East Asian and Western Visual Culture in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Seeing the Hidden Dimension in the Cinema

Posted on February 18, 2018


I would like to offer a cross-cultural analysis of two films, American Beauty and Nobody Knows. American Beauty is US film, a product of Western culture; Nobody Knows is a Japanese product and therefore of the East. While any number of films could be chosen for my purposes, these two films are particularly good examples of key aspects of Western and Eastern culture that interest me. Specifically, I am interested in how visual elements in these films function as outward signs of certain dimensions of the respective Western and Eastern cultures that produced these films. More specifically still, I am interested in the different communication styles visually translated into these films. First let me introduce you to these films.

First, American Beauty. Directed by Sam Mendes with cinematography by Conrad Hall, American Beauty is an English language film that was released in 1999. Turning to Nobody Knows, or Dare mo Shiranai in the original language, this is a Japanese language film that was released in 2004. It was directed by Hirokazu Koreeda with cinematography by Yutaka Yamasaki.

In examining these films, I would like to use the concepts of “High context” and “low context” These concepts were developed by American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. Hall asserted that the level of context determines everything about the nature of the communication and is the foundation on which all subsequent behavior rests (including symbolic behavior). High context communication refers to situations in which message implicitly carries a lot of meaning and information. In contrast, low context communication conveys information explicitly. In further distinction, people operating in high context culture tend to be polychronic, that is they work on different activities at the same time (what we now call multitasking); in this multitasking people have a tendency toward using non-verbal communication, they value long-term relationships, and the relationships are intimate and often more important than materialistic goals and objectives. In contrast, people operating in low context culture are monochronic, meaning that they tend to tackle one thing at a time, they prefer direct, simple and clear messages, and, in further contrast to high context culture, the objectives and goals of people in low context culture are more important than relationships thus they tend to maintain emotional and physical distance one another.

When high context messages are placed at one end and low context messages at the other end of a continuum, US culture is toward the lower end of the scale, on the contrary, Japanese culture is toward the other end of the scale. Having mentioned that, US culture value on verbal communication over non-verbal communication, articulation over ambiguity, and explicitness in speech yet Japanese culture is just the opposite. Japanese tend to handle information in the unspoken, unformulated, inexplicit ways and consider too much articulation to be “talking down” to someone and excess explicitness to be unmannered. The viewers would recognize these high and low context communication styles apparent in these two films. American Beauty has substantially more conversations and direct speech pattern, on the other hand, indirect speech pattern and far less verbal expression appear in Nobody Knows.

In support of the evidence of high and low context communication in these films, there are certain visual traditions in the two films in question that require attention. In American Beauty, the viewers find Western classical visual conventions – the detailed depiction of reality, balanced symmetrical composition, harmonious proportion, geometric compositional formats – translated into its cinematography through symmetrical composition in shots, explicit depiction of color symbolism, the use of clear images over ambiguous haziness, and the use of linear vertical, horizontal lines in shots and stable camera movement.

As for the visual conventions in Nobody Knows, the film employs universal color symbolism and metaphor, however the film transmits their meanings and narratives to visual forms indirectly and rather ambiguously. We see this through asymmetrical composition, subtle use of color symbolism, washed-out camera effect, and a pastel effect by the use of lighting. Additionally, we see this through shadowy images, ample use of empty space in shots, handheld and constantly moving camera that creates mobile gaze.

Now let us look even more closely at these two films.

Color symbolism and motif

In American Beauty the main color scheme of is red, blue and white, a palette clearly referencing the colors of the US flag. Again, the film focuses its attention on a single character, Lester and his story of life, death and his discovery of true beauty in the world. The red rose is used to symbolize Lester’s lust and sexual desire for Angela. In Lester’s fantasies, Angela is shrouded in roses that cover her body.  Ironically Lester’s wife Carolyn has talent in raising red roses. The color red predominantly and rather dramatically appears throughout the film representing the Lester’s sexual desire and lust. Red also features prominently in Nobody Knows where it symbolizes the mother’s sexual desire but in much more subtle, implicit and indirect ways:  Mother helps Kyoko to apply red nail polish, Kyoko drops the bottle of red nail polish that leaves a red smudge on the wooden floor, and Yuki’s uses a red crayon to draw an image of his mother.


