Documentarists of Japan, #18: Kawaguchi Hajime (2/2)

AG: The case before, in which you use a copy of a copy of a copy to express mediality, shares a lot with Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum: namely, that because of mediation, there is no reality and everything is just a copy. However, while Phases of Real and Variant Phases use media to create a fictionality, I feel that neither falls into the cynical position of declaring that everything is just a fiction. In Variant Phases, another voice appears and, in red titles, asks of the story about the cat, “Isn’t this just something you made up?” But not everything is made up here. You show an understanding of the stance that states that everything is just a fiction, but it seems to me that you do not throw reality away altogether and keep searching for another reality.

KH: Strictly speaking, when you try to express something about reality through a video, the video itself is fictional. It’s a mistake to believe that the thing visible on a video monitor is reality. I think it’s necessary to say once and for all that no matter how much it resembles reality, it’s not. On the other hand you can’t simply say that it’s all a lie because it’s fiction. Reality does appear within that fiction, so it’s definitely not just one or the other.

AG: Thinking about that, I feel that the quote from the novelist Kanbayashi Chohei that appears in filmy and un-recognizable (1988) represents your position well. According to that, since everything is just a “translation,” we create our relationships with others through translation. But while Kanbayashi may admit that translation is fictive, he doesn’t reject it—translation is important. I think that relates to the position in your works.

KH: “Mistranslation must be allowed.”

AG: I feel there’s an effort to approve of the “translations” you’ve made in your own work.

KH: Yes, I really think so. Mistranslation is like a “bad hop;” all sorts of interesting things start to occur from there. Whether a mistranslation or a misunderstanding, I think that happens in the creative process. Unexpected things appear when the plan you’ve worked out in your mind starts to connect with reality. It starts to go in directions you hadn’t anticipated. That’s what it means to create images. In pure, logical exposition, you can make something even more pure and beautiful using words, but I think I go through shooting once—an extremely chaotic process—deliberately using the rancidness of reality to create that kind of “bad hop.”

AG: In your works, both the structural and the beauty of noise appear. In other words, while you make them in a structural manner, what you are expecting is in part the beauty that arises from a noise like translation. One metaphor for that is the after-image of your dead cat Cliché, that appears in Variant Phases. Maybe you can’t call it a noise arising from the structure, but as a metaphor, it seems to say that you expect such kind of “ghost photographs” (shinrei shashin).

KH: Yes, that’s true.

AG: In other words, I feel that while you use various technologies to produce a material structure, what you are aiming for is a ghostly something you can’t explain, another mysterious fault of reality.

KH: I do hope for things like that. Definitely. In Variant Phases something like a “ghost photograph” did occur. Yes, I do hope for things like that. Perhaps this is close to the “magic” I mentioned earlier. I find myself wishing for something nonsensical, like when you stick pins into a doll and a real human feels pain. I wonder if there might not be a way to produce that sort of effect.

AG: That’s another dual aspect of your work: namely, the structural on one side and the personal on the other. I don’t know if this is magic, but it seems you make your films such that, while they are constructed in a structural manner, a kind of apparition of your family or cat—a spirit from your personal world—appears somewhere.

KH: Well they’re connected by the idea of “death,” but really that’s something I’m trying to—how should I put it—wipe out. There are certain coincidences though, and I do think that this “ghost” idea has become one symbol, as you say.

AG: I’d like to ask about your methodology, but it seems that structural filmmakers—maybe not all of them, but many of them—desire control over their works. They try to have everything they make go according to plan, as if they are perfectionists eliminating that which exceeds their control. You, however, seem to make your films so that you accept that which exceeds yourself, that which does not go according to plan.

KH: That’s true. If I weren’t like that I don’t think there would be much point to it all. If I can’t find something that transcends myself, there won’t be anything to draw out my ideas. If it’s nothing more than a recreation of my original plan it might be better to just choose a technique without the “bad hops” that images create.

AG: Thinking about your status as an author, at the end of Point 1415, there’s the credit “Video sampling by Kawaguchi Hajime” instead of “Directed by Kawaguchi Hajime.” Why did you put that in?

KH: It seems very meaningful looking back on it now. At the time I thought of photography as nothing more than a “sampling” of reality, as if there really is no “author”...

AG: You also put in “Copyright free.”

KH: At the time I thought that “copyright free” might be one possibility. Like freeware—free software. I wondered what would happen if you abandoned a video’s copyright like that. Now, it seems like a very essential problem. “Where is the author?” That’s becoming one focal point of my new Variant Phases.

AG: What is your thought on the matter now?

