in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Life in Film: Hito Steyerl

In ‘Life in Film’, an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice.

in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 08

Oshima Nagisa, Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)

Hito Steyerl’s films and video installations were shown at documenta 12 in Kassel, at the 37th International Film Festival Rotterdam, and in a solo show at Moderna Museet Stockholm. Her next solo show opens on 15 June at Kunsthalle Winterthur, Switzerland. Steyerl’s work focuses on the intersection between politics and aesthetics, specifically the status of images migrating between different regions of the world. Her new book Die Farbe der Wahrheit (The Colour of Truth, Turia und Kant, Vienna, 2008) explores documentary strategies in contemporary art. She is Visiting Professor for Experimental Media Creation at the University of Arts, Berlin.

In the late 1980s, in the middle of the Japanese bubble economy, I sat in a Kawasaki university auditorium and stared incredulously at two Japanese senior citizens kicking each other across the cinema screen.

In Hara Kazuo’s documentary film Yuki Yukite Shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987), the protagonist, Okuzaki Kenzo, is a World War II veteran out for vengeance. During the war, he had witnessed the execution of some of his fellow soldiers – who were then allegedly eaten by their comrades in the defeated and starving Imperial Japanese Army. As a consequence of these events, Okuzaki developed a fervent hatred of Emperor Hirohito, shooting pinball marbles at him with a sling during his annual New Year public appearance, and throwing pamphlets depicting the Imperial family in pornographic poses from Tokyo skyscrapers. Eventually jailed for murdering an estate agent, on his release Okuzaki decides to seek out his former superiors in the army and extort the truth from them – by any means. Throughout the film he is depicted cajoling, threatening and beating up scores of obstinate veterans, who persist in lying about wartime events. The camera follows the rampaging pensioner in a state of enthralled fascination, thus encouraging increasingly outrageous and violent performances from Okuzaki, culminating in an attempted assassination for which he ends up back in jail. Hara’s film broke a substantial number of taboos with respect to the notoriously complacent attitude of the Japanese towards their country’s war crimes: it couldn’t have been more controversial and its reception in Japan was tumultuous.

In an earlier movie, Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, 1974), Hara created a shaky black and white diary homage to his ex-lover, the radical feminist Takeda Miyuki, who tried to organize prostitutes around the huge US military bases of Okinawa, while she worked as a stripper. Hara’s camera not only follows her giving birth to the child of an African American GI, but also the dynamics of his own complicated love life. The intense mix of sexuality, lingering violence and militarization portrayed in Kyokushiteki Erosu ... knocked me back: it evoked a politics of full contact, a documentary approach that was not only embedded but embodied. It was radically subjective – or subjectively radical – far beyond the brink of irresponsibility. In these films Hara, director as well as protagonist, comes across as a wimp or as a passive–aggressive partner-in-crime; usually both at the same time. But the sheer energy radiating from his flamboyant and socially marginalized leading characters is irresistible. It is no coincidence that Hara compares them to superheroes such as Batman or Superman.

As nobody in the Japanese film industry would employ these directors, some of them eventually ended up teaching at the film school where I studied, run by the famous New Wave director Imamura Shohei, and located on the outskirts of Tokyo. Openly catering for high-school dropouts, the institution, now called The Japan Academy of Moving Images, is best-known for its maverick graduate Miike Takashi, whose graphic film Ôdishon (Audition) brought global attention back to Japanese cinema in 1999 with its with shock tactics. Though its educational standards were lousy, Imamura’s school was one of the very few places in the world where the works of Japanese avant-garde documentary filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s could be seen. Inspired by sources as varied as Oshima Nagisa’s Nihon No Yoru To Kiri (Night and Fog in Japan, 1960), Ogawa Shinsuke’s Seishun No Umi (Sea of Youth, 1966) or Terayama Shuji’s Tomato Ketcchappu Kôtei (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1971), and rooted in the massive and often militant political movements of the time, the films of the New Left mixed the personal and the political in vital, sometimes also wildly inappropriate and explosive, combinations.

Wakamatsu Koji’s ‘pinku eiga’ or political soft-core film Tenshi No Kokutsu (Ecstasy of the Angels, 1972) depicts a group of bored terrorists engaging in automated sex whenever their obtuse discussions reach a dead end. The group eventually end up torturing each other. While Wakamatsu went on to produce Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), one of his actors and scriptwriters, Adachi Masao, who made soft-core porn films such as Seiyugi (Sex Play, 1968) and Jogakusei gerira (High School Guerrilla, 1969), later joined the Japanese Red Army and went to the Middle East where he fought for the Palestinians. He is rumoured to have met Jean-Luc Godard there.
The death of this type of filmmaking started as early as the mid-1970s, declining with the social and cultural movements of the 1960s it had been a part of. It was accelerated in the 1980s by a combination of banal television shows, rampant infantilization and cuteness cults, which killed off any possible interest in mainstream Japanese film production for a long time to come. I still bear an ineradicable grudge towards Kitano Takeshi, one of the few contemporary Japanese filmmakers known in the West, for spearheading this cultural rollback by hosting one of the first Darwinist game shows in television history. Fuun! Takeshi Jo (Takeshi’s Castle, 1986–9) became the model for a global flood of television shows that translated Thatcherite values of competition and social selection into the voluntary degradation of participants.

But the death of avant-garde film was only temporary. Lately, many classics from the era have re-emerged as DVD editions, while a host of new films have reconsidered the 1960s and ’70s: Wakamatsu’s Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun (United Red Army, 2007), for instance, about the eponymous Japanese terrorist group, or Adachi’s filmmaking comeback Yûheisha: Terorisuto (The Prisoner, 2007). A younger director whose work also reverberates with the energy of that era is Tsuchiya Yutaka: his digital low-budget documentary involvement with two young members of a right-wing punk band called Revolutionary Truth is one of the best political comedies I’ve seen (Atarashii Kamisama, The New God, 1999). Diehard anti-imperialist Tsuchiya tries to gently brainwash his main protagonist, Amamiya Karin, into giving up her nationalist worldviews by arranging sightseeing trips to North Korea, for example, where she meets members of the former Red Army, who originally hijacked an airplane to get there in 1970. Everybody gets along just great. As a result, Revolutionary Truth disbands, to be replaced by a new group called Great Japan Terror.

I couldn’t really say how these films influenced my work – I just think they deserve more attention than they usually get. As for direct influences, I could mention one name: Helmut Färber, the film historian and former editor of Filmkritik magazine, who stubbornly insisted on showing exasperating yet indispensable films, such as Trop tot, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1982) by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, to generations of reluctant German film students. He was my teacher as well. Färber himself appears in another of Straub and Huillet’s films, Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice, 1977), reciting the beginning of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem: ‘Un coup de dés …’ (A Roll of the Dice, 1897) near a cemetery wall where many Paris Commune fighters were shot and buried. But that is another story.