Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film

by Agnieszka Kiejziewicz (Author)
©2020 Monographs 336 Pages


The book shows the connections between Japanese historical avant-garde movements and new Japanese experimental films. The author provides insight into the development of Japanese avant-garde visual culture and experimental aesthetics, also featuring the expanded cinema after 2000. The author focuses on the detailed presentation of the chosen aspects, artists and films of the Japanese avant-garde from its origins to the post-2000 period. The analysis is built around themes, objectives and aesthetics introduced by such artists as Shūji Terayama, Takahiko Iimura, Masao Adachi, Takashi Itō, Toshio Matsumoto, Mako Idemitsu, Japanese feminist filmmakers, video artists and the new wave of experimenting independent directors: Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Shinkan Tamaki and Kazuhiro Goshima.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I The Theory of Avant-garde
  • 1. The parameters of avant-garde film activity
  • 1.1. Defining avant-garde film art
  • 1.2. Defining experimental film
  • 1.3. Expanded cinema
  • 1.4. The position of the viewer
  • 1.5. The role of a collective and group
  • 1.6. Techniques and aesthetics
  • 1.7. Avant-garde activity in the digital age
  • 1.8. Conclusion: The character of the avant-garde activity
  • 2. The parameters of Japanese avant-garde film activity
  • 2.1. Defining Japanese avant-garde and experimental film
  • 2.2. The theory of Japanese avant-garde
  • 2.3. Drawing the map of Japanese avant-garde: Chronology, groups, events, and reception
  • II Avant-garde Movement and Film Activity in Japan Before the Year 2000
  • 1. Avant-garde in Japan: Introduction
  • 2. Futurism, Dada and Surrealism in Japan: Influences and avant-garde film
  • 2.1. The Futurist Art Association – The forerunner of Japanese avant-garde
  • 2.2. MAVO or Japanese Dada
  • 2.3. Preparing the ground for Surrealism
  • 2.4. Migrating ideas. Surrealism on the Japanese ground
  • 2.5. Surrealism and Japanese avant-garde/experimental film
  • 3. Japanese avant-garde and experimental film between the 1950s and 1990s – Chosen artists and themes
  • 3.1. Exhibiting avant-garde film
  • 3.2. Controversial themes of the “old masters”
  • 3.3. Takahiko Iimura – Between contemplation and controversy
  • 3.4. Activist Masao Adachi
  • 3.5. Takashi Itō – A filmmaker between the epochs
  • 4. The art of Shūji Terayama – The icon and the outcast of the Japanese avant-garde519
  • 4.1. Researching on the master of Japanese avant-garde
  • 4.2. Postulates, objectives, and ideas that influenced the next generations
  • 4.3. Sexuality and controversies in Terayama’s films
  • 4.4. Terayama’s short experimental films
  • 4.5. Controversies and reception
  • 4.6. Conclusion: Avant-garde superstar
  • 5. Japanese video art
  • 5.1. Two waves of interest
  • 5.2. Toshio Matsumoto – Between avant-garde film and video art
  • 6. Mako Idemitsu and avant-garde women artists
  • 6.1. Feminism, women’s rights and avant-garde
  • 6.1. “Japanese woman is a white elephant” – The films of Mako Idemitsu
  • 6.2. Conclusion
  • 7. Conclusion: The golden age of Japanese avant-garde
  • III New Japanese Audiovisual Experiment
  • 1. Researching on new Japanese audiovisual experiment690
  • 2. Forming the new movement: Postulates, objectives and the young generation of artists
  • 2.1. Young generation and their postulates
  • 2.2. Thematic areas of the new audiovisual experiment
  • 2.3. The technologies of the young experimental filmmakers740
  • 3. Takashi Makino and his whirling supernovas
  • 3.1. The artistic manifesto
  • 3.2. Noisy supernova
  • 3.3. The Generator of the imagined worlds and post-Fukushima discourse818
  • 3.4. 2012 and other Cerulean spectacles823
  • 3.5. Connecting with other arts
  • 3.6. Conclusion
  • 4. Rei Hayama and ecological experiment
  • 4.1. Rei Hayama and her objectives
  • 4.2. Literary inspirations890
  • 4.3. Nature versus culture
  • 4.4. Reportage, diary and experimental document
  • 4.5. Conclusion
  • 5. Shinkan Tamaki and the boundaries of human perception
  • 5.1. Objectives and pursuits
  • 5.2. Zoom, details, and materiality of the film
  • 5.3. Time, space, motion
  • 5.4. Life performances and digital camera
  • 5.5. Conclusion
  • 6. Kazuhiro Goshima and the issues of urbanization
  • 6.1. From commercial to avant-garde
  • 6.2. Early experiments with animation
  • 6.3. Different Cities and dreams of repetition
  • 6.4. In the Shadowland
  • 6.5. Changing the spatiotemporal perspective
  • 6.6. Conclusion
  • 7. Tomonari Nishikawa and new Japanese experimental documentary
  • 7.1. Objectives and pursuits
  • 7.2. Sketches of the city
  • 7.3. Portraying the city, drawing the landscape
  • 7.4. Post-Fukushima film and the possibilities of experimental political manifest
  • 7.5. Conclusion
  • 8. Daichi Saito and the awareness of the film material
  • 8.1. Between abstraction and film materiality: Saito’s objectives
  • 8.2. Body and abstraction
  • 8.3. Nature, music and visual poetry
  • 8.4. Conclusion
  • 9. The time of experimental filmmakers: Conclusion
  • Closing Remarks
  • List of Illustrations
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index

