A Note for "MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji"

Takahiko iimura


"MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji" was commissioned by the Program for Art on Film (PAF), a New York organization co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Getty Foundation, which produces and distributes films on art. The film was completed as a joint work by Takahiko iimura and Arata Isozaki. The main credits are: directed by Takahiko iimura, text by Arata Isozaki, music by Takehisa Kosugi, and was produced in 16mm film (also a video version), 16min., color.

This film was produced as part of the series, "Film on Art/Art on Film" by PAF. The aim of the series is to deal with the work of worldly important classic art and architecture, and film excellence. The film introduces the art and realizes two arts and simultaneously, that is "film on art", at the same time "art on film".

The themes of the other films selected were the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, the Pantheon in Paris, and were extended to various art works.

An another characteristic point is the co-production of filmmaker and scholar (or researcher), and in this case an architect, Arata Isozaki wrote the text.


photo no.1

I had an early interest in the concept of "MA" and produced another film called "MA(Intervals)" during my long stay in New York, 1975-77. It is an abstract film, very different than the Ryoan-Ji garden film. Made only of black and clear leader, and a scratched straight line (See photo no.1) . All the materials are measured in every second, the length of one, two and three seconds as the basic units, which are scratched as points or a line on the sound track, the film is organized at random by the permutations of all the possible combination of picture and sound.

For example, one second of clear leader (white picture) has either two punctuated sounds like "p", "p" ,which shows one second, or one continual sound like "p~" which also shows one second. This is same to black leader (black picture). So that same one-second has light(white) and darkness(black), and the sound has also two intermittent sounds and one continual sound.

My interest in this film is that the same (length) "MA" has four aspects as light and darkness, and intermittence and duration, and has further complicated aspects (even in this extremely minimally composed film) according to the combinations of respective picture and sound.

I made a graphical score using the above materials of picture and sound, and produced the film following the score. The production could be compared to a kind of musical one (composition), and looking through the whole it may be seen (and listened) to patterns, rhythms, and variations of light and sound.

During the 1970s, my concern of film was the issue of time, and before "MA(Intervals)" I had also made several films using black and clear leaders. Those leaders are put together in the film, "Models, Reel 1 and 2"(1972), which are assembled in series of work (for instance "Timing 1, 2, 3, 4", "Time Length 1, 2, 3, 4" etc.).

Through these series I measured time rationally, as much as possible, and made them reducing light and sound into fundamental factors as mentioned previously. In this case, I limit the time within the duration which is possible to experience as real time using the film speed <24 frames per second> as the basic unit. In many cases, the films deal within the duration of one second to one minute.

For example, in case of "2 Minutes 46 Seconds 16 Frames (100 Feet)" which in a part of "Models, Reel 1", at first the numbers of 1 to 24 are written in every frame, next the numbers of 1 to 60 in every second, and at last the numbers of every minutes which are only 1 and 2 are seen. Totally, this film consists of three kinds of 100 feet film.

In these films I am interested in the time of duration that is called "duree" by Henry Bergson, and to realize the concept, what he thought in words, into filmic time.

I thought Bergson's "duree" is closer to the concept of time in the East, which regards time as duration rather than a divisible unit. If one regards the concept of Japanese "MA" as an in-divisible state of time and space, that is conceivable to have a common ground with Bergson's "duree".

When "MA(Intervals)" was made , I had not abandoned the basic unit of <24 frames per second> which had been used in making of "Models". While supporting this measurable unit, I broke off the continuity of "Models", which is predictable to a certain extent, by bringing in the intermittence. Thus, I thought about creating a plural aspect in which continuity and intermittence happens simultaneously.

The abstract composition of black and white using the materials of black and clear leaders does not show the movement of an object. Though time in film usually is shown in the process of movement, "MA(Intervals)" consists of time-intervals with the lack of movement. (When a scratched line on film is projected, one may have an illusion of movement of line as if "running"- even though it is almost staying on the same line).


In making of the film of Ryoan-ji, I thought about "MA" as an indivisible state of time and space, and tried to describe the state in filmic terms. The object of immovable stones in a space, has been shot before in many photographs and movies. I thought of not merely realizing the concept of "MA", but also of experiencing a real "MA" through viewing the film. In other words, not to illustrate the film as an explanation of the text as, a usual art instructional film, but viewing the film becomes as an actual experience of "MA".

