News and Opinion

I am still amazed by those who have the time to maintain a blog. I don't, so the best I can offer here is occasional short bits of news and observations. 

I have disabled comments for this site. If you want to discuss Japanese cinema, please join KineJapan, the list for which I serve as co-owner. 

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2017

Even though I once worked for the YIDFF, this year’s festival was my first since 2009, so my first impression one of nostalgia. Seeing the same old places, meeting old friends, drinking at Komian, basking in the intellectual atmosphere of the festival. This year’s festival had many great moments, but I also felt the YIDFF also needs to look back a bit more at the past.

I had some obligations, especially helping my wife a little at the Daily Bulletin (I penned a short piece for them looking back on its history, since I worked there during the 1993 festival). So I couldn’t see everything I wanted to. I saw a few non-Japanese films, and was particularly impressed with John Gianvito’s Wake (Subic) (which shows some significant influence from Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s work) and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, but I focused mostly on Japanese films. Unfortunately, there weren’t many that thrilled me.

Possibly the most interesting were Yamashiro Chikako’s works, The Beginning of Creation/A Child and A Woman of the Butcher Shop, which were showing in New Asian Currents (which I programmed back in 1995). Both were originally installation pieces and would be hard to call documentary under a traditional definition (Yamashiro-san told me this was in fact the first time her works had been shown in a movie theater). The first was a record of Kawaguchi Takeo’s effort to literally draw out and emulate Ohno Kazuo’s dance; the second a more narrative exposition of gender and occupation in Okinawa (I have to keep this in mind if I ever update my article on representations of Okinawa). While both exhibit a strong, and often political concern for the body, if not also a desire to return to origins (the sea, the same cave in both), the two are also very aware of mediation, to the point of thinking about the materiality of digital video.

Early Cinema in Asia and One Print in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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One of the favorites among the articles I have written is “One Print in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a piece I wrote for the online peer-reviewed film journal Screening the Past. In it I tried to come to grips with one of the oddities that tends to define early cinema in Japan: the fact that for much of the silent period, film studios only produced one print of the movies they made, even though they had technology to produce many more. In a play on one of the translations of the title of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I was asking why the Japanese film world seemed to be shunning the definition of cinema as an art of mechanical reproduction.

The article was also an opportunity for me to engage in various methodologies. Basically, this was an exercise in industrial history, but I put forward and tested various hypotheses about the reasons for this practice, starting with the economic, but then proceeding to issues of society, politics, and culture. It was a way to start thinking about the material versus cultural determinations of Japanese cinema—or our inability to separate them. It also provided me with an early opportunity to talk about the culture of “mixture” I elaborated on in Visions of Japanese Modernity, and which Miriam Silverberg described in different terms in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. While I don’t think it is one of my best essays, it was one I enjoyed writing and still think is important.

When You Appear on Wikipedia

I noticed this a few weeks ago, but it seems there is now an article about me on the English language Wikipedia. Here is the original and here is a screenshot:

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Having dabbled a bit on Wikipedia, I know there are notability standards for whether some person (or thing) gets an article, so I feel a bit honored that someone thought me notable enough. (No, I did not write it myself!) Looking at the history, I can see there was actually a bit of a squabble over notability when it first appeared, but that seems to have settled down. (You never know, though, whether someone will still not nominate it for deletion.) I also see that someone first created it a couple of years ago and it languished in the Draft space on Wikipedia for a long time, so it was clearly not a shoo-in on the encyclopedia. 

As with anything written about me, I am somewhat embarrassed about the whole thing and don’t really want to read it. But it does seem they get a few things wrong. I don’t still contribute to the Eigei Best Ten and I long ago ceased writing reviews for the Daily Yomiuri (which no longer exists, by the way, at least under that name). Yet it does seem someone does know my work enough to offer a decent description of Visions of Japanese Modernity.

Japan, TV Dramas and Film Theory

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This post is just a personal note.

