André Keiji Kunigami is one of UNC’s newest Carolina Postdoctoral Programs for Faculty Diversity fellows, awarded for his transnational work in film and media studies. Kunigami received the fellowship Oct. 9, alongside four other recipients, to begin their two-year paid postdoctoral position.
Kunigami is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work delves into the world of politics, film and the human experience in the two vastly different cultures found in Brazil and Japan. His work primarily focuses on how Japanese and Brazilian elites received cinema in the early 20th century and how Western film influenced their ideas of modernizing society and what kind of power relations may have formed from cinematic images, particularly between elites and oppressed groups.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘power of the image’ and especially cinema,” Kunigami said. “We live in a society that exposes images, more and more. There’s a certain trip you enter when experiencing a certain image.”
Kunigami’s research stemmed from his both his family history and his interest in film. Kunigami grew up and attended school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he began his academic journey before coming to the United States for a Ph.D. in 2012. Kunigami completed both an undergraduate and master’s program in Rio, balancing his media studies with working in Brazil’s television and film industry. He also taught history of Brazilian and world cinema at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio as well.
However, the passion for his studies goes beyond the classroom.
“It has given me a better understanding of power relations and what is at stake,” Kunigami said. “My academics being politicized, even though it may come through that way, have informed me on the importance of engaging in struggles, for minorities, against institutional powers.”
Kunigami believes his professors were integral in encouraging him to continue his studies in the United States for a better work environment where he could study in a more interdisciplinary environment.
“You don’t get paid a lot as a Ph.D. student,” Kunigami said. “I’d be able to focus on my work, where in Brazil, it was a little more difficult to do so. My professors saw a potential in going somewhere else.”
Although Kunigami didn’t ever expect to get an offer from graduate school, he received several offers from prominent American institutions. From there, Kunigami made his way straight to the Ivy League after receiving an offer from Cornell University.
“I didn’t even know about the Ivy League,” Kunigami said.
At Cornell, Kunigami received a Ph.D. in Asian Studies and later started his dissertation “Of Clouds and Bodies: Film and the Dislocation of Vision in Brazilian and Japanese Interwar Avant-garde,” which he will be revising for publication through his postdoctoral fellowship.
Kungami became familiar with UNC through scholars’ work in both Brazilian cinema and visual culture, through which he was notified about the postdoctoral position. While his research and projects were funded by Cornell, he thought that UNC would be a “more interesting environment, being a public university in the south.”
Considering UNC's geographical position, Kunigami's focus on Japanese film may seem out of place. However, Kunigami’s great-grandparents immigrated to Brazil from Japan, and while his family doesn’t speak Japanese, his family’s Japanese roots influenced him to study Japanese cinema and its demonstration of uneven power relations and racial tensions.
Kunigami said he’s always shared “critical views” of cinema, with special interest in the “relation between an image working on society and how society is unequally structured” in Japanese film. Before coming to UNC, he was offered a scholarship from the Japanese government to study film and history, paying particular attention to how American occupation in Japan before the 20th century may have affected Japanese film.
Professor Carolina Sá Carvalho in the Department of Romance Studies has known Kunigami long before his work at UNC started, sharing an academic history in Brazil and following Kunigami’s scholarly life through annual international conferences since.
“His work is very important because it brings to the center huge, different traditions and experiences that have been considered marginal in the history of film,” Carvalho said.
Carvalho said while he received the award through the Romance Studies Department, Kunigami’s work has created an interdisciplinary network of departments and scholars between the Romance Studies Department, Asian Studies and Film Studies, each of which supported Kunigami’s receiving of the award.
“It’s very important and enriching to have professors that can build the bridges between departments, because students are going to different departments and it will be important for professors to build collaborative work in classes,” Carvalho said.
While Kunigami said he was not expecting to receive the postdoctoral fellowship, Carvalho said she and the rest of her department are happy for him.
“I think his work is going to be a great contribution to our campus.”
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