DIY: Takahiko Iimura

The protagonist of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country has made himself an expert on Western dance from having read about it, but he’s never seen any performances. Kawabata invents this detail to mock his character’s idle pretension. It would have been different if the fellow had attempted to apply his knowledge toward creating his own dance, for then he would have crossed the line from dilettante to artist.

In Tokyo, Takahiko Iimura read about the American underground film movement, the work of avant-garde artists like Jack Smith and Stan Brakhage. He couldn’t see the films, but he began making experimental works based on what he’d read. Soon he was a leading experimental filmmaker.

He visited the US in the late ’60s and he met the people whose unseen films had influenced him. He began working with video in the ’70s and in multimedia since the ’90s. He’s had shows everywhere — MOMA, the Whitney, the Pompidou, etc. He runs his own website and sells his work at prices beyond the normal consumer market, but now Microcinema has released a DVD of several films at a more affordable price.

Onan (1963, 7 minutes) is the only one of these movies to have something resembling a narrative. It’s one of the artist’s early 8mm films on sexual subjects and created a stir at the Brussels International Experimental Film Festival. The black and white film opens with English credits, which makes me wonder if this is how he made it for Japanese audiences or if it’s a specially prepared English print. I also wonder if Iimura was attracted to the idea that Onan (a Greek mythical figure of masturbation) sounds like a Japanese name.

The camera pans up the naked backside of a young man (Natsuyuki Nakanishi, who also takes an art director credit) who’s looking at pin-ups of women. In a startlingly erotic and disturbing image, he applies a burning joss stick to certain areas of the photos, penetrating them from the front or the back. (Some of Iimura’s other early films had holes punched in them, partly as a commentary on Japanese censorship of pubic hair.) Yasunao Tone’s musique-concrète score sounds like hissing gas, reaching a crescendo as the man arches his back in presumed orgasm.

Then he finds a large egg-shaped glass marble in the bed and starts playing with it. It’s some kind of paperweight or conversation piece; you can see the flat side where it rests. The implication, however, is that he’s laid this egg. Wheeler Winston Dixon in his book The Exploding Eye calls the object a “totemic stone idol”, which hardly seems right.

With some joy, the man carries this egg or womb outside, and the camera adopts his subjective view running and jumping down the alley until he’s abruptly confronted by a real woman (Akiko Kodaira). A close-up of her eye. Sudden silence. The shock makes him collapse and drop the egg, or at least that would be a conventional interpretation.

Actually, careful study of the image reveals that somehow she drops the egg; she’s seen doing so from a worm’s-eye-view. Then from the same view she picks the egg up and holds it so that it blocks her head. The camera then takes a bird’s-eye-view as the unimpressed woman moves on and the camera remains staring at the scene, the boy lying unmoving in the upper left corner and the egg almost out of frame at the bottom.

White Calligraphy (1967, 11 minutes) appears to be inspired by Stan Brakhage’s experiments with scratching shapes directly onto film. Iimura scratched calligraphy onto the black leader at the start of film reels. The calligraphy comes from an 8th Century story, supposedly Japan’s oldest. Perhaps a knowledge of what these letters or ideograms mean would add to the film, but watching it easily confirms the assertion in the notes that viewers who can read Japanese won’t be able to read this.

The symbols flash so rapidly that persistence of vision turns them into abstract animation. It is as though we are watching fireflies or shooting stars against the black night. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, with no sound. Perhaps Iimura wished to know if readers of Japanese could catch a subliminal meaning, or perhaps he simply used the text as raw material for the purpose of forcing new meaning, in the manner of Surrealists.

AIUEONN Six Features (1993, 7 minutes) for some reason comes next, although it’s way out of order in the artist’s output and demonstrates the fact that his video work examines linguistic/semantic ideas. This video is shot with computer-generated effects; according to an informative page on many of this artist’s films at the Canyon Cinema website, he employed Sony’s “System G” Real-Time 3-D Texture Mapping.