While the film was articulated according to the garden, I thought that one should get a total experience through the film as a work of art. I used a tracking shot to create a coherent visual experience. Moreover, through very slow tracking shots. I tried to realize the state of "MA" where time and space is indivisible. The slow tracking shots move against immovable objects, and is a continuous space and at the same time one can show the time-process of the viewer. Though one can not easily judge just by looking at the picture whether the shot is moving or still, such a tracking shot is required for a change of the scenery from the beginning to the end. Quicker tracking shots would cut the continuity of the space.

Therefore the tracking shot is in a constant speed, and one does not feel any artificiality of the movement. For this reason, I employed a computer for controlling the tracking table, and made it possible to have a constant speed at will through the manipulation.

"Slow tracking shot", a simultaneous change of space and time, made possible to have a visual experience of the indivisible state of time/space, which is called "MA" - has become the main theme of the film. Of course, "slow tracking shot" does not necessarily create an experience "MA". In order to experience "MA", the method of this particular "slow tracking shot" was made for a particular time/space.

Except for the fixed shots which I called a "framing shot" at the beginning and the end of the film, all the shots are made of tracking and zooming shots. Of course, although both tracking and zooming shots are the same as a moving picture, the effect is different. I'll talk about this later.

At first, from the left edge of the garden, a fixed shot with an angle views the almost entire garden (See photo no.2). This is a pair shot with the last fixed shot taken from the right edge which views the almost entire garden, and both shots act as the frame of the film. In another words, by creating this frame, I tried to fictionalize the "content". At the same time by being a fixed shot with full view it gives a perspective to the following detailed tracking shots.

photo no.2

After this fixed shot following text is read.


The garden is a medium
for meditation
Perceive the blankness
Listen to the voice of thesilence
Imagine the void filled

These words by Arata Isozaki have a strong message on "MA". At first the garden is a "medium" at the same time is regarded as a place for environment. "Perceive - Blankness", "Voice - Silence", "Void - Fill", employing a pair of concept in positive and negative sense, he tried to juxtapose the negative and the positive. This is not an obliteration of the negative by the positive, on the contrary, not only admitting the existence of the negative space, but also it is "fill"ing into the positive without turning the negative into the positive. This may be regarded a contradiction from the Western point of view, but is based on the logic of the "East". The "negative space" does not necessarily mean non-existence, but has a form of existence, which is, called "negative space". What John Stevens called "active absence" on "MA" would indicate the same thing.(1)

After these words, the first tracking shot is shown. It starts from a close up of a large stone, which fills the frame (See photo no.3). This stone with a sharp edge on top is located on left corner among five of the stone groups (altogether 15 stones), and is the first one which visitor would notice after viewing the entire garden. The top of this stone, which is reminiscent of Matter-Horn, has similar scale in size with the fifth group, and is the tallest in height among all stone groups.

photo no.3

As the visitor would move from left to right facing the garden, the camera moves slowly in parallel keeping the close-up. It is pointed out that the layout of the stones has a direction towards the right.(2) The position of the camera is slightly lower than the eye level of the person who sits on veranda and is the same level with the height of the first stone. (The rail for shooting was set along the veranda, and between the veranda and the garden).

All three tracking shots move on the rail which has same track and height. The first one uses the longest telephoto lens with narrow angle and moves the slowest speed. Therefore, it takes longest time to reach the fifth stone group. Accordingly the shot shows the detail of each stone at the same time shows a longer distance/space between stone groups. Regarding of "MA" in the garden of Ryoan-ji, this is a visualization of "MA" between stones. "MA" at first is considered as a space between objects, and the spaces among the scattered stones in the garden created by slow close-up tracking shots. The long telephoto lens makes the depths flat and emphasizes the width. Therefore, the distance between the stone and the wall is compressed, the wall occupies a large part within the picture, and in the picture without a stone get a composition divided in two parts of gravel foreground and wall behind. No where is the wall of the garden better visible than in this shot.

Though this shot, I had an unexpected discovery. Immediately after second group's stones, which have a shape of whale, I found a clear stain on the wall in the form of walking man without head (See photo no.4). I did not find this mentioned in any materials that I have read about Ryoan-ji. (But in a full shot photograph in the guidebook published by Ryoan-ji the man is seen). Therefore it is not certain when the stain was first seen.

photo no.4

The tracking shot stops temporarily at the above fifth group's stones, then pans down slightly, and fixes staringly at the middle of the stone which has the shape of trapezium. The reason for the pan down is to isolate the fifth group's stones, which are in the foreground, from the shot in which the fourth and fifth stone groups are seen together. This pan down at the end of tracking shot is used three times, and is equivalent to a sort of punctuation (or a rest in musical score)

