Volume 3 - Issue 4 - Editorial

By Ben Slater

There’s the sequence (a film within a film) in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where the camera fixes on a television set in Tokyo as a bombardment of inexplicable images cascade across the screen. The scene keeps rapidly changing, either by remote control editing or 1980s vision mixing, and the exotic banality of the image-flow makes it impossible to tell where Marker’s cuts and wipes end and the ceaseless motion of Japanese TV takes over.

This western notion of the impenetrable surfaces of modern Japanese culture (and by implication, its society) is a well-worn cliché; one that is gently echoed in the advertising Geishas that span 30 storey electronic billboards in Blade Runner, and then re-enacted by Bill Murray, who (horror of horrors) finds an image of himself (dubbed into Japanese) amongst the shouting oddities of his channel-hopping binge in Lost In Translation (a film rightly trashed by Japanese critics). These are outsider impressions. Notes from jetlagged tourists awed by difference and intensity. But in truth, is Japan any more of an ‘Empire of Signs’ than America (or China, or…)? And isn’t all television like that now, as strange to the locals as it is to strangers?

Japanese film has also tended to be slotted into various easy pigeonholes, a film festival fuelled ego-id binary of calm distance and zen-like austerity pitched against explosive anarchy and libidinal weirdness (often in the space of the same film). This criteria for accepting Japanese cinema in the west has had its uses (it’s responsible for millions of books, websites, and a fast-growing DVD market), but it is ultimately limiting, reductive and has meant that a lot of good stuff doesn’t get the recognition, because it wasn’t, or isn’t, so easy to classify. Put it this way, in the next 12 months it’s going to be a lot easier for you to see a subtitled version of the excessively bizarre cosmic hi-jinks of Funky Forest: First Contact, than it will be to see many of the luminous, human dramas found in the back catalogue of Hiroki Ryuichi.

The intention then, with the nine articles (and collection of photographs) that we have gathered, is to get a little further inside the territory. My co-editor Maggie Lee is the agent in the field. A curator-writer, fluent in Japanese and much of Asian cinema, Maggie is the perfect inside-outsider. Nocturnal communication has been our modus operandi. Emails and snatched phone calls conducted in her freezing Tokyo flat, the warmer film festival office where she works, and the one and half hour train journey between those spaces. She has watched far too many DVDs, assisted by professional translators so she wouldn’t miss the finer points. She has met filmmakers and critics in bars and pubs, bought them drinks and food, brandishing and offering back-copies of Vertigo. (Proof of the magazines’ existence was crucial, as was information about its position in the landscape of English language film publications. To invoke another cliché, the Japanese are nothing if not sticklers for detail)

Doorways opened up. We found another world of Japanese film that was not so swiftly digestible and assimilated, familiar perhaps, but still a long subway ride away from the usual iconic suspects (many of whom are also present in this issue, and for good reason). We heard about personal documentaries, a new wave of pornography (“Pink is dead, long live AV”), gleeful experimentation, pure narrative, radical politics, all captured against the complex legacy of post-war history, the immigrant experience (both within and without Japan), the powerful influence of places/spaces, and the pervasive rituals, customs, beliefs and performances of the wider culture. There is also the spectre of Marker as well, standing in for all those gaijin wanderers with a camera.

We make no claim to provide an overview or a summary of what’s happening cinematically-speaking in Japan at the current moment – this selection of writing and images is contingent on encounters, networks and accidents as much as anything else. But this is not a flattened horizon that you can (un)easily channel-hop across, nor is it conveniently accessible (literally and otherwise). What does become apparent over the time spent on this writing, is that there is a communal energy in these transmissions, a drive towards inquiry and iconoclasm, along with a relentless desire to test and push the possibilities of the medium.

Ben Slater, Singapore, December 2006

Thanks to UNIJAPAN, Tokyo International Film Festival, Wakamatsu Koji and Roger McDonald