The Films of Takahiko Iimura (Excerpt)

Scott MacDonald

Taka Iimura has been making films since the early 1960s. His work has gone through a series of relatively clear, consistent developments: from 1962 to 1968, Iimura was largely involved with surreal imagery, with eroticism, and with social criticism; from 1968 through 1971, he continued to use photographic imagery, but worked with it in increasingly formal ways; from 1972 until 1978, he devoted himself very largely to a series of minimalist explorations of time and space. During the years since, Iimura has been more fully involved with video than with film, though new films have continued to punctuate his career....

Love (1962) is reminiscent of Willard Maas and Marie Menken's Geography of the Body. Close-ups of a male and a female body during lovemaking are photographed in such a way that we are frequently unsure which particular portion of which body we are seeing. These close-ups are juxtaposed with long shots in slightly fast motion of the bodies entwined or rubbing against one another. The film emphasizes the essential biological nature of the human organism. In a more formal sense, too, Love is interesting, because of the dramatic black and white contrasts in the imagery, created in part by shooting in 8mm and then blowing the film up to 16mm, and because of Yoko Ono's soundtrack, which combines a "shhhhhhh" reminiscent of white noise with a variety of other intermittent sounds (to make the soundtrack, Ono hung a microphone out the window).

In Onan(1962) a young man becomes aroused by looking at pictures of naked women in girlie magazines. He makes several visually-startling attacks on the photographs with a penile-looking stick he has heated in a hibachi; then he apparently masturbates. ... Onan suggests the essentially frustrating lifelessness of eroticism based on the callous exploitation of the female body. The implication seems to be that the sadistic attitude toward women revealed in the man's attacks on the photographs ultimately renders him an eternal baby in his real relationships with women.

In my view the most interesting of Iimura's early films-at least of those I've had the chance to see - is the one least characteristic of this period, White Calligraphy (1967). To make this abstract film, Iimura drew the Japanese characters for the Kojiki, "the oldest story in Japan," directly onto dark leader. Since each frame contains a different character, the finished film creates a continually changing retinal collage, which is interrupted intermittently during the final minutes of the film by momenets of dark leader. All in all White Calligraphy is a sort of filmic concrete poem that offers an early foreshadowing of effects more fully explored in the films of Iimura's second and third periods.

While other early films - Junk(1962), for example, in which surreal imagery is used effectively to dramatize the slow ecological destruction brought about by a wasteful industrialized society; and A Dance Party in the Kingdom of Lilliput No.1 (1964), an episodic surreal comedy are frequently interesting and amusing, nearly all the films of this period have the feel of apprentice works. By the late 1960s, however, these early experiments had enabled Iimura to begin a new and, in retrospect, more impressive phase of his career.

As suggested earlier, the best work of Iimura's middle period is characterized by increasingly formal concerns, concern most effectively demonstrated by Film Strips I and II (1966-70), In the River (1969-70), and Shutter (1971). Film Strips I and II are companion pieces. Each straddles the normal distinction between narrative and abstract film by presenting imagery which, though clearly representational, is not identifiable because of the formal effects of the processes Iimura used. Of the two, Film Strips II is the more interesting. ...
What is most exciting about Film Strips II is the fact that the complex, untried process Iimura developed to make the film resulted in an experience which is not only interesting visually, but which is implicitly a powerful record of a painful time and a warning about the future. Because of the speed with which the imagery tumbles through the center of the frame at the beginning of the film, the viewer may not even realize that photographed images are involved. Instead, a pulsating center of energy seems to go through a kind of fission process. Though the imagery does grow increasingly recognizable as blacks, policemen, signs, flags, and so forth, the viewer cannot tell that as specific an event as a riot in Detroit is involved. Instead, the violent images appear to record a wide range of social and political conflicts. A sign which becomes readable during the film as "Bolivar," for example, seems to indicate that at least one of these conflicts involves Latin America. As the film progresses toward the powerful licker effect of the final minutes, Iimura seems to be warning viewers that, unless something is done, the conflicts revealed by the individual images can only end in a catastrophic nuclear war....

A different sort of formal investigation resulted in In the River. Again, Iimura used the process of re-photography, but in this instance, the screen was the tiny viewer of a 16mm editor. Using various camera speeds and in-camera superimpositions, Iimura analyzed some footage he had made in Katmandu of a man taking a bathing in a sacred river. The finished film develops an interesting parallel between the man's careful bathing as the river flows past and Iimura's careful analysis of the man's physically simpler activities as the film flows through the camera. ... (top

Shutter (1971) marks a further step in Iimura's developing interest in formal concerns. To generate Shutter, Iimura took his procedure in Film Strips II a step further, and, for the first time since White Calligraphy, eliminated all representational photographed imagery from one of his films. Using two projector speeds and various camera speeds, he photographed the light thrown onto a screen by a projector with no film running through it. Because of the disparities between the speeds of the camera and projector shutters, the resulting footage, which he printed first in positive, then in negative, creates a series of flicker effects which are even more powerful than those at the end of Film Strips II. ... All in all, the variety of effects Shutter creates makes for one of the more interesting of those many works of recent years which have attempted to explore the visual potential of film processes and materials.

By 1972 Iimura has had moved into the third and, in my view, the most interesting phase of his career; he had begun an investigation into formal concerns even more basic than those of Film Strips II or Shutter. During the late 1960s Iimura had come increasingly to distrust those forms of film-making which involve the collection or creation of "meaningful" or "beautiful" or "interesting" images. Using the camera as a recording device, he came to feel, was little more than a technological extension of a materialistic society, a sort of poor man's materialism whereby those who could not collect real material objects or experiences involving material things come to "own" them secondhand, by accumulating their photographic imprints. Iimura decided to turn his back on this approach to film-making altogether and, henceforth, to continue his investigations into the nature of the medium with as little resourse to the photographic images as possible. Using strips of clear and dark leader and various means of writing or scratching numbers and other basic figures directly onto the leader, he began to fashion a new form of film-making, one which would involve a turning away from all forms of filmic illusion, even from those created directly on the viewer's retina by films like Shutter and The Flicker.

