A Day In the Life Although Japan has gone through several fits of avant-garde film culture over the years, it always seems to take a dose of shock to get any attention for the work overseas. In the early 60s Takahiko Iimura joined in New York's late-Beatnik libertinism by screening erotic experimental works like Ai (Love) and Onan at the underground Filmmaker's Cinematheque. In 1968, Koji Wakamatsu presented The Embryo at Belgium's International Experimental Film Festival. The film depicts a girl being tied down to a bed and slashed with razors. After audiences rushed the stage and clamored to stop the projection, Wakamatsu declared that he screened this bit of ultraviolence "to let the world know that such fantastic films are being produced in Japan one after another."
Poet and dramatist Shuji Terayama helped open the first Rotterdam Film Festival in 1971 with his notoriously controversial film Emperor Tomato Ketchup. This stunning, atmospheric fantasy of a children's revolution has been rarely seen in the U.S., no doubt due less for its sharp political critique than for its long scenes of languorous pseudosex between naked boys and young women.
A self-proclaimed "gentlemanly anarchist" who "uses the art of cinema as his battering ram," 26-year-old filmmaker Kenji Onishi has continued this confrontational tradition in the 90s. A central figure on the Tokyo experimental scene and already a veteran of the international festival circuit, Onishi has made more than 100 films since 1990, ranging from Super-8 studies of light to full-length features filled with drugs and violence.
In addition to promoting his own films, Onishi operates Cinema Train, a company that distributes films by young Japanese filmmakers and screens underground and avant-garde work from overseas. His filmmaking output spans many genres, and he has become known for a distinctive personal style that melds structural concerns with overtly sensationalist subject matter.
Despite his scandal-mongering rhetoric and extreme subject matter, his approach has more in common with the arty abstract narratives of Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage than with the attitudinal Cinema of Transgression or mainstream-friendly post-Tarantino artsploitation. Like the bulk of Japanese independent cinema, Onishi's films have screened rarely in the U.S. But thanks to some under-the-radar booking by downtown avant-garde exhibition duo Brian Frye and Bradley Eros, Onishi's 1995 feature documentary A Burning Star will make its stateside debut this weekend for a single screening.
Produced in the Japanese tradition of the avant-garde "personal film" (a first-person diary film dealing with inner emotions), A Burning Star documents the day of Onishi's father's funeral and cremation, from dawn to dusk. Hardly a straightforward narrative, the film opens with 20 minutes of early morning sunlight patterns seeping through curtains and shots of black-bottomed clouds scuttling across a deep-blue sky, set to a soundtrack of shuffling feet and anonymous household preparations. The shots have a slow but discernible pace, just brief enough for the limits of the attention span, but long enough to lull the viewer into a unique, documentary ambience crafted from neatly hewn slices of disassociated sensoria.
The soothing setup gives way to more disturbing events, told through wordless lo-fi impressions. At the funeral, Onishi sidles up to his father's casket when no one else is around, lifts the cover and films his father's face. The gesture feels compulsive and desperate, as if Onishi wishes to record every contour and blemish. But the act that follows is even more startling: Onishi sneaks into a preparation room where his dead father lies on a floor mat, carefully arranged in ceremonial robes. He slowly undresses the corpse, fixing for a while on his father's genitalia. For several long shots, careful compositions of inky black pubic hair fill the frame. As fans of oddly pixelated Japanese porno can attest, photographing pubic hair is an ultimate taboo in Japan, making this intrusion confrontational in the extreme.
Later, as the body is cremated, Onishi noses his camera up to the windows of the furnace. These are some of the most morbidly beautiful moments in the film, creating otherwordly images reminiscent of the gaseous surface of a hot star, with flames licking over quasi-organic landscapes that look increasingly less like a skull, a ribcage or a hip bone. The film ends with long shots of Onishi meandering in the parking lot, and footage of birds flying over water, creating an overall mood of insuperable, melancholy distance from his father and the world.
Bookended by contemplative scenes of calm detachment, the film's shocking moments feel strangely natural, as the viewer is lulled into quiet reverie by Onishi's love for the textures of Super-8, the properties of shifting daylight and the compositions of human silhouettes against the blue sky. Potentially overpowering emotions are stripped down and distilled through sensory immersion into a gossamer-thin, subdued essence. Despite its deep personal engagement, A Burning Star presents Onishi's artistic drive as essentially asocial and pathological. He uses his filmmaking not as a way of connecting with his world, but of shutting it out through esthetic distance.
In addition to the single screening of A Burning Star, a related program of short experimental works from Japan screens at Collective Unconscious the following Monday. The program includes Onishi's shortened, defanged 20-minute version of A Burning Star, probably created for easier programming in festivals, in terms of both subject matter and length. The truncated result is a careful but ultimately dull formal study of light and composition that jettisons not only the astounding controversy of the feature-length version, but also its innovative narrative structure. Other shorts in the program are, for the most part, equally or more tedious, with the exception of Mikio Yamazaki's Drifting, an optically printed formal fantasy in which footage of a young man walking around narrow streets seems to float off the screen like waves of water, set to an hypnotically minimalist musical score, and Kazuhiro Shirao's Industry and the Sex Doll, a series of city scenes altered into jewel-like compositions via an enigmatic video-to-film technique.
A Burning Star, Saturday, Sept. 11, 5 p.m., at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.), 505-5110.
"From the Land of the Rising Sun: Experimental Films from Japan," Monday, Sept. 13, 9 p.m., at Collective Unconscious, 145 Ludlow St. (betw. Rivington & Stanton Sts.), 254-5277.