Documentarists of Japan, #18

Kawaguchi Hajime

Interviewer: Aaron Gerow

Filmmaker Kawaguchi Hajime, whose works Phases of Real and Variant Phases screened in the YIDFF ’97 Japanese Panorama and YIDFF ’01 New Asian Currents respectively, has been making films and videos that question the materiality and visuality of cinema as medium since his student days. Now, he continues to explore the possibilities of the audiovisual while passing on his fascination with the medium to students at Tohoku University of Art & Design in Yamagata, and will present his works at the Doc’s Kingdom seminar in Serpa, Portugal this month. Documentary Box editorial committee member Aaron Gerow caught up with Kawaguchi on the eve of his departure for Portugal.

—The Editors

Aaron Gerow (AG): Thank you for coming here today, all the way from Yamagata. In the seventeen or so years you have been making films and videos, you have made quite a number of works, only a portion of which I have seen, but I’d like to talk with you today about the various experiments evident in those works.

First, in your early works shot in 8 or 16mm, I think you see a number of films exploring the nature of cinema itself. For instance, a film like dis-contact (1988) experiments with what constitutes a screen, what projection is, or how the motion effect is created. It’s a bit surprising to see such work being created by a filmmaker at such an age, so I was wondering what you were thinking about at that time.

Kawaguchi Hajime (KH): I began working on inter-medium (1987) and the films that follow after I entered college, and my starting point was from the context of what you might call “experimental film.” The college was Kyushu Institute of Design, which is in Fukuoka. When I was a student, “experimental” work at the college had smoldered out a bit, but there had been a period when experimental film was very characteristic of the work there. When Matsumoto Toshio (Documentary Box 9) was teaching at the college the students were inspired and produced some experimental films that were methodologically very unique. When I started I was mostly following in that style. Ito Takashi, for example, would be one very representative artist from that group. I was very influenced by those works when I started making my own.

AG: Ito’s SPACY (1980-81), like your Variant Phases (“Iso,” 2001), uses photographs to experiment with animation, but in his animation the resulting motion effect seems more “perfect.” Your films are a bit different in that you slow down the motion, dissect it, and thus show how motion itself is created, foregrounding the medium itself.

KH: Early on in college I simply wanted to try different things, but once you begin to make the films you do begin to think about it more deeply. I started to wonder, “What am I doing right now?” or “What exactly did I like about this thing I tried and found interesting?” I think my ideas got started through work like that. With an early work like inter-medium I wanted to use photos to make a kind of animation that had shifting viewpoints, and also take copies of the photos and utilize the continuing degradation of the image. I wanted to see if I couldn’t do something along these two axes. Once I tried it though, on a level that’s not so technical I really started wondering, “What is this unknown thing between the subject and myself?” I got stuck on that point, and it appeared as a theme more and more in my later work.

AG: I’d like to talk more about that which appears between yourself and the object later, but at least at this point in your career, that thing that exists in between is clearly the technological medium of film. It is the exploration of that which first appears in your work.

KH: In my early pieces I would begin working with an idea for a method in mind, just because I wanted to see how it would look.

AG: Your dis-contact or filmy (1988) both reveal a tendency to project a “film” and, on the one hand, show it as a mirror or as a window on reality, but also, on the other, emphasize that it is not a window, that it is only projected light, by means of revealing what it is outside the screen or the frame. I found this experiment in showing both sides of cinema very interesting.

KH:At first my technique was to systematically separate the inside and outside of the frame and to enjoy the difference between the two, but after my film mirror (1989) or so I started thinking, “Wait a minute.” I was using a variety of techniques to create that difference, but ultimately what I was dealing with was the inside and outside of the screen, and for the viewer that difference already necessarily exists at the level of watching, no matter kind of film it is. I tried different ideas and applied different effects to strengthen that division, but ultimately no matter what kind of effect I used that difference was already solemnly, necessarily present. Contriving such a technique is like piling on layer upon layer of thick make-up. I realized more essential things end up hiding away instead, so I began to minimize such effects after mirror.

