Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris

This chilly Easter weekend I’m in Paris for the 3rd Conference of the European Narratology Network. Here’s some pics of the venue: a lovely and extremely varied campus, if a little run-down in places:


The delegates gather.


Brian Richardson delivers the one of the first keynote speeches on Friday morning.


Human sacrifices entirely absent!


Exciting but brutal modernist workout. Derelict.


Interesting juxtaposition: Bauhaus-style building with man-monkey statues.


Raphaël Baroni delivers the final keynote on Saturday afternoon.

The conference? I delivered my paper yesterday and it went as well as could be expected. Overall? Let’s just say that I found the limits of my interest in narrative quite early on…

Chris Crawford: Masterclass On Interactivity

About three weeks ago now—yeah, I know, but I’ve been busy—Chris Crawford delivered a ‘Masterclass On Interactivity’ at Swansea Metropolitan University.

Chris began with a light-hearted look back at the history of computing and, simultaneously, back over his career. Whilst offering a gentle introduction to the presentation and a chance to get to know him, the opening section did make on major point: that interactivity is what defines modern computing and, by extension, new media in general. The computer is an interaction machine.

Chris Crawford's home-made first "laptop."
Chris Crawford's home-made first "laptop."
Eastern Front 1941
Eastern Front 1941

Having set out his stall Chris went on to discuss the concept of interactivity. Firstly he said that the best example of interactivity—to which all machine interactions strive—was a human conversation: real-time, using all our senses, pure improvisation. From this observation he derives what I think is the best definition of interactivity I’ve come across: interactivity occurs when computer and user alternately listen, think, and speak.

The quality of the interaction is defined by the weakest element in that chain. For example, modern computer games are very good at ‘speaking to us’—they look fabulous and they sound fabulous—but they’re not so good at thinking: very often the characters or the basic game AI is actually pretty dumb. Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 2 is a perfect example.

Computers are also not very good at ‘listening’ to us. Interaction with a computer is usually limited to a surprisingly small range of gestures and actions: pointing, clicking, dragging, etc.. Whilst multi-touch and gestural interfaces are widening that vocabulary, it remains very limited compared to what is possible with natural language. Chris suggested a Linguistic User Interface as being the future, in turn paving the way for the social aspects of interaction (and, by extension, the social aspects of gaming, evolving into what he calls “interactive storytelling”).

Only Four Mental Modules?
Only Four Mental Modules?

Although computers are good at ‘thinking’, Chris argued that the main limitation of computing was that it currently only used a small number of the “mental modules” we possess, the main ones being spatial reasoning, hand/eye coordination, resource management, and problem-solving. Crucially, our all-important social reasoning module was not challenged at all.

Star Wars considered as a social network.
Star Wars considered as a social network.
Pacman considered as a socal network
Pacman considered as a social network

Summing up the first half of the presentation, Chris suggested that our current generation of computer games have developed as far as they can go, and that a separate industry will emerge exploiting the social aspect of the technologies.


After lunch Chris began by talking about the human predilection for talking about experience in terms of things rather than as a system of processes (nouns rather than verbs, data rather than algorithms). Interactivity is communication through process. He went on to talk about interactive storytelling environments where each use generated a new narrative instance, as opposed to our current paradigm where stories are fixed within a medium (novels, comics, films, TV programmes). Chris argued that these interactive stories—hypernarratives—would never achieve the polish of the story fixed within its medium, but that they would have much greater emotional impact because of their personal, individually generated, meaning.

For the final section of the afternoon, Chris talked about what the requirements were for the designer of these new interactive storytelling environments. This was Chris at his most overtly evangelical, throwing wide the doors of learning and revealing an endless landscape for exploration and discovery. Using Erasmus as an example, he very cleverly and humorously showed how little information there was on the Internet compared to that encoded in books. He showed how you could use equations that describe natural processes to model human interaction (for example, human attraction and repulsion convincingly modeled using spring compression equations). He tried to get as to look at the processes underlying the world we live in, not its surface features.

