Docbox Books

Abé Mark Nornes,
Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, ISBN:08166-4046-7
Jeffrey Isaacs

Abé Markus Nornes’s Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima is the first book-length study of Japanese documentary to appear in English, and perhaps the most thoroughgoing attempt to narrate the history of Japanese documentary film in any language.

Nornes is an active contributor to the life and history of YIDFF as programmer (YIDFF ’91, ’93, ’95 and 2003), panelist (’97 and ’01), subtitler, translator, speaker, and critic and his Yamagata experiences are present here and there throughout the book.

In a series of focused essays Japanese Documentary Film develops a narrative in which left-wing filmmaking endeavors inform many of the historical shifts and evolving theoretical paradigms that are the pivot points of this history. Nornes concentrates on a limited number of representative films, filmmakers, and critics and also addresses important intellectual debates—fascism, shudansei (groupism), tenko (ideological apostasy), resistance/complicity—and issues, such as the epistemology of documentary, the viewfinder controversy, the scenario as separate artistic form, and the creation of the editor. The work also revises several entrenched positions—the claim that American wartime film is racist while Japanese wartime film is not, for instance; his assertion that henshu eiga (edited films) made in 1933 and 1934 “were the first long-form, large-scale attempts at nonficton film in Japan” (p. 50); and that documentary preceded feature film in establishing the style of wartime cinema (p. 95).

The book begins with an omnibus chapter called “A Prehistory of the Japanese Documentary” that sets the stage for the first in-depth essay on Prokino, “the first grand experiment in Japanese documentary . . .” (p. 18). Prokino is the the filmmaking arm of Japan’s proletarian arts movement that flourished from 1927 until it was outlawed in early 1933. This chapter clearly describes the complex proliferations and amalgamations, shifts in orientations and waves of government suppressions that have been the ending point of other attempts to discuss this history. Furthermore, this section succeeds in situating Prokino within the struggle that took place within the Japanese Communist Party between Fukumoto-ism and Yamakawa-ism while keeping an eye on the truly inventive filmic experiments conducted by a bunch of politically committed amateurs—experiments that turn out, in Nornes’s account, to be foundational moments that altered the course of later filmmaking.

In two middle chapters, the book organizes and describes the orgy of non-fiction film output that accompanied the fifteen-year war, developing the argument that Prokino-era techniques and activists were effectively (but not completely) co-opted and integrated into the filmmaking apparatus of the time. Extended analysis of two films, Japan in Time of Crises (1933) and Dawn of Freedom (1943) show Nornes’s keen knack for thorough research and unique observation. It is here, too that Japanese Documentary Film discusses the idiosyncratic and hard to encapsulate film philosopher Imamura Taihei into whose writings Nornes reads ambiguity rather than the consistency other analysts have claimed.

In “The Last Stand of Theory,” Nornes traces the thought of critic Iwasaki Akira, and the film writings of philosophers Tosaka Jun and Nakai Masakazu whose involvement with the Yuibutsuron (theory of materialism) study group and Japan’s fledgling Popular Front may on their own warrant an entire book. A chapter on Kamei Fumio’s banned film Fighting Soldiers (1939) looks carefully at ways the film’s submerged transcript of transgression and simultaneous complicity with the war produce moments of schizophrenic betrayal between sound track and image track. The final chapter is about two film projects undertaken immediately after the end of the war, Kamei Fumio and Iwasaki Akira’s A Japanese Tragedy, and the Nichiei collaborative effort to photograph Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bomb blasts that destroyed those cities and their inhabitants and also melted and reshaped history. Nornes works provocatively with the metaphor of ritual cannibalism (as a means to appropriate the power of the other) to understand the twenty-five-year suppression of images of nuclear devastation as a “structured absence.”

Ultimately, Japanese Documentary Film is useful in de-centering the Euro-American discursive enshrinement of non-fiction film history that discounts the existence of Japanese filmmakers and critics. Nornes’s creative treatment of actuality illucidates the lively and surprising history of an amazingly productive and innovative cinema.


Jeffrey Isaacs
Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. Currently writing a dissertation on Japanese wartime film and culture.

Independent Documentary Research Group,
Korean Independent Documentaries

Yaedam Publisher Co., 2003, ISBN: 89-88902-74-2
Yoon Yong-soon

In comparison with feature films, Korean documentaries have had a short history. In the 1980s independent filmmakers sought to navigate an obscure era without the benefits of reference points or a past tradition to draw upon. Since the 1980s, Korean documentaries have made remarkable achievements through films like Sanggae-Dong Olympic (1988) by Kim Dong-won and Mummering (1992-1999), the trilogy about Korean comfort women acclaimed within Korea and abroad. Starting with Pan-No-Ri (1982) by Seoul Visual Collective, over 200 films have been released to the general public.

