Documentarists of Japan # 11
While most of the previous subjects of the "Documentarists of Japan" interview series have been older, established directors, this time we turn the spotlight on one of Japan's up-and-coming filmmakers, the innovators who are laying the foundation for the future of Japanese documentary. We selected Oki Hiroyuki , one of the leading young experimental film directors, for the first such interview, a choice that turned out to be fortuitous. After Oki agreed to our request, his 3+1 was selected for the International Competition at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival '97. He was interviewed by Documentary Box editors Aaron Gerow and Monma Takashi.
Aaron Gerow: You studied at Tokyo University. There are of course personal filmmakers who graduated from that elite university, but not so many. Could you talk a little about why you decided to become a filmmaker?
Oki Hiroyuki: I've loved architecture since I was a child. If you think about it, architecture has a rather "modern" image. That's what I thought too, and of course I liked the new high rise buildings of the time. Yet in a sense people, too, are like architecture. If you take an actual building on the street, there are people inside it, just as there are in a house or a school. Consider a house--not some stranger's house but for example your own or your friend's--then in a more inclusive sense architecture means not just architecture but "street" or "way of living." Architecture for me means walking in the street somewhere, it means the neighbor's house or the garden--not something abstract, a garden like an artwork, but something that produces a more concrete image.
Gerow: The arrangement of space in society or . . .
Oki: It ends up as something like that, I guess.
Gerow: Something bodily?
Oki: That's right. Or perhaps even more, something like a mood. For example, I like just coming across someone's house at sunset, or the street on the way to the station. So my approach to architecture is to go in the direction of constructing things naturally and spontaneously. I've been designing things since junior high or high school, not just designing the outlines of a house but even the details, like the kitchen door, or how someone would live there. I liked thinking from that kind of personal viewpoint. That's the way I liked architecture when I went to university. Actually, you could call what I designed extremely avant-garde. It's quite different now than it was at the time--the 1980s, just at the beginning of the "bubble"--when postmodern architecture still hadn't spread in Japan. But I was pretty close to the postmodern line. Actually at university we only studied orthodox architecture. The "first build a house properly" school. That didn't suit me and I realized that in one sense architecture itself was a kind of business; you couldn't call it a form of art. I thought that there was no longer any point in making anything new.
At that time I never watched movies at all. I liked writing and I had a friend who wanted to make a movie with some classmates, so I wrote the script. Since I liked acting I ended up writing and starring in my own film, which I found really enjoyable. I gradually found myself getting drawn to the movies. At the time I had a part time job working in a mountain lodge, living for a month at a time with others on top of a beautiful mountain, working amidst that scenery. The first time I bought a camera was when I got together with the same crew again, becoming a director at the age of 20 when I decided to make a film. When I went up to the mountain lodge to practice with the camera, that was the first time I shot a film myself.
Gerow: The Truth of Desire ("Tadashii yokubo," 1984).
Oki: That's the fictional one. That wasn't the one I shot at the mountain lodge--it was done later, with the same crew. If you ask me which I prefer, I'd say that shooting at the lodge suits my way of living. There is nature and there are people: I've gradually become interested in forms of communication between the two. Consequently, I grew less and less committed to becoming an architect. I don't think the same way now, but at the time I guess I thought pretty straightforwardly and was particularly dissatisfied with the system of architecture--with the things that architects do. So I think I just naturally shifted in the direction of cinema. My graduation thesis was titled "The Expression of Space in Cinema: The Japanese Room." With Japanese rooms, I could have approached them in the way they are designed by Japanese architects, but I studied the way they are photographed in the cinema. For the design, I went to a place called Matsumae in Hokkaido and spent about 20 days there, sensing the way of life contained in the fusion of street and people and light, thinking in a style similar to the "Matsumae" films which I later made. I then drew a graduation design kind of like a manga comic book. Of course even at the time I felt I could do it on film; even if I thoroughly pursued what I wanted to do architecturally, it was going to end up moving in a fictional direction.
