27 Years Without Images

By Julian Ross

anabasis-of-may-eric-baudelaire-2.jpgThe Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images, 2011

With his docu-essay The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images (2011) as the nebulas, Eric Baudelaire has created an installation of photographs, drawings, newspaper clippings and paintings that surround the film for his first solo exhibition in the UK.[1] Bringing together the constellation of facts while, at the same time, fragmenting any sense of cohesion, the exhibition contemplates the haze between reality and representation, distance and attachment – dichotomies that all subjects of Baudelaire’s exhibition had to defy in their journey marked as "anabasis" on the walls at Gasworks.

After Masao Adachi, one of Baudelaire’s subjects, directed his film Galaxy (Gingakei) in 1967, his  story continued in directions even unforeseeable to him.[2] On his return journey back from the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, Adachi and his colleague Kôji Wakamatsu visited Beirut, where they collaborated with the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] to co-direct the newsreel report, The Red Army/PFLP: Declarations Of World War (1971). When they met the leader of the Japanese Red Army, Fusako Shigenobu – in hiding in the Middle East for over thirty years – she gave birth to her daughter May, who also remained "invisible" and under many aliases for safety purposes. Exploring Adachi’s "landscape theory" in conjunction with Mamoru Sasaki and Masao Matsuda for their film A.K.A Serial Killer (1969), Baudelaire’s display addresses the ethics of representation as it pulls together the fragments that remain after 27 years without images. 

Julian Ross: How did you start this project? And why did you decide to focus on May Shigenobu, Fusako Shigenobu and Masao Adachi in your film?

Eric Baudelaire: I've always had an interest in the left-wing student movements of the 1960s and the way they gave birth, as they dwindled, to small, underground, more radical and more violent movements in Europe. The Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, for example. In 2008, I was in an artist's residency in Japan and I became interested in the Japanese Red Army [JRA]. Very little has been published about them in the West, so in the process of researching the JRA I came into contact with May Shigenobu and found her story to be an interesting starting point because she wasn't somebody who decided to participate in the journey of the JRA, she was born into it. I thought it was an interesting way to approach the subject and we did a series of interviews not knowing what direction the film would take... I watched these interviews intermittently for a couple of years trying to figure out what to do with them and feeling stuck because I knew I didn't want to make a strictly biographical movie. I also watched a lot of films from that era, including the films by Masao Adachi, and found that there was an interesting relationship between May's personal narrative and Adachi's journey as a filmmaker and revolutionary. There was a film to be made about the relationship between politics, images and personal life, and my film stemmed from that – articulating these narratives around the question of images.

JR: What did your artist residency in Japan involve? Is filmmaking your main mode of expression or do you work with other media?

EB: I'm a visual artist, mostly interested in the relationship between art and politics, and specifically interested in the relationship between images and events. I've had a practice that has spanned photography, printmaking, installation work and, recently, a lot of video work. In Japan, I was not making any images myself and mostly put together projects related to found images. I became very interested in the history of censorship in Japan, and the forms of bokashi, the blurring or scratching of printed images meant to remove traces of the "obscene". I made a couple of short films, one about scratched images called [sic] (2008) and another based on found images paired with unfinished scripts by Michelangelo Antonioni called The Makes (2009).[3] I'm not a documentary filmmaker by trade – I'm more interested in whatever medium functions as a way of discussing ideas I come across and I seek formal solutions to resolve problems that relate to the production or consumption of images. So I don't consider my film Anabasis... as emanating from the tradition of documentary per se; I see it emanating from the practice of trying to find the points of intersection between cinema, politics and images.

anabasis-of-may-eric-baudelaire-3.jpgThe Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images, 2011 

JR: I could really see that you were interacting with the ideas explored in the subject, not only in its subject matter but also in its entire approach. In the film, Adachi describes the shooting of AKA Serial Killer as a screenplay hunt rather than a location hunt. I was wondering whether this approach was similar to what you were doing in the film? Would you call your film a screenplay hunt?

