THE WRECKAGE OF MEMORY: NOTES ON KENJI ONISHIThis entry was posted on August 30th, 2015
By Claudia Siefen
“That’s all you need to make a film. 8mm allows you to infinitely depict what you want to depict. But this isnt particular to 8mm film; digital cameras are just the same”.
Memory of Celluloid (1990-93), the village, the street, the house you spent your childhood in and where memories always mean flowers, nature and movement in a dark surrounding while the sun is shining outside. You can smell the sea, hear the waves and your shoes will always be dirty from the long way you walked. The father tries to breathe, close to death and pieces of pain are captured in that little camera. But what better can happen to a human being than dying surrounded by your family? The tender hands on your knee and the fresh water. The preparations are taken for the funeral. And outside the light goes on shining, the waves continue their way and it is dark during the night. And the next morning there will be white clouds in the sky again.
Onishi Kenji was born in 1973 in Mie Prefecture, located on the biggest japanese island of Honshu. He began making films with a second-hand 8mm camera, which he obtained during his high school days. In 1995 he founded the filmmaking group “Cinema Train” in Tokyo, a company that distributes films by young Japanese filmmakers and screens underground and avant-garde work from overseas. Here the filmmakers are invited and also united for the individual expression and a desire for a space to share their ideas. In 2007 Onishi worked as a cinematographer for Oguchi Yoko’s Real Access Discommunication. 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. I will be introducing some of them here, brought together on his DVD collection “Selected Works Of Kenji Onishi“.
A Burning Star (1995) depicts the physicality of destruction and disappearance through images of the Japanese filmmaker’s father who dies and is cremated. Maintaining a solid rhythm and perspective, this film highlights the meaning and importance of “viewing” and “filming” in documentary. The camera is the most important aspect of the absolute process of expression, a personal way adopting an “Onishi style” camera eye. In A Burning Star (Shosei), the inner conflicts find a cruel form. Through the camera he comes to terms with his father’s death. It’s only natural that a person should tremble, hesitate, feel sad and be afraid. The second half of the full length version shows the body being burnt as the camera (double Super8, later transferred to 16mm) sits in front of the open door to the fire and records the body melting, the bones crumbling and turning to ashes. Onishi has said that the camera is “the most important aspect of the absolute process of expression”. In A Burning Star, Onishi is expressing the grief, loss, respect and confusion that one would expect, only that it is not being represented in front of us on screen, forcing us to experience his loss as our own.
Street Child (1998) in black&white, the hammering sound again, walking along the wall, the sky is grey, or is it blue? A young woman is coming your way, bowing down and changing her shoes. She is looking at you and her feet burn. That camera is strange, isn’t it? Yes, shoot some trees and flowers because maybe she will forget you, keeping your eye on her. But things change, she is looking at you and smiling into the camera: “What are you doing here?” She will show you and will take you with her. That street again. She will open the door and let you in. The light bulb is burning. Some food would be nice and she continues undressing. And eating. While the sky is still grey. Or is it blue again? “Bye, bye!”
Just like the director, you can erase all of that. That’s the unique power of the author. The camera is merely a tool to give it a form. When you have turned the camera to the subject of death there is no need to prepare humane justifications, a methodological structure nor escape routes. The act of filming records the distance between his father and himself. Film is only a possibility.
“So I went ahead and placed a projector closer to the screen. The people who saw the screen over my back saw a projection performance more than a film. Also, there are projection troubles, when film heads get tangled in loading, and sometimes we deliberately make a big fuss. These are also part of film. We don’t make just content”.
