Documentarists of Japan, #20

Takamine Go

Interviewer: Nakazato Isao


Nakazato Isao (NI): The upcoming Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival features a special Okinawa program called “Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections.” A program of your works, excluding Redman and View of Human Relations (“V.O.H.R.,” 1983) has been included as a kind of “special within a special.” Today, I’d like to go through your films to date and hear about your own filmmaking experience. I’ll leap right in. Some time ago you lived close to this cafe here on Philosopher’s Way in Kyoto.

Takamine Go (TG): This Philosopher’s Way seems to have been a place where the philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870–1945) took his strolls. In the early ’80s, it is a bit embarrassing, but I lived in this area. This is where I made the porn film View of Human Relations. There is a position on the middle of Mt. Yoshida, across from the apartment building I lived in. I took a special long distance lens up there and voyeuristically shot the leisurely daily life of the people within the rooms—their sex lives, their meals and so on. The American soldiers used to hang out in the cabarets in the entertainment district at Naminoue in Okinawa, and the so-called films they secretly screened there were porn movies. These 8mm films had been duplicated many times and the film grain had gotten quite rough, so the images of men and women wriggling together in the dark looked more like some heroic physical exercise than love. I wanted to make a film with that kind of feeling sometime.

NI: You had returned to Okinawa from Kyoto for a time—you got a job for a while—and View of Human Relations was made when you came back to Kyoto in the early ’80s. One critic has said that the film is like looking at your emotional landscape at the time immersed in the rough grains of film. How would you respond to that view?

TG: I don’t think I thought it through that far. But it was a record of my daily barren sexual desire in Kyoto, so it seems that those thoughts were there somewhere. And those “rough grains” may have come from the influence of Stan Brakhage’s 8mm films. When I think about it now, it seems that the grains of film transcend the realm of chemicals; they are where the spirit of cinema resides . . .

That was the first time I had shot a film at a location outside Okinawa. I came to Kyoto in the spring of my nineteenth year, so I’ve now been here longer than I was in Okinawa. Before I knew it, I developed a cycle where I’d film in Okinawa and edit in Kyoto. Shooting in Kyoto was, for me, extremely . . . I wanted to say something about the barrenness here and that became View of Human Relations. It even snowed in Kyoto. Well, more than trying to make a masterpiece, I made a record of the barrenness of men in their thirties, obsessed with sex. I’m not sure, since I haven’t really come to terms with my feelings about Kyoto.


NI: The topic of porn movies has come up. That time in Okinawa, when it was still an American possession, was when we were boys. What kind of feelings did the young Takamine have about movies? For example, what movies did you see, what kind of places did you go to watch?

TG: I only saw movies after my family moved from Ishigaki Island to Naha. I probably saw some on Ishigaki, but I don’t really remember them. Around the time I was in elementary and middle school, we were getting Nikkatsu movies in Okinawa, so I saw almost all the movies of people like Akagi Keiichiro and Kobayashi Akira. I saw a lot of Toei studio’s chambara (samurai) movies, folks like Azuma Chiyonosuke and Okawa Hashizo. I saw the same movies as any kid my age. I was a solitary kid with lots of free time, so I liked going to the movies. There weren’t many televisions then and the Nikkatsu pictures were turning over at a rapid pace, about one per week, so the theaters were always overflowing—standing room only, peering over heads, able to see only about one-third of the screen. That’s how it usually was. And I usually didn’t see movies from the beginning. You’d just fly in whenever you could, start from the middle of the movie, see the beginning at the next showing and stitch it all together in your head. I came here and found that everyone keeps strictly to the timetable; everyone is in their seats ten minutes before to appreciate the film. That kind of punctilious way of watching movies was a bit of a culture shock to me. To this day I’m still in the habit of flying into a movie theater and tying the film together in my head. I make movies myself, but I’m not the type who goes just for the story. When Japanese movies are all in standard dialect I sometimes lose track of the story. But foreign films have subtitles which abridge dialogue, so for me I find the narratives easier to grasp. I think that’s just my character and not something particular to Okinawans. Movies that I really like I’ll see two or three times.

NI: Entertainment in Okinawa in those days meant movies, of course—it was the so-called golden age of movies. One other influence on your filmmaking is Okinawan theater which, like movies, was enjoyed as a form of mass entertainment in Okinawa. What kind of theater experiences did you have?