As a result of political oppression under South Korea’s military governments from the 1960s, popular democracy movements became the focal point for film and documentary makers. In particular, the tyrannical politics of Chun Doo-hwan’s government in the 1980s served as a catalyst in expanding the minjung national cultural movement from university students and labors to mainstream society. In this context, independent films, especially documentary films, positioned themselves as activists for the minjung movement, or alternatively as people uncovering reality.

However, a new type of “civil government” under the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung administrations in the 1990s saw the rapid expansion of capitalist-style economic consumption and materialism. The weakening of the socialist camp precipitated by the Soviet Union’s collapsed forced Korean independent documentary filmmakers to move beyond established filmmaking approaches and confronted newly emerging questions: how to define the aethetics and politics of independent documentaries; how methods of filmmaking should be changed; and how digital and new media technology can to be adopted to documentary filmmaking.

Published this June, Korean Independent Documentaries is a productive response to these kinds of questions. This significant work demonstrates a level of self-awareness, as it was originally organized and published by the Independent Documentary Research Group, comprised of documentary filmmakers and people involved in actual production, rather than film critics or other groups. Over a three-year period they delved into the questions they faced and had numerous meetings and discussions. When necessary, interviews were conducted with filmmakers in person and compiled as reference material.

This book consists of two parts, as well as reviews of several significant works and a useful appendix of filmographies. The first part is titled “The Journey of Korean Independent Documentaries,” and chapters one and two cover the history of independent documentaries during the 1980s and 1990s through interviews with filmmakers and producers active during the period, including Kim Dong-won (Purn Production), Kim Myung-june (Labor News Production) Lee Sang-in (National Film Research Center) and director Byun Young-joo. These chapters shed light on the shift in social milieu and practical documentary filmmaking from the 1980s, characterized as education or propaganda ingrained in the great cause of “social movement via filmic image,” to the 1990s when documentary filmmakers consciousness of authorship began focusing on the quality of “work” itself—not social movement.

The true value of this work lies in the second part. The query into the historical context of Korean independent documentary filmmaking in Part I lays the foundation for the second part, which addresses the more specific interior details and newly posed problems. These include not only what kind of documentaries should be made, but also “how” to make documentaries. Until now these questions have not been shared among independent documentary filmmakers, or even given a concrete shape.

The first chapter, “Political Realism: Establishing Reality in Contemporary Korean Independent Documentaries” (Nam In-young) shows new dimensions of reinactments staged in recent Korean documentaries by analyzing film texts including Habitual Sadness (Byun Young-joo, 1997), Sun Dried Pepper (Chang Hui-sun, 1999), and Time to Break Silence (Lee Jin-phil, 2000). In the end, the author concludes that filmmakers hide the process of restaging events, and that they are only able to camoflauge the restaged events as if they are completely natural. In this sense, the reality deemed most positive is created in works like Habitual Sadness or Sun Dried Pepper, where the documentary makers appear on-screen and create a horizontal relationship with the documentary subjects.

The second chapter, “The Position and Characteristics of ‘Subject’ in Korean Independent Documentaries” (Lee Hyun-jung, Kim Hui-young, Hwang Yun) also focuses on the significance of documentary makers appearing within the films. The three authors emphasize that through appearing in their own works, filmmakers reject looking at the world from a fixed position, and depict themselves as filmmakers undergoing transformations through their relationships with the documentary subjects.

Through examining the history of independent documentary filmmaking and looking at the issues that must be grappled with in the future, this book provides valuable material for future research. The book is written by documentary filmmakers themselves, but it is precisely this aspect that defines the book’s limitations. Perhaps an objective critique and appraisal of documentary filmmaking could not be fully achieved due to an unconsciousness “family circle” among the authors. This unfinished work is now left to other contemporary film critics and scholars who have the courage to criticize the weaknesses and limitations of their own inquiry in order to break with old frameworks and reconstruct new ones.

—Translated by HA Seung-Hee


Yoon Yong-soon
After specializing in cinema studies at Waseda University, returned to Korea and worked as a producer. Currently researching Japanese cinema and is active as a writer. Member of the Korean Media Rating Board.

Nick Deocampo,
Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines

Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2003. ISBN 971-814-023-9
Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr.