EB: I guess it is... I'm very interested in the idea that the film writes itself over a long period of time, as you are yourself learning about the story. Of course, there is a tension there, because when you're trying to get funding for filmmaking, you're supposed to write the film in a proposal form in order to get money for it. There's a structural hypocrisy in the funding process, because you have to write the story of a film you have no idea whether you are going to make or not... but that's a different story. In this case, I had May's narrative and I knew there was a film to be made around it. But as you said, the film really wrote itself later, in the process of thinking about what she had talked about and watching Adachi's films. By the time I got to interview Adachi himself, I had read pretty much everything that I could find written about him, so I had a very good sense of how I was going to conduct the interview. In a way, the editing process was very complicated when I was trying to organise May's story, but by the time I sat down with Adachi, the structure of the film was pretty much resolved. Since he's a filmmaker himself, I think there was a collaborative nature to the project in that he anticipated the arch of the story based on our email exchanges. He understood the story I was trying to tell and he was really a collaborator in that sense. So the film was essentially written through spoken word, through an oral history. The actual filming of the images, because they are dissociated from the filming of the interviews, came in at a secondary stage. It was simply a matter of going to different places in Japan and Lebanon linked to the biographies of the two characters and making the images that would be edited onto the voices.

JR: Referring back to AKA Serial Killer, Adachi and his collaborators wanted to understand the landscapes of what the serial killer Norio Nagayama had seen or might have seen. In a way, you did the same with Adachi as you went to Lebanon to shoot images of landscapes he may have seen or had once inhabited. Did you feel you got to understand Adachi better through this process?

EB: Your question speaks to the fascinating nature of "landscape theory" but also perhaps to its limitations. Landscape theory claims that by filming the surroundings – the topography of the land – you are able to decipher political constructs that are going to influence human behaviour, especially when human behaviour goes wrong, or at least escapes what our societies deem acceptable – a serial killing or, in the case of Adachi, a radicalised political engagement. But I filmed landscapes 30 years after some of the events that unfolded within them... so there is something forensic about the way I applied the "landscape theory". Adachi imagined a theory that aims to decipher causes; perhaps what I actually filmed were results: the state of the landscape after the tremendous transformations engendered by the political situation Adachi engaged in. When turning a camera towards downtown Beirut today, we see things that are radically different from what they looked like at the time Adachi was living there. In some cases we are seeing the remnants of war – war-torn buildings that have not been reconstructed – but in most cases we see the brand new architectures that have been built in the past five or six years with money from the Emirates in a globalised architectural language that makes Beirut look like Dubai or Monaco. In this homogenising of the landscape, in this period of history, everything is starting to look the same. So it's a different approach to "landscape theory" in that sense, because half of what I'm showing is what Japan has become and what Lebanon is becoming, and while this obviously relates to the political history that unfolded there, perhaps we should call this practice by a new name... the "forensic landscape theory"?

JR: When Adachi talks about shooting AKA Serial Killer, he mentions that, when they shot outside of Tokyo, they saw that everything was becoming like Tokyo, the homogenised space you've just described. Both May and Adachi talk about the suffocation of where they used to be. Adachi talks about the suffocating environment of the high-rise buildings in Tokyo and outside; May mentions how she felt like a fish trying to grasp for air. Did you feel the same suffocation on your visit to these spaces?

EB: Adachi speaks of the suffocation of living in Japan in the 1960s, less than twenty years after the Second World War, in a period that was very complicated, in a society very much in denial about the past, and in full transformation. The experience is different today, because the transformation he spoke of is almost complete. The de-politicisation of Japan has gone much further than in the 1960s, and I definitely felt something oppressive in the homogenised landscape – the fact that everything looks similar whether you're in northern Japan, in Tokyo or in Kyushu. I can definitely understand a feeling of suffocation that comes from that. But I think the suffocation that May is discussing in the film is more about how she's not allowed to exist as herself. She was caught up in somebody else's story – she had no space, as a child or as an adolescent, to be herself. She had to change her identity every few months, and she couldn't just be, so her suffocation had to do with different dynamics than Adachi's. Paradoxically, Adachi talks about his time in Beirut as quite free and exhilarating compared to the Japanese life he escaped from.

anabasis-of-may-eric-baudelaire-5.jpgThe Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images, 2011  

JR: I was interested in what you said in the post-screening discussion about May's new found identity as a mediatised figure. In the recent documentaries, as well as her presence on TV as a commentator, do you feel she has been able to find herself?

EB: Among the children who were brought up within the JRA, in Lebanon, most of them have chosen to live their lives completely outside of the spotlight. They've married and had children and they don't give interviews and want to just get on with their lives. May is a natural inheritor of her mother's narrative in the sense that she's decided to become a public figure. She's embraced the part that was offered to her when she came out of hiding. I think she's very interested in using different modes of communication – and different methods than her mother – to get her political story across. I think May's strong relationship to media is related to the fact that she had no visual existence – no official existence – until age 27 and she probably felt a need to compensate for that after she came out into the world. And I don't simply mean this in the psychoanalytical sense, she also understands that the media platform that she has today is a way to continue a form of struggle and express her political views on the Palestinian question and the politics of the Middle East. She's interested in using her position as a public person to further the causes she believes in.

