Toshio Matsumoto (1932-2017)
The Weavers of Nishijin (1961)
The Song of Stone (1963)
For The Damaged Right Eye (1968)
Mona Lisa (1973)
Andy Warhol (Re-Reproduction) (1974)
Everything Visible Is Empty (1975)
White Hole (1979)
Ki or Breathing (1980)
Documentarists of Japan # 9
Translated by Aaron Gerow
Matsumoto: Well, I loved painting. I had been painting since middle school, but Japan was very poor at the time I was about to enter college in the early 1950s. To do painting meant you weren’t going to eat. Even so, I wanted to paint, but my parents were bitterly opposed to me going to an art school and said they wouldn’t pay for art school examinations or tuition. In those days, there weren’t part-time jobs around like there are today, so there was no way I could have done it on my own. So I gave up on art school and entered the medical course at the University of Tokyo because I was interested in the brain and problems like schizophrenia.
But even though I didn’t necessarily grow to dislike that, I thought I had only one life to live and I wanted to pursue art. Without telling my parents, I changed my major half-way through to art and art history in the literature faculty. Tokyo, however, didn’t really have any classes teaching you how to paint, so I studied art theory and history in school and learned painting on my own. In my studies, I learned for the first time that there was an avant-garde cinema in Europe in the 1920s that visually was deeply related to contemporary art–a fact that struck me like a bolt out of the blue. Though I couldn’t see these films in Japan, I was strongly stimulated by foreign books and articles about them. I felt that this, an area where issues of art and cinema overlapped, was what I had been searching for.
Of course, I loved movies and went to see them a lot from the time I was in middle and high school. I was even treated like a juvenile delinquent and was arrested twice by the Shinjuku police because I skipped school. Well, I was that much in love with film, and I asked a friend of mine who had a stock holders pass–his father was in the theater business–to lend it to me, telling him I’d return it whenever he wanted to go. I’d go to school until noon and then go straight to Shinjuku where I’d see one movie after another, going into every first-run theater in Shinjuku from one end to another. To see all the first-run films in Shinjuku meant that I was seeing almost all the releases.
Gerow: Both Japanese and foreign ones?
Matsumoto: Yes, anything, including old films at repertory houses. I saw several hundred in a year–I liked movies that much. But I only came to want to make films myself when, as I said, I encountered the world of experimental film. Until then, I had liked cinema as a spectator–wanting to make it on my own came later. It was right at the end of high school and the beginning of college that Italian Neorealist films came to Japan and also influenced me. I was shocked in a way I had never been before. How can I say it? I felt I should really think more seriously about a kind of cinema that could completely unify reality and expression and delve its way into people’s minds.
So my starting point was Italian Neorealism and experimentalism–the avant-garde and the documentary. Both were extremely fascinating to me, but that’s where problems arose. Although I found the freedom of avant-garde’s uninhibited, imaginative world extremely attractive, it had the tendency to get stuck in a closed world. Documentaries, on the other hand, while intensely related to reality, would not really thoroughly address internal mental states and were so dependent upon their temporal contexts they would look old-fashioned if their temporal context changed. I wondered whether the point of collision between the limitations and strong points of the two forms could not pose a new set of topics for cinema. My starting point was thus to investigate, using Alain Resnais’s Guernica as a handhold, this kind of imagined cinema.
That said, however, the most basic thing is to firmly plant one’s feet in the essential characteristics of the cinematic medium: its documentary quality and its sense of reality. Maybe today there are lots of images you can produce without a camera, but basically as long as you are filming with a camera, there is a reality before you. The first problem when starting out is how to approach the tripartite relationship between that objective reality, the world of expression, and the filmmaker’s subjective manipulation.
