by Julian Ross (University of Leeds; Close-Up Film Centre)

Gishiki (Oshima, 1971), translated to The Ceremony for its theatrical release in English-speaking countries, framed its narrative around traditional rituals practiced in Japanese culture. In Oshima’s film, these ceremonies marked occasions that brought together members of the central family who witness their family tree collapse as their stories unravel over the span of a lifetime. The word gishiki, the title of the film, was a term often used, by the news media and the artists themselves, for the activities of the Japanese avant-garde in the 1960s. Performance artists, dancers and filmmakers enjoyed ceremonial rituals as a remarkably unrestricted form of artistic expression. Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo’s Ankoku Butoh [Dance of Darkness] were described as rituals in early reviews, and their inaugural performance of Kinjiki [Forbidden Colour] in 1959, a dance interpretation of Mishima Yukio’s novel where a chicken was sacrificed, certainly evokes a liturgy from a bygone era.

When Sain [Closed Vagina] (1963), the 6th film production of Nichidai Shin-Eiken (Nihon University Film Study Group), traveled to Kyoto and Osaka, avant-garde performance artists such as Hi-Red Centre’s Akasegawa Genpei, Kazakura Sho, and noise musicians Tone Yasunao and Kosugi Takehisa accompanied the student filmmakers to participate in a mix-media ritual around the screening. The ritual, which they entitled Sain no Gishiki [Ritual for Closed Vagina], did not go by without havoc. In the Kyoto screening, a reel of the film was stolen initiating an unplanned riot in which a piano was destroyed. In Osaka, the rumours of the scuffle reaching the ears of the organisers, the screening was cancelled prompting the artists to march around the streets in protest with the reels placed in coffins.

There was one performance art group, however, who led the streak of ritualistic happenings by both number and impact, routinely describing their performances as gishiki. Zero Jigen, meaning Zero Dimension, took on Japan with their performances roughly between 1963-1972 where the group staged rituals on the street and elsewhere. On some occasions, these performances were captured by, or organised for not only journalists but also by their comrades in cinema. This article will address the manifestations of Zero Jigen’s gishiki that proliferated on the screens of avant-garde works throughout the 60s.

Outdoor performance art in Japan has a longstanding tradition; the origins of what are now considered established theatrical forms, such as kabuki, lie in mimed story-telling performances held along the riverbed in rural areas. Japan, a few centuries onwards in the 1950s, saw a burgeoning of theatrical expressions that abandoned narrative in favour of, and in fidelity for, the instance. Theatre broke through the confines of the stage and escaped onto the street in a way the last scenes of A Man Vanishes (Imamura, 1967) and Pastoral: Hide and Seek (Terayama, 1974) enact a cathartic release of staged fiction into the street. The numerous performance artists and troupes, recently documented in KuroDalaiJee’s epic chronicle, Anarchy of the Body: Undercurrents of Performance Art in 1960s Japan (Tokyo: grambooks, 2010), staged street interventions that resisted conventions of theatrical expression to enforce notice by unsuspecting passersby: the Neo-Dadaism Organisers’ walk through Ginza in strange outfits (1960); the Hi-Red Centre scrubbed the pavement to parody and condemn the Japanese government’s attempt to clean the stains of Tokyo for the Olympics in 1964; and Group Zero covered the streets with an enormous white cloth in Kobe (1972). Zero Jigen took part in the current of outdoor activities but stood apart from their contemporaries for the number of performances, their presence on the media (including 20 appearances on weekly magazines in 1968 according to KuroDalaiJee’s count) and their naked vulgarity. Self-declaring to have ‘raped the city’, Zero Jigen came to represent avant-garde interventions that went on in the daily life for city-inhabitants in the 1960s.