I then enrolled at Image Forum and even though I didn't know then what I wanted to do, it was a natural progression. Instead of changing directions, I think I was just consistently doing something I fundamentally wanted to do.
Gerow: What kind of influence did the experience of studying at Image Forum have on you? Many experimental filmmakers teach there. Did you learn anything from them?
Oki: I had never gone to film school, nor was I a film fan when I was young. Although I watched a lot of films in college and my friends liked movies, it wasn't like a film club. After that I made The Traveling Schoolroom (1986) at the mountain lodge, a film that I made before going to Image Forum. I don't suppose you've seen The Traveling Schoolroom, but it's not a drama--maybe you could call it an experimental film. The film was simply a series of landscape shots, without a story. The point is I never really had any training. The only films I saw at the Image Forum cinematheque were by Terayama Shuji and at the time I didn't think they were very interesting. Even when I joined Image Forum I wasn't making only experimental films. I thought the fiction films I was watching were interesting and so the works I was making at the time were different than today. I'd seen Godard and people like that, but I hadn't seen any experimental films. The point is, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't go to Image Forum because I wanted to make experimental work, but because I wanted to study film some more.
It was at Image Forum that for the first time I met people you could call "experimental filmmakers." Suzuki Shiroyasu and Kawanaka Nobuhiro were there and I guess they taught me that you could make films by yourself. So what you might call my "resolve" was something built up at Image Forum. Anyway, I think the people who really impress me are people who have been making films since they were young, like artists who start drawing when they're young, or people who are just interesting in and of themselves. Well, thinking about the works themselves, of course I was aware of Suzuki Shiroyasu's non-edited films and I'm sure I was influenced by them to some extent.
Gerow: When I saw Swimming Prohibited ("Yuei kinshi," 1989), I wondered whether there wasn't an influence from Suzuki Shiroyasu's work, for instance, in the unedited aspects, the diary structure, and so on. And I wondered whether the alternation of parts with and without sound didn't have some connection to Kawanaka's work. Perhaps you could say that your personal style is made up half of what you learn and half of what you discover through experience.
Oki: But I was making films at the mountain lodge before then. I made a film called The Diary of Buddy Matsumae ("Matsumae-kun no nikkicho," 1989) while I was still at university. Thinking about it, architectural design just turned into a diary around that time. For example, the "Matsumae" film--Swimming Prohibited is the same, too--to some degree was a work edited from the standpoint of a filmmaker. My editing is always as finely detailed as I can make it. These days I'm given a lot of labels, in particular that I make non-edited films, but I don't agree that the non-edited style is my personal one. Well, it was a horrible film and no one came to see it, but it wasn't completely non-edited, nor was The Traveling Schoolroom. In terms of what I wanted to do, the places I filmed and the way I filmed people were basically, to some extent, the same in that film as they are now. So in that sense the non-edited stuff is a necessary part of the process; it has a particularly high value. In the end it's less of a style than a methodology, isn't it?
Gerow: It seems to me that in your case non-editing is the best method for expressing the relationship between yourself and your subject matter. It seems like what you felt for the object at the time you encountered it is expressed directly when you shot the object on the spot. Of course I realize that editing is another way in which you can include your emotional reaction to the object. How do you feel about editing?
Oki: I'm not really so interested in editing. The question of whether to edit or not is a difficult one. I realize that perhaps it's a necessary condition of filmmaking, but it seems to me that at times doing the whole thing without editing is the best way. I want to produce a kind of total expression of time, and as Shiroyasu says, non-editing produces that kind of flow best. In my case there are plenty of times when I'm not sure in advance what I want to communicate. That's why editing is necessary, don't you think?
Monma Takashi: It's surely true that if you film in long take with yourself here and the things around you there, then there's no necessity to cut in the middle if you want to give the impression you're here.