TG: I saw lots of Okinawan plays. The Okinawan actors spoke the Okinawan language. At its height there were lots of theater troupes staging human dramas, heroic romances and light comedies. Plays that became hits had long runs. My maternal grandmother lived in Gushi, on the outskirts of Naha, and she got free tickets to the theater for letting them plaster posters for plays on the wall around her house. My grandmother used to take me with her a lot. My generation saw them a fair amount. I made a film called Untamagiru (1989). Untamagiru is a heroic pirate character who is a set piece in Okinawa plays. The movie Untamagiru is based on the play Untamagiru, but those who like plays tell me that the film version isn’t the real Untamagiru.


NI: You lived in that kind of environment in Okinawa through high school, then you came to Kyoto. Your first consciously made film was Dear Photograph (“Sashingwa,” 1973).

TG: That’s not quite true. The original colored photographs were made for a tableau for a solo exhibition. Let me think back to that time . . . I was born in Kabira on Ishigaki Island. I lived there until I was around five. Then we moved to Naha where I lived until high school. You were a little bit ahead of me in high school, weren’t you? I didn’t know you then (laughs). After that I came to Kyoto . . . I was going to be a painter. Back then the student movement in Kyoto, not to mention Okinawa, was in full swing, wasn’t it. You were involved in all kinds of things. I wasn’t an activist, but I put on a helmet from time to time, you know. Somehow everyone’s eyes were shining. Even in the art world there was a movement to wipe everything clean, down to such basics as expression itself. We used to make fun of those guys who would paint pictures for public display at an atelier under the direction of some professor.

If I go back in time a bit, the reason I came to Kyoto was to legally leave my family. My folks were petty bourgeoisie in Naha. Somehow they wanted things beyond the abilities of their children—“become a doctor,” you know? In any case, they tried to foist on me this desire to escape poverty . . . don’t be a painter or study literature; be a doctor! It was a symbol of wealth. That’s how it felt. So when I graduated from high school I couldn’t take living with my parents anymore. So I said something about going to college and formally left my family.

NI: If I were to try to come up with a list of key words to describe the special characteristics of a Takamine film, one of them, I think, would be “landscape.” Your feeling for and depiction of the landscape seems to rise to the level of the film’s quality. Okinawa’s post-war was one in which Okinawa had been destroyed in the “Typhoon of Steel,” as the Battle of Okinawa has been called, and then America came to stay. As a result there developed a unique landscape composed of the mix of many elements. You legally separated from your family, or perhaps escaped from that kind of Okinawa and came to Kyoto. Kyoto is a place filled with a “traditional” Japanese landscape. Having said that, it is like the polar opposite of Okinawa. How did your landscape sensors respond? What kind of experiences did you have in Kyoto?

TG: I said that I came to Kyoto to go to college, but the easiest route to passing the national scholarship exam in Okinawa was through the art course. It wasn’t that I wanted to paint nudes. I also thought I’d completely bankrupt the person I’d been and try starting again from zero. So I was happy to do whatever I wanted as much as I wanted.

NI: National scholarships were just for the talented, the class that studied extremely hard.

TG: I wasn’t really the type to succeed, but I did enough to pass. Like getting a driver’s license. Classes were free and I got spending money every month. So if you lived humbly you could get by somehow. Right in the corner of campus there was an old Japanese Imperial Army barracks. It had been turned into a storehouse. I got a room there and, following Andy Warhol’s example, named the room my “Factory.” I took it over, painted pictures and printed photos, brought girlfriends over and made 8mm films. But I had no consciousness of making movies. I wasn’t thinking at all about making movies like the Nikkatsu and Toei movies I used to see. It was a time when I was trying to wash entirely clean the values of aesthetics. So I felt no connection to movies that were produced from the studio systems. I thought, if those are movies, then it’s just fine that my films are not movies. That was the feeling I had when I made 8mm films. That’s when I made Dear Photograph. So at that time, I was trying to create art pieces more than films. But that movie is something like my starting point, so it is one of my beloved short pieces.


TG: Before I filmed Okinawa, I had filmed the landscape of Kyoto. There’s no question that the landscape of Kyoto is beautiful, but I didn’t have any true feelings for that beauty. Because I didn’t feel any reality in the landscape. I’d ask, “why this landscape?” For me, the landscape of Kyoto was filled with the flavor of exotic lands.

