on Kiyohsi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata

& Noel Burch and Allan Sekula’s The Forgotten Space

 

“Not just a downturn.” An economic crisis leads to lasting if not permanent destabilization: a sacking of the postmodern conurbation (as depicted in the early-2000s Argentina by Pino Solanas in Memoria del Saqueo and La Dignidad de los Nadies) by a now socially dis-embedded and increasingly anarchic global capitalism. No floor to the bottom. The crisis emerges in sequence. Nothing can be isolated about it. A mode of production plummets depths, a shipwreck—but caught in a montage oscillating between hunger, defeated strikes, bankruptcy and bailout, to newer and stronger prisons, and deepened policing dynamics. Destructive income redistribution on a sublimely fraudulent scale, the crisis, like a horrifying holiday-maker, goes “from place to place in a sea of overproduction,” to adapt the opening essay-narration lines in Johan van der Keuken’s The Way South. (Shot of a simple flywheel, background of melancholic Euro-jazz horns.) Perhaps it was van der Keuken who initiated the now decades-old species of social crisis cinema, probing the devastating impact on neighborhoods unreported and invisible in the major media. 

The fiction film Tokyo Sonata and the documentary chronicle The Forgotten Space proffer different versions of the global crisis story of destructive redistribution, assault on the public sector, declining prospects for “improvements” of normal consumer life, harsh working conditions, limitless privatization. Strained family ties in the first and intensifying exploitation in the iron triangle of global shipping in the second exhibit the return of “endless toil” in the era of global capital’s “triumph.” Cinematic narrative has long been the domain of petty-bourgeois egos, but the ongoing proletarianization at the heart of the neo-liberal class project has introduced an asubjective tale: des-embourgeoisment, or de-bourgeoisification in even uglier English. De-bourgeoisification is a story without exact historical analogue. In its wake there may be new political openings for collective forms of politics. Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s film The Forgotten Space holds out the prospects of this sort of political organization and development, seeking the workerist politics that could emerge from the internationally networked web of global transport. 

 

Skid Row-kyo

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata punctually appeared in 2008, seeded by a Dutch-Japanese script. The director’s humble-genre background (in direct-to-video yakuza and digital-metaphysical horror) lends the film’s fiction of corporate-dad downfall through downsizing and outsourcing a certain concrete, violence-infused disquiet. Part of this comes from where the family lives: on the rail, beneath a thick net of power lines. The instances of their lives we glimpse come to resemble the view of a train-commuter passersby. Set in an exposed yet intimate home (the film begins with slow camera movement and inclement weather coming through the door), this family drama misfires with respect to any “type.” Made only in muddling-through Japan. 

Father Sasaki decides to keep the loss of his job a secret from his wife, Megumi, and two sons, Takashi and Kenji. He maintains the patriarchal fantasy of corporate Japan, in a Brechtian performance of unintended contradictions. But the lies associated with bankrupt private enterprise inevitably begin to fall away. He  queues in the interminable unemployment-consultation line up a puzzling long and silent line on the stairs. A jobs counselor says, “You’ll never again achieve your former position.” Later he waits for the local handouts in an abandoned lot. A mere day or two into his new false life, and continuing to leave for work as usual, Sasaki bumps into an old school acquaintance, Kurosu, near a transport artery. Kurosu teaches him the ropes of deception, whose lessons Kurosu himself digests with a heavy heart, eventually killing himself and his wife just as she begins to figure out the lie, leaving their junior-high-aged daughter orphaned. The scenario of a corporate climber meeting the new lows is one kind of Skid Row-kyo story.1

The broken bonds of the civil-corporate sphere and of the family extend also to the schools and the state. The younger son Kenji unintentionally spearheads a revolt against a teacher by exposing him as a manga enthusiast. The classroom is thereafter ungovernable. When Kenji asks for piano lessons, his recently unemployed father refuses, frustrating a genius. The older son Takashi goes off to fight for the US military, leaving behind the life of a layabout drifter. In one scene Takashi and a friend long for the big earthquake that will change everything—and now three years after Fukushima, and two years into “Abenomics,” we can see how little a major disaster has altered the political fortunes of a Japan locked economically into an ever more ineffective monetary stimulus. One of Sasaki’s job interviews descends hauntingly into a karaoke talent discussion. On the verge of pained, humiliating singing, we cut somewhere else, to Sasaki swinging a piece of sturdy trash in anger as a fire burns in the empty lot. A small army of the white and blue collar unemployed moves into the shot as Kurosu says something to the effect of “we’ve been left off the lifeboat.” 

