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Given to See: A Tribute to Shigehiko Hasumi

An exclusive excerpt from an essay in tribute to the great critic, scholar and teacher Shigehiko Hasumi.
The following text is an excerpt from an essay commissioned by the specialist publishing house Hatori Press (Japan) for a tribute to the great critic, scholar and teacher Shigehiko Hasumi on the occasion of his 80th birthday (29 April 2016). Other contributors to this book (slated to appear in both Japanese and English editions) include Pedro Costa, Chris Fujiwara and Richard I. Suchenski. Beyond Prof. Hasumi’s many achievements in criticism and education (he was President of the University of Tokyo between 1997 and 2001), his ‘method,’ his unique way of seeing and speaking about films, has served as an immense inspiration for a generation of directors in Japan including Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinji Aoyama. The online magazines Rouge ( and LOLA (, co-edited by Martin, provide the best access to Hasumi’s work in English (see references in the notes below).

Leos Carax and Shigehiko Hasumi. Photo by Michiko Yoshitake.
"Cinema is what we see on the surface of the screen, after all." 
–Jean-Pierre Coursodon, ‘A Film By’ (Internet discussion group), 25 June 2008 
A Train Advances
‘A train advances toward us, drawn by a steam locomotive, and slows down at the end of the platform of a small station’ – so begins Shigehiko Hasumi’s 2004 text ‘John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture’. (1) Note the complete absence of technical language: no mention of long shot or close-up, no talk of the camera lens, the angle, or even the framing of the mise en scène. Simply, an event, an event on the screen: a train advances … with the casual inclusion of the spectator’s position, that ‘us’ which constitutes the point of reception for this film, for any film. 
Hasumi often begins his texts and lectures in this way. He describes an action or gesture, as simply and clearly as possible. Films invite us in, directly and effortlessly. They give us something to see, something to behold, something to witness. A train advances: what could be more basic, accessible and comprehensible to every spectator? Finally, there will be much more involved in this act, this ritual gesture by a film of giving to see. It is never a simple showing, but rather a complex, layered demonstration, reached by the end of the movie. From a modest act of showing, we will arrive at the full power and complexity of cinema as an art. 
And Hasumi will lead us to this understanding, this revelation – many times over, throughout his fifty-five years (so far) of practicing criticism. But, each time, he does this gradually, by stages, in steps – in some sense, mimicking a film’s own quality of gradual demonstration and unveiling. This is the great rhetorical art of Hasumi’s analyses, and his own, very special gift to the world of film criticism.
Archaeological Rapture
Immediately after introducing this train of Ford in Doctor Bull (1933), Hasumi interjects a memory-association, the very first and most famous train in cinema history: L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895) of the Lumières. This is another gesture characteristic of Hasumi: to evoke what he elsewhere calls the archaeological rapture of the earliest, silent films, and the reprise of this thrill in later cinema. (2) He finds this rapture in many places: in the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Pedro Costa, to cite only two examples. (3) It is a powerful evocation: the first films not only showed us things, they performed the historic action or gesture of showing. They gave us something to see, and we marvelled accordingly.
Hasumi is always in search of the rekindling of that particular sense of wonder in cinema – not nostalgically (for, alongside Nicholas Ray, ‘we can’t go home again’), but as an ideal. And this ideal also reminds us what is, for Hasumi, essential: that the cinema is essentially a visual art, images, gestures and actions in motion. (4) In his long-considered view, the soundtrack is a kind of afterthought in the medium’s history, a technological prosthesis never truly integrated into what Raymond Bellour calls the ‘body of cinema’.
The thing is there, given to see, to be seen by us. A physical object (the advancing train) or a human gesture (and Hasumi has catalogued many of these across the years: like Vilém Flusser, he has created for us a veritable, semiotic encyclopedia of gestures). It’s on the screen – the type of visible evidence that critics including Jacques Rivette, Jean Douchet and William Routt have often, richly evoked when analysing cinema.
