The mid to late-1980s and the early 1990s saw a surge of active involvement by women filmmakers in the Japanese experimental film scene, bringing them into a field that had previously been almost exclusively male. With the increased accessibility of affordable film equipment, growing film school attendance, and the establishment of film festivals such as Image Forum and Pia Film Festival, more women began to direct and produce their own films, especially within the flourishing independent filmmaking scene.
Departing from the formal concerns and abstract structuralism that remained key concerns for many experimental directors, a number of these women creators shifted toward work centered on the materiality of the everyday, the body, and the cityscape. A new anarchic playfulness and emphasis on experimental narrative served their explorations of a broad array of social and aesthetic issues. The gendered gaze and sexuality in cinematic form, the edges of family dynamics, the bonds of relationship and broader forms of social alienation, as examined in these films, reveal a crisis both of the intimate and the public spheres.
This program presents five works from women filmmakers who have practiced a unique filmic experimentalism that resists categorization into narrower definitions of experimental film. Yūko Asano's stop motion animation, The Life of Ants/Ari no seikatsu (14mins, 1994) meditates on prevailing gendered power dynamics through a beautifully and meticulously crafted world of insects, leading viewers to contemplate gendered social subjection as embodied in ritualized activities. Yukie Saitō's Benighted but not Begun/Yukikuredomo machiakazu (22mins, 1994) centers on the violent and abusive relationship of a couple. Repeated acts of physical and psychological torment reveal through their repetition the problematic power dynamics subsumed under the appearance of normalcy in romance and daily life. Hiromi Saiki's The Place Which Isn't Necessarily Wrong/Anagachi machigatteru tomo ienai kū (18mins, 1996) takes up the constructedness of reality and the self by placing Saiki's body and anxious voiceover narration at the center of a reflexive examination of datification and social disconnection. Mari Terashima's Green Bug/Midorimushi (41mins, 1991) moves slowly, at an unusual scale for a Super 8 film, to sink viewers into the evocation of the internal state of a spatially confined and gender-ambiguous character. Terashima worked with members of a theater troupe to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy, performing both claustrophobia and (violent) gender performativity. Utako Koguchi's playful A Dandelion/Bara-ka tanpopo (8mins, 1990) draws our attention to the ambiguities of sexuality, queering the relationship between body, image and voice; the filmmaker refers to it as an indirect reflection on the worldwide AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
The films in this program form a heterogeneous assemblage that traverses a range of thematic concerns and modes of filmmaking— including documentary, experimental film, and animation. As a whole, they attest to emergent formations of Japan's diversifying film culture in the 1990s and women's often ignored and sometimes ephemeral participation in it. These unique and often critically trenchant films allow us to reflect on the expansion of the independent film scene in this period through their shared anarchic and playful aesthetics, their surreal sense of irony, and their resistance to conventional categorization. The five films direct our attention to the ritualistic bonds of relationship and social space, critically and mischievously interrogating the politics and constructed strangeness of our everyday lives.
We would like to express our gratitude to Kathy Geritz, and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive for hosting the initial version of this program, as well as the filmmakers for allowing their works to be included in its streaming version.
Wakae Nakane is a PhD student and Annenberg Fellow in Cinema and Media Studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her research interests include documentary film and video, experimental cinema, postwar Japanese history and cinematic culture, and feminist theory and historiography. Her current projects center on the essayistic mode of expression in the Japanese independent film scene. She has published her works in both English and Japanese, including "Constructing an Intimate Sphere Through Her Own Female Body: Naomi Kawase's Documentary Films" in Female Authorship and the Documentary Image (eds. Boel Ulfsdotter and Anna Backman Rogers) and Eizogaku, and "Female Performers as Authors: Documentary Film Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 and the Women's Liberation Movement" in JunCture.
Miryam Sas is Professor of Comparative Literature and Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley. She began as a scholar of the experimental arts with a focus on modernist poetics in her first book, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism (Stanford University Press). She has explored the cultural wave of the 1960s-1970s through studies of theater, film, animation, dance, and intermedia art in Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return (Harvard University Asia Center Publications, 2010). Her new book, Feeling Media, forthcoming from Duke University Press, explores the potentialities and limitations of media theory and media art in Japan.