AG: Ito’s SPACY also has this tendency, but the well-made visual spectacle is so much in the fore that some viewers just enjoy that without going beyond it to consider the medium itself.

KH: Even now I really enjoy Ito’s work of that period. I think he truly achieved something that other people couldn’t have done. On the other hand, I sensed that there were more possibilities in other directions. The viewer’s perspective as it is when not swayed by effects; how do you make those essential differences stand out?

AG: If mirror, which you made in 1989, is a kind of transitional work, it is interesting to note that your first video works were also made in that year. Considering that coincidence, I wonder whether this transition was not connected in some way to your starting to work in video. You can’t easily foreground the materiality of the medium in video; you can’t show the scratches you can in a film like in filmy. Perhaps video is a more appropriate medium for exploring mediality without the flourishes or decoration.

KH: When I started making videos it was still easier to work in 8mm film. Materially, it wasn’t yet an age when just anyone could put together a video on one computer. Despite that limitation, I began thinking at the time that perhaps video could do things that film could not; what exactly is video capable of? I started to make Dreams in Real/Real of Dreams (“Yume no utsutsu/utsutsu no yume,” 1989) with that in mind, wondering if it’s possible to dream in video. I don’t mean making a video re-creation of a dream, but trying to dream within video itself. With film, you can’t easily take long, rambling shots. You have to decide beforehand what you need to shoot or you’ll end up with a huge amount of footage, and the costs will start to pile up as well. With video, you can shoot like that. Film has a physical length in editing, so it’s like patching things on where there is nothing, like a figure made out of clay, for example. Video on the other hand gives you the ability to work finer and finer within a fixed section of time. It’s like sculpting: you can keep carving more out. With that in mind, the style I took in this work was to create an overall basic sequence and then insert scene after scene, subdividing it. While shooting as well I tried to empty my mind as much as possible and just shoot and shoot when an idea came up. I decided to do something different from what I had done in film. While working on it I wasn’t particularly aware of the similarities to my earlier work and to the way I produced them, but looking at it afterwards you really sense that there is a connection somewhere.

AG: It seems to me that Fault of Reality (“Genjitsu danso,” 1992) and mirror share much in common.

KH: My earlier video Mirror Surface <Real/Imaginary> (“Kyomen,” 1990) is also extremely similar to Fault of Reality. I experimented with making a mirror out of the video screen. I wanted to create a mirror surface in the boundary between the video monitor and our own world with that piece, but Fault of Reality also draws from that idea.

AG: Fault of Reality is a very simple work, without contrivances, one that can only be done in video. As an experiment in creating a different fissure or fault in reality, it thus seems to be going in a different direction from dis-contact and filmy.

KH: In dis-contact and filmy I wanted to experiment and see how well I could pull out and show the difference in the fraFault of Reality was more about creating awareness of things one usually looks at—from the viewer’s perspective the work changes quite a bit, and I wanted to make people realize that they weren’t really seeing what they should be seeing. So I think it’s more a piece that questions perspectives. The image isn’t that flashy, it’s just slow. Usually “slow [motion]” is used only to mean that something is moving less quickly, but instead of just making reality slower, it’s more about this unique, inherent sense of “time” that video creates.

AG: By repeatedly changing the tape speed, the exposure changes, becoming too bright or dark every time you change speed. By doing that, the focus sometimes gets soft and the image itself sort of degrades. Since this was filmed at an ancient burial mound, it seems you create a certain kind of mystical enigma through the simple device.

Corridor (1994) and Mechanical Kitchen (1993) appear to be other works that use the special characteristics of video to reveal other fissures of reality.

KH: You could really say that Mechanical Kitchen was a work about “video time.” It’s in artificial time; not simply a copy of the reality we live in, but in the time within the medium of video. I think it has to do with this, what you could call its own unique world.

AG: In Mechanical Kitchen, you cut off both sides of the screen with a kind of vertical letter boxing.

KH: Mechanical Kitchen was made for a vertical monitor. Originally you would roll the monitor over and watch it vertically. However it’s not easy to screen it like that, so afterwards I used a video effect to rotate the image 90 degrees and made a version with spaces on the sides.

