In & Out of Japan: Documenting Travels in Japanese Experimental Film and Art 1960-1980
May 1, 2014
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Xiaofei Mo (XFM): We’re thrilled to have Julian Ross and Takahiko Iimura here tonight. Julian recently received his PhD from the University of Leeds where his research focused on experimental film in Japan from the 1960s and 1970s. He works extensively on archival material in Japan, Europe, and America. Tonight we are looking forward to learning more about the travels of Japanese artists in the 1960s and 1970s and the kind of contacts they made, how they shared their work, and what the discussion was at the time.
Julian Ross (JR): Thank you Asia Art Archive in America for arranging this. It’s a pleasure to be here. Takahiko Iimura and I have been working closely together primarily on his expanded cinema works, which is something that came out around 1965 and was a movement where filmmakers wanted to look outside of the cinema space and into alternative ways of projecting film beyond the format and the seat arrangement of audiences in the movie theater. They went into places like gymnasiums, big conference halls, and outside, to project film in performative ways. Takahiko Iimura was one of the pioneers of expanded cinema in Japan, doing such activities before the word came about, back in the early 1960s. Later he moved to New York in 1966 and then to Europe in 1972 and since then he’s been living between Tokyo and New York. I’m quite interested not only in his practice as an expanded filmmaker but also in his travels around the world, the networks he established, and how that influenced his own work. I am also interested in how, when he went back to Japan, his experience influenced Japanese cinema at large.
Today I’m going to talk about two things; the first half will be about the reception of Japanese film in Europe in this time period. A lot of the research about Japanese filmmakers living abroad is focused on the United States because most of the Japanese artists moved to the United States, but actually a number of Japanese artists also moved to Europe. Film gets distributed there quite a lot especially around film festivals, cinemas, and other similar institutions. The travels of these prints themselves weren’t only in the United States and Japan, but also in Europe. I want to shed a light with this presentation on the activities in Europe and how it might have impacted these artists. Afterwards I’m going to talk about Takahiko’s expanded cinema works, especially one called Shelter 9999 which he performed in New York. I would like to discuss some of the difficulties in approaching such works which are inherently ephemeral and performative. For example, Takahiko changed these works every time he presented them to different audiences. How to research such material is something I’m trying to work through now. I don’t yet have an answer for the right ways to approach these materials, so maybe we could discuss this together. So that’s going to be the structure of my talk. Now I’ll start with the distribution of Japanese experimental film in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe.
First of all, film festivals were a great place for Japanese filmmakers to send their works to get screened. The beginning of a network started in such spaces. A lot of the artists went to these festivals and met artists from other places. An international network came together and dispersed, but the communication remained; they kept talking. I think film festivals are a great place to start discussions of experimental film.
This is a flyer of a special program that was put together at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. It is still running and just started today. This special program presented in 1968 as part of the festival was on an animator called Yoji Kuri. I’m putting this one up here because Yoji Kuri was the most widely distributed experimental filmmaker from Japan at the time. He won various awards at Venice Film Festival and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. He was fairly well established in Europe, and a little later in the United States. After that his works were put into special programs that toured Europe to places such as the Nederlands Filmmuseum. There was a festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, called EXPRMNTL. This was basically considered the first experimental film festival in the world. The first one [which took place] in 1949 tried to screen everything that could be considered experimental film in film history, which is quite an ambitious program, and then every 5 years or so they presented another edition. The third one was presented in 1963 [and this time] a group of Japanese filmmakers won a group award. These are the filmmakers here.
This was the first time not only in Europe but also in Japan that Japanese experimental film was recognized as a movement, a movement of filmmakers working outside the film studios. These individual filmmakers didn’t really know each other, but they all sent films to this festival. Then, because they all won a group award, the Japanese art institutions got quite interested in what they were doing. Subsequently there was a film screening organized at a place called the Sogetsu Arts Center, which was the epicenter of the art scene in Japan at the time. Through participating in European film festivals, Japanese experimental film became established as a movement [in Japan].