The text continues

Perceive not the object
but the distance
between them
not the sounds
but the pauses
they leave unfilled

These words express what I have already emphasized visually. "The distance between them" is the visual which is "perceived" in the first tracking shot. But, in the image, as long as it is visible there is no negative form but only the degree of emphasis. Therefore, no logic of alternative works in image as "not the objects but the distance", and not only "the objects" and "the distance" co-exist, "the distance" is also occupied by other kinds of "objects". In the distance between stones, there is gravel and wall. If one takes the standpoint of the stones, those are "the distance", but from the standpoint of gravels and wall, stones could be "the distance". In a normal sense stones occupy the position of "the objects" against gravel and wall.

After, the second text, a second tracking shot is shown. A wider lens than the first, this shot is a standard one with slightly faster tracking speed. The scope of the first stone group includes moss at the feet, with more distance to the wall , and has a wider perspective. But the upper limit of the frame remains within the wall, the outside view is not seen, and the shot shows that the garden is a space limited by the wall.

A wider angle, even though moving horizontally at constant speed, gives the effect of a zoom back against the first telephoto tracking shot. And this second tracking shot with a wider angle is felt slower, even though it is actually moving faster. Referring to the laws of perception, this shooting plan was made using its own logic so that the repetition is felt slower.

In this second tracking shot, the distance between the stones becomes relative, the area which occupies the gravel in the foreground gets larger, and is perceived as a space. Daniel Charles has stated that in the garden of Ryoan-ji "the countless sands symbolize nothingness. But the sands become the sign of nothingness because of the existence of the stones".(3) Such perception may be based on viewing from above. Here it is recognized that the sign of nothingness depends on the existence of "object" as the stones.

At the third tracking shot a pan down takes place. Because of the wider lens, the stones of the fourth group are seen in the upper part of the frame and underneath the stones of fifth group (See photo no.5). This composition is reminiscent of the Eastern perspective (for example, Suiboku-ga, brush stroke painting) of above and below against the Western one of depth. In Suiboku-ga, the eye-line pans down as moving from a distant view to a close view. Such framing of Eastern painting is in the fixed composition of tracking shot.

photo no.5

Now the picture turns to respective zooming of five groups of stones from tracking shots (See photo no.6). This slow auto zooming took place from the fixed, almost middle point of the corridor toward a main stone in each stone group. The zooming concentrates on an "object" as stone. Where as the two times tracking shots emphasize "MA" between the stones, these [zooming] shots emphasize "MA" between the observer ( I ) and the stone. Is it perceivable to have "MA" in the space between the observer ( I ) and the object, as "MA" is normally perceived in the absence of object? The zooming approaches slowly toward the object and stops at the stone in full frame. That is, the concentration of eyes that could be called a gaze. Now the object occupies the frame where no distance seems to exist. This zero degree of distance in which the observer ( I ) identifies to the object is another aspect of "MA". This could be called a subjective "MA" compared with an objective "MA" in space.

photo no.6

Throughout five times zooming, the synchronized loud hitting sounds with echoes are repeated. In the tracking shots also a single sound with various variations is heard with echoes and leaving lingering sounds. In these zooming shots to stones, at the beginning of each shot one would be awaken by the synchronized sharp sound. It's a strong hitting to the head like a "stone bullet". As a Zen monk's voice of "Kattsu!", the sound tries the awakening effect by multiplied affect of synchronized picture and sound.

With this intense concentration on the objects, to emphasize "MA" against the objects seems a contradictory strategy. But more to concentrate on the objects, more to turn over the perception to create "MA" as is called "active absence" that is a strategy the filmmaker tried.

I would like to also note that the zooming(zoom in) have the opposite direction of eyes against the three times tracking shots which have an effect of zooming back from telephoto to wide angle.

After the zooming the following words in the frame read:

Are the rocks placed
on the ground
the islands of paradise
is the white sand the
vast ocean
that distances them
from this world

In the original Japanese, "Syumisen", is translated in English as "paradise" meaning a sacred mountain located in the center in ancient worldview of India.

These words are a metaphor when the stone garden is seen as islands floating on ocean, which is the common metaphor interpreted widely. For this stone-garden, which is a representative of "Kare-San-Sui", dry-landscape garden, despite of lack of water, or because of its' absence, moreover because of the form of the gravel in the orderly raked wave pattern, the metaphor is appropriate.