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Taking into consideration the currents of the recent research on film, the publication concerning avant-garde may seem to touch the anachronistic, nostalgic theme that was discussed enough to let it go. However, on the Japanese ground, the legacy of the historical avant-garde – the chosen postulates and aesthetics, mainly taken from the experimental films from the 1950s to the 1980s, had a significant influence on the contemporary audiovisual experiments. The close connection between the newest achievements of the Japanese experimental filmmakers (almost undiscovered on the academic ground) and the works of the “old masters” of the Japanese avant-garde creates the need for reexamining and reconsidering the films of the second mentioned group, while searching for the tropes, sources of inspiration and themes that were transferred further, into the post-2000s generation.

Even though, on the wave of increasing interest in Japanese film culture among the researchers, the topic of Japanese experiment is almost absent in general publications on the expanded cinema, avant-garde or experimental film. The exception can be the works of Julian Ross, who gets especially involved in describing Japanese expanded practice.1 However, the mentioned author focuses mostly on the 1960–1970s period and keeps returning to the artists from those times. According to that, not only the newest wave of the experimenting filmmakers deserve recognition but also the connections between the 1950–1980s avant-garde and post-2000 experimental films should be analyzed.

Moreover, as Ryszard Kluszczyński observes, there are two reasons why the discourse about the avant-garde is still actual in the 21st century. Firstly, he mentions that since the beginning of the 1990s there appeared several publications stating that the postmodern epoch was proclaimed too soon and the ideas of modernity (or the new modernity) are still vividly alive. If the academic and artistic discourses, which were the critical parts of shaping the perception of the “modern,” state that the modernity did not end, giving the space to postmodernity, then the position of the avant-garde, discussing the concept of modernity, is ←13 | 14→still strong.2 The second argument underlining the relevance of researching on the avant-garde in the 21st century is that the progressive character of the new media art manifests many features typical to the avant-garde movements – for example, anti-traditional character or political and social engagement.3 According to that, the new media art, among which the new Japanese experiments can be situated, may be perceived as the new avant-garde – what the contemporary Japanese authors often underline. Kluszczyński also points out on the importance of the Internet, as the platform crucial in the process of shaping the “avant-garde of the digital era,” “cyber avant-garde” or “the avant-garde of the future” – as he calls it.4 Subsequently, the Internet became the field of the extensive activity of the new generation of Japanese experimental artists – almost as important as screenings and performances. Summarizing the points provided by Kluszczyński, it can be observed that developing research on the historical avant-garde opens the possibility of creating comparisons between the origins of the movement and the achievements of the new generation of the artists. Consequently, searching for the correlations between old and new allows showing the constant evolution: the metamorphosis of the tendencies of the independent artists, groups, and collectives.5 According to the above, the main research problem that kept returning in my publication revolved around the extent to which the new Japanese avant-garde artists fulfill the postulates, aesthetics, and objectives of the previous generations of the filmmakers.