Takahiko Iimura was there also. This is a ticket. You can find all such ephemera from Sogetsu Art Center digitized online at the Post website, which is an initiative of the Museum of Modern Art under the name CMAP. All of the flyers and tickets and information about the events that happened at the Sogetsu Art Center are available online. I recommend you look at it.
The subsequent festival, EXPRMNTL 4, again included a lot of Japanese filmmakers. I would like to share with you an incident that happened at the EXPRMNTL 4, involving the screening of a feature length film by the filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu called ‘The Embryo Hunts in Secret’ (1966). Koji Wakamatsu was working in the world of ‘pink’ film, an industry focused on soft-core pornographic films. His scriptwriters and assistant directors were experimental filmmakers so he blurred the boundaries between soft-core pornography and experimental film with his work, which is why I think his film was presented at EXPRMNTL 4. At the time in Germany there was a group of activists who were trying to disrupt this festival. In particular they saw this film as a fascist film because it depicts a man who traps this woman in his room and follows the proceedings there. But as the film concludes with the woman enacting revenge on her torturer, Wakamatsu conceived it as an anti-fascist film. These two ideologies clashed at this festival. There was a misunderstanding so the German student activists made a human pyramid in front of the screen, tried to burn the curtains, and chanted their slogans in front of the projections, as you can see a little bit here.
That’s ‘Embryo’ in the background. I just wanted to identify this occasion as a situation where misunderstandings occurred. I don’t know if it was due to the manner of presentation, or lack of information, or perhaps the ideas weren’t so clear, but on this occasion the ideas clashed. You see this happen quite a lot in film festivals presenting Japanese works.
Another event screening Japanese experimental films was the Edinburgh International Film Festival. They did a special presentation of Japanese film screenings in 1972. They presented a Yakuza film by Kinji Fukasaku together with an experimental film by Toshio Matsumoto. It’s a coupling that’s completely bizarre, as these [two] films have nothing to do with each other. But, because they were both from Japan, they were put together in such a way. So again it was a bit of a misunderstanding of the material. Tracing these misunderstandings is interesting because we can see what film festival programmers and curators were looking for in these works. Often you will find that screenings of experimental films from Japan at the time emphasized erotic elements. The organizers programmed these films around an eroticism, a sort of exotic, orientalist eroticism, that they projected onto the works.
Other spaces that screened Japanese experimental films at the time were museums, galleries, and alternative spaces. This was an exhibition called ‘Fluorescent Chrysanthemum’ that happened at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London in December 1968- January 1969. It was seen as the first presentation of Japanese contemporary art in Europe and many artists operating primarily around the Sogetsu Art Center were exhibited here. The critics in Japan who were very close to the activities at the Sogetsu Art Center were the curators for this exhibition as well. What’s interesting about this exhibition, among many things, was that they presented film amongst other art forms, which was quite rare at the time.
This is the spatial arrangement of the exhibition, and we see at the very end, there is a space for films. I’ve yet to see any photographs of the screening space but I’ve been told it was a blackened space and the films were on a loop, which is a little bit strange considering the program in its entirety would’ve been about two and a half hours long. We can assume most people didn’t watch everything [that was screened] there, but this was basically one of the first presentations of Japanese experimental films in London grouped in such a way. Most of the films there were winners at the Sogetsu Experimental Film Festival that was established in 1967. These were the films.
Some of you might recognize a few of these names. There’s Yoji Kuji here. There’s Norio Imai who was a member of Gutai. You might have seen his work at the Guggenheim recently. There’s Tadanori Yokoo who made some animations. What’s interesting about this program is it’s a real mixture of people who work in graphic design and illustration, such as Yoji Kuri and Tadanori Yokoo, but also underground filmmakers like Hara Masato who was making [works that had] nothing to do with illustration. It’s quite a mishmash of things. I would say the illustration and animation works had a stronger relationship with the [themes of the] exhibition. Most of these were posters and graphic design works that were shown at this exhibition.
