The Ecstasy of Auto-machines

by Norio Nishiiima

Takashi Ito, Born in 1956 in Fukuoka, Japan.

Ito is one of the leading experimental filmmakers in Japan. He graduated from Art and Technology Department of Kyushu Institute of Design in 1983 during which he made a debut with the film SPACY in 1981 (Inagaki who created sound effects for the film was also a filmmaker and his classmate at the institute). He was rather a premature virtuoso.

SPACY is consisted of 700 continuous still photographs which are re-photographed frame by frame according to a strict rule where movements go from rectilinear motion to circular and parabola motion, then from horizontal to vertical.

The technique itself of reconstructing sequential photographs was already seen in the earlier Japanese experimental films during the 70s such as ĀTMAN (1975) by Toshio Matsumoto (he was Ito's teacher at Kyushu Institute of Design) and DUTCH PHOTOS (Orandajin no Shashin,1976) by Isao Kota whose influence is apparent in Ito's works. However, one finds Ito's style more complex and sophisticated, and utterly new.

  For example, in ĀTMAN the subject is a human being disguised with Japanese Noh-mask whereas in SPACY the subject is photograph itself. This, together with the last shot where the camera and the filmmaker (self-portrait) come into the same frame indicates the self-reflexive characteristic of his work. Compared to the two-dimensional "flip-book" style illusion of DUTCH PHOTOS, SPACY has vast spaciousness and dramatic sensation of movement and when it's accompanied by the sound, the film reveals the side of a fantastic film.

  "Film is capable of presenting unrealistic world as a vivid reality and creating a strange space peculiar to the media. My major intention is to change the ordinary every day life scenes and draw the audience (myself) into a vortex of supernatural illusion by exercising the magic of films." (Takashi Ito, in Image Forum, Oct.1984)

  We were also enchanted with the fast speed of "automatic" camera as if it was computerized. The ecstasy of auto-machines which move beyond man's logic and sensation. And the filmmaker's desire to "get into" the film instead of possessing it. This ecstasy and the desire are common to all of his films including sequential photograph works as well as his other series such as THUNDER (1982) GHOST (1984) and, GRIM (1985) which are occult experimental "horror" films featuring the technique of bulb shutters and time-lapse photography. In his most recent works THE MOON (1994) and ZONE ( 1995), two styles are integrated under the motif of "dreams and memories".

* Originally published in French in Jean-Michel Bouhours (ed), L'art du mouvement: Collection cinématographique du Musée national d'art moderne 1919-1996, Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1996. (Centre Pompidou purchased SPACY in 1995 for its film collection.)

The Wonder of Takashi Ito’s Land

by Nobuhiro Kawanaka

  Life is full of various encounters-encounters with people who change the course of your life, with works of art, and above all with an era.

  I started out as your ordinary film fanatic. The first time I thought about making my own films was when I came across a Jonas Mekas article, "Gotta Do It Yourself," in a journal I used to pick up from time to time. It left right off the page at me.

  First published in the British journal Sight and Sound in 1959, the article appeared in Japanese the following year. This translation was crucial to my encounter with film, for, had it taken place before the rise of 8mm film, or after Mekas had became famous, this deep connection probably wouldn't have existed. Another decisive factor was the availability of 8mm cameras at the time.

  No matter how great your desire, you can't control the timing of an encounter. No one can predict whether an encounter will arrive at a fortuitous time or not. It's no exaggeration to say that the popular image artist Takashi Ito is all the rage abroad right now. He also got his start thanks to a bit of serendipity.

  According to Ito's profile his hobby since childhood has been drawing manga. Appropriating characters from other manga artists, he created a full-length monster manga with an all star cast as well as a book length manga inspired by Shotaro Ishinomori's CYBORG 009.

  Ito entered the Kyushu Institute of Design two years after graduating from high school. His transformation from manga-obsessed adolescent to experimental filmmaker was no doubt due to his encounter with Toshio Matsumoto, his graduation thesis advisor. Even though he was newly appointed, Matsumoto became Ito's graduation thesis advisor because there were no other faculty to advise him. Ito was already familiar with Fukuoka's experimental film organization, FMF, where he had shown five 8mm films including his debut work JIKU ( Timespace, 1977). However, had these events not transpired, and had Toshio Matsumoto — one of Japan's leading experimental filmmakers at the time-not been invited to teach at the Kyushu Institute of Design during Ito's fifth year of college, Ito probably would have chosen a different path in life.

