The hills have ideologies: the fûkeiron tradition in Japanese landscape cinema
Eugène Atget’s photographic work in the early decades of the twentieth-century—moody scenes of a desolated Paris and an impersonal litany of domestic spaces—has been overshadowed by a critical observation. In 1931, German writer Camille Recht suggested that Atget’s photographs resembled crime scene images, to which Walter Benjamin added in his influential 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit):
It has justly been said that he photographed them like scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial. This constitutes their hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them (1).
What Benjamin refers to here is inscription, intended or not, where the landscape is cast as evidence of real or imagined crimes. In the late 1960s, a group of Japanese filmmakers and critics developed a theory of cinema, fûkeiron (translated as ‘landscape theory’), which inverted Benjamin and Recht’s observation: rather than photograph landscapes like they were crime scenes, they would photograph ‘crime scenes’ as landscapes—that is, where Atget’s photographs contained a hidden political significance, these filmmakers were prompted to shoot landscapes that were politically significant to them.
The first feature film conceived of in relation to fûkeiron was A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), a collaborative work that brought together critics, screenwriters and director Masao Adachi (1939–), then best known for his pink films like Sex Zone (1968) and Contraceptive Revolution (1966), as well as his scripts for Nagisa Ôshima (1932–2013) (2). A.K.A. chronicled the life of Nagayama Norio, a nineteen-year-old from Hokkaido who committed a string of murders throughout Japan in 1968. Adachi, through voiceover narration, states biographical facts about Nagayama (‘When he was five, he and his brothers moved to Itayanagi City’) over landscape images. Collectively, this forms a travelogue, following Nagayama’s various journeys across Japan: fleeing school, in search of work, and on his month-long killing spree. Rather than static shots of landscape, the camera is a roving ethnographic eye, panning across streets and peering through dark corridors. The directions in voiceover, though, are not directly matched by images; a journey is described before or after a change of scenery, rather than concurrently.
The disruption of movement is best encapsulated not by the disorienting car ride three quarters of the way through the film, in which time is sped up and the surrounding cityscape blurs into one, but by something simpler: the presence of trains in the frame. Two minutes into the film, the camera is fixed on a shot of a wooden garage by a railway track. As Adachi delivers the first line of voiceover (‘He was born in June 1949, the fourth son of an apple farmer…’), a cut is introduced, though rather than the shot changing, we see the same garage, the same tracks but a different train heading in the opposite direction. This continues for a minute and then, suddenly, we are in another city, though whether we’ve travelled east or west of that wooden garage is totally unknown. The image track (pun intended) moves to its own rhythm, as off-kilter as the film’s free jazz score.
Rather than photograph landscapes like they were crime scenes, they would photograph ‘crime scenes’ as landscapes...
The key to understanding fûkeiron as a self-contained theory of landscape film is to recognise its isolation—debates were advanced in issues of the monthly film journal Eiga hihyo, A.K.A Serial Killer had its first American screening decades later in 2000—and its relationship to political undercurrents in Japan in the late 1960s. Art historian Yuriko Furuhata, writing in Screen in 2007, argued that fûkeiron in cinema, as seen both in Adachi’s film and a landscape sequence in Ôshima’s The Story of a Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), constituted a ‘critique of the then dominant model of leftist documentary filmmaking’ (3). This leftist model was documentary in a militant mode; cameras not only as objects of witness to conflict but active participants (4). Furuhata, echoing critic and Adachi collaborator Masao Matsuda (1933–), claims that the problem that filmmakers working with fûkeiron saw in these documentaries is that they depicted ‘epoch-making revolutionary events while focusing on the human actors’ (5). Documentaries in the fûkeiron mode, then, ‘introduced a new way of conceptualizing state power, dislodging it from the codified images of police officers and politicians’ (6).
In A.K.A. Adachi’s intent was to shoot the landscapes like a ‘picture postcard’ in order to highlight the uniformity of man-made space in the more than thirty cities featured in the film (7). Adachi connects these places ‘to the serial mass production and standardization of commodities, which, in turn, reproduce unskilled manual labourers like Nagayama Norio’ (8). The film doesn’t just depict uniformity as state power, though, it also argues that this had a psychological effect on Nagayama; no longer was he an impulsive killer but a ‘besieged spirit’ (9). This specific political intent, Furuhara concedes, is only readable with a ‘knowledge of the attendant discourse of fûkeiron’ because the films ‘do not present any narrative framework to understand why the images of landscapes matter’ (10).
