Images from Swallowtail Butterfly

Yen Town prostitutes crowd the body of Ageha’s mother laid out on a morgue slab. In Chinese, not Japanese, custom, they attempt to burn paper money on the corpse in the morgue because they cannot afford to give her a proper burial. This opening scene sets both the narrative frame and aesthetic tone of the film: a funeral and general low light levels with dominant shadows.

When the Japanese police officers, both not understanding and not respecting the Chinese custom, scramble to put out the ignited paper money, they rip the sheet off of Ageha’s mother. The overhead close up is a graphic match of Ageha later in the film during her tattoo scene.

Ageha approaches her mother and lays a lily on her chest. A police officer asks her if the body is her mother, but she denies the association, thereby denying her connection to family, past, and origin. However, through her action, Ageha “names” her mother: a lily is the Chinese flower for mother.

Two Yen Town prostitutes fight over a stash of money they find in the ceiling of Ageha’s mother’s shack. Ageha watches from off-screen as the two women steal her small inheritance. This is the first of many depictions to the depths the desperate Yen Towns will sink, trading their humanity for a handful of “almighty yen.”

Several nameless Yen Town children watch wordlessly as Ageha is escorted by one of the prostitutes away from the shack she has been sharing with several families. Cluttered frames and dark interiors enhance the poverty and dystopian conditions of the people living in secret on the outskirts of mainstream Japanese society.

An exterior of the Yen Town shacks. Because there is no one willing to take care of her after her mother’s death, Ageha is forced to leave this community and the only place she has known as home. Here, as in may long shot exteriors of Yen Town dwellings, the clean and orderly concrete apartment building of Tokyo stand in the background in contrast to the filth and chaos of the illegal immigrants in the foreground.

Another prostitute in another neighborhood is persuaded through bribery to take in Ageha. Because her hands are full of laundry, the briber stuffs the offered money into the woman’s mouth. This is one of three ways yen is exchanged between characters in the film: 1) from hand to mouth, suggestive of the most base transformation of cash into food, 2) from hand to breast, suggestive of the trade of the body for money, and 3) from two hands to two hands, perhaps the most respectful exchange closest to Japanese formality. However, unlike Japanese formality, hands come into direct contact with the money (rather than neatly tucked into an envelope) and therefore it is still a “dirty” transaction.

Ageha’s new caretaker takes her to visit her friend Glico, another prostitute living in yet another neighborhood. Saying that she has left a present for Glico “outside” she ducks out the door and takes off running down the street, leaving the real “present” (Ageha) inside. The handoffs of Ageha all happen in Chinese, which Ageha, despite her heritage, has never learned to speak. With each exchange, Ageha becomes more estranged from her roots, her mother, and her sense of self.

Glico, also unwilling to take care of a stray orphan, takes Ageha to a club and sells her to the owner. She changes her mind immediately when she sees that the girls in the club also have drug habits. Like many shots early in the film, even seemingly brief, throwaway shots such as this foreshadow poignant scenes later in the film.

Glico runs back to the club just in time to prevent the club manager from raping Ageha. As with the previous example, this setup, too, is repeated later in the film. In both instances, the attackers are Japanese men. Here, the perpetrator is a former schoolteacher accused of child molestation.

Glico drags Ageha behind her as they run away from the sex club. She scolds Ageha saying, “Never sell yourself for that cheap!”

Ageha and Glico develop a sister relationship. Here, Ageha curls Glico’s hair while Glico tells Ageha about how she came to Japan, how she got separated from her brothers, and how she adopted the name “Glico” from the Japanese candy company. “Japanese men grow up sucking on Glico.” By now, the standard lighting of interiors is established in the film: generally a single light source coming from outside windows. The visual metaphor is clear: these are people occupying the dark shadows of the luminous city of Yen Town / Tokyo.

Glico shows Ageha her tattoo of a swallowtail butterfly. She explains that she got the tattoo so that when she dies she can be identified; she does not want to be a nameless corpse—the fate of so may illegal immigrants including one of her brothers and Ageha’s mother. Ironically, the tattoo is what will reveal her true identity as a Yen Town and past as a prostitute later on in the film.

