Bringing The Ryoan-ji To The Screen

Daniel Charles


A film, a CD-Rom, when it allows you to "view" at home such opera, or to visit such museum...without leaving your living room, it is on condition of not replacing the original. Thus, a number of works tolerate being rewritten and reinterpreted provided that it's to practical ends, for archiving or documentation : the more one recopies them the more unique they become. But when reproduction stops being ancillary, it can seem suspect-a remake is never completely innocent : doesn't plagiarism make up the plinth, the horizon? - and you should consider yourself happy when an opera by Mozart was filmed by a Bergman, or when Visconti takes on Death in Venice ; we aren't dealing with vulgar copies. -Take, now, the "dry garden" of Ryoan-ji : to propose a filmed presentation would surely be risky, if we didn't entrust it to a silversmith ; we simplify our lives if we address ourselves to an extraordinary film and video maker, like Takahiko Iimura, and for this team work, the choice of a poet capable of entering into resonance with the images, and a musician capable of echoing them quasi-silently, designating naturally Arata Isozaki, architect of Tsukuba University's "Campidoglio", and the composer who took up John Cage's mantle at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Takehisa Kosugi. With such virtuosos, we won't be disappointed.

However, the title that Iimura retained- "MA: space/time in Ryoan-ji garden"- lets us think that the film isn't primarily or directly concerned with the work of art that "is" the garden. The author himself admits in the explanatory text, that he thought one of the aspects under which the garden offers itself, and which in fact is more, if not something other than the work of art, ought to receive all of his attention. This aspect, the ma, is the "interval", the "interstices", the "between", in as much as separating (and, by that even, confronting, conjoining), in time as in space, the two terms of a same relationship. It's a question of an immensely vast and above all abstract notion ; or at least, if the ma appears to apply itself to an infinity of cases, figures, occurrences, it comes from an elementary structural strategy that defines the ideogram's double emblem well enough, a sun in the embrasure of a door..., and that consists in making an intermediary place appear capable of linking the edges of a fault. The philosopher Kitaro Nishida studied this place, comparable they say to the chora of Plato's Timeus, using the name basho; he dedicated a number of analyses to it which, in the end, tend to assimilate it to an abyss, to the "gaping" of a Rilkean "Open", from which springs forth all that is. Fecund abyss, basho designates all that the lexicon of the German word zwischen tries to circumscribe (to the extent it was used by Heidegger and synonymous, with the In-zwischen of Beitrage fur Philosophie, of this "spatio-temporal game" that defines "Truth" as unveiling, condition of the veritas as the adequation of the thing to the spirit). And if the "old Heidelberg bridge", which to be sure is a work of art, isn't content with linking the two banks already there, but situates them and establishes them as banks of the same river, the "unveiling" that thus occurs, is constitutive of the work's "Truth"; this can only be, however, as long as it maintains its distance to this work : even though produced by it, it can but override and surpass it.

We understand that the problematics of ma impassioned Takahiko Iimura fifteen years earlier, and that to it he dedicated, beginning with the Models series of 1972, a totally abstract film, the "MA (Intervals)" of 1975-77. During this period, nevertheless, Iimura was interested in "duration", in Bergson's sense of the term, in which he hoped to find that with which he would legitimize going beyond the strict chronography that he had used up until then to "serialize" the ma. With the 1989 film on Ryoan-ji, Takahiko Iimura apparently returns to classical thematics and techniques, but his interventions, then oriented to space and time in the same way and giving himself the liberty to evolve through this space, rehabilitating the traditional concept of ma only at the price of an ambiguity that is worth investigating thoroughly, considering the exceptional subtlety of treatment that the film maker reserves it.

