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Steffen Hantke

"Oh, no, there goes Tokyo!":
Teaching Film and Contesting Interpretations in the Intercultural Classroom


1.Welcome to the Lab: The Intercultural Classroom

The classroom at Sogang University in Seoul, where I am teaching these days, is a laboratory of intercultural relations. Just like the students I teach, who come from various backgrounds many of which make it difficult, if not impossible, to label them simply as "Korean," I myself am an assemblage of various elements. Educated in Germany, I have worked my entire life in the U.S and, more recently, in Asia. Our classroom belongs to a Program of American Culture, embedded within a Department of English, which itself belongs to a School of the Humanities, at a university whose explicit aim it is to create “true cosmopolitans able to contribute to the national prosperity and world peace, equipped with an understanding of the changes the world is undergoing and the current of the times, and able to respond to them with sound critical judgment”(Sogang University Home Page, Mission Statement). But what makes this classroom a laboratory of intercultural relations are not only the vectors of power that flow through us. From reading assignments to ideological and theoretical positions, the negotiation of meaning is determined by the same forces that shape the biographies of the human agents. In my experience, these discussions over the proper meaning of a text provide great insights into the processes we summarize under the term "globalization." To illustrate this point and show it in its full complexity, let me give one specific example from this classroom.

2."Oh, no, there goes Tokyo": A Story from the Lab

In the spring semester of 2008, I taught a graduate seminar on horror film I had called "The International Cinema of Fear,” in which one of the assigned films was Ishiro Honda's 1954 masterpiece Gojira (also widely known as Godzilla). Some of my students, unlike myself, could watch the film without English subtitles because they spoke Japanese, especially if they were fans of Japanese pop culture. While they were, by and large, unfamiliar with classic Japanese cinema or culture, they had grown up on Japanese anime and manga. This was the result of an import-stop, decreed by the Korean government, of all Japanese culture into Korea until 1999; when the ban was lifted, it was the younger generation with its tastes and preferences that set the agenda for what managed to make it into the marketplace and what did not. A film like Gojira never had much of a chance to build up a Korean audience under these conditions.

In my class preparation, I relied heavily on the scholarly consensus about the film, focusing on the Japanese post-war experience and the dangers of atomic testing, and, to a lesser degree, the traumatic Japanese experience of WW II. Repeated references to radioactivity connect the film to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the film’s imagery also evokes WW II firebombing of Japanese cities.

The most interesting character in the film is a young scientist named Serizawa, who comes across as a Byronic hero who has wandered into the film by accident. Like a mad scientist, he wears an eye patch for which the film never offers an explanation, and he conducts mysterious experiments in a laboratory in the basement of his house. Using the terrible weapon he has developed in his basement lab, Serizawa annihilates Godzilla and, in a heroically suicidal act, destroys the weapon itself. Only by way of his suicide can he ensure that it will not fall into the wrong hands. Far from being the mad scientist, he is, in fact, the very model of the scientist in the nuclear age, not only choosing the only ethical application of his invention, but also willing to take full responsibility for its effect on the world.

After an amiable beginning of classroom discussion, it was the figure of Dr. Serizawa, and especially the idea that the film was presenting him as a hero, around which dissent began to emerge. One of the students pointed out that Serizawa, before he descends to the bottom of the ocean with his deadly weapon, puts on a headband, an act foreshadowing his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. This, he pointed out, was not the broad reference to Japanese culture I had taken it for, but rather a concrete historical reference to WW II kamikaze pilots—one of the most egregious practices legitimized by Japanese militarism. In this context, it would be difficult to read Serizawa's heroic suicide at the end of the film unambiguously as an act of social responsibility and thus moral integrity. Serizawa might be destroying the dangerous invention and all knowledge of it by killing himself, but, more importantly, he is confirming a cultural ideal—sacrificing your life for the good of the nation—that a post-war Japanese film, given the political instrumentalization of this moral imperative during WW II, should at least subject to critical interrogation.