In the same scene as above, Glico gives Ageha her name. Until this moment, Ageha did not have a name in the film; she was an anonymous orphan. Glico gives her the name “Ageha” meaning “swallowtail butterfly” and creates a bond between the two. Using a marker, she draws the cartoon of a caterpillar on Ageha’s chest, explaining “you’re still a kid, so you get a caterpillar.”

We are introduced to the character Feihong through an extreme close up. Feihong and his friend Ran run a scrap metal-cantina-gas stand-mechanic yard. In this shot, Feihong hides in the reeds along a road, readying a slingshot made from junkyard scraps at an oncoming car. He manages to puncture one of the tires and races back to the yard to wait for the unwitting driver who pulls into the yard thanks to the “Auto Expert” sign at the gate.

Feihong explains to the guileless Japanese man that he will have to buy a new tire, which they happen to sell. The two men speak in stilted English.

Feihong hires Ageha to help out at the yard. Her first task is to learn how to salvage at the junkyard.

Ageha also works as a waitress for Feihong at night, serving customers in an open-air makeshift bar.




Japanese cinema, the classroom, and Swallowtail Butterfly

by Colleen A. Laird

“Is there no need to question the politics and institutional history of the canon, to examine why certain works are either included in or excluded from it?”
 –Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000)

There is new cinema in Japan. In the past few years, the Japanese film industry has seemingly recovered from the studio collapse of the 1980s and has emerged from its cocoon in V-cinema. More and more screens in Japanese multiplexes showcase domestic films, and several production companies have revitalized their roles as producers rather than just distributors. Likewise, Japanese cinema is again in circulation at international festivals, as evidenced by Kitano Takeshi’s acceptance of the 2007 Venice Glory To The Filmmaker Prize (named after Kitano’s own film), Kawase Naomi’s win of the Venice Grand Prize at the Festival that same year, and Takita Yojiro’s 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar win for Departures (Okuribito). [1] [open endnotes in new window] Within this small sampling is the promise of a diverse Japanese cinema: a television comedian turned internationally acclaimed directorial superstar (Kitano), a female documentarian (Kawase), and former “pinku” (soft-core pornography) talent (Takita). Similarly, the study of Japanese cinema within the past decade has also diversified. Scholars are incorporating new methodologies and theories as well as investing in-depth historical studies. Not surprisingly, Japanese film has become a more regularly offered course in universities and colleges, particularly in the United States. However, Japanese cinema as an object of study within the Western classroom does not quite reflect the status of the industry or the scholarship. Instead, it harkens to older, more staid, methods of canon and culture study. More often than not, it seems that study of Japanese film is in fact a thinly veiled study of Japanese culture.

It is precisely this culturally deterministic approach to Japanese cinema that I wish to counter in this essay through an analysis of Iwai Shunji’s popular film Swallowtail Butterfly (Suwaroteiru, 1996). In considering both the aesthetics and coded content of Iwai’s film, I wish to illustrate how Western education of Japanese cinema hinges on seeing Japanese film as a national medium, and how recent independent filmmakers have been marginalized due to their extreme popularity with youth (mass) culture as well as their more international, hence less exceptionally intrinsic, aesthetic that embraces film as a global medium of expression. Swallowtail Butterfly stands as a particularly illuminating example of the problems of value-based scholarship of Japanese cinema because it achieved popular box-office success but was widely panned by elite, staid film critics who decried both the film’s style as well as its perceived lack of substance. To address issues of canon and education, I use Swallowtail Butterfly as an example of “problematic” contemporary cinema in order to challenge some of the biases or patterns established in Japanese cinema classrooms as well as the scholarly impulse to canonize cinema.

On teaching Japanese cinema

In 1991, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argued that there were two “types” of Japanese cinema scholarship:

“On the one hand, the Japanese film and area studies specialists tend to take up the historical study of Japanese cinema, since they possess a good command of the Japanese language and are familiar with Japanese culture but not with the theoretical advancement made in film studies; on the other hand, film critics well versed in theory but not in the Japanese language write on Japanese cinema from ‘theoretical perspectives’” (Radical, 251).

