An Indexical Survey of Tokyo in the Age of Cinema

By Shinro Ohtake

Left: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Wu yue yu zhong hua, xia ji (Blossom in Rainy May Part 2, 1960), directed by Kim Chun, produced by Kong Ngee Motion Picture Production Company, Hong Kong. Right: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Jiaou tian cheng (Perfect Couple, 1947), directed by Chiang Wai-kwong, produced by Grandview Film Company (US branch). All images: From the collection of Shinro Ohtake, © Shinro Ohtake/ART iT.

For me, cinema begins with television in my childhood in Tokyo in the 1950s and ’60s, when popular films and programs from the US began entering Japan and were being aired in heavy concentration. Father Knows Best (US: 1954-60/Japan: 1958-64), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71/1962-63), My Favorite Martian (1963-66/1964), The Outer Limits (1963-65/1964, 1966-67) – these shows constituted some of my first encounters with foreign culture, and are still strongly associated with my memories of life up to about eight years old. At the time my family lived in the neighborhood of Rokugo near Haneda Airport. It wasn’t exactly the days of “give-me-choco,” which is what all the children would beg of the US Occupation GIs right after the war, but for fun my friends and I would bike out to Haneda to ask for treats from the passengers landing there, or simply to look at foreigners. At the airport – which we called “the air field” – we could experience an exciting international atmosphere, an unimaginable world that opened up for us upon entering the lobby.

What is important to understand about this period is that during the war Tokyo had been completely burned to the ground and then a black market society had sprung up under the US occupation. Born in 1947, my older brother has some memories of this time, but since I was born in 1955 with a television at home, I have almost no such recollections whatsoever. At best I was aware of the crippled veterans loitering around Shibuya station or the remains of bomb shelters near my house. For a long time I thought this was normal, but then in my 30s and 40s, when I began to reflect on my childhood, I realized that I was born only a decade after the war’s close. Even though it was a time when everyone was focused on rebuilding the country and both dreams and desires collided, I think this condition stems partly from a conscious decision by adults not to burden children with their traumas. In retrospect, this erasure had an extraordinary power, so in the 1950s when American culture burst onto the scene, my generation were in a way indoctrinated by the images that came to us through the television. Watching those programs, we marveled at the size of American refrigerators and the way that Americans would simply lean their bikes up against anything instead of using the kickstand. We were stunned seeing how kids delivering newspapers would throw them at the subscribers’ houses, and admired their Converse sneakers. Everything was so shockingly different that it could only leave a deep impression.

In 1963, the first, black-and-white episode of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) was broadcast and I remember sitting in front of the television waiting anxiously for it to begin. However, I was deflated by the apparent difference in quality between Astro Boy and Disney. Compared to the fluidity of Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961/1962), the awkward movement of the images in Astro Boy hardly seemed to qualify as animation. I think many children felt similarly, and in that way even we could understand the differences between Japanese and American national resources. It took several decades to overcome my presumptions and appreciate the unique appeal of the animator Osamu Tezuka’s vision.

There were also these immensely popular programs like Gekko Kamen (Moonlight Mask, 1958-59) featuring superhero characters that upheld justice. And while young boys were all infatuated with the heroes, what I enjoyed most about these programs was the background scenery. At the conclusion of every episode there would always be a chase scene on motorbikes or in cars. These scenes were always shot on the outskirts of Tokyo, at locations where there might be nothing more than a few utility poles or factories – open spaces. By the time I was 30 or 40 I realized that when it came to watching films and TV programs, more than being concerned with the directors or the concepts behind the works, what interested and influenced me most were the landscapes that entered almost unconsciously into the filmmaking process – the clouds, the sky, the atmosphere. As long as these background elements were interesting, I could watch just about anything.