The culminating set-piece of the film shows the family flying apart in a night-on-earth crosscutting montage of Mom (kidnapped and falling for her captor), Dad (working secretly as a janitor and humiliated by seeing his wife unexpectedly, while janitor uniform), and Kenji (trying to stow away on a bus, winding up arrested), each spinning wildly out of control, as the plausibility of the plot itself threatens to unravel. Kenji’s concluding piano recital stands in awkward contrast to the rest of the film and provides a note of hope for the otherwise beleaguered family. In the impossibly out of place and strange coda, another future seems to flame forth as crowds gather to hear Kenji battle with heroicmusic. The cascading arpeggios of Debussy ring out from the screen, affriming the force of culture in a depressingly economistic reality.2

 

Red Seas

1.

“Midstream, a muddy estuary near a port, forgotten space”—thus begins Allan Sekula’s essayistic prose in his and Noël Burch’s rigorous, exuberant, and sobering documentary of the global commodity-shipping infrastructure, The Forgotten Space (2010). In the coinciding shot and whirring-fly-wheel sound we make out a distant container cargo crane unloading one of the anonymous cargo ships, the flotillas of global industry’s heavy artillery. And then a slow, quasi-amateurish pan until huge nuclear power station silos come into the shot, twin signals of what the world has in store for the most distant future of human communities. Forgotten spacesthe sea from the land, the container, the ship, the railyard, the radioactive fallout zone—all stand in for this mixed and wonderful trope for the life beside the “endless flow of boxes” through global transport’s serialized arteries.

The filmic voiceover of The Forgotten Space is a pithier version of historian-practitioner Sekula’s earlier dialectical prose on the global shipping economy’s effect on Fordist labor regimes. For instance, in Fish Story (1996), a sequence of 105 large-scale, color photographs of cargo containers and nautical devices interspersed with narrative panels, he writes: “This accelerated mode of life leaves behind certain eddies, whole Sargasso seas of enforced idleness or drudgery, great hidden doldrums and sweatshops.” (The Forgotten Space is a kind of belated adaptation of this exhibit—shown in Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Calais—and later book project. It is an epic historical account of the transformation of shipping, a “disassembled movie” of anti-heroic, ordinary images of the industry: from the docks of Europe and Siberia, to the ship building yards of Korea and many places in-between. Conceived and executed in the late-80s and early-90s years of the Plaza Accord, the time of the victory of global capitalism in the Cold War struggle between capital and  actually existing socialism, Fish Story appeared as the cold war gave way to the ineluctable rise of East Asian regional export economies.) 

In the film, Marxian aphorisms probe the simultaneity of the West’s deindustrialization with the late-industrialization of parts of East Asia and Latin America, showing how much global infrastructure and overproduction can teach us about the financial crisis—how global capital “floats on a sea of credit.” For the “red passenger” to the history of maritime industry, schooled in a kind of working class “culturalism” associated with the late E.P. Thompson, Sekula foregrounds the primacy of certain kinds of experiences—“the harsh material ones of being driven from the land, subjected to industrial work-disciplines, enduring hunger, and suffering unemployment” (Perry Anderson on Thompson). It is the middle figure of “work-disciplines” that gives rise to the motifs of struggle and overcoming in The Forgotten Space

 

2.

