Looking at Life through a Mask: An Autoethnographic Journey into the Worlds of Cancer

  • Shotaro Wake

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the intersection of observational filmmaking with auto-ethnographic writing, a combination not used very often but with great potential for visual anthropologists. I examine how my research and filmmaking over a ten-year period have been shaped both by my cancer experience as well as by my Japanese background. Using the metaphor "journey", I approach my own traumatic cancer experience and turn it into a field of study. My journey begins from the moment of my first cancer diagnosis and treatment in the US, moving through my second diagnosis in Norway, and leading up to my most recent fieldwork with a cancer support community in Japan. My auto-ethnographic journey illustrates how I altered my own relationship to my cancer, moving through critical encounters that transformed me from a silent sufferer to an attentive listener. These experiences have also influenced my metaphorical thinking about "dying well" to "living well" with cancer. My personal journey is closely linked to my professional one, and also affects my approaches to filmmaking. By meeting the anthropologist Paul Stoller, who has also lived in the world of cancer, I learned the importance of coming to terms with one's own cancer mask. This mask can easily evoke a sense of being trapped in a "continuous liminality" (Stoller 2005), a transitional state between health and sickness, hopefulness and hopelessness, past and future, life and death. How am I able, as a researcher and filmmaker, to go on with my life in this in-between state and attend to the lives of others through this cancer mask? In my recent fieldwork, I decided to enter the world of the cancer patients' shadow and met with the families of patients and bereaved families in a support group in Japan. I learned that they too wore a mask, though I struggled to establish friendships with them as my cancer status versus their caregiver status distanced us somewhat. I overcame this challenge by using the technique of collaborative filmmaking to seek mutual fellowship with them, and trying to create a shared space in-between, ma in Japanese, where we could meet and feel with each other (kyokan empathy). For that purpose, and combined with the technique of feedback screening, I used a mobile phone as a filming device to free up my face and to make me available as a listener for the filmed persons. The fieldwork resulted in the film To the Last Drop (2016). By combining the methods of auto-ethnographic writing and observational filmmaking, my personal account served to broaden my understanding of the experiences of those afflicted by cancer in Japan. Together, these methods expand on the space between, where suffering becomes visible and silence becomes audible, in a culturally sensitive way.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnthony Simpson (Supervisor) & Andrew Irving (Supervisor)


  • Autoethnography
  • Observational filmmaking
  • Silence
  • Cancer
  • Japan
  • Ma
  • Continuous liminality

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