As some of you know, I am now in Japan. That’s not unusual, because I spend every summer in this country. But this time I will be here for a year, the first full year I will spend in Japan since 2009-2010. I have taken advantage of one term of earned leave from Yale and combined it with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (see my page here) to give me twelve months (plus a bit more) in Japan to do research and writing. It will also be nice to experience Japanese falls, and springs, and Oshogatsu. I’ll also do a little traveling to Kansai and other spots.

The main plan is to finish my book on the history of Japanese film theory. I’ve done a lot of research, as well as presented aspects of it on multiple occasions (herehere, here, here, here, here, here, etc.), but there is still research that needs to be done in Japan. I also need the time to write it all up. 

So even though I will be in Japan, I will mostly be in libraries or at home writing. But I do intend to go out once in a while to watch movies and attend special events. I will definitely be at the Yamagata Film Festival, and will try to attend others festivals like Tokyo FilmEx. I may also give a talk here and there. 

Media Theory in Japan, Television, and the Forgetting of Film

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I have a piece out in new anthology from Duke entitled Media Theory in Japan. It is edited by Alex Zahlten of Harvard and Marc Sternberg of Concordia, and is based in an intense workshop that took place at Harvard in November 2013. Their project parallels mine: if I have been endeavoring to bring to light the history of film theory in Japan, they have been doing the same for media theory. One sign that the two intersect is the fact that they chose one of the pieces I selected for the “Decentering Theory” special issue to include in their anthology: Kitada Akihiro great essay on Nakai Masakazu’s theory of media.

The Duke anthology includes essays by Yuriko Furuhata, Takeshi Kadobayashi, Marilyn Ivy, Miryam Sas, Tomiko Yoda, Ryoko Misono (sadly, a posthumous contribution), Anne McKnight, Fabian Schäfer, Keisuke Kitano, and Tom Looser on such topics as the Tange Lab, Azuma Hiroki, McLuhan in Japan, Nancy Seki, Rokudenashiko, Kobayashi Hideo, and the Kyoto School. 

My contribution was placed at the beginning, in part because it questions the concept of new media through a historical analysis of some early theories of television in Japan. If, as Lev Manovich as argued, new media often repeat older media, my essay considers how new media theory can repeat that of older media. Focusing on one of the groundbreaking moments in development of television theory in Japan—the 1958 issue of Shisō devoted to the new medium—and in particular the ideas of its central figure, the sociologist Shimizu Ikutarō, I note how claims about television’s unique relation to the everyday forgot similar claims about cinema’s relation to the mundane made decades before by Gonda Yasunosuke and others. I argue that such forgetting functioned in part to repress the historical politics of the everyday, or more specifically, the history of media’s relationship with the everyday. In the end, the debate over the everyday was not just about which media was closer to the everyday or what constituted the mediated everyday, but also about the relation of theory to the everyday—the everydayness of theory.

Matsumoto Toshio dies at age 85

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Matsumoto Toshio (松本俊夫), a major figure in postwar Japanese cinema and film theory, passed away on 12 April 2017 at the age of 85. This is a great shock to me, not only because of his immense contributions to Japanese film and image culture, but also because of all the help he provided for my career.

Matsumoto-san is of course well known for his work as a feature film director, with Funeral Parade of Roses (the photo at the right is of him in the film) and Dogura Magura being two of his most famous works. He started out in documentary, however, joining Shin Riken after studying aesthetics at the University of Tokyo. It was through documentary that I first came to know him. In 1993, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival did a retrospective of Japanese documentaries of the 1960s, curated by Yasui Yoshio of Planet, which featured four of Matsumoto-san’s films: Nishijin (1961), The Song of Stones (1963), Mothers (1967), and For My Crushed Right Eye (1968). One of my first tasks for the YIDFF was translating much of the retro catalog, so I first read Matsumoto before seeing his works. While Mothers was the least interesting of the four, his exploration of the image—from the still photographs of The Song of Stones to the multi-projector For My Crushed Right Eye—stood out amid the documentary of the time. 

