Takahiko Iimura 飯村隆彦

Takahiko Iimura: Japan’s Pioneer Experimental Film Maker

Johannes Schonherr

In the mid-1990’s, I worked at the Millennium Film Workshop on New York’s East 4th Street, right in the center of the East Village. The Millennium was a moldy-smelling basement featuring a 66 seat movie theater specializing in experimental movies, it also offered low-price equipment rentals to aspiring movie makers of all stripes.

Takahiko Iimura in Nagoya, Japan
Takahiko Iimura in Nagoya, Japan

Cameras, sound recorders, and sundry other film production tools were available for rent for a low fee and so were some vintage film editing facilities. One room deep in the back of the building hosted the “personal screening room.” It was equipped with a small screen and a number of film projectors of various formats in questionable condition. In short, the Millennium was a rather typical example of an ambitious but severely underfunded film art outlet as they existed in New York at the time.

My evening job was projecting the shows in the theater, in the daytime, I was a “workshop monitor.” Renting out equipment, explaining how it worked, supervising the people editing their films onsite.

Regular 8

One day, a Japanese film maker walked in and asked me to help him check the condition of the original 8mm print of an old movie of his. 8mm was by then known as “Regular 8” and it was the small-gauge format preceding Super 8 (introduced in 1965), the latter already being an endangered species by then.

I filled in the required forms and my guest said that his name was Takahiko Iimura. I had vaguely heard of him before but had never seen any of his movies.

We went to the tiny “personal screening room” and I brought out the Regular 8 projector. It was rare that someone wanted to use it and it had gathered quite some dust. Not only that, the focus-adjustment knob was broken and wouldn’t do anything to adjust the focus. I had to adjust the focus by directly turning the projector lens – which was resting loosely in its mounting, making a steady focussing impossible.

Kiri / Fog (1970)
Kiri / Fog (1970)

The Tree

The image on screen turned from gray to gray to the unfocussed yellow light of the weak halogen bulb of the projector. The movie ran on the unusually slow speed of 16 frames per second. At that speed, it was 7 minutes long. It ran through the projector once, it went through the projector twice. Though I was permanently trying to re-adjust the focus, there still wasn’t anything to see. Though sometimes, a rather clear image of gray with a few scratches on the film’s emulsion came into view.

“What are you looking for?” I asked Iimura. “Looks like there is nothing on that film.” “A tree. There’s got to be a tree on that film.” he calmly answered.

Iimura stoically watched as I ran the film through the projector another two times with no result before he told me what the movie was about.

“The title of the movie is Kiri. That means Fog in English. So, it just shows fog in the mountains in Japan. But for one second, the sky opens up and you can see a tree. Towards the end of the movie. It’s that tree I try to find.”

Armed with the new knowledge, I was eventually able to find the tree.

AIUEONN

Takahiko Iimura was just about to return to cinema screens after two decades spent presenting difficult to access video art pieces in the confines of museums and art galleries.

Iimura had just finished his newest work AIUEONN. A funny exploration of the Japanese vowels cut to distorted images of Iimura pronouncing them, AIUEONN worked both as video art in galleries as well as a fun piece of cinema ready to be presented on the big screen.

He thus started to combine screenings of his newest work with shows with his, at times, scandalous but certainly entertaining movies from the 1960’s.

Takahiko Iimura AIUEONN
Takahiko Iimura AIUEONN

Kiri / Fog

Kiri / Fog (1970), the movie Iimura checked at Millennium, was part of that effort. I later saw it in a crisply projected version and it was a very moving example of taking Japanese painting to the silver screen: the screen is gray and you don’t know what to expect. There is no sound and after a few minutes you start to wonder. Then, suddenly, the sky opens up a little and you see the tree for a moment before it vanishes again.

I didn’t know much about Japanese art back then but I was impressed. Thinking back at the film today, I think it was a deeply touching work of Japanese art – a single and hard to grasp moment of beauty in life suddenly and faintly showing up but vanishing again all too soon.

Generations of Japanese painters have worked on capturing that moment but Iimura’s silent 8mm camera did what they couldn’t possibly achieve with paint on canvas. They couldn’t figure in the prolonged time of waiting, the accidental nature of the fog just lifting for a second.

Takahiko Iimura in the 1970's
Takahiko Iimura in the 1970’s

Takahiko Iimura

Takahiko Iimura was born in Tokyo in 1937. He studied at Keio University but he got his real introduction to the world of art and film at the anarchist VAN collective in Tokyo in the early 1960’s.