Yūko Asano was born in 1959 in Tokyo. Asano specializes in animation, film, and doll making. She began making 8mm films in high school. While learning oil painting at Musashino Art University, she started to learn animation and create dolls herself. She joined a group called "Animation 80," which was formed by art college students in Tokyo, and engaged in independent animation, filmmaking, and exhibition. Her animated short Regular Polyhedra/Ki no naka sasu sakana no ki was selected for Pia Film Festival in 1985. It was not only screened in Japan, but also at the Torino Film Festival in Italy. She then expanded her creation into the realm of stop-motion animation using puppets, and her animation works including The Life of Ants/Ari no seikatsu (1994) have been screened at various film festivals. She also creates dolls to exhibit in the haunted house in an amusement park, Hanayashiki in Asakusa. She has been currently interested in handicraft in addition to doll making, and she seeks the ways to incorporate the elements in handicraft in her animation works. One of the most inspirational sauces is what is generally called "okan art" ("okan" means "mother" in Kansai dialect,) which is a handicraft practiced mainly by women, and that has been trivialized from the perspective of art history and practice proper. She teaches at Musashino Art University.
Yukie Saitō graduated from Tama Art University, Tokyo in 1995, where she majored in film making. While she was at the university, she created three works: The Night When Water Came Down/Mizu no furu yoru ni (1991), Light of Shadow/Kage no aoari (1992), and Benighted but not Begun/Yukikuredomo machiakazu (1994). Light of Shadow, and Benighted but not Begun were exhibited at various international film festivals and screenings, including the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Rotterdam Film Festival.
Hiromi Saiki was born in 1971. While working in an office, she studied filmmaking at the Image Forum Institute of the Moving Image (from the 18th through the 20th.) The Place Which Isn't Necessarily Wrong/Anagachi machigatteru tomo ienai ku, which she exhibited at the graduation exhibition, won prizes at the Image Forum Festival and Akiruno Film Festival. The Place Which Isn't Necessarily Wrong was added to the collection at the Yokohama Museum of Art alongside Discipline, which she created in the following year. In 1999, her joint exhibition with Wada Junko was held in Yokohama Museum of Art, and these exhibitions established her place among the other female filmmakers who were actively engaging in filmmaking in the 1990s. Her works have recently drawn renewed critical attention. She currently designs and crafts jewelry.
Mari Terashima is a filmmaker. She was born in 1965. She enrolled in a film making course at Kyoto College of Art (Kyoto University of the Art) in 1985, and studied with filmmakers such as Matumoto Toshio. Her 8mm film, Green Bug/Midorimushi won a grand prize at the Image Forum Festival. Two of her works, The Polyester Dog of Her Majesty the Queen/Joou heika no poriesuteru ken and Shot. Cut. Lovers. were selected for Maniacs of Disappearance, an exhibition that was commissioned by the Japan Foundation, and it was exhibited across twelve countries. She joined Split Film Festival in Croatia, and Yamgata International Documentary Film Festival, Japan with Princess Plum P-udding/Himekorogashi in 1999. Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Märchen Show!!, which was commissioned as the 18th original video work produced by the Aichi Arts Center, was officially invited to be exhibited at the 40th Rotterdam International Film Festival. Her personal documentary (self-documentary), Diary of a Rambling Woman / Chūbura onna moyamoya nikki: danna ni ienai himitsu gained an audience award at the Image Forum Festival 2016.
Koguchi Utako was born in Tokyo in 1961. She has engaged in various activities mainly centering on the visual image, such as dance instruction, film, TV, commercials, music video, promotion videos, website design, publicity of foreign films, staffing film festivals, and writing. As a filmmaker, she has actively exhibited her works at film festivals and featured programs both in Japan and abroad, centering on the themes such as gender and views on life and death with live performances. She has also engaged in activities to support young filmmakers through workshops on filmmaking, film festivals, and educational institutions. She currently teaches at Musashino Art University, where she has engaged in producing filmmakers who won prizes at film competitions with their unique and cute works both in Japan and abroad. In 2014, she founded "The Poetry of Finless Porpoises/sunameri no uta" project, with young filmmakers, students, and local citizens in Ōmura City in Nagasaki, where she produced nine short films that were screened at various film festivals. She extended her field of interests into Southeast Asia in 2017 in addition to Europe. She was a director of Omura Amami International Student Film Festival in 2018, and a vice executive committee at the 14th Asia International Youth Film Festival in 2021.
This program is supported, in part, by the Preserving Diverse Cultures grant, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.