Projected on the Dusk: Seeking Cinema in 1910s and 1920s Japanese Poetry
2. Poetry and Cinema in the 1910s
The elusive pleasure of a passing day,Sorrow,All of it, a pale blue flicker of the cinemaProjected on the dusk,That restless and mysterious film.
Both the “pleasure” and the “melancholy” of a passing day here become a flickering “film” (firumu) projected onto the impossible surface of the dusk—the proceeding of life itself is made into a vivid spectacle, but a strange and distant one. Kitahara refers to the “kineorama”, an early hybrid cinematic experience popular from around 1905 to the late 1910s that combined a moving mechanical miniature diorama of a scene on stage with a film projected onto it, meant to create the impression of weather changing in a landscape, fiery explosions in a naval scene, and so on.3 In this case, the kineorama is of the narrator’s “days so young”, a vision of times past wreathed in shadow.Kineorama of days so young;Memories have a piano accompaniment behind themA kiss of moon and gaslight,A small boat moving across gemlike waters.
Truly, in a little motion picture theaterat the evening fair on the outskirts of this town,within the wafting grassy scent of acetylene gas,the sharp and resoundingwhistle in the autumn night was quite a sad thing.It cried out hyorororo and faded away,and it immediately became dark,and a pale film of a mischievous little boy was reflected in my eyes.After a while, it once more cried out hyororo,and the hoarse-voiced live narrator,moving his hands like a Western ghost,droned on about something or other.I couldn’t help but be moved to tears.
Yet that is a memory of three years ago.
Bearing a weary heartafter endless debates,and hating the weakheartedness of my comrades,I came home from town on a rainy night, all alone,and, unexpectedly, that whistle came to mind.——hyorororo, andagain, hyorororo——
Kondō Norihiko notes that this poem refers to three years earlier, 1908, in which the then 22-year-old Takuboku recorded in his diary the fourteen different times he went to watch movies or kineoramas, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone (Kondō 1986, p. 63). In this poem, the content of the film itself—a “mischievous little boy”—is only briefly alluded to, as is often the case with prewar poems that engage with cinema. A more expected approach might be to parallel the narrator’s situation and the film’s content, drawing contrast between the carefree boy on screen and the poet as a young man uneasy in his newfound adulthood. Yet the focus instead is on the experience of filmgoing and the emotions triggered by the atmosphere and materiality of a film screening. Poets often exercised every part of the sensorium—not just vision—to evoke a broader sense of the cinematic, with what was on screen only one element among many. The space of the screening is created instead through the collision of senses: a whistle, the “grassy” smell of gas, the sudden fall of darkness, and the bright light of the film projector. Tears spring to the poet’s eyes unbidden not despite but because of everything working against a conventionally “immersive” cinematic experience—far from pitch blackness and perfect silence, the narrator is moved to tears, overwhelmed in the confluence of the shrill whistle, the hoarse speaker, the ghostly hands, and the faded projection. Three years later, at the conclusion of the poem, the same thing happens—this time, however, not at a theater, but during a walk home on a rainy night. The narrator—dissatisfied with the current state of his life and relationships—suddenly remembers the piercing whistle, an imagined sound that reactivates his experience of filmgoing. The intense affective site that was the “little motion picture theater” (katsudō shashin no koya) has returned outside of the space and time of its screenings, the narrator once again “moved to tears” (namidagumare) as he reflects upon just how little has changed.I, suddenly, was moved to tears.Truly, truly, my heart is starving and empty,even now, as it was long ago.
Sacred Prisms was startlingly experimental at a moment in which modernist works from Europe were only beginning to be imported and translated. While labelled by many as a Futurist, Yamamura himself preferred to call his work “Prisimist” (Zanotti 2011). The dense, unlineated “À FUTUR” certainly lives up to the Prisimist moniker in its use of seemingly absurd collections of images tied together by an overarching preoccupation with geometry, light, and movement. Here, outside what the narrator describes as “my film” (watashi no eiga, with the characters for “eiga” glossed as “firumu”) stand “cat pupils”. “Loneliness” is addressed by a “tree” meeting a tilting “pot”, in what is likely an abstracted take on a sex scene; a voice comes not from beside the screen but from behind one’s shoulder; a toy is introduced not as a spectacle but something “invisible”; there are seeing eyes, perhaps, but they are “cat pupils”, non-human, not looking at the “film” but remaining “outside it”. A “crystal joy” implies light and transparency, but we immediately move away from visuality and towards the “scent” of a demon, which in turn is made into a “helix”.A tree knows my loneliness, a pot tilts. And then whispers from behind my shoulder, lamentations that love an invisible toy. Cat pupils standing upright outside my film. Hazy crystal joy. The scent of the unsullied skin of a demon pointing to the heavens and rising as a helix.
3. Poetry and Cinema in the Early 1920s
The headsOf three geisha.