AG: Why did you use a vertical monitor?

KH: Well, there’s no need for video to be horizontal-shaped. You can still watch a monitor on its side if you turn it over. There are other reasons as well, but this was a video I made for my final project in my second year of grand school and at the time I was looking into the “moving image,” or the various toys and devices that existed previous to the tests and mistakes in history which led to the development of film as we know it. The origin of the horizontal film shape came from the theater, but there was absolutely no technical need for the device to be made horizontal. There are many “moving image” devices that were made with a vertical screen. Zoetropes were generally vertical. I imagined the vertical monitor as a more complex development of that.

AG: This is related to the issue of where to put the border, whether or not to show the frame of the image, that is common to both your early and recent works. But when thinking about the “frame,” in your works there’s not just the frame of the image, but also the frames or structures that people use when conceptualizing reality. For instance your work Point 1415 (1996) thoroughly explores the “constant” of reality, in this case the number pi (π). It’s an intriguing work.

KH: I’ve begun to think that Point 1415 is similar as a work to Dreams in Real/Real of Dreams. It isn’t clearly composed or constructed. As a rule, no matter what you do there is such a “constant” describing it, somewhere, and no matter what kind of life we live that carries on in the background. There is this very cold, detached sort of principle to the world and I am living somewhere parallel to that. Within myself there are some very big stories and events... my cat dies in the middle of it (laughs). I made this right after my cat died—which also appears in later work—at a time when I myself was somewhat distraught. This work deals with “the death of the cat” immediately afterwards, in a very sentimental way, but there is also this very cold “constant” number ticking away somewhere...

AG: This is something that becomes even more apparent in your later work, but, as you said, there’s a side of your work where you are using a hard and cold “structure”—whether this structural cinema or not is another matter—but at the same time there is something personal or emotional within that, a side where you don’t completely follow the structure and just shoot spontaneously. How do you conceive of these two sides within your work?

KH: I think that in reality—or in “truth”—there is no such “either/or.” When I conceive of a project the structure is often very strong in my mind, but once I start the work rolling, the text or story, once simply nothing more than a device to describe the structure, starts to develop more strength. Then it starts to move in directions I hadn’t thought of at first, or sometimes the story starts to swallow up the structure. That’s something I find really interesting.

AG: Looking at the history of Japanese experimental film, which serves as a background to all this, you can say that there are two tendencies that have been prominent since the late 1970s, one centered on hard structural filmmaking, one on personal films. Looking at young filmmakers today, you see a lot shooting personal subjects like their grandmother or their family, but against that it seems you place more of an emphasis on the structural side. Yet it’s never completely structural—there is a personal dimension entering your work. I feel that position is rather unique. Did you never have much interest in the personal films of, say, Suzuki Shiroyasu (Documentary Box 2)?

KH: At first, not at all (laughs). I came into it from the other direction, more interested in structure and methodology. Especially at first, within myself I had separated the ideas of normally watching films for enjoyment and making films. For me they were two different things. I don’t hate reading novels or watching fiction films, but my motivations for making films were different, particularly at the beginning.

AG: Of course one of your motivations was to explore the medium through experimental film. There is a shift between your early 8mm films and your later video works, but it feels like there is still the interest in the medium. Visible in your first films is an interest in the technology itself, while in your later films there emerges a concern for the mediation between human perception and reality, between the self and reality.

KH: At first it was an interest in more mechanical aspects, questions about what films were made up of, why they appear so mysterious. Then as I was trying different things I started to wonder if that relationship was the same as the one between myself and my perceptions, or the world that surrounds me. At first my interest was in the structure of film, but before long that started to grow into an interest in taking the structure of film as the structure of reality—as a model or mock-up of reality. My ideas on that now are to create a model of film as a replica of reality, and see if reality will resonate when I affect some kind of influence on that model. It’s a kind of magical movement.

AG: As the road up to that, I think we have your experiments in multiplying the media. For instance, in filmy you project a film and film that, and then film that, thus creating a copy of a copy of a copy, doubling and tripling the mediation itself.