Why landscapes matter in fûkeiron is less about what they show than what they don’t. Furuhata notes that A.K.A. ‘carefully avoids showing recognizable images of violence,’ placing its landscape images in conflict with the violent details of Nagayama’s crimes (11). This restraint has contextual reasons beyond leftist documentary form: in Japan there was mass television coverage of student protests throughout the late 1960s, reaching a climax in January 1969, with a live televised broadcast of a two-day clash between police and students at the University of Tokyo smashing viewership records (12). As if rebuking these broadcasts, Adachi adopts the detached tone of a newsreader as he describes details from Nagayama’s life.
Though Furuhata suggests that the film lacks a ‘narrative framework’, the film’s initial resemblance to a travelogue is a means through which a reasonably attentive viewer can come to understand that the confusion they feel as the film progresses is very much by design. As Adachi’s voiceover interjections become less frequent, the sense of a specific, named place slips away. We struggle to keep track of where we are amidst the flurry of train stations and increasingly identical houses and shopfronts. As such, a latently political approach to landscape is also developed through the pronounced distance between voiceover narration (here serving as contextual information) and landscape images.
Documentaries in the fûkeiron mode, then, ‘introduced a new way of conceptualizing state power, dislodging it from the codified images of police officers and politicians’.
Despite the isolation of fûkeiron in film practice since A.K.A., formal elements that could be staked out as emblematic of the theory can be seen in many landscape films from the West. Naturally, such films eschew discussion of the political circumstances of late 1960s Japan, but common among them are a rejection of a physically involved, militant approach to leftist documentary, a notion that landscapes represent state power, and the use of historical context (whether through voiceover or text on screen) as a framing device, one mostly detached from the contemporaneous landscape imagery.
Critic Go Hirawasa has suggested Danièle Huillet (1936–2006) and Jean-Marie Straub’s (1933–) Fortini/Cani (1976) as a film that helps delineate between A.K.A and Adachi’s next documentary, Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War (1971), a portrait of the Japanese Red Army in Beirut (13). The connection between the films is in the display of ‘the trace of violence’ on the landscape; Huillet and Straub’s film aims to find resonances between landscape shots of the area surrounding Marzabotto in Italy, which was the site of a mass murder committed by Nazi troops in 1944, and Franco Fortini’s text on Judaism and the guilt of Italian fascism (14).
Film curator, programmer Julian Ross has made the case that certain works by American director James Benning (1942–)—namely Landscape Suicide (1987), the installation Two Cabins (2011) and Stemple Pass (2012)—can also be read in relation to fûkeiron. All three of the Benning films concern infamous American criminals: serial killer Ed Gein in Landscape Suicide, and domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski in Two Cabins and Stemple Pass. Ross argues that, beyond the shared subject of murder, what links them to Adachi’s film is ‘long takes, decentralised compositions and the disembodied voice-over… which rejected the imposition of judgement or a sensationalisation of their stories’ (15). Only the earliest film, though, displays movement through landscape; the Ed Gein half of Landscape Suicide moves through a snowed under Plainfield, Wisconsin, unlike Stemple Pass, which is fixed to the location of Kaczynski’s forest cabin (16).
The extent to which Western films need frame political struggle through the experiences of a single individual to be seen as documentaries in the vein of fûkeiron is debatable. Other films by James Benning, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, which deal with collective struggle, are also akin to A.K.A. in terms of direct political correlation between text and image: Huillet and Straub’s Too Early/Too Late (Trop tôt/Trop tard) (1981) is a materialist analysis of peasants’ revolts in France and Egypt, and Benning’s Deseret (1995) pits seemingly prejudiced The New York Times articles about Mormon emigration against landscape imagery of Utah.
Only one film in recent memory takes A.K.A. as its formal blueprint: Also Known as Jihadi (2017), directed by Franco-American artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire (1973–). A follow-up to his earlier essay film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011), which features interviews with Adachi and May Shigenobu about their role in the Japanese Red Army in Lebanon. Also Known as Jihadi depicts the journey of the pseudonymous Abdel ‘Aziz’ Mekki, a young Frenchman of Algerian descent who fled Paris for Syria in 2012, where he (allegedly) took up arms with Islamic State. Like Adachi, Baudelaire presents contextual information about Aziz alongside landscape imagery, but rather than use voiceover narration, or one particular perspective, he instead displays excerpts from legal documents and interview transcripts, which provide a timeline of events.