Nakadai Tatsuya Interview on FilmStruck

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This is just a short post, but I wanted to let you know that an on-camera interview I did for Criterion with the actor Nakadai Tatsuya is now being shown on Criterion’s streaming service, FilmStruck. We invited Nakadai-san to Yale last fall for a truly wonderful event, but he spent good amount of time in New York City before and after Yale. It was about a week after his Yale visit that I went down to NYC to do the interview at the Criterion office. My task was to ask Nakadai-san about his experiences with working with five directors whose films Criterion handles: Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki, Naruse Mikio, Okamoto Kihachi, and Teshigahara Hiroshi. I’m not that experienced at these things, but Nakadai-san was full of wonderful stories and the Criterion crew made it (including me) look good.

You have to subscribe to FilmStruck to see it in full, but you can see a snippet featuring Nakadai-san talking about the famous duel at the end of Kurosawa's Sanjuro here on the Criterion site.

Ogino Shigeji, Ofuji Noburo, and Classic Japanese Animation

Even the BBC has reported on this, so the news has spread that the National Film Center in Japan, in collaboration with the Agency for Cultural Affairs and other institutions, has opened the website Japanese Animated Film Classics to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese animation. The site features 64 pre-WWII animated films that can be viewed in full, some with English subtitles. (Right now, the site itself is only in Japanese, though an English site is supposed to be opened soon.) 

Naturally, the site offers a number of important works, starting with Kouchi Jun’ichi’s The Dull Sword (Namakura-gatana), which is counted as one of the first three Japanese-made animated films released in 1917. Kitayama Seitaro, who directed one of the other two (which are not extant), is partially represented through one of his 1918 works, Urashima Taro. Other animators featured include such greats as Masaoka Kenzo, Yamamoto Sanae, and Murata Yasuji. I was particularly happy to see Seo Mitsuyo’s Arichan the Ant (1941) included, since that is not only another example of the work of the director of the two, greatly celebrated wartime Momotaro films, but also reportedly the first use of the multiplanar camera in Japan. 

Globalism, New Media, and Cinematically Imagining the Inescapable Japan

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For a long time I have been wondering about a recurring theme in Japanese cinema: the seeming inability of Japanese to escape Japan. Characters contemplate or even actively try to leave Japan but are stopped at the border, sometimes even dying on the beach. This is not necessarily new—one of Yoshida Kiju’s films was even called Escape from Japan (Nihon dasshutsu, 1964)—but I especially noticed it in films from the 1990s. Kitano Takeshi or Miike Takashi often had characters dying at limits of national territory. Aoyama Shinji’s Helpless featured a character mentioning an episode of The Prisoner, in which Number 6 flees the Village only to be returned there—as if implying that Japan itself is the Village. And Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Barren Illusion (Oinaru gen'ei, 1999) even had a character travel all the way to the airport so as to leave the country, go to the check-in counter, and end up being ignored, forcing her to return.

This, however, is the age of globalism, when national borders are breaking down, goods and people constantly cross boundaries, and the nation itself is under question. How can there be so many representations of Japanese unable to leave Japan when Japanese are traveling to other nations all the time?

Cinema and Kawabata Yasunari Studies

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When I wrote my book on Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness, I devoted a number of pages to the Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari’s involvement in the project. Even though I in the end concluded that his involvement was not as great as some had seen, that did not mean that I thought his relation with that film or with cinema in general was insignificant. I had actually published an article in Iris some years before, entitled “Celluloid Masks,” that contrasted Kawabata’s connections to cinema to those of Tanizaki Junichiro, especially in their literature (you can read the full article here). But there was a lot more I could have written about.