In the 1970s many youths were in the same situation: we didn’t have any money and there was nothing to do. I was at art school, struggling to discover my own approach and sometimes barely making anything at all. Watching films became a way to work through that frustration. For a period in my early 20s, I was watching up to eight-hours’ worth of films a day. After seeing three or four films I could at least be satisfied that I had done something productive. In this way cinema has been an inseparable part of my artistic practice. Certainly, I have made paintings and drawings based on film stills, and the process of layering and assemblage that takes place in my scrap books may have some overlaps with the idea of film editing. At the same time, I have never consciously tried to make cinema the subject of my works – were I to do so, I might lose interest in it altogether.

Left: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Jin fu ren (Madam Kam, 1963), directed by Mok Hong-si, produced by Lan Kwong Film Company, Hong Kong. Right: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Si shui liu nian (That Was My Son, 1962), directed by Tso Kea, produced by Overseas Chinese Films, Hong Kong. © Shinro Ohtake/ART iT.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z

Araki, Nobuyoshi. In 1981 Araki made a Nikkatsu Roman Porno film, Jokosei nise nikki (High School Girl’s Diary, 1981). I never saw the film but I have the photo book that accompanied it. It seems that the film itself was not erotic in any way, with unusually long takes of an empty bed and other actionless scenes. Perhaps as a photographer Araki was interested in the photographic aspects of film, but there’s a difference between that and film itself. Even so, both the idea of image after image appearing in sequence in a projection or on a screen and Araki’s obsessive shooting of the same subjects convey a sense of filmic time. Araki is also a cinema lover, and has said that he considers film to be a kind of travel.
See also: Chaplin, Charlie.

ATG / Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka. Established by the Art Theater Guild, the production company that supported many of the Japanese New Wave and experimental directors, this cinema in Shinjuku was a focal point for post-war independent film, and also had a small underground theater, the Sasori-za, that we used to go to for performances, stage productions and small-format film screenings. No longer in operation.
See also: Ishii, Teruo; Pearl-za, Takadanobaba.
Athénée Français, Ochanomizu. The French cultural center hosted regular screening programs open to the public – for example, French-produced documentaries on Van Gogh and other European painters, or a series dedicated to Yoko Ono’s experimental films. The lecture rooms and other facilities there would be converted into small screening rooms.
See also: Ono, Yoko.


Bando, Tamasaburo V. Yume no onna (Dream Woman, 1993) – one of my favorite films, directed by the renowned Kabuki actor Tamasaburo, has not been released on DVD. I hear it was a complete box office failure. It was briefly released on video but discontinued right away. I happened to see it on TV a couple years ago. The set and the soundtrack of this geisha story are fantastic, accented by the distant echoes of samisens, that kind of thing. Tamasaburo always has an extremely aesthetic approach. There’s one scene with geisha standing on a river ferry near an embankment. Even though you understand it’s a constructed set, there’s such a strong sense of reality in the imagery that the film becomes surreal.
Bergman, Ingmar. My tastes haven’t changed much since my youth. I can’t say that I’ve actually seen enough of Bergman’s films to have a considered opinion of them, but generally I find them overly complex, as if Bergman thought there might be some meaning in the complexity itself. Given that, I’d rather see something by the likes of Samuel Fuller.
In fact, I was profoundly affected by a series of films from Iran that I happened to catch on TV. (It seems likely these were films by Abbas Kiarostami, though I’m not certain.) The films were fairly recent but they expressed a naïveté with which I identified – scenes featuring enemy soldiers playing soccer with each other, scenes that made me appreciate the fact that such films are still being made. We become so jaded as we age, and then there is no turning back.
I also saw a documentary on TV about cinema in India. Of course, Bollywood has grown into commercialized big-budget entertainment. However, the documentary team visited a village where the people make low-budget films for their own enjoyment and screen them in a small cinema. For example, if they make a homemade version of Superman, the actor might lay across a bicycle with all the staff pushing him along trying to stay out of the shot, while the director films with a handheld video camera. Then when Superman lands on the ground, he’s jumping from the bicycle.
Also, apparently in the past whenever a film completed its theatrical run the reels were thrown out. Segments of film would end up circulating in the street markets, and then people would buy them and splice together their own super reels of film highlights, which they could screen for themselves. Or there were vendors pulling street carts with room for about six children to peek into a miniature screening space, which they could do for the cost of a penny or two. This kind of world feels much closer to the spirit of cinema as I understand it.