Baudelaire has explicitly stated that he is using landscape theory as ‘a cinematic approach’ in Jihadi, so it’s worth assessing how he approaches fûkeiron conceptually (17). Rather than seeing it primarily as a tool to explore state power embedded in landscape, Baudelaire takes from A.K.A. the suggestion that homogenous landscapes provoked Nagayama’s violent acts. He rebukes it, too, arguing that the theory ‘implies a form of determinism that diminishes the notion of agency and free will’ (18). In his own film, he uses the formal tools of fûkeiron to illustrate its own shortcomings as a means of psychological analysis:
Since The Anabasis, I have been haunted by the idea of rigorously testing landscape theory. No longer considering it as a proposal, a provocation, but using it in a very sincere manner for a film, which has never really been done (19).
I use the landscape theory as a foil because I accept the notion that it fails, that it is inexact, that it raises questions instead of giving answers, and this is the only position I feel capable of adopting for a film like this (20).
As in A.K.A., Jihadi places us, to some extent, in the shoes of its subject. We loiter outside a housing flat in a Paris suburb; we are driven through Antakya in Turkey. A transcript excerpt seen early in the film reveals to us an undercurrent of anti-Algerian racism experienced by Aziz, though it’s not clearly established as a motive for emigration. The more we learn about Aziz, primarily through the text of depositions of his friends or wiretap transcriptions, the less anxiety and drive we see in the landscapes. This isn’t a result of any drastic formal shift taken by Baudelaire in filming landscape, rather it’s a widening disconnect between the specificity of Aziz’s context and the banal landscapes we see.
This banality in Baudelaire’s approach is key in replicating the framing of fûkeiron as in response to both newsreels and leftist documentaries of the day. The choice of subject—Islamic terrorism—reflects upon its use as a widespread tool of media fear-mongering and responds, much like the Adachi film, to a specific historical event: the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which claimed 130 victims. Aziz’s real-life counterpart, who was not at all involved with the events of 13 November, was arrested in the Spanish city of Almería en route to Algeria, and tried in court within a month of the November attack. It seems important, too, that the Paris attack cannot readily define Aziz; the documents and interviews convey a failed search for some concrete evidence about training camps and weapons. Baudelaire has also said that his impetus to make the film came not from the attack but from the political response to it:
It had more to do with the French prime minister declaring, at a commemoration ceremony shortly thereafter: ‘Explaining jihadism is a bit like wanting to excuse it’ (21).
The context surrounding the response to the November attacks is less essential to understanding what motivates shot decisions; where A.K.A. is limited in the information given to the viewer, Jihadi is increasingly concerned with text, to the extent that it overwhelms the images. These legal excerpts don’t explain jihadism but rather highlight investigators’ mostly ineffective attempts at clarifying intent for legal purposes: late in the film an investigator is said to have asked Aziz whether he had any contact with terrorist organisations while abroad, to which he responds, ‘Yes, like all Syrian people.’ Writing in Hyperallergic, Menga Da makes the important point that these documents are evidence in more than one sense, as they prove the “weakness of words and images” in giving us a sense of Aziz’s motivation (22). Beyond the failure to clarify psychological motivation, the recreation of daily life proves too much a burden for the text.
In his 1973 essay Looking at the City or, the Look from the City, Japanese photographer Nakahira Taskuma (1938–2015) wrote on the photography of Eugène Atget. He argued that the suggested sense of a crime scene, as per Benjamin, was not the photographer’s intention but rather the result of the camera equipment of the day; the use of ‘long exposures with low sensitivity film… completely removed people’s forms’ (23). This uncanny sense one gets from looking at Atget’s work, Taskuma argues, is the work of the ‘unconscious,’ which truly ‘decided the nature of his photographs.’ This complicates authorship, as it does for films for which the goal is capturing banal images (24). But this banality gives way to a startling sense of recognition:
Precisely because he did not have his own image, Atget succeeded in invoking the world and reality. Because he lacked any a priori images, Atget laid bare the world as the world (25).