At any rate, since I didn’t study production in college, I set a goal of trying to catch up with what people usually study in four years of film school in about a year on the job after getting out of college. To do that, I planned to join a mid-size film company without a precise division of labor, a place where I could take part in all aspects of filmmaking from beginning to end, and thereby master the basics of production. The company I entered with that in mind was called Shin Riken Cinema. There was nothing particularly attractive about the company, but it was just about the right size for me to acquire basic filmmaking technique. In fact, I was able to get involved in all aspects of film production, from the start of planning to the completion of the film. Outside work, I listened, read, and saw a lot: I borrowed films and analyzed them, studying how they had been made. In that way, I learned in about a year what you study in the directing course at Nihon University, and then started making films the next year.
The first was a film called Silver Ring (”Ginrin”) planned and produced along with Yamaguchi Katsuhiro and Takemitsu Toru–who died just recently–when Takemitsu was still an unknown. It was in fact a PR film, but a relatively avant-garde one at that. It was highly praised by some in the art world and about ten years ago, when the Pompidou Center did a retrospective on the 1950s Japanese avant-garde, the commissioner in fact asked to show it. The people involved at the time split up and looked for it, but the company that made it had gone under and no one knew where it was, even though it was pretty valuable. I think the piece of musique concrete composed by Takemitsu was probably the first ever used in a film in Japan. For that reason, it was priceless and it’s a shame the negative is lost.
The next film I made was a documentary called Caisson (”Senkan,” 1956). On the coast of a place called Hachinohe in Aomori, there was a construction site where they would lay a building’s foundation inside a caisson while using high pressure to keep out the sea water. The people, you see, who did construction work under that extremely high pressure inside the caisson were prone to various illnesses like heart disease. This brutal work was done by Koreans or farmers from northern Japan who were unemployed and came there for work. The film focused on such a place.
The next one was also a documentary, a film titled Children Calling Spring (”Haru o yobu kora,” 1959)1 shot both in a mountain village in Iwate Prefecture and in Tokyo’s old town district. You know, some called Iwate Prefecture the Tibet of Japan in those days. Since there was little labor power available in the lower levels of urban society, kids from around Iwate who graduated from middle school would be taken to the city to do back-breaking jobs. The reasoning was that since their life was already arduous, they could endure such work. I filmed a documentary about the connections between such farm villages and the bottom rung of city life using the then emblematic “group hirings” as a point of entry.
But I confronted a problem while filming these works. The problem was that in those days, a good documentary was defined as something that, first of all, had a poignant subject, and then was socially or politically controversial. In other words, something that had information value even before the film was shot. But one wondered how much value beyond that the film created on its own as a film. There was something that bothered me about this. I asked how one could establish the value of the work in the expressive power and reality of cinema as cinema itself, instead of leaning on a comparison between the film and reality. As long as film is confined to being a means or tool of representationally transmitting reality, it can be journalism or propaganda but not art. In so far as we demand artistic emotions from film, we should present the independent value of cinema more distinctly as another reality. If one doesn’t do that, then when social incidents or political struggles become less visible on the surface of the contemporary scene, documentary will go into decline. And when socio-political problems manifest themselves again, the genre will prosper once more. I found that disturbing in the end.
We may, for instance, have been extremely thrilled with Italian Neorealism as the starting point of postwar cinema, but when the postwar world, including Italy, soon recovered economically, Italian Neorealism ran into a dead end. In the period of resistance during the war, the drama of life pushed to the limits was laid bare on society’s surface, a situation where people who tried to live as human beings were killed, and those who instead tried to survive had to betray their friends. Immediately after the war, there was poverty and hunger you could instantly understand just by looking at it. In an age when such problems were the most pressing ones faced by the world, taking hold of such a naked actuality made immediate connections to a reality experienced communally on a global level. But when the so-called economic recovery began and that poverty or life at the limits could no longer be seen directly, Italian Neorealism could no longer completely grasp this new reality and produce good work. People who stubbornly insisted on actual, visualized phenomena could search for and consider positions from which they could grasp social contradictions from the outside, such as in a reconsideration of past eras where poverty was evident on the surface or in locations on the margins currently like that.
