Well, what are we to make of this? We'd all had Donald Richie pegged as film writer, arts critic and cultural commentator, but up until now, the series of experimental films he made during the 60s were the stuff of legend, often alluded to, but, for most of us, never seen. This DVD release from the fall of 2004 from that bastion of Japan's avant-garde film culture, Image Forum, should certainly put pay to all thoughts among his critics that Richie is an old fuddy-duddy belonging to a bygone era. If nothing else it reminds us just how refreshingly uninhibited, unaffected and spontaneous this era was in comparison to now.
Shot on 16mm, the director himself claims that these personal works were initially not intended for public screening, or at least not within mainstream exhibition venues. They were Underground Films, aired within more closed-off cinephile networks and made with his friends. It should be pointed out though, that these friends included the likes of composer Toru Takemitsu (Onibaba, Ran) working on the sultry score of Atami Blues (1962), a simple tale of boy meets girl in Japan's top coastal resort, and initial audiences included such notable members of the filmmaking community as Nagisa Oshima and Susumu Hani.
Richie's work falls into the category of experimental or avant-garde cinema, a notoriously tricky area to write about because of its intrinsically non-narrative nature and the lack of familiarity most viewers have with either the characters working within this hermetic field or the ostensibly cryptic intentions of their work. Most people know about the films of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, for example, but how many of us can actually say we've seen any, yet alone in the way in which they were intended to be shown, on a big screen with an audience?
Mainstream film discourse pretty much sees experimental film outside of its scope, and so this alternate history of cinema remains sketchily written. You'll rarely see experimental film in American Cinematheque or British Film Institute Top 100s or Best Ofs, and only a few representative works of the best-known filmmakers are available on DVD. By definition, the avant-garde lies outside the commercial industry, and thus these films are also characterised by the nature of their audience and their exhibition venues - in art galleries, specialist cinema clubs, university campuses etc - thus concealing them from the attention of the general public. Once any progressive developments from the avant-garde are assimilated into mainstream filmmaking practice, they cease to be avant-garde.
So what is an experimental film? A tricky question, but we can essentially define this area as being anything that attempts to do something other than tell a story, that prioritises elements of the moving image other than its narrative, and in doing so throws up interesting questions about the nature of reality and our perception of it, and also about the nature of the cinematic form in itself.
In one of the filmed interviewers included on the Criterion DVD release of Stan Brakhage's work, Brakhage ponders why, when for the first time in history, mankind has the ability to visualise internal states and communicate them to a mass audience, filmmakers, in fact the industry in general, remain seemingly content to lavish such expense and energy on what are basically "moving comic books", stories told with pictures.
A good question then is why did film evolve along such narrative and representational lines. In the early stages of the twentieth century when the syntax of cinema was becoming established, a whole movement of artists including Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Maurice Denis, and Piet Mondrian were pushing the idea that 2-dimensional picture painting or 3-dimensional sculpture could be far more than purely representational, that once you break out of the idea of restricting yourself to reproducing a real life object, you open up a whole new world of opportunities.
With film, the element of time is introduced. Movies are fundamentally comprised of a collection of sequences of moving pictures combined with sound. How, therefore, did this slavish adherence to portraying the real world within the dramatic codes of the theatre come about?
At the dawn of the century, the world of fine art was primarily the domain of a small, moneyed elite. Cinema was emerging as a new entertainment form for the impoverished masses, and its origins lay in the spheres of working class entertainment - Music Hall or Vaudeville Theatre, or in other words the stage, with its dramatic action. The two worlds were poles apart.
Early efforts of avant-garde filmmakers might be best understood as attempts to bridge the gap. Gradually artists such as Fernand Leger (Ballet Mecanique, 1924), Man Ray (Return to Reason, 1923), Marcel Duchamp (Anemic Cinema, 1926) and Salvador Dali (Un Chien Andalou, made with Luis Bunuel in 1928) dabbled in film as an extension of their art work. Meanwhile, as French directors such as Abel Gance (La Roue, 1923) and Germain Dulac (The Clergyman and the Seashell, 1927) tried to move the new art of cinema further away from its theatrical origins, in Germany the figures of Viking Eggeling (Diagonal Symphony, 1925), Hans Richter (the Rhythmus series, 1923-25), Walter Ruttman (Opus I-IV, 1921-25) and later Oskar Fischinger (Circles, 1932), inspired by the ideas in Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, pushed the moving image into the realms of the pure abstract, using animated curves and geometric shapes to emphasise the temporal nature of the moving image - a kind of "visual music" - all until World War 2 put pay to such decadent Bohemian thoughts.
With the war, the epicentre of the cinematic avant-garde moved to the USA, and pivotal filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger and the formerly British-based New Zealander Len Lye along with it. Mainstream cinema had moved on to a completely different phase of its existence, with sound film now the norm and Hollywood dominating the screens of the world. In this context, the American avant-garde concerned themselves less with investigations into aesthetics and form, and more with breaking with conventional narratives or drawing upon previous developments in popular film culture to fuel their content, as was the case in Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) or Rituals in Transfigured Time (1949), and Kenneth Anger's films, like Fireworks (1947). These particular directors were also heavily influenced by mysticism, the occult and voodoo. The works of Stan Brakhage evolved from the anti-narrative of the wonderfully-titled Desist Film (1954) into the complete abstraction of later pieces such as Rage Net (1988).
The above is a highly simplified overview of what is in reality a far more complicated history, and one that ignores developments outside of America and Europe, about which very little has been written. But it nonetheless leads us to Donald Richie's first filmmaking efforts, which occurred in the years before he moved to Japan in 1947, while he was a youth in Ohio.
