Takuya Tsunoda is assistant professor of Japanese film and media in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Since joining the Weatherhead East Asian Institute in January 2019, he has quickly become an invaluable member of the WEAI community, contributing insight into the nuances of contemporary Japanese film. An abridged version of this interview appears in the July 2019 issue of the WEAI 70th Anniversary Newsletter.
Q: Can you tell me about your academic background and research? What attracted you to Japanese cinema and media, and more specifically the new cinema of the 1960s?
A: My initial interest in cinema was not academic. Growing up in Japan’s Kansai region and in Tokyo, taking trains—occasionally with friends but mostly alone—and going to movie theaters were always my favorite excursions. My fascination with films then moved toward filmmaking, and I made a few shorts on 8mm and DV as a college student in Tokyo. But my interest soon shifted from making films to thinking about why films always played on my heartstrings. My academic interest in cinema started to take shape in this way.
My current research topic, especially the new cinema of the 1960s, emerged out of a series of serendipitous discoveries and experiences rather than strategic choices. Just to give one example, a French film titled Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été), a landmark 1961 documentary that portrayed ‘characters’ from various backgrounds—factory workers, students from Africa, an Italian émigré, a Holocaust survivor and so on—has been dear to me, and Jean Rouch, an ethnographer-filmmaker who co-directed the documentary, was a major inspiration for the French New Wave. It was sheer coincidence, but 2008, the year I started my doctoral program at Yale, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of André Bazin, who had been a paternal figure to many New Wave filmmakers and critics in France. A variety of academic events surrounding his legacy were held that year, and this Bazin’s revival pointed us toward understanding the vital place of moving image in broader relations, be they industrial, socio-cultural, or institutional. Such amalgamation of personal tastes and disciplinary turns instigated my interest in looking at the cinema of the 1960s in Japan. I mentioned Rouch and Bazin, but it is not about Japan-France intersections. Rather, it prompted me to explore cinema’s institutions and its social core while cherishing an individual film closely on the textual level. For instance, Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 seminal documentary about Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic, was Bazin’s favorite and was also one source of inspiration for Chronicle of a Summer. Yet the film has barely been discussed as a work sponsored by a fur company. The medium developed in relation to journalistic, military, scientific, entertainment, advertising, religious and other practices. The New Wave films have often been characterized by the youth culture and rebellion, but adolescence is also a period of maturation. I gradually became fascinated with studying the new cinema of the 1960s in Japan, especially with the idea of dipping back into its earlier history in order to foreground this kind of maturation or mutation process.
Q: Your profile indicates that you are working on a book about Iwanami Productions. What is Iwanami Productions and why are you researching this topic?
A: This is a wonderful question, and it will take a book to fully explore! To highlight just a few crucial points, studies of Japanese cinema have long suffered from the serious dearth of industrial histories. Known as the ‘season of politics,’ the copious scholarship on Japanese films of the 1960s tends to revolve around the rigid formulae of oppositional politics, which adopt a monolithic view of power and authority and uniformly ‘demonized’ controlling agencies such as state power and sponsoring corporations as well as the studio-oriented industrial system. Iwanami Productions evolved from a major provider of sponsored educational, science, public-service, and advertisement films into a key player in the new cinemas of the 1960s. The studio, which initially collaborated with government organizations and private corporations eager to promote business and political initiatives to the populace, ended up nurturing a large group of ‘oppositional’ filmmakers as well as their works within its institutional frame. English language scholarship on film from Japan thus far has been largely ignorant or deliberately silent about how this industrial and state-affiliated studio, in a crucial period of geopolitical change, was capable of creating such a locus. My book makes a case for looking beyond the activist logic of political radicalism by highlighting the historical and theoretical intersection between media-based governmental and civic activities, cross-medial articulation of postwar academicism in Japan, and the emergence of the new cinemas in the late 1950s and the 1960s.
Institutional history of Iwanami is also one-of-a-kind; the studio was established in 1950 as a film division of a highly prestigious left-leaning Japanese publishing house, Iwanami Shoten, which was founded much earlier in 1913. However, the educational ethos of Iwanami Shoten (which earned the epithet “Iwanami academicism”) was also deeply aligned with the existing imperial university system that enabled publishers to secure the privilege to produce and distribute knowledge. Such a paradoxical legacy of Iwanami Shoten as a cultural brand conditioned the postwar inauguration of the film studio. I should also stress that Iwanami Productions was aggressively taking transmedial strategies since its inception, from the uniquely hybrid publication form of the Iwanami Photo Library (Iwanami Shashin Bunko) to television travelogues. In many ways the studio was also emblematic of the postwar transformations of Japanese media culture.
Iwanami Productions in the 1960s-70s.