As the title suggests, Models defines the general concerns which characterize Iimura's nonphotographic films. The most important of these concerns is his exploration of the real space and time of film experience. Models presents eight different forms of this exploration, each of which involves a different set of basic variables. A description of the first section of the film will give an idea of Iimura's method and of some of its revelations."2 Minutes, 46 Seconds, 16 Frames(100 Feet)," the opening section of Models,involves three 100-foot strips of clear leader, on each of which Iimura has printed numbers. In the first 100-foot strip, numbers from 1 to 24 are printed, one per frame. When the film is projected at 24 fps, one can see that a series of numbers is passing, but no individual number becomes identifiable.... During the second 100-foot strip, numbers from 1 to 60 are printed on the film, one number each twenty-fourth frame. The result is an almost entirely different experience. Instead of the flickering numbers catching and holding our attention, their one-per-second appearance seems to measure off duration of light....The final 100-foot strip is measured in minutes: "1" appears at the end of the first minute, "2" at the end of the second. After the detailed measurement of the first two 100-foot strips, the third is experienced as a continual duration which has the paradoxical effect of seeming both very long - we feel the full reality of each minute -Models, Reel II presents other sorts of investigations, involving the viewer's experience of various arrangements of Xs and numbers from 1 to 100, of positive and negative versions of vertical scratched lines, and of alternations of light and dark leader in ways which draw attention to the presence or absence of the frame and to differing experiences of the screening space. All in all, the number of interesting filmic explorations in the eight section of Models makes it one of Iimura's most impressive films.

During the past five years the concerns which Iimura explored in Models have reached their most complete refinement in + & -, 1 to 60 Seconds, and 24 Frames Per Second. + & - involves the viewer in a process of adding spans of time, then of subtracting one span from another. During the first half of the film the viewer first sees a passage of dark leader, then a "+" sign scratched into a single frame,then a second passage of dark leader, then an "=" sign, then a third passage of dark leader as long as the first two passages combined....Like most works of art, + & - is exhibited in the hope that some portion of those who attend a screening will be flexible enough to develop ways of relating to the film which will enable them to get something out of the experience Iimura has provided.

A screening of 1 to 60 Seconds at Utica college in 1976 is a case in point...After a few seconds many members of the audience had recognized that the numbers were in some definite order and that the passages of dark leader which separated the frames with the numbers had some specific relationship to numbers themselves....That is , if a pair of numbers was "9" and "0.45," the duration of darkness which followed would be nine seconds second number.... The second number in each pair was a total of all durations of darkness up to and including the duration signalled by the first number in the pair....While almost no one was actually looking at the screen during the final minutes of 1 to 60 Seconds, everyone I talked with or saw was intensely experiencing the film by remaining acutely conscious of the passage of time and of the stately progression of Iimura's film in the theater.

As soon as one does understand its organization, however, 24 Frames Per Second provides an opportunity to examine a variety the essential aspects of film. One is able to experience every possible duration of light and darkness, in every possible position within the 24-frame, one-second units. Further, various sorts of filmic space are dramatically juxtaposed: the two different forms of the frame and screening room space created by light and dark leader alternate with the attention-directing two-dimensional space created by the one-second strips with the fractions. Naturally, Iimura's orderly exploration of these elements requires that the viewer be perceptually and intellectually active, but if one is, the clarity and purity of the film's form can be quite exhilarating.

Some of the recent films-Sync Sound (1975, 1978-two versions), Repeated Reversed Time (1980), Talking in New York (1981), Talking Picture (The structure of Film viewing)(1981)- extend the rigorously systematic approach Iimura developed in Models and use it, in the case of the first two films, to construct elegant durational sculptures; and in the second two, to focus on the relationship of sound and image. other films - One Frame Duration (1977), MA ("Intervals," 1978), and most recently MA: Space/Time-In the Garden of Ryoan-ji(1989) - focus on the Eastern concept of MA, of space and time as a conceptual and perceptual unity. One Frame Duration begins with two entirely systematic sections, but follows them with a section that is not organized to any system I can discover. MA (1981) extends the randomness of the third section of One Frame Duration into a complete film; passages of clear and dark leader, of dark leader with white scratch lines and clear leader with dark scratch lines, of leader with scratched lines painted yellow and blue, and of two kinds of sound(plus passages of silence) are arranged within the filmstrip so that the audience is as aware of the intervals between the seemingly randomly-spaced elements as of the elements themselves. It was not until MA:Space/Time - In the Garden of Ryoan-ji, however, that Iimura found a method of clarifying the MA concept; ironically, by putting his new film in the service of a non-filmic work of art, Iimura found a way of using film to effectively embody the concept....

In fact, the entire organization of MA:Space/Time- In the Garden of Ryoan-ji, is analogous to one of the ground-level tracking shots: images of the garden, clusters of words (the words, like the stones, are arranged so that the spacing between them is expressive, so that the intervals between the words are as significant as the words), and moments of sound and silence move past the audience, the way the stone move through the image.... All in all, MA:Space/Time - In the Garden of Ryoan-ji is simultaneously a fine introduction to a classic Japanese garden and the concept of MA, and to central dimensions of Iimura's earlier work. top

("Takahiko Iimura, Film and Video," Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1990)

On "Reflected Cinema" (A Note on the Progrma), Takahiko Iimura