How to circumscribe this ambiguity? By distinguishing, to begin with, that which in the garden of Ryoan-ji, comes from the aesthetic, or a criterology of works of art, in opposition (and for as much as this opposition exists) to that which depends on meditation (religious or philosophical) and concerns the ma. It is better, given this subject, to ask the Good Lord rather than His saints : I will take my heed directly from the one traditionally considered as "the most Japanese of Japanese philos ophers", Shuzo Kuki (1888-1941), by being inspired by the first of his two communications on Time to the Decade de Pontigny of 1928.

What is, first of all, the "dry garden"? A "formal" garden, shoin (and not "informal", soan), which precisely because it is "formally" made, can give us access to the "form without form" that is the void. And why is it "void" (ku-tei) ? In order that we be able to distinguish "anecdotal" gardens, enslaved to commonplace narrativity : they divert us from the profound purpose of all works of art meriting the name : a liberation from suffering, desire, from the chain of reincarnations...

By accepting to welcome the reign of plant life, we opt for the seasonal cycles and transmigrations that generally return to the same, locking the gardens into a hopeless identity, to live again indefinitely...On the other hand, suppress the vegetation, erase those mosses that sully the sand's purity, and your garden will perhaps lose in "charm", but isn't meditation worth this slight detour? The marvel of marvels, only renunciation accords it us : to substitute the plant garden with the stone garden, is to restore the perennial dimension of completion to the formal equilibrium obtained by the artist that time risked conjuring away or at least hiding...Ryoan-ji represents in this sense the most skillful of compromises between "aesthetic" requirements and the thirst for meditation, because the arrangement of the fifteen boulders, the stylization of their groupings and the silent tensions that immobilize them at the instant (and in the posture) when one thinks they are ready to spring forth, all this comes to temper the illimitation of the sea of sand on which they grow upwards. It suffices to compare the sovereign fixity of the scattered boulders and the irony of the garden's two hillocks of sand adjacent to the Daisenin temple still in Kyoto: the blocks multiply the chances of ma, and in this sense Ryoan-ji diversifies that which the Daisenin which only kept two sandy hillocks from the mosses of yesteryear simply homogenized. Equally, the sand alone, without hillocks, from the garden of the hojo gallery at Myoshin-ji (Kyoto, 19th century) perhaps doesn't "mark" the place, the basho, with the intensity of the fifteen rocks of Ryoan-ji, because the inscription (the scarification...) of ma on the sea of sand are erased little by little "in real time" of its lines. As if the "dry garden" (kare san-sui), extreme version of the "mountains and water"(san-sui) style, condemned itself by assuming an excess of "dryness" (kare), to bite, literally, the dust! But Ryoan-ji succeeds in immobilizing the place at this critical point where the ma rises: the transmigration -from one cycle to another, of a "great year" to another- is provisionally suspended, between "disincarnation" and "reincarnation". As Shuzo Kuki explains it, what causes the problem is the passage from one existence to another, given that time is will and that it needs the will act in order that the passage take place. That's what Nietzsche called the"will to power", and what Kuki suggests considering as a "will in power" : as he who possesses "the tour de force, or rather the tour of will, to be able to end his existence and be reborn again", it is clear that a potential will must necessarily subsist- moreover if (as it's the case when one finds oneself between death and rebirth) the actual will is lacking. In other words, the miracle of Ryoan-ji rests in the in-between in which the creator or creators have placed it: if success depends, for a work of art, not only on the conformity to aesthetic canons of a certain moment and a certain environment that manifests itself , but in the degree of emancipation of time and space as they were conceived in that environment and at that moment, so, if one holds to the Buddhist vision of liberation at the place of transmigration - , then the ma, conceived as the placing in suspension of the transmigration without any vague desire of eternization, assumes the aesthetic charge of Ryoan-ji. And Takahiko Iimura's project that takes its heed from the ma, is completely justified.

