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Observing, Controlling and Filming Human Movements— from the Relationship between Children of the 1980s and Jackie Chan Yosaku Matsutani


Our web magazine includes articles that touch upon a wide range of ideas and offer a different perspective on the festival program. (This article has been shared from the print magazine of Kyoto Experiment 2021 Spring.)

Human movements, behavior and technique

I was presented with the theme of human movement, or human behavior, in writing this essay. Media historian John Durham Peters for example calls this the “technique” (Peters, 2015). He states that the technique is something that is incorporated into the body, and turns the body into a tool that reacts and behaves to the fluctuating environment, or communicates with other beings. By definition, technique is not limited to humans, or certain genders, generations or ethnicities, but is something that various forms of life including animals and plants are equipped with.

This idea of “technique” by Peters, is based on a theory by André Leroi-Gourhan and Marcel Mauss. In particular, Mauss classifies in detail various techniques of the body (mostly referring to the human body) such as sleeping, running, swimming and dancing based on age and ethnicity (Mauss, 1976[1968]). For example, the Australian soldier and French child can squat, but the French adult cannot. In this classification, Mauss points out that techniques of the body are of social hereditary, in that difference in society, ethnicity and age creates a difference in human movement and behavior.

Then is this to say that human movement, behavior or technique of the body is always inherently social as Mauss says, or is there a possibility of escaping this even for an instant? In this essay I will explore this question through Jackie Chan films and my own personal experiences.

Jackie Chan as Being-in-the-Home

NES, Weekly Shonen Jump, video cassette recorder, camcorder, Fanta Fruit Punch.

As a child who was born in 1976 and grew up in the 1980s, Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan stood alongside these items. This stands in contrast to earlier kung fu movie star Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee was a star of the 1970s, meaning he was a star to the generation before children of the 1980s. 1980s children therefore indirectly knew of his extraordinary strength and stardom through TV talents copying his eerie bird-like “Wataah!” and the manga character based on him, Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. Above all, Bruce Lee was a star from the movie theatres, a world that most of us children knew little about. Therefore, to us, Bruce Lee was someone from a different world whom we could not directly touch; a kung fu movie star who in reality was difficult to understand, just like the Fanta Fruit Punch flavor.

Jackie Chan was however, inside our homes. His films were of course screened at the theatres, but for us, his reality existed inside the movies on TV or rented video tapes. Jackie Chan was a star inside the CRT monitors. The comical techniques of the body that this star exhibited, were in line with the perfectly calculated dynamic comedy scenes of Hachiji Dayo, Zenin Shugo! or the wild action scenes from Takeshi’s Castle, exciting the children of the 1980s sat in front of the TV. Moreover, Jackie Chan always spoke with the same voice (by voice actor Hiroya Ishimaru) and with the same language that we spoke. The witty conversations in Japanese that induced laughter, brought us much closer to this star. All in all, Jackie Chan was Being-in-the-Home; a familiar TV star to the children living in the 1980s.

Linkage and shared ownership

However, films starring Jackie Chan were shown on television when it was bedtime for children; which is why his films would often be watched on a video recording (or a rented video tape). Of course, not all families had a VCR player; children would gather at a friend’s house that did own one, and they would watch the film together in a group. This video system brought huge pleasure. By replaying the video, children were able to watch their favorite scenes over and over, and by fast-forwarding and rewinding, playing in slow and pausing, they could control the characters’ movements and behavior, always resulting in much laughter. Story development was never the main focus of Jackie Chan movies for children, it was rather the action and fighting scenes with comical touches, so being able to control movement and behaviour multiplied the pleasure of the film. Furthermore, unlike the preceding Bruce Lee films, perhaps it was the very style of the action and fighting scenes of Jackie Chan films that induced such a way of enjoying them.

As many critics have already pointed out, as a martial artist, Bruce Lee understood the genuineness of the action and fighting scenes of a film to be the most important factor in what affected the reception of a film. He therefore rejected the techniques of the body that were derived from Cantonese opera and classical Chinese opera (eg. illusory movements which used trampolines and wires to fly) that had been traditionally employed in Cantonese films, and was proactive about working with martial artists or actors who had a background in martial arts. He also did not focus on the characters’ facial expressions with close-ups as had been done previously, but rather captured the whole moving body with medium to long shots, and rather than complexly connecting these shots, he would present sequence shots or a minimal montage. Therefore, the action and fighting scenes in Bruce Lee films were established by continuously portraying raw bodies engaging with each other under the logic of martial arts.

Contrarily, maybe thanks to having a background in classical Chinese opera, Jackie Chan seems to capture action and fighting as an expression of movement and behavior, rather than martial arts. Borrowing French poet and critic Paul Valéry’s words, Jackie Chan’s action and fighting is “an art of human movement, of those that can be voluntary “, and like a dance. In truth, he does not beat the opponent(s) that he faces, but synchronizes, and by sharing ownership of the overall movement of the action or fighting in the scene as a number of units, versatile dances are scattered in the space. This shared ownership progresses in a very rhythmical manner, with the “hai! hai!” voices, clothes and sound of collision, and the instant moments of pause in which movement synchronizes with voice and sound. Jackie Chan also links and shares ownership with the chairs, tables, doors, windows and flooring in the space, exposing the characteristics of the materials (such as the glittering shattered glass, or a slippery floor), to make the entire world dance. However, the synchronization and sharing of ownership does not always succeed. A possibility of failure exists, and this moment of failure allows for a comical release, Jackie Chan’s face scrunches up and becomes even more adorable.