The composition in American Beauty is mostly angular and symmetrical. This composition portrays the characters’ straightforwardness and outright frankness that is characteristic of high context nature of communication style in US culture.

In the shot of the Burnham family at the dinner table, Carolyn is seated at one end, Jane in the middle, and Lester at the other end of a long table. The composition is symmetrical and lines are straight horizontally. The distance between Lester and Angela implies the emotional distance between them and Angela’s seating in the middle suggests that she is caught in between mom and dad. In this single shot the film reveals the relationships between characters and their emotional distances one another. The audience might not notice and what this setting meant but they subconsciously receive the message sent through this explicit visual placement.

In contrast, Nobody Knows favors diagonal, curved lines, and the film often includes circular objects, and shadowy images in the frames and preferences for composed shots in asymmetrical manners. There is a sequence of family dinner in Nobody Knows as well. It is the first day the family moved into their small apartment and it was the last meal the whole family having together. The camera never captures the entire family at the table in one frame nor reveal the whole figure of each person. The shots contain partial views of children and often distracted by an objects. The frames consist intricate lines created by chopsticks, edge of the table, window pane. The handheld and constantly moving camera is shaky and moves in diagonal direction that creates mobile gaze as if it hints the family’s unstable and tragic future. In Nobody Knows, the main conflict is between mother and Akira, the eldest son however the visual expression of this conflict in this film is never direct and straightforward rather subtle and indirect. We also see in Nobody Knows ample use empty space in the frames and shadowy images throughout the film which is a reflection of the use of implication and pauses in verbal communication; one of the nature of high context communication style. While the editing pace in American Beauty is the conventional length, Nobody Knows is characterized by long takes.


American Beauty employs modern style furniture and interior design in the color palette of bright saturated colors of red, yellow, blue and white. The rooms are packed with objects and pieces of furniture leaving no empty space. The boldness of the color scheme and the design and placement of objects in the film illustrate the explicitness of the low context communication.   In contrast, Nobody Knows uses pastel colors by the use of lighting and often washed-out camera effect. People in low context culture tend to say things in ambiguity, excess metaphors expecting the other persons would read the meanings between the lines. The preference of pastel, washed-out colors and blurry images is the representation of the tendency of this types of communication styles in low context culture.

Lines and camera angles

A strong emphasis on verticals and horizontals characterizes frames and camera movements in American Beauty. When the gun is pressed to Lester’s head, the position of the gun is parallel to the frame and pulls away to the left of the frame.  In other words, the camera tracks straight from left to right and then tracks sideways again as each character hears the shot. This camera movement visualizes the linear chronicle of the story.


In this presentation I have compared two vastly different films: the one, American Beauty, made in low context culture and the other, Nobody Knows, made in high context culture. Both of these films are works of art that demonstrate visual culture as shaped and influenced by hidden dimension of culture; styles of communication. The image of an iceberg is often used as a metaphor when explaining visible and invisible culture. What we see of the iceberg above the water line, typically what we erroneously perceive as the whole iceberg, is the culture of which we are conscious.  Yet the larger mass of the iceberg is hidden below the water line; that mass represents our subjective culture, that is our values, and habits of how we employ non-verbal communication.  These subjective aspects of culture have a great impact on observable and visible part of objective culture. The visible part of culture is a reflection of invisible part of culture and the invisible part of culture is reinforced by the visible part of culture.  In American Beauty I examined how invisible part of culture, direct and explicit way of communication styles expressed visually and in Nobody Knows, indirect and implicit way of communication styles evident in its framing, colors, lines and composition.

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