Time in Japanese art and society

Those of you who have been with me for a while will remember that I used to be very keen on establishing a link between traditional Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. Of course, this approach didn’t work for all slow films. But I remember that certain films by Lav Diaz (Melancholia, Encantos) worked well in the light of Chinese painting, in particular because of their representation of landscape, their use of a black-and-white aesthetic, their vertical storytelling, etc

While browsing aimlessly through shelves at my local book shop, I found an intriguing book on time in Japanese art and society, which, especially because of all its wonderful illustrations, caught my attention. Written by Nelly Delay, a long-time expert in Japanese art, Le jeu de l’éternel et de l’éternité is a look at how the concept and the perception of time in Japan has changed over time. Striking, right from the beginning, is the argument that there is no continuity of time in Japan. There is only a succession of instants and intervals.

I’m not planning on linking everything in this book to Slow Cinema. Yet, the paragraph of continuity / instant had me thinking. The instant is what we, in the West, commonly describe as a fast element. Shocks come through instants. Trauma can be the result of violent instants. This perception hits a dead end, though, when we consider the nature of concentrationary time, which I spoke about in more detail in my doctoral thesis. Continuity and the instant act side by side in order to create a particularly frightening atmosphere. This is how Lav Diaz approached the representation of time and trauma in Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, too. There is a constant push and pull between the instant and continuity.

Now, the Japanese don’t consider those two elements as separate. Nor do they consider past, present and future as separate elements. In the traditional belief, only the present really exists. Delay compares the Japanese approach to a suggestion by Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian theologian from what is now Algeria. He argued that there are three times: the present of past events, the present of present events and the present of future events. In our linear way of thinking time, this, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense. For us, we move continually from the past to the future, and the present is only a minuscule element because the present is always already past. I believe that in our societies, the past, in particular, but also the future have been assigned a stronger meaning than the present. This is what makes it difficult for us to stay mindful, to stay in the moment, in the presence. What is immediately becomes what has been. In Japanese thought, what is remains what is.

Chronos – the Greek personification of time. If one studies time – the philosophy of it, the history, its effects on society etc – one cannot, in our societies at least, avoid a study of Chronos. On top of that, we use words that are derived from Chronos in our daily lives: chronology, chronomètre (in French). Chronos is in and around us. Not so in Japan. Delay writes that ancient Japan had no (shintoist) deity which symbolised time. If we go back to what I said earlier about the uses of time in a concentrationary system, then it is of interest to take a look at the Japanese word for time: toki. According to Delay, toki means more the instant than an abstract continuity. Time can be modified according to natural and social events, it is said. I would add that time can also be modified and manipulated according to one’s needs, as one can gather from studies into the concentrationary (and Foucault’s writings on the prison).

(NB: I have literally no idea where I’m going with this, so please bare with me while I’m jotting down thoughts!)

This eternal present the Japanese believe in has its effect on the arts. Can we escape time? In the arts, we can, as I proposed in an earlier post. The Japanese used to do this quite impressively by not representing ageing. Characters in their paintings and their prints never showed wrinkles or any other form of ageing. An eternal present always also meant an escape of time in the arts. Another characteristic, according to Delay: the lack of shadows. There are a few exceptions to this, but objects and people didn’t have shadows in traditional paintings. Shadows are always a marker of time. Depending on where the sun stood, the shadow changed, which also meant – as we are well aware of today – one could gather roughly what time of day it was (morning, afternoon, evening etc).

It is fascinating to see the, at first sight, contradictory nature of Japanese time. There is, on the one hand, an eternal present. On the other hand, everything is ephemeral. Nothing remains. There is a progression of time, but it shouldn’t be shown explicitly in the arts. What mattered most, Delay writes, was the creation of an atmosphere, of impressions. In this way, Japanese art was always aimed at creating an active viewer, who “completes” in his mind the reality he has in front of his/her eyes. And here we can build a bridge between the Japanese approach to time in art and Slow Cinema. The extensive use of the off-screen space as well as the rejection of explanations of key narrative elements demands of the viewer to become active and to finish the film in his/her mind. Wasn’t it Tarkovsky who said that a film was never finished at the end of the editing period, but that, instead, it could only be completed by the viewer? This is Japanese art. And Slow Cinema.

I believe that the issue many people face with Slow Cinema is that it presents a form of time that seems, at first sight, unnatural to us. The Japanese were already aware of the fact that there were two forms of time. One is cyclical. It’s the time of nature. And then there is the linear time of Man. I think that our perception of time as linear (in the West) comes from our realisation that our life is linear. Since that realisation, we have tried to homogenise everything, just so that it looks and feels linear, like life. It certainly is more assuring. But that’s not quite how nature works and slow films, especially those that do not follow a linear narrative, shock the viewer into the realisation that there is another form of time, a cyclical time that is independent of us and that runs in parallel to us.

Throughout the small and rather short treatise, Delay does a wonderful job in showing the development of the concept of time in Japan with the arrival of Chinese thought and Dutch merchants. Yet even though both have inevitably influenced the local philosophy of time, quite a bit of the traditional concept of time has so far remained. I only need to think of the Emperor, who used to be and, I believe, still is, a true clock in the sense that his appointment and his death bracket an era. This, perhaps, is the best example still existing today of Japanese time being made of instants and intervals, rather than a continuous thread.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman (1975)

On. Off. On. Off. On. Off.

