Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shigehiko Hasumi: An Appreciation

The first time I encountered Shigehiko Hasumi's writing was in a volume on Japanese master Mikio Naruse, which he co-edited for the Filmoteca Espanol, on the occasion of an exhaustive retrospective of the director's work at the San Sebastian film festival. The volume, half in Spanish, half in English became something of a sacred text to me, having just discovered Naruse's work through the writings of Philip Lopate. As much as I owe to the latter for the discovery, it was Hasumi's glorious prose however which helped me to appraise Naruse as one of the cinema's very best directors. Hasumi's approach in this writing might be best understood as disclosing a matrix for viewing the auteur's cinema that conformed to much larger questions of medium specificity. In Naruse's case, Hasumi traced a lineage of simplicity from Griffith through Ford and Godard: the first posited that cinema was comprised of a man, a woman and a gun; the second, a man, a woman and a horse; Godard, a man, a woman and a car; and finally with Naruse, cinema had reached its base of simplicity with a man and a woman, or more accurately, a man, a woman and light. It thus became Hasumi's task to illustrate those moments which reveal this essential state in cinema throughout Naruse's work. (For this reason he found particular value in 1940s curiosity, The Song Lantern).

My second encounter with Mr. Hasumi -- actually that's professor, and not only professor, but dean of Tokyo University; indeed, a number of his students have gone on to become great directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- was for a panel discussion on the art of Yasujiro Ozu for the director's centenary in 2003. At this event, which also featured Robin Wood, Tom Gunning and a number of other film studies big shots, Hasumi gave one of the most compelling and off-beat presentations as he examined Ozu's women through the gesture of tossing down articles of clothing (and particularly their husband's). In so doing, he revisited the opinion that his was a socially conservative cinema, while delving into a concern central to the medium's particularity: namely, the gesture.

Interestingly enough, Prof. Hasumi returns to the throwing gesture in his latest Rouge essay "John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture". Here, he supposes that the essence of that master can be found in that same gesture, while again enlivening his auteur study with a deeper theoretical inquiry into the essence of the art. This is the best film essay that I've read in a very long time; it is indeed the sort of prose and analysis that should serve as a model for all aspiring film scholars and critics -- I know it will for me. In simply reading it, I found my own avocation elevated to a level which it rarely attains.