Oki: That's right. Just doing it in one shot is meaningless, isn't it? It takes a number of days? In the end, one long take isn't enough; it's the accumulation or shots that's important. A film isn't made up so much of individual actions as of an accumulation, a total image that I want to show. If you take the shots individually, some are better than others. I often say that if you have a 20-day shoot, I want to see the totality of 20 days of unedited footage. Of course there are individual shots, but there are all kinds of feelings and relations and incidents that happen over that time, and I think that the stringing together of those individual shots itself is a kind of narrative. So in that sense, certain kinds of flow can't be captured in one shot alone. You have those individual shots but you truly don't know what role those shots will end up playing in the work as a whole. I still think that non-editing is the best, but there are times when it ends up not working out. Recently I've used editing to change the internal relations in a piece because it hasn't been going well. I originally intended to make Heaven-6-Box (1995) as a non-edited work--if I hadn't had any problems with it.
Monma: I don't mean to go back to the discussion of architecture, but one of the consistent features of your works is the way they make me think about architecture. For example the feeling of there being a house and of having lived in it for a very long time that is repeated in many films, and of the feeling of living in that house continuing even after the house itself has vanished. Like you said before, I think this taking time to pile up multiple shots of things is like dwelling in a house. I feel as if through the film the place becomes your own. It seems to me that 3+1 (1997) also rests on an extension of the same kind of feeling. It's as if you look on the subject of your film as a kind of architecture, treating the interior of houses and their surroundings as extensions of your own sensibility. If that's the case, then editing really isn't so important, is it? It really isn't an essential question whether to make a film as one take or as an edited sequence: it seemed to me that the real question was how to create a form of space in which to render the house as one's own possession. It's as if you're not constructing a house, but taking one that's already built and then investigating how to live in it. The image I had was that your work consisted of putting your own body in that place and experiencing what lay within reach in your immediate surroundings. It's said that your recent works, such as 3+1 have surely changed, but it seems to me that in the sense that I've just mentioned they are consistent.
Oki: That observation is really helpful.
Gerow: Numbers provide a kind of order in a lot of your recent works. In Heaven-6-Box, there are 6 boxes, each of which are dealt with in 10 minutes; Tears of Ecstasy CHI-IN ("Ekushitashii no namida: Chiin," 1995) is divided into 1-minute sections, Yusho ("Yusho--Renaissance," 1996) is divided into 4 sections, each of the same length. Editing is of course necessary in these cases, so is there some relationship between numbers and the issue of editing in your work?
Oki: I personally want to produce "total" works. Swimming Prohibited is a completely structural film, made by joining together 23 sections, each lasting 3 minutes and 20 seconds. I think it's not numbers themselves but my way of using the truth and order within numbers. Personally, I think of Swimming Prohibited as a non-editing film but in actuality it's a highly structured project, because of the 3 minute and 20 second unit. Actually, when I shot the film, I was filming in terms of unit 1 and unit 2 and so on.
Gerow: So in your case numbers aren't a matter of cinema but part of a larger world view . . .
Oki: That's right. That's what I think. Cinema and numbers are related in my mind, but it's not an issue that is confined to the cinema. That one day is made up of 24 hours is not simply the result of divine providence. I feel that cinema has some kind of relation to things like that. I think there's a "sensibility" attached to mathematical things. There are all kinds of concepts about numbers, but from my point of view, I feel that numbers are an important help, something that gives me support.
Gerow: I want to ask you about camerawork. If you look at your films, it seems to me that there are works where the camera is almost completely still as well as recent works such as Yusho and Heaven-6-Box and so on in which the camera moves around a lot. Why is there such a difference?
Oki: I think that the camera also moved a lot in early works such as Swimming Prohibited. Perhaps in my middle works I regretted that and there was a period in which I deliberately made more static pieces. As for recent works, 3+1 is an exception but Heaven-6-Box, Yusho, Tears of Ecstasy have many sections in which the camera is fixed, I think. So on that point I think you need to know when using a moving camera is appropriate and when it isn't. It's just that, basically, I spontaneously pick up the camera and film some piece of reality.
Monma: Is that something you're not particularly conscious of, that shift from one to the other?
