Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 3: Three short films by Hiroshi Teshigahara

[This entry is a contribution to the Short Film blog-a-thon being hosted right here at Only The Cinema, in association with Culture Snob.]

For my third blog-a-thon entry, I decided to spend the night with some short films by a favorite director, Hiroshi Teshigahara. His first film, Hokusai, focuses on the 18th and 19th Century Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai, with the bulk of the film concentrating on Hokusai's art, with only the barest minimum of biographical detail. The film betrays its origins as a first effort, and its first ten minutes especially are technically very shaky, dominated by awkward transitions and a rushed pace that doesn't give any of the film's images or ideas time to develop on screen. The rapid fades between images that serve as transitions in this opening section are especially unfortunate, disrupting the continuity of space and form in Hokusai's paintings and wood block prints, rendering his art into raw fodder for the quickly edited montages that introduce his life and art.

Fortunately, in the second half of the film, Teshigahara's style settles down, and he allows Hokusai's wonderful art to dominate the film. As the film progresses, the visual style becomes more relaxed and measured. The camera gently flows across the surface of Hokusai's paintings, exploring the sweeping vistas of his landscapes. These paintings mostly present scenes on a grand scale, sometimes densely crowded with people, but more often very sparsely populated, with the few people tucked away in corners, overwhelmed by the expansive beauty of nature all around them. Hokusai's style was a distinctive blend of realistic perspective and proportions with a bold line that gives his renderings an iconic resonance. His heavily stylized people — seemingly an influence on the much later style of Japanese manga comics — contrast against the expressive textures with which he renders mountains, waves, and buildings.

In the second half of this film, Teshigahara treats Hokusai's art with the respect it deserves, taking advantage of the art's formal qualities to inform his own film. Hokusai's realistic perspective allows Teshigahara's camera to rove across the surface of these paintings as though it's entering a real world, zooming in to trace the smallest details and then moving further away to see the complete image on a macro level. One image depicts rows of buildings on either side of a canal, receding away into the distance towards the horizon line; when the camera pulls away from this image, it gives the impression of moving within a three dimensional world, so convincing is Hokusai's use of perspective. In this sense, the film succeeds to the extent that the art succeeds, so it's a good thing that Hokusai's work is so interesting in its own right. This isn't a critical documentary in any way; Teshigahara is "documenting" this art in the most literal sense of the word, merely displaying it and exploring its formal properties as much as the film medium will allow. His straightforward presentation of these paintings makes this very much worth seeing, though an offhand mention of the brilliant colors of the prints underlines the unfortunate limitation of black and white film. Teshigahara's chronicle of the painter's life and historical context is not as satisfying, limited to a few too-brief blurbs scattered between the explorations of his artworks. This documentary is scattershot and not particularly deep in terms of its engagement with its subject, though Hokusai's genius would shine through in pretty much any context, as some of it undoubtedly does here.

Teshigahara's second early film was Ikebana, a documentary about the art of flower arranging and its evolution into various forms of modernist art and abstract sculpture — and especially these disciplines as practiced at his father's Sogetsu school. Made a few years after Hokusai, it's already obvious that Teshigahara's filmmaking has advanced considerably, and not just because the film is in color (a virtual must for any film about flowers). The film traces the development of the art of ikebana, an ancient art form that continues to change and evolve in response to the changing world. The film then goes from this general introduction to a focus on the Sogetsu school, run by Sofu Teshigahara, who himself developed from traditional ikebana to increasingly abstract and experimental forms, especially with large-scale abstract sculptures of metal and wood.