But being able only to take on social contradictions in that way was, I had to admit, kind of odd. In reality, you can’t say that contradictions have disappeared just because the economy has improved–there are still plenty of them. You can say that people can now eat, or have things to wear, or that cities have been rebuilt, but if you don’t try to grasp less visible contradictions such as emotional and spiritual poverty or emptiness, you can’t deal with the new age, can you? I was constantly thinking about this problem at the time. From that point, I asked whether there wasn’t a need for documentary to assume a subjectivity that could make visible what was invisible. In that sense, I felt that documentary and the avant-garde have to be connected within a moment of mutual negation.
Gerow: Of course, when you faced that problem, you did try to solve it within your own films. But in addition, you also tried to take up these issues in your writing. It seems that in that era, many filmmakers like Oshima Nagisa in the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague were participating in debates in film journals–that the position of being both a critic and a filmmaker was quite common then.
Matsumoto: That’s because there were no critics in the film world who could assume an overview of the era, and there were too many horrible things about the industry that filmmakers just could not keep quiet about. In particular, in the case of Japan, there was the issue of war responsibility. Even literature and art were wrapped around the little finger of the state during the war. Well, the people who made national propaganda films collaborating with the war effort made an about-face when America arrived after the war and in a blink of the eye began making democratic movies. That was strange because filmmakers did that without going through a stage of internal conflict, without exposing their own responsibility for the war. Both during and after the war, they made films according to the dominant trends in society or government without thoroughly investigating their own position within this. In the film world in particular, people didn’t independently pursue their own wartime responsibility. The kind of character that’s able to immediately make democratic movies while feigning ignorance about the past is what ruined postwar Japanese cinema. That’s why, even in terms of the problem of realism, there was no difference between the realism of militarist films fanning war sentiment and the realism of postwar democratic motion pictures. Only the topic or subject changed. Words were necessary in order to expose this deception and make an issue of the reform of Japanese cinema, one starting from the basic structure of expression and consciousness. Since there was no one else doing that, I ended up writing criticism. I did everything: filmmaking, criticism, theory, mobilizing, and organizing. Since no one was organizing screenings, I even did that. Everything.
Documentaries up until then were mostly made with the backing of a labor union or Communist Party organization. If you thought of doing something different from that, you had to create a completely different support structure because there was no foundation for making such films or showing them. You were forced to start from there. Right at that time, just after the setback over the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, I filmed the documentary Nishijin2 with the backing of a film viewer society called the “Kyoto Society for Viewing Documentary Cinema.” Of course, in terms of awareness, they were left-wing, but still not what you call a political organization. I think they were the first to try to cultivate new spectators and make the kind of films they wanted to see on their own. As an initial plan, I proposed something like what I’ve just been talking about and got their approval to address Kyoto’s Nishijin with the aim of giving form to something more deeply submerged within the situation, something warped and hard to express. I wasn’t trying to depict the place called Nishijin or show people weaving, but to give shape to the thick, silent, unvoiced voices lurking beneath Nishijin. I eliminated so-called “unusual” subjects or decisive moments and opted for the form of a cine poem that persistently piled up exacting images. Opinion was divided over the results, but the fact it won the Silver Lion at the Venice International Documentary Film Festival helped clear the way for my next steps.
Next was a film called The Song of Stones (”Ishi no uta,” 1960).3 There I also started on purpose from a position that rejected the information value of the material. The subject is stones, right? Rocks don’t say a thing. Furthermore, this work put on film what had once been shot in photographs and rearranged them. Therefore, it was doubly removed from cinema. In most cases, stone comes to symbolize death, but the stonecutters in this rock quarry in Shikoku, when they cut out the rock and polished it, didn’t say, “The rock is gradually taking form”; they said, “The rock is gradually coming to life.” Hearing that, it struck me that this was just like a film during production. If a film, having started from a place furthest from the cinema–that is, from the death of cinema–begins to breathe, then can’t you say it has “come to life?” In this sense, the theme of the film was to overlap, as a metaphorical expression, the thick silence of the stones and cinema with that era’s sense of frustration and emptiness and to try to revive the breath of life in both.