Japanese avant-garde film, closely connected to street theatre and performative activities, can be described both as a conglomerate of the Western audiovisual influences and the example of the unique aesthetic quality. The style of the Japanese filmmakers was born through a combination of the inspirations taken from the Western artists with the search for the meaning of the post-war socio-political changes. Moreover, the variety of forms and themes provided by the artists allows looking at Japanese avant-garde as on the phenomena expanding the activities of the Western fathers of the avant-garde movement.

The main point of interest depicted in this book – the avant-garde film on the Japanese ground – emerged not only from the combination of the influences of ←14 | 15→the Japanese and Western art but also as the final (artistic) result of the eventful atmosphere of the 1960s. It was the time, when the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, known as ANPO, was signed by the Japanese government. The ratification of the treaty on May 20, 1960, led to the protests – uniting students, artists, workers, and other groups within Japanese society.6 Moreover, under the influence of such events as 1970 World Exposition in Osaka (Expo’ 70) and the activities of the various groups, collectives or art centers, the Japanese avant-garde movement evolved. Its aesthetics changed through time, meeting with such phenomena as the New Wave cinema (nūberu bāgu), the body transgressions of the pink films (pinku eiga),7 as well as the technological novelties appearing throughout the time.

Writing about the post-war Japanese avant-garde artists, Isolde Standish mentions that “A generational consciousness based on political opposition was intimately linked to the student movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, they shared experiences as Japan’s first generation of post-war filmmakers who were artistically stifled by a monopolistic and hierarchal commercial studio system […].”8 Following Standish’s observation, it should be emphasized that the artistic pursuits of the first Japanese avant-garde directors can be perceived as opposed to commercialism and classical Japanese cinema. The new counter-cinema also addressed a different audience: politically conscious and interested in novelty offered by perception-challenging visual forms.9

To situate the listed influences, changes, metamorphoses, and development of Japanese avant-garde and experimental film, I start my deduction from the brief description of the parameters of avant-garde film activity. The basis of theoretical research, conceptions, and definitions provided by the Western researchers will further allow creating comparisons and recognize the distinctive features of the Japanese movement. In the first part of the chapter dedicated to the theoretical approach, I also present the critique, comments, and relations of the avant-garde and mainstream cinema, as well as take into consideration the position of the viewer encountering experimental or non-narrative films. Furthermore, ←15 | 16→I emphasize the role of a collective and group in avant-garde practice – what will also be the basis of Japanese avant-garde movement.

The second part of the first chapter was focused on the parameters of Japanese avant-garde activity, which allows listing the similarities and differences between the development of the movement on Eastern and Western grounds. There, I present the theory of avant-garde from the perspective of the Japanese writers and researchers, such as Tarō Okamoto (1911–1996),10 Kiyoteru Hanada (1909–1979), Takahiko Iimura (b. 1937) and other significant personas. I also give a brief introduction into the complex history of continually emerging and vanishing avant-garde groups on the Japanese ground. I also briefly comment on their influence on avant-garde aesthetics as a concept. The historical outline serves to explain the origins of the differences in defining what is ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ on the Japanese ground. I conclude the chapter with some thoughts on the reception of counter-cinema in Japan.

