For the Eyes Only: The Sensory Politics of Japanese Modernism

  • Irena Hayter (Autor/in)
    Universität Leeds
    Lecturer in Japanese Studies, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies.

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Japan's modernization entailed, amongst other things, a new distribution of the sensible and the privileging of visuality by the state’s regimes of power and knowledge. Larger historical and technological forces demanded the specialization and commodification of the senses: photography and film froze sight and detached it from the totality of experience, while the radio, the phonograph and the telephone separated hearing from seeing.

It is tempting to see literature and especially the modernist movement of Yokomitsu Riichi, Kawabata Yasunari and Kataoka Teppei from the 1920s as a site of resistance against these historical processes and the gradual specularization of experience: after all, they called themselves “shinkankaku-ha”, “New Perceptionists”. Close readings of their fictional and critical texts, however, reveal a much more ambiguous stance. Kankaku (“sensation”, “perception”, “sense impression”) emerges as purified from the fleshy materiality of the body and reduced to the visual only. Regardless of whether they wrote on literature or on film, the modernists emphasized a new sensation that was free from the mediations of the writer’s psyche, in the case of literature, and purged from intertitles and the narration of the benshi, as far as cinema was concerned. Their ideas about sensation and perception resonated with the so-called “pure film movement” (jun’eigageki undō) from the 1910s and with later debates on “absolute cinema” (zettai eiga), which argued for a disembodied, intensely absorbed spectatorship that focused on the visual. The fragmented syntax, distorted temporalities and deinteriorized characters of Kawabata and Yokomitsu owe a lot to technologized visuality. This alienation of the self and its split into pure consciousness and objectified body, motifs that we find in both writers, could be ideologically problematic.


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Akademisches Fachgebiet und Untergebiete
Literary studies; Cultural Studies; Fim Studies; Japanese Studies; Cultural History
Beitragende/r oder Sponsor
The Japan Foundation; The Japan Foundation Endowment Committee; The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation
Forschungsansatz, -methode oder -verfahren
Japanese modernism; Kawabata Yasunari; Yokomitsu Riichi; Kataoka Teppei; visuality; the senses; cinema