The student's observation rerouted our collective interpretation into a completely new direction. We know that Serizawa has been scarred during WW II: there is that rakish eye patch he is wearing. But given the recent turn in our discussion, we now noticed that the film was conspicuously silent about what exactly a scientist like Serizawa had been doing during the war. What had been his role as a scientist, especially one interested in technologies susceptible to military applications, in the context of imperial Japan's industrial warfare effort? Perhaps his suicide was less the product of altruism and more an expression of a death-wish motivated by unresolved traumatic memories? Perhaps what we were witnessing here was a manifestation of the collective guilt which, according to a cultural consensus outside of Japan, had always been conspicuously absent from post-war Japanese culture?

In the cognitive dissonance between the meaning of the film which I had taken to be apparent and the one immediately obvious to my students, we were also negotiating whether I, the foreigner, had the right to an interpretation which was indirectly, yet none the less urgently, relevant to Korean national identity. This claim to interpretive dominance was, I believe, more of an issue than the fact that my own interpretation had, so to speak, let Japan off the hook too easily. My students may have also seen me, a foreigner, as representing a position they took to be that of the U.S.—foreigners do act, wittingly or not, as ambassadors of their (real or perceived) country of origin. My statement about Honda's film, which would have, to them, also been a statement about Japan, was, in turn and almost by default, a statement about Korea—and who was I to explain their own culture and history to them?

3. Conclusion: Out of the Lab, Into the World

The reason for telling you this story from my classroom is not to determine which interpretation is right and which one is wrong. Neither is my point to show the preconceptions that guide my students' interpretations. That cultural predispositions shape interpretations is true but certainly no new insight. To be sure, I am embracing heterodoxy, but I want to remain cautious not to celebrate it simply as an end in itself. My caution stems from the recognition that, for the students, to speak heterodoxy comes with a price that I am certain they are more aware of than I am.

Like students everywhere, they are worrying about their grade when they disagree with their teachers. Professional capital in a global educational market is all the more precious for being attained at an institution on the global margins rather than in the centre. No matter whether one interpretation might be as valid as the other, the question is: which one might be required of them when they submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal, give a presentation at an academic conference, or apply for a job?

The doubts my students might have directly reflect back on my own questions about my role as a teacher in that same classroom. What am I—as a Westerner, a foreigner, a figure of authority legitimized by the same cultural and professional capital I am in the process of imparting—doing in this classroom? What functions do I fulfil; what effects do I have? Ideally, I might want to think of myself as a messenger of integration. For the students, someone like me might demonstrate—through his presence as much as through his teaching—successful modes of being within the global economy.

Less optimistically speaking, I might also be an agent within the complex new forms of global inequality that have been described by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri under the term "Empire," a global network of unequal relations within which the global educational market functions as a fully integrated sub-system. At its worst, my classroom could be a Foucaultian space of discipline: an intercultural panopticon full of docile bodies, where instructors indebted to the reigning ideology of the larger global economy socialize their students into unthinking acceptance of ideas which, once they embrace them, will increase their chances of success.

Located somewhere in the middle between these extremes is the idea that the heterodoxies in my classroom might be examples of "situated knowledge," reflecting the ex-centricity of the geographic and cultural site that produced it (I am specifically thinking here of the application of the term and concept in the work of Donna Haraway, where it goes back as far as 1988 when Haraway published "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective" in Feminist Studies (14.3) in 1988). Though theoretical accounts of "situated knowledge" often come with assertions that their relative merits is merely a symptom of the system of unequal relations that produced them, a larger professional framework that is organized around normative procedures and standards—like academia—might still look unkindly upon them.

In the hope that academia’s embrace of heterodoxy is not another form of orthodoxy in disguise, I would like to map our classroom discussion on a truly multidirectional, albeit as-of-yet imaginary, model of geographic movements in the global educational market. I would like to imagine that my students, after they emerge from this classroom, and when they will get their chance to do their own teaching, will do so, in a classroom, in Korea or elsewhere, that is no longer ex-centric within the networks of global power. I would like to imagine that some of them will have travelled in the opposite direction I have—from the margins back toward the centre; and that they will have gone on this journey less out of economic necessity, and more out of intellectual curiosity. And that, when they, in turn, will teach a film like Gojira to their students, they will factor their own classroom experience into their account of the film, having tested and enriched what once was heterodoxy on its way through the global professional networks.