Later Onishi has focused on longer 16mm films such as Squareworld (Sukueawaarudo, 1995). Architecture and clear lines during the night. Light cubes structuring the wall and when you get closer you see the sky again. Those cubes are windows, showing you the clouds in the blue sky. Your hand is reaching out. So you go outside, those dark green landscape and the silence of course. The clouds are getting darker now, don’t you see? So let us go and take the car. Driving through the fields, it is all landscape now but you can’t smell the sea. A cross-street: to turn left or to the right but does that really matter? The sky is white now. We will just park here and wait until the night is back again. The clouds turn blue and orange in the night. Do you see that? Naked, your skin, your penis. A knife and a scream. So let us wait until the sun will rise again. Today the sky is blue and will change tomorrow. Let us go back again.
And just like Onishi wrote for the International Film Festival Rotterdam a few years ago: “I think my films are living beings, the pictures on the screen are their skin. Some parts of the skin are thick, others are thin. Some may be injured or infected, others may be ill. Squareworld is a fairly unhealthy film. It looks as if dark drops of blood could ooze out at any moment. I conceived this film in an avant-garde way, with a surrealist plot, very exaggerated colour variations and grainy images, and I put the three main constituents of the exploitation film in it: sex, violence and splatter. By mixing together contrasting genres, I wanted to add a kind of black humour. There is also an immoral, antieeminist layer in my films, that always evokes protests at screenings. But I do that deliberately: deep within I am grinning when my films are written off as the work of a murder-happy psychopath”.
To shoot Light Point (1996) you went onto a roof, to capture the icy blue sky and the sun. The clouds are rushing by. And the architecture of men fit so well in that movement. The bricks. The light is harsh and blue. But in the night it is different, you walk down the street and the sun turns into a light bulb again, the houses are asleep. It feels like thunder and the houses seemed to be dipped into blue and turquoise colours. And then it all turns blue again because you went inside, there is the film projector. But you know these things, so let us go outside and watch the trees! And the sky and this rainbow. (I will show you the projector anyway…).
“Stop shooting video, hit the streets”. – an attempt to let one’s identity emerge by piecing together fragments of 8mm film shot over some 20 years. The filmmaker’s muttering and breathing reverberate over a series of visual images that evoke the primitive pleasure of an image coming into focus. It is all a tribute to the culture of 8mm film, which is nearing its end, and a personal film directed with an approach that sets it always apart from other films.
It is all flickering neon-light with Aquarium City (1996), a feature film of 76 minutes, using black inserts and the structure of the tatami again. Blue and grey are the most prominent colours, and a sky turning white while a young woman is using drugs and waving her hair. The needle in her arm, and we are watching from a distance while cars and motorcycles are passing the street. The possible contrasts in beauty seem to be Onishi’s theme, so after the dark street we watch another woman masturbating while sitting on a chair. But later placing the needle in the vagina of another woman. The sun is shining outside and cars continue driving. But the power is gone. And the way out is never anything else but a black hole.
The Underground Water (1996) comes as an ode to water in its forms and to that connected sounds, ice, drinking, mirroring, bathing, washing, pearling on a window, raindrops, reflecting architecture and grey trees. Dry leaves, wooden floors and a young man smoking a cigarette. Windows and doors are preparing the framing. Wind is coming up. Will it rain today? A young woman is pressing her face to a TV screen, all in blue but it is not water refreshing her. In her eyes you see some hidden memories and dirty tennis ball lying on the street are sucking up the drops of the rain.
Out of Frame (1998) plays with your expectations and the way how we are used to “read” pictures and their framing. A woman is rubbing herself against a white wall, making the typical noises of having sex from the back, and Onishi takes his time to open the framing and then showing them in explicit positions. You don’t see the penetration but watch the rhythm of two bodies, listening to it, too. The framing by windows will allow you some rest. The man is putting on his clothes and closing the door while the woman is looking out oft he window. Onishi’s typical black inserts again, and we watch the same couple on the toilet, where he is putting her hands into hand-cuffs. After that he is showering her carefully, and she remains in hand-cuffs while they are having sex again under the shower. He is using his revolver then to free her from these metal things. And the toilet is a calm place when she comes back after strangling a young man on the street. And the woman is looking out of the window as we hear a shot coming out of a revolver. It will end up in blood.
