“When people start turning the camera on themselves the season of politics is truly over.” Only a couple of years after making this damning claim about the explosion in 8mm filmmaking in early 1970s Japan, the influential leftist theorist-activist Masao Matsuda took it all back. Seeing the new category of film as the “axis of the media revolution,” Matsuda became one of the biggest supporters of an immense wave of filmmaking that would shape Japanese cinema for decades to come.
The most well-known filmmakers in Japanese film today—Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sion Sono, Shinya Tsukamoto, Sogo Ishii among them—emerged from the eruptive energy, brash use of freedom, and creative chaos of this new kind of film called jishu eiga—roughly: “autonomous film”—in Japan. From 1977 the PIA Film Festival positioned itself at the center of this creative storm and became an event where the jishu eiga world converged.
And the film world took notice. Some of the great working filmmakers flocked to Pia as audience and jury members: Nagisa Oshima, Francois Truffaut, Toshio Matsumoto, Nobuhiko Obayashi—himself instrumental in creating this mode of filmmaking—and many others saw the immense creative energy that was unfolding outside of commercial cinema structures. While the mainstream film industry of the 1970s in Japan shifted to largely producing either sexploitation films or mega-blockbusters, all over the country an intricate web of alternative circuits of production and distribution took hold. It attracted significant audiences and inspired thousands of young cinephiles to create their own films, brimming with ideas and experimentation. No other country in the world developed such a prolific and extensive grassroots film movement. It was this potential for mobilizing networks and engagement that Matsuda saw as a new model of politics after the failure of the student movement.
But the commercial film industry soon saw jishu film’s potential as well. In 1978 the major film studio Toei allowed the twenty-one-year-old Sogo Ishii to co-direct a mainstream remake of his legendary sixteen-minute 8mm film Panic in High School (1976). To compare such a move to the US context, it would be as if George Lucas were given the opportunity to shoot Star Wars not after the box office success of American Graffiti or on the merits of having gone to film school, but on the basis of a sixteen-minute 8mm film he shot just after high school. While Ishii was inevitably disappointed by the restrictions of big-studio filmmaking, this unprecedented move by one of the largest film studios in Japan—and others would follow the example—demonstrated the amount of attention and heft this new type of film had acquired among youth audiences.
The PIA Film Festival has begun to make its treasure trove of legendary jishu films available. It still remains one of the most important forums for discovering interesting young filmmakers, and its main prize is an important stepping stone to a rich career in film. The ongoing legacy of the jishu film is not, however, just that of supplying a steady stream of talent to the commercial film industry. The jishu film aesthetic and its vision of highly personal film that nonetheless embraces artifice, explores the line between mediated reality and media fiction, and aims for cinematic fireworks, pushing forward with relentless energy, still shapes Japanese film today. It is in the early films from the Pia archive that we find this energy in its purest and most unbridled form. – Alexander Zahlten, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard
Film descriptions by Alexander Zahlten.
DCPs courtesy the PIA Film Festival.
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Japan 1988, DCP, color, 47 min. Japanese with English subtitles
The early jishu films of two of the most well-known filmmaker/artists from Japan show the unbridled energy that this form of filmmaking allowed. In his joyfully inventive film, Tsukamoto—who can currently be seen playing one of the main roles in Martin Scorsese’s Silence—prefigures many of the cyberpunk themes of the more grim visual assault of his international breakthrough film, Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989). Here the story of a teenage boy who discovers an electric pylon growing out of his back and is soon forced to battle cyborg vampires over the future of humanity touches upon Tsukamoto’s theme of the body melding with technology in a playfully manic tone.
Directed by Sion Sono
Japan 1984, DCP, color, 37 min. Japanese with English subtitles
The intensely prolific Sono is one of the most constant presences from Japan at international festivals now, but his career is one of creativity in overdrive well beyond film. A published poet by his teens, Sono became an important presence in poetry, experimental theater, and— with this personal, adrenalized experimental film— stepped into the world of moving images. Navigating sometimes exuberant, sometimes uncomfortable territory, I am Sion Sono! explores the possibilities of film as part of a much larger artistic project.
Directed by Sogo Ishii
Japan 1977, DCP, color, 43 min. Japanese with English subtitles
An elegiac ode to a loner who finds it difficult to fit in and the inevitable eruption of his frustration, Isolation of 1/880000 tells the story of Takemitsu, a disabled young man caught in the “examination hell” of trying to get into one of Japan’s top universities. Director Sogo Ishii (now renamed as Gakuryu Ishii) was the original 8mm punk, whose works expressed unhinged energy and made speed, intensity and rebellion their stylistic and thematic center, carrying over into his later 16mm and 35mm films such as Crazy Thunder Road and Crazy Family. In contrast, Isolation prefigures the more ethereal aesthetic of his big budget 1990s films.