Oki: That's why it's changed over time. To be frank, recently I've paid less and less attention to camerawork. Five or six years ago I went through a period when I was totally opposed to a moving camera and decided to keep the camera fixed. On the other hand, there's an unusual amount of hand-held traveling shots in I Like You, I Like You Very Much ("Anata ga suki desu, dai-suki desu," 1994), since at that time I'd gone in the reverse direction and was aware of the value of the handheld camera. 3+1 is altogether different again. That film basically uses handheld shots. But there is no special aesthetic attention paid to the camerawork. To put it another way, when there's something I want to try to film, sometimes doing it handheld is the only way. However, recently there have also been times when I think that using a tripod is best.
Gerow: When I saw 3+1 at the Image Forum Festival, you said during the question and answer period that you were more interested in dance than in cinema when you were young. It seems to me that the moving camera is one way of expressing dance in your works. What do you think?
Oki: There's some truth to that. Basically, I like traveling shots. Even when I keep the camera fixed, I want to show movement within the image. You need to create a kind of dynamism or power. In order to do that, actually moving the camera is probably best. That depends on one's relation to the subject, doesn't it? For example, since in 3+1 my policy was to make the whole thing as if in one take, there are parts that use a fixed camera. Consequently, from another perspective, the static portions are shown as part of one story line. I'm divided between the part that wants to dance with the camera and the part that doesn't. If I think fundamentally and totally, there is that kind of movement, I think.
Gerow: It seems to me that, less as an author, than as a body in a location, you express in images the feelings you get from a place, whether with a moving camera or with a still camera.
Oki: That's right. So perhaps it's not really a kind of methodology as much as it's a means of expressing emotion. It's not as if "action" is good in all circumstances; there are always times when the camera moves unnecessarily, also times when you are constrained by the physical conditions. There are many issues. There are also times when I myself don't know which is best, to move the camera or to keep it fixed. At any rate, it's fundamentally true that the moving camera is an important element.
Gerow: Something else connected to being in that particular place is sound, in particular the problem of sound recording. In some films you use synchronized sound recording, while others are perfectly silent. In yet other films there is sound but the music is more important. What do you think about the relation of sound and image?
Oki: That's a difficult question. I'm particularly fond of music, and basically I think I prefer synchronized sound recording. But it's very hard to record synch sound on 16mm. More precisely, I want to do synch sound but it's difficult. That's why I sometimes just go ahead and don't do it. On that point, 3+1 is the first film in a while that is completely synch sound--I think it works really well. Whether it's my best film or not is a different question, but I think the sound is particularly good.
Gerow: Connected with the use of music, you have collaborated with other artists. Other artists appear in Heaven-6-Box, and 3+1 began as a joint production with dance performers. There is the image of the Image Forum individual filmmaker who does everything himself, but these collaborations are different, I think. How did you approach this?
Oki: I don't really understand what "individual" or "personal" film is. Fiction films are also basically made jointly with other crew members. It seems strange to call it "collaboration," but for me it's all part of the same current. Even if I make film in a mountain lodge with no one else around, you could say that the film was a kind of co-production between me and the sky. Not everyone in my films is an artist. Naturally there are some, but from another point of view, in terms of what works, I feel that those who are interesting end up in my works, even if they're high school students or my friends. Actually what I'm concerned about now is making films together with others. For example, if we're talking about the sky, I can do what I want when I'm filming it, but the object can't adjust to me. If I'm collaborating with people, though, we can enjoy making the film together--I think this is true of actors in fiction films, too. As for my use of actors, rather than making an actor perform, there's a strong sense that what I get from an actor is all part of a collaboration that you could call a coproduction. The people involved are less revealing their act of making something, than basically a performance in that place over a certain amount of time. It doesn't matter if that performance is a work in and of itself. It's not that I'm just waiting for them to do their stuff, but that they show me what they can do and I film it. That is, together. I'm not simply limited to filming artists; I'm not interested in that kind of work. The way people present themselves is different from person to person. Drawing pictures is basically just drawing pictures and is not very interesting when made into a film. It's only important to have some exchange with what's interesting and people who are not painters have a lot of that. In that sense, even if my films happen to be close to the art world, I don't restrict myself to collaborating with artists.