Although significant strides have been made in the last eighteen years by scholars to break through this binary—particularly by theory wielding scholars who are either native Japanese speakers now writing in English or non-native scholars versed in theory who have incorporated language and culture into their training—Japanese cinema in U.S. classrooms does seem fraught with the same quintessential plight: culture studies vs. film studies.

As Keiko McDonald observed:

“Courses on Japanese Cinema have become one of the most salient features of Japanese studies programs at major academic institutions all across America. Courses with titles such as Introduction to Japanese Cinema and Japanese Literature and Film are attracting students in ever increasing numbers. Japanese studies majors are joined in the these classes by film studies majors, who come from programs that recognize the unique contribution Japan has made to world cinema. The most dramatic increase in demand has come from students whose interest in Japanese culture and society has been linked primarily with electives” (Reading, vii).

I would like to add to this bifurcated description not students who are versed in Japanese culture and film students (a hybrid that I think, though rare, is obvious), but students who come from entirely unrelated disciplines and enroll in Japanese film courses for the elective credit or distribution requirement. McDonald’s book is an attempt to address some of the classroom issues educators of Japanese film face given this student demographic. Though, as she notes, a few books introduce a general readership to Japanese film history, genre, and select directors, her book serves as the only textbook written specifically for the Japanese film classroom. [2] To address this need she writes with the following question as a foundation:

“How does a person from the Japanese tradition show Western viewers, primarily general audiences, how to see a Japanese film” (vii).

Because I feel that this is, for the most part, still an important question, I would suggest a somewhat less essentialist modification that opens the question to educators now versed in Yoshimoto’s two types of scholarship: How does a person trained in Japanese culture and language and film studies show viewers in a Western classroom how to see a Japanese film? The answer to this question, of course, challenges most teachers of Japanese cinema. More often than not—in my own personal experiences and those of my colleagues and professors with whom I have discussed this issue — Japanese film survey classroom conversations often revolve around cultural explanation. [3] In fact, this is the goal of McDonald’s text. In the Film Studies classroom, Japanese cinema (typically represented by Ozu) is often bereft of cultural or linguistic context and used as an example of non-Hollywood technique and style. These are Yoshimoto’s two types: culture and theory.

There are, of course, some practical limitations as to why this is the case (and they are most likely encountered frequently among teachers of non-Hollywood or U.S. cinemas).

First, foremost, and perhaps most obvious, is that although many students enrolled in undergraduate Japanese film classes may also take Japanese language and history courses (either simultaneously or through prerequisites), most do not. More to the point, most students also studying Japanese in college are not at a language ability level that enables them to read texts in Japanese or to watch the films without subtitles. Educators may have surmounted this barrier, but our undergraduate students have not. [4] It is for this reason, as an astute “works cited” reader will note, that my focus on literature in the field is primarily directed at English-language materials. As this essay is partially a call to rethink curriculum, it seems appropriate to concentrate on the texts accessible to our students.

Language aside, students not versed in the bare necessities of Japanese history, aesthetics, and “traditions” often get lost in the abyss of the exotic unknown. To many students the “Japanese” part of “Japanese” film is in equal measure the most prohibitive and the most engaging aspect of the class. As so many of the commonly taught films feature prominent aspects of “Japanese tradition” (more on this to follow), classroom dynamics fall into explanation of Japanese culture (either by the instructor or “savvy” students) as almost a matter of course. As such, many schools explicitly offer courses with, as one course description puts it, “particular attention…to the relationship of the film to traditional arts, culture and society” (Tomonari, Spring 2010). [5] Additionally, teachers also face the problem of students’ varying background in and familiarity with film studies—terminology, history, form, theory, and analysis, particularly for students who take Japanese Film courses to fulfill a distribution requirement.