Bowie, David.
See also: Oshima, Nagisa.

Brakhage, Stan.
See also: The Beatles.
Bungeiza, Ikebukuro. This was the cinema my friends and I most frequented. Here, for 150 or 200 yen – by the end it was 300 yen – we could see two films in one sitting. The basement screened Japanese films and the ground level had international films. We would watch four films in a row, two for each level. Bungeiza used to produce screening series dedicated to individual directors: Buñuel, Fellini, Hitchcock, Pasolini, Truffaut. If you had the slightest interest you could see all their films at once. Now known as Shin-Bungeiza after relocating to new, remodeled facilities in 2000.
See also: Buñuel, Luis; Pearl-za, Takadanobaba.
Buñuel, Luis. I have always liked Buñuel. I first learned of him by reading about Un Chien Andalou (1929). I saw most of Buñuel’s films at the Bungeiza in Ikebukuro, where Japanese and international films were screened in different sections of the cinema. At the time, this kind of discrimination was unquestioned. That was simply how people thought about culture in Japan. There were also specialty cinemas – and audiences – dedicated exclusively to one or the other kind of film, although I went to both.
Yet, if you were to watch Buñuel and a Nikkatsu Roman Porno together, you might discover significant correspondences. Buñuel had these part-color films where one sequence would suddenly be shot in color and then the film would revert to black-and-white, which in fact mirrored the sensibility of the low-budget pornos of that period. What really surprised me about his films was the way that – for example in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) – midway through all the actors changed for no apparent reason, although their replacements were wearing the exact same clothing and the story continued as if nothing had happened. Even if some viewers found it confusing, the utter casualness with which Buñuel carried it off was impressive. I thought it was an incredibly interesting way of conceiving a film. I appreciated this subtle break from convention – a kind of misalignment of parts that produces new significance – over the more outwardly experimental approach. Pasolini also has this aspect to him, but his films are more clearly in the “art” style.
See also: Bungeiza, Ikebukuro; Ozu, Yasujiro; Tarantino, Quentin.

Chaplin, Charlie. I have never subscribed to the idea that the creator understands his own work best; there are always unconscious factors that contribute to the end result. With film, of course, the production crew might do their best to plan around the weather, but when shooting outdoors, you can’t control the movement of the clouds or how the sky will look. So for me the things that end up being filmed are as important as the film itself.
When I was around 20 I went to see retrospectives for Chaplin and Keaton. At the conclusion of Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) there’s a scene in which Chaplin is assailed by monkeys, which climb all over him. In particular, there is one monkey whose tail keeps trying to enter Chaplin’s mouth. It is a brilliant scene, but there’s no way it could have been scripted exactly as it turned out. That is where you come to understand an artist’s talent. These things happen to geniuses organically.
The same applies to Araki’s street photographs. Araki often says in his interviews that his compositions reflect chance occurrences – a cat entering the frame at just the right timing.

Cornell, Joseph.
See also: Duchamp, Marcel.


