Picture in Picture 2: Japanese Experimental Films of the Late 1970s & 1980s

May 2015
Portland, Oregon

For Cinema Project

White Hole by Toshio Matsumoto [Japan, 1979, 16mm, color, sound, 5 min.]
Box by Takashi Ito [Japan, 1982, 16mm, b&w and sepia, sound, 8 min.]
Phantom by Toshio Matsumoto [Japan, 1975, 16mm, color, sound, 10 min.]
Akuma No Kairozu/Devil’s Circuit by Takashi Ito [Japan, 1988, 16mm, color, sound, 7 min.]
Relation by Toshio Matsumoto [Japan, 1982, 16mm, color, sound 9 min.]
Venus by Takashi Ito [Japan, 1990, 16mm, b&w, silent, 7 min.]
Ki or Breathing by Toshio Matsumoto [Japan, 1980, 16mm, color, sound, 30 min.]

“We have to do more to irritate and disturb modes of perception, thinking, or feeling that have become automatized… I did several kinds of experiments from the 1970s to the 1980s that de-automatized the visual field. But when image technology progresses such that you can make any kind of image, people become visually used to that. That’s why there’s not much left today with a fresh impact. In this way, the problem is that the interpretive structure of narrating, giving meaning to, or interpreting the world has become so thoroughly systematized that one cannot conceive of anything else that is largely untouched. We have to de-systematize that.”[i]

Toshio Matsumoto’s most enduring influence is probably found in his writings on the dialectical synthesis of avant-garde and documentary filmmaking. This includes his book Discovery of Image: Avant-garde Documentary published in 1963 and film works like The Song of Stone from the same year. “One filmmaker and theorist who played a particularly important role in shaping the discourse on the image and contributed to the gradual decentering of cinema was Matsumoto Toshio.”[ii] He is also known, particularly in the US, for his experimental films of the 1960s and early 70s as well as his feature-length Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), which highly influenced Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Japan in the 1960s, as in Europe and the US, was a time of social upheaval, the period there labeled as the “season of politics” and defined particularly by a rapidly changing media environment that increasingly televised hijackings, hostage crises, and student protest. The 1970s were also fraught with political struggles due to the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty (first signed in 1952 following World War II). Matsumoto says that during the 1970s his desire was not to make message films about events like the Security Treaty renewal, but rather to “throw forth my premonitions about much larger movements in the earth’s crust, in the values and modes of perception of the world that would undermine modernity itself.”[iii] From there he then shifts his focus to technology and “experiments in context, experiments in deconstructing the contextual system through which people give meaning to or interpret the world.”[iv] The short films by Toshio Matsumoto presented in this program span a five-year period, 1975 to 1980, and represent both a sampling of these “experiments in context” like Relation (1980) and White Hole (1979), which both employ video synthesizers, as well as more cohesive meditations like Ki or Breathing (1980). Of working with video technology, Matsumoto says “I was fascinated by the dynamic possibility that this unknown externality, this interaction of man and machine, could rupture the modern world of the self.”[v]

It was also during this same period that Matsumoto was teaching in the Art and Technology Department of Kyushu Institute of Design in Fukuoka, Japan and where he became the graduate thesis advisor for Takashi Ito. Highly influenced by the photographic techniques that Matsumoto used in his film Atman (1975), Ito produced one of his most well-known films Spacy (1981) while still in school. The film was made from 700 continuous still photographs that were re-photographed frame-by-frame according to strict rules of circular and parabolic movement. Tonight’s program presents three works by Ito spanning from 1982 to 1990 that continue to demonstrate his penchant for technical experimentation. This is especially the case for Akuma No Kairozu/Devil’s Circuit (1988) in which a skyscraper quite literally becomes the focal point, placed at the center of an imaginary 500 meter radius. Ito divided the circle into 48 sections and vantage points from which to photograph the building at different times, editing the images together frame by frame. “The result is not only a beautiful study on the overarching presence of this building across the city, but also a richly detailed map in which the evil skyscraper is consistently contrasted with and contextualized against different or similar forms of urban landscape.”[vi] Ito’s methods, however, are also often a way of exploring the most human and personal of questions. Of the silent film Venus (1990), Ito describes it as a “work that began out of the search to understand the relation between the family and the self”[vii] in which a faceless mother and child stand in the park of a housing project.

Film is capable of presenting unrealistic world [sic] as a vivid reality and creating a strange space peculiar to the media. My major intention is to change the ordinary everyday life scenes and draw the audience (myself) into a vortex of supernatural illusion by exercising the magic of films.[viii]

[i] Aaron Gerow, “Interview with Matsumoto Toshio,” YIDFF:DocBox: #9 (Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, 1996).
[ii] Yuriko Furuhata, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013), 15.
[iii] Gerow, “Interview with Matsumoto Toshio.”
[iv] Gerow, “Interview with Matsumoto Toshio.”
[v] Gerow, “Interview with Matsumoto Toshio.”
[vi] “Takashi Ito Devil’s Circuit (1988),” The Sound of Eye Blog. http://thesoundofeye.blogspot.com/2010/09/takashi-ito-devils-circuit-1988.html
[vii] “Takashi Ito Filmography,” Image Forum Japan. http://www.imageforum.co.jp/ito/filmography_e.html
[viii] Takashi Ito, Image Forum (Japan, 1984).


Cinema Project wishes to thank:

Makino Takashi, Sakamoto Hirofumi and the Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive, Image Forum (Tokyo, Japan), Collectif Jeune Cinema (Paris, France), Felisha Ledesma, Alex Ian Smith, S1, Melina Coumas, Enrique Fuentes-Lungo, Oregon Community Foundation, Ace Hotel, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Cast Iron Coding, and Upfor Gallery.


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