Directed by Akira Ogata
Japan 1980, DCP, color, 59 min. Japanese with English subtitles
The jishu film scene was an incredibly networked community, and the legendary Tokyo Cabbageman K stands as a good example. Ishii collaborator Akira Ogata—now a well-known commercial film director in his own right—shot this story of nightmarish transformation in direct reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with Ishii and others working on the set. When K awakens and finds himself partially transformed into a cabbage, he must come to terms with his new state and how it puts him at the center of a media storm and unsolicited desires. The film features one of the most famous soundtracks in jishu film history.
Directed by Nobuhiro Suwa
Japan 1984, DCP, color, 85 min. Japanese with English subtitles
If the French nouvelle vague is an implicit reference point, or at least shares a certain sensibility with the films in this lineup—many of which feel like uninhibited, no-holds-barred experiments very loosely inspired by Truffaut, Rivette or Godard—then Hanasareru Gang is the only open homage to the French filmmakers. Genre elements such as gangsters, a suitcase full of money, and a girl who joins them for their misadventures build a kaleidoscopic game of filmic conventions. Always self-aware and willing to slip back and forth between storytelling and self-reflexivity with a light touch, Hanasareru Gang is easily recognizable as a complex yet passionately energetic variation of Suwa’s more austere later films. One of the directors most explicitly influenced by French cinema, Suwa is best known outside of Japan for his H Story (2001), a film that starred Beatrice Dalle and was a remake of sorts of—and meta-filmic reflection on—Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Directed by Katsuyuki Hirano
Japan 1986, DCP, color, 126 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A full-frontal attack on mid-1980s conservative Japan, Happiness Avenue features a rowdy cast (including Sion Sono) wreaking havoc on the town of Shizuoka. Kicking off with its countermodel—a disciplined right-wing group lined up and demanding the return of the Kuril Islands from the Soviet Union—Katsuyuki Hirano and his group counter with only loosely organized anarchy. Straddling the line between documentary, street performance art and juvenile provocations, the film culminates in an exploration of the town’s sewage system that becomes a health hazard for its participants. Nominally based on a manga by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, the film has no obvious relation to its supposed source material. Hirano continued into one of the more unconventional careers of Pia award-winning directors. Rather than enter mainstream filmmaking, he became notorious for shooting highly experimental pornography for the video circuit, as well as documentaries about his bicycle tours that showed widely at international film festivals, among them Yumika (1997) with his on-and-off lover, adult video star Yumika Hayashi.
Directed by Masashi Yamamoto
Japan 1980, DCP, color, 127 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Saint Terrorism is an outsider fantasy, a vision of destructive life on the margins of early 1980s Japan. Yamamoto’s second jishu film shows the roots that blossomed into one of the great idiosyncratic talents of contemporary Japanese cinema, and one of the filmmakers who has stayed the most true to his jishu film origins. Here, he presents a collage of interwoven stories, lethally held together by a young woman who shoots people at random but later is convinced to switch to poison by a new compatriot. With a large and fearless cast, the film explores questions of sexuality and death in a contemporary Tokyo with dead bodies surreally hurtling from the sky just as the country itself is hurtling towards the hyper-affluent 1980s bubble era. Three years later, Yamamoto’s film Carnival in the Night created a sensation at the Berlin International Film Festival, making him a household name in Japan and on the international film festival circuit.
Directed by Shinobu Yaguchi
Japan 1990, DCP, color, 72 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A spirited, magically inventive and charming film full of large dashes of French New Wave quirkiness, and winner of 1990’s Pia Film Festival grand prize, The Rain Women set the stage for Shinobu Yaguchi ’s later career in offbeat comedies such as Waterboys and Swing Girls. In the first part of the film, two young women live together and create their own eccentric adventures, transforming their (always rainy) everyday environment into an enchanted playground, full of pop-musical sequences and synchronized tooth brushing performances. As the second half of the film shifts to both deeper psychological themes and a more meta-filmic playfulness, Yaguchi develops a bewitchingly melancholic atmosphere of unpredictability. Often compared to Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, the film is a fascinating example of the exploration of the lines between filmic reality and filmic fiction—a signature jishu film obsession.
Directed by Macoto Tezuka
Japan 1979, DCP, color, 15 min. Japanese with English subtitles
In UNK, the son of legendary manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka created one of the loveliest odes to both special effects cinema and the handmade 8mm aesthetic. As a young woman navigates the city, strange things begin to happen—leading her into a journey that is part science fiction and part fantasy, full of references to magical moments in cinema’s past.