When the film was shown at France’s Tours Film Festival, opinion was divided. At that time, Georges Sadoul–the Sadoul who wrote Histoire generale du cinema–wrote a review in La Lettres Francaise. Are you familiar with Marcel Carne’s film Les Visiteurs du soir? It was made at the end of the war and features a devil who could be likened to the Nazis. This devil turns everything into stone and becomes ruler of the world. He even turns the hero and his lover into stone just when they are embracing, but when he listens carefully, he hears a sound coming from the lovers. The film then ends with the devil unable to turn their hearts into stone. Sadoul said that my film reminded him of the last scene of that work. He kindly wrote that from the silence of the stones as a symbol of death, to the beating of the pulse of life, The Song of Stones was the most refreshing film at that film festival and one he supported. I put the words of the stonecutters that the “stones come to live” into the film, but felt that people who could understand would figure it out without me explaining it too much.
But in this case, the world expressed throughout the film is not necessarily located in the essence of each of the photographs. The world of the film only appears in the subjective procedures of the filmmaker deciding how to cut and compose the material. I felt that through The Song of Stones, I was able to show that one can only discover the unique value of cinema by means of such decisions. I was also able to find some kind of opening, some kind of expression that transcended the faith in facts and closed in on an internal reality that one could not point one’s finger at. Therefore, in this sense, documentary started off in an extremely deformed way for me.
Gerow: In your book Eizo no hakken (”The Discovery of the Image”),4 you write that the question of documentary is a question of method. Reading that and seeing Nishijin and Song of Stones reinforced my impression that both films were technically masterful, especially in the use of montage, such as in the repetitions of shots of weaving in Nishijin. Not just the montage, but also the use of sound. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about the issue of form and method, about montage and the combination of image and sound–that is, about what you were aiming for in technique at the time.
Matsumoto: I wrote about this in the book, but at the time the tendency was to oppose documentary and fiction as genres, with the critics Iwasaki Akira and Imamura Taihei taking different sides on the debate over the superiority of fiction or fact. But I felt this debate over fact versus fiction was not very fruitful: what was important was how to inquire into the trilateral relationship between the artist, the real world, and film. Isn’t the extremely fascinating thing about cinema the fact that it instead dissolves the binary divisions between fact and fiction, between objective and subjective? If you ask me, fiction first of all is essentially an order created by cutting up and arranging an object from a certain point of view. In that sense, fictionality necessarily accompanies creation, and I think the documentary method possesses an actual meaning only in so far as it tries to formulate that order as an open reality. Classical genres may offer a standard for temporarily indexing perception, but they do begin to vacillate and change. That’s why I was against dividing cinema into completely different worlds through genres. You see, movements like the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague appeared at the beginning of the 1960s, and I think they all shared the issue of trying to transcend genre. There was a common perception that the need for change did not vary according to the genre, but was a timely issue bearing upon cinema itself amidst the great transformations of the time. The fact that Oshima Nagisa, Yoshida Yoshishige, Shinoda Masahiro–who were all still assistant directors then–and new documentarists like Hani Susumu and myself formed a group and promoted a critical movement that transcended genre at the end of the 1950s in a magazine called Eiga Hihyo (”Film Criticism”) tells us a lot about the tendency then. That’s why questions about where you work or what kind of genre you worked in were really secondary or tertiary issues.
Gerow: When at you look at the style of Mothers (”Hahatachi,” 1967), your film after Song of the Stones, it does not seem to be as radical a work as your previous films.
Matsumoto: That’s true. At the time of Song of the Stones, I was being hung out to dry by the industry and couldn’t make any films. That’s why I made a couple projects for TV at the beginning of the 1960s. In those days, television stations had not yet established their own televisual cultural codes, so artists from outside the TV industry like Terayama Shuji, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and the late Abe Kobo and Inoue Mitsuharu had opportunities to make single programs. The Song of Stones was like that, but I had trouble with the station afterwards over what the style should have been. Soon it was like I was prohibited from entering any studio and this inability to make either films or TV programs continued for about three and a half years. With no other options, I directed theater with the Gekidan Seihai for a while.
