Aesthetics of Shadow
Lighting Styles 1915–1950
The 2014 Retrospective focused on cinematic lighting. It was an exploration of lighting styles from Japanese, American, and European films made between 1915 and 1950. Japan began to develop an expressive lighting style under the influence of the expressionism of the 1920s, classic Hollywood film lighting, and Japanese architecture of the era. It triggered a discourse on the creative use of shadow.
The reciprocal influences of Hollywood films and national traditions can be seen in genres such as the street film, jidaigeki (period films), and war films. The Retrospective segment “Lighting Styles for Genres” was dedicated to these. But directors and cinematographers also created individual lighting concepts for stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, or Sessue Hayakawa in the USA, as well as for Kazuo Hasegawa in Japan, as the films in the segment “Lighting Styles for Stars” show. In addition, the key role of creative lighting was illustrated from a thematic angle in the screening series “Light and Rhythm,” “Painting with Shadows,” and “Towards Realism.”
Lighting Styles for Genres
“‘The aesthetics of shadow’ that Japanese people created over a long period of time throughout long years stays deep inside of ourselves no matter how much social tendencies change.” So wrote Yoshino Nobutaka, a production designer at Shochiku, a major Japanese film company. By the mid 1930s, the “aesthetics of shadow” emerged as a thriving discourse in Japan. The essay Inei Raisan (1933, translated into English as “In Praise of Shadows,” 1970) by modern Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki was a typical example. The discourse began to be seriously applied to filmmaking. Curiously, the aesthetics of shadow emerged at exactly the same time that Japan embraced the vogue of neon signs. So why did the aesthetics of shadow emerge?
Brightness was the dominant tendency before the 1930s, as indicated by “clarity first, story second,” the slogan introduced by Shozo Makino, the “father of Japanese cinema.” The emphasis on brightness mainly derived from Kabuki, the traditional theater form that originated during the Edo period (1603–1868). In Kabuki, diffuse frontal lighting was used almost exclusively, illuminating the entire stage in a flat wash. It eliminated shadow as much as possible and made onstage acts visible to the spectator. Shochiku inherited the emphasis on clarity when it adopted the slogan “bright and cheerful Shochiku cinema” and became the dominant force in the market throughout the 1920s.
There were challenges to the bright tone in Japan. First, Henry Kotani (Soichi Kotani), who had worked in Hollywood in the 1910s under director Cecil B. DeMille and cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff, introduced the dramatic “Lasky lighting” (named after the production company Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. Inc.), or Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro, which had been tried out in films such as THE CHEAT (Cecil B. DeMille, USA, 1915). Kotani was also familiar with three-point lighting, which mixes key light and fill, often adding a touch of backlight, which would become the default style of Hollywood. Kotani’s preference for backlighting was displayed in NASAKE NO HIKARI (LIGHT OF COMPASSION, Japan, 1926). But general audiences, which were accustomed to Kabuki lighting, were not ready for that kind of expressive lighting.
Other directors challenged Shochiku’s dominant mode of lighting. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s JUJIRO (CROSSWAYS, Japan, 1928) and Yasujiro Ozu’s SONO YO NO TSUMA (THAT NIGHT’S WIFE, Japan, 1930) were produced as part of the company’s commercial strategy, but they distinguished themselves from the bright and cheerful tone. In these films, lighting was used to depict the city as an extremely attractive but seriously problematic sphere of modern life In this regard, these films came closer to the “street films” produced in Germany, including DIRNENTRAGÖDIE (Bruno Rahn, Germany, 1927).
Jidaigeki: Flash of the Sword
An even greater challenge to the lighting style was mounted by jidaigeki (period films), and its sub-genre, chanbara, or samurai films. The genre embraced a tension between democracy and authoritarianism after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Jidaigeki employed effect lighting in low-key settings, enhancing the complex psychological states of the sword fighters. Characters often wander in the dark, which is the perfect setting for spectacular sword fighting, highlighting the flash of metal by the light of a faint moon.
Jidaigeki made extensive use of Hollywood techniques. Swashbuckling film star Douglas Fairbanks (THE MARK OF ZORRO, Fred Niblo, USA, 1920) was the most popular foreign actor in Japan after the earthquake, and jidaigeki mimicked the athleticism and speed of Fairbanks’ films. Faced with these challenges, Shochiku began to use lighting that went beyond the visual traits of Kabuki. They incorporated three-point lighting in promoting their stars – especially female ones. Women actors were unknown in Kabuki, which was performed only by male actors. When Shochiku applied that glamorous lighting to its own jidaigeki, arguably the most popular star in the history of Japanese cinema was born: Kazuo Hasegawa, also known as Chojiro Hayashi. In films such as YUKINOJO HENGE (AN ACTOR’S REVENGE, Japan, 1935), Hasegawa’s face and eyes became a seductive attraction that could compete with the spectacular flash of swords.
In 1937, Japan began a full-scale invasion of China, followed by the invasion of French Indochina in 1940. Filmmaking conditions in wartime Japan, not least of all material limitations, made it difficult for Japanese cinematographers to achieve such glamorous cinematography. But war films were perfect vehicles for the aesthetics of shadow, justifying the intensive use of darkness. In GONIN NO SEKKOHEI (FIVE SCOUTS, Japan, 1938), which was highly praised by the ministry of education, the home ministry, and the army, cinematographer Saburo Isayama did not enhance the glamour of Japanese soldiers’ faces, but instead “realistically” captured their shadows. In contrast, James Wong Howe’s cinematography in AIR FORCE (Howard Hawks, USA, 1943) often captures the faces of the war heroes in a glamorous, low-key tone, which Japanese cinematographers wanted to achieve, but were not able to.
