by Jesse Cumming
While the phrase “lost decade” is typically used in reference to the period of economic stagnation that marked Japan in the 1990s, the term also serves to describe that era’s production of experimental films. Little seen since their original creation and exhibition, the work hasn’t benefited from the same sustained (or renewed) attention as contemporaneous horror, anime, and arthouse dramas, whether domestically or internationally.
All of which makes the arrival of a pristine home video release of Jun Kurosawa Selected Works Vol.1: Jesus with One Leg a cause for celebration. The Blu-Ray is the inaugural release of the newly launched Kraut Film, a boutique label based in Tokyo dedicated to the distribution of experimental films, as well as occasional screenings and other related events. The collection brings together eight Kurosawa’s shorts produced between 1988 and 2003 which display the filmmakers adventurous work in both video and film, with a continued desire to push his lo-fi formats to their limits.
The beautifully packaged disc arrives with an informative bilingual essay by scholar, curator, and archivist Hirofumi Sakamoto, the founder and steward of the Postwar Japanese Moving Image Archive. In the essay, “Materialize Body and Consciousness,” Sakamoto emphasizes the theme of ruin that serve to connect Kurosawa’s films and videos in the set, while offering context for the broader art scene at the time. He notes the dominance of the Japanese noise music scene, including the work of atonal titan Merbow (about whom Kurosawa later produced a documentary). The essays references to groups like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and self-described “power electronics” pioneers Whitehouse do in fact offer a productive point of reference for Kurosawa’s harsh cinematic style, as well as his repeated interest in humanity’s dangerous relationships with technology.
The human figure is repeatedly manipulated by means of cinematic special effects in the earliest films in the set, shot on regular 8mm in the late 1980s. now here (1988) foregoes a Japanese title in favour of the English, which permits an alternate reading as “nowhere”. The duplicity of the title is carried over to the films images, which incorporate almost constant superimposition, including beautiful moments of a figure in motion, whether on a swing or walking across a landscape. While non-narrative, the filmmaker himself appears as a principle individual, who drifts around alone, accompanied only by his repeated, multi-exposured self. The accompanying film synopsis in the booklet suggests the film’s “plot” extends from the dualities of the title and formal blending, offering a (potentially reductive) representation of a schizoid mentality. A brief experiment in materiality and repetition, BYE-BYE (1989) also manipulates the human figure, here through use of a looped one-second clip of a baby turning its head, a canvas upon with Kurosawa incorporates patterns of scratching, dying, and optical printing.
Tokyo Angel Hospital, also from 1989, is a more conceptually and technically advanced work. Loosely inspired by the 1972 Asama-Sans? incident, in which an internal purge by the radical United Red Army left 17 dead (including two policemen), the film’s style is fast and disorienting. As in BYE-BYE, Tokyo Angel Hospital foregrounds Kurosawa’s interest in flicker, as seen in colourful flashes that alternate between footage of roses, Japanese written characters, a man, a woman, and anonymous bodies. The fragmentary characters we see are gradually revealed to form a longer text, which is painted on the bodies of the victims. Perspective is repeatedly blurred, as tree-branches appear like tangled hair, and the bright red of the roses appear as puddles of blood. The density of the flicker and overlapping images in the film’s visuals are met with a nuanced soundtrack that consists of atmospheric wind instruments and fragmentary spoken Japanese.
Included on the set as “bonus tracks” are two other miniatures from the late 1980s. One, Monologue in my Bad Taste (1989), offers uncharacteristically blissful footage of a carousel and a ferris wheel, with its two colourful shots accented by field recordings of voices and subtle ambient inflections. The other, Theory of Angel (1989), shows looped footage that utilizes the same roadside location and angel protagonist as the later Jesus with One Leg (1991-1994), the collection’s titular film and one of Kurosawa’s major works. Unlike that later, grander work, Theory of Angel continues the earlier films concerns with gesture and repetition, as we see the angel repeat the same steps backward multiple times, alongside close-up glimpses of body parts and abstract shadows.
Produced in different versions, before and after his feature NEKO-MIMI (1993), Jesus is Kurosawa’s first film on 16mm, a format shift that introduces a harsh graininess where the earlier 8mm films were marked by an overall softness. (The disparity between Theory of Angel and Jesus is particular pronounced, as the former only exists on a VHS transfer that produces an unintentional haziness which feels inviting and elusive). The rawness of Jesus‘ imagery extends to the film’s soundtrack as well, in the form of steady, squealing feedback. Throughout the film we see footage of the same woman dressed as an angel on a rural road, her image nearly obscured by black and red scratches and scribbles overtop of the image.
The film oscillates between the sunlight road and another woman – all in black – in a darkened, dilapidated hallway. At times she appears suspended by film strips, with arms outspread, while elsewhere she wields menacing scissors above piles of celluloid, a to the image we know Kurosawa himself to be capable of. Kurosawa’s camera retains a startling proximity to the films characters, but rather than a sense of intimacy felt in earlier works, the effect here is unsettling and jarring, calling to mind the in-your-face aesthetics of punk and industrial music as much as that of avant-garde provocateurs like Jack Smith.
The continued play with technological manipulations of body is further explored in the Tetsuo-esque sci-fi experiment Un Ange Passe, which follows a young cyborg woman’s journey through a post-apocalyptic terrain, as she exchanges telepathic messages with an unseen interlocutor. Again Kurosawa works with a complimentary sonic element, pairing the sound of modular synthesizers with images of computer-generated wave signs and beautiful digital artifacts, a subtle gesture towards the video work that he has continued to work with in the time since.
One hopes that the release of this carefully curated set will spark a renewed interest in Kurosawa’s protean output, which extends to music, opera, performance, and more. One also hopes that there will also be renewed interest in Kurosawa’s currently unavailable feature and the era’s work in general. It seems appropriate to remember that – like a ringing in one’s ears – while the Kurosawa’s films frequently return to images of a bombed out interiors or empty, seemingly uninhabitable wastelands, shades of the human survive and spread.