But evidence can remain unseen, ‘unacknowledged’ as philosopher Stanley Cavell (and, after him, film scholar Andrew Klevan) would say. Hasumi occasionally allows himself a kind of discreet cry of exasperation in this regard: ‘the critics have never noticed it’ in Ford, the majesty of his art is fully ‘visible, but what is specific to this filmmaker is rarely perceived’.
So, something has to be noticed, taken into account – isolated so as to be examined and subsequently followed throughout a movie. Hasumi is the Great Noticer, if I may put it that way. He notices what you or I have not yet noticed, which is the mark of a great critic or teacher. Once he has pointed it out, made it the special object of our rapt attention, we are primed to notice it – and to keep on noticing it, in action, in movement and flight, in all its variations and (crucially) its metamorphoses. Indeed, perhaps we will even find it difficult, once we have been initiated into seeing (and knowing) in this way, to notice anything but the unique detail or gesture that Hasumi has pointed out – a sure sign of how a voracious desire can seize the analytical faculty of our mind and being. 
And here is what Hasumi especially notices, underlines, picks out at the start of Doctor Bull: ‘a black postal bag suddenly thrown from the carriage, landing brusquely’. Throwing: something, in itself, quite unspectacular, mundane, everyday – just like the gestures of women removing handkerchiefs from their necks, or people endlessly remarking on the weather, in Ozu’s films. (5)
What can be made of, figured out from, this simple gesture? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Maybe even the entire Cinema of John Ford.
The System, Logic and Network of a Gesture
Hasumi most often starts from the small, singular detail, and then works outward. (An essay from 2000 on Hawks is an exception: there he begins with broad comparisons between films and between genres, in order to then work inward to ‘surprisingly small but specific events that occur on the screen’.) (6) After noticing, it is a matter, first, of watching, reviewing, searching, noting, researching, accumulating: we shall find the gesture of throwing, once we are looking for it, in possibly every John Ford film, from the silent days right through to Seven Women in 1966. 
Then comes the act of discernment: the observation of variations in the performance of this gesture, and the classification of these variations into groups or types. On this level, Hasumi is the best Structuralist ever to have drawn up a table of fine distinctions, all those differences within similarities or repetitions. But he does this not in diagrams or columns; rather, it is in prose, a flow of words, swift and precise evocations.  
Throwing in Ford, for instance, can be seen to perform many functions, to work on many levels. It can open or close narrative sequences (the throwing of a postal bag opens a story; the throwing of a spear might end it). It can have an expressive, emotional function, as an index of a character’s surprise, or anger, or lust. It can demonstrate the pure beauty – again, the archaeological rapture – of an object or body in movement within a space, or against a landscape like Monument Valley. And there are pertinent variations on throwing that have to be intuited, grasped: spitting (the ‘hurling’ by the mouth of chewed tobacco into a spittoon), for instance.
At a particular, exact point in the forward-movement of his rhetoric – so persuasive is his technique as a writer – Hasumi will be able to risk a bolder assertion than he could at the very beginning of his critical journey: ‘Only those characters capable of throwing an object at decisive moments are truly Fordian’; just as, ‘in Ozu’s films, the sky can only be sunny’. (7)
No gesture is entirely discrete; it inevitably creates physical and semantic chains with neighbouring, interrelated gestures. Fast walking or running will take your breath away and alter your posture; entering a warm room will necessitate you removing some of your clothing. Good directors know how to find, and shape, these seemingly natural, quotidian chains of action in a meaningful, deliberate, systematic fashion. Good critics, like Hasumi, know how to spot the shaping process in action.  
Smoking, for instance, is linked to throwing: lighting a cigarette necessarily entails throwing away the match. The time it takes for an actor like John Wayne to perform these interlinked gestures (smoking/throwing) on screen creates the opening, the possibility for a scene: such as when Maureen O’Hara suddenly materialises in The Quiet Man (1953), and ‘it is as if, in lighting his cigarette, he has provoked the apparition of this dreamlike creature’.