I was this kid who had just left home and come to the very embodiment of Japan, now on his own feeling uncertain about the ground under his feet. I was thinking a lot about my identity. So I thought, what would it be like to look at the Okinawan landscape? As a start, I thought I’d first go to a landscape that, for me, was everyday, a landscape I could reach out and touch. So it’s not that I shot the Okinawan landscape because I suddenly became aware of Okinawan issues. I gradually came to feel that if it were Okinawa, I could shoot without having to force my own expressive desire or emotional focus. So I began shooting with the road in front of my parents’ home.

Looking back on it now, it was by looking at the Okinawan landscape, confronting it, that I began to become conscious of making films. Around the time when Okinawa reverted to the Japanese mainland, the Okinawan landscape was undergoing tremendous change. Things just appeared and disappeared. But even if you lose sight of the landscape’s roots, it’s not like they go away so easily.

When I’m looking at the landscape I’m not an outside observer. I wanted to try to capture the smell of death in the landscape with my 8mm camera. Of course 8mm film is a visual medium, but I wanted to absorb the smell by looking. In other words, the Okinawan landscape was almost entirely covered with corpses during the Battle of Okinawa. During the post-war rebuilding there was an effort to bring closure to a lot of things, the Monument to the Star Lily (Himeyuri) Students Corps being a prime example. But even the normal landscape had corpses in it . . . I heard lots of real stories about that from my parents. All the time, moving between corpses, sometimes stepping and then leaping away. That’s the kind of story I heard. In that case, I felt like the Okinawan landscape still has the uncollected mabui (souls) of the dead, more than spirits, wandering about. I wanted to capture everything about the landscape, including these souls, with my camera. In those days, a movie camera was like a vacuum cleaner to me—a vacuum cleaner that sucked up the smells, not just photographing the landscape and purveying meaning. So I always shot as long as possible. These were almost all one-cut/one-scene 8mm films. I’d put a cartridge in and shoot for three minutes. About ten of them. So whenever I went on location, I’d take about fifty cartridges with me and continually shoot one-cut/one-scene.

NI: We are now talking about Okinawan Dream Show (1974), but it seems to me that this film reveals your vision of landscape, or as you so eloquently stated a moment ago, in “smelling the stench of death in the landscape” we can see something normally not found in “landscape films.” You deliberately didn’t choose politically charged or heavy situations in Okinawa during its period of transformation. Instead, you shot very unexceptional scenes, like normal roadways and such. Of course, there are also scenes of the bases in your film, but they aren’t given any special privileges in the landscape. Instead, the landscape is envisioned uniformly. Your cinematic images of “the stench of death in the landscape” evoke memory and make one think of things that cannot be recuperated to meaning. The slow motion scenes in Okinawan Dream Show do not simply show us the details of the landscape; they also give us a unique temporal experience. I think it is terribly significant that you produced Okinawan Dream Show at that period of time. We have discussed the “landscape” that is one of the special characteristics of your films, but one other important key is “Okinawan time,” or chirudai.

Your next film, Okinawan Chirudai (1976) might be called the cinematization of time. The refrain you intersperse here and there—“Is your fief Japan, lord? It is if chirudai disappears”—is infused with the question of what happens to “Okinawan time” when Okinawa reverts to Japan. This may be related to your earlier point about not watching a movie from beginning to end in perfect accordance with the timetable but watching by coming in the middle. But the reversion to Japan meant that Okinawa entered the time of the clock. Value is only placed on the efficiencies of set time and speed and movement forward. Okinawan time slips away from the timetable and dissipates, or plays, to the side and the rear. From the value scale of clock time, chirudai is meant for extermination, just like the Okinawan language. Someone once described your work as a “time war,” and it seems like Okinawan Chirudai sarcastically depicts the struggle between clock time and Okinawan time.

TG: At first I had no intention of making Okinawan Dream Show into a film. I was just filming based on a method I had chosen. My primary interest was in seeing the landscape, rather than producing it. But I decided to make that into a film when, in my fourth year of filming, I saw Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). That film made me think I could call my work a film. Well, not a film born of a film company, but then even just going to the house where you were born and touching one of the pillars, that in itself could constitute a film. It might sound presumptuous, but I figured it would be all right to have my own kind of Takamine Film. It was like I was dropped into the film world by Mekas. So I made up my mind to add scenes of Ishigaki Island to the end and call it Okinawan Dream Show. I took about twenty hours of film and edited it down to about three hours. I carried that film around and screened it myself. Even now I don’t know why, but at one screening in Tokyo, at a Buddhist temple I think, the screening was surrounded by riot police and the entire audience was subjected to baggage checks. I wonder if the police thought it was a dangerous movie? At another place I got into trouble because I wouldn’t return the entrance fee of 500 yen or so.