Now I’ll talk about a six-month tour of Europe that Takahiko Iimura did, and he and Akiko are here now! So I’ll just quickly introduce the artists. Takahiko Iimura is a filmmaker and a video artist. I’ve been working together with his personal material. I’m now going to talk about the European tour that both of you, [his wife] Akiko and Takahiko, embarked on in January 1969 for six months. Part of my research has been trying to trace their footsteps, where they screened and how they were received. I also want to introduce [his wife] Akiko Iimura. She is also a filmmaker whose work was presented a few weeks ago at the Microscope Gallery.
I’m now going to talk a little bit about your European tour. Your tour went to many places. The other day I found a flyer at the Eye Film Institute in the Netherlands, which used to be the Nederlands Filmmuseum, where Takahiko Iimura showed his work on this tour. Like I mentioned before, a lot of the events, including the flyers and posters that I’ve found for this European tour, emphasized the eroticism in Takahiko Iimura’s works. There are a number of Iimura’s films that deal with the body, but if you look at this poster, there’s a strong association between Japan as an idea and an erotic image of the body. This is Ai (Love) (1963) which depicts an extreme close-up of two people, probably having sex, very close together.
You are never able to identify them by face, you just see these body contours come together, and it’s quite abstract. Here’s a review after a screening in Copenhagen. Again the eroticism is emphasized in his work.
This one is from Kassel. Takahiko Iimura not only brought his films on this tour but he also brought his friends’ work from Japan. This is a list of films that he took with him in addition his own. These are the three films by Nobuhiko Obayashi, Kenji Kanesaka, Yoichi Takabayashi. Obayashi, Kanesaka, and Iimura often presented together as a group, the Film Independents, and Kanesaka was a filmmaker who made films in Chicago in the mid-60s. He also moved in and out of Japan. These artists were grouped together in Japan as underground filmmakers and on this tour Iimura showed his friends’ work to audiences all around Europe. He visited over ten countries and many cities, the details of which I’m still trying to pull together. One of the places that he visited was the Arts Lab in London and there was a space called Better Books which was both a bookshop and a performative space where many British filmmakers went to screen their works and stage expanded cinema pieces.
When Better Books had to shut down, these filmmakers moved to this space called the Arts Lab, which is where Iimura screened on his return trip to London. Through this visit to London, Iimura established a strong relationship with British filmmakers such as Malcolm Le Grice. These filmmakers were working in structuralist film that can be loosely described as an approach to film that is very material. They work with the materiality of the actual filmstrip. They don’t deal with narrative but rather with the concept of time as tangible in the filmstrip. Iimura established this relationship with them and continues to be invited back to London to screen the works.
This is a letter from David Curtis, an invitation to screen at the Arts Lab, and this is a flyer at the National Film Theater where many of these British filmmakers presented their works and Takahiko Iimura presented his own structuralist works as well.
Iimura went back [to Europe] again in 1979, and once again takes not only his own films but also other Japanese filmmakers works and tours them around the United States and Europe, to places like the Pompidou Centre, and particularly to this Hayward Gallery exhibition that ran in conjunction with screenings at the National Film Theater in London. His activities of not only showing his own films but also his friends’ work from the Japanese experimental film scene around Europe and the United States was crucial, I think, in establishing recognition of such a movement in Japan, among audiences and filmmakers in Europe and the United States. This work and his mobility were really crucial for the recognition of such Japanese experimental film at this time.
Takahiko Iimura moved to New York in 1966 and stayed there until 1969 and then did the European tour, and then went back to Europe, and [lived] in Berlin from 1972 to 1974 and then moved to Paris in 1974 for a year. Initially there was a strong relationship with the United States and that continues but also there’s also an involvement with Europe that I’d like to emphasize. In Europe at the time there was a movement towards structuralist films as I’ve just mentioned, particularly in Britain, and I think that Takahiko Iimura’s own work moves in that direction as well. There was an impact from these travels on his own practice as he starts working on structuralist film and also film installation where he uses gallery spaces and installs the projector and the filmstrip in sight for the visitors. It’s as much about the sculptural material quality of film as what the projection is about. His work moves towards this direction.
