During this 66th edition of the International Festival of Cinema, the Berlinale offered a unique focus on a specific period of Japanese cinema. Under the title Hachimiri Madness – Japanese Indies from the Punk Years, the Forum category presented a series of newly digitized and subtitled Japanese 8mm (Hachimiri in Japanese) films from 1977 to 1990, which breathe the rebellious spirit of the era. Many high-profile contemporary Japanese directors made their debut features in this format and very few of these works had ever been shown internationally.
Until the ’60s, the Japanese considered themselves a poor population. In 1970, they were surprised but also embarrassed to learn that they belonged to one of the richest populations on Earth. In 1980, it became obvious for Japan that the country was truly well-to-do.
The excess leisure time precipitated by this new wealth was quickly devoted to the energy deployed for children’s education and it was noticeable that people weren’t going to the cinema as much as they did in the past. Previously, teenagers were letting themselves be charmed by cinema, they developed tastes over the years and became discerning spectators. Japan’s youth of this period didn’t accept traditional education and were still looking to break away. From the ’20s to the ’60s, films were one of the most powerful media in Japan. But by the end of the ’60s young people felt more attracted to rock concerts, as musicians seemed to represent them in a better way than filmmakers. This phenomenon had a real impact on the film industry: it was the end of the studio filmmaking era in Japanese Cinema and an important movement of young filmmakers emerged from this crisis.
What’s referred to as Japanese Punk Cinema generally involves the characters, especially the protagonist, going through monstrous, incomprehensible metamorphoses in an industrial setting. Many of these films have scenes that fall into the experimental film genre; they often involve purely abstract or visual sequences that may or may not relate to the characters and plot. Recurring themes include: mutation, technology, dehumanization, repression and sexual deviance.
Isolation of 1/880000 by Sogo Ishii is directly referring to the rebellion of young people against the standardization of university studies in Japan. Teramitsu is studying for the entrance exams to Tokyo’s Waseda University for the umpteenth time, but there are more porno magazines on this shy nerd’s desk than there are notes and textbooks. This sex-addicted man with a limp is the protagonist of Sogo Ishii’s style-defining, medium-length film. It goes without saying that this lament of a man repressed already builds towards a violent outburst. These forty-seven minutes of experimental cinema, filmed in 1977, criticize societal pressure on individuals, and the film seems to present it as one of the main factors contributing to his frustration and subsequent violence.
With the era of professional studio filming at its end, filmmaking became more accessible. Movies weren’t just a specialty from Tokyo or Kyoto anymore; interesting cinematographic works were coming out of rural areas as well. The traditional system of Japanese cinema, which entailed experience as a director’s assistant before being a director oneself, was less and less respected. A kind of creative amateurism took hold. The movement of Japanese experimental film had its Golden Age in the late 1970s, when, under the influence of the work of their predecessors (such as the documentary and fiction vanguard of Toshio Matsumoto) a new generation of filmmakers came into the limelight.
Many were fascinated by the moving image, as we can see in Xénogénèse, filmed by Akihiko Morishita in 1981. It is a short experimental film that focuses on the duality of its medium: material and image. A figure dressed in shirt and tie (the filmmaker himself) walks in circles around what appears to be a junkyard and confuses this duality as more and more vertical scratches are introduced to the surface of the image. The film employs tactics of trompe-l’œil to comically allude to the circular nature of human life and, in its function as the artist’s self-portrait, gently mocks the home movie genre.
At the Berlinale screening of Xénogénèse, Akihiko Morishita spoke about the work he had done 35 years ago. His ability to realize a film like this in 8mm format was truly inspiring. These directors were free of any boundaries, even if they admired the work of some of their predecessors.
In A Road, the director Daichi Sugimoto casts himself as a film student of the same name in pursuit of his childhood. Calmly, ingeniously, he blurs reality and fiction as well as the boundary between the past and the present. In everyday situations with his mother and his friends, Sugimoto paints an authentic portrait of a generation on its way to adulthood.
The final film was made by a 22-year-old director from Tokyo, who left Japan for the first time to present A Road at this edition of the Berlinale, just after the screening of Akihiko Morishita’s film. It highlighted the evolution of Japanese cinema and the similarities in the themes treated, but it gave also an overview on Japanese filmmakers’ skills in managing the frame between these different generations. With this program, we had access to the unique point of view of one specific culture about issues that concern everyone. To its credit, this year the Berlinale succeeded at bringing its audience a portrait of an era of Japanese cinema: created on the other side of the world, from another time and largely unknown here before.