All This Goes In Here
All This Goes In Here
Thing vs Process
Thing vs Process

Inevitably I have only offered a very brief overview of the contents of Chris’s Masterclass On Interactivity. The presentation was funny, inspirational, thought-provoking, and very, very, smart. Despite speaking for about 5 hours there was barely a moment that was less than engaging, and the whole audience was gripped throughout. As much as anything else, it was a masterclass on giving a presentation.

Thanks Chris. A privilege.

Chris Crawford Links



Eastern Front: A Narrative History

The Computational Turn

On Tuesday 9th March I attended the Computational Turn conference at Swansea University. Very good it was too, with the wide range of speakers packed into a single day all having a diverse set of approaches to the main theme. Some of the papers were very challenging, and—whilst not all were of particular interest to me—many shone light into areas I had barely perceived previously, let alone considered in any deliberate way. The highlights of the day were the day’s two keynote speakers: N. Katherine Hayles opening the conference and Lev Manovich closing it.

N. Katherine Hayles
N. Katherine Hayles

Hayles outlined the rationale for the “computational turn.” She began by asking how many books could we read in a lifetime. If we read one a day between the ages of 15 and 85, that turns out to be 25,550. Not many compared to the total number of books available. The question becomes, what if we could analyze a whole corpus of books—all the books ever written on WWII, say, or all the books written about Aristotle—using computers? What would this type of mass analysis reveal?

Of course the next question would have to be, an analysis on what basis? Computers can’t “read” in the same way humans can. They may be able to detect patterns in the data—frequency, repetition, structure—but that is a far cry from the type of hermeneutic interpretation that humans are so good at. Quoting Tim Lenoir, she suggests that we “forget meaning and follow the data streams.” Starting with meaning always embodies too many assumptions: if we start with the analytics we can work out what it all means later. She then went on to illustrate her thesis by showing the initial results of her computational analysis of Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

The Q&A session ranged across a wide range of topics, all of which Hayles dealt with expertly:

  • Nigel Thrift’s “technological unconscious” was discussed, the observation that assumptions and limitations are embedded within the technologies we use which are largely unnoticed and unseen. (An idea that seems very close to McLuhan’s theories about media.)
  • There was talk of the “adaptive unconscious,” which posits a mind that is effectively a type of internal distributed network where the unconscious is not a Freudian dark place but an active participant in cognition and decision-making.
  • There was talk of the “Baldwin Effect,” an elaboration on evolutionary theory which suggests that specific inherited traits are emphasized by cultural behaviour.
  • Finally, Hayles talked of culture moving from a deep-attention mode (related to print) into a hyper-attention mode (related to electronic media).

All heady stuff. How some of these issues relates to the computational turn I’m not quite sure, but the whole session was never less than stimulating.

Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich’s talk was mainly concerned with his projects, all of which are related to visualizations of large bodies of visual data: one million Manga pages, all 3480 Time magazine covers, Vertov movies, the way saturation changes over time in modern painting. He also showed off the Cultural Analytics software his Software Studies initiative has been developing. Here’s one of his Manga visualizations (stolen from his CultureVis photostream):

Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages
Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages

The accompanying text reads:

X axis: Grey scale standard deviation (measured per page)
Y axis: Entropy (measured per page)

This visualization shows how cultural analytics approach allows us to map continuous style space of a cultural data set. In the current visualization, the pages which have more contrast appear on the right; the pages which have no grey tones but only black and white are on the bottom right; and the pages which have a full range of grey tone (and thus more “realism” ) on the top. Every page in the dataset is situated in the space defined by these extremes.

Here’s another example (from here) showing a subset of the Time magazine covers mapped out in the Cultural Analytics software:

Time Magazine covers
Time Magazine analytics

The accompanying text reads:

Exploring a set of 450 Time covers (sampled from the complete set of 4553 covers 1923-2009 by taking every 10th image). Mousing over points reveals larger images and metadata.

I’ve only really presented here the bookends of the Computational Turn conference. There was much else of value, some of which I intend to follow up in my own work. A special thanks must go to Dr. David Berry for organizing the conference, for attracting such marvellous speakers to Swansea, and for the invitation. Thanks also to Sian Rees for coordinating the event and for providing such a warm welcome.