The Forgotten Space begins briefly in the slated-for-demolition fishing village of Doel, Belgium (neglected windmill, destroyed funerary sculpture), mostly deserted and adjacent to the port of Antwerp. It is locked into competitive growth with the port of Rotterdam, which is the real subject of the film’s first section, “Mammoth and Phoenix.” The latter port rose from the destroyed-city aftermath of World War II; a rail system called Betuwe Line, plauged with a "mammoth" cost overrun, is now appended to it. But government investment isn’t paying off and one public-private partnership now calls forth more public-private partnerships. In concert, automation advances in Rotterdam and on the rail (nearly walled in and away from densely pack Dutch cityscapes). A lonely Chaplinesque crane operator descends through the lifts and ground-embedded sensors of a machine, throwback accordion music underneath. 

The next section, “Mud and Sun,” opens with a helicopter shot of the enormous port complex of Long Beach and Los Angeles/San Pedro, biggest in the Americas. Warehouses, factories, the giant Alameda Corridor rail line through urban geography. Los Angeles has seen several late-developing worker struggles; atomized truckers at the port are seeking union representation in the present day. Here, Los Angeles stands in for, even typifies, the contradictions of American labor: it’s not long before a homeless encampment shows the other side of the port’s trade and employment developments. The American working class has fewer spots than ever before, and many lives now take place outside the employment nexus. Cut to a homeless camp on the edge of a rail corridor in Ontario, CA, where the flow of boxes puncutates the otherwise dull days of the homeless men and women.

Then East to Hong Kong, then China, where the deepening 2009 crisis is also a labor crisis. Sekula turns to Ed van der Elsken, who photographed images of work from a bygone era, street scenes of carrying wares and goods across the city. Today a sea school for maritime industry in Hong Kong trains young men to be cleaners for hotels. Hong Kong is a vertical city of deep drafts for ocean-going vessels, of hotels and high rises, even huge columns of parked container trucks—Piranesi-like (in Sekula’s astute allusion) spirals of transport, 14 kilometers of vertical coil. 

With the crisis in its early post-2008 moments, labor was indeed scarce in China, whose Pearl River Delta ports are rapidly overtaking Hong Kong (once the region's dominant shipping port). The Chinese stimulus has largely doubled-down on export industries, attempting to contain unemployment, to revive growth, extending another improbable and very postmodern leap forward. Export driven growth is creating more persistent problems with overproduction and overcapacity in global manufacturing, for which China is the factory floor. 

We conclude in Basque country, with the great lines on Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim  museum in Bilbao, a way forward quite different from China’s developing epoch of class struggle. 

 

There is a softer alternative, the McDonaldsization of culture, the franchise model. This is the velvet glove that cushions the iron fist of world trade. In order to establish its autonomy from Madrid, the Basque bourgeoisie makes an alliance with a New York museum that can only survive by exporting its operations. If there’s a building that refuses to be a box, this is it: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. A museum clad in titanium bought cheaply on the Russian market as the former socialist economy was butchered for cheap profits. Aerospace metal, a metal that defies time and rust. The museum contributes to a pervasive elusion, that only it and it’s artistic contents are contemporary.

 

The status of Gehry’s museum in Bilbao doesn’t correspond with the urban reality. Publicly funded, but privately managed like a good contemporary example of everything, the Guggenheim never could exhibit two great Basque sculptors: Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida refused, “regarding it as a bastion of American cultural imperialism.” Instead Sekula and Burch find Richard Serra’s “spiraling labyrinths” in the bowels of Gehry’s titanium ship. Sekula imagines Serra’s rusted hulks are derived from the shipyard work of his youth. The camera is then walked along the metal to the sounds of ships at sea—and then we’re back on board for an accordion version of the Internationale, truly a song of the seas. 

 

3.

The end begins (again) in Doel, Belgium. The imbalance of global trade: division between producers and consumers. Debt-driven consumerism can last for some time. But what kind of economy is it that rides roughshod over people, destroying a town so that the Port of Antwerp can grow to conquering sizes?