I’d like to talk now for the second half of the presentation about Takahiko Iimura’s work in New York. Firstly, it’s hard to see here, but a lot of his work and his friend’s work was screened not just in Europe but in the United States too. This was a screening organized by Donald Richie, an American who moved to Japan after WWII and wrote books on Ozu and Kurosawa. He was also an experimental filmmaker himself and he took many of his colleagues’ films in Japan back to the United States when he became a film curator at the MoMA and presented Japanese experimental filmmakers’ works there.
This is a presentation in 1968 in Toronto organized by Joyce Wieland, a big showcase that mostly involved performative film projections. Takahiko Iimura’s work from such encounters and presentations, I think, moved heavily towards performative film projections. This is the Offices of Black Gate with Takahiko Iimura here. Aldo Tambellini is there, and Toshio Matsumoto is on the right side there. Toshio Matsumoto is a Japanese experimental filmmaker who visited Iimura and presented some of his works including his triple-projection piece called For My Damaged Right Eye. This was presented together with Iimura’s Circles, another multi-projection piece, so again Iimura continues to be a center point for this network between Tokyo and New York.
I’d like now to talk about a performance called Shelter 9999 which was a collaboration with Alvin Lucier, a musician you might know. The performance involved multiple film- and slide-projections that were presented together with live music and performance by Alvin Lucier. They collaborated together to do these performances and projections in various places, including the Electric Circus, as part of a series called ‘The Electric Ear’, at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque and at the Black Gate. This is the Gray Hall in Hartford so these presentations were not just in New York. Recently when I was in Tokyo working through his personal archives, we found the film print used for Shelter 9999 which not even Iimura had seen since presenting these performances. Inside the film case, we found these instructions that were taped onto the film case.
As you can see, parts of [the instructions] have been crossed out and written over. We were able to see under the marker prints when we cast it under light. You can see the instructions for the first performance. Considering these performances, it’s interesting to see they were so malleable, so open to change. Takahiko Iimura wanted to do something different in his presentation on each occasion, which presents a problem for us as art historians or researchers because it’s very difficult to trace what happened at each event. We can make a chronology and speculate but it’s quite a difficult task to navigate the journey of these activities. What’s important is the very fact that they changed every time, which I think is what Takahiko Iimura was looking to do. For these expanded cinema pieces, the very idea of them being ephemeral and changing every time was what interested both Alvin Lucier and Takahiko Iimura, I feel. I think this is a nice example because of course it’s great to upload all of these flyers and posters and instructions onto an online platform, but this is something that you’d have to see in a physical archive to understand. There are different layers to these instructions that are very hard to show on an online platform. We also found in a box many of the slides that were used as part of the performance, including this one.
Again there were sometimes two slide projectors, sometimes more – it depended on each screening. This is just one example of the slide projections. Right now I’m quite interested in slide projections because they were used in many expanded cinema performances in Japan, and also a little later in film installations, presented together with film projections. Often film archives don’t preserve slides. They’re often left abandoned in the artist’s basement and places like that, so what I’m trying to say is maybe we should start focusing on these slide projections which were as important as the film projections for these performances, in order to get a full understanding of these performances.
Maybe I’ll stop here because it’d be nice to hear from Takahiko Iimura, and maybe if we have time we could show New York Scenes which I have ready for you. It is silent, so maybe you could talk through what you’re seeing.
Takahiko Iimura (TI): I had forgotten almost everything. This presentation was a good reminder.
JR: Did it trigger any memories of your trip around Europe specifically?
