by: , February 6, 2024

On a recent trip to Japan, I met up with an old friend and we got to talking about movies. My friend is not a cinephile; he’s a cellular biologist who watches fewer than ten films a year, in the cinema or otherwise. But, perhaps it was because the theatres had just opened after long pandemic closures and there was a kind of novelty in being in public spaces again, he’d gone to see Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021, 2022 Japan release) and was deeply moved by the film’s ‘sekaikan’.

There are two dominant meanings to sekaikan: 1) a ‘worldview’ that can either be an individualistic understanding of the world or a shared sensibility as per a humanistic perspective; and 2) the setting or tone of a creative work, what in some cases could be called ‘world building’ or ‘the film world.’ A third meaning emerges at the intersection of the two: the creative statement or central concept expressed by a work of art. It’s not an uncommon word for water cooler conversations or blog posts about movies, but given the film in question, and that although he rarely watches film he is an avid fiction reader, I had no idea which manifestation of sekaikan had so moved my friend. After pressing for some examples and explanation to the extent that at one point my companion said in exasperation ‘sekaikan is (wa) sekaikan’, I came to understand that what he meant was how the formal style of the film created a diegesis that resulted in a powerful, immersive, affective response. Although I don’t emotionally connect to film in this way, this reworked definition using the language of film theory makes sense to me.

This is not an anecdote about being lost in translation; my friend and I both speak Japanese and English and we both know what this word ‘sekaikan’ can mean. What I wanted to know is how my friend looks at and experiences film through and beyond a vernacular shorthand. Our challenge in communication stemmed from different backgrounds of training and expertise, different modes of expression and familiarity with the topic at hand, with and alongside different native languages to shape those points of view because, as will come as no shock to anyone who has ever had a conversation about art, we see and experience things differently. It is a valuable conflict of contextual unevenness that generates inspiration and thought, pathways of meaning, through uncertainty and difference.

This conversation tumbled around in my head the next day as I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Library to read print articles on and interviews with award-winning cinematographer Ashizawa Akiko. With over 70 films in her filmography spanning three decades, Ashizawa has worked with a number of directors both within Japan and abroad, but her start was in 8mm ‘pink’ film (soft-core pornography) as well as some notoriously gruesome ‘pink horror.’ Her most high-profile collaborative partnership, for many audiences, is with acclaimed J-Horror director Kurosawa Kiyoshi who also makes films outside the J-horror movement, several with Ashizawa. In the archives, I was looking for secondary sources that would inform my readings of Ashizawa’s camera work when I came across a list of her top ten ‘foreign films’ for a collection aptly entitled Cinematographers Select Their All-time Best Ten Foreign Films (2012)

Ashizawa wrote a few short pieces to accompany her list that included her thoughts and reflections on the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan (Mijikakumo utsukushiku moe/Burning Slowly but Beautifully in Japanese), directed by Bo Widerberg and shot by Jörgen Persson. In reading her memory of a film recounted from, let’s say, the worldview of a cinematographer, I found myself again in an unevenness of meaning, in a position of uncertainty and difference, of expertise, of language, of seeing things, most assuredly, differently. What did she mean by ‘upsize’ (which I translate as close ups and medium shots),  the ‘picturesque stillness of a moving camera’, or the ‘kūki’ of a scene or film? How might I, an American in 2022, see this 1967 Swedish film through the eyes of a Japanese cinematographer writing about her memories of it in 2012? How might I see these ideas and descriptions in her own work? And what fruitful conflict would arise from the unevenness of our linguistic, sociocultural, and professional contexts, despite the so-called shared language of cinema? I may be trained in the study of film, but I am not a seasoned, award-winning practitioner of filmmaking, and I lack the hands-on, technical expertise of image science.

I approached this video essay as a kind of conversation, or rather an imaginary conversation, the likes of which I would never be able to have with Ashizawa as I did with my cellular biologist friend. In this spirit, I have stitched together a series of singular rhetorical reflections on the works of others both artistic and academic. I begin with film scholar Daisuke Miyao, who has written extensively on cinematography, and his recent questions regarding the state of Japanese cinema studies with regards to the stakes of subject positionality in a call for a respectful, generative conversation between a self and an/other (2022). From there, I move to a vocalisation and visualisation of my multivalent translation of Ashizawa’s reflection on Elvira Madigan, framed by images of spectatorship from her own work in Loft (2005) that I edited to look upon scenes from Elvira Madigan: my interpretation of her linguistically- and professionally-shaped memory of the Swedish film. In the third segment, I ‘voice’ my own reflections on the process of trying to understand Ashizawa’s ‘film worldview’ as a practitioner of an art I study, but have never made. I visualise my thoughts on-screen, juxtaposed with the protagonist of British director Prano Bailey-Bond’s 2021 film Censor shot by Swedish cinematographer Annika Summerson. Censor, with its female protagonist whose profession is to analyse and assess films, is now reframed to consider the cinematography of Ashizawa’s Loft. This creates a loop of discursive and reflective cinema production, an experience we try to bring into shape with words.

In the video essay, I leave kūki, which Ashizawa uses often when she writes or speaks about film, untranslated. Yet, neither sekaikan nor kūki are truly enigmatic terms. Like most words, their meanings hinge on context and the user. Kūki can mean the air one breathes, a situation or circumstance, a setting or set, an emotional mood, a resonant vibe between people, or even a sonic landscape. This video is constructed at the intersections of these meanings, at the resonance, immersed in the aural tapestry of Resident Evil Village’s ‘safe room’ (2021), an audio track on the horror video game’s original sound track A Moment’s Respite I’. My goal is not to popularise a new umami or the ‘art of seikatsu’ in English—millions of people use and understand these words in common, everyday, and, more often than not, utterly non-profound ways. But, like sekaikan, kūki has several meanings and although I have a sense, I’m not sure which Ashizawa precisely means. She could be drawing on a layman’s use, or something informed by her technical training, or shared amongst film crew, or inspired by her personal artistic sensibilities, or even yet a different conversation I have not imagined.


Ashizawa, Akiko (2012), ‘My Best 10’ (私の10本). Cinematographers Choose their All-Time Best Ten Foreign Films (映画撮影監督が選ぶオールタイム外国映画ベストテン). Tokyo, AC Books.

Miyao, Daisuke (2022), ‘What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate?: Facing Forward to the Future of Japanese Cinema Studies’, Transcommunication, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 126-134.


Belfast (2021), editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle.

Censor (2021), cinematographer Annika Summerson.

Elvira Madigan (1967), assistant camera (uncredited) Helena Englesson.

Rofuto / Loft (2005), cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa.

Video Games

Resident Evil Village (2021). dir. Satō Morimasa. Capcom.

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