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In Session: Reading and Empathy: Textual Analyses of Connection, Community and Critique
3: The Empathetic Reader and Her Limits: Persona as Text in Japanese Cinema
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Sheffield, United States
Drawing from four years of ethnographic fieldwork among elderly film fans in the Kansai region of Japan, this paper begins from a claim repeated by a number of participants in the research project: that cinema offers an opportunity to develop empathy with those whose life experiences the viewer does not personally share. For many viewers born between 1935 and 1955, film was a window to another world, and a means of experiencing a kind of co-feeling with those on-screen. Of more than 100 people interviewed and surveyed for this project, a significant majority regarded this aspect of cinema as an important means of fostering caring and empathetic attitudes among Japanese citizens.
Yet the very same study participants who made this claim also clearly recalled instances of non-empathy with film subjects, characters, and stars, ranging from revulsion to sterile disconnection. This paper explores the conflicting discourses around participants’ memories of film star Hara Setsuko (1920-2015), arguably Japan’s most iconic actress, to investigate the limits of viewer empathy and its implications for our understanding of grass-roots attitudes to changes in gender norms and relations during the Occupation era (1945-1952). As a secondary concern, an examination of empathy as a research method is woven throughout this paper. Considering the role of empathy in the ethnographic interview, I question to what extent the limits of our research participants’ empathy determines the limits of our own empathetic feelings towards both the research object and the research participant, when we read both as texts.