It's precisely here that the ambiguity that I spoke of seems to be come to the fore. Iimura exposes it with all the hoped for clarity : he hardly pretends to add some images, not even a film, to the opulent corpus that one has already dedicated to Ryoan-ji. As we said, what interested him from the beginning was to describe "in filmic terms" the "indivisible" mixture of space and time that the ma offers here. And to this end, to live the ma, to make of it an "experience", in and by the film; but first off as a film. Thus, not to reduce the film to but an illustration or explanation of text ; on the contrary, to take the autonomy and self-development for axioms.

The entitled film - centered on "MA : space-time..." -receives literal justification. Because the place, the reference to Ryoan-ji, can only come as a secondary position, once the essential is supposed to be situated not in Kyoto, but first on the film strip. The materiality of the support (the filmic strip) places itself between the geographic reality of the referent and the historic reality of the filming, but not to disqualify space or time ; rather it consists in articulating them differently, by reuniting them with a dash or a slash precisely allowing to avoid all marginalization of one from the other. But thishyphenization of the film only preludes the staging ofma at the level of the image-strip contents. Because Iimura took care to "frame" his film first with a framing shot that covers the quasi-integrality of the garden starting from the left, and finally with a framing shot from the right, the mirror effect is evidently only felt at the end of the projection, its recapitulating function is accentuated corresponding to the propos of the unification of space and time. And the spectator can't withdraw himself from the retrospective suggestion of a strong homogenization that underlines less the artist's formal stance (that one should suppose thirsty for unity...), than the fragility of ramblings both spatial and temporal of a camera for producing, for itself alone or almost, the impression of ma.

The movements that the Lumiere Brothers' camera in a gondola permitted in the Grand Canal of Venise around 1900 were already the cause of an indistinction of space and time, as soon as they authorized a methodical sweeping of depth. For Takahiko Iimura with the systematic computer-controlled slowness the safari of mas takes place. Technique ensures a tranquil navigation of the camera operating on rails, at a monk's height sitting in the lotus position which details the rocks, the spaces between the rocks, the sand beaches, the narrows and passages before the walls, the trees in front of the walls - and up till the human silhouette that we surmise from its trace on one of the interior walls.

However, the exploration is neither absolutely regular (the agogical varies) nor exempt of simulacres (the zoom distorts proportions), or - above all - uninterrupted : for the benefit of a suspension of the image, a Western-style language interruption suddenly takes over the screen: thus the poetic spurts can slip (not including the introduction) four times, between the sequences of mobile takes, done as narrative inserts for silent films. Consisting of texts that speak the void, and fusion with the void, and their author, Arata Isozaki (the architect who recomposed Capitole Place in Tsukuba according to Michaelango by radically inverting it), took to heart graduating his propos of one insert to another, in function or not, indeed of a premeditated intrigue, but of worry for an internal coherence : part of the most exterior of perceptions, he guides the reader towards quasi mystical fusion. Probably one should come upon in the same spirit the sonorities rare, lightly touched, sounds, enrobed in long silences or disposed on landings which echo themselves, by which the extraordinary inventor of timbres Takehisa Kosugi acquitted, on his side, of the mission with which Iimura entrusted him: to formulate with the means of his art, the praise of ma.

Speaking of his film, Iimura observes that he marries a "paradoxal" textual chain, and that works "to a level of extreme conceptuality" (Isozaki's written interventions of Isozaki, don't hesitate before the negative enunciations or oxymorons, thus claiming an "oriental" logic of "contradiction"), to a suite of images thought to describe (and reproduce) the trajectory, type accomplished by the camera in the name of the operator/magister ludi. Now, never this "promenade", that happens lightly above the ground, according to technical stipulations that the computerized tracking shot principle imposes, gives nothing to see of the "in-visible" in the strict sense. It isn't however a question, from the beginning to the end, and during the 16 minutes of the film, but of the ma and its "negativity"! "No objects, nothing but the distance" , Isozaki's call to order doesn't impede that on a par with the shots, not only "distance" and "objects" coexist, but "distance" (that doesn' t cease to repeat itself : it's the subject of the film) doesn't stop being occupied by new "objects", at times a rock, at times the sand, at times the wall... Each of the filmed objects is used and reused as hole filler and finally the impossibility in which the spectator finds himself thrown to meet finally the subject (or the supreme object) of the film, that's to say the ma, (the void, the nothingness, the nothing- in brief, all the ingredients of a negative theology), it's this impossibility that becomes the object (or the supreme subject) of the film. Such a denegation of negation gives the film its flexibility and its endurance, in other words, its exceptional power of fascination.

