The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 1: Japan

Jan 7–19, 2014


Crossroads. 1928. Japan. Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

This exhibition is based on Daisuke Miyao’s new book The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema, which takes as its starting point the now 80-year-old essay “In Praise of Shadows,” by the novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki argued that traditional Japanese architecture offers “the magic of shadows…that formed…a quality of mystery and depth superior to any wall painting or ornament.” Miyao’s book contends that this “aesthetics of shadows” (kage no bigaku) had a profound influence on many different Japanese filmmakers in several different periods.

One key figure is Soichi (Henry) Kotani, whose “depth” lighting, a technique he picked up in America, was used by Shochiku studio in its efforts to modernize Japanese filmmaking. Hollywood also had a strong influence on jidaigeki, the popular Japanese swordfight genre, and Douglas Fairbanks became the favorite American actor to Japanese audiences. His The Mark of Zorro (1920) led Shochiku to import the star’s set designer and a management person—along with Kotani—and several Shochiku employees were sent to Hollywood to observe production methods. Cinematographer Akira (Harry) Mimura was highly influenced by his time spent with the great Gregg Toland and Alvin Wyckoff (Kotani’s mentor). Kazuo Miyagawa, Japan’s most honored cinematographer, who shot many of the great masterpieces of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, absorbed many of these techniques as well.

The German Expressionist “street” films of F. W. Murnau and Karl Grune also had a heavy influence in Japan, leading to works like Crossroads and Page of Madness, films that were “painted with light” and utterly unlike anything previously seen in Japan. Docks of New York (1928), the last silent film of Josef von Sternberg, the Hollywood director most obsessed by the aesthetics of shadow, was likewise imitated in First Steps Ashore.

The Aesthetics of Shadow is a cooperative venture between MoMA and the Berlinale Retrospective organized by Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film und Fernsehen and the Berlin International Film Festival. The presentation in Berlin takes place February 6–16.
The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Donald Richie (1924–2013), former curator in MoMA’s Department of Film and the man most responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to America. All films are silent with English translation or titles and live musical accompaniment, unless otherwise noted. Professor Miyao will sign copies of his book on Saturday, January 11, at 7:00 p.m.

Organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film, MoMA; Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, MoMA; Dr. Rainer Rother, Artistic Director, Deutsche Kinemathek; Connie Betz, Program Coordinator, Deutsche Kinemathek; and Annika Schaefer, Deutsche Kinemathek.

Prints supplied by the National Film Center, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; George Eastman House; and Image Forum. Special thanks to Daisuke Miyao, Hisashi Okajima, Daniel Blish, Masaki Daibo, Marty Gross, Shochiku, Toho, Janus Films, Nikkatsu, and the family of Teinosuke Kinugasa.


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