“The film drama is the opium of the people… down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios… long live life as it is!”. -Dziga Vertov
Blue Max (1997) shows a woman looking out of a window again, but also working with extreme close-ups: The street, her neck, the window, her knees, the floor and her toes, brought together by the sound of a passing train. Her ears, her mouth, the wall and the door. The sparkling glass of a window and the young woman on top of a naked young man and later the shadows on the wall of both of them. A telephone is ringing and the clouds in the blue sky are travelling by while it all turns into a rape. And the calmness of both of them is quite irritating when they later watch TV together.
The Airconditioning System (1997) introduces us to a young man in his flat, and the ways of communication with his girlfriend. The sky is blue and skirts are put on the balcony for drying. The wind will carry everything away, just like the noise and music or the porn we watch with him later on TV (he prefers to look at western blonde women). What will happen when the young woman in her flat will have found out soon that he is looking at her (and listening to her) via the airconditioning system?
“It is so long ago that I obtained a used 8mm camera … just at the time when the medium for visual expression was shifting from film to video. As a tribute to the disappearing medium, I shall spin illusions of nostalgia from the wreckage of memory”.
Zetcho (1997) is a feature shot on video, including the typical colouring of washed-out white and blue. Again Onishi brings together couple’s problems, nature and brutalism, set against a colour-changing skyline or in small apartments. The structure of architecture and the one of nature. A cat hiding behind a car. While it all turns out to a drama of killing and brutalism against women. Travelling or hiding is never easy on that little island…
Pornogriffith (2004) is a shaking, raining, burning and exploding screen of colours and a hammering sound. Scratching like in the good old years, bubbling along a wild mixture of black dots and scratches. They turn red and green and white and yellow.
“We are connected by intellectual threads not only to what is happening around us, but also with what happened in the past, and the way that it colors the present. History undergoes constant and continual revision by all cultures”. -Christopher Crouch
East End (2001) is a short with a “real” cast, listed in the beginning but during the first minutes you get hardly anything of them to see (Graham Chave, Willy Brister, Wayne May, Ian Jackson). It is all in English and subtitled in Japanese. The sun is hot and white and it reminds me immediately of Luc Besson’s Dernier Combat (1983). White and grey, a big screen with noises and voices: we hear a man suffering. The film follows the hardscrabble day-to-day exploits of a nameless hero as he is trying to survive amidst violent, desperate men and desolate landscapes. Later we will watch them all again building a metal construction out in the desert. So these men here will find an Asian guy, almost dead: “You have got a point!” The Promised Land? No, and it is someone else who will die in the end. Or will simply end up in hallucinations.
Electronic Pinokio (2005) is playful again with its material (video) and the optical illusions you can produce and also provoke with it. But mainly it looks like a grainy shot from someone to close to a TV screen. Yellow, green, blue. pink, white, green. It will later turn into a pinkish and red female face and an ass will come and disappear again. The sound is dark and slowly pondering until red characters tell us it is “The End”.
F.F.F. (2002) (Funked, Fucked Up, Falls) is a colourful feature about young criminals (Ominato Masao, Tachibana Kaoru, Tatesawa Sadoru), sex scenes and their bitter ends. Onishi again is using almost no dialogue, that does not make it easy to watch this film, but it makes so much sense. While killing and suffering or seldom enjoying nice and peaceful moments, what should they talk about?
Onishi’s short Book Of Genesis (2002) shows us in an impressive way the connection between the sky and skylines, made of all that technical stuff human beings have created. We watch storms and lighting in a colourful composition, connected to your TV or radio and maybe there is a fight going on. And sometimes you’re just being manipulated. Which is great, and it’s part of every director’s craft.
“I think it would be good if a filmmaker communicates something to the audience. I think that’s all films are capable of”.
Thanks to Kurokawa Ai (translater); Fort Nahoko.