It takes the form of an instructional video on how to pronounce vowels. We see the symbol (in Japanese or English) and then the face of a man pronouncing it, or at least we initially assume that’s the idea. Actually, the face is distorted humorously, as though in a funhouse mirror. There are six of these faces. Even stranger, as the cycle of faces and images and sounds (oooh’s and aaah’s and eee’s) repeat over and over, we realize they no longer match.

The assumptions of editing, as demonstrated by Lev Kuleshov, are undermined. We aren’t allowed to interpret each image as having any meaning in terms of the last one, and the disjunctive soundtrack is also betraying us. Iimura turned this video into an interactive CD-ROM and it has also been presented as a multi-monitor installation.

The color film Face (1968-69, 17 minutes) is the most remarkable item here, in my opinion. Perhaps it was chosen to follow the previous film because they both turn on close-ups, but this one has a startling agenda. It presents what we eventually decipher as faces in close-up. One is the face of a man, albeit in glittery eye-shadow; the man is drag queen Mario Montez, discovered by Jack Smith and later used by Andy Warhol.

The woman’s face belongs to Donna Kerness, actress for the Kuchar brothers. In other words, these are iconic figures of the American 1960s underground, which adds a layer of meaning in terms of cross-cultural influence and genre, although this meaning isn’t necessary to grasp the basic effect. There is also a third face, credited to Linda.

The basic effect, as we look at enormous close-ups of facial landscapes — cheeks, moles, eyes, lips, and then finally whole heads squirming and shaking — is as though we are looking down at a partner during sex. To help us get it, a woman’s voice (Akiko Iimura) is giggling or gasping throughout. What seems at first like an abstract concept has a concrete, even mundane meaning, and yet it’s one we aren’t familiar with on film.

Even though Iimura shows us nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times in conventional sex scenes in commercial movies (indeed, even less than what we see in those movies), we realize the hollowness of those conventions in conveying anything except their tastefully erotic perfume-commercial style. The active camera and montage (as though the viewer is blinking?) take this into subjective, phenomenological territory beyond the objectively observed face in Andy Warhol’s Blow Job.

I tend to assume, without documentation, that Akiko Iimura, who also appears in later works, is the artist’s wife and that she’s the same woman who appeared in Onan as Akiko Kodaira.

You can find out more about Montez and Jack Smith in the new DVD documentary from Arts Alliance America, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, and it makes an illuminating companion to this Iimura set. Smith’s films aren’t really available on disc (and he never quite finished any of his own films besides Flaming Creatures) but this doc shows many clips of work and interviews many talking heads who knew him, including Montez and Jonas Mekas.

The film discusses Smith’s ugly feud with Mekas, who championed his work after it was seized by the police, and we also hear unkind remarks on Warhol. John Waters declares that Smith bit every hand that ever tried to feed him. He comes across as not only uncompromising to the point of cantankerous, but perhaps even mentally ill and requiring medication, or at least three square meals a day.

The reason this illuminates Iimura is that the final film here, Filmmakers (1969, 28 minutes), amounts to a tourist’s home movies of avant-garde icons: Brakhage, Stan Vanderbeek, Smith, Mekas, Warhol, and finally Iimura himself. The film is silent except for the fact that Iimura occasionally calls out the names of things we’re seeing: forest, window, children, Jack Smith, sitting, etc. Each section pays homage in some way to its subject’s characteristic style, so that the Brakhage section never looks at anything directly but too closely or deliberately mal-framed, and the Mekas section uses jerky frame-by-frame footage. The Warhol section seems to have been made without Warhol’s actual presence but flashes his silkscreen self-portrait with other objects serially or superimposed.

In the last section, Iimura turns the camera on himself. According to his own description from the Canyon Cinema site, each part was shot without editing except in camera, and mostly without looking through the viewfinder. Part of the Mekas section is shot by Mekas and Akiko Iimura.

These prints aren’t pristine, and the very top of the image looks suspiciously like they were transferred from video that wasn’t tracking perfectly; it’s not excessively distracting, but still, for 30 bucks…!