  Direct influences on Ito's graduation thesis, SPACY, were Matsumoto's ĀTMAN (a study of circular motion made from 480 stills of a noh mask taken from different angles) and Isao Kota's DUTCH PHOTOS (a sequence of still images of feet walking along a shore, connected by mirror images of photos within photos). If these works hadn't set the stage, Ito's film would probably have arrived much later, if at all.

  I first saw SPACY at the Image Forum theater in 1981. Although I had already seen ĀTMAN and DUTCH PHOTOS , I was stunned by this now legendary work which threaded together 700 sequential photographs into a moving image much like a roller coaster. Although the technique and method revealed the direct influence of his precursors, SPACY was much more sophisticated effort.

  It was a stunning debut which clearly illustrates mutual influences of older and younger artists in the Japanese experimental film world. Although there is some exchange between American and European artists, it's rare to see works that exhibit such a level of mutual influence. Perhaps the curse of originality and the emphasis on asserting the self force artists to vehemently reject the influence of others. If Takashi Ito had made his debut in the West this commentary might not have been possible.

  An unforgettable event happened when SPACY was invited in 1984 to the Osnabruck International Experimental Film Workshop in the former West Germany. The shockwaves that Ito's work created at Osnabruck, the world's largest experimental film festival next to the Hyeres International Festival of Young Cinema in France, matched, if not surpassed the reception at home.

  Osnabruck is a small town near the Dutch border two hours by express train from Kolin which Japanese guidebooks do not mention other than as a train stop. Over 200 image artists gather from all across Europe in the small town for the world's most extraordinary experimental film festival. The building that houses the festival resembles a log cabin and heats up with enthusiasm of its participants even in the dead of winter. I heard that the Germans were very punctual but at this festival the discussion with the artists at every screening delayed the schedule. It was the middle of the night by the time the first Japanese film was shown. So that viewers could catch the last train, organizers decided to bump the feature finale ahead of SPACY Some balked that SPACY would play to an empty house-an unfounded fear. Much anticipation surrounded Japanese experimental films and nobody left.

  A moment of silence followed the showing of SPACY. Then the theater exploded with thunderous applause. It was a success. Ito's work unexpectedly became the real finale of the day. Caught off guard for a moment by the reverberations in the hall, I suddenly remembered that the speech remained and I plowed my way through the crowd towards the stage. Much to my surprise there was already someone up on stage speaking about the techniques used in the film.

  "This was made out of photographs," explained a character while spewing saliva out of the corner of his mouth, "Photographs!"

  I listened for a while as the irrepressible speaker Peter Weibel, a brash professor of experimental film from Vienna spewed on about the work as if it was his own.

  Japanese experimental films were first shown in Germany in 1972. Then in his prime, Shuji Terayama performed with Tenjo Sajiki at the Munich Olympics. At the same time Image Forum's Katsue Tomiyama released Japanese experimental films in Munich and Berlin. Twelve years had passed since then.

  This time the program of Japanese experimental films were set to tour 11 cities starting in Osnabruck. I was pleased that the works by newcomers like Takashi Ito was among those selected. In Berlin it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival at the intimate Kino Arsenal; at a film museum which was later to become the Kommunal Kino in Frankfurt; in Freiberg at a theater in a renovated train station; and last but not least at a planetarium in Stuttgart.

  When I visited Werner Nekes he showed me rushes of what would later become FILM BEFORE FILM , which we discussed over bottles of wine at a screening at the home of Wilhelm and Brigit Hein.

  Unexpected enthusiasm also greeted SPACY at the Wurzburg School of Art. Word of mouth from students who had attended the screenings in Osnabruck guaranteed a standing room crowd. After the film was screened, a faculty member passed around a hat which was soon filled with a mountain of small bills and change. Such encounters are shining moments of bliss for any creator.

  Perhaps it is not necessary to retrace Takashi Ito's accomplishments since then. In addition to reinventing the eidetic nature of animation, he creates mysterious spaces through the use of strobes in real landscapes. His subjects become like ghosts in fields of unnatural light. Above all, the complex arrangements of his latest works reveal a creator of wonderlands where the boundaries between genuinely still photos and the frozen split-second moments of strobes are blurred. Those interested in images will be awed by the photographic processes. Those not concerned with technique will be fascinated and pulled into this weird world of lightning visual effect.

Translation: Sharon Hayashi