Close Up

23 November 2010: Nippon Year Zero: Japanese Experimental Films from the 1960s-1970s


Close-Up and Zipangu have collaborated for the 1st annual Zipangu Fest to put together a programme of Japanese independent and experimental cinema from the 1960s. This special event includes films never before screened in the UK and offers an engaging insight into a decade that was defined by political ferment and avant-garde activity in all sectors of its art world.

The three chosen filmmakers, Donald Richie, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masanori Oe, all capture the zeigeist they were intrinsically a part of, yet articulate themselves in ways that range from the poetic to the abrasive, often mixing the two expressions.

The retrospective programme invites its audience to an introduction to Japanese experimental filmmaking through the eyes of three landmark figures in the independent art scene.  

Donald Richie
1962 | 22 min | B/W | 16mm

Wargames is a neatly balanced cine-poem on violence and innocence and a quietly observed soliloquy on freedom. The portrait of children enacting the creation and breakdown of a community captures Richies’ charming persona and endearing view of the world yet unearths some deeply felt loathing for humanity and its history. Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the originator of the (in)famous dance form butoh, assisted Richie in production and the result is a masterpiece in visual poetry that is a treasure to behold.

Dead Youth
Donald Richie
1967 | 13 min | B/W | 16mm

By 1967, Richie was considered an established independent filmmaker, screening his work at legendary Tokyo venues Sogetsu Art Centre and Theatre Scorpio, as well as receiving a collective award at the first Knokke-Le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival in Belgium with the Film Independents. Dead Youth provides another testament to the elegance of his artistic vision, as sombre emotions and painful memories are transmitted without the use of dialogue.

"Oh, movies can do anything that life can do. They can move you, they can teach you, they can make you meditate, and they can make you dream. They can do everything that life can do. They're a simulacrum. This is their great power" – Donald Richie

Shinjuku Station
Motoharu Jonouchi
1974 | 15 min | B/W | 16mm

The Shinjuku district was the epicentre of Tokyo’s art scene and the political fever pitch where protests took place on a regular basis during the 1960s. Jonouchi’s compilation footage of the area defies documentary imagery and transforms itself into something altogether more poetically subjective, attempting to capture the chaos of the location through his camerawork and editing. In 1974, Jonouchi projected images of the past onto himself whilst reciting Dada-influenced and virtually inaudible poetry generating a cacophony of images and sounds, drawing from and participating in the maelstrom of political and artistic expression during the era.

Gewaltopia Trailer
Motoharu Jonouchi
1968 | 12 min | B/W | 16mm

The title Gewaltopia Trailer has a dual meaning in the Japanese language; one meaning for the word yokoku (trailer) could mean a compilation of extracts to promote a film, but it can also mean a prediction, a prophecy for the future as a Gewaltopia. The film accumulates footage from his earlier films and arranges them in different contexts, a characteristic style of Jonouchi’s who often re-edited his films for each screening and provided different soundtracks. The jarring aural atmosphere, exemplary of the emergent noise-music scene, haunts the screen in an oppressive hypnosis and will seduce you into entrancement.

Great Society
Masanori Oe
1967 | 17 min | Colour and B/W | Digital

If Richie’s films were an American’s insight into Japan, Oe’s six-screen projection piece Great Society takes the intercultural dialogue back full circle onto the U.S., where he accumulated a compilation of American news footage and avant-garde imagery into a hybrid mesh to express distrust in singular point of views. A project commissioned by CBS, the six screens presented interact, mirror and fissure against one another, emanating an aura of vibrancy and confusion that was internationally a characteristic of the decade.

Notes on the Filmmakers

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is best known as a legendary commentator on Japanese culture, co-author of the definitive guide to Japanese cinema, Japanese Film: Art and Industry, and a regular contributor to The Japan Times. Little known is the fact that he is also a creator of moving images as poetic as his writing, and was a key figure in the underground art scene of Tokyo where he introduced American experimental cinema to Japanese artists and participated in the collective Film Independents alongside Takahiko Iimura, Nobuhiko Obayashi and Kenji Kanesaka.

Motoharu Jonouchi

Motoharu Jonouchi was one of the leaders of the Nihon University Film Studies Club and the legendary VAN Film Research Centre where artists enacted cross-disciplinary collaborations to explore the art of film. Jonouchi, also the assistant director on Hiroshi Teshigahara’s feature-debut Pitfall (1962), picked up his camera to record artistic events, such as ‘happening’ art by Hi-Red Centre in Hi-Red Centre Shelter Plan (1964) and butoh dance in Hijikata Tatsumi (1967), as well as socio-political protests in Mass Collective Bargaining At Nihon University (1968) and the emergence of drug experimentation in Document LSD (1962). Yet what was most remarkable about Jonouchi was his ability to integrate his personal vision into his documentation, creating a concoction of personal and collective, imaginary and tangible spaces.

"In their meticulous assemblage of individual shots of different spaces imbued with the symbolic significance of political confrontation, [Jonouchi’s films] rejected the theatrics of spectacle, instead establishing a radical materialism of spaces in both structure and methodology" – Jonathan Hall

Masanori Oe

Relocating to New York in 1965, Masanori Oe participated in the cultural and psychedelic revolution of the 1960s that took place in North America, which would alter his life and art from thereon. His drug-induced internal experiences were projected externally onto his filmmaking practice, where he pursued exhibition formats that went beyond fixed-frame projections to explore other reams in expanded cinema and environmental art. He later joined Jonas Mekas’ collective Newsreel and interacted at the Third World film studios with distinguished experimental filmmakers such as Stan Vanderbeek. Upon his return to Japan in 1969, he reignited the Japanese underground (angura) art scene and joined Zerojigen in their infamous street performance-rituals to document their happenings in The White Hare Of Inaba (1970).

We would like to thank Go Hirasawa (Meiji Gakuin University) for his contribution to the programme and arrangement of print distribution. His edited text Underground Film Archives meticulously documents the Japanese underground filmmaking scene in the 1960s, and was a valuable reference point for our programme. Our thanks also extend to the Image Forum and Donald Richie.