Decolonizing (through) Obsolete Media:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Travelogue
Shota T. Ogawa

Is obsolete media ever really obsolete?

Do we call certain media obsolete when we wish them to be? Does the category of the obsolete help us to deal with ghosts from the past haunting the present, or the anxiety of losing faith in the linear progressive flow of history?

Does it matter whether we ask these questions “in Asia” or elsewhere?

In this short piece, I explore these loosely formulated questions with the help of a very particular set of films that I have spent an unhealthy amount of time researching in the past couple of years: amateur travelogues shot by Japanese tourists in colonial Korea and de-facto colonial Manchuria (Northeast China) using small-gauge film (gauges that are narrower than the theatrical standard of 35mm: in my case most films are in 16mm or 9.5mm).

Fig. 1., The scenic sightseeing spot of Moran Hill, Pyongyang, in (from left to right) The 8th Manchuria-Korea Trip (Dai-hakkai Man-sen Ryokо̄), Fukusho Cine-Dept., Fukushima School of Commerce, Osaka, 1931, 9.5mm, A Trip to Korea (Chо̄sen no tabi), Yagi Sakae, 1931, 16mm, Untitled (Korea-Harbin), unknown, 1928, 16mm, images courtesy of Kobe Planet Film Archive

First, an orthodox story of small-gauge film’s obsolescence and rediscovery. In December 1922, Pathé Frere’s 9.5mm home cinema system (Pathé Baby, also known as Pathex in North America) debuted in France, marketed as Christmas gifts for bourgeois clients. Within a year, shoppers in Takashimaya Department in Tokyo would encounter Pathé Baby projectors sold as overpriced “toys” thanks to Banno Bunzaburo, an ambitious importer-exporter who subsequently opened his own stores in Tokyo, Osaka, and eventually in Dalian and Shenyang in Japanese-occupied Northeast China to represent Pathé for its 9.5mm products (cameras, film stock, and customied film library in addition to projectors). Even though it was Eastman Kodak’s 16mm system (1923-) that would ultimately prevail as the dominant small-gauge format, 9.5mm system with its cost advantage was by far the preferred platform for interwar Japanese cine-amateurs. By the mid 1930s, there were nearly seventy amateur cine-clubs, a dozen or so specialist magazines, and 500 stores handling 9.5mm film for cineastes across the Japanese empire.[1] Yet, thanks to the strict import regulation imposed in 1937 as Japan invaded continental China, and the influx of 16mm equipment during and following the U.S.-led Occupation of Japan post-1945, the brief blossoming of a 9.5mm-based cine-amateur culture was swiftly forgotten even as amateur filmmaking took off again in the 1960s and the 1970s, this time centring on 16mm and variants of super 8 and operating as a form of counter-culture rather than a bourgeois hobby. In recent years, film researchers have reclaimed this forgotten early episode as an example of the global dissemination of “modern life” in the interwar period, that is to say, the peculiar ways in which the everyday experience of middleclass city-dwellers was becoming standardised across the world owing to rapid urbanisation, consumerist capitalism, and mass media.[3]

This year happens to mark the centenary of Pathé Baby’s advent in France which will be followed by the centenary of Eastman’s 16mm the following year. Symposia and special screenings marking the centenaries are predicated on the assumption that small-gauge cinema is not only obsolete but has been for a long enough duration so that archivists and researchers can safely rediscover them from a critical distance. Take the call-for-paper for a recent 9.5mm symposium, for instance, that encourages papers “exploring/considering the global reach of 9.5mm film culture” (emphasis mine) in a language that uncritically sees the world as a market, and places a blind faith in the Euro-centric timeline (2022 is only the 100th year if we start counting from the platform’s debut in France) to somehow contain all the divergent narratives of global reception.[4] As researchers based outside the West, we always have the option to dutifully respond to the invitation to fill in the margin of a ready-made film history, for instance, by urging Anglophone scholars to look outside the West to recognize existing scholarship on Japanese amateur auteurs such as Shigeji Ogino, Tejima Masuji, and Koji Tsukamoto who were internationally recognized at a time when very few commercial feature-length films from outside the West were theatrically released in Europe or North America. I am not so sure, however, if we can assume the obsolescence of the amateur travelogues I investigate, or whether we stand at a safe critical distance from the original contexts from which they are borne.