The Future of Books?

Craig Mod has just published a thoughtful, insightful, and beautifully-presented essay on the future of books in the digital era, using the emergence of devices like the Kindle and the iPad as his focus:

In printed books, the two-page spread was our canvas. It’s easy to think similarly about the iPad. Let’s not. The canvas of the iPad must be considered in a way that acknowledge the physical boundaries of the device, while also embracing the effective limitlessness of space just beyond those edges.

We’re going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that’s one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.


This essay could usefully be cross-referenced with Part 2 of Scott McCloud‘s Reinventing Comics from 2000. In other words, some of what’s on offer here is not that new. However, the distinction between Formless and Definite Content is new (to me, at least) and provides a convincing armature around which the essay revolves. And if you need convincing about the inevitability of the move away from printed matter, here it is.

An excellent piece of work, highly recommended. The page must die!

Bruce Sterling at Transmediale

Notes from a presentation made by Bruce Sterling on 6th February 2010 at the Transmediale Futurity Now! festival in Berlin. The theme is “atemporality,” the sense that new media has moved us beyond modernism, beyond postmodernism, beyond all the “grand narratives” of traditional historical discourse. Sterling asks how we survive in this new environment and offers a range of never-less-than interesting and stimulating strategies for designers, artists, and academics. Here are a couple of taster quotes:

1) The Frankenstein Mashup (aka sampling, collage, bricolage):

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists? Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the Frankenstein Mashup. Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The Frankenstein Mashup is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.” You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of “World Music.” That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars. This kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end…

2) Generative Art:

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or maybe generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project. Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent. Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

3) Gothic High-Tech vs Favela Chic:

We are in a period which I think is dominated by two great cultural signifiers. An analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. Gothic High-Tech. The ruins of the unsustainable. And the other symbol is the favela slum, Favela Chic, the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the twenty first century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality. The Gothic High-Tech and the Favela Chic. These are very obvious to me, as a novelist and creative artist. Perhaps you won’t see things this way — but I think the life-span of this will be about ten years. A new generation will arise who does not need things explained to them in this way. They will not wonder at a slogan like “Futurity Now!” because they will have never known anything different.

Fascinating stuff.

[Video originally included here has been taken down.]

The Poetics

I’ve started writing-up my PhD thesis supposedly for submission in March 2011. For me, this means getting up at 5am and getting in a couple of hours study before I head off to the office: there’s no way I’ll be able to do anything meaningful after a day’s work. Anyway, my new regime seems to be working and, three weeks in, I’m still on schedule!

I’ve been working on Aristotle’s Poetics. This is the ur-text for all narrative studies and forms the basis of what we might call the ‘standard model’ of narrative. Part of my thesis, then, involves going back to the original text and asking basic questions like “what did Aristotle really say?” Here’s part of my first draft. It needs notes, the image is only a placeholder, but references are included:

Aristotle’s Poetics
Probably written between 335 – 323 BCE, Aristotle’s Poetics remains a “recurrently, indeed tenaciously, significant” piece of literary criticism (Halliwell 1992). This is all the more remarkable as it is little more than a set of notes, half of which—the section on comedy—is missing (Heath, in Aristotle 1996, xxxvii). Despite its brevity, the text itself presents all sorts of problems: there are several translations which vary considerably in the way that key terms are interpreted and in the way the text is organized; parts of the original text are missing or illegible; there is some internal inconsistency; ideas expressed in the Poetics are inconsistent with the same ideas in his other texts (Belfiore 1992, p.103); and Aristotle often offers examples to illustrate key points by referring to texts that no longer exist (e.g. the discussion of Lynceus at Poetics 11). In fact the brevity of the text often works against understanding: many key terms are not explained and the style is generally elliptical.

