In the early 1920s, Japanese filmmakers increasingly adopted American-style production practices and strategies of representation. Resisting this trend, the Nikkatsu film company’s Mukōjima studio advocated multiple approaches to filmmaking, challenging the rhetoric of “purity” that was used by both cultural conservatives as well as the pure film movement, which pushed for Hollywood-style reforms. Mukōjima defended heterogeneity as inevitable, given the ongoing process of modernization, and the forms of cultural mixture, conflict, and contradiction it produced. Its kakushin (reform)-era policies made it possible for young Mizoguchi Kenji to make Japan’s first expressionist film, Blood and Soul (Chi to rei, 1923). Blood and Soul is based on a novella by the half-Russian, half-Japanese writer Ōizumi Kokuseki. It tells the story of a Chinese jeweler in Nagasaki who inherits murderous impulses from his mother and kills to reclaim the jewels he makes. The jeweler forbids his Japanese apprentice from marrying his daughter, fearing her blood is contaminated as well. After the apprentice takes the blame for his master’s crimes, a painter attempts to understand his motivations and listens to his confession, in which taboo desires and absent mothers provide the key to the story’s interlocking narrative strands. Blood and Soul is critical of reform-era discourses on cultural authenticity. Its complex exploration of fractured identity and intersubjectivity dramatizes irrational fears about cultural mixture and miscegenation. The impure body is depicted as a virulent aesthetic force that generates the dense intertextuality of the novella and the hallucinogenic mise-en-scène of the film. Interrogating the very concepts of identity and mastery of the self, Blood and Soul is an example of an experimental production that rejected the rhetoric of “purity” in a time of film reform, affirming cultural hybridity in the face of pure film demands.
Research Article|August 01 2018
Blood and Soul (1923) and the Cultural Politics of Japanese Film Reform
Diane Wei Lewis
positions (2018) 26 (3): 450-482.