As a counterpoint to dutifully providing the “good objects” of a global film history, there is a way to dwell on what Katherine Groo calls the “bad objects” of film history. “Good objects” are the internationally exhibited works that we can closely examine in pristine 35mm blow-ups at the National Film Archive of Japan and contextualise with textual references preserved in film magazines. By contrast, the amateur travelogues I study typically lack the documentation for the most basic facts such as authorship, addressee, and the identity of the filmed individuals. In part because of their generic nature (see Fig. 1), amateur travelogues typically fall outside the collection parameter of major film archives (my study owes a great deal to independent film archivist Yasui Yoshio’s Kobe Planet Film Archive).

In Groo’s words, “bad objects” are “bad” because “they play tricks on the fevered [i.e., historians visiting archives in search of hidden origins]; they wander and waste time; and they rip holes in the history that they are meant to restore.”[5] My travelogues are “bad” also because they unabashedly make visible the hierarchical power relation of the bourgeois filmmakers and the filmed subjects (denizens of colonial spaces and overwhelmingly children, women, and the elderly who presumably are less likely to protest the camera’s intrusion), thus reminding us that imperialism is not a footnote to be apologetically referenced when discussing the global dissemination of “modern life,” but its constitutive condition. The so-called Korea-Manchuria travel route was, after all, a direct product of the Russo-Japanese War (1905-1906) and a key component of imperial Japan’s state-backed tourism industry that offered a “self-administered citizenship training” for good imperial subjects able to see Asia as an interconnected territory-to-be-governed.[6]

Fig. 2., “Manchuria-Korea Tourism Office” in Tokyo. Image capture of the PR film, A Trip to Manchuria: Before Departure (Manshū no tabi: naichi-hen, 1937, Nikkatsu Tamagawa/Southern Manchurian Railway Company)

More importantly, amateur travelogues are “bad” because they are not adequately obsolete, and thus ready to be studied empirically from a critical distance. As films never made for public exhibition, they lack the time-stamp that historians need to approach them as artifacts. Without a definite sense of the events they attest to (an equivalent of the “original” release in the case of commercial films) they continue to drift in what Paula Amad calls an “a-cinematic slumber of the unprojected film reel.”[7] In a sense, they outlive the obsolescence of the media platform (9.5mm, 16mm, or 8mm), drifting as undead artifacts for undetermined viewers.

Needless to say, “bad objects” pose a conundrum for researchers. One viable way out is to avoid studying them altogether, focusing instead on contemporary artists’ reuse and reinterpretation of these films. For this short writing, I will consider just one recent example: a 3-channel video installation by Soni Kum entitled Morning Dew–The stigma of being “brainwashed” (2020). In particular, I want to call attention to a sequence where the three screens, each following its own logic, suddenly echo one another and coalesce to form a bigger whole.

Fig. 4., Detail from Morning Dew--The stigma of being “brainwashed,” Soni Kum, 2020, courtesy of Soni Kum
Fig. 4., Detail from Morning Dew--The stigma of being “brainwashed,” Soni Kum, 2020, courtesy of Soni Kum

This particular sequence appears in the chapter titled Volcano Island (an homage to diasporic Korean novelist Kim Sokpom’s novel about Jeju Uprising, 1948-1949) that mostly comprises U.S. military footages obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration (with additional footages from New Zealand’s Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision archive) that document the period between Jeju Uprising and the Korean War (1950-1953). Across the expansive space of three large screens, our point of identification vacillates between the cold, inhuman, and strangely hypnotic USAF aerial shots (including those shot with the infamous automated “gun cameras” that records the gunners’ “kills” in a head-on angle) and the on-the-ground, humanistic, and reportage-esque footages of war refugees. As we struggle to keep pace with the footages embodying different speeds, power, and relations to land, a seemingly out-of-place insert of a picturesque panoramic shot on the left screen gives us a breathing space. Even without the external knowledge of the film’s identity as one of the 1930s amateur travelogues housed in Kobe Planet Film Archive, we intuit what art historians Rebecca Jennison and Cynthia Bogel call      a “secret code” tying it to the refugees crossing a frozen river projected onto the centre screen.[8] Just then, in one of the most arresting moments in the piece, a low-resolution video footage in colour reveals itself on the right screen, echoing the same gradual panning motion as the travelogue on the left screen. The synchronized panning motion flanking the centre screen signifies a few different things. Perhaps it shows the transmission of the ritualized choreography from one amateur media to another or the timeless power of the landscape to demand a certain response—tracing of the gentle curvature of the river—from all observers regardless of their ideological leanings. When the spell of the synchronized motion ends, the left screen goes on to reveal male travellers (presumably Japanese) accompanied by young women in Korean clothes while the right screen goes on to show the other spots along the Taedong River such as North Korean war memorials and statues of the Kim family.

From Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) to Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), found footage film (also known as montage film, archive film, and appropriation film) has productively interrogated how a whole archive of films become obsolete with political upheavals, and whether such materials are ever truly and safely obsolete. The collapse of the Japanese empire in 1945 was one of these instances that rendered large archives of film newly obsolete. The work of reassigning wartime films to the domain of the obsolete via found footage filmmaking started early, arguably with Soviet-trained Kamei Fumio’s Tragedy of Japan (1946). By juxtaposing the deceitful wartime newsreel, Nippon News, against U.S. military footages, Kamei’s work also ushered in a characteristically Cold War sensibility that registers the sheer volume of the U.S. Marine Signal Corp’s 16mm footages and their grainy, high-contrast, and low-resolution look as hallmarks of cinematic realism.

By virtue of the three-screen set up, Kum’s work breaks this problematic legacy of a critical dialectical      montage pitting the raw, unprocessed, fragmentary footages shot by the U.S. military (and made readily available through the generous access policies at U.S. archives) against imperial Japan’s footages. It is the additional third frame, a souvenir video documenting Kum’s own school trip to Pyongyang in 1997, that allows her to take a critical distance from the visual artifacts of colonisation and White Terror. Or rather, by holding all the different footages in a dialogic tension, her work lets the past-images bleed into the present. If imperial travelogues projected a fantasy (not rooted in reality) of the Korea-Manchuria region as an open corridor for global traffic interconnecting Asia to Europe via Japan’s imperial railway network (e.g., Colonial Korean Railway and Southern Manchurian Railway), it is important to add also that this remains a fantasy today as no traveller can pass through the Korea-Manchuria corridor.

For a brief context, Kum’s work was the centrepiece in Morning Dew—A Joint Project between the Artist and Ex-“Returnees” who defected from North Korea to Japan, a group exhibition she organised with a grant dedicated to socially-engaged art (Nov 5-10, 2020, Kitasenju BUoY, Tokyo). The exhibition was an end product of the artists’ collaboration with select “ex-‘returnees’”—i.e., former Korean residents in postwar Japan (some born in Japan to parents who migrated as colonial subjects) who migrated to North Korea in the controversial Red Cross-brokered “repatriation project” to escape dire poverty, discrimination, and precarity as stateless people in Japan, and ultimately defecting from North Korea to quietly resettle in Japan.[9] Given the virtual absence of public discussion around the history of the repatriation project, let alone the quiet return (re-repatriation?) of ex-returnees back into Japan, we might assume that the idiosyncratic phrase in Kum’s title, “stigma of being brainwashed,” refers to the silence imposed on those that return to threaten to puncture the calm surface of prosperous “global Asia” with their stories that register the violence of imperial assimilation, colonial exploitation, and Cold War disenfranchisement. Ex-returnees are silenced since repression of the past is a precondition for getting by with their day-to-day lives. Kum has eloquently written about her own conundrum of reconciling the temporal regime of the everyday and the suffering she feels ethically implicated in after the formative school trip to Pyongyang in 1997.

I visited North Korea while the country was struck with a famine. Although I could not see, there were people dying of starvation not far from where I was. After sightseeing for eight days and returning to Japan where food is abundant and freedom more or less intact, I was afflicted by a sense of guilt for living my life without thinking about the starving people in North Korea.[10]

The way Kum’s three-channel video work overwhelms our cognitive capacity to process the images might be understood as a counterintuitive artistic gesture not of lifting the stigma from the ex-returnees, but of passing it on to the viewers. By wresting historical footages from compartmentalised historical contexts, Kum presents the found footage sequence as a kind of

purgatory that removes the viewers of any lingering earthly attachment to the historian’s tools of periodisation—the postwar, the postcolonial, the post Cold War, the new Cold War, and so on—so that when they emerge on the other end, they also carry the stigma of being speechless, and as a consequence, finally ready to hear the ex-returnees’ words.