Ikebana the film itself follows an artistic path akin to this transition from one form to the next. Starting out as a traditional documentary, with a voiceover narration describing the art form's history and current status, the film increasingly moves into abstract and experimental territory of its own, exploring the nature of form and the parallels between art and the modern world. Teshigahara cuts back and forth from the ikebana sculptures of Sogetsu students and images of buildings under construction, neon-lit city streets at night, and public parks. His editing reflects an interest in drawing out the connections of lines and colors that link such images of reality to artistic constructions which are supposedly "abstract." The film's central premise, unspoken but heavily implied, is that even abstract art is a reflection on the world and on life — the name of one of Sofu's sculptures, a huge construction of knotted vines, makes this explicit. It's called simply "Life." Still later, Teshigahara's follows an image of a real human skull with an impressive series of permutations and variations on its basic shape, some cut from construction paper, others carved out of rock or assembled from a jigsaw of found materials. This series of meditations on mortality serves to point out how malleable our ideas of a particular form can be, and how even the most abstracted of images can suggest a familiar shape, especially the ubiquitous human face.

The joy that Teshigahara takes in this documentary is obvious. Ikebana was not only his father's obsession but his own; he took over as the headmaster of the Sogetsu school in 1980, dedicating much of his later career to the art of ikebana and focusing less and less on the cinema. In this film, though, he combines these two passions in a way that creates something new from the fusion of the two mediums. There's a real playful sensibility at work here, especially in the sequence in which Teshigahara overlays ikebana sculptures on his images, inserting a huge floating sculpture into a nighttime sky or replacing a statue of a samurai horseman with a jagged metal tower. It's especially interesting, since I've otherwise only seen Teshigahara work in black and white, to see how much attention he gives to color here, especially in the rich hues of flowers. This is a tribute to his father's artistry and skill, a history of ikebana, and an exploration of form and abstraction. That the film does so much in a mere half-hour, and does it so well, suggests a career that might have been for Teshigahara in this kind of exploratory documentary, a distant relation of the essay-film pioneered by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker in France around the same time.

The last Teshigahara film I watched tonight was Ako, which fits squarely in with his early features rather than with his documentary shorts. Like his first four features, this half-hour short is based on a story by the existentialist writer Kôbô Abe, though it's even more relentlessly abstract and difficult than the features. Its basic thrust is absurdly simple, following a young girl named Ako as she wakes up, works at a bakery, and goes for a long drive with some friends on their day off. But within this simple story, Teshigahara aggressively attacks the narrative from every angle, fragmenting its chronology, disrupting the logic and continuity of the soundtrack, and presenting it less as a story than a stream-of-consciousness flow of memories and images. The film is like a free-associating feed straight from Ako's mind, complete with perpetual double-backs, recurring imagery, and an expressionistic blur of voices on the soundtrack that seem to have little to do with whatever's on screen at any given moment. The disconnected voices of teens babbling on the soundtrack, talking about work, school, relationships, and sex, usually relate only tangentially to the scenes from Ako's day and wild night that provide the film's images. But together, image and sound provide a sense of the film's themes of teenage uncertainty about life and sexuality, and the joy of youth in spite of all its dangers and fears.

This joy practically overflows in the scene where the youths' car blows a tire and they stop by the side of the highway to fix it. The repair session soon transforms into a dance session though, with jazzy music blasting from the car radio (mixing with a shuffling mechanical rhythm on the soundtrack) as the kids hop and swing by the side of the road. It's a moment that David Lynch would be proud to have filmed, a spontaneous outburst of teenage enthusiasm that's both surreally out of place and yet totally believable in its goofy exuberance and awkwardness. Teshigahara focuses on Ako's legs as she dances, her short skirt swaying back and forth, but the kids are mostly ignorant of the sexual undercurrents of the scene; the long shots convey a sense of innocent fun totally at odds with those voyeuristic, sexualized inserts. The dark mirror image to this scene is one where Ako is nearly assaulted by one of the boys with her, when their innocent play begins to grow threatening and sexual.

Both these scenes are presented as disconnected moments within the patchwork of images flowing through this film. Ako is not a narrative in the traditional sense, but a rush of sensations and stimuli, something like a half-remembered adolescent adventure. The jarring visual transitions are matched by the even more radical soundtrack, which spits up bursts of pure noise, eerie mechanical rhythms like car motors or the machines of the bakery where Ako works, and fragments of conversations ripped from their contexts. It's a disorienting blast, creating a frisson of youthful energy that dances and jitters across the screen, embodied in every rapid cut and aural blurt and potent moment.

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