Gerow: I think this is connected to what makes your work distinctive, but especially in your recent works there have been elements that present film as a composite art form. In your recent works in particular you have mixed together video, 16mm, 8mm, many different images, all brought together as a composite without making them smoothly consistent with each other. What do you think of the significance of using different kinds of image technology?
Oki: I not really interested that much in film technology. Video and 16mm are quite different. But I don't really understand that. That is to say, I'm only testing them out. It feels very much like I'm just trying out various experiments at the moment. To put it another way, I don't feel that it's necessary to work only in 16mm. I haven't actually used computer-generated images or anything like that but I'm interested in them.
Gerow: About your approach to the subject of your films, in the works of your middle period there's a common shot of a youth looking at the camera and simply staring at it, an image I think is quite beautiful. This leads to issues such as the eroticism of the look and the gaze of the camera. What do you do when you pick up a camera and film a person?
Oki: I don't think it's any different. It's the same as spontaneously shooting a sunset. I just decided that it's best to shoot people straight on--even if I have to direct that action. If you feel that it's just the same as filming a sunset, you don't need any special acting. It's just a snapshot. When you're taking a snapshot, to some extent a straight-on shot is the most appropriate and simple shot.
Gerow: Tony Rayns wrote that in your films the camera is an excuse, that you want to get intimately involved with, to make contact with, the subjects of your films. That relation to your subjects comes out from your images.
Oki: I guess you could say that (laughs). Whether I actually do that is another question (laughs).
Gerow: To put it straightforwardly, what do you think of the way of portraying bodies in your films, of the way of filming erotic scenes, of eroticism in cinema? In addition to making experimental films, you have after all made porn films, too.
Oki: I don't know if the porn films I've made are beautiful or that you could call them eroticism or not, but I like those kind of films. I like to make films like that. Whether that's the main kind of film I've wanted to make recently is another question--actually in that sense I thought more like that when I was making the early short films.
Gerow: It seems that in the recent works religious elements have become more important.
Oki: That's one reason why my works are not so personal. I'm not really sure what "personal" means, but in these works I don't think that I'm trying to fix in the spectator a direct sense of my own individual sensibility. So even though my thinking on eroticism up to this point hasn't really changed, it just that recently I haven't filmed eroticism in the same way.
Gerow: This relates to your reputation abroad, I think. Your films have been shown at many lesbian and gay film festivals in other countries. What is your impression of your foreign reputation?
Oki: I'm truly happy that people find my works valuable. Though I can't say that I know why they put such a high value on my works. There are all kinds of gay film festivals, though. Some of them find my films interesting and some don't care for them so much. If you see my films as part of a sort of category called gay film, then I think it would be pretty hard to know what to do with my recent films. So it's good that my early works are valued because of the beautiful eroticism that they contain; it's not likely that they'll be valued, or find critical acclaim, for elements other than that. I'm not like Barbara Hammer; I don't have a particular agenda. I fundamentally just want to do what I want to do, and that's something that changes over time. So in that sense I'm not too concerned about my reputation in other countries. Sometimes I get the feeling that my films have not been well understood. For example, I don't think it would make much sense to show my film 3+1 at a gay and lesbian film festival. On the other hand Heaven-6-Box was also popular among gay spectators, so if they really like the films themselves then I'm delighted. But in the end putting me in that framework lumbers me with some odd associations. That's true of the "personal film" and "experimental film" frameworks, too. I don't make films according to those categories at all. In that sense I would rather that people look at the works themselves, even if they look at them critically. I think my recent films have been very "Japanese." Even though I thought they would be hard for foreign audiences to understand, it was very interesting that even people abroad have been able to respond to them directly, since what I want to do is not a sociological analysis of modern Japanese society. If you ask me generally what's going to happen I would say that my films are in a particularly difficult position. I wonder what the significance is today of a Japanese film being praised highly abroad. But that's also true of Japan, of course. You could say that cinema itself is in a difficult position in relation to its viewers.