JR: Why did you decide to shoot on Super 8?

EB: I didn't initially plan shooting on film – it's a complicated choice of medium for financial reasons – but the choice of using Super 8 happened somewhat coincidentally. The first reason is that I was in Tokyo and I was trying to apply this theory of landscape whilst I was walking around a city that is almost an HD city. Filming with an HD camera and watching these HD images on my computer at night felt like there was no cinematic transformation – as if there was an uninterrupted chain of high-definition – and I found that very frustrating. I also found it difficult to be in the streets of Tokyo filming with a Canon camera, which looks like a sort of photo-camera, sticking it into people's faces on the sidewalk. I wasn't comfortable with that. My assistant in Tokyo had a Super 8 camera lying around in her apartment and I just grabbed it one day and something immediately unlocked. The tool itself, the sound it makes, the way it's handled, the way people relate to you in the street when you're filming with a Super 8 camera – it suddenly became a lot easier to work and to find my own visual language and interpretation of the landscape theory. There's also the question of the scarcity of film – you have to be much more precise about what you're filming – you can't enter into this bulimic relationship to images because you have to count every second. It somehow freed me in terms of making and shooting landscapes. Secondly, Adachi's film – the film that disappeared in the 27 years in Beirut – was shot on film, mainly 16mm film, and I thought that there would be, in a poetic way, a greater proximity or intimacy between his missing images – the ones that disappeared – and the ones that I was making. So film, with its rarity and particularities, offered proximity between the lost film and the film that I was making.

JR: Can you explain the title of your film?

EB: The film is called The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images. It's a long title. I'm interested in the idea of using a title to put down on paper everything there is to know about the context and then you're free to enter the film without having to re-explain all these things. There are several parts in the title. There's the idea of "anabasis", but we'll get back to that. There are three characters, two of whom speak in the film, and Fusako Shigenobu who looms behind it – she doesn't have a voice in the film but her life and her actions have set in motion everything else, making her a silent protagonist behind the film. The "27 years without images" is what really drew me to this story: the idea that behind these characters there is a gap, an image gap. There are no images of May for the first 27 years of her life – there are very few photographs – she doesn't exist in image. Adachi spent 27 years without making films – and the documentary footage he shot was destroyed in two bombings during the war – so there's this gap in the image-track, so to speak. But of course, within this gap, the JRA was producing images, but producing them in a different way. The Japanese Red Army was committing acts of terrorism or planning hijackings of planes and embassies, and images of these events found themselves immediately in hundreds of newspapers and TV broadcasts. The thesis of my film is that there is a complex relationship between Adachi as a screenplay writer for Wakamatsu – writing screenplays for films that somebody else is going to make – and Adachi's role as somebody who plans hijack operations that generate images that will be produced by the media and shown on television. There is a relationship between the idea of scriptwriting for cinema and scriptwriting for terrorism... The title 27 Years Without Images is deliberately misleading. The point of the title is that while there is a 27 year gap in the production of images that one makes oneself, a different category of images are being produced remotely, triggered so to speak, in great quantities, in the echo chamber of the media. Adachi understood this very well. The JRA's main activity wasn't kidnapping 20 or 200 people on a plane. Their main activity was producing a story and producing media.

anabasis-of-may-eric-baudelaire.jpgThe Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images, 2011 

And finally, there's the word "anabasis". Anabasis is a literary figure and a journey, a bit like Homer's Odyssey... It comes from a story written by Xenophon, who accompanies 10,000 Greek mercenary soldiers who were commissioned by Cyrus, the younger brother of the King of Persia, and sent on an expedition across Anatolia to Persia – what would be present day Iraq – to fight in a succession war between Cyrus and the King of Persia. Cyrus wants to take over the throne from his brother and he hires the Greek mercenaries to fight the war with him. In the course of the battle, the Greeks are winning and on the verge of defeating the armies of the King of Persia. But Cyrus, who has hired them, gets killed in a duel with his brother. The anabasis begins when the Greek mercenary soldiers have won the battle but have lost their purpose, because the person who has commissioned them is now dead. Their presence in this place becomes problematic. The anabasis is the long journey that takes them home, but it isn't simply a journey home because they don't know the way back, as Cyrus is dead and can no longer guide them. They have to traverse this extraordinarily vast and unknown land without knowing where they're going. The anabasis is the story of wandering into the unknown that takes them to the Black Sea. Once they get to the Black Sea, they can sail back to their homeland, and suddenly the wandering becomes a form of return. There are a number of poets and writers who have taken this allegory called anabasis and used it in different ways. The French poet St. John Perse and the Romanian poet Paul Celan both wrote beautiful poems called "The Anabasis". More recently, Alain Badiou has also used this idea. Each of them was interested in the anabasis in a different way, but it always has something to do with folding two oppositional concepts onto each other, bringing together two important motives in literature: wandering into the unknown and the return to home. In a way the story of the Japanese Red Army is a form of anabasis. They volunteered to fight somebody else's war; they are in Palestine without being Palestinians. Suddenly their war ends with the collapse of the Cold War and the East-West divide and their journey home begins in a very erratic and unplanned way. Today, May and Fusako Shigenobu and Masao Adachi are back in Japan: Fusako is in prison; May has chosen to live in Tokyo; and Adachi cannot leave Japan. For geographic and allegorical reasons, I wanted to tell their stories under the literary umbrella of the anabasis.