The Poetics is largely concerned with poetry, expressed through the three main forms existing at that time: tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. The bulk of the text is taken up with tragedy, but there is a chapter on epic poetry and a short chapter comparing tragedy with epic. Although comedy is often mentioned in passing, it is thought that the extended analysis of this that Aristotle promises (Poetics 6) lies in another, missing, text (as noted above). Aristotle identifies six component parts to tragedy which are, in their order of importance: plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry (song), and spectacle (ibid). Here we will be mainly concerned with the component that relates to the structural analysis of narrative—and which in any case takes up the best part of the Poetics—plot.

Aristotle defines plot as “the imitation of the action (by ‘plot’ here I mean the organization of events)” (ibid). He then goes on to explain why it is the most important component of tragedy, which we could summarize by saying that character (and its dependents reasoning, diction, and song) are expressed through the action: without action there is no tragedy. Aristotle then goes on to define plot in some detail, identifying five key characteristics: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.

Aristotelian Plot
This is virtually everything Aristotle has to say about completeness:

We have laid down that tragedy is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole action, possessing a certain magnitude. […] A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning is that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else, but some second thing naturally exists or occurs after it. Conversely, an end is that which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or in general, but there is nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself comes after something else, and some other thing comes after it. (Poetics 7)

In other words, Aristotle is arguing for a tightly organized and self-contained structure where, putting it into more modern terms, we could say that the plot must be made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.

Aristotle’s next section on magnitude encapsulates everything that is problematic about the Poetics, being seemingly straightforward, baffling, and highly suggestive all at the same time. He begins by talking about a living organism, which not only “possess parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary” (ibid). Although he would not have expressed it in these terms, here we could suggest that Aristotle is recognizing that living organisms generally speaking do not evolve parts that have no function; there is a kind of minimalism at work here that will not expend energy on developing these useless parts.

Aristotle then goes on to make two specific statements about the magnitude of a plot. Firstly, that it “should be such as can readily be held in memory” (ibid) and, secondly, that the ideal magnitude should be “in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” (ibid). The first of these does not really bear scrutiny: although Aristotle presumably means that the plot must be graspable by the audience at a single sitting, clearly we have memory systems that allow us to maintain highly complex semiotic structures over extended time periods. The second of his definitions is more specific but introduces several new ideas that remain undefined. “In accordance with probability or necessity” is Aristotle’s formula for what many modern commentators might call causality, the recognition that the events in the plot are connected together in a meaningful way and not just a random series of actions placed one after another. Although this clearly relates back to Aristotle’s comments on wholeness and is supportive of that concept, he defines neither “probability” or “necessity” in either the Poetics or indeed any of his other works (Belfiore 1992, p.112).

Furthermore, in this short section Aristotle also introduces another new idea that is important to his conception of the tragic plot, namely that it “gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune.” This is not really explained until later in the Poetics, where Aristotle says that:

By complication I mean everything up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end. (Poetics 18)

This introduces terms that have become crucial to the development of the ‘standard model’ of narrative in general and the study of narrative structures in particular. It implies a bipartite plot structure with a “change” or turning point somewhere in the middle. If we relate the terms complication and resolution back onto the beginning-middle-end structure Aristotle has already laid out, we could say that the complication is the beginning and some undetermined amount of the middle, whilst the resolution is a similarly undetermined part of the middle through to the end; where the “change” occurs would vary from plot to plot but would demarcate the boundary line between the two:

schematic of Aristotle's plot structure

Aristotle’s concept of the correct magnitude of a plot, then, offers a kind of minimalist philosophy, with the underlying assumption that it should include only what is necessary (or perhaps, only that which performs some specific function). This is the single idea that unifies his ideas about the organic nature of the plot, its graspability, and the minimum requisite action it should include.

Aristotle’s third key characteristic of plot is unity. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to offer us very much in the way of new ideas: surely if a plot is ‘whole’ it must be a unity? However, it does serve to tie together his idea of wholeness with his definition of plot as “a series of events” giving rise to a “change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” as noted above. Central to this is Aristotle’s concept of a “single action” (Poetics 8). A plot where a character undergoes a change of fortune made be made up of a series of many events, but all of these events are related to, are necessary for, this change to be represented. In other words, the change of fortune is the “single action” and the events in the plot must all be probable or necessary to it; only in this way will it have unity. There is again this emphasis on the plot containing only those events or actions that are absolutely essential.