TI: Yes, actually it reminded me of my first trip to Europe. It took me six months to visit forty cities, travelling with Akiko and a big reel of film, travelling from one station to the next station, not knowing exactly where we would stay the night! So wherever I’d go I’d call friends, filmmakers, asking where I could stay. Just getting to their houses created lots of experiences.
JR: I remember you said when you started the European tour you only had a few screenings arranged in advance, so it was very much in the making while you were travelling around.
TI: That’s right. I kept calling people ahead in time. It was a lot of work but I was young so I enjoyed my first experience.
JR: How about your moves to Berlin and to Paris?
TI: I got a grant from Berlin. I went and stayed there for a year. It was very new for me, staying in Germany. Berlin was a very active city at that time, before the Wall came down. Very lively. It had a lot of screenings and discussions. One day a young man showed up and said ‘There is going to be a big demonstration against the American invasion of Chile. Why don’t we all go to street and demonstrate. Why don’t you stop the screening?’ He asked me this but I said, ‘I don’t want to stop the screening; if you want to go that’s ok, but I don’t want to stop it.’
JR: Which I guess goes back to what I was talking about with The Embryo Hunts in Secret at EXPRMNTL IV, which was also obstructed. What was the reason for you to move to Paris afterwards? Were there any encounters you’d like to share?
TI: I was very much interested in Paris as well, though experimental film was very different there. In Paris they had other groups. Structural film was not very well known there. They had more image-oriented films but still I had the freedom to show and discuss things, so I had quite a nice time there too.
JR: Maybe also a question about your performative projections, what you might call expanded cinema. Was there any sort of desire on your part to document what you did at each screening? Did you prepare how [you would] present these works or was it a live presentation, conceived in the moment?
TI: Sometimes I’d think about it a lot advance, sometimes I had some kind of minimal goals, but sometimes it was very improvisational. It started when I began showing experimental film in 1963 at the Naiqua Gallery, Tokyo, which a friend of mine ran. I wanted to do something more than just film projection, something with my action involved, and to do something with the projection itself as well. Later in 1963, I projected onto the back of my friend Jiro Takamatsu for a performance called Screen Play. I will be performing it again later this month on the 23rd at the Millennium in Brooklyn. The performative aspect of film projection very much involved myself from the beginning and I still enjoy doing that.
JR: What was your collaboration with Alvin Lucier like?
TI: Well, I got to know him in Boston when I was first invited to Harvard University in 1966. He was living in Boston near Harvard, so we decided to do something together. We had the piece called Shelter 9999. He was involved in playing live action performance and music, and I was involved in live action projection, using projectors and slide projectors and various actions. So it was a kind of live event with music and film. It was very much my idea combined with his.
JR: Maybe we should now start the film. We’re going to show New York Scenes from 1967. This was a film shot basically on your first trip to New York, and speaking of live projections, this film is divided into sections that are quite cohesive in themselves. What Takahiko sometimes did was present them in a different order with multiple projections, so you’d see the film in different order on two screens.
TI: I now remember this recording myself. 100 feet of film lasts around 2 and a half minutes, and I devoted an entire roll of film to one particular idea, so each reel ended up with a different idea, either in terms of the subject matter or film style. Sometimes I showed two reels with two projectors together, and sometimes one after the other, so the different combinations can be presented either simultaneously or chronologically.
Audience member: It was silent at the time or was there projected sound?
TI: It was silent.
JR: Jack Smith is in the film. What was your relationship with him?
TI: Oh that’s right. I got to know him by chance somehow. It’s a kind of portrait of him and he didn’t like to be shot. He was always somehow uncomfortable, which you can see by how he’s behaving. I put him through it anyway which I felt very guilty about, but I kept shooting and this is the result.
JR: I just wanted to emphasize that these encounters happened when you moved to New York and these are the collaborations that you got out of it.
Do we have time for questions for either Takahiko Iimura or myself?