Gestures, as they form a system, can also enter into what Hasumi calls a logic – which involves not merely a pattern of repetitions, but crucially, a lively process of transformations. One might see here the influence of, or at least an affinity with, Gilles Deleuze’s spinning-out, in 1967, of the logic of structuralism into a veritable hyper-logic, where serial chains of signifiers cross, swap elements, and create new sequences and associations – what the philosopher calls a multi-serial structure. (8) In his work on Hawks, for instance, Hasumi traces the movements of inversion, exchange and repetition across the director’s comedies. Inversion can become a literal screen event: Hawksian men frequently find themselves (in a comedic mode) up-ended, upside down.
Moreover, armed with such logics, Hasumi gives the secular religion of auteurism in cinema studies a particular, special dignity and refinement – qualities it has so often lacked. Not only does the individual film form its own expressive system; the diverse films of a true auteur – no matter how manifestly different they may seem, across time and changing production circumstances – also then form a genuine network, speaking to, sparking off, and enriching each other. ‘Our thematic perspective’, he writes in relation to Ford, ‘allows us to recognise what connect’ such apparently disconnected films as Doctor Bull and The Informer (1935). But we are not dealing here with the noting of mere regularities or consistencies, those ‘personal obsessions’ and self-homages in a filmmaker’s oeuvre that are the stock-in-trade of auteurist critique. Rather, in that more Deleuzian, post-structuralist spirit, we trigger, with Hasumi, the hyper-logical, multi-serial field of analytical operations.
For example, Hasumi reaches the point, in ‘The Eloquence of Gesture’, of stressing the solitude of the Fordian hero. His gestures of throwing tend to enact or underline his separation from a given community. Commentators, in Hasumi’s view, err when they view any one Ford hero (like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, 1955) in isolation, deciding to sympathise with or find fault with him as an individual. Rather, these figures, separate in each film, ‘are in solidarity via the emotion that is expressed by throwing an object far into the distance’. The films form a crowd. 
We have returned, now, to that ‘us’, we spectators toward whom the train advanced on screen. Films solicit us with their potential to be activated, which is exactly what Walter Benjamin meant by an artwork’s ‘criticisability’ (Kritisierbarkeit). Because if we do not notice, if we do not connect, if we do not play, if we do not bear witness to what we have been given to see … then, in some sense, the films in question cannot truly exist in all their richness. Films call out to us to be analytically inventive, and to testify, through this creative reconstruction which is the act of criticism, to the breadth and depth, the resonance, of what is there on screen.

1. Rouge, no. 7 (2005), <>. All subsequent quotations from Hasumi concerning Ford are from this text. Alas, I cannot read Japanese, and thus have no access to the vast majority of Hasumi’s critical work on film and literature; I refer here only to the tip of the iceberg constituted by English and French translations/versions – see references in the following notes.
2. See Hasumi, ‘Café Lumière’, Rouge, no. 6 (2005), <> – an excerpt from ‘The Eloquence of the Taciturn: An Essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 9 No. 2 (2008), pp. 184-194. 
3. See ‘Café Lumière’ (ibid.), and ‘Adventure: An Essay on Pedro Costa’, Rouge, no. 10 (2007), <>. 
4. See his ‘Fiction and the “Unrepresentable”: All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film’, trans. David Buist, LOLA, no. 1 (2011), <>. 
5. See, respectively, ‘Ozu’s Angry Women’, Rouge, no. 4 (2004), <>; and ‘Sunny Skies’, trans. Kathy Shigeta, in David Desser (ed.), Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Cambridge Film Handbooks, 1997), pp. 118-129 – excerpted from Hasumi’s brilliant book on this director, which appeared in a French version as Yasujirô Ozu (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998).
6. ‘Inversion/Exchange/Repetition: The Comedy of Howard Hawks’, in Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003), p. 85.
7. ‘Sunny Skies’, p. 120. 
8. Gilles Deleuze, ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?’, in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp.170-192, 305-308.
Great read. Checking more of Hasumi's writings now.

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