Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s (Archive Books, in conjunction with Collaborative Cataloging Japan, 2020)

In the United States and Europe, cultural historians are still picking away at the tradition-busting ideas and trends that emerged throughout society and the arts during the irrepressible 1960s — from sexual liberation to protest movements and the groovy chic of “Swinging London.”

With regard to East Asia in the ’60s, though, “Swinging Tokyo” is a subject most Western historians specializing in late-20th-century popular culture generally have ignored, perhaps because of language barriers, but maybe also because, until the mid-1980s, when fashion, product design, architecture, and even some pop music from Japan — does anyone remember The Plastics? — were suddenly very hot, the Japanese scene has rarely been a big blip on their radar screens.

In recent decades, Western curators have paid somewhat more attention to Japanese postwar movements in visual art and attempted to fold their stories into the broader record of modernism’s evolution. Now, with Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s, the film historians Go Hirasawa, Julian Ross, and Ann Adachi-Tasch have filled another gap in that narrative as it has been understood outside Japan. The book they have co-edited and co-authored looks at a moment of artistic creativity in which technical experimentation, aesthetic ideas, and political outlooks came together in notable ways.

Masanori Oe, still from Great Society (1967), six-screen, 16mm films transferred to single-channel video, color, sound, 18 minutes (photo © Ōe Masanori, courtesy Collaborative Cataloging Japan)

Their anthology of writings by filmmakers and critics who were involved in Japan’s cinematic avant-garde in the 1960s has been published by Archive Books, in conjunction with Collaborative Cataloging Japan, a Philadelphia-based organization that sponsors research about and documents the history of experimental motion-picture production in Japan from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia appears at a time when the work of some of the artists whose achievements it examines can be seen in New York. At the Museum of Modern Art, Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Cinematic Illumination (1968-69), an in-the-round, moving-image environment involving 18 slide projectors, is on view through February of next year. At Pioneer Works, a nonprofit cultural center in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, the series More Than Cinema: Motoharu Jonouchi and Keiichi Tanaami features works by two of the filmmakers whose careers are examined in the new book. (Curated by Hirasawa, Ross, and Adachi-Tasch, this exhibition remains on view, by appointment, through November 22.)

“The dynamic creativity that was born out of Japan’s ‘ambiguous state’ in the postwar period is fascinating,” Ann Adachi-Tasch, Collaborative Cataloging Japan’s executive director, told me in a recent interview. (All discussions cited here were conducted by email.) She was referring to Japan’s status as a country rushing to create a new democracy following a ruinous descent into fascism and war, not long after it had been occupied in the immediate postwar years by the American military.

Rikuro Miyai, still from Shadow (1968), 16mm, multiple projection, 12 minutes (photo © Rikuro Miyai, courtesy Collaborative Cataloging Japan)

Adachi-Tasch, a Japanese-American, observed that, during the 1960s, the Japanese wrestled with “the question of national identity.” They were concerned about the direction in which their country should channel its energy after emerging as a modern, democratic state.

Such currents, she noted, were reflected in the protest demonstrations against the US-Japan Security Treaty that took place in Tokyo and other cities from 1959 to 1960. Adachi-Tasch noted that the “experimental moving images” that cinema artists developed in Japan at that time captured the unsettled — and unsettling — tenor of a historic moment with their “cathartic energy.”

With this in mind, a sense of both breakdown and of opportunity — for cooking up all-new modes of visual expression — courses through the texts that Hirasawa, Ross, and Adachi-Tasch have assembled. Among other contributors, their book contains writings by the screenwriter and director Masao Adachi; the artist and filmmaker Takahiko Iimura; the filmmaker Motoharu Jonouchi; the multidisciplinary artist Rikuro Miyai; the filmmaker, writer, and translator Masanori Oe; and the Japanese-American artist, writer, theorist, and composer Yasunao Tone.

Although, unfortunately, the title’s key terms are never explicitly defined, Ross, in his essay, points out that the American Fluxus artist Dick Higgins (1938-1998) is credited with having first used the word “intermedia” in a text he wrote in 1966.

Motoharu Jonouchi, still from Document 6.15 (1961), capturing the protests of 1959-60 against the US-Japan Security Treaty; 16mm, b&w, 19 minutes (photo © Mineko Jonouchi, courtesy Collaborative Cataloging Japan)

Such Japanese artists as Yoko Ono, Ay-O, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Shigeko Kubota, Takako Saito, Mieko Shiomi, and others were also involved with Fluxus, whose participants, in a pre-internet age, exchanged ideas by postal mail and through in-person travels along a Europe-New York-Tokyo axis. In Japan and elsewhere, “intermedia” referred to the creative mixing-up of genres and materials — sound, music, dance, performance, film, painting, and more — in interdisciplinary ways (a tendency that came naturally to these artists). “Expanded cinema” referred to the presentation and experience of film projections in settings and through technical setups that departed radically from the familiar practice of watching moving pictures on flat screens in dark auditoriums.