Gerow: In other countries it is often expected that a gay filmmaker will take up a political position. I think that Japan is somewhat different. What do you think of your position?
Oki: I don't really think of myself as a gay filmmaker. It's not only my films that are particularly complicated; so is my sexuality. Like the idea of gayness itself, my sexuality and what I will do in my future films constitute a part of me that I do not yet understand. Basically, I'm not making some kind of manifesto on film: in fact, I'm totally opposed to that. I don't make films that have been decided in advance, so of course I don't think about what should I do as a gay filmmaker. Not only that, I also don't understand what sexuality means. My latest film which I'm shooting right now is called In the Heart ("Kokoro no naka"). It's also a film about sexuality, I think. The people who appear in it are all gay, but I myself have no particular self-awareness of being gay. I'm not really sure what "gay" means, but in my case I'm closer to what you would call "bisexual," to use a Western concept. Sexuality is not something that one is very open about in Japan. I think there are many ways of thinking about sexuality. From one point of view it's wrong to be unclear about it, but I also think I've become what I have because of cinema.
But at the very least one of the things that I want to portray or touch on in my films is sexuality. Yet when I'm this way and the world is different--and that's not only in terms of gayness--it's hard to make a move. For that reason I have a quite varied response to gay issues in foreign countries. The other day I went to Hamburg as a juror in their gay and lesbian film festival. That was a very interesting experience, but I somehow felt the difference between the West and Japan. We say "gay" in Japan too, using the foreign word, so I think that sexuality in Japan has a different structure--that's one of the things that I'm interested in exploring in my films right now. Not just sex but the West and Japan, the modern and the ancient. In particular, I think sexuality in Japan right now is extremely confused and being gay is surprisingly the most messed up. We can say "gay lib" easily enough, but Japan is still completely lacking in that kind of history. The concept of being gay itself is not well established in this society. To say that you are gay is not something that you announce publicly but something that you say in private, isn't it? That's why I still can't say that I'm gay. I'm not saying that Japanese society is the worst in terms or not only gayness, but also sexuality, it's just that you absolutely can't do what you can in a Western society. In that sense I think that announcing one's sexuality in Japan should be a more delicate business than it is in the West. To put it another way, I'm completely opposed to being a representative for gays. In that sense, I think that I'm avant-garde instead because I want to expose vague expressions and what is easily subject to deception. So although I'm not saying that there's no longer any meaning in declaring myself to be gay, my social consciousness has gone off into other areas. This question of sexuality, of whether one is gay or not, is a very important problem. I'm not at all saying that the gay movement is wrong.
Gerow: You took a stand in opposition to architecture, for example, but . . .
Oki: No, it's all tangled up together. It's all one. That I wanted to be involved in architecture since I was a child is a purely personal matter, but in actuality, the architectural system is a social practice. For example, in the past building your house in the middle of a community was very significant. One would take an extremely long time to build it bit by bit. Therefore you took great care with your own house, and built it with a direct relation to the surrounding houses. This was 200 or 300 years ago. This house was more than just your own house, but a place for the intimate relation of the personal and the social. I think the neighboring house was highly important. In the past there were many systems that, how should I put it, were both personal and social. They built houses with a far greater sense of their importance than they do now. Village society also had a far greater weight. But in contemporary architecture even that function has fallen into disarray.
Basically, I think that film and architecture resemble each other in some ways. You could say that they are both synthetic arts. I guess I'm interested in that connection. So in relation to film, I think there are other approaches which are possible from that angle. I think that what film has is a kind of totality, or truth, something that can capture a more overall, synthesized view of things. That's what I think. In particular, sexuality is for me an important theme, my most important theme along with sex and politics. In the end, as in architecture, it produces a total image of the relation of society and individual. That's where I find my happiness, yet there's also a public aspect to that happiness. Roads are the same, aren't they? Roads are not just your personal possession. They're places where people walk, where you can walk and where people you don't know pass by--I sense the richness of such places. I strongly feel that the "personal" is in fact a social thing. That includes being gay, of course. The more personal something is the more it's also social.