A selection of their onscreen appearances (ab)use their persona that embody aspects of absurdity prevailing in the cultural manifestations of the era. Sex Ryoki Chitai [Bizarre Sex Zone] (Nakajima, 1969), a studio-made documentary, features Zero Jigen’s rituals alongside showcases of sex parties, samples of sadomasochistic behaviour, plastic surgeries, tattoo practices and strip teases. Although a rare insight into underground promiscuities, Zero Jigen is here reduced to another scandal. In Crazy Love (Okabe, 1968), that similarly traces angura [underground] culture but from a proximity only available to an insider, Okabe Michio maps the activities of his contemporaries with camp sensibility and a rollicking soundtrack of the era’s most famous. Again, however, they are simply observed in the film as a phenomenon and their radical possibilities are subsided. In such films, the usurpation of space that Zero Jigen engineered on the street did not extend to breaking through the cinematic frame. Although essential for us now as archival material, the films only serve, in the case for Zero Jigen, as documents of their actions.

In a sense, there is some evidence that a visual record of their activities was what Zero Jigen desired in their collaborations with filmmakers. The feature-length film that their leader, Kato Yoshihiro, produced and directed in the early 70s, Inaba no Shiro Usagi [The White Hare of Inaba] (Kato, 1970), is a chronicle of their rituals with documentation in mind. Shot mostly by avant-garde filmmaker Oe Masanori, who had just returned from his stay in New York where he had joined The Newsreel collective, the film is an indelible insight into Zero Jigen ceremonies but their performances that once emphasised the live aspect seem, to an extent, ousted by their requisite to document. Some of the performances are in front of no other audience than the camera – for example, their performances on a beach, widely recorded in both photographs and the film, lose the immediacy, impact and political relevance their street-rituals provoked in their outrageous confrontation against the public. Recalling other key avant-garde works from the postwar years, namely Senso Gemu [War Games] (Richie, 1962) and Heso to Genbaku [Navel and the A-Bomb] (Hosoe Eikoh, 1960), the physicality of the images reside in metaphor and seem detached from everyday life that Zero Jigen had so vigorously challenged.


The collaboration with Donald Richie, Cybele [Cybele: A Pastoral Ritual in Five Scenes] (1968), however, goes beyond archival recording despite being the only title, other than their own self-produced White Hare of Inaba, that commits the entire film to a performance by Zero Jigen. Richie, more commonly known for his work as an instrumental critic and programmer who introduced Japanese cinema to the West, was also active within independent film circles in Japan creating sensual avant-garde works. Already familiar with recording ceremonial performances as he had directed Gisei [Sacrifice] (1959), a ritual dance enacted by Ankoku Buto dancers in a rare document of their early work, Richie films Zero Jigen’s rituals that were coordinated by their leader Kato Yoshihiro and choreographed for the camera. Kato remembers the film as a confrontation of artistic forces, describing the collaboration as, “…two motorbikes coming into contact where two streets meet. Contemporary art has become a space where the action of the contact itself can be an artistic question” (1968: 82). According to Kato, the recording medium of the camera itself became a cause for interruption as Zero Jigen repeatedly had to halt their performance in order for the camera to be serviced, whether it was a renewal of film stock or redirection of camera positions. Though largely observant, Richie’s film also intervenes the course of their ritual with editing; as the subtitle suggests, the film is divided into five sequences that, to an extent, reduces the ceremonial rite to sections along with the interspersed shots of the empty Yanaka Graveyard where the performance is set. During the shoot, Kato felt frustration with the interruptions but later confessed to realise it may have been a strategic maneuver on Richie’s behalf in order to confront the performers on the equivocal space between story and myth (1968: 85). In other words, the presence of Richie as an active observe-cum-intruder forced the performance artists to question their own act and overall position in the film as a whole.