That meant Mothers was my first chance to shoot a film in a long time. If I caused trouble again, I would probably have never made a film again. Well, that being the case, the premise was that I wouldn’t do anything excessive. Furthermore, the sponsor asked me to make something that would win an award at a foreign film festival. I couldn’t promise it would win a prize, because that was up to others, but I did start off by saying that I didn’t want them to get unreasonably involved in the content since films with a chance of winning were those that did not smell like sponsored films. If they left it up to me for now, I would make a good film with common appeal that had potential to win an award. But if I then went overboard with a radical style, it would have probably been hard to win an award. In that sense, I told myself not to rush things, that I first had to reestablish myself in the film world. So what I made was a lyrical, easy-to-understand film in the style of a cine poem.
But in terms of the period, I did treat issues like the Vietnam War and discrimination against blacks, taking the point of view of mothers and children around the world and making a film where the contradictions between East and West, North and South, rose to the fore. Luckily–I don’t know if you can say that–the result was that it took the grand prize at the 1967 Venice International Documentary Film Festival. So I at least kept my promise, and in fact it did give me the opportunity to make other films like Funeral of Roses (”Bara no soretsu,” 1968). Or For My Crushed Right Eye (”Tsuburekakatta migime no tame ni,” 1968), which used three projectors and, I remember, was shown at the Yamagata Film Festival. Well, if Mothers hadn’t won an award, I couldn’t have moved off in that direction.
Gerow: I was very impressed with For My Crushed Right Eye when I saw it at the YIDFF’93, especially the challenging aspects of its form. It seemed to depict less an object than an era. Just what did 1968 or the 1960s mean to you? And how did you try to express that in film?
Matsumoto: You’re right. Looking back on the 1960s as a whole, I think it was the most significant period of change in the 20th century alongside the 1920s. It was, more than anything else, a paradigm shift in ways of seeing and thinking, in sensibility and values. This was true of everything including art and documentary; all the old standards had become invalid. I think the fact many did not switch to a new framework produced a suffocating sense of oppression not only in Japan, but elsewhere in the world as well. That’s why campus protests sparked by the Nanterre branch of the University of Paris in 1968 spread throughout the world like wildfire. I think the fact that these interlocking kinds of phenomena radiated out internationally must have reflected some synchronic essence. In the end, then, within the framework of the wartime and postwar structure, a new, unconstricted state of things manifested itself in many areas and generated conflict. It was this age of structural diastrophism that was the 1960s. There were great social and political transformations, but the question of values was enormous as well, one which I believe extended to the fields of culture and the arts.
The greatest harvest amidst all this was that the fact that everything is part of an institutional system became extremely clear. That means, for instance, that the way of looking at things changes according to the point of view–that it isn’t determined from the start. For example, even the law of perspective in painting is a mode of perceiving space formulated by a way of looking at things established during a certain socio-historical turning point in the West; it becomes obvious that it, too, is an institutional system. In that way, even modes and forms of expression in art, including cinema, were in the end seen as being created institutionally . In fact, when the system loses momentum, these forms become naturalized; the process by which art begins to look natural when custom or inertia becomes a fixed norm is itself a system.
Anyway, that’s how I started to think. And also about how to devour this system. As a political problem, the system is not only the power that oppresses people in this or that a way or visible forms of political repression. Power is also what systematizes our thought, feelings, art, and culture in invisible ways. If we don’t become aware of this and shake its foundations, we cannot move the structure of power in a real sense. That’s why, after an immediate postwar period in which things were largely put into motion by the direct collision of the political dynamics of authority vs. anti-authority, we came to be controlled by more invisible things like human consciousness, feelings, points of view, or values. I thought that the most pressing issue facing art was how to become aware of this and work to undermine the system as a form of customary inertia. Films that startle and arouse self-awareness of that kind of internal distortion change the condition of cinema itself–this I think is art’s form of struggle against authority. In that sense, there is an immeasurable significance to the fact not just film, but the 1960s avant-garde art movement in general impelled the de-systemization of artistic expression, artists, viewers, and the visual culture system as a whole, including the condition of initially being completely unaware of responsibility for the war that I first problematized. Well, the disposition towards systemization is deeply rooted, so this issue has stayed with us until today without easy resolution.