 

If the village of Doel were to survive against all odds, we could pose another question, perhaps unfair and better directed to all the people of Flanders and all the rich countries of the world. What hospitality would be extended to stranded seafarers if a bankrupt ship were to moor in the estuary, or if a ship were to sink in the channel? What hospitality to refugees from the lowlands of the global south who flee rising tides? The managerial elites who profit from the flow of endless boxes have lost all credibility. More and more is not the answer. The lifeboat carved from the wooden shoe of days gone by is all we’ve got. The lowly crew must seize the helm. 

 

Indeed what world will be left to seize? The Forgotten Space concludes with the famous ending of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, this time shown in reverse. Pandora's box closes and contains the quasi-nucleear device: “The last gift to remain safely in Pandora’s box after evils have been unleashed upon the world is hope.”

What unthinkable horizons of rightward advancing structural adjustment or anti-austerity revolt lie beyond QE, zero rates, and trillion dollar strong stock buybacks? Is China or say Shenzhen, or a big portion of the Sunbelt manufacturing zone, to be the staging ground for another epic battle between capital and labor? Is “low-wage utopia” (Sekula) to last forever? Over footage of injection mold fabrication, worker cafeterias, and business owners, economist Qingqi Ming intones with an old left-labor argument. Discussing the synergy of logistics, transportation containers, and the large pool of migrant laborers working for 12-15 hours a day, Ming is succinct and nonchalant: “when in the future Chinese workers start to have better organization, start to have more bargaining power, it will change the global balance of power between labor and capital again in favor of labor and therefore pave the way for another upsurge of global working class struggle.” Associating himself with this view, Sekula asks what sort of fundamentally different tomorrow can potentially radicalized workers in China make a political prospect again?

Back to Perry Anderson on Thompson and the ambiguity at heart of working class experience and its politics: 

 

But for all the richness of the historiography that resulted from this focus [on the experiential development of working-class political consciousness], it left one question quite unanswered: how was this experience transformed into consciousness? Initially, a rather straightforward assumption appeared to meet the bill. Consciousness was typically wrought from the “lessons” of experience. But this position rapidly broke down, once it became clear that the same experience could lead social actors to draw quite different, indeed often diametrically opposite, lessons from it.1

 

Will a militant politics of the global proletariat emerge again from experience, this time of drift, stagnation, and the ends of capitalism: structural unemployment, hyper-exploitation, de-bourgeoisification of labor? Without a robustly organized employment dynamic, what are the political prospects for organizations on the left in these unique conditions? The Forgotten Space argues that although capital has won out over labor in the recent round of globalization’s build-out of export-based late industrialization, some new consciousness-building immanent to global exploitation may be on the cusp of developing.

 

Coda

Sekula and Burch's aesthetic project thus holds open the space for an emerging international proletarian politics. If Sekula pursues what Benjamin Buchloh calls a sketch of “the motivations and preconditions under which the photographic image and photographic technology were rediscovered and reintroduced into artistic discourses in the 1960s,” The Forgotten Space makes an equivalent rescue of the early decades of cinema before total narrative embourgeoisement set in (and thus cinematizes Burch’s trenchant analysis of those decades). The film expands the archaeology of crisis cinema by considering both its  history and its relation to the documentation of labor’s imperfect subsumption into capital. The Forgotten Space incorporates montage and discussion from Michael Powell’s Red Ensign (a narrative product of The Great Depression) and dredge footage from Josef von Sternberg’s first film, Salvation Hunters, shot on Terminal Island in the 1920s. Here in the present one must go back to the past by way of a well-executed geopolitical aesthetic enlargement through scholarly recovery. When he died in 2013, Sekula was still making new work exploring the scarcely imaginable scale of world shipping.

 

1 Skid Row-kyo is L.A. slang for the rapidly gentrifying part of downtown between old Skid Row and the junkspace corporate mini-malls and towers of Little Tokyo.

2 Perry Anderson, "The Common and the Particular," International Labor and Working Class History, no. 36 (Fall, 1989), pp. 31-36.

 
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