The issue of interrupting a ritual by the act of filming was solved with Miyai Rikuro’s double-projection film, Jidai Seishin no Genshogaku [Phenomenology of the Zeitgeist] (1968). The film, a 37-minute expanded-cinema piece in which two prints of the same film are projected onto each other with a slight time-delay, follows Zero Jigen’s performance in Shinjuku that eventually goes through the outdoor passageway next to the Kinokuniya bookstore (a space that features prominently in Oshima’s Shinjuku Doroo Nikki [Diary of a Shinjuku Thief] (1969)). Crucially, in the case of the film, the entire performance is recorded with no cuts. Partially due to the illicit nature of the performance as the public nude displays are outlawed, the performance was to be conducted in one take with a commitment and fidelity to the unexpected. Although escape routes were planned in case of police intervention, the performance and the reactions of passersby were largely left up to chance and successfully captured in one take by Miyai’s camera. With the double-projection performance, Miyai conceptualises the delay between the performative act and the projection of the film with the time-delay between the two projections. The ‘happenings’ of the performance-artists are interpreted in the presentation of the film to incorporate action into the exhibition of cinema. Zero Jigen’s performance, unlike Cybele, however, would have remained constant with or without Miyai’s presence as a filmmaker.

As much as the word ‘ritual’ may seem incongruous with the vanguard, cinema may not seem to be the most appropriate accomplice for street-performance. Cinema, viewed in a darkened stationary environment with the audience positioned in a prescribed location, is precisely what the performers were rejecting in their practice that sought exterior conditions against institutional frameworks. In Mujin Retto [The Desert Archipelago] (Kanai, 1969) and Bara no Soretsu [Funeral Parade of Roses] (Matsumoto, 1969), however, Zero Jigen joined forces with filmmakers, instigating a collaboration in which each form of expression challenged the other. In The Desert Archipelago, Zero Jigen make their appearance as the adult-size infants a woman conceives minutes after being raped by the protagonist Hidekuni, whose name reads ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, in other words, Japan. The five enact a birth-ritual and, tied together by a rope that resembles an umbilical cord, they circulate the room chanting strange moans before they rush out. In the following sequence, the infants burst onto the streets of Tokyo and cause havoc whilst they chase Hidekuni. What makes the sequence interesting for our purpose here is, however, not what we observe onscreen but what we imagine to have been seen on the street during filming. From the point of view for the onlookers, the filmmaker is as much a part of the performance as the members of Zero Jigen, and here lie the radical possibilities in their collaboration. With the presence of the filmmaker on the street, the act of viewing is no longer a passive venture but, instead, possesses vanguard potentials. Kanai positions himself with a handheld camera on the ground, capturing the chase, as well as the spectators’ reactions, from a low-angle, a pose that calls attention to itself for its obstruction of foot traffic. The film becomes an event, not for its exhibition to an audience, but for the strategies of the shoot that force an audience to become witnesses to its making. In other words, production and exhibition merge in the scene depending on the perspective its audience chooses or is forced to take on. By trespassing onto the streets, both filmmaker and performers celebrate the risk-taking that depends on chance occurrences on the street – the scene, in a sense, hinges on the impossibility of predicting its outcome for both the maker and the viewer. Indeed, the sequence that follows, where Hidekuni finds himself under a spotlight on a stage in front of an audience who emulate his moves as if under a somnambulist’s spell, parodies conventional spectatorship after subverting it.

In Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), director Matsumoto Toshio and cinematographer Suzuki Tatsuo, in cohorts with Zero Jigen, similarly staged a happening on the streets of Shinjuku for the film on March 24th 1969. In front of a gathering of bystanders, Zero Jigen appeared to have drawn from their previous performance Vietnam Hansen Koshin [March Against the Vietnam War] in 1967 whilst cameraman Suzuki observed. In the scene, the camera first takes on a position of an observer, only to abandon the role to participate in the ritual. In the last shot, we are shown the camera positioned behind performers and march in unison. Suzuki, who had showed his versatility and finesse with the camera in Kuroki Kazuo’s spellbinding Tobenai Chinmoku [Silence Has No Wings] (1966), Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s Document Rojo [On the Road: A Document] (1964) and with Terayama Shuji’s films later, embodies both spectatorial and participatory roles during the live performance. Moreover, the protagonist of the film, a transvestite called Eddie played by queer-icon Peter, stands amongst the crowd, at times emphasised within the frame, at others, simply placed as another onlooker. The scene, introduced a quarter of an hour into the film and dispersed in condensed versions throughout, is offered to the cinema audience who would have already become familiar with Eddie’s presence and would watch the scene under different circumstances to the bystanders of the performance. As the film unfolds, it becomes questionable whether what we are witnessing are fragments of memories, a fictitious concoction or an inescapable present in the narrative that unfolds in disorientating fractures, what Matsumoto described himself as a ‘splinters of a broken mirror.’ The appearance of Zero Jigen’s ritual in the film, therefore, becomes an intervention into the course of the narrative and another perplexity in the puzzle that is Eddie’s story. In this way, the presence of the camera colludes with Zero Jigen’s performance and, reciprocally, their ritual accompanies the themes and stylistic ventures of the film whilst simultaneously posing a challenge to the framework of the film medium.