The "ambiguity" which state I cited, and that becomes with Takahiko Iimura the motor of a superb adventure, not only filmic, but also multimedia resumed in sum in Magritte's paradox :"the invisible isn't hidden from sight. To be hidden you must be visible." But in formulating this "Mystery of Being", we don't have in hidden meanings any tentative of assimilation of Iimura's process to the logic of "Being as being" in the Western sense. Let us refer in effect to the problematic that Baron Shuzo Kuki develops in 1928:" In Japan, next to Buddhism, another moral ideal called Bushido - "The Ways of Chivalry" Rightness, Valiance, Honor, Charity was developed during the feudal period : here the cardinal virtues of Bushido. Bushido is the affirmation of the will, the negation of negation, in a sense the abolition of nirvana. It is the will that is only concerned with its own perfection. This perpetual repetition of the will which was the supreme evil for Buddhism now becomes the supreme good. (...) Infinite good will, which can never fully realize itself and is destined forever to be "disappointed", must always renew its effort. (...) Let's affront the transmigration without fear, valiantly. Let us pursue perfection with the clear conscience of "deception". Let us live in perpetual time, in theEndlosigkeit according to Hegel. Let us find the Unendlichkeit in the Enlosigkeit, the infinite in the indefinite, eternity in the succession without end. "This admirable text should merit a little more celebrity : in effect, it traces in letters of fire the veritable way of Sisyphus (and I have shown elsewhere how Albert Camus had transferred Kuki in rewriting, ten years later, the coda of his essay on the Myth of Sisyphus : well no Japanese, to my knowledge, has noticed!). But Sisyphus, if he is "happy", maybe is it because he "has the art to not perish of Truth"...I believe that I can discern, in Takahiko Iimura, something Nietzschean in this sense. Nietzshe, we know, saw in Buddhism the "nihilism of the weak". And Kuki opposes, in his conclusion, the two "means" to get rid of "Eastern" time, that, periodic and identical, of transmigration : the Buddhist release, transcendent and intellectualist, by Indian nirvana, and the release by the Bushido, immanent and volontarist. "The first consists in denying time with the intellect to live, or rather to die, in the intemporal "deliverance", in the "eternal rest"; the second consists in not worrying about time, to live, live truly, in the indefinite repetition of the painful search for truth, for good and beauty. One is more the consequence of hedonism that looks to escape evil, the other is the expression of moral idealism, valiantly decided to put itself forever at the service of God in us, fighting without respite and thus transforming evil into good."

By bringing Royan-ji to the screen, Takahiko Iimura has respected, indeed, the way of Buddhist release and paid a profound homage to it. But (and there resides the ambiguity to which we wanted to bring attention) he has at the same time privileged, in accordance with his century, but also with the tradition of Japan, the way of mmanent release. This release, that the film and not the site materializes seems to us susceptible of being interpreted today not only as the application of the Bushido morale in the imaginary domain of the transmigration (that which Kuki brings out well), but as confirming the emergence at the end of the 20th century, of a new category which overwhelms our consecrated aesthetic bearings: that which Mario Costa undertook to study under the name of the "sublime technologic".(1990).

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(Translated by Eleanor Mitch from the French, copy edited by Nadine Covert)

(Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East, The Millennium Film Workshop, New York, pp. 65-72)
(Revue Esthetique, vol.39, 2001, Jean Michel Place, Paris, pp. 27-31)