5 Japanese Movies Filmed in the Spirit of Junichirō Tanizaki’s Beautiful Essay “In Praise of Shadows”

In a 1951 letter to his editor, while explaining his Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien writes: “As far as all this has symbolical or allegorical significance, Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the Universe, that it can hardly be analysed. The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically), and imaginatively (or sub-creatively), and says they are good – as beautiful.“ I have read Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows a few years ago, and having in mind its main ideas, this Tolkien’s sentence struck me as important. In the West, as I presumed, Light is a “primeval symbol“, for example in Plato’s Republic, Good is identified with the Sun. In Japan, things are a bit different. The Japanese culture, as understood by Tanizaki, praises shadows more than Light. While Tolkien (and the Westerners) see the Light as a universally accepted symbol for Knowledge, Beauty and Truth, Tanizaki sees the distinctive Japanese character as associated with shadows. The second reading of his essay confirmed my assumption.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, the Light is preserved in the the Silmarils, jewels of great power, and gods and elves long for them. Tanizaki, on the other hand, writes: “Crystals have recently been imported in large quantities from Chile, but Chilean crystals are too bright, too clear. We have long had crystals of our own, their clearness always moderated, made graver by a certain cloudiness. Indeed, we much prefer the ‘impure’ varities of crystal with opaque veins crossing their depths.“ I am aware of the symbolic meaning of Tolkien’s crystals, yet, this Tanizaki’s sentence perfectly summarizes the main difference. The ‘opaque’, ‘impure’, ‘graver’ is more suitable to the Japanese national character than bright Light. Tanizaki writes: “The West has known a time where there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, and yet so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows.”

He gives many examples of Japanese fondness for shadows, ranging from architecture, the quality of paper, black lacquerware, food, and even the portrayal of ghosts in culture. The main enemy is the excessive use of electricity. Tanizaki concludes his essay, published in 1933, with words: “I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows of things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.” In this list of films, I will write about those “mansions” in Japanese cinema, five films which adhere to these aesthetic principles.


1.Tokyo Twilight (Yasujirō Ozu, 1957)

Tokyo Twillight, along with Tokyo Story, is Ozu’s most elaborated film, and arguably the one with most depth, while the others strive for symplicity characteristic of Japanese aesthetics. Akiko is a young woman, abandoned by her mother, raised by her father. We observe her as she struggles to get by as a young woman, without her mother’s support; her sister Takako tries to replace her mother with loving care, but we see that she cannot replace her mother. Their father is interested in the article written by Takako’s husband, titled “Resistance to Freedom”; Ozu portrays the traditional family falling apart and the dire consequences of this abrupt societal change. In the context of this article, what interests us are the aesthetics of shadows which can be observed in every frame of this film. Even the neon signs, which Tanizaki “complains” about are pale, and do not have a shining quality characteristic of the Western cities.

Tokyo Twilight #2

The film’s atmosphere can be described best in Tanizaki’s own words: “A Japanese room might be likened to an inkwash painting, the paper-paneled shoji being the expense where the ink is thinnest, and the alcove where it is darkest. Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadows and light. (…) An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with  the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway. The ‘mysterious Orient’ of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places (…) Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows.“

The household implements, as Tanizaki says, are of colours “comopunded of darkness“. Akiko’s body is covered in clothes, so her face stands out in a shadowy glow peculiar for the Japanese women. Electricity is used sparingly and the opaque black and white photography further emphasizes the opaque nature of the images. Light and shadows are often in interplay, but that light is dim, often coming from a small electric lamp, which is covered, so the light it spreads is rather grave and does not “intrude“ on the somber atmosphere. In the streets, light is “constrained” to the fullest extent, and as we watch the film, we see the characters walking in shadows, living among them – the whole film is permeated with shadows.


2. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindô, 1968)

Kuroneko (Black Cat) is one of Shindô’s great films and a companion piece to a horror film Onibaba. Both of them share a similar premise, implying that the samurai warlords only brought suffering to the ordinary people of Japan, and in both films women take revenge upon the murderous samurai. Both films deal with sexuality in an interesting manner worth exploring; in Kuroneko, a samurai’s mother and wife are brutally raped and murdered (their house was burned to the ground) by several samurai, and they return as vengeful spirits who prey upon these samurai, seduce them and murder them. The opening scene in which rape and murders take place is illuminated by the sun, it is a cruel sun, but soon it gives way to the atmosphere of darkness. In the spirits’ mansion, the light is dim, it comes only from a candle and presumably the moon – the spirits radiate with bright, silver light of their robes, but the pitch black darkness surrounds them.

Naslovna fotografija

This contrast between pure glow of the spirits and the surrounding darkness can be compared to Tanizaki’s words when he describes the darkness of a temple he visited. He writes: “And surely you have seen, in the darkness of innermost rooms of these huge buildings, to which sunlight never penetrates, how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. In no other setting is gold so quite exquisitely beautiful… I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold.”  The spirits’ dresses seem to be woven of threads of silver Tanizaki describes. They glow in darkness, in the mansion illuminated only by dim light; in the bamboo forest, the interplay of shadows and light is remarkably impressive.