The second chapter revolves around the presentation of the development of Japanese avant-garde and experimental film from its origins to the 1990s. I start from situating the Futurist, Dada and Surrealist inspirations in the broader context of the Japanese avant-garde. There I discuss the influences of The Futurist Art Association – the forerunner of Japanese avant-garde, and MAVO group on the further avant-garde practice. Moreover, I comment on the visual aesthetics of Surrealism that migrated from the West and was reconsidered by Japanese artists.11 In the following sections, I focus on the themes, objectives, and aesthetics adopted by the Japanese filmmakers before the year 2000, especially paying attention to the controversies. Later on, the controversial themes were almost entirely rejected by the post-2000s generation of experimental artists, so the analysis is also centered on searching for the reasons of that state. Among the Japanese authors from between the 1950s and 1980s, I chose to focus on those providing the most significant inspirations to the newest generation of the experimental artists. Primarily, I paid attention to those mentioned by the young experimental filmmakers during the interviews. According to this, I provide some thoughts on Shūji Terayama’s (1935–1983) art, mainly focusing on the reception of his films and performances, as well as on his “cult” status among the ←16 | 17→Japanese creators of avant-garde pictures. Among the 1950s–1990s artists who focused on body transgressions, searching for new ways of establishing contact with the viewers and encouraging them to reconsider the social and political reality, I also comment on Donald Richie (1924–2013), Takahiko Iimura, Masao Adachi (b. 1939) and Takashi Itō (b. 1956) – the author between two epochs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, besides the continuous development of other avant-garde forms, also the experimental film was cultivated on the Japanese ground. The most prominent artists of that time, Toshio Matsumoto (1932–2017) and mentioned Takahiko Iimura, brought fresh insight into the spectrum of available film techniques. At the other end of the scale of avant-garde phenomena developing at that times, should also be mentioned Mako Idemitsu (b. 1940), female artists, who underlined the problems of the “second gender” in the Japanese society and undertook the polemics with the “male culture.” Moreover, the 1970s brought to life an innovative hybrid of the newest technologies and avant-garde aesthetics – Japanese video art that developed with the correspondence to the New York video scene.

However, after the popularity boom of the multiplex cinemas in Japan in the 1990s,12 the interest in avant-garde and experimental forms of expression faded away. Even though during that period Mako Idemitsu and Takahiko Iimura released some of their less-known works, the overall shape of the Japanese cinema was far from the experimental techniques, transgressive issues and political engagement cultivated by the previous generations of the avant-garde artists. In that case, the period between 1990 and 2000 can be perceived as a gap between old avant-garde forms and a new dynamic movement.

After the year 2000, there appeared the new generation of independent filmmakers, who consider themselves as the founders of “the new avant-garde movement.” What is significant, they focus on expanding the technological and thematic areas set by the anti-mainstream artists from between the 1950s and 1980s. Observing the unique works of the Collective Plus [+]; group and other recognizable authors, the viewer can experience a wide range of themes, including the spiritual contemplation, ecological issues and problems with rapid urban development. However, among the works of the new generation of the avant-garde and experimental filmmakers, it is almost impossible to find the ←17 | 18→controversial issues, such as studies of sexual intercourses and political (or anti-political) agitation. Comparing the new experimental visual art to the topics and the ways of presentation used by the “old masters” of Japanese avant-garde (such as Terayama or Iimura), it can be easily observed that the new generation avoids the subjects that might be labeled as controversial. Instead, they mostly encourage the viewer to contemplate the beauty of the abstract, technologically advanced visual compositions. According to that, the comparison of the thematic areas of two generations of the Japanese independent artists allows understanding the general tendencies of looking at the pre-2000s avant-gardes both by the young experimental filmmakers and the contemporary viewers.

The last chapter concerns the rapid development of the visual experiment and avant-garde art in Japan after the year 2000. The sudden emergence of “new avant-garde” groups brings many questions about the objectives of the new movement and the artists’ perception of the achievements of the previous generations. It should be underlined that the founders of “the new avant-garde movement” admit to being inspired by the works of other independent artists and, at the same time, they try to expand the technological and chosen thematic areas set by the golden age of Japanese avant-garde. According to that, in the last chapter, I will focus on the thematic areas of the new movement to show the variety of themes they cover and to discuss the technologies they often use – all to discover how Japanese avant-garde evolved. Analyzing the works of a highly active group Collective Plus [+], which is an independent association of young filmmakers set up by Takashi Makino (b. 1978) and Rei Hayama (b. 1987), I would like to consider the main objectives of the artistic activities undertaken by the young generation. Underlining the process of discarding the controversial themes and, instead, focusing on the spiritual explorations and filmmaking techniques, I will also present the achievements of other recognizable experimental artists, such as Shinkan Tamaki (b. 1982) Kazuhiro Goshima (b. 1969), Tomonari Nishikawa (b. 1969) and Daichi Saito (b. 1970).