JR: How do you feel the Gasworks exhibition has enabled you to explore the topics you've raised beyond the film?

EB: In an exhibition context, I build a screening room with scheduled projections, and then I use the rest of the space to unfold other elements related to the story, but they function differently than the film. At Gasworks, I have made posters from US Defense Department slides recapitulating, in diagram form, what they knew about the JRA, which was very little. So the diagrams become text-based images of the little that was known about Fusako Shigenobu's group at the time. I also show an interrupted-family album: Fusako's family pictures up to the point when she went underground. I have also made a series of nine silkscreened monochromatic posters. When you enter the main space, the images in the silkscreen posters are blind images initially, and then they start to reveal themselves, but you have no context. You haven't seen the film yet, the posters are on the outside of the projection box, and you might have never even heard about any of the stories in The Anabasis... so these images have an ambiguous status. Are they news images, are they film stills from a fiction, are they personal photographs? They're all of them. And some of the images show violence, some of them show very sweet moments between a mother and a daughter, and some of them are ambiguous because you don't know what they are. It looks like there's a big puddle on the floor which people are cleaning up, and you don't realise that this is a puddle of blood from the attack on the airport in Tel Aviv in 1972. The posters play with the idea that we are in a world of blind images and that you have to move your body in relationship to the light, you have to work to find some kind of representation inside the posters, because the images only reveal themselves when the light hits them from a particular direction due to the silkscreen technique I use.

I wanted the first thing that we see in the main space of the gallery to be equivalent to the first thing that I felt when I started researching this story: feeling lost. What is the relationship between the very seductive images from the cinema that Masao Adachi made in the 1960s and the violent events that unfolded in his years after he stopped making films and enrolled in the JRA? How does this match up against the horrific image of terror, and the somewhat romantic idea of revolutionary fighters – and it's very easy to get caught up in the romantic image of the revolutionary fighter going to the extreme endpoint of an idea. But then you have to reckon with some fairly gruesome moments in the journey. There's a feeling of being lost somewhere along the way, and we are back to the idea of "anabasis".

Along with the film and the posters, we are showing slides of prison drawings made by Adachi while in detention in Beirut. Drawing was a way for Adachi to reconnect with image making after 27 years... and the result is quite surprising. And finally there's a libretto which people are free to take away. Film, painting and text have a different relationship to time and space. The film is 66 minutes, requiring from the viewer a certain commitment. After the viewing, it may remain as a memory. The posters, on the other hand, are very immediate and quite sensual. They play on a different kind of retinal impression. The libretto has a third temporality. You take it home, you may read it, you may keep it. And we weigh words in a different way than images. So the Gasworks project exists somewhere in between the various elements of the installation.


[1] Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and the 27 Years Without Images. The exhibition took place at Gasworks, London, from 11 May – 22 July 2012, with an accompanying programme of films by Masao Adachi. [http://www.gasworks.org.uk/exhibitions/detail.php?id=748]
[2Galaxy had its UK premiere as part of Close-Up's Theatre Scorpio programme of Japanese experimental film in summer 2011.
[3] [sic] (2008) and The Makes (2009) are both available to watch on UbuWeb, along with Sugar Water (2007). [http://www.ubu.com/film/baudelaire.html]

The interview was conducted at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam in February 2012. The conversation continued after the opening of the exhibition at Gasworks, London, in May 2012.

All images courtesy of Matthew Booth and Eric Baudelaire.

Julian Ross is a PhD candidate at the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds, researching Japanese experimental and independent cinema of the 1960s-1970s as part of the Mixed Cinema Network. He is a commissioning editor for Vertigo and a film programmer based in London.