A continuing fûkeiron tradition was never something sought by Adachi and his Japanese peers in the late 1960s, rather the theory allowed them to more clearly articulate the political intentions of landscape film at that time. Even now, more than a half-century on, their approach to landscape is still provocative, particularly in its psychological assertions, which are tied not only to homogenous landscape images but also to the reception of the viewer who, to some extent, is placed in Nagayama’s shoes. In capturing their own ‘crime scenes’, formed out of the banality of the world, the filmmakers ask us both to be witnesses and accomplices.
(1) Camille Recht (1884-1959) was a German writer, critic and editor who wrote the introduction to Atget’s monograph, Lichtbilder (1930) and edited a collection of nineteenth-century photography, Die Alte Photographie (1931). Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version’, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2008), 27.
(3) Yuriko Furuhata, ‘Returning to actuality: fûkeiron and the landscape film’, Screen 48, no.3 (2007): 345.
(4) On this point, Furuhata singles out Shuinsuke Ogawa’s (1935–1992) A Report from Haneda (1967) in particular.
(5) Furuhata, ibid. 349.
(6) Yuriko Furuhata, Cinema of actuality: Japanese avant-garde filmmaking in the season of image politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 148.
(7) Though the film is often strikingly well shot, the reference to a ‘postcard’ could be misleading. In fact, as Furuhata points out, the images the filmmakers are drawn to are ‘banal and devoid of any chronological markers or local specificity.’ Furuhata, ibid. 350–351.
(8) Masao Adachi, quoted in Furuhata, ibid. 354.
(9) Harry Harootunian and Sabu Kohso, ‘Message in a bottle: an interview with filmmaker Masao Adachi’ in Boundary 2 35, no. 3 (2008): 73.
(10) Furuhata, ibid. 361–362.
(11) Furuhata, ibid. 117.
(12) Furuhata, ibid. 116. Furuhata also notes that media coverage of Nagayama’s arrest was framed as in keeping with the militant turn of student activists across the country at the time.
(13) Go Hirasawa, Takashi Sakai and Shiro Yabu, ‘Attaining vertical thinking: Masao Adachi as possibility,’ trans. Yuzo Sakuramoto, Bordersphere [accessed 6 October 2018].
(14) Hirasawa et al. ibid.
(15) Julian Ross, ‘Ethics of the landscape shot: A.K.A Serial Killer and James Benning’s portrait of criminals’ in Slow cinema, ed. Tiago de Luca, Nuno Barradas Jorge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 270.
(16) Both Two Cabins and Stemple Pass were filmic and architectural endeavours, as Benning himself built a replica cabin (Ross, ibid. 269). It should also be noted that Ross’ essay explores the ethics of the documentary image, not fidelity to the form of A.K.A. Serial Killer.
(17) Eric Baudelaire, ‘AKA Jihadi,’ On & For [accessed 7 October 2018].
(18) Benoît Rossel, ‘Eric Baudelaire by Benoît Rossel,’ BOMB Magazine, 15 July 2017 [accessed 7 October 2018].
(19) Baudelaire, ibid.
(20) Anna Gritz, ‘Empathy and Contradictions: Eric Baudelaire,’ Mousse Magazine, 2017 [accessed 5 October 2018].
(21) Gritz, ibid.
(22) Menga Da, ‘Surveying landscapes for clues to political violence,’ Hyperallergic, 14 April 2017 [accessed 5 October 2018].
(23) Nakahira Taskuma, ‘Eugène Atget: looking at the city or, the look from the city,’ in Three Essays by Nakahira Takmura, trans. Franz K. Prichard (Tokyo: Osiris, 2010), 13.
(24) Writing on Benning’s Deseret, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum addresses this very issue: ‘He “directed” it insofar as he conceived the project, filmed the images, recorded the sound, and edited the sound and images.’ Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Deseret,’ The Chicago Reader, 15 March 1996 [accessed 7 October 2018].
(25) Nakahira Taskuma, ibid. 15.
About the contributor
Conor Bateman is a writer, video editor, and one of the managing editors of 4:3, an independent online film magazine. His work has been published in RealTime, Fandor Keyframe, The Lifted Brow, Senses of Cinema and more.