Gerow: Afterwards you moved into fiction feature films beginning with Funeral of Roses, which I saw recently. At that time a lot of directors coming out of especially Iwanami Productions such as Kuroki Kazuo and Higashi Yoichi were entering the fiction film world. You also did, but what problems did you face when you started making feature films after your experience in documentary or experimental film?
Matsumoto: Yes, the first one was Funeral of Roses which was released in 1969, but it was not as if I was thinking at the time that I wanted to switch to fiction films or be able to work in commercial cinema. On the contrary, given that the general, commodified form of cinema was the one molded by the conventional world of custom and inertia, I never wanted to become a professional studio director. However, the sense in my case was that, because I wanted to make a kind of experimental, dramatic film that had not existed before, I was provocatively raiding the fiction film world as a guerrilla. Thus in this project, my creative intent was to disturb the perceptual schema of a dualistic world dividing fact from fiction, men from women, objective from subjective, mental from physical, candidness from masquerade, and tragedy from comedy. Of course the subjects I took up were gay life and the student movement–since it was made around the same time as For My Crushed Right Eye, the material is probably similar. But in terms of form, I dismantled the sequential, chronological narrative structure and arranged past and present, reality and fantasy on temporal axes as in a cubist painting, adopting a fragmented, collage-like form that quoted from literature, theater, painting, and music old and new from both East and West.
While I was not clearly conscious of it at the time, this effort connects with the concept of the postmodern that appeared later. In a sense, this kind of rejection of the ordered and arranged world of the dualistic law of perspective I am talking about is a way to start bringing modernity into question. Moving in that direction, the modern in my case breaks down on one level of the fiction at the point it is fully analyzed. More than criticizing the modern on the basis of the premodern, the concept in Funeral of Roses was to advance and rupture it by investigating it thoroughly.
Those were the days of furious political struggles over the US-Japan Security Treaty renewal in 1970, so I was criticized considerably for making this kind of film. I was denounced, but in my mind, I did not want to aim for a message about the 1970 Security Treaty, but rather throw forth my premonitions about much larger movements in the earth’s crust, in the values and modes of perception of the world that would undermine modernity itself.
Gerow: Speaking of the postmodern, perhaps we can say that if the problem in the early 1960s was that left-wing films up until then focused on the external world without problematizing their own internal subjectivity, then in the postmodern era, especially in Japan, we see the opposite case with the rise of diary or personal films. It is as if the definition of the problem itself has changed. That is, and this is a criticism I sometimes hear, these personal films, instead of striving for the kind of integration of the external and internal worlds you theorized, are now excessively centered on interiority.
Matsumoto: I think that’s so. That’s why, even though I do accord importance to these kinds of private diary films as a form of subjective documentary, I don’t make them myself. One reason is the existence of the traditional “I-novel” or “watakushi shosetsu” in Japan and the danger that these films will connect with that kind of closed-off individuality. If they relate to it in a bad way, it will submerge them in a closed world lacking an Other similar to that of otaku.5 I wonder if this trend has not reached a limit. Certainly, individuality originally gained importance in the sense it opposed the “private” to the kind of coded and institutionalized “public” I just discussed. I support confronting this uniform public with individuality in order to destroy a homogenized public, but it disturbs me when this individuality becomes that of an otaku. That’s one reason. The other reason relates to the “I” found in Descartes’s “I think therefore I am,” the “I” in a modernist cogito establishing an independent self through opposition with the world. Well, there are problems with an “I” which doesn’t doubt its “self” and the so-called “I-films” (watakushi eiga) share those: they never put their “I” in question. Since they don’t attempt to relativize themselves through a relationship with the external world, they gradually become self-complete–a pre-established harmony. Fidelity to this self-identical self is connected to something like the modern myth of individuality. In that sense, they are extremely over-optimistic. This trend itself stabilized years ago and has become just another system.