Second, Japanese Film, as a field or even an object of education, does not have a consistent home in the U.S. academy. On the one hand, there has been an increase in survey courses dedicated to Japanese cinema (as a historical study featuring industry, formal aesthetics, movements, cultural motifs, noted auteurs, etc.) as well as related “topics” classes or seminars (on horror [6], specific auteurs such as Ozu and Mizoguchi [7], gender and sexuality [8], animation [9], etc.). On the other hand, Japanese films are still taught as supplementary media in culture, language, and history classes. Moreover, as there exists no Department of Japanese Film in the United States, Japanese cinema educators teach out of a number of different departments, with different curriculum goals, and different university or college bureaucratic regulations such as course level, prerequisite requirements, quarter and semester time constraints, and distribution credit procedures (sometimes referred to as diversity distribution or international distribution credits, for example). Many professors of teach out of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Asian Studies, Japanese Studies (or some other variant) departments:

  • Daisuke Miyao, University of Oregon;
  • Abé Mark Nornes, Univeristy of Michigan;
  • Michael Raine, University of Chicago;
  • Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, NYU; Nakamura Miri, University of Indiana Bloomington.

However, other professors are housed in

  • Film Studies (Aaron Gerow, Yale University; Michael Baskett, University of Kansas),
  • English (Maureen Turin, University of Florida; Bennet Schaber, Oswego State University of New York),
  • History (John W. Dower, MIT; Peter Siegenthaler, Texas State University) and
  • Anthropology (Paul H. Noguchi, Bucknell University).

This is by no means a comprehensive roster of all professors teaching Japanese film courses in the United States, but the diversity of departmental homes in even this small sampling is meant to indicate a diversity suggestive of varying methodologies, focus, and training. While it may be slightly easier or more appropriate to require (let alone expect) students to have backgrounds in film studies (for those teaching within Film Studies programs) or Japanese language and culture (Asian Languages programs), this is certainly not the case for English, History, and Anthropology. Additionally, the methods of professors certainly differ in their respective fields, and it may very well be that the goal behind offering a class on Japanese film—justifiable in a course proposal—is to either emphasize culture, history, and language (Asian Studies, History, Anthropology) or aesthetic and style (Film Studies, English).

Third, Japanese cinema studies is taking the shape of an increasingly more diversified field, with more and more new and seasoned scholars casting wider and more complex networks of ideas and solid primary-source research. In particular, the development of topical courses suggests a progressive establishment of legitimacy and complexity for the field. Be that as it may, there has emerged, despite all the aforementioned differences between departments and universities, a solidified canon of both films and source texts in Japanese film classrooms. Before turning to an analysis of what this canon is, it is relevant at this point to consider the history of Japanese film scholarship, upon which the educational canon is based.

Both Darrel William Davis (Reigniting) and Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (Radical; Kurosawa) have problematized the trajectory of Japanese cinema scholarship as largely shaped by the work of three founding fathers: Donald Richie, Noel Burch, and David Bordwell.

Donald Richie is perhaps the most famous critic and authorial voice on Japanese film, as well as the most prolific. He co-wrote the foundational book The Japanese Film (1960) in collaboration with Joseph Anderson. Richie’s writings feature his concepts of presentational (cinema that portrays imaginary ideal settings and social structures that emphasize stylization) and representational (cinema that reflects reality) styles in Japanese film. According to Richie, Japanese filmmakers have very little concern for realism and prefer to express themselves through the presentational mode, constructing the world around them as they would like it to be, rather than as it is (Hundred, 11). As such, Richie, drawing upon a humanist standpoint, argues that elements of the Japanese national character can be found in the aesthetics of Japanese cinema because the presentational style presents the attributes of the Japanese cultural ideal. Richie’s legacy in Japanese film scholarship builds on this humanist perspective, leading to the assessment of Japanese cultural products as reflective of a homogenous collectivist Japanese society.

Yoshimoto argues that this field of inquiry problematically led to general claims regarding the “Japanese Mind” (Kurosawa, 10). As a result, Japanese films became an object of study, as humanist scholar David Desser argues, because “of what they reveal of the Japanese character” (quoted in Kurosawa, 11). Though Richie has recently reversed the position laid out earlier in his career by his recent argument that “there was…no Japanese essence awaiting liberation by a few individual filmmakers” (Hundred, 11), he still views cinema as reflective of cultural value and characteristics, albeit acknowledging that those might be constructed rather than intrinsically determined. Davis describes Richie’s work as “reflectionist,” due to “the assumption that film reflects preexisting cultures” and “culture determines artistic expressions like cinema” (Reigniting, 62).