Because the young artists at the same time focus on being politically correct and state that they follow (and even improve) the postulates of the “old masters,” related to the controversial topics, I will compare the chosen thematic areas with the reasons for this paradigm shift. Providing the examples of the films from different cinematic epochs, as well as analyzing the history of Japanese avant-garde and 21st century’s “new avant-garde,” I will present the reflection on the transfer of the visual aesthetics and techniques primarily introduced by the “old masters.”

The crucial element of my study of the phenomenon was to provide insight and definitions that would respect the Western film and media theories and correspond with the uniqueness of Japanese aesthetics. According to that, writing ←18 | 19→about Japanese cinema, it is inevitable to mention the changes in the aesthetic categories on the Eastern ground, as well as refer to Japanese sources. On the other hand, the connections between East and West, especially when it comes to the early 1920s avant-garde conceptions, cannot be overlooked. It is also essential to take into consideration the models of communication between the artists and the audience – both Western and Japanese. By comparing them, I was able to find out more about the role and influence of the avant-garde art on the general perception of the viewers encountering audiovisual experiment.

According to the above, I especially underline the role of the artistic manifestos, published or announced on the Japanese ground in different cinematic epochs. It is worth mentioning that the idea of the avant-garde manifesto, which came from France together with Breton’s famous papers,13 in Japan evolved under the influence the authors’ creative approach – from the postulates published in niche magazines, through the collages printed in the newspapers, such as Shūji Terayama’s one, to short films and presentations shared on YouTube.14 The emphasis on the role and content of the manifestoes allows comparing the artistic aims of the particular Japanese filmmakers with the reception of their works. The approach I introduced also helps in distinguishing the mechanisms of emergence of the controversies around the avant-garde or experimental films.

Moreover, while researching on the avant-garde film, I used the historical methods and analyzed the influence of such events as the protests against signing the ANPO treaty or the Hiroshima (and later Fukushima) nuclear disaster on Japanese independent films. Also, the anti-military movements and the emergence of counter-cultural practices were tightly connected to the artists’ attempts to comment on socio-political changes. Furthermore, trying to understand the connections between the history of Japan and the development of independent filmmaking, it is inevitable to take into account the globalizing trends that shaped the experimental film after 2000.

As Arnd Schneider underlines, the experimental film can also be analyzed while taking into consideration its practical value and perceive it as “the material process of visual perception.”15 Furthermore, in the monograph entitled ←19 | 20→Experimental Film and Anthropology, Schneider and Caterina Pasqualino observe that especially the 1960s and 1970s film experiments, being the reinterpretations of structuralist film, revolved around such issues as experiencing time and length of the film, narration, as well as the materiality of a film.16 The connection between audiovisual experiments with anthropology stems from the fact that the experimental film, considered as a material object, have a function of “doing something,” opposite to the narrative cinema, which is focused on the narration. The lack of narration in the experimental works provides that the viewer pays closer attention to experiencing the projection as a moment, closer to the performance than to the screening of a mainstream film.17 According to that, the observation of the viewer and the interest in the artists’ approach to the contact with the audience, as well as to their works, objectives, and inspirations, became the crucial part of my research on the experimental and avant-garde films.

In my research, I focused on the aesthetics and technical aspects of the chosen avant-garde and experimental films, however not deriving it from its political meaning and implications, where it was necessary to look at them through the lenses of socio-political changes afflicting Japan. The political issues were often the primary motive power for the artists. So that, describing the achievements of such figures as Masao Adachi or the members of MAVO collective, I drew the historical context of their pursuits.