I was thus quite pleased to get an invitation in 2014 to participate in a conference in Paris on Kawabata, hosted by Cécile Sakai. It was a great opportunity to revisit Kawabata and complicate the notion prevalent in the scholarship that particularly his early works were “cinematic.” But it was also an excellent chance to connect him to my larger project on the history of Japanese film theory, and explore the possibility of a film theory evoked in his writings, both fictional and non-fictional.

Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Once Seen Movie Theater

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It was a great thrill welcoming the illustrious film director Obayashi Nobuhiko to Yale last fall and helping the Japan Society do a long-awaited retrospective of his work. Not only was it wonderful re-encountering his films, but it was an honor getting to know him and his family during his visit to the States. They are truly warm and generous people. When we were back in Japan this summer, they even treated me and my family to some very fine tempura near Futako Tamagawa.

His foreign fans might not know this, but Obayashi is a prolific writer, one who has published over two dozen books. His most recent tome has just been published, and it is huge: a two-volume work totaling 1368 pages! Entitled Itsuka mita eigakan (roughly translated as “Once Seen Movie Theater” or “Theater of Movies I Once Saw”), it is basically a collection of Obayashi’s thoughts on 121 films ranging from Preston Sturges' Sullivan’s Travels to Ozu Yasujiro’s Equinox Flower. The majority of films are foreign, but range in genre from Westerns to films featuring music. A few other essays are included, particularly about war and cinema, and an extra bonus is a DVD entitled “The Truth and Lies of John Wayne.”

Aaron Gerow’s old papers

I don’t like titles with my own name in them, but this is both accurate and more conducive to web searches. 

For a while I’ve been wondering about what to do with my old papers and articles. Having published for over 25 years, I have a large number of them, some of which are in now out-of-print books, obscure journals, or film festival catalogs that were never intended for wide distribution. I was not always particular about where I published—for instance only thinking about “tenure-able” venues—and always believed that academics should be instructive where they can in multiple platforms. But in trying to reach out to many audiences, some of my writing has been caught in the ephemerality of much publishing. While I don’t intend to assert my scholarship deserves world-wide attention, I still hope some of it can be of help to both film fans and scholars, which it can’t if it is unavailable or not readily available.

That’s why I’ve decided to start making available some of my old papers and articles on a couple of internet platforms. The first is the Yale section of Bepress, an open access platform. The second is Academia.edu. I am more comfortable with the former, since Academia.edu, despite its educational name, is a for-profit company, but I thought using multiple platforms means more availability. 

Yale University Welcomes Nakadai Tatsuya

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Our big Japanese film event at Yale this fall is a visit by the illustrious actor, Nakadai Tatsuya, on October 27-28, 2016. One of my favorites since high school, I am thrilled with the opportunity to welcome him to Yale and talk to him about his work. We’ll show two of his films, with Q&A—Harakiri (Kobayashi Masaki, 1962) and Age of Assassins (Okamoto Kihachi, 1967). He will also do two talk sessions with a smaller audience that are by registration only. He’ll also be catching some theater while he’s here.

This year is the centennial of the birth of Kobayashi Masaki, with whom Nakadai made some of his best films. He thus insisted on doing at least one Kobayashi film. We talked at first about doing two, but he was intrigued about doing an Okamoto film, so that’s the second one.

Nakadai will also do some events in New York, but we hope people can make the trek to New Haven to catch Nakadai in a more relaxed and intimate atmosphere.

I’ve met him a couple of times in preparation for the event—which itself was a thrill!—and I was so impressed with what a charming and wonderful human being he is. At 84 years old, he still works full-time and runs his own acting school/troupe called Mumeijuku. He’s acted in so many media and had a career spanning seven decades, so there is so much he can share with us.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Dis/continuity, and the Ghostly Ethics of Meaning and Auteurship

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Kurosawa Kiyoshi has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, but one I’ve found very hard to talk about. Perhaps that difficulty is one reason I like him so much: his films resist our ability to comfortably confine them in words, and challenge our systems of knowledge and perception. That’s one reason they are so attractive but also so frightening.