So, while recognition of obsolescence is a precondition for “good” film history, there are reasons why we need the “bad objects” that remind us of the porous boundaries that keep the obsolete from disrupting the calm surface of the present. As a region where the Cold War was never really “cold” and the post-Cold War never delivered, Asia presents a productive site to investigate the ambivalence of obsolete media. In my analysis of Soni Kum’s found footage video installation, I pointed to the limitation of academic papers that cannot adequately discuss the unruliness of the “bad objects” of film history. By seizing the moment when contemporary artists reproduce the temporally ambiguous amateur films, reclaiming them as the scaffolding for the memory work of the subaltern, film historians are able to observe the dynamism of obsolete media to place us in alternative temporal constellations, ready to grasp migratory narratives that are out-of-joint with the hegemonic here-and-now.


[1] Anecdotally, it is reported that there were roughly 30,000 users of Pathé Baby in the 1930s. Kazuki Goto, “Hobby and Fight—The Publicness of Amateur Film in Japan from the 1920s to 30s,”
Studies in Sociology, Psychology and Education: Inquiries into Humans and Societies 78 (2014): 109-137; Film Preservation Society, Senzen kogata eiga shiryōshū (Tokyo: Film Preservation Society, 2010), 113; Mariko Goda, “Film Center Collection of Small Gauge Films Memorandom Concerning a Study of 9.5mm Films,” Bulletin of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 17 (2013): 95-115.
[2] For a juxtaposition of interwar cine-amateurism and the post-1970s jishu-eiga (autonomous filmmaking) culture, see Alex Zahlten, “Media Models of “Amateur” Film and Manga,” in Routledge Handbook of Japanese Cinema, edited by Joanne Bernardi and Shota Ogawa (New York: Routledge, 2020), 141-151.
[3] For instance, Mika Tomita, “Senzen kogata eiga-shi Movie Makers ni miru America no Nihon ime-ji (American Perceptions of Japan as Seen in the Small-gauge Film Magazine Movie Makers),” Art Research 13 (2013).
[4]See “News and Events: The Little Apparatus: 100 Years of 9.5mm Film,” Domitor, [accessed August 27, 2022]. This symposium, hosted by University of Southampton, from June 16 to 18, 2022, was one of the few international academic events held for the centenary of 9.5mm’s advent. The other two are: “9.5mm: And Cinema Is Everywhere,” November 17-19, 2022, hosted by Lichtspiel/Kinemathek Bern and “From Pathé-Baby 9.5mm: The Invention of Home Cinema,” December 5-6, 2022, hosted by Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, Paris.
[5] Katherine Groo, Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 38.
[6] Kenneth Ruoff, Imperial Japan at Its Zennith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 82; Kate McDonald, Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 183.
[7] Paula Amad, Counter Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète (New York: University of Columbia Press, 2010), 7.
[8] Rebecca Jennison and Cynthia Bogel, “Transnational Dialogues and Contemporary Art in Japan,” in Routledge Handbook of Asian Transnationalism, edited by Ajaya Kumar Sahoo (New York: Routledge, 2022).
[9] I respect Kum’s careful placement of scare quotes around both “returnee” (the majority of the over 90,000 who “repatriated” to North Korea had ancestry in the Southern half of the peninsula) and “ex-‘returnee’” (it is never clear when or if the stigma of being a defector from North Korea is lifted), but for the sake of legibility, I will drop the scare quotes in the subsequent usage.
[10] Translation by thr author. Soni Kum, “Jagaimo no hana (Potato Flowers),” Ajia no josei shintai wa ikani egakaretaka: Shikaku hyōshō to sensō no kioku (Tokyo: Seikyusha, 2013), 283-284.  


Shota Ogawa is Associate Professor in Screen Studies at Nagoya University. His research interests include Korean-in-Japan filmmakers, (post)colonial and cold war archiveology, and cine-amateurism across empires. His writings on these subjects have appeared in journals such as Screen, Media Fields Journal, and Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal among others. With Joanne Bernardi he is co-editor of Routledge Handbook of Japanese Cinema (Routledge, 2021). 


Research for this article has been supported by Daiko Research Grant, JSPS Kakenhi Grant-in-Aid 17H06734 and 21K12899