KH: There’s also the simple idea that film is beautiful. The beauty of noise and so forth.

AG: That’s Corridor, isn’t it?

KH: Yes, that was a video, but I also made a piece called Air (1992), which did the same thing with the beauty of film grain. When I was re-filming Air, I did a slow zoom in over a period of six minutes. The grain gets progressively larger. The subject of the film was a person moving away from the camera very slowly. In the finished film, from start to finish the image of the person remains the same size, but the grain gets relatively larger and larger. My work from this period dealt with the simple beauty of the grain, in addition to those more structural issues...

AG: That’s right, there are two sides to your work: exploring mediality itself while also exploring the beauty of the medium.

KH: If you can explore beauty . . .

AG: Or enjoy it . .

KH: Right. Enjoy watching it.

AG: The former is a more theoretical stance, one that says that because of mediation, not only are we just a fiction, we can never completely know our selves. The exploration of this problem is evident in several of your works.

KH: It’s very clear when you look at it logically, but that’s actually something I’m not so sure about (laughs).

AG: I felt that psyche-connector (1989, 1990), an installation in which the viewer puts on a helmet and can only see what a camera far away is showing, raises this issue in interesting ways. By creating a distance between one’s own perception and one’s body, the piece foregrounds the medium between those, and thus questions the perception that shapes the self: who am I and where am I?

KH: This area has likely already been talked to pieces, and the conclusion is drawn in words. But I think there are certain things that you understand once you actually try them, things that slip through between the words. That’s the job of images. I think that psyche-connector, as well as my later work, is like this. These are things that have already logically been talked to death, but I want to re-discover areas that have already been carved out of such pure, clean logical exposition.

AG: That logic is expressed in words in, for instance, Variant Phases. On the one hand, you have the statement, “You are nothing but a fiction, something I created,” but just after that, the doubt arises that “perhaps I myself am just a creation.” Both are well-known theoretical stances, but it seems to me that your work, by not taking sides and showing both stances, searches for a new discovery not evident in these worn-out theories.

KH: Or you could say that both stances are possible. Do you see light as grain or as waves? You can really measure it with either one. But what exactly is it? I used to really enjoy physics. In physics there’s something called an electron cloud model, which expresses where electrons are circling around a nucleus. In reality there isn’t any such cloud-like thing; the electrons are just out there “somewhere.” You can only describe it in probabilities. But what in the world is it? Logically speaking that explanation gets by, but it isn’t something you can see, so how are you supposed to really understand something you can only express like this? I think that’s what I want to deal with.

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Kawaguchi Hajime

Born in Tokyo in 1967. Participated in the independent animation club at Kokubunji High School before entering Kyushu Institute of Design in Fukuoka, where he sharpened his interest in experimental film. Since starting to make films in 1987, has created primarily film and video works based on the theme of world exploration. Member of the filmmakers’ group Film Makers Field. In 1993, moved to Yamagata, where he teaches at Tohoku University of Art & Design and continues to make films. Phases of Real screened at YIDFF ’97 Japanese Panorama, and Variant Phases screened at YIDFF 2001 New Asian Currents.


Selected Filmography

1985_ Shun (1 min, 8mm)

1987 Taro, Fly High! (1 min, 8mm)
inter-medium (3 min, 8mm)

1988 dis-contact (3 min, 8mm)
filmy (5 min, 8mm)
un-recognizable (4 min, 8mm)

1989 mirror (3 min, 8mm)
Dreams in Real/Real of Dreams (15 min, Video)
psyche-connector 1(Device)

1990 Mirror Surface <Real/Imaginary> (15 min, Video)
psyche-connector 2 (Device)

1991 Aquarium (7 min, 16mm)
grain vector (3 min, 8mm)
world (3 min, 8mm)
prominence (3 min, 8mm)
Drama about REM A Sleeping at Tropical Night Multimedia Drama (Visual image section, 90 min)

