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.