Tanizaki writes that traditionally, spirits in Japanese culture have no feet, but in the West, the ghosts are transparent. He writes: “As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West, ghosts are as clear as glass.” The scenes with a samurai warlord, who gives an order to a young samurai to destroy the spirits (he is a son to one of the spirits and a husband to the other) are always taking place in the sunlight, its illumination seems cruel and harsh, as opposed to the soothing, but uncanny silver glow amidst pitch darkness we see in the scenes with the spirits. The greater part of the film takes place in darkness, and is in line with Tanizaki’s aesthetics, but the symbolical nature of the light of the sun and its contrast, darkness, cannot be overstated. Under the cruel light of the sun, horrors take place, while in darkness, the spirit of samurai’s wife and a young samurai make love, and the murders with erotic preludes take place. In darkness, desires are unrestrained, be it a desire for vengeance or an act of love. In the transparent sunlight, violence and brutal killings take place. The aesthetics of darkness in  this Shindô’s film has both aesthetical and symbolic value.


3. Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Pale Flower is a film noir made in the golden age of Japanese cinema, Nūberu bagū (New Wave). Muraki, a member of yakuza, is released from prison for murdering a member of the rival gang and in the first scene he contemplates: “Back in Tokyo. It’s been three years. It makes my head spin. What on earth is this? Why are so many people crammed in cage-like boxes? People… such strange animals. What are they living for? Their faces are lifeless, dead. They’re desperately pretending to be alive. Why make such a big deal about slaughtering one of those dumb beasts? I served three years for it. This is my turf. I didn’t hesitate to come right back. It’s a strange feeling. Somebody died. But nothing has changed. I’m sure it’s same there too.“ Shinoda was influenced by Boudelaire’s  Les Fleurs du mal while making the film and the atmosphere and the ideas presented are often in line with Boudelaire’s sentiment of spleen, boredom and disillusionment with modern life, decadence and libertinage, enjoyment in transgressive behaviour.

The cinematography exhibits a certain paleness, mainly due to the scarce use of artificial light, the electric lamps. In his essay, Tanizaki writes of the excessive use of electric light and its devestating effect on the Japanese culture. In 1933, when Tanizaki wrote his essay, the consumption of electric energy, at the national level, was higher only in the United States. Japan, if we follow Tanizaki’s arguments, is a nation whose peculiar character is based on admiration of shadows, delight in darkness. In Shinoda’s film, the pale light permeates the atmosphere; for example, when yakuza members are gambling the electric light is illuminating only the space where the game is taking place, while the characters are partly in shadows, partly illuminated.

Pale Flowe

Saeko is an infatuating and beautiful young woman who gambles with the yakuza members, enjoys excess and takes pleasure in danger. Her skin, shown under the pale light, can be described in Tanizaki’s words, when he writes about the Japanese women when compared to the Western ones: “For the Japanese complexion, no matter how white, is tinged by a slight cloudiness. These women were in no way reticent about powdering themselves. Every bit of exposed flesh – even their backs and arms – they covered with a thick coat of white. Still they could not efface the darkness that lay below their skin.“

A significant part of the film takes place at night, but it must be noted that lights are low, the atmosphere of shadows, and pale reflections of light on the characters’ skin make the film in line with Tanizaki’s aesthetics. Muraki explains to Saeko that he doesn’t take pleasure in life, but did take pleasure in killing. In the film, although erotic notions are abundant, there are no sexual acts. The pleasure in murder motif is characteristic for the Japanese New Wave, a cinematic movement which took delight in transgressions. At film’s ending, when Muraki invites Saeko to observe the act of killing (a boss of the rival gang), while opera music plays, there are more electric lights than in the rest of the film (the murder takes place in a restaurant), but the light is still pale, the atmosphere is seemingly abundant in light, yet it is accompanied by shadows.


4. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

An entomologist on vacation, searching for insects yet undiscovered, seeks refuge in a village, and is trapped by local villagers in a giant hole in the ground. Its only resident is an unknown woman. She is given a task to shovel sand by night, as years pass by. At first, he doesn’t realize that he is bound to stay there an indefinite amount of time, and he attempts several acts of rebellion against this condition; all of them fail. The villagers send the Entomologist and the Woman rations, under the condition that they continue shoveling sand. We find out that the sand is sold on the black market, since it has too much salt in it, and cannot be sold legally. This is a tale of corruption, as we see later, when the villagers want the Entomologist and the Woman to have sex in front of them, in exchange for Entomologist’s freedom. This is also a parable of human condition, and can be portrayed using Camus’ words from his Myth of Sisyphus:

I  leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Camus’ understanding of a seemingly futile and absurd existence which finds solace and happiness in the beauty of things which are worlds in themselves, and the very struggle to live, may remind one of Nietzsche’s formula – amor fati – love thy fate! The Entomologist may have found a world formed in the beauty of a woman’s naked dark-textured skin, covered with specks of sand which glisten in night’s darkness, in the elegance of shadows which permeate their dwelling, speaking in line with Tanizaki’s arguments. In one scene we see the pale sun in the sky, but in the very next shot, we find darkness again. The only light the Entomologist and the Woman possess is the oil lamp, which gives dim light in their cabin. Nietzsche’s formula amor fati was criticized by Theodor Adorno in his Minima Moralia.