That’s also why I have always been at somewhat of a loss when I encounter articles on Kurosawa that profess to know him or his works through some allegorical, postmodern, or ecocritical methodology. There’s a lot we can learn about Kurosawa from such articles, but it still stikes me that many of them were less watching his films in their complexity than imposing their interpretations. And given that Kurosawa’s films are populated with detectives and detective-like figures whose interpretations are problematic, that approach can be self-defeating, if not blind to what’s going on in the films. They effectively offer comfort against a set of films that are fundamentally disturbing.

Early Science Fiction and Fantasy Film in Japan

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The Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, has established itself as the premier forum for introducing popular East Asian film to Europe. As any good festival should do, it also runs retrospective programs in addition to its programs showcasing new films. Mark Schilling, the longtime critic for the Japan Times and author of such books as Yakuza Movie Book, has programmed a number of Japanese film retros at Udine, including the one that led to the book No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema

His task in 2016 was to do a series on Japanese sci-fi and fantasy films that went beyond the kaiju films people are used to. Entitled “Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures and Fantasies in Japanese Cinema,” it featured ten films and a special visit by Obayashi Nobuhiko, whom we hosted at Yale in 2015. Mark also edited the catalog and asked me to pen a history of Japanese sci-fi and fantasy films before WWII. 

That was quite a task because most of what was made no longer exists. For instance, only pictures of the infamous King Kong Appears in Edo (Edo ni arawareta Kingu Kongu, 1938) survive. A few films are still available for viewing, such as Makino Masahiro’s Shimizu Harbor, Part II (Zoku Shimizuko, 1940) or Yamamoto Kajiro’s Son Goku (1940), starring Enomoto Ken'ichi, but that’s not enough for an article. 

The Toy Film Museum in Kyoto おもちゃ映画ミュージアム

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The other week I had to travel to the Kansai area on business and research. I used the opportunity to visit the newly opened Toy Film Museum in the Mibu area of Kyoto. 

What are toy films? They have usually been referred to in Japanese as “omocha eiga” (おもちゃ映画) or “gangu eiga” (玩具映画), and have denoted modes of watching cinema in the home in the early years of the medium. While we are familiar with small gauge films (kogata eiga 小型映画) like 8mm—or the 9.5mm Pathé Baby format popular in the prewar—that came to be defined as the mode for home movies, the motion pictures did not necessarily enter the home in such formats. Much larger gauges—including 35mm film—were actually common as a home movie system confined to projection. You might be surprised at that if you know of the huge projectors that exist (or existed) in theaters for 35mm projection, but in fact from the 1910s, there were small tin 35mm projectors produced in Europe and North America, the first working off of oil lamps, the later ones off of electric light, that could be used at home. With small spools of film and cranked by hand, they could present films a few minutes long. The picture on the left is of a foreign-made projector with the film loaded that is on display at the Museum.

The Japanese Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies 日本映画研究へのガイドブック

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The Japanese version of the Research Guide to Japanese Film Studies that Markus Nornes and I produced back in 2009 has just been published by Yumani Shobo. This is not just a translation of our guide to archives, reference books, and websites important to the study of Japanese film, but a major update of the Guide. Not only have a few errors been corrected or addresses or URLs updated, but we’ve added or revised quite a number of entries, taking into account new archives and books as well as changing circumstances since 2009. Those of you who have used the English version and can read Japanese should get this version in order to have the most up-to-date information. Markus and I are thinking about putting out a revised English version—a plan we’ve had since the original book—but it may take some time before that is out.

I have not always had good luck with translations. The Japanese translation of Visions of Japanese Modernity has been in process for nearly fifteen years (starting even before California published it), and the translation of Kitano Takeshi has been in the works for about seven years. But I was fortunate this time. Not only did the translation not take too long, but we were fortunate that Dogase Masato supervised the translation, working with Otake Mizuho, Murakami Satoru, and Sawa Shigehito. They did a splendid job. The staff at Yumani also worked hard, checking all the phone numbers and addresses, and even allowing additions up until the last moment. It was a pleasure working with everyone.