VAN operated a large studio and welcomed artists of all kinds, offering them a space to do whatever they wanted to do. A young Yoko Ono was very active there, as well as an aspiring film director named Masao Adachi who later became a terrorist in the Middle East.

At the time of his involvement with VAN, Iimura shot the film that made his name and which is probably still his most famous today: Ai / Love (1962). Iimura shot an anonymous couple having sex on black and white 8mm film in close-up.

The close-up was so close that it was hard to make out any details. Though genitals and pubic hair were on full display, the grainy close-ups made it almost impossible to see what part of the bodies were actually shown. They just turned into an abstract landscape.

Ai (Love) 1962
Ai (Love) 1962

Yoko Ono, for her part, was so impressed by Iimura’s silent film that she produced a sound track for it. It consists largely of white noise with some indecipherable big city sounds coming through.

Ono was just hanging a microphone out of her New York apartment window, she later said, trying to catch that incredibly intense sound that New York emitted at the time.

With Ono’s sound track attached, Iimura’s film became an overwhelming success. When Ai / Love played at the then only festival for experimental film in Knokke, Belgium in 1964, it was holding its own even when directly compared to the works of the American Underground presented at the festival.

Those American movies included Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, all of them considered classics by now. American experimental / underground film promoter Jonas Mekas immediately invited Iimura to tour the U.S.

Takahiko Iimura exhibition catalogue
Takahiko Iimura exhibition catalogue

In the USA

Amazingly, in the U.S., shows of Ai /Love were sometimes met with riots – like at Yale University. Fired up by local media, hundreds tried to get into the small screening space expecting a wild porno film. The crowd turned out to be so big and so aggressive that the show had to be cancelled. The frustrated mob turned to plundering and burning shops in the neighborhood.

Plundering and burning shops in New Haven, Connecticut because of a Japanese experimental movie? America must have been a really different place at the time.

Iimura moved to New York City shortly after. On a trip back to Japan, he shot Kiri / Fog in 1970.

By the early 1970s, however, Iimura had largely given up on photographic images. He began to work with celluloid as material as such, scratching for example the opening paragraphs of the Kojiki (Japan’s oldest book) right on the film material (White Calligraphy, 1967).

Iimura began exploring flicker effects using nothing but white and black leader, he explored the dimension time adds to movie viewing by showing nothing but black leader, with numbers counting the running time as the only image displayed.

Parallel (1974) showed two parallel vertical white lines on screen: one had been filmed and thus gone through the chemical / mechanical process of traditional film shooting and developing, the other line was scratched right onto the celluloid.

At the same time, Iimura began to experiment with video art. A camera filming a blank wall, feeding the image to a TV whose screen was again filmed by another camera and the result being shown on yet another TV.

Conceptual art, which Iimura’s works had largely become, was all about interesting but highly academic ideas, watching their actual realization however was most often much less of a thrill. Experiments good to read about but not that much fun to watch, except in high-brow museum contexts, perhaps. The major modern art museums discovered conceptual art as the new hot ticket at the time and were happy to book Iimura’s shows and video installations.

Iimura returned to the movie screens in the early 1990’s with his experimental meditation MA: Space / Time in the Garden of Ryoan-ji(1989), centering on the ancient stone garden of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji Temple.

More of a draw for international movie audiences however was AIUEONN Six Features (1993). Video technology distorted Iimura’s face on screen in funny ways while he pronounces the vowels of the Japanese alphabet in various stages of emotion ranging from pleasure to anger.

The piece stood both up as a serious work of art but was at the same time a pleasure to watch.

Iimura compiled a program of his best and most popular films from the 1960’s, combined it with AIUEONNand went on tours through America and Europe.

When he came to the Millennium Film Workshop to check out Kiri / Fog, he was just preparing for such a tour.

Today, Iimura is living back in Tokyo. He hasn’t been much in the news recently but sooner or later a great retrospective of his work will certainly be held at one of Tokyo’s or New York’s modern art museums. Stay tuned.

Takahiko Iimura website: www.takaiimura.com

Takahiko Iimura films, videos and books on Amazon:
The Collected Writings of Takahiko Iimura
From to Takahiko Iimaura; Films and Video Installations
Takahiko Iimura at the Lux-Film, Video, CD-Rom, Installation

Johannes Schonherr organized a European movie tour for Takahiko Iimura in 1998. Iimura screened AIUEONN and his best films from the 1960’s, including Ai / Love.


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