Aristotle’s entire comment on determinate structure from Poetics 8 is as follows:

Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action—and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.

The first sentence is merely a reiteration and summary of Aristotle’s concepts of unity and wholeness as discussed above. The second sentence, however, does contain something new: the idea of “transposition or removal” of sections gets to the very heart of plotting, and is one of the few instances in the Poetics where we can clearly see the difference between “story” and “plot” expressed directly. The story is the events in linear order, but the plot is those events “organized” in some artistic way. What Aristotle is saying is that if events from the story are transposed—moved in time relative to each other—or removed, and that these changes have no effect on the whole, then they are dispensible, not part of the ‘unity’. Yet again there is this emphasis on the minimal means of expression, reinforced by the final sentence in the section.
In fact, we can see from this section of the Poetics that we could reasonably collapse all of Aristotle’s ideas about wholeness, unity, and the minimal representation of a single action under the umbrella term ‘the determinate structure of a plot’.

Aristotle’s fifth key characteristic of plot is universality. This section of the Poetics is concerned with the type of overall effect “the poet” should be striving for, that is, qualitative or aesthetic outcomes. Whilst it includes what is probably the first exposition of the ‘fact versus fiction’ problem, there is little relevant to the issues under discussion here.

One final issue that Aristotle does deal with and that does have relevance for us is that of the defective plot. He highlights the episodic plot as being “the worst,” and by an episodic plot he means “one in which the sequence of events is neither necessary or probable.” In other words, an episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events (and here I am trying to avoid the word ‘causality’). Which in the terms of Aristotle’s argument is all very straightforward; however, later on in the Poetics he seems to use the word ‘episode’ in a completely different way:

The prologue is the whole part of a tragedy before the entry-song of the chorus; an episode is a whole part of a tragedy between whole choral songs; the finale is the whole part of a tragedy after which there is no choral song. (Poetics 12)

What makes this worse is that he also seems to be using one of his key terms for plot—”whole”—in a new way as well. However, what he is doing is making a distinction between what he calls the “formal elements” of the tragedy—plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry, and spectacle—and what he calls the “quantitative terms” (ibid). In modern terminology, this would be the same as making the distinction between the story (as plotted) and the narrative discourse: the plot may be whole, have unity, and be the minimal representation of a single action, but as instantiated in a single performance it may be presented episodically. And in fact, later on in the Poetics, Aristotle makes this distinction very clear:

One should handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance—not as in Euripides, but as in Sophocles. In the other poets the songs have no more to do with the plot than they do with any other play… (Poetics 18)

In other words, the songs move the plot forward.

To summarize this section on Aristotelian plot:

  • The plot is “the organization of events.”
  • There are five key characteristics of plot: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.
  • The plot of a tragedy is an imitation of a complete and whole action, possessing a certain magnitude, and which has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a tightly organized and self-contained structure made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.
  • The plot is minimally functional in the same way as a living organism.
  • The plot must be graspable in a single sitting.
  • The plot must be of a magnitude so that, with the minimum requisite action, it should represent a change of fortune for the protagonist(s). The events leading to the change are the complication, the events after the change are the resolution.
  • The plot has unity; it represents a single action.
  • The plot has determinate structure: everything must be there for a reason.
  • The plot should strive for universality.
  • An episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events.

Aristotle (trans. Heath, M.) (1996) Poetics. Penguin Classics
Belfiore, E. S. (1992) Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle On Plot And Emotion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Halliwell, S. (1992) ‘Epilogue: The Poetics and its Interpreters’ in Rorty, A. O. (Ed) Essays On Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Quote of the Month

The sky turns deep blue, the world freezes, and a progress bar marches slowly across it from horizon to horizon. Ethereal runes written in aurorae six hundred metres high scrawl across the heavens, updating reality, and for a moment your skin crawls with superstitious dread. Someday we’re all going to get skin implants and access this directly. Someday everyone is going to live out their lives in places like this, vacant bodies tended by machines of loving grace while their minds go on before us into strange spaces where the meat cannot follow. You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars: a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it’s a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you’re a sucker for it: isn’t story-telling what being human is all about?