After World War II, there was an effort to naturalize the use of shadow as the traditional Japanese aesthetic, in order to formulate a cultural image of Japan as part of reconstruction from the devastation of war. Kazuo Miyagawa was the most prominent cinematographer of this effort. In such films as Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (Japan, 1950) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s UGETSU MONOGATARI (TALES OF THE RAIN AND MOON, Japan, 1953), Miyagawa consciously linked his style to the aesthetics of shadow. Miyagawa said, “[In my house in Kyoto, Japan,] there was a backyard right behind a completely dark kitchen. The sunlight came through a window on the ceiling, which made only the well bucket in the backyard shine. Such a view that I saw when I was a child left an unexpectedly strong impression on my mind.” The pre-war tendency that invented Japanese cultural tradition – based on the praise of shadow – was renewed in the postwar period.
Lighting Styles for Stars
Genre films, whether fantastical or realistic, such as war films, often sought to develop their dramatic lighting motif from the storyline, while lighting schemes characteristic of stars or their roles offered a more autonomous method of design. Beginning in 1915, the transformation of faces through light opened up as an experimental sphere for directors, cinematographers, and lighting technicians. Together they developed lighting strategies that focused on creating distinctive icons of cinema. The establishment of the star system was inextricably linked to this development.
What is remarkable are the parallels between lighting styles for stars such as Kazuo Hasegawa/Chojiro Hayashi in Japan (TSURUHACHI TSURUJIRO, TSURUHACHI AND TSURUJIRO, Mikio Naruse, 1938), and Greta Garbo in the USA (FLESH AND THE DEVIL, Clarence Brown, 1926). Both Garbo and Hayashi appeared resplendent in glamorous sidelight. By contrast, cinematographer Lee Garmes and director Josef von Sternberg chose key light coming in at a steep angle to frame Marlene Dietrich. In SHANGHAI EXPRESS (USA, 1932), that technique is as obvious as the fact that the lighting was more beholden to visual pleasure than to a narrative mandate. But above and beyond genres and stars, the crucial role played by lighting design can also be examined for its thematic aspects.
Light and Rhythm
Experiments with “pure” light and rhythmic montages can be found in avant-garde films and experimental narrative films. In films by avant-garde artists such as Hans Richter, Walther Ruttmann, and Man Ray, cinematic rhythm and light design fuse into a fascinating interplay. Graphic composition of the images and the rhythm are decisive even in the musical OSHIDORI UTAGASSEN (SINGING LOVEBIRDS, Masahiro Makino, Japan, 1939), with cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa. The film has a cult following in Japan and its screening in the Retrospective was the first time it has been shown in Germany.
Painting with Shadows
To illustrate this thematic aspect of lighting, the Retrospective showed example masterpieces from four decades and countries, in which lighting design sets the style. F.W. Murnau’s FAUST. EINE DEUTSCHE VOLKSSAGE (FAUST, Germany, 1926), with cinematography by Carl Hoffmann, takes the viewer into fanciful, mystical worlds. Similar visual worlds are also found in Jean Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BȆTE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, France, 1946). Cinematographer Henri Alekan learned his craft working as an assistant to Eugen Schüfftan, one of the most innovative cameramen of Weimar era cinema, who fled Germany in 1933 and continued his brilliant career in exile, first in France and then in the USA.
In STAGECOACH (USA, 1939), Bert Glennon and John Ford create somber brilliance by combining the archetypical western landscape of vast and dusty Monument Valley with high-contrast interiors shot from low angles. Ford, who had been inspired by Murnau’s films, was one of the first directors working within Hollywood’s homogenous studio system who put his own signature on his films. The visual impact of his films owes much to his collaboration with distinguished cinematographers such as Bert Glennon, Greg Toland, and Gabriel Figueroa.
In Japan, Kazuo Miyagawa became one of the country’s leading cinematographers after 1935. He was influenced by the lighting design of the German expressionist films, as well as by classical Japanese painting, and he shot such undisputed classics as Kenji Mizoguchi’s UGETSU MONOGATARI (TALES OF THE MOON AND RAIN, Japan, 1953). In that film, Miyagawa wraps the fleeing family in their boat in a mystical, poetic grey fog in much the same way Schüfftan and Alekan had Jean Gabin appear from the fog in LE QUAI DES BRUMES (PORT OF SHADOWS, Marcel Carné, France, 1938).
The turn toward realism during the war was a matter of necessity for the war film genre. But its effects exerted their influence far beyond that era and in other genres, as reflected in classics such as John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH (USA, 1940), Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (USA, 1941), or THE NAKED CITY (USA, 1948) directed by Jules Dassin. What these films all have in common is that they bent the line between reality and fiction in a way that was astounding for films produced by major studios at the time. At the end of the 1920s, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the most notable directors working for the innovative studio Shochiku in Tokyo. In TOKYO NO EIYU (A HERO OF TOKYO, Japan, 1935), he combined the realism of urban daily life with melodramatic constructs, under the influence of American and European cinema. Many of his characters reflect the inner conflict between the traditional and the modern.
Rainer Rother and Connie Betz
The Retrospective “Aesthetics of Shadow. Lighting Styles 1915–1950” was organized under the aegis of Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen. This was the second Retrospective jointly curated by the Kinemathek and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. The point of departure when putting together this year’s Retrospective was the research on Japanese film done by Daisuke Miyao, Associate Professor at the University of Oregon. Based on this, the concept was expanded and developed by Charles Silver and Rajendra Roy (MoMA, New York), Rainer Rother and Connie Betz (Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin).
The Retrospective screenings were be accompanied by sidebar events in the Deutsche Kinemathek, as well as publication of the book Ästhetik der Schatten. Filmisches Licht 1915–1950 (German language), and a brochure.