I perceive the history of avant-garde film as the history of the people engaged in radical actions, striving for funding of their artistic activities and those, who always felt the need for transgressing the barriers of the social norms. Finally, it is the history of those who had great visions of changing the social order, and engaging the spectators, trying to build their utopian projects – often based on very vague plans and manifestoes. Those visions were, somehow, preserved and revived in the artistic pursuits of the new generation of the Japanese experimental filmmakers – even though they treated historical references selectively. However, by choosing their favorite components, the post-2000 filmmakers strive to continue and develop the aesthetic solutions that, if not for the sudden appearance of new experimental groups on the Japanese ground, could have been long gone. According to that, this book primarily aims at showing the connections between old and new, at the same time providing the insight into the history of Japanese ←20 | 21→avant-garde and experimental aesthetics, expanded in the achievements of the new generation.

My research on Japanese avant-garde and experimental film was in progress for many years. Because of that, the earlier versions of some fragments and chapters included in this book were published in their primary forms as the articles and post-conference papers. Every time the revised versions of the pieces of my articles appear as a part of this book, they are marked in the footnotes. The expansion of the research on Japanese avant-garde and experimental film was possible because of gathering the unique first-hand material through interviewing the young experimental artists. Their commitment allowed me to develop and revise some of the initial statements, as well as to understand the connections between the “old” and “new” Japanese independent art.

For the sake of clarity, I provide the technical specification of notable experimental films in the parentheses only when the film is mentioned for the first time. Also, all quotations are translated by the author unless stated otherwise. Some of the excerpts from the interviews, provided by the artists or cited directly from their websites, were improved according to the American-English grammar rules.

←21 |

1 See: Ross Julian, Beyond the Frame. Intermedia and Expanded Cinema in 1960-1970s Japan (Leeds: The University of Leeds, 2014), [dissertation]; Ross Julian, “Projection as Performance: Intermediality in Japan’s Expanded Cinema,” in: Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film, ed. Lucia Nagib, Anne Jerslev (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

2 Kluszczyński Ryszard, “Jednostka – grupa – sieć. Przemiany awangardowych strategii twórczych” [Individual – Group – Net. The Changes of the Avant-Garde Artistic Strategies] in: Wiek awangardy [The Age of Avant-Garde], ed. Liliana Bieszczad (Kraków: Universitas, 2006), pp. 144–145.

3 Kluszczyński, “Jednostka – grupa – sieć,” pp. 145.

4 Kluszczyński, “Jednostka – grupa – sieć,” pp. 146.

5 Kluszczyński, “Jednostka – grupa – sieć,” pp. 146.

6 Sasaki-Uemura Wesley M., Organizing the Spontaneous: Citizens Protest in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), pp. 24–49.

7 Sharp Jasper, Za różową kurtyną. Historia japońskiego kina erotycznego [Behind the Pink Curtain. The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema], trans. Jagoda Murczyńska, (Warszawa: Mff Nowe Horyzonty, Kraków, Korporacja Ha!art, 2011), p. 16.

8 Standish Isolde, Politics, Porn and Protest. Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, (New York, London: Continuum, 2001), p. 1.

9 Standish, Politics, Porn and Protest, pp. 1–10.

10 For the sake of clarity and correspondence with the Western names appearing in this book, Japanese names are written in the Western order – name first.

11 Schilling Mark, “Japanising the Dark Side: Surrealism in Japanese Film,” in: The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film, ed. Harper Graeme and Rob Stone (London, New York: Wallflower Press, 2007), pp. 134–142.

12 To observe the influence of the increasing number of multiplex cinemas on the number and popularity of imported, popular films, see: N. a. 6, “Statistics of Film Industry in Japan,” Motion Pictures Producers Association of Japan, Inc, 5 Jan. 2019 http://www.eiren.org/statistics_e/.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Avant-garde history Expanded cinema Experimental aesthetics Independent film Film techniques
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 336 pp., 20 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz (Author)

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz holds a Ph.D. in Film, with a particular emphasis on Japanese cinema. Her research covers avant-garde and independent films, expanded cinema and technology in film. She is also focused on other aspects of Japanese culture, especially the development of Japanese rock and metal music. She is the author of many articles regarding film and a monography on Japanese cyberpunk cinema and works as a co-editor of an academic journal on anthropology, sociology and culture.


Title: Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film