This is an ambitious project, the first of a series of five volumes “reflecting on the past 100 years of cinema in the Philippines” (p. xii). It is not simply about Philippine Cinema; it is about cinema in the Philippines. For this first volume, the subject is early cinema. Deocampo aims to recover the Hispanic past that he claims has been vastly neglected by the country’s film historians. He calls his project “an act of clearing our collective memory” (p. 6).

In the introduction to his book, he builds his argument through a critique of my work Native Resistance: Philippine Cinema and Colonialism 1898–1941. In my study, I argue that the first-generation Filipino filmmakers of the pre-World War II period indigenized a foreign medium by using the theatrical forms that were well known to them. I refer to the sarswela and the komedya or moro-moro, which in turn were the indigenized forms of the Spanish musical zarzuela and the cloak-and-dagger comedia, respectively. The Filipino re-shaped the forms, imposed his cultural stamp, his language, his style, making them his own. In my view, that was a form of resistance.

Deocampo says that his book “does not refute the existence of films influenced by the zarzuela and comedia, it challenges the notion that these films were forms of native resistance” (p. 8). In other words, he views the sarswela and moro-moro movies as mere manifestations of Hispanic influences. However, I hold that this view is too narrow, as the few extant films of the period show something more than Hispanic influences on language and on the choice of actors. These sarswela and moro-moro movies have their own native conventions and ideology that beg to be read as transformations of the original, foreign source. It is precisely this transformation that holds the possibilities for native resistence, a point Deocampo himself acknowledges in the final chapter of his book when he writes that “Indigenization . . . can become a means for both cultural cooptation and cultural subversion” (p. 291).

In the first of five chapters, “Cinema and Language,” Deocampo talks about the role that Spanish played in forming cinema in the Philippines. He argues that “Spanish named and thereby ‘realized’ cinema” (p. 34). He cites the use of Spanish in labeling film and film-related objects, in anuncios (announcements and ads) and intertitles of films of the period. It should be noted that intertitles then were bilingual or even trilingual, English and Tagalog sharing space with Spanish. At any rate, he asserts that “one can even say that the Spanish language made cinema real” (p. 37).

There may be some truth in this, but I think there is also a lot to say about how the actual screenings of the films themselves made cinema real to the Filipino spectators. And titles like Escena de baile Japonés (“Scene of a Japanese Dance”), La calle de Montmarte de Paris (“Montmartre Street in Paris”), Baños de Milan (“Baths in Milan”), to name three of the imported films that were shown during the first screenings of cine in the country, certainly evoke images of a world that escape the confines of colonial boundaries. The films themselves made cinema—and the world—real to the Filipino. Did these films influence early Filipino cinema? If so, how did these films and their developing cinematic language influence that nascent cinema? Some of the imported films are still accessible, but none of the early Filipino films are extant. That excuses Deocampo from considering the questions. But the fact remains that many of the films came from various European countries, except Spain.

With the absence of early Filipino films, Deocampo continues to discuss in succeeding chapters the early films about the Philippines (Chapter II, “Cinema and Revolution”), the dominance of theater (Chapter III, “Cinema and Culture”), and the overtake of cinema (Chapter IV, “Cinema Comes into Its Own”), relying mainly on newspapers, particularly the anuncios. He makes some interesting finds: One is the screening in 1905 of Advance of Kansas Volunteers in Caloocan at the Gran Cinematógrafo del Oriente. The anuncio shows that the imperialist 1899 Edison film, albeit a short one-shot one-scene deal, found its space in a Philippine cine. Another find is La Conquista de Filipinas, a 1912 film attributed to Edward Gross that might have been produced by a group of Chinese-Filipinos. Deocampo makes some conjectures that this could be the first Filipino-produced film.

Another intriguing segment occurs again in the final chapter. After repeatedly stating the role of Hispanic influences on Philippine Cinema, Deocampo says in a section title, “The Heart of Spanish Influence is French.” In short, buried beneath the layers of the Hispanic (and later Hollywood) influences are the markings of French cinema (p. 314). If only Deocampo took note of some titles of the early films he found in the anuncios, like La calle de Montmartre de Paris, it would have not taken him over three hundred pages to talk about Hispanic influences, only to consider the French like an afterthought.

The book is voluminous, but it could be made more concise and focused. Nonetheless, in spite of critical disagreements that one may have with this book, Deocampo’s work is a contribution toward understanding early Philippine cinema. In a country where very little scholarly work is being done on its own cinema, Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines is an interesting addition for intellectual engagement.


Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr.
Chair, Department of Communication, De La Salle University, Manila, and documentary filmmaker and screenwriter.