Some reasons you should care about a silent Soviet film from 1925

Battleship Potemkin is a landmark film for a number of reasons. Brian de Palma stole from it (in homage, of course), Scorsese obsessively watched it, and in film history terms, it crystallized a narrative for how to tell a story about popular revolution and the rise of class consciousness. Like the mutiny you will read about in “The Factory Ship,” this one ends in failure…but the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin is a dry run for eventual success–the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

The narrative basically follows the throughline of Marx and Engels’ 1848 treatise, the Communist Manifesto. If you have not read this in the course of your liberal arts education, this may be a good time to do so. It is a rousing rhetorical text, whether in English, Japanese, Flemish or Esperanto (true story!). Here is a link to the Japanese version, the 共産宣言. Kobayashi Takiji’s novella also draws some key scenes, metaphors and ideas from the CM. Keep an eye out for maggots, montage, crowd scenes and class conflict. Kobayashi himself came to a sobering end. He was tortured to death by the police for his writing and political stance in Tsukiji, the section of Tokyo that we know now as the biggest fish market in the world. While the CM‘s authors may be cold in the ground, and the Cold War over and gone, labor as a fact of life has, if anything, become more central to more people’s lives…The informal resemblances between the CM and, say, Occupy Wall Street are intriguing, for instance…

Class revolution, and its emergence from the middle class/bourgeoisie, is the template for proletarian cinema and the proletarian novel. In Japan, prole lit underwent a surprising revival in 2008, when “The Factory Ship” again–unexpectedly–became a best-seller. What was especially new is that many of the aficianados of the novella were young–from the so-called “freeter” class (free + arbeiter, or “work” in German. People who work part-time, hourly jobs, probably in the service industry, now some 25% of the population.)

Even more improbably, the person who brought this novel into the popular eye was a gothic Lolita named AMAMIYA Karin (you’ll need to be logged in to a UCLA account to access this essay). Now, goth Lolis are a subculture not always known for their partisan politics.

Amamiya leads a May Day march of "precariat" workers (source: Global Voices)

Who knew?

Norma Field gives a brief account of the new popularity of “The Factory Ship” in this on-line piece from Japan Focus. Here is a brief excerpt that situates the “boom” in the platforms of mass journalism and marketing:

Here, a brief chronology of the boom might be useful. Two newspaper articles served as major catalysts.  First, a conversation between Amamiya and established novelist Takahashi Genichiro in the nationally circulated daily Mainichi (January 9, 2008) in which Amamiya observed that reading Cannery Ship, she was struck by how the conditions depicted mirrored the current desperate situation of young workers. (Why was Amamiya reading this work? She was preparing for a discussion on literature and labor to be published on the pages of Minshu Bungaku (Democratic Literature), a formally independent journal with close ties to the Japan Communist Party. Amamiya, in her early 30s, seems to effortlessly cross the boundaries between old and new left and new new left, liberal, socialist, and communist publications. (For her presence in the Save Article 9 movement and other activities, see this website.) Amamiya’s comment was quoted widely and found its way into the second influential article, in the major liberal daily Asahi on February 16.

More on this context, the new kinds of solidarities Amamiya is aiming for, next week.


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