A really fascinating, almost hypnotising focus of Jeanne turning on the light whenever she enters a room and turning off the light whenever she leaves a room stays with me after those almost four hours I spent with Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece yesterday. Of course, Akerman says a lot more in this film. Yet I felt absolutely drawn to this small, ordinary action we all do every day, which the director, in her exploration and recording of a housewife’s routine and daily chores, highlights almost to the extreme. I cannot recall a single film that renders this ordinary gesture extraordinary to such an extent. I’m aware that Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) has been talked and written about from various angles, but there is something in this persistent turning on and off of the light that really struck me as marvellous, as simple as the action may seem or actually is. Perhaps one can call it a visual meditation, a meditation on screen, calling on you to be present, to be in the moment and notice your surrounding and be present with everything you do. Don’t get caught up in thinking. Just be…with the light switches, in that case, something in your house that I’m sure you never even think about until it stops working.

Jeanne Dielman is a magnificent piece that really is as brilliant as it is simple. Akerman’s long takes of repetitive actions cause the images to dive very slowly into your brain. They dig into it and take roots there. At the very beginning of my exploration of Lav Diaz’s films, I had the feeling that I could remember an entire film, scene by scene, because Diaz places emphasis on time, on duration. Unless we’re speaking of traumatic memories, which are often distorted and incomplete, creating memories of something takes time. On a basic level, we can think of learning a foreign language; learning vocabulary, learning grammatical structures. Over and over again. Until one day, we become fluent and no longer need to actively think about the right word to use in a sentence. It becomes natural. One begins to live a language. While watching Jeanne, I felt as if I learned something, as if I learned each scene as a form of language which Akerman tries to teach me, a language that I would become fluent in at some point.

I couldn’t help but think about all the other slow films I have seen since late 2009. It’s been almost ten years that I have been following this, and yes, of course, even though Jeanne has always been one of the icons of Slow Cinema, I have admittedly watched it late in my personal and professional exploration of the film movement. At the same time, I believe that it came at the perfect time. It was with my discovery of Lav Diaz that I began to see the real value of slow films. Contrary to the argument that nothing ever happened in those films, I realised that there is a lot going on, but it’s rather small, almost unimportant things that we tend to overlook, just like the repeated action of turning on and off the light. Jeanne is a hyperreal film, in which a lot happens. Not much is said. Dialogues are rare, and emphasis is placed on Jeanne’s daily chores. She follows her daily routine. Always the same thing, for the same amount of time. Until something upsets the routine.

It’s the little changes that are fascinating in Jeanne and that really drive the film. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn off the light in the bedroom. All of a sudden, she leaves the door to the bathroom open. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn on the light in the hallway. All of a sudden, she takes her coffee at a local bar later than usual. All of a sudden, dinner isn’t ready when her son comes home. All of a sudden…

Those small things we wouldn’t worry about become a real source of tension on the one hand, and exhaustion on the other throughout the second half of the film. The film, or rather Jeanne, becomes a collapsing house of cards. Her routine unravels. Given her absolute insistence on it, it is spiralling out of control. To add to this, Akerman creates a tension here between narrative and mise-en-scène. The director maintains her well-organised, rigorous, static framing and opposes it to the collapse of Jeanne’s routine, to the collapse of her protagonist’s state of mind, to her exhaustion. Stasis versus movement, rigorousness versus upheaval, stability versus collapse – these are the underlying themes that collude over and over again.

Perhaps an example is an order. Not long after the start of Jeanne Dielman, I began to think about Liu Jiayin’s 2005 Oxhide I. The experience of the film, of the actions that take place in Jeanne’s appartement, had a degree of claustrophobia to it. I remember Liu’s film creating this tense atmosphere that was impossible to escape. Akerman doesn’t always use the same tight framing, but her mise-en-scène feels tense. There is a pretty strong discrepancy between the (medium) long shots and the obsessive-compulsive action that takes place in front of the camera. The former allows for freedom, the second imprisons you. It’s not easy to create a clearly-defined feeling about this film, because there is a constant shift between those two extremes.

Just as Jeanne shifts between those extremes in the second half of the film – she upsets her routine while trying to pursue it – so does the viewer. This is what makes the film, despite all its routine, its repetition, its ordinariness, its simplicity, so exciting. It reminded me of a peaceful river that, here and there along the way, shows little swirls. And it’s perhaps the perfect illustration of slow film and my own personal belief that it’s best represented by the Chinese concept of time; time as a river that carries its water at different speeds, with swirls at some points but not at others, swirls that introduce speed to the water flow, but also circularity. I cannot think of a clearer example of this than Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It is a shame that writing on the film focuses primarily on Jeanne, on the chores of a housewife and on feminism. Akerman always said she wasn’t a feminist filmmaker, and I think that by focusing on aspects of feminism exclusively, you actually miss the complexity in simplicity and the shifts, twists, swirls and constant changes that makes this a great film rather than “only” a representation of the hard life of a housewife in Brussels in the 1970s.