KH: I haven’t yet come up with clear ideas on where the author “is” yet. I do think that within the “world” of a film it is a unique position, however. This ties into the “absence of the author” in Variant Phases. At that time I wasn’t thinking so consciously about the “absence of the author” yet.

AG: In Variant Phases, on the one hand there is the “absence of the author,” but on the other hand, your own personal stories appear and you exist in that way. How do you conceive of the relationship between these two aspects?

KH: One as the so-called “author,” the other as “Myself (Kawaguchi Hajime).” I appear in front of the camera, so who is behind it? The problem is, what in the world is an author? Who is it?

AG: Something that relates to the question of the author is the fact that the phrase “Version 7.5” appears in the credits of Variant Phases. It thus seems to be a work with many versions, and perhaps the fact that it is never complete relates in part to the fact there is no author.

KH: This might get off the topic a little, but I add the version number conscious of the fact that I’m making work on a computer. I think this might be another possibility from here on. With nonlinear editing, you can add any number of changes later on. Until now it was too difficult to have a new version each time I screened a film, but now hard disc recorders have even started to enter the home. It’s conceivable that a work’s final form might be data inside a hard disc recorder, and in such a situation it wouldn’t be strange to have the film changing each time you watch it. I’m thinking that it’s possible a piece may not have a final version (laughs).

AG: In an interesting way this has something in common with your early practice of shooting a film and then filming that film. In Variant Phases, there are a series of phases: you showed one to people, and then taking into account the reaction made the second . . .

KH: Ah, that’s true too. I take other people’s reactions into consideration, as well as take the position of viewer myself to receive the author or the work’s message. That’s been another way to distance myself from the fact of my authorship.

AG: This connects well with the word “resonance” that you used in the YIDFF catalog in 2001. It seems that your methodology is neither to just film reality nor to film a fiction that rejects reality, but to make the medium vibrate in between those positions, hoping that a strange “resonance” with reality, something like a ghost photograph, willl appear. Repeatedly copying copies is thus less a rejection of reality than one way another fault or fissure of reality appears.

Next I would like to ask you what you are thinking about now, what you are making or what direction you are working towards.

KH: There are many things I’d like to try. What I’d particularly like to do with film is an extension of my series of long-exposure work, using film in a style like painting. Instead of viewing a structure when you see the film, it would be more like you’re looking at a picture. I’d like to try a project that way. I’m also starting to think about the next step after Variant Phases. I think I should probably get started on something that deals with reality (laughs). I haven’t actually started working yet though.

AG: As a final question, since you teach at the Tohoku University of Art & Design, I was wondering if you could talk about your role as an educator and about your students.

KH: It’s actually becoming fairly interesting for me, being involved with the students’ work, spending time with them—I guess you could call it “education.” I’m starting to feel that my relationship to my own work is getting closer to my stance in relation to the students’ creative work. Working with the students, thinking about methodology... it’s really interesting to find things I hadn’t even considered coming back to me.

AG: Are your students producing interesting work these days?

KH: Yes they are (laughs). It’s difficult to decide what’s interesting and what isn’t according to my own values though. I have a feeling that’s going to prevent new ideas from coming out. I think our job as educators is to point out new possibilities. Even if I don’t really understand something, maybe it will lead into interesting work. I need to pick up on those one by one, not crush them if I don’t understand them. It might turn into something more interesting later on, or it might turn out to be a dud, but that’s not for us to decide. If it were I don’t think anything new would happen. It is a lot of fun discovering things like that.

AG: That does connect with the way your make your works.

KH: I get that feeling.

AG: Not just focusing on the structure or on yourself, but putting your hopes in a possibility, expecting something from that which exceeds those things.

KH: Perhaps it’s kind of irresponsible, but ultimately that isn’t in the hands of the educators. The students, as creators, have to take that responsibility upon themselves. Our job in relation to that is to point out to the students that there might be possibilities in a work that they haven’t noticed themselves. Sometimes even if they can see that, they’re too scared to say it. Often they can’t express something out of a lack of confidence. At times like that I think our job is to give them a nudge and cheer them up a bit.

AG: Thank you very much.

(August 11, 2002)
—Translated by Michael Arnold and Aaron Gerow


Aaron Gerow

Former editor of Documentary Box and currently associate professor in the International Student Center at Yokohama National University. Specializes in Japanese film history, particularly prewar and contemporary Japanese cinema. Has recently published studies of such directors as Kitano Takeshi, Aoyoma Shinji, and Miike Takashi and is currently writing a book on 1990s Japanese cinema.