Adorno wrote: “The origin of amor fati might be sought in a prison. Love of stone walls and barred windows is the last resort of someone who sees and has nothing else to love. Both are cases of the same ignominious adaptation which, in order to endure the world’s horror, attributes reality to  wishes and meaning to senseless compulsion. No less than in the credo quia absurdum, resignation bows down in the amor fati, the glorification of the absurdest of all things, before the powers that be.” The Woman who is trapped by the villagers and shovels sand for years is the one who has “nothing to love”; her husband and daughter died there and her resignation toward earthly things is complete. This was not the case for the Entomologist who had the love for collecting insects and dreamed of being included in books about them, as the one who has discovered a new species. Yet, with the passing of time, he has become accustomed to this absurd way of life, and in the end, when he manages to escape the entrapment, he decides to go back and tell the villagers he has found water.


5. Maborosi (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1995)

At the beginning of the film, we observe a young Osaka couple, Yumiko and Ikuo, who have a three months old baby, and it can be clearly seen that they enjoy each other’s company. Soon, Yumiko’s husband Ikuo commits suicide for no appearent reason. During the rest of the film, we can see Yumiko’s life a few years later as she has a new husband and lives in a village near the roaring sea. The films is a contemplative and melancholic journey dealing with grief and finally a possibility of acceptance. Its relation to death, mortality and the passing of time is portrayed by a certain calmness and impression of imminent fleetness of life (we can see that if we observe the shots of sea, old people and children; they are here for a moment but soon pass from our sight).

Kore-eda’s relation to technology is in this film significantly different than in his later filmography. In Maborosi Yumiko’s husband is killed by a train (he was deliberately walking on the tracks until the train hit him), while in his later film I Wish technology (in this case trains as well) is portrayed as something which brings people together. In the greater part of the film, the characters are coated in darkness, and at some moments, they become shadows themselves, nearly black contours surrounded by the landscape, the sea for example. It is often night, but the street lamps’s glow is pale and does not intrude on the somber atmosphere of stillness. The lamps in Yumiko’s house are low as well, and in this atmosphere the shadows prevail.

Tanizaki writes about the Orientals’ taste in decoration and says that “we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarse; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.“ Maborosi‘s understandig of mortality of man is beautifully portrayed in the final scenes of the film. We see a file of men, their bodies only dark contours in the distance as they walk toward the sea; the scene is reminiscent of the scene from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal when a group of men walk as they are taken by Death. In Maborosi, this is much more subtle, and as Yumiko struggles to understand why her former husband commited suicide, her new husband says to her: “The sea has a power to beguile. Back when dad was fishing he once saw a maborosi – a strange light – far out to sea. Something in it was beckoning to him, he said… It happens to all of us.“



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Editor’s Note:

If you enjoyed this article, I would like to recommend some great books and movies associated with it. You can purchase them on Amazon:

Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maborosi [Blu-ray]

Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters were called the “Pride and Prejudice” of Japan. Written in the 1940‘s, when most Japanese writers were silent, because of the nationalistic censorship, Tanizaki wrote one of his masterpieces. It was serialised in 1943, but was halted by the government. Tanizaki secretly distributed copies of it in his private circles. After World War II it was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948. The story is about the decline of a wealthy upper-class family from Ôsaka in the 1930‘s. Traditional customs are now bound to fail and the new attitudes of the young generation is breaking with the lifestyle of the parents. The national crisis has its impact on everyone‘s live in Japan. The international threatening of the upcoming World War II and Japan‘s nationalistic expansion policy is the background of the story.”

Book Review, Japan Kaleidoskop

Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

“Abe is an accomplished stylist. He was apt to frame his novels in “found” notebooks or other written artefacts, and The Woman in the Dunes closes with the missing persons report mentioned on its first page. It includes a page or two of its protagonist’s jottings to himself; a dream, a hallucinatory flashback here and there, but the structure is simple and linear. The language, in E Dale Saunders’ prudent and still crisp 1964 translation, has the clarity of a parable. Abe’s first publication in 1947 was a privately mimeographed book entitled Poems of an Unknown Poet (Mumei Shishu), and the poet’s eye – and discretion – informs Abe’s use of imagery in his novels: “the sun was boiling mercury”; “it was like trying to build a house in the sea by brushing the water aside”.“

Book review, The Guardian

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