War and Nationalism in Recent Japanese Cinema: Yamato and Divided Lenses

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Way back in December 2008, I took part in an excellent conference at Stanford on war and memory in East Asian cinema. The talk I delivered was on Yamato (Otokotachi no Yamato, 2005), Sato Jun’ya’s box office hit that was produced by the maverick Kadokawa Haruki about the ill-fated battleship Yamato. Taking into consideration not only the long history of films on the Yamato, but also some contemporary kamikaze war films, I argued that the film is not just reworking wartime memory for the sake present-day historical revisionism towards WWII, but that it is utilizing its own depiction of violence to create a kind of “vicarious trauma” whose main effect is a forgetting of the postwar and its own traumatic history of the Cold War.

The plan even then was to turn the conference into an anthology, but for various reasons, the plan dragged on. When it was clear the anthology was not going to appear very soon, I got permission to publish a very abridged version of my piece in Japan Focus under the title, "War and Nationalism in Yamato: Trauma and Forgetting the Postwar.” It then took about another five years for the anthology to come out, but it finally has, and it looks great. Here’s the reference for my piece:

Donald Richie and Transnational Japanese Cinema

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Donald Richie, one of the most important introducers of Japan and its cinema, passed away about this time three years ago. The following July, Iwamoto Kenji hosted a symposium on Donald at Waseda University. I talked about the famous Japanese film history he produced with Joseph Anderson, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. While noting its problems, especially its orientalism and Cold War worldview, I also pointed out how its own stance of being other to Japanese film culture enabled it to provide a depiction of that culture, especially of such seemingly innocuous phenomena as the state of an average movie theater, that Japanese sources could not offer. In the end, I argued that, while Richie himself was not innocent of othering Japan, his decision to himself remain other to Japan—for instance, refusing to assimilate—was itself often productive.

That essay, plus some others presented that day, have been combined with many other articles (most composed as part of a series of workshops Iwamoto was holding), to create the anthology: 

Aoyama Shinji’s “Nouvelle Vague Manifesto” and Japanese Film Theory

An English translation I did of one of the Japanese film director Aoyama Shinji’s major writings on film, "Nouvelle Vague Manifesto; or, How I Became a Disciple of Philippe Garrel,” has finally appeared in print in the sixth issue of LOLA, the online film journal edited by Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu.

The article is accompanied by a short introduction I penned that explains the manifesto’s basic points and its historical place. 

I want to thank Aoyama for not only allowing me to publish this, but also for helping me find the citations for the many quotations in the piece. I also need to thank Adrian and Girish for publishing this. I did the translation years ago—and Adrian expressed interest in it years ago—so I apologize for the delay, even if some of the time taken was necessary.

Aoyama’s manifesto was published in 1997, right when he debuted as a director, and represents his thoughts on his positionality and future direction. While the manifesto never became the defining document of an organized film movement, I argue that it helps us understand not only Aoyama’s cinema, but also an in certain ways representative intervention in the cinema world at the time. As such, it can help us comprehend one definition of a politics of film style (the use of the long take, the rejection of image as representation, etc.) and how that relates to the politics of post Cold War Japan (the problem of the individual, the problem of the Other), especially in contrast to the political modernism of the 1960s New Wave. Along with Aoyama’s later essay, “The Geography of Cinema” (Eiga no chirigaku), published in his essay collection Ware eiga o hakkenseri (Seidosha, 2001), the manifesto is one of the major theoretical contributions of the time. I have used it not only in my article on Aoyama in Yvonne Tasker’s Fifty Contemporary Film Directors (Routledge, 2010), but also in my book on Kitano Takeshi.

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