Japanese experimental films available to Programmers

Joss Winn edq39077
Sun Jan 24 05:42:01 EST 1999

>Personally, I would be disappointed if your Eiga-Arts discussion departed
>us. Not only am I delighted to see some discussion of the avant-garde, but
>I am learning things. Tell us about the films/tapes that moved you!

Thanks Markus,

I will be writing informal reviews of each EIGA ARTS programme soon after
the screening date.  Since I also have a day job and my time is limited,
merely previewing work one after another doesn't give me the opportunity to
really think the films through.  Only enough time to watch each film once,
gather a general impression of it and decide whether it would be suitable
for the EIGA ARTS programme.  I've watched maybe 25 shorts/features in the
last week (late nights!) and in comparison with the work I am receiving
from the States, the Japanese films (perhaps a third of which are by Onishi
Kenji) are MUCH slower paced, most often silent or with no dialogue.  There
is a considerable amount of 8mm work, more than 16mm so far, and much of it
would come under the 'personal documentary' genre.  Of course, the films I
have been sent are also the films already selected to be shown at CINEMA
TRAIN, so I may be getting a very biased impression of recent Japanese
experimental work.

Next month (Feb. 27th) I have chosen to show (as well as some shorts from
the USA) Onishi's, A BURNING STAR.  It showed at Yamagata Int. Doc. Film
Fest. in 97, so some of you may have seen it.  It is a feature length
documentary showing the filmmaker's father's death and his coming to terms
with that death. In his chracteristic manner, Onishi pursues the subject to
the very end, with little regard for the strong social conventions that
shape the way we understand and relate to death and dying.  In that it
breaks social 'rules', it is a very personal documentary, and thus
difficult. Onishi's relationship with the dead body is always very intimate
(at one point, without any hesitation on screen, he goes so far as to
undress the body and play with his father's genitals) and this forces us to
question our own socially constructed conceptions of death and the
'appropriate' actions to perform after the loss of someone.  Coping with
death is one of the most ritually elaborate, socially inscribed and
culturally specific processes we can experience, yet when alone with his
father, Onishi rarely shows any concern for maintaining the rules which we
live by.  One might say that he is disrespectful, that he is exploiting his
father's body and humiliating not only his father but also the relatives
that continue to organise the cremation in the socially inscribed manner.
Yet, he does demonstrate an enormous amount of tenderness towards the body
and the pace of the film could be understood as respectfully quiet and
patient.  When I first watched the film, Onishi showed me a shortened
preview version that cut out the long periods of preparation for the
cremation and instead concentrated on the burning of the body.  The longer
version, in my opinion, does Onishi much more justice in developing the
relationship with his father.

The second half of the full length version, shows the body being burnt as
the camera (double Super 8 later transfered to 16mm) sits infront of the
open door to the fire and records the body melting away, the bones
crumbling and turning to ashes.  It initially seems rather macabre yet over
the course of perhaps 30mins or so or watching the body in what is one long
continuous shot except for film changes, I found myself feeling closer to
anything I can recall seeing on screen up until now. Not only in a physical
sense (and to see a real body decay real-time makes one very aware of one's
own physicality in relation to the physical body represented on screen),
but emotionally/intellectually too, I found myself 'participating' in the
funeral of a man I had not known.  My very notion of it being macabre
dissapeared and instead, I found myself understanding this act of filming
as perhaps the greatest display of affection and respect possible for
Onishi.  It was a painfully long goodbye and more personal and seemingly
more meaningful than any preordained ritual could have offered.

My only quibble over the film would be that by breaking the social
conventions and personalising the image of his father to such a degree,
Onishi perhaps paid disrespect to the relatives who were also mourning in
the more traditional way. One has to realise that a funeral is, like most
rituals, primarily a social event, and one which requires that everybody
understand their roles.  In the film at least, Onishi seems to disregard
these roles and thus the 'mechanics' of the ritual itself.  One wonders
what it must have been like to be one of the many relatives who had to to
watch Onishi wander around with a camera infront of his face, as
preparations were being made. However, they seem to show little concern
over him filming and I can only assume that they accepted it.

Onishi has said that the camera is "the most important aspect of the
absolute process of expression".  In A BURNING STAR, this is very apparent,
for when one expects him to stop filming and express himself in the manner
that other people are doing, he continues to film in what seems initially,
a cruel and thoughtless manner.  Only after some time (for me it was during
the burning of the body), do we realise that Onishi _is_ expressing the
grief, loss, respect and confusion that one would expect, only that it is
not being represented in front of us on screen (Onishi certainly doesn't
shed tears infront of the camera) but rather we are being forced to
experience his loss as our own also, with Onishi, through his 'camera eye'.
(The reference to Vertov is Onishi's own).

Having said all of this, I still don't feel like I have watched it
thoroughly (merely two rushed preview screenings) and will update my
thoughts after February's screening.


Joss Winn
1217 Shinden

Tel. (81)-(0)-(952)68-4722

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