Hirasawa, a specialist in Japanese film history who has taught at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, is now a researcher at that school’s Institute of Language and Culture. He writes that, in Japan, “expanded cinema and intermedia were inextricably connected due in large part to the fact that the film world played a central role in introducing them [there].”

He describes a week-long intermedia festival that took place at Tokyo’s Lunami Gallery in May 1967, during which Tone, Masao, Jonouchi, Miyai, and other artists presented happenings, expanded cinema, and paintings. They tossed around the term “sogo geijutsu,” which refers to “total” or “synthesized” art forms. Elsewhere in Tokyo, underground movie theaters, clubs, bars, and galleries with names like L.S.D. or Killer Joe’s became venues for new, genre-meshing spectacles.

In the book, Hirasawa recalls the Intermedia Arts Festival, which took place at Killer Joe’s and Nikkei Hall in January 1969. He writes:

Killer Joe’s had its ceiling, walls, and pillars covered with silver vinyl, and illustrations by animator and designer Keiichi Tanaami were projected with slide and overhead projectors on motorized walls that moved up and down. Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s ‘Cinematic Illumination’ […], which premiered at the festival, featured 1440 images projected over a 360-degree span with eighteen slide projectors. […] This work explored the zone between photography and film […] by projecting twenty-four still images per second on a screen to create the afterimage effect on an illusion of motion.

Flyer for “Two Men Shy in the Face of Andy Warhol/Underground Cinema Shinjuku a Go! Go! Go!”, an expanded-cinema event that took place at Noa Noa, Tokyo, July 12-August 4, 1968 (printed matter from a private collection, photo courtesy Collaborative Cataloging Japan)

On the festival’s flyer, Yasunao Tone exuded the heady exuberance of so many 20th-century avant-garde manifestos and cris de coeur when he declared, “We advocate a mode of performative action we call ‘realization.’ Through realization, works that exist only as words or symbols printed on paper are interpreted, amplified, and revealed in a manner that transfigures the works themselves.”

In a later text, Tone ruminated about works of art that are primarily meant to be displayed, like merchandise in “show windows at department stores.” While accepting that such wares do and perhaps must exist, he sounded more enthusiastic about art — alluding to the new forms he and his peers had been developing —that could offer viewers a sense of “ritual”with opportunities to “enter a sacred space.” Such musings might sound like unlikely pronouncements coming from a devoted avant-gardist.

Hirasawa pointed out that “the work of Rikuro Miyai and Azuchi Shuzo Gulliver, and the writings of Yasunao Tone as a theoretician were developed in a completely different context” from the kind of avant-garde performance, intermedia, or event-oriented presentations that were featured at Expo ’70, the first world’s fair to be held in Asia. Along with the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics that took place six years earlier, that fair marked Japan’s return to the global culture-and-media stage.

Flyer announcing screenings of “Closed Vagina (Sain)” at Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka, Tokyo, November 1965; Masao Adachi and other artists were involved in the production of the film (printed matter from a private collection, photo courtesy Collaborative Cataloging Japan)

Hirasawa also recalls that Tone “critiqued the direction of [such] large-scale events organized by the capitalist system and the state,” noting that, after Expo ’70, “the growing power of the capitalist system and the state led to the hollowing-out of expanded cinema and intermedia, while the revolutionary political fervor that [had] peaked in 1968 also faded.”

Julian Ross, the book’s third co-editor, is British-Japanese and teaches the history of avant-garde cinema at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He explained that “the reason why Japanese expanded cinema works [have been] excluded from the English-language discourse on [this topic] was due to a lack of access,” for “works of expanded cinema are often ephemeral, one-off events.”

He added that, since most published writing about expanded cinema in Japan has appeared in Japanese and has never been translated, “international researchers [focusing] on expanded cinema weren’t aware of its existence.” He noted, “With our book, we hope we can contribute to future research and discussion by encouraging readers to look into what happened beyond Europe and North America.”

In doing so, they may discover how some very energetic Japanese artists contributed to the ferment of ideas and innovations of a decade whose legacy still leaves a lot to be explored.

Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s (2020), co-edited and co-authored by Go Hirasawa, Julian Ross, and Ann Adachi-Tasch, is published by Archive Books, in conjunction with Collaborative Cataloging Japan.

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Edward M. Gómez

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...