Neon Looking Glass

The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan. Rather, he has done the opposite: Japan has starred him with any number of “flashes”; or better still, Japan has afforded him a situation of writing.
Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, 4

…the more you watch Japanese television… the more you feel it’s watching you.
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil

Tokyo!The New York Times recently ran an interesting review (entitled “Strangers in Japan’s Neon Wonderland”) of a new omnibus film, Tokyo!. The new film combines short works by three compelling directors, Bong Joon-ho, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry. The article reaches back further to evoke earlier outsider takes on the neon city, articulately summarizing the role of Tokyo in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Wender’s Tokyo Ga (its essayistic form clearly influenced by Marker and in which Marker makes a surprise(d) cloaked appearance at the “La Jetée” bar), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and William Gibson’s hip slip into the future cyberpunk fictions. It recalls as well a fine piece of writing on Japan by Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (1969), which is well worth reading for the essay-film aficionado.

Tokyo movies [...] tend to resemble dispatches from some dreamy, liminal interzone. Taking their cue from Barthes, they usually suggest that Tokyo, with its blaze of neon kanji characters and abundance of mysterious rites, lies on the other side of the looking glass, a semiotic wonderland waiting to be decoded.

Marker’s interest in Japan has been no passing fancy, and Sans Soleil had a long preparation in the gathering of impressions, materials, experiences, signifiers, topics and angles – entry points into the neon city. Already with Olympia 52 (1952) and The Koumiko Mystery (1965), he showed an astute and abiding personal interest in Japan. Unlike Coppola’s characters or even Wenders, he was never really a tourist or an estranged interloper. Sans Soleil, as has been noted elsewhere, is in part a returning home to a foreign city. With A.K, Marker paid homage to Kurosawa (like Tarkovsky and Vertov, one of Marker’s few “maîtres”) by documenting the making of Ran – a portrait of the master via the masterpiece. Counter Clock WiseMarker even continued the investigation into Okinawa begun in Sans Soleil from another perspective in Level 5.

Read the full article, “Strangers in Japan’s Neon Wonderland,” Dennis Lim, New York Times, February 25, 2009, here.

Finally, is it just me, or has Lewis Carroll overtaken Kafka as the ruling symbolic databank evoking the texture of our times? Curiouser and curiouser. If you don’t get back to me, I’ll go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall… Perhaps Alice did end up, at the far end of her initial fall down the rabbit hole, in the “antipathies,” and it turned out to be Tokyo rather than Austrialia or New Zealand.

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