematographers in the nuanced use of shadows, a style which would remain influential in Japan for the next 30 years.

Lesley Chow