1992 Air (6 min, 8mm)
Fault of Reality (20 min, Video)
Reaching (12 min, Video)

1993 Mechanical Kitchen (20 min, Video)
cliché kitchen (3 min, 8mm)

1994 Corridor (11 min, Video)
blue (world/2) (3 min, 8mm)

1995 World/1 (16 min, 8mm)

1996 Point 1415 (24 min, Video)
world/3 inter-face (3 min, 8mm)

1997 Phases of Real (30 min, Video)
4 active-scan (3 min, 8mm)

1998 Variant Phases/Version 1 (15 min, Video)
Variant Phases/Version 2 (20 min, Video)
phase 3 (3 min, 8mm)

1999 Variant Phases/Version 4.1 (30 min, Video)

2000 99 ninety-nine (8 min, Video)
world/5 portrait (3 min, 8mm)

2001 Variant Phases/Version 7.6.1 (51 min, Video)
world/6 eyelids (3 min, 8mm)

2002 savepoint (web, digital photo)

Synopses of Works Discussed

inter-medium (3 min, 8mm, 1987)
Experimental animation using photographs of rooms and photocopies of the photographs.

dis-contact (3 min, 8mm, 1988)
A work that restructures time by projecting, frame by frame, images of birds flying on a “screen” held by a person, and then filming that frame by frame using a long exposure time.

filmy (5 min, 8mm, 1988)
A work that projects the image of a woman reading from a book, and then repeatedly films that. When the time within the film frame and the viewer’s perception go out of sync, the image is foregrounded and the viewer discovers that he or she has been looking on from outside.

un-recognizable (4 min, 8mm, 1988)
As does filmy, this work experiments with the materiality and temporality of film through such means as doubling and tripling the image and showing scratches on the film.

mirror (3 min, 8mm, 1989)
Just by repeatedly filming short shots of a woman in close up, this work explores how such factors as light leaks can turn film into a curious mirror

Dreams in Real/Real of Dreams (15 min, Video, 1989)
An experiment in not recreating but creating a dream using video. Tries to directly project the unconscious by eliminating planning or calculation as much as possible and depending on the feeling of the moment.

psyche-connector 1 (Device, 1989)
This apparatus, created out of interest in figuring out what would happen if one separated perception from the body, can be called something that gives you a virtual out-of-body experience.

Mirror Surface <Real/Imaginary> (15 min, Video, 1990)
What is usually shown is the sky, the flowing clouds, and time. Then a wooden bell fills the screen and spreads about sound and motion. At that instant, the video screen begins to intersect between the real and the imaginary.

psyche-connector 2 (Device, 1990)
A variation of psyche-connector 1. Unlike PC1, in which the camera is separate from the person viewing, here the person wearing the helmet is also carrying the camera unit.

Air (6 min, 8mm, 1992)
A work created by rephotographing a film. We see a woman walking away from us as she looks back. As she walks further away, she becomes buried in the coarse but beautiful grains of the film, returning to the image itself.

Fault of Reality (20 min, Video, 1992)
An experiment in creating a different world using simple video techniques, it metamorphizes images of a small burial mound shot with a hand-held camera.

Mechanical Kitchen (20 min, Video, 1993)
In a simple camera angle, showing parts of a sofa, kitchen, and entrance hall, we see the same woman become doubles and tripled in the “same” time. This treats video as the descendant of the visual toys like the Zoetrope that existed before the invention of cinema, and uses it as a means of producing a stronger sense of reality.

Corridor (11 min, Video, 1994)
Creates a beautiful, contoured images by multiplying the “noise” in an image of a cat. Noise is usually the enemy of video production, but this work tries to use it to its advantage.

Point 1415 (24 min, Video, 1996)
A visual experiment constituted by three key words: numerical constant, the everyday, and death.

Phases of Real (30 min, Video, 1997)
A fake documentary in which a story of human relationships is constructed using on-screen titles and aural narration.

Variant Phases/Version 7.6.1 (51 min, Video, 2001)
This work is made up of multiple parts, in which every time it is shown, another “phase” is added to the piece. An experiment in how the work itself changes as the phases progress.