Charles Stross

Narrative In Japanese Film 3: Yamanaka

I am again going to quote at some length from Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film, with the subject this time being Yamanaka Sadao’s exquisite 1937 film Humanity and Paper Balloons:

In the second sequence of the film—a lane outside the tenement—we find that the camera is placed level with the human eye and that all shots are economically edited along a single axis. In this, Yamanaka was certainly influenced by Ozu. Though there are asides during the length of this sequence (one of them is to introduce Unno, the masterless-samurai hero of the film), in the main the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley varies not at all—the angle coincides with the axis.

This way of working is not often seen in American or European films of the period because these scenes could be said to “not match,” also because their sequence violates one of the assumptions of international cinema style, namely, that a film progresses by opposing shots. Shots which are compositionally similar are thought to confuse, though this Yamanaka sequence is proof that this is not necessarily so. The theory about opposing shots seems to be based on a Western assumption that narrative can proceed only through conflict and confrontation, compositionally as well as otherwise. The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.


In showing us the tenement alley, the director moves along its length, shot after shot. A precise rendering of the street is given, a believable accounting of its space, a logical introduction of the characters, and the setting up of half of the spatial metaphor. This is the closed and crowded alley itself, which, though invaded by officials from time to time, is really the safer part of the world.

When the outside world (the town outside the tenement district) is delineated, we are given no such spatial grounding. We do not know the location of the pawnbroker’s house in relation to our alley, nor the location of the bridge where one of the main characters will be killed. The temple gate, the fairground, all these “outside” locations are separate, distinct, cut off from each other. They lack the continuity of the tenement, which we were shown whole and complete. Consequently, it is the tenement which feels safe, like home, and it is the outside which is dangerous, or alien. “Spatially, Yamanaka—having set up this opposition of spaces, having fully reticulated one and left the other carefully and threateningly unreticulated—has created for himself a bipolar structure.”

Well, with all due respect to the eminent Mr. Richie, there are some aspects of this section that I’m a little unhappy with.

Firstly, the terminology in the first paragraph is wrong. The sentence “the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley” should surely read “the camera placement in each shot during the progress along the alley.” This mistake is repeated in the first sentence of the next paragraph as well, but thereafter corrects itself. A strange lapse (and something his editor should have picked up).

Secondly, I don’t actually agree with the conclusions Mr. Richie draws from his observations. Yes, Yamanaka does construct these opening scenes from a series of overlapping shots that, in terms of strict Hollywood continuity-style editing, would be considered ‘wrong’ because they break the 30º rule (which is presumably what Richie means when he says the shots don’t “match”). And, yes, the vast majority of narratives constructed using continuity-style editing are heavily reliant on shot/reverse shot structuring.

From these initial observations he then goes on to say that Yamanaka is doing all this to create a “spatial metaphor” where this seamless and “compositionally similar” directing represents the unified and integrated community within the alley, in opposition to the world outside which is represented by Yamanaka as a series of locations that are “separate, distinct, cut off from each other.”

However, the shooting and editing styles do not change throughout the film. When Yamanaka has to shoot a similar type of scene in the “outside” world—and where the action is confined to a long narrow space such as an alley—he employs exactly the same type of shot structure and editing style as he does in the tenement. In other words, Yamanaka is not composing these scenes this way in order to express a “spatial metaphor,” it is simply a function of the types of spaces he is shooting in. For example, here is a sequence of stills from the opening tenement sequence that Richie describes:




Compare this now to a scene later in the film that is in Richie’s “outside world” but shot in a very similar type of space:




As you can see, a very similar overall style. There doesn’t seem to be any particular “spatial metaphor” at work here that would allow us to identify the two sequences as existing in different symbolic or psychological realms: we’re just shooting in alleys!

Isn’t there also a contradiction in Richie’s piece? First he says that the “idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity … is seen again and again in Japanese movies” but then later asserts that the creation of these two spaces—the safe tenement vs. the alien outside—creates “a bipolar structure.” Surely all narrative proceeds through conflict of some kind.