After Okinawan Dream Show, my life style in Kyoto continued as before in my university “Factory.” In the end, school was . . . That’s right, that was when Okinawa reverted to Japan. The status of national scholarship students became uncertain, as might be expected, and I was asked to withdraw from school. I got fired.


TG: If I were to put it in words, Okinawan Chirudai was my part-fiction déja vu film. For example, it is said that Okinawa was nearly wiped out, nothing left, by the war. But I wanted to make a film that would show what it might be like if a film from one hundred years ago survived the battle and was rediscovered. So I rigged a homemade optical printer and tried to make that kind of film. What I actually filmed were things like a farmer cutting grass and a kid loitering around the woods like he had been possessed . . . In other words, I imagined the daily life of ancient Okinawans who were free from outside control, and wove it into a film. I wanted to reproduce my pleasing sense of time in Okinawan Chirudai. You know, loafing about, chirudai. That, and my irritation at the reversion to Japan.

Okinawan Dream Show took four years of filming and three hours of watching to gradually make me feel like I was entering the world of film. By contrast, I planned Okinawan Chirudai as a film from the very beginning. So there is a script for the entire thing. The scenes of ancient Okinawans were lifted from the unfinished Okinawan Hadari.

At first glance it might look like a documentary, or like the scenes are about nothing in particular, but I did things like recreate what it’s like when tourists buy smoked sea snakes in the area behind Heiwa-dori (Peace Avenue). Taira Tomi plays the owner of the sea snake store. She is now the representative “Old Lady” of Okinawa.

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Takamine Go

Born in 1948 in Kabira on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa. Lived in Naha through high school. Entered Kyoto University of Education on a national scholarship, and began making 8mm films. Made his directorial debut in 1974 with Okinawan Dream Show, a close look at the scenery of Okinawa around the time of its reversion to mainland Japan. Thereafter has continued making films about Okinawa. Paradise View (1985) was his first feature fiction film. Untamagiru (1989) won a number of domestic and international prizes, including the Caligari prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Other works include Tsuru-Henry (1998) and Private Images of Ryukyu: J.M. (1996–), inspired by Jonas Mekas’s visit to Okinawa. Teaches courses at professional schools and universities, and is working on a new feature fiction film, Queer Fish Lane. Serves as International Competition juror for YIDFF 2003, and his works are featured in the festival’s Okinawa program in “The World of Takamine Go.”


Selected Filmography:

  Title / Length / Format

1973_ Dear Photograph (“Sashingwa”) / 10 min / 8mm

1974 Okinawan Dream Show / 180 min / 8mm

1975 Dear Photograph (16mm version) (“Sashingwa”) / 15 min / 16mm

1978 Okinawan Chirudai / 75 min / 16mm
Okinawan Chirudai (Special Edition) / 78 min / Video

1982 View of Human Relations (“V.O.H.R.—Ningen kankei no nagame”) / 15 min / 16mm

1985 Paradise View / 113 min / 35mm

1986 Paradise View (Special Edition) / 123 min / 35mm

1989 Untamagiru / 120 min / 35mm

1991 directed the TV commercial Athlete’s Foot Medicine Policain (Teruya Rinsuke version) (“TVCF Mizu mushiyaku Porikain”)

1992 Photo on the Stone / 3 min / 16mm

1994 Kadekaru Rinsho: Songs and Stories (“Kadekaru Rinsho: Uta to katari”) / 59 min / Video
A.S.O.P. (in the case of Shu Lea Cheang) (“A.S.O.P. Shu Lea Cheang no baai”) / 50 min / Video

1998 Tsuru-Henry (“Mugen Ryukyu: Tsuru Henri”) / 90 min / Video

2003 Okinawa Island Songs Echoing in the Parisian Sky (“Mugen Ryukyu: Okinawa shimauta Pari no sora ni hibiku”) / 60 min / Video
Tsuru in Paris (“Mugen Ryukyu: Tsuru in Pari”) tentative title / 70 min / Video
Private Images of Ryukyu: J.M. (“Shiteki satsu mugen Ryukyu J·M”) / 54 min / Video