Friday, January 17, 2014

Dark Wings of Night: Sergei Eisenstein's View of Haiku as Montage Phrases/Shot Lists

The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning.  And it can be read only in juxtaposition, just as an ideogram acquires its specific significance, meaning, and even pronunciation only when combined with a separately indicated reading or tiny meaning – an indicator for the exact reading – placed alongside the basic hieroglyph…From our point of view, [haiku] are montage phrases. Shot lists.

-- Sergei Eisenstein, pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, often considered to be the "Father of Montage".

Utilizing the fact that the human mind is highly capable of associating ideas or images in a way that the “senses overlap, subconsciously associating one with another to produce a unified effect,” 25 Eisenstein argues that film can communicate by a series of juxtaposed images that do not need a linear, narrative or consequential relationship between them. 26 In the mind of the viewer, shot A followed by shot B will create a new meaning C, one that is greater than the sum of its component parts, A and B. 27 For a cinema “seeking a maximum laconism for the visual representation of abstract concepts,” 28 the employment of montage as a collision of shots is a “means and method inevitable in any cinematographic exposition…the starting point for ‘intellectual cinema.’” 29

Furthermore, Eisenstein likens montage to haiku, “the most laconic form of poetry.” 30 He describes haiku as the “concentrated impressionist sketch,” 31 in which minute details are highlighted by using minimal language. In the following haiku written by Japanese haiku masters:

A lonely crow
On leafless bough,
One autumn eve.
-- Basho

What a resplendent moon!
It casts the shadow of pine boughs
Upon the mats.

-- Kikaku

An evening breeze blows.
The water ripples
Against the blue heron’s legs.

-- Buson

It is early dawn.
The castle is surrounded
By the cries of wild ducks

-- Kyoroku 32

Eisenstein thinks that haiku is “little more than hieroglyphs transposed into phrases,” 33 and that each of these haiku is made up of montage phrases or shot lists. 34 The “simple combination of two or three details of a material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind – [the] psychological.” 35 For him, “haiku… act simultaneously as linguistic signifiers and denotative images of ‘natural’ things.” 36 Structurally and consequentially speaking, he considers haiku as an extension of the ideogrammatic structure characterizing the Chinese and Japanese writing systems. He believes that a Japanese haiku master’s juxtaposing two or three separate images to create a new meaning parallels his crashing two or three conflicting shots with each other to produce a new filmic essence. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in haiku (or the collision of conflicting shots in cinema) may single out, highlight, and purify a particular quality. Take Basho’s ever-famous frog haiku for example:

an old pond...
a frog leaps in,
the sound of water

His juxtaposition of two contrasting images of "an old pond" and " a frog leaping into the pond" makes a larger meditative, lonely silence “heard” through the opposition of the water sound. 37 More importantly, juxtaposed images of some haiku engage the reader in more than one sense, as can be seen in the following ones by Basho:

Their fragrance
Is whiter than peach blossoms
The daffodils

Over the even sea
The wild ducks' cry
Is faintly white

It is whiter
Than the rocks of Ishiyama
The autumn wind

Onions lie
Washed in white
How chilly it is 38

A color is employed to suggest the quality of scent, a crying sound, a tactile sensation, or a temperature. 39 As in the case of the Kabuki theatre, Eisenstein argues that the montage effect of haiku results in the experience of synaesthesia or multisensory experience. 40 This characteristic helps him to develop the key principles of audiovisual montage and color-sound montage. 41

It is through his intensive study of Japanese culture in general, and haiku along with Kabuki theatre in particular, and his engaging discussions with his contemporaries that Eisenstein develops a different conception of montage. It is one that is highly influenced by his fascination with the ideogrammatic structure embedded in haiku and Chinese and Japanese writing systems. What he finds so intriguing about haiku is “how it manages to present a conceptual image, or mise-en-scene effect without resorting to any direct copulative ‘is’ or word to link the series of disjunctive images.” 42 As Steve Odin emphasizes in his essay regarding the Influence of traditional Japanese aesthetics on Eisenstein’s film theory, “Eisenstein's incorporation of basic principles from traditional Japanese aesthetics into his universally acclaimed montage theory of film, together with his practical application of this theory as a film director in the making of Potemkin and other landmark motion pictures, ranks as one of the most significant twentieth-century achievements in East-West comparative aesthetics and philosophy of art.” 43...

-- excerpted from my Haiku Reality essay, titled “Haiku as Ideogrammatic Montage: A Linguistic-Cinematic Perspective,” on Sergei Eisenstein’s view of haiku and his use of the haiku aesthetics to develop his theory of montages.


  1. In his essay, entitled "Matsuo Basho and The Poetics of Scent," Haruo Shirane writes about the comparisons between Basho's poetics of scent and the montage techniques employed in modern cinema:

    Basho's poetics of scent and mutual reflection may be compared to the montage in modern cinema in which a succession of seemingly unrelated shots are closely linked by connotation or overtone. Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer in film production and theory, once defined montage as "an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots" and that may result in "emotional dynamization."9 A montage equivalent of the meditative nioi link-nioi in the narrow sense-might be the scene of a young aristocratic lady strolling across a well-manicured garden followed by a shot of a swan gliding across the water, the subdued but elegant moods of the two gently intersecting. A hibiki montage, on the other hand, with its dramatic tension or emotional intensity, might be the cinematic juxtaposition of an explosion rocking a brick building and a sleepy-faced lion suddenly roaring. A cinematic utsuri ("transference") link could be a scene of a couple kissing followed by a shot of an avocado being peeled. The second scene, while unrelated to the first, is obviously "colored," given a definite sexual resonance. The sense of sexuality is transferred from one scene to the next. A kurai link might be the juxtaposition of a shot of a beggar on a city street with the shot of a dog emerging from a mud puddle. In the montage, the second shot deepens a particular emotional effect found in the first shot, or vice versa, the combination often creating Eisenstein's "emotional dynamization," an emotional reverberation that neither of the shots by itself could produce."10

    9 Sergei Eisenstein, Film Forum Essays in Film Theory and Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda, A Meridian Book (Cleveland/New York: The World Publishing Company, 1957), 49, 57.

    10 Nose Tomoji, Renku no geijutsu no seikaku (Kadokawa shoten, 1970), 19-20.

  2. Below are three cinematic haiku that were published on NeverEnding Story. See my detailed analyses in their comment sections:

    Spring evening --
    the wheel of a troop carrier
    crushes a lizard

    -- Dimitar Anakiev
    (accessed at

    a poppy . . .
    a field of poppies!
    the hills blowing with poppies!

    -- Michael McClintock
    (accessed at

    through the smoke
    dark red lips
    of a drag queen

    -- Kirsten Cliff
    (accessed at