The elements in the action and fighting scenes in Jackie Chan films of synchronization and shared ownership, as well as their failure and comicality, provokes children gripping their remote controls to disturb them. The children are indeed provoked, and they fall about clapping their hands and hugging each other in laughter.

Tangible mimicry

However, the hands of the laughing children eventually turn toward their peers. Some children hurl their fists and feet into the air saying “hai! hai!”. And someone says – ‘let’s film it‛. Off we go into the back alley by the house, with the forbidden piece of equipment put out of bounds by our parents.

A game of rock-paper-scissors begins for the casting. The child who loses obviously becomes Jackie Chan; the reason is simple, the enemy has an immortal body and can endlessly attack Jackie Chan. The child playing Jackie Chan has to continue receiving the attacks from all the other enemies. This is in fact no different from Jackie Chan’s films. If this was a Bruce Lee film that aimed to be truthful to martial arts, where death existed, or at least you could sense it was there, things may have been different. But just like the enemies in NES, the enemies in Jackie Chan films may lose their hit points, but keep coming back at him without being defeated. The children accurately mimic this.

The children also try to mimic the movements and behaviors accurately; but this is extremely difficult. Which is why they aim for the rhythm of the “hai! hai!” voices, and the pauses in movement that appear in synch. The children playing enemy, equipped with the voices, movement and pauses and the rhythm, attack the child playing Jackie Chan who has been stripped to their undershirt on the que of the cameraman. They want the scrunched-up face of Jackie Chan they saw in the television. Jackie Chan does not want to make this face, and tries to avoid the on-coming attacks from peers, to defeat them and make a counterattack. However, unlike inside the television, the child Jackie Chan is defeated, powerless to the number of enemies. This is where cut is called.

We all rush into the house on the voice calling cut. Singing aloud together the song (with the wrong lyrics) that Jackie Chan always sung at the end of the films, we play the newly shot footage on video, just as with Jackie Chan’s films. This footage is far from an action or a fighting scene, and is just children hurling themselves at each other, but that isn’t a problem to us. This footage is fast-forwarded, rewound, stopped, and played in slow. By mimicking, we touch and become Jackie Chan’s films. We obtain an immortal body, and by becoming a character whose movement and behavior is controlled on a medium, we momentarily transcend the ordinary relationship and social meaning between our friends, the back alley, the living room and the television, floating in what Walter Benjamin called “room-for-play”[Spielraum]1. However, to mimic Jackie Chan’s films means to unknowingly embody the homosocial relationships and masculinity within these films, and it is difficult to say that we are free from this bias.2 In that sense, the feeling of momentarily transcending social meaning, and the idea of “room-for-play”, may be something established upon this bias. These mimicry shoots of Jackie Chan films usually ended with someone spraining their foot, tripping and hitting their head, or the child in the undershirt playing Jackie Chan complaining that it’s cold. The body that can feel and be injured is revealed, and the fun is spoilt for the children. The “room-for-play” eventually vanishes – the everyday begins again.

1 Inspired greatly by Masato Hase’s argument (Hase, 2017) on television, children and mimicry, and by Yoshikazu Takemine’s argument (Takemine, 2016) on the relationship between Benjamin’s “room-for-play” and film. Hiromi Saika has developed an excellent argument (Saika, 2019) on Jackie Chan films and “room-for-play”.
2 Reference to Saika’s argument (Saika, 2017) regarding the problems of sexuality and masculinity in Jackie Chan films.

Hiromi Saika, Asian Action Heroes in Hollywood Films – from “Enter the Dragon” to “Battle Creek Brawl”, Diaphanes: art and philosophy volume 4, (Kyoto University, bulletin of Atsuchi Okada Laboratory, Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, 2017), 95–114.
Hiromi Saika, The Spectacle of Falling and Repetition: Corporeality and Figuration in “Project A” and “Police Story”,
Japanese journal of image arts and science volume 101, (Japan Society of Image Arts and Sciences, 2019), 49–68. Yoshikazu Takemine, Medium of Benjamin, Adorno, Kluge, (University of Tokyo Press, 2016).
Masato Hase, Vernacular Modernism in Visual Cultures, (University of Tokyo Press, 2017).
Marcel Mausse, Sociology and Anthropology II, Translation by Toru Arichi and Toshio Yamaguchi, (Koubundou, 1976 [1968]).
Paul Valéry, Degas Danse Dessin, Translation by Toru Shimizu, (Chikuma Shobo, 2006 [1936]).
John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media, (Chicago: University of Press Chicago, 2015).

Yosaku Matsutani
Associate Professor of Kokugakuin University, Faculty of Letters. Specializes in aesthetics and art. The starting point of his research lies in assessing the relationship between visual media, that blossomed at the end of the 19th century, and the body, within the context of mechanics at the time. He is also currently exploring the possibilities of post-human sensibility, focusing on science, technology and art related to life and the environment.

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