Seeing what he perceived to be the decline of original or innovative cinema in the West, Noel Burch’s goal in To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) is to identify the “essential difference between the dominant modes of Western and Japanese cinema” (11). The main project in To the Distant Observer is to identify and categorize Western filmmaking structures, particularly the Classical Hollywood Cinema system, through constructive comparison with Japanese cinema as an aesthetic Other. As a result, Burch’s work sets up a dichotomous relationship between East and West in cinema studies. Davis argues that for Burch,

“To the question of why Japanese cinema is special, the answer is because it relates in arresting ways to Western cinema. Japanese cinema is diametrically opposed to Western film because Japanese signifying practices pose a material critique of Western logic, logocentrism, and aesthetics” (63).

Burch set the stage for further applications of film theory in the study of Japanese cinema (as opposed to the more historical approach of Richie), but with his oppositional approach he also set the standard for the study of Japanese film in perpetual reference to Hollywood cinema. Yoshimoto considers the poststructuralist approach Burch takes in The Distant Observer to be the origin of the aforementioned two types of film study. Some scholars criticize Burch’s decontextualized fantasies regarding Japanese traditions and culture as an act of Orientalism; these scholars tend to eschew theory in favor of historical context. Other scholars who defend Burch’s approach often disregard context in favor of cross-cultural analysis (Kurosawa, 23).

David Bordwell, most well known in film studies for his groundbreaking work on Classical Hollywood Cinema, approaches Japanese cinema study from a neo-formalist perspective. Like Burch, he also sets about analyzing Japanese film in contradistinction to Hollywood cinema, using what Davis calls a “dialogic framework” or “cinema as interaction” (Reigniting, 63). Unlike Burch, he sees Japanese cinema as constructed by trends in the present, rather than via tradition. For example, in his auteur study of Ozu Yasujiro, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Bordwell defines Ozu as both a modernist and the “most Japanese” director because his works stands in greatest contrast to the techniques of Classical Hollywood Cinema. As such, Ozu must be both politically resisting the Classical Hollywood style and decidedly not American. While in his many works on Japanese cinema Bordwell is concerned with cultural context, the context of his own work and his comparative approach stem from his thorough analysis of Classical Hollywood form. As such, Japanese cinema, in a dialectical relation with U.S. cinema, is studied in relation to a dominant cinema, rather than in its own terms.

These three scholars—Richie from the 1960s onward, Burch in the 1970s, and Bordwell in the 1980s—have been tremendously influential in constructing the field of Japanese cinema studies in the West. Though they are at times at odds with one another, between them they have facilitated methods of interpretation and analysis that have formed the foundation of the discipline. Their contributions are invaluable, but not unproblematic. Their texts, at times, encourage essentialism of Japanese cinema as representative of a unique but homogenous aesthetic of artistic expression reflective of national character (as argued by Davis and Yoshimoto). Additionally, the framework of their very studies structure a method of inquiry that positions Japanese cinema as an object of study bound by its status as alternative to Hollywood.

In recent years, top scholars in the field are both revising and broadening established history and theory. Since the foundational texts have been the subject of much debate, there seems to be a movement now to approach Japanese film in its own right and not “cinema as mirror”–as Davis puts it—or useful as a Hollywood alternative. [10] Scholars writing in English in the field have turned back to early Japanese film history and are producing important texts that deconstruct, rework, and open the canon from beyond its foundations. [11] Many also extend a hand into criticism of contemporary film, generally from the approach of auteur (heavily focused around Takeshi Kitano, Miike Takashi, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi) and genre (e.g. horror, pink, documentary, jidaigeki) studies. [12]