I'm the type who's dissatisfied. I think there's something strange about the world now. If you're dissatisfied, that comes out more strongly in filmmaking than it does in architecture. That's true of sexuality, too--perhaps this way of speaking invites misunderstanding, but recently I haven't wanted to use the word "gay." I truly feel that the word has some extremely vague implications. Perhaps you could say that it's too simplistic. The people who come to watch Tama Asobi (1997) are still OK. But those people are watching the film, aren't they? Part of them distorts what I have or the social system the film has.
Gerow: Perhaps the issues of society and individual, modern and ancient, are connected to your move from Tokyo to Kochi. Usually, experimental filmmakers and gay filmmakers are active in large cities--at least, that's the typical image. Why did you decide to move to Kochi, in the Japanese countryside?
Oki: That does have an extremely deep connection, in particular in relation to my way of thinking about Kochi. But I think Kochi is different from the countryside. It's not a particularly nostalgic association. In Kochi, too, I live in the city--obviously it's not as big as Tokyo but I live in a city. Earlier I spoke of numbers and light and politics and society, but as a total image, Kochi is a very interesting place. There's a connection there to Heaven-6-Box. In my way of thinking, it's a very total place. It's architecture is like that, too; politics is also connected in some way. It's natural that raw materials such as wood and concrete and all come together as a whole.
For me personally, light is extremely important. It's hard to say what
light does, how it has a connection to politics, but I think there is one. The light in Kochi is very strong, but it has a feeling of transparency to it--it's a light with its own special peculiarities. I think the essence of film is the capturing of light. To me, politics and truth are in fact the ultimate mediums through light. From a human point of view, that is. If you bring those points into consideration, the light in Kochi is also extremely different from the light in Tokyo. It's not a case of which is better, but to my way of thinking, to my way of making films, light is fundamental.
Perhaps it's a mirror image of the light, but the sake in Kochi is unusually dry, yet with a sense of clarity. To put it in a rather extreme way, people there are like that too, as is the politics and politicians, and even the culture. Light is the easiest to understand, though. That's why it becomes a question of movement, or a kind of melancholy, of what kind of history light holds and so on.
If you ask why Kochi, well, my parents were from Okayama so I went to Okayama often when I was a small child. From that starting point I've spent a lot of time at places like mountain lodges or just wandering around. Even now, I think of myself as a person from Tokyo, but as a place for me to work, Kochi is someplace I really like. For making movies, I guess Kochi is the most interesting location. In particular, above and beyond making films it seems to me that Kochi has become an almost inevitable element in my films. Although in terms of what I must portray now, maybe Kochi has declined in importance as of late.
Gerow: There is of course the light in Kochi, but also nature: the river, sea, and such things that appear as motifs in your films.
Oki: There are those things, of course. From the point of view of cinema, light is the easiest to understand but naturally it includes all those things. Of course it's not just Kochi; there are all kinds of different places in Shikoku, too. Starting from that location I want to create what you might call my thinking on Japan, or reflections on the world. I think I want to show first of all the things that light makes clearest in my own present experience; perhaps it's my way of life that is the present I want to portray. Therefore more than anything else light is the decisive scenario. It's not a question of light levels, of how much light there should be on a person. Perhaps you can say it's a kind of aesthetic, but it's not essentially an aesthetic problem. In an earlier interview, I was asked whether it was just that I preferred Kochi men (laughs). Maybe in the end that's true. It's just that recently this idea of starting from light has become a little too philosophical and I'm not sure how far it can be realized. But I think it's a very important problem. In the beginning, shooting was an intuitive process, but in the end it depends on what you're shooting. In that sense I think there is always something that exists in advance of film. Somehow film is a kind of truth--I think that's why I make documentary films. That is to say, my fundamental way of thinking is that film reproduces something. It's not that I think that between film and reality, film is the weaker of the two, but that in the end something is reproduced in film. If that thing were not there, then you can't begin to film.
Gerow: You spoke of reality, but it seems to me that this isn't the reality of the old social realist school, but something with strongly experimental elements, a religious aspect, a more universal outlook. What is your thinking on existence, truth, the universe? In particular, there are very few young filmmakers in Japan who include these religious elements in their work.