Richie himself insinuates that he was "one of the few people to introduce the whole concept of the Experimental Film to the Japanese". Whether this is entirely true or not is contentious. While it is best to discount the significance of Teinosuke Kinugasa's avant-garde masterpiece A Page of Madness in this discussion (the 1926 film, heavily indebted to German Expressionism and the French school of photogenie of Gance and Dulac, reached few viewers on its release and was lost soon after, remaining unseen by an entire generation of filmmakers), it is fair to say, however, that the experimental scene in Tokyo really got underway in the 60s, around the time the films on this disk were made (for an overview of the Japanese avant-garde, see www.asianfilms.org/japan/experimental.html).
During the 60s, several groups of filmmakers were also busy at work outside of the commercial mainstream. Masao Adachi, before joining forces with anti-establishment pink filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu and later leaving Japan for a self-imposed exile of almost three decades in the Middle East, made two highly-acclaimed works in the form of Rice Bowl (Wan, 1961) and Sain (1963) while he was a member of the Nihon University Film Club.
The poet/playwright Shuji Terayama also dabbled in film, operating within a broader artistic avant-garde among figures such as Hiroshi Teshigahara, who was famed for his unconventional adaptations of the author Kobo Abe, such as Woman in the Dunes< and The Face of Another. Terayama's more famous directorial works include Throw Away Your Books and Go Out into the Streets, and Emperor Tomato Ketchup (both 1971), the latter depicting a society taken over by children. He also wrote the script for Susumu Hani's Nanami: Inferno of First Love, and later directed Klaus Kinski in the arty softcore French co-production of Fruits of Passion (1981).
Probably the closest to what Richie was doing at the time, both in terms of the style of the works produced and the amateur (in all the best senses of the word) spirit in which they were made are the personal home-made 8mm efforts of the Hiroshima-born Nobuhiko Obayashi, a director who later became firmly ensconced within the mainstream with films such as House (1977), Drifting Classroom (1982), and most recently The Motive (2004). Like Richie, his most accomplished experimental period was the period from 1960 to 1968. His works are infused with an inspiring sense of fun, and, operating primarily on an aesthetic level, don't initially appear to make much sense. And like Richie's, they have also recently been issued on DVD in Japan (unsubbed, unfortunately), as Obayashi Nobuhiko Seishun Kaiko-roku ("Nobuhiko Obayashi Youth Recollection Record") - a Western release would be gratefully welcomed!
The main difference between Richie and Obayashi is of course that Richie never went on to pursue a career in the movies, seeing writing as his main metier and filmmaking as something he did for fun. And indeed, fun is one of the aspects that most comes across in the 6 films that make up the 127 minutes of the DVD anthology of his works, all of which manifest a wry sense of humour, a camp flamboyance and a preoccupation with the aesthetics of the image.
Take for example Boy With Cat (1966), a five minute long sequence of a young man's attempts to masturbate being continuously thwarted by the affectionate interruptions of the feline with which he shares his apartment. The wittily titled Five Filosophical Fables (1967) consists of a series of sketches set to an accompaniment of music by Mendelson seemingly devoid of any higher meaning. In one, a young Japanese man attends a plush garden party held by a group of well-heeled Westerners, who periodically approach him and take possession of an item of his clothing. By the end of the film, he is left stark naked and wondering around the streets of Tokyo to the stares of clearly bewildered passers-by.
In another more grotesque segment, four genial-looking picnickers lay down their blanket beneath the trees and immediately set about eating one of their gathering. This situation is very reminiscent of one of Obayashi's films, Tabeta Hito (1963), in which a waitress at a busy restaurant imagines herself being eviscerated in the kitchen by the chef, who, after removing bloody wads of spaghetti and strings of sausages from her stomach which are served up to the assorted diners, proceeds to cover her face with pie dough and bake her.
Richie's best-known film is the atmospheric, allegorical Wargames (1962), set on a deserted beach where a group of young boys are first seen running up to and surrounding a goat. Against the soft, hypnotic sounds of waves breaking across the beach, from initially stroking and petting the creature, petty tensions emerge within the group, who divide into two squabbling factions, that eventually result in the goat dead, with just one outsider left to tend its half-buried body in the sand.
But perhaps the most eye-popping offering of this disk is the bizarre Cybele: A Pastoral Ritual in Five Scenes (1968), whose exuberant content borders on the near pornographic - remember, due to the nature of these films' exhibition, they were not subjected to Japan's usual censorship requirements. A group of naked men frolic around a forest clearing in an impromptu ballet before their attention focuses on a young girl, whom they strip naked. The girl takes her revenge by graphically inserting lighted incense sticks between their buttocks, tying strings to their penises and grinding their heads between her naked thighs.
In more recent years these films have screened at the Image Forum theater on a fairly regular basis, but this recent release serves admirably in bringing them to a wider audience. English subtitles are included on the disk to accompany the only film that requires them, the morose Dead Youth (1967), and Richie is on hand himself to provide a much-needed explanation for his means and motives.
It should be pointed out that this package doesn't include all Richie's films, with earlier 8mm works such as Small Town Sunday (1941), made while he was still based in America, A Sentimental Education (1953), Aoyama Kaidan (1957) and Shu-e (1958), as well as shorter films like the 4-minute-long Life (1965) unfortunately not included, making it difficult to really assess Richie's situation and influence within Japan's filmmaking scene.
The disk is being made available outside of Japan by Marty Gross Productions (email videos[at]martygrossfilms[dot]com for more details). As well as revealing another string to the bow of the prodigious and eccentric figure behind much of what the West knows about Japan, it is well worth a look for those interested in exploring 60s Tokyo underground film culture in all its hedonistic splendour.