Q: What led you to Columbia initially and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute? When did you join WEAI and what is your impression of the Institute so far? Has joining the Institute had any impact on your work?
A: I joined WEAI this January and soon had a chance to organize an event on the Japanese New Wave with Hirasawa Go, a researcher and curator visiting from Japan and Peter Eckersall, a New York-based specialist of Japanese theater and performance studies. It was cofunded by the Donald Keene Center and was also held in conjunction with a film series at the Japan Society in NY. What struck me immediately was the scale of the institute, housing a robust and diverse group of faculty and research scholars as members, truly bringing experts in greater New York together. I had opportunities to attend a number of events hosted by WEAI throughout the year, and what I appreciated in particular was that many of them were small or moderately sized with the intention to facilitate vigorous exchanges among participants. It was through WEAI-related meetings and conferences that I met many peer scholars both inside and outside Columbia for the first time. I also got to learn about my colleagues’ book projects and current research through the workshops hosted by WEAI. Given that each research field is nowadays becoming more and more specialized, it is not easy to get acquainted with scholars outside of one’s discipline. The East Asian Languages and Cultures Department and WEAI break this boundary to do interdisciplinary, polylingual, transnational, and transregional work. WEAI has also enabled me to do extensive research abroad. I just came back from a brief research trip to Japan, where Ying Qian, our colleague specializing in Chinese cinema and media, was also present. Together we successfully located various rare film and television materials that resonate with our ongoing research as well as teaching agendas; some of these findings are expected to develop into collaborative projects in the coming years.
Q: What is it like teaching and conducting research about Japanese cinema in New York?
A: Our C.V. Starr East Asian Library holds one of the largest collections for the study of East Asia in North America, and the Makino Collection of Japanese film and media has kept drawing scholars from all over the world. It is interesting that Mr. Makino’s house in Japan, prior to the Collection’s move to Columbia in 2006, had been visited by many young researchers, many of which have since become highly accomplished film scholars. Your question makes me realize how unique our situations are here: gaining access to some of the rarest materials on Japanese film in the midst of the most cosmopolitan city in the US. A number of specialists and their budding projects intercross here as a hub of research. And these activities are by no means restricted to scholarly ones. Japanese film retrospectives, exhibitions, and festivals, for instance, are interrelated cultural nodes. Our students go and watch Japanese films screened in town and come to my office to talk about them!
Q: Who are your students? What sort of studies and research are they interested in?
A: I have several graduate students who are working directly with me. Their current research outlooks encompass what I see as the maturation of the fields we are in, and the approaches they devise are distinctly theirs. One looks at Manchuria and its media-infused colonial modernity, while paying meticulous attention to the questions of gender, affect, and ethnicity. Another has embarked on Afro-Japanese literary and visual media studies from a uniquely transmedial and transnational perspective. I also have an MA student who has initiated research on early television in an attempt of mapping out its historically specific cultural logic and technological dynamics. I have been fortunate to have seminar members from other departments and programs, including Art History and School of the Arts. Undergraduates, whose majors range across astrophysics, mathematics, and human rights, comprise my courses. I am grateful for their deeply insightful, original, and enthusiastic contributions to my classes.
Q: In February you were part of the “Legacies of Leftism in Film and Media Theory: East Asia and Beyond” conference, which was cosponsored by WEAI. Can you tell me about this event?
A: A scholarly initiative called the Permanent Seminar on the Histories of Film Theories has been sponsoring conferences since 2009 (with the premiere as part of Dall’inizio, alla fine/ In the Beginning and at the Very End at the XVI Udine International Film Studies Conference in Udine, Italy). Jane Gaines, our colleague at Columbia School of the Arts, has been one of the core members of this initiative. One major and initial goal of the conferences was to collectively produce translations of early theories of cinema but it has since expanded to a consideration of historical and contemporary parallels. In 2012, a conference “History of Film Theories in East Asia” was held in 2012 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for the purpose of continuing the work of translation while exploring also the study of transferals of knowledge along and across East-West lines. Out of this has grown interest in how Asian philosophical traditions met European traditions—whether French Althusserian Marxism in China or Frankfurt School Marxism in Japan and Korea—and how the foundations of the media theory have been and are being transformed. Following a series of international conferences in Beijing, Shanghai, and Frankfurt, Germany, we organized our “Legacies of Leftism in Film and Media Theory: East Asia and Beyond” by taking up the more targeted questions of the philosophical and political underpinnings of film and critical theory (historically) as well as contemporary media theory.
I would also like to stress that the nature of the organizational work for this conference was itself highly collaborative; great teamwork among Columbia faculty members and graduate students was the ingredient essential for the success of the conference, which I believe showcased our commitment to the studies of East Asian cinema and media culture here at Columbia.
This article originally appeared in the July issue of the WEAI 70 Years newsletter.