Oki: I think that I'm actually a very "Japanese" filmmaker, though I'm not sure if that's related to Buddhism or anything. I think it's something like a kind of nature worship. In particular, to repeat myself, allowing light to pass through in the act of filmmaking, of turning the camera toward the light, is a kind of religious ritual, isn't it? People perform all kinds of ceremonies when they pray. For me, turning the camera toward the light and filming is in some ways close to that kind of ritual. Isn't it really kind of like making love to light? Therefore realizing emptiness is also the same, like being a pilgrim, a kind of action similar to the religious training that monks undergo. That's the kind of thing I thought, especially when I first started out. I don't know. There are also sexual elements, things that are not so spiritual. There are things like that in 3+1, too, aren't there? That's why recently I think I've concentrated less on my own way of seeing than on what you could call the conditions of the place itself, making films that focus on what a spiritual location seems to cause me to feel.
Gerow: The last question will be about the problem of place. 3+1 will be shown in the International Competition at the Yamagata Film Festival. I heard that the title itself had some relation to place, that it refers to three places plus one added location. What is your approach to filming place in that work?
Oki: Of course there is the issue of place. But also I wanted to separate things along the dimension of live performance--perhaps you could call it temporal. Somehow I want to film them as part of fundamentally different levels.
Rivers have all kinds of associations for me. I had an image of Okinawa as having no rivers. In Kochi a river flows nearby, a rather pretty river. In Nagoya there were the three rivers of the Kiso region--that's where the collaboration itself began. However, we didn't film at the river in Nagoya but in the center of town, using video. Then at the end we wrote some characters in chalk on a street in the middle of town. As soon as we did that there was a sudden evening shower and the road pavement was covered in flowing water, covering the chalk, too. That was a river. In that sense, my filmmaking is often connected to numbers, and just like that, the shoot did take 4 days altogether. Anyway, the river of rainwater flowed, blurring the chalk characters and forming a river.
Then, at the end, there was the collaborative performance. It lasted 83 minutes. That 83 minutes in itself was filmed as a kind of river. Those who appeared in the film searched for and made contact with a river each time, so in the filming of the collaboration at the end, we looked upon it as a river, thinking that we had gone to, that we were in fact photographers of a river. So from the beginning we treated this playing with or going to a river--the layering of rivers; this 83 minute collaboration between people itself--as a kind of river. In the beginning our way of thinking was very vague; everyone wondered what we were doing. The connection between my film 3+1 to the performance "Hill of Ships" was clearly created in the image of the "river." There it became extremely clear that the collaboration itself was like the whole of a flowing river. We were able to create a linkage through a style in which people meet and then cause some form of action: that was not unlike the four kinds of rivers in the film--a place with no rivers; a place where rivers flowed; a fictional, artificially produced river which you could call the river of our social life; and finally a people who themselves were like a river. I don't know how spectators will interpret the film but that's the way it naturally went. Moving around like that allowed us to film the atmosphere there. Seen one by one different kinds of information emerge, but seen from a more all-encompassing point of view I think I was able to create such a concept.
Gerow: Thank you very much.
--Translated by Michael Raine
Born in Tokyo in 1964. Graduated from the Architectural Department of the Faculty of Engineering of Tokyo University in 1988. Studied film production at the Image Forum Institute of the Moving Image and was recognized for his 3-hour long thesis film The Film of Buddy Matsumae ("Matsumae-kun no eiga," 1989). His film Swimming Prohibited won the Special Juror's Prize at the 1990 Image Forum Festival. Moved to Kochi City in 1991, and in 1992 directed the Jurgen Brunning production Tarch Trip ("Tachi torippu," 1993). Directed his first 35mm fiction film I Like You, I Like You Very Much in 1994. In 1996 his Heaven-6-Box, a production of the Kochi Musuem of Art, won the NETPAC Prize at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival. Recently he has been involved in performing live music at screenings of his work.