Gerow: If you compare your works after the 1960s with those sixties films, what kind of transformations do you perceive? There is, for instance, the issue of technology with the introduction of new equipment like video.
Matsumoto: I already had my eyes on technology at the time very few people were using it because it was a part of what was external to the “self” I just talked about, something that had not been touched by human consciousness. I was fascinated by the dynamic possibility that this unknown externality, this interaction of man and machine, could rupture the modern world of the self. But cinema itself was that way from the beginning. With forms like the novel, you read each word and line of the manuscript over and over again, such that consciousness commands everything. But with film, especially with documentary, there’s more of a chance that information will accidentally appear from beyond consciousness and that a tension will be generated by the filmmaker instantly reacting to that. In that process, the framework of the self begins to waver and expand, which is something that technology also causes. However, in the last ten years or so, visual technology has so rapidly developed that everyone including the neighbor’s cat is absorbed in the “effect syndrome.” So I’ve now turned my back on this homogenizing phenomenon.
If you ask what I’ve been doing, if I can use the case of Dogra Magra (”Dogura magura,”1988), I’ve shifted my focus to experiments in context, experiments in deconstructing the contextual system through which people give meaning to or interpret the world. When people create an image of the world inside themselves, they do that through a story. They always narrativize the world. Perception is shaped in the form “X is Y,” and that descriptive form is, in the end, a narrative. That won’t change as along as human beings have language. But the problem is that this way of forming a context is conventionalized and easily confines the relationship between one’s self and the world to a stable law of perspective. For instance, when people are given more than one item of information, they associatively create a story out of the relationships between those items. There’s a part of a game show where they show an image bit by bit and you have to guess what it is, like a picture of Tokyo Tower or the L’Arc de Triomphe. In that case, people try to compare and interpret that partial information with narratives that they know. That method gets stuck in a mold and knowledge only begins to flow through inert conduits.
We have to do more to irritate and disturb modes of perception, thinking, or feeling that have become automatized in this way. I did several kinds of experiments from the 1970s to the 1980s that de-automatized the visual field. But when image technology progresses such that you can make any kind of image, people become visually used to that. That’s why there’s not much left today with a fresh impact. In this way, the problem is that the interpretive structure of narrating, giving meaning to, or interpreting the world has become so thoroughly systematized that one cannot conceive of anything else that is largely untouched. We have to de-systematize that.
Dogra Magra gives viewers the slip when they think they have it figured out, and when they change their perception and think they understand it, it again overturns that. It spins audiences around from one thing to another–it’s neither this nor that. People judge what something is based on their experience, knowledge, and memory. But since that film’s hero has lost his memory, he cannot establish his identity. The spectator also identifies with the flow of the lead character’s consciousness and is spun about with him. I hope that through that experience of being spun around, people will realize how they perceive things.
Gerow: Through this method, perhaps people then lose their conventional or rational forms of perceiving reality and perhaps confront what you described in Eizo no hakken as “naked reality.” Do you feel this kind of technique has at all been influenced by surrealism?
Matsumoto: The influence is probably great, since I was significantly influenced by surrealism in my youth.
Gerow: I wonder if another possible influence is that of early Russian Formalism. According to Shklovsky’s version, art is a means of overturning habitual perceptions of the world and revealing a reality we don’t normally see.
Matsumoto: That’s certainly the case. I learned from Russian Formalism the proposition that one can de-automatize the perception of things through the technique of defamiliarization. Afterwards, of course, all this synthesizes with theory from the last half of the 20th century as well as with various experiences, knowledges, and memories of art, but I think that the spirit of surrealism and Russian formalism which formed the starting point of my early self-formation still leave some deep traces.