Oddly enough, I do agree with the basic opposition that Richie has observed, namely that Yamanaka plays off this cosy and communal tenement against the disjointed and harsh outside world, but I don’t believe this is expressed in the shooting and editing styles. For me, it is the emptiness and formality of the outside world that distinguishes it from the noisy and vibrant tenement.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.76)

Narrative In Japanese Film 2: Design As Narrative

Another section of Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film to catch my eye is this description of Daisuke Ito’s 1927 film Diary of Chuji’s Travels:

Much of the film looks like a modern—specifically American—movie. Yet it often segues into a decidedly Japanese sensibility. The dialogue scenes are in medium close-up, there are two shots with a forty-five degree shift of viewpoint, and eyelines follow international standards. Yet, in the sequence in the saké brewery, we follow a downward pan from darkness to patches of sunlight, beams, ropes, and finally to the men manning the works. A written title appears in this initial darkness and continues all the way through the pan—in effect turning the screen into a calligraphy surface, a two-dimensional page.

The following sequence, in the saké brewery yard, is pure Japanese aesthetic bravura. The area is littered with enormous empty barrels, some on their sides, and so the scene is filled with circles. Shot after shot emphasizes ceaselessly the resulting circular compositions. A girl wanders in circles; children play circular games: the design has become the story. And during the remainder of the film, scenes return to the compositions of this sequence, reminding us of it. The heroine goes to sit in the circle of a big, empty vat; later, children form a dancing circle around the distraught samurai hero.

Such apparent design-as-narrative reminds one of traditional printmakers, particularly Hokusai, and brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot. We can readily understand the role that traditional composition plays in Japanese cinema.

Wow: the design has become the story! I only wish there were more depth to this section. When Richie says it “brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot” does he mean Hokusai in particular, or traditional printmakers in general? It’s just so tantalizing!

Something I’m going to have to research myself.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.70)

Narrative In Japanese Film 1: Benshi

I’ve just finished reading Donald Richie’s excellent A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. The book is arranged more-or-less chronologically, and begins with the very earliest of Japanese-produced movies in 1899. These, as with the imported films that at that time made up the bulk of the repertoire, were obviously all silent films. However, when they were screened they had sound added by a benshi, someone who Richie defines as a “film narrator, commentator, lecturer—a master of ceremonies whose appearance was an assumed part of early Japanese film showings.” This amazing practice continued well into the era of the talkies, and did not die out fully until the mid-1930s.

So why did the Japanese cinema audience need the benshi, and for so long? Excuse me if I quote at some length from the book:

The reasons for the long life of the benshi were various. Since Japan had only some forty years before been “opened up to the West” (a phrase invented in the West), ignorance of much of the outside world was common. The benshi filled in the gaps of knowledge Western viewers had acquired long before. They were “a reassuring native presence with a presumed acquaintance of the foreign object,” a necessity which might even now “explain the Japanese affection for teachers, tour guides, sommeliers, and other conduits for the acquisition of new experience.”

In addition to his educational role, the benshi was essential to the film-viewing experience. In part, this was because the early cinema of Japan was, as elsewhere, a cinema of short, unrelated clips—initially films form abroad: in the Lumière collection, one saw babies being fed, gardeners being squirted, and so on. A commentary connecting these clips not only made a short program longer but more coherent. Later, when longer programs became available, story links were created by the benshi. Still later came the illusion of a self-contained story-world. Until then, the benshi was all that these little glimpses had in common.

The benshi was also required to fill the time. This he accomplished in various ways. Besides talking, he sometimes lengthened the viewing time. Many films were quite short, and so a number were shown on a single bill. Sometimes, as was common in early showings in France and the United States, films were repeated. Since the audience had not yet developed what has been called a “linear response,” no one minded a second viewing as it gave one a chance to catch new things the second time round.

In recalling the films he had seen around 1898, as a child of about ten, novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro said: “The ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same scene could be projected over and over. I can still remember, endlessly repeated, high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking and then receding, and a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters.”