Be that as it may, the diversification of scholarly works has not yet resulted in a diversification of texts used in the classroom. To answer my own curiosity regarding what materials are commonly used in Japanese cinema classrooms, I canvassed fifteen syllabi—each from different universities (including representatives of non-U.S. institutions)—ranging from courses taught between 2000 and 2009. [13] Among them, all but three predominantly feature Richie’s work (either The Japanese Film, A Hundred Years, or both). Out of those twelve courses, Richie is a required text in six. In fact, it would seem that for many of these courses, the class itself has been designed around the use of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film as the primary textbook. Four courses require Burch’s To The Distant Observer and eight use Bordwell extensively. Notably, only two also require texts on film theory (Braudy and Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism and Bordwell and Thompon’s Film Art) that would be found in a general film course not dedicated to Japanese Film. Additionally, although many incorporate individual articles into reader packets, only three incorporate essays of the kind of more recent scholarship I mentioned above, but none of these scholars’ books. This is unsurprising for courses begun in a previous decade, but puzzling for more recent classes. [14]

The films featured in these courses are in no way surprising, particularly considering that they are supplemented by the works of scholars who wrote on a very particular set of auteurs for very particular reasons. The course offerings are consistently structured around the following directors (in order of popularity): Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, Kurosawa Akira, Imamura Shohei, Oshima Nagisa, Suzuki Seijun, and Fukusaku Kinji. Other directors (especially Naruse Mikio) show up periodically between courses, but the aforementioned form a canonical collective. As for representatives of contemporary Japanese cinema, the usual suspects are Kitano Takeshi (most overwhelmingly), Kore-eda Hirokazu, Miike Takashi, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi. When anime is a course consideration, animators Oshii Mamoru and Otomo Katsuhiro are selected. Although there has been over a “hundred years” of Japanese cinema, we offer our students a list of primarily seven directors. To be very blunt, an obvious problem is that none of these directors are women, and they are all "artistic" as opposed to "popular" filmmakers. Is there not, at this point, in the words of Yoshimoto in his consideration of the canon of English language literature taught in Japanese universities,

“no need to question the politics and institutional history of the canon, to examine why certain works are either included in or excluded from it?”

If courses are structured, as they seem to be, around foundational texts written on a selection of films that dates from these texts, then it stands to reason that the canon of films shown at universities share some of the same problems of the foundational texts themselves: cultural essentialism (reflectionism) and use value as counterpoint to Hollywood cinema—a cinema that is in many ways already “knowable,” or at the very least openly understandable, to our students. If the films we show to students stem from this tradition, then the films we teach to students have been selected for their enigmatic characteristics. The obscurity of these films, chosen for presumed cultural specificity or resistance to formal norms (of Classical Hollywood Cinema), is almost by default why, when students encounter Japanese film within this framework, they get bogged down by seemingly inscrutable barriers of culture and form. Currently teachers now face something of a double burden in teaching film theory and Japanese culture, without a body of texts that address film in Japan as something other than referent to a larger, more well-know body of work: Hollywood cinema. Despite a movement toward complicating Japanese film history, this problem of a canon continues. Although scholars have made significant strides in diversifying the field, the overwhelming use of Richie’s books seem to suggest that they are as yet the only classroom textbooks available (or widely known) as teaching materials and that other, newer work is not being accessed by a younger generation of undergraduates.

In order to deconstruct the staying power of the canon, let us consider, by way of example, some of the problems of incorporating contemporary cinema into a survey course, where it often falls under the label “New Japanese Cinema.”

A crane shot of Feihong and Ran’s scrap yard. Like earlier shots of the bayside Yen Town communities, the scrap yard is a visual clutter of things castoff by mainstream society, including Ageha and her new friends. Tokyo / Yen Town is concrete and uniform off in the distance. Ageha learns how to repair broken umbrellas that will be sold on the street back to Japanese people in the city on rainy days. Meanwhile, she talks with Feihong about what may happen after a person dies.
As foreshadowed earlier in the film, Ageha is again attacked by one of Glico’s clients, a member of a yakuza gang. He discovers Ageha sleeping in Glico’s closet and attempts to rape her.

Glico tries to save Ageha and struggles with the yakuza. Ageha runs next door and gets their neighbor Arrow, a large former US boxer, who comes to the rescue. In a parody of antiforeigner stereotypes, Arrow delivers a punch to the attacker so effective it throws him across the room and out the window.

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