In 1950 Nakai Masakazu, the vice librarian of Japan’s new National Diet Library, and philosopher trained in aesthetics at Kyoto Imperial University, published an essay on cinema and contemporary aesthetics. He saw the developments of the past half century as a massive uprooting of the enlightenment project. Rethinking responsibility was paramount. Where a ground was once provided by the reason of a detached observer, this individual had vanished, undermining the dominant assumptions of aesthetics. Because it corresponded with this unmoored world, cinema offered a place to think this crisis. Unfortunately, many critics failed to grasp the dilemmas of the present conditions insofar as they turned away from cinema and its role in constituting the present. Critical writings on art tended to adhere to a modern imagination privileging autonomy: an observer and a discrete work, as with literature, or painting. At the same time, broader philosophical debates in Japan—rooted in a theory of place and opening up to the topics of specificity and mediation—had moved beyond this anthropocentric imaginary. Nonetheless, these debates were caught in an aporia, oscillating between the immediately political (national/imperial) and the distantly metaphysical. Without examining the mediating place of cinema, Nakai asserted, thought will be subject to the further crises.
What becomes clear in reading Nakai today is that the place of cinema in Japan remains unthought in its fullest sense—historically, ontologically, and ethically. In this article, the author’s aim is to consider Nakai’s writings—in tandem with a broader set of writings in philosophy and film theory—to rethink the place of cinema as it touches on these dimensions. Nakai’s emphasis on cinema is illuminating insofar as it deviates from literature as the conventional basis for thinking the relationship of art to politics in Japan. Additionally, his writings address questions of medium specificity and spectatorship in film studies from a distinct angle. They allow us to rethink the conditions of responsibility for spectators against determinist readings that stem from structuralism, and against the return to autonomy through recourse to the historical context of modernity. The place of cinema must be one in which these can be thought together as an active enmeshing of the spectator and the world through the action of the lens. For Nakai, cinema constitutes not merely an object of thought but a ground for thinking. Only from such a place can we imagine true responsibility.