The technique of repetition has a proper Japanese name, tasuke (continuous loop), and its use remains common on Japanese television and in the movie theaters, where advertising clips are repeated several times. The aim now is not to make a short program longer, but the argument holds that anything short may be twice savoured. After all, repetition seemingly for its own sake is so accepted an element in Japanese dramaturgy that its cinematic equivalent seems quite natural. Perhaps those Western viewers, even during a Mizoguchi Kenji or Ozu Yasujiro film, sigh and hope the director will soon get on with it are responding to this Japanese tradition of repetition.

The benshi mostly filled in the time with lengthy explanations, a time-consuming rhetoric, and drawn-out, often moralizing conclusions. It was the benshi who created the narrative for the audience to follow, and even today, when the narrator’s performance has been reduced to a more or less scholarly reconstruction, a plethora of explanations, repetitions of information, and voice-overs remains in Japanese commercial film. This was what the uninformed audience required and consequently wanted. “What to filmgoers in the West might seem an overdetermined, annoying repetition was for Japanese audiences constitutive of meaning.”

From the Western perspective, it could be said that the benshi delayed the cinematic development of narrative in Japan. However, this line of thought is valid only if one believes that the development of narrative was a “natural” development of the film and that there were no other alternatives. Actually, as Japanese film indicates, there were.

In the West, cinema was evolving into a self-sufficient narrative. It seemed the most practical way to entertain increasingly sophisticated audiences. A series of short clips gave way to lengthier, more coherent stories. The audience’s involvement in more detailed stories increased attendance. It was thus possible to find in the narrative film the most suitable cinematic form if the industry required films to be quickly and cheaply made.

In Japan, however, the perception of narrative was different. It was the benshi and not any self-contained cinematic narrative which made sense to the audience. He not only explained what was being shown on the screen but also was there “to reinforce, interpret, counterpoint, and in any case to intercede.”

The role of the benshi was a very traditional one. From the earliest times, Japanese drama had required an informing voice. The chorus in noh drama, the joruri chanter in bunraku puppet drama, the gidayu narrator in kabuki—all premodern Japanese drama is a pictorial expansion of verbal storytelling. Joseph Anderson has indeed defined the Japanese drama as a presentation “in which actors do not autonomously enact events for spectators; dialogue spoken by actors is not the primary speech modality; and basic plot structure is not based on conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity.”

Rather than being presented as an occurrence, drama is presented as a recounted occurrence. Although many national dramas have entertained like assumptions, the Japanese theater (and its descendants, movies and television) has remained remarkably faithful to the authoritative voice. As one early critic expressed it, the film itself was like the bunraku puppet and the benshi was the gidayu reciter.


The influence of the benshi continues even today. Joseph Anderson remembers listening to a modern Japanese soap opera from another room in the house and discovering that “voice-over narration not only recaps previous episodes but every so often talks about things that are happening right now on the tube. I don’t have to look at this television drama. I hear it.”

I find this passage pregnant with ideas. For my own benefit as much as yours, here are a few brief notes:

  1. This all suggests that Japan remains a primarily oral society. Most likely this is due to the notoriously difficult-to-master writing system that they use.
  2. In the text above, who said the audience had not developed a “linear response.” What do they—the person who said it originally and Richie himself—mean by it?
  3. This idea of showing film (or video) in continuous loops is intriguing. Given the modern technologies we have, it’s surprising that more has not been made of looping (as it has, for example, in audio). There are places where it is in common use: pop concerts and pop videos spring to mind; advertising on the web, or on LCD displays in public spaces; and Buñuel has used it (that scene in Exterminating Angel where the guests arrive twice). Presumably looping is so rarely used outside of these contexts because most films and TV shows are plot-driven. But as Brian Eno has said: “Repetition is a form of change.”
  4. If Japanese dramatic forms are not based on what we would recognize as an Aristotelian narrative form (conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity), then what are they based on?

One final thought. Could not this format of short film or video clips linked by a live narrator/performer be consciously revived as a modern form? With the technologies we have at our disposal this could produce some very powerful effects.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (pp.19-22)