As a graduate student, Markus Nornes had a big idea: He wanted to write a book about the use of calligraphy in East Asian cinema for his dissertation. But when he presented the idea to experts in Asian art, they scoffed. Nornes was told that calligraphy did not exist in cinema.
As disappointed as he was at the time, Nornes—now an LSA professor of Asian languages and cultures (ALC) and film, television, and media (FTVM)—acknowledges that the argument against his dissertation proposal was rooted in tradition. There are rules to calligraphic writing, and these rules had been in place for over a thousand years.
Nornes’s book would not work because of the Four Treasures and the Five Styles of calligraphy. The Four Treasures are the basic tools of calligraphy: inkstone, ink, paper, and brush. Along with these tools are the official Five Styles of calligraphy: seal, clerical, cursive, semi-cursive, and standard. If those tools and styles are not present in the writing, then, by the conventional East Asian definition of the word, it’s not calligraphy.
Although Nornes saw calligraphic writing in the opening credits of samurai films, and watched a Hong Kong fight scene with actors using brushes as weapons, and marveled at the materials used to create brushstrokes in subtitles and intertitles—blood, crushed seashells, and toilet paper—the four writing tools were not always present in these films, or used for writing, and the official styles could not always be identified. Nornes put the project in a drawer and moved on.
But Nornes never stopped noticing brushstrokes in the films he loved—in the backgrounds of key scenes in Korean films staged with screens and fans painted with calligraphy, and in Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa’s personal stamp, made in ancient seal style, and used almost as a trademark.
Nornes’s frequent travels to Asia meant that he saw cinematic calligraphy everywhere—not just on-screen. In a Tokyo film studio he found a manual for writing a passable 17th century menu to be used as a prop, complete with instructions for writing historically accurate calligraphy. In a Shanghai film studio, Nornes opened a 20-foot-long cabinet and read scrolls that had been used in Chinese films for half a century. Nornes considered the brushstrokes he saw glowing in neon on movie theater marquees in Macao. He studied subtitles and intertitles—sometimes handwritten by a director, and sometimes by the novelist from whose book the film had been adapted, as in the case of Shirō Toyoda’s film Snow Country, based on Yasunari Kawabata’s novel.
“I couldn’t get the idea out of my brain,” Nornes says.
Nearly 30 years later, Nornes returned to the cinema and calligraphy book idea. He’d recently made an important connection between brushwriting and cinema: the human body.
“Both cinema and calligraphy are artforms that are records of the human body in motion,” he says. When you’re watching a film, Nornes says, “the time and space of the set are made totally present to you in a unique and powerful way. And calligraphy does that as well.”
Liberated from the rules of calligraphy that had discouraged him before, Nornes dove back into the book idea he’d shelved for nearly three decades. With a fresh approach, and after receiving grants from the Center for Japanese Studies, the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, and the Nam Center for Korean Studies, he set off to countries that were already very familiar to him—China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong—but this time, in the name of researching the book.
Nornes returned from his trips with a wealth of stories and images, almost more than he knew how to shape into a book. In 2010, he began working with four students from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) to assemble a corpus, or organized body of data.
Emily Ho (A.B. ’13), a history and political science double major, was one of the researchers. “I went to the media library every few days and rented out every single Asian movie available, starting from ‘A,’” she says.
Ho estimates that she watched about 12 movies a week during that academic year. She took screenshots and notes on how and when calligraphy was used in each film.
Nornes credits UROP students like Ho for helping him turn his work into a book. “I had never registered certain themes and motifs, until I could pick out these patterns in the corpus created by the UROP students,” Nornes says.
According to Nornes, screens covered in calligraphic writing show up frequently in East Asian films as props. With the help of the UROP students’ analysis and collection of the corpus, Nornes was able to notice patterns in how calligraphy affected composition. He explains that calligraphic props tend to be centered in Chinese films. “There’s lots of symmetry. But in Japan, it’s avant-garde. The calligraphy is always off kilter, on the edges.”
“I was amazed at how calligraphy has been used to add to a film’s storyline, cultural context, or even provide subtext to scenes,” Ho says. “This project taught me to notice much more detail in film composition and how to consider, more thoughtfully, why something is the way it is.”
Looking more closely at calligraphy in cinema guided Ho and Nornes to investigate what Nornes describes as a direct human connection between the artist and the viewer. In the conclusion of the book he eventually did write, Brushed in Light: Calligraphy in East Asian Cinema (University of Michigan Press and TOME, 2021), Nornes tells the story of filmmaker Nagisa Ōshima as captured in the 2006 documentary What’s a Film Director? In his take, Nornes raises a question about how creative expression plays with the rules of calligraphy.
In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Ōshima, close to death, with little control over his own body, sits before paper with brush in hand. Ōshima’s screenwriter had given him pen and paper the day before he died, in a nod to the Buddhist tradition of disciples capturing the moment of death of their master through calligraphy. Ōshima writes. The hand that holds the brush shakes, and the inkload gets lighter and lighter as the brush travels across the screen, a corollary for the fading line of the man’s life. Ōshima is insistent on completing the writing, which hews to none of the Five Styles.
The artist’s signature closes the scene. In one of his final moments of life, the expression of Ōshima’s brushstrokes pursued one simple goal: “He was trying to get his name right,” Nornes says.
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