XFM: Yes. Perhaps I can start with the first question. Was the film projected as one projection or two overlapping projections, and did you perform during the film as well?
TI: In this case there was no live performance during the projection. That’s the way it was shot. There were some double or triple exposures, a way to overlap images.
XFM: How was it made? You just made the footage and then superimposed it?
TI: This was mostly shot on 8mm so I just rewound the film during the shoot. I remembered what I shot but without knowing exactly how long it was. It happened more or less without precise calculations.
Audience Member: When you were travelling in Europe in the 60s, even if you said that you were showing experimental film or underground film, was the people’s understanding of experimental film different from place to place? I ask this question because I recently went to a screening by Tomonari Nishikawa at Anthology Film Archives. I think you were there as well. He said that he got the idea of experimental film in the States and got training here in the States. But he said when he went back to see experimental filmmakers in Japan, the practice of the filmmakers there was a bit different. I’m just interested in your take on this.
TI: I got into film in the first place in Tokyo, where I learned what was going in America in the early 1960s, although I never had the chance to see the films themselves. I just read about it in the paper or magazines. A friend of mine, Donald Richie, showed me American magazines so I got to know about it that way. I then sent my films to New York to Jonas Mekas, and he liked them. Without knowing who I was, he reviewed it in the Village Voice. I was surprised, so I wanted to come to New York.
XFM: Do you collaborate, you and Akiko?
TI: She is a filmmaker too but we do not collaborate, except of course she cooks and I eat and make film.
Audience Member: What took you into doing the more performative works, after you had worked in straight-forward single screen works? I wonder if there’s any relationship between the process you were talking about for New York Scenes where you were shooting on camera and your move to performance. How do you understand the relationship between shooting and projecting?
TI: I began considering the act of filming as a performance. I worked with butoh dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in Tokyo, shooting their performances. I was on the stage, on the same level, not only following them but also conceiving my action with the camera as part of the performance. At the screening of the film, the audience sees my own performance through film, as they can follow and trace how I was responding to the dance. So, in that sense, there is sort of a double meaning – what I see and how I see it. It’s as important as the subject, so that’s how I understand the act of filming as a performance in itself. Sometimes I also use the projector as a tool for performance. I use projectors that have different types of functions, which lets me manipulate the film – I can slow it down, rewind the film, and even take the lens out so all you will see is the projection light. It’s kind of like a musical instrument but with film and light.
Audience Member: The presentation mentioned the element of eroticism with the films, and I wonder when the films were touring in Europe and here, did people respond differently to that? Did it provoke people or not, in different ways?
TI: Yes, that happened. When I showed it for the first time at Harvard University, I was participating in their international seminar. When I tried to show it to all the students, the school said ‘show me first,’ so I showed the administrator and they said it was not good for students. Only the faculty could look at it. That was in 1966. The students still weren’t able to see it at that time. Soon after, it was possible not at Harvard, but at Yale. I went to Yale and I was able to show the film. Yale was more progressive perhaps.
XFM: There are probably many more questions, but we’ll have to stop now. Thank you very much Takahiko and Akiko, and thank you Julian for the presentation.
Julian Ross is a researcher, curator, and writer. Having recently completed his PhD on Japanese expanded cinema at the University of Leeds, he has curated film series for Anthology Film Archives, Eye Film Institute, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Close-Up Film Centre. He was an assistant curator for the touring retrospective series on the Art Theatre Guild of Japan at Museum of Modern Art, Pacific Film Archives, and British Film Institute. He is the Editor of Vertigo and his writing has appeared in Post, Desistfilm, and Impure Cinema (I.B. Tauris 2014).
Takahiko Iimura is a filmmaker and artist who lives between Tokyo and New York making film and video works for screenings, performances and installations since the 1960s. A pioneer of expanded cinema, film installations, and video art in Japan, Iimura’s extensive body of work has screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, and the Centre Georges Pompidou. His works were shown at the recent exhibitions Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Experimental Grounds 1950s at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.