Finally, the last tracking shot is with a wide-angle lens which shows the widest view. At first the trees behind the wall are seen, also the left side wall, and in the foreground the line formed waves of gravel is spread. Despite the fastest speed of tracking the wide angle lens does not feel as the fastest shot.

Although one already knows the layout of the stones through the two tracking shots, this last one gives an impression of the floating on a boat while overlooking islands. This moving viewpoint is one can never get from a fixed point on the observation corridor. The tracking is not only the continuation of points, but gives changing overviews.

One can not see (or count) all fifteen stones of the garden at any point, and must move to see them all. DoesnÕt that mean the maker of the garden conceived from the beginning to move in the garden to see all the stones? (In a drawing of the garden in Edo period, late18th century, people are walking (strolling) in the garden!)(4).

Also, the back wall gets lower toward both edges from the center, which means that the garden looks larger than in reality. This fact indicates that despite the perspective was not discovered (or "invented") in Japan at the time, the maker used it by experience. Using wide angle lens in the last tracking shot emphasizes the perspective multiplied the makers emphasis of the wall showing the garden even larger than in reality (See photo no.7).

photo no.7

This artificial perspective is based on the wall as a frame that separates the garden from the outside. Comparing with Western gardens, where no wall is set (or is expected to have a vanishing point with symmetrical space design and a depth), this garden limits the space with a parallel wall at the back. The wall blocks the vanishing perspective of the garden at the same time emphasizes the perspective of the wall by itself. This is a contradictory strategy that makes the garden a self contained space. The maker also conceived of "Syakkei"(borrowed landscape) which tries to integrate the garden with the background scenery of trees. Yet it is based on this framed garden. In fact with the wall, the background trees stand out over the wall.

After the third tracking shot, the next words appears.

Swallow this garden
Let it swallow you
Become one with it

This rather sudden appearance moves the observer, to "breathe" with the garden, and this breathing operation, to "swallow" and to "let it swallow" as natural. If one can identify with the objects, it would be through this act of "become one with it". Beginning from "perceiving the blankness" a chain of the text full of paradox, works at an extremeconceptual level.

The film concludes with a full shot from the right edge of the garden (See photo no.8). This is the final point after the three tracking shots, is a fixed shot that frames the film.

photo no.8


Since its completion in 1989, the film has been shown in many film festivals in the USA and Europe. The main ones are the followings: Montreal Art Film Festival, UNESCO Art Film Festival(Paris), American International Film and Video Festival, etc., and awarded "Architecture" prize at UNESCO Art Film Festival. I was also invited with the film to the symposium of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Louvre Museum, Paris. In Japan, Nagoya City Art Museum, Studio 200 (Tokyo), Osaka Contemporary Art Center, and the French Japan Institute (Kyoto).

In a film review, from "Art on Screen", a dictionary of art film, the editor Nadine Covert wrote:

"Original, personal, disciplined approach to the subject, seeking to convey the aesthetic experience of the artwork and to integrate a philosophical agenda with a visual one. Takes a difficult concept and explore it, making it visual. Very reductive, flat, and simple. The photographic simplicity gives clarity to what we see, the rigid linear camera movements give us a feel for the dimension of the garden but also flatten space. The aesthetic of the film is the message, it has the quality of experimental film, conceptual film-an artwork itself. Good balance of music/visuals/titles. If not compelling for some viewers as for others, still rated as very effective. Makes one want to visit the actual garden and experience its spiritual energy."(5)

(1) John Stevens, "Letter from Japan, Ma: Concept of Space in Japanese Culture." Japan Society News Letter, June 1988, New York
(2) David A. Slawson, "Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens," Kodansha, Tokyo, 1987, p.95. Also Daniel Charles, "Gloses sur le Ryoan-ji", translated by Kouzo Watanabe, Episteme, Asahi Publishing Co., Tokyo, November 1978, p.42. The original, in "Closes sur John Cage," Union Generale d'Editions, Paris, 1978
(3) Daniel Charles, ibid., p.43. He also quotes immediately afterwards from Will Peterson's, "We are able to construct nothingness because of the form" and this is "one of the most fundamental paradox in Buddhism." (translated from the Japanese by Kouzo Wataname.)
(4) Refer to "Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zue"(The Pictures of Scenic Sights in Kyoto), Kansei 8 (1796)
(5) Nadine Covert ed. "Art on Screen, A directory of films and videos about visual arts," Program for Art on Film, New York, 1991, pp.108-109

Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East, The Millennium Film Workshop, New York, pp.50-63)