After mentioning the “heads of three geisha”—it is unclear if they are an image on screen, seated in front of the poet in the theater, or are completely unrelated—“something like purple phosphorescence crosses the stage” before the beginning of the kineorama show. Okubo Ryo speculates that this was a purple seen through or around the curtain upon which the pre-show film was projected, which he argues “interrupts the narrator’s devotion to the screen” (Okubo 2010, pp. 83–84).At that momentPreparing for the kineorama showSomething like purple phosphorescenceCrosses the stage
The narrator strolls through a quaint pastoral scene, described in terms almost too picturesque. In the end, we realize why: such a perfect setting and its undoubtedly azure sky could only be a “blue painted movie set” (aoi penki-nuri no katsudō shashin satsueiba). Yosano’s narrator effectively becomes an actress on the set of this quasi-rural landscape, filled with generic but precisely-described archetypical figures—the “squat and sooty” farmer’s house, the “young man washing his hoe”, the “old well”, the “five or six chickens”. She leads the reader through this space, showing them one cheery sight after another, but at the last moment confides the reality of the situation, wishing she “couldn’t see” that it was just a makeshift creation all along. It remains ambiguous if this is indeed a set, or her jab at the artificiality of the suburban landscape and the narrator’s alienation within it. Nevertheless, the trappings of the cinematic become a way for Yosano to express a longing to not see through the trompe l’oeil of the world around her—she wishes, in fact, to be fooled just a little longer.The road leads to the garden,yellow canna flowersstanding on either side.A farmer’s house,thatched roof, squat and sooty,welcomes me.In front of its entrance,an old well surrounded by stones.A young man is washing his hoe.Seeing my parasol,five or six chickens hurry byunder the shade of the sunflowers.The water draining in the rice fieldon the other side of the boxwood hedgesmakes a trickling sound.I just wish I couldn’t seethat blue-paintedmovie set.
何も 他のことは考へない僕たちはすべて 女もひとりびとりとなり だまつてみんな一つの思念につながる
Within the pitch darkWe—women too—All congregated in a single thought
We did not think of anything elseEveryone—women too—Silently one by oneBecame connected in a single thought
Here, he repeatedly stresses the dark space of a screening as one in which multiple people gradually become unified to the extent that they think as one—all of them “congregate” and are “connected” in “a single thought”, tears forming in all their eyes. From this collectivity, however, a gendered division emerges. By awkwardly clarifying “women too” (onna mo) after each masculine plural first person pronoun (bokutachi), the rhetoric of inclusion seems to undermine itself by separating male and female spectators—this was, indeed, actual policy in major movie theaters in Japan themselves, which had largely gender-segregated seating until 1931 (Niita 2022, p. 309). This construction also implies surprise—that it is unusual for both men and women to be united this way in their thinking—thus presenting the cinema as particularly exceptional for this reason as well.Within the total darknessWe were looking for different thingsWith a single lonely thoughtTears in our eyes looking for somethingOur hearts calming in one place
しづかにこーひーをすゝつてるわたしの胸の内部は艷失なつた西洋菓子のやうな大理石でつくられた脊高くひろびろしい上品な館内です華やかなひかりはないがおつとりと海のやうしづかで心配をおろした情緒はそのなかをあめーばのやうに觸手もやさしくおよぎまわりいろいろな追憶の鷗もたからかに飛びまわつてゐるああ そうして空のやう遠くにすくりーんがあるけれどもいまそこにはもうなんらのいまーじゆも寫つてゐないたゞ いまもまたごーるでんばつとの銀紙から進んでゆく一道の蒼白い光茫！そのいつもの貧乏の顔の大寫しのみなんです
This poem focuses not on a screening but on the space and architecture of the movie theater itself, and the class-based incongruity the narrator feels within that space. He luxuriates in his surroundings—seemingly in a café in the theater lobby—taking in the details of the interior while sipping on his coffee and entering into a reverie. He describes his own body as “made of marble”, pallid and heavy, in contrast to the lightness of the surroundings. He launches into reminiscences intermingled with ecological imagination, his mind becoming “amoeba-like” and his memories turning into “seagulls”; the blank movie screen, likely glimpsed through a doorway from the lobby, joins in as well to become the “distant sky”.Quietly sipping coffee, the inside of my chestis made of marble, like Western sweets that have lost their sheenIt is an elegant interior, high-ceilinged and expansiveNo florid lighting, but gentle and calm as the seaFeeling like a weight has been taken off my mind,as if swimming with gentle, amoeba-like tentaclesthe seagulls of various memories are loudly circlingAh and there’s the screen, as distant as the skythough no more images are being projected on itBut once more from the silver paper of a Golden Bat cigarette packetcomes forward a pale, glowing ray of light!But it’s only a close up of a poor man’s face, as usual.
Conflicts of Interest
Media archaeology as a methodology tends to emphasize looking at “the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices, and inventions”—such as the kineorama—in order to gain insight into new media forms and our relationships to media in general. (Parikka 2012, p. 2)
Nakai was an influential writer who himself worked on a deliberately poetic film—a tragically lost short avant-garde documentary/fictive hybrid about Shikoku called “Poem of the Sea” (“Umi no shi”) in 1932, that due to the pioneering experiments of Andō Haruzō also happened to be Japan’s first full color film. (Nornes 2003, p. 143).
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Campana, A. Projected on the Dusk: Seeking Cinema in 1910s and 1920s Japanese Poetry. Literature 2023, 3, 133-144. https://doi.org/10.3390/literature3010011
Campana A. Projected on the Dusk: Seeking Cinema in 1910s and 1920s Japanese Poetry. Literature. 2023; 3(1):133-144. https://doi.org/10.3390/literature3010011Chicago/Turabian Style
Campana, Andrew. 2023. "Projected on the Dusk: Seeking Cinema in 1910s and 1920s Japanese Poetry" Literature 3, no. 1: 133-144. https://doi.org/10.3390/literature3010011