Matsumoto, in his canonical text Eizo no Hakken: Avant-Garde to Documentary [The Discovery of the Image: Avant-Garde and Documentary] (1963), had theorised the ‘avant-garde documentary’ where he questioned conventional codes of documentary storytelling and called for the radical contemplation of truth. Funeral Parade of Roses, his first attempt at a fictional-feature, certainly subverts the boundaries between fact and fiction, with Zero Jigen’s involvement, and their placement in the film, participating in this sabotage. Zero Jigen and Matsumoto’s relationship, however, would come to a bitter end later in the same year. Matsumoto went to take a key role in the Osaka World Expo of 1970 as the managing director of one of the pavilions, Senni-kan, where he presented his large-scale presentation, Space Projection Ako with ten 35mm projectors and specifically constructed projection-surfaces. Zero Jigen, on the other hand, took on a leading position for the counter-Expo movement Hanpaku Undo (a play on the word Banpaku, indicating the Expo, but with one of the kanji characters replaced with ‘anti’). Osaka Expo’s committee had invited many countercultural artists to participate and, to the surprise of some, many agreed drawn to the possibilities that were offered, despite the event’s industrial, commercial and nationalistic foundation. The celebration of the advancement of technology fissured with performance-artists’ views on the evolution of culture due to their commitment to the body as the only necessary platform for expression.


Perhaps Zero Jigen’s collusion with cinema was doomed for its inevitable appropriation of the body into a mechanical presentation. In fact, one of the anti-Expo events entailed the disruption and shutting down of Sogetsu Art Centre’s Film Art Festival, a two-week festival in October 1969 that would have showcased a range of international avant-garde titles, due to some of the organisers’ involvement in the Osaka Expo. The protest still debated, the damage of the closure of the instrumental festival for experimental film is inconceivable but their message also held important value. The performance for Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses marked a conclusion to Zero Jigen’s collaborations with filmmakers (although, of course, they self-produced and directed their own film The White Hare of Inaba). Although cinema and its personnel may have come to represent an enemy for Zero Jigen, their period of collaboration with a range of filmmakers in the late-60s was a confrontation in which each pushed the other to its limit.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Hirasawa, Go (2002), Underground Film Archives (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo).

Hirata, Minoru (2006), Zero Jigen: Kato Yoshihiro to 60nen-dai (Zero Dimension: Kato Yoshihiro and the 1960s) (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo).

Kato, Yoshihiro (1968), ‘Zerojigen Gishiki Seiron Monogatari 5’ (The Sound Argument and Story of Zerojigen Rituals), Eiga Hyoron, Nov., 82.

KuroDalaiJee (2003), ‘The Ritual of Zero Jigen in Urban Space’ in R, 2: 32-37.

Also available to download as pdf: 

KuroDalaiJee (2010), Nikutai Anarchism: 1960nen-dai Nihon Bijutsu ni okeru Performance no Chika Suimyaku (Anarchy of the Body: Undercurrents of Performance Art in 1960s Japan) (Tokyo: grambooks).


Many of the films mentioned in the article will be screened as part of the ‘ATG and Underground Cinema’ season at the Museum of Modern Art New York between December 2012 – February 2013, co-curated by Hirasawa Go and Roland Domenig, as well as the ‘Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960s-1970s Japan’ at the Anthology Film Archives in February 2013, co-curated by Hirasawa Go and Julian Ross. Parts of the programmes will also travel to Harvard Film Archives and Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, in 2013.