de Oliveira, Manoel. It’s amazing that de Oliveira’s still active, shooting movies at 101 years old. I saw a documentary about him last year. His wife was also formidable. She must be about the same age as him – at least in her 90s – and she was wearing a black one-piece dress and make-up. That pair are beyond human. They were in an incredible rush and the interviewer, a Japanese man, seemed to be greatly imposing on their schedule. They told him that they were headed to see the president. The interviewer asked whether he could visit de Oliveira’s film shoot the next day and de Oliveira expressed his displeasure at the thought with an incredibly inconvenienced expression on his face.
Duchamp, Marcel. Anémic Cinéma (1926) – I had seen stills but there were never any opportunities to see the actual film, which I finally saw about 10 years ago; the same goes for Joseph Cornell’s films. But when I look at these stills from films that I desperately want to see, it actually makes me want to paint.
I used to love film stills – the real thing, on bromide paper – and used them as the basis for paintings. I would buy them from the junk shops in Kanda, where they were on sale by the portfolio. Famous movies were expensive but unknown movies were cheap.
Images have become so commonplace now that they no longer have the same significance as before. When I was a child the idea of seeing bands performing on TV was completely foreign. In middle school the only way to see images of musicians was through photos in the latest music magazines, but there was a several-month lag time between the event and its reproduction. Then in 1971 TV Tokyo started midnight broadcasts of the music show Now Explosion, which incorporated elements from the contemporaneous eponymous American-produced precursor to MTV. Also starting in 1971, NHK’s Young Music Show featured bands like Cream, Queen and The Rolling Stones, and the network produced separate specials dedicated to the Chicago Blues and other genres. These developments profoundly impacted a new generation of musicians. I used to take photos of the programs when they aired, and would place a mic next to the television to record the audio, which inevitably included my parents’ voices and the sound of the camera shutter closing – but it was still exciting.
Music is no longer featured on TV as it once was, and seeing musicians on DVD just doesn’t inspire me to take photos. Even though it has become easier to record your impressions for posterity, the impulse is disappearing. It’s interesting how our relationships to media change over time. Certainly in the 1970s when there weren’t even VHS tapes, let alone DVDs, you had to go to a cinema to see films. And because it was an experience, you might also remember the weather that day, or other life events that coincided with the occasion. Even people seeing the same film might end up with wildly differing interpretations, because they could only see it once. Now you can buy a Pasolini or Fellini box set and sit at home and watch each film five times until you think you have some kind of comprehensive understanding of what you have seen. I can’t say that one way or the other is necessarily better.


Eastwood, Clint. Gran Torino (2008) – lately, I find this kind of “straightforward” film to be interesting.

Erice, Victor. El Sol del Membrillo (Dream of Light, 1992) – this is the only film by Erice I have seen, a documentary about the painter Antonio Lopez Garcia’s attempt to paint a quince tree in his courtyard, but I was deeply moved by it.


Fellini, Federico.
See also: Bungeiza, Ikebukuro.

Fujita, Toshiya. Hachigatsu no nureta suna (Wet Sand in August, 1971) – a Japanese New Wave love story about delinquents and the girls they meet camping out near the beach in deep summer. Fujita was in his prime then.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu; Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music (aka Geidai).

Fuji, Tatsuya.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu.

Fuller, Samuel. The Crimson Kimono (1959) – if you wonder why I became interested in Fuller, it is because of that title alone. I thought it was so cool. “Crimson.” “Kimono.” Crimson makes me think of the band King Crimson, and then I combine that with the mental image of a kimono. I think B-films present an entirely special world. I remember in the post-war period all these love stories about US Occupation GIs and geishas, with the Chinese gongs and the bamboo font credits and all these misapprehended interpretations of Japan mixed together. I liked that misguided Orientalism – the bamboo font in particular. The world from which these films originated felt so far away. It’s like Martin Denny, the musician from Hawai’i who helped to create the mondo exotica sound. That kind of laid-back tropical feeling, resort music for the eyes.
See also: Bergman, Ingmar; Kaurismäki, Aki.


Ginrei Hall, Iidabashi. Still active.
See also: Pearl-za, Takadanobaba.

Left: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Ama no senritsu (Woman Diver’s Terror / Re huo mei ren yu, 1957), directed by Toshio Shimura, distributed in Hong Kong by Xingchang Film Company. Right: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Guai zhi (My Good Nephew, 1959), directed by Chiang Wai-kwong, produced by Chongguang Film Company, Hong Kong. © Shinro Ohtake/ART iT.

Harada, Yoshio.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu.
Hasebe, Yasuharu. The ‘Nora-neko rokku’ series (Stray Cat Rock Series) – Hasebe directed several films in this Nikkatsu-produced exploitation series, all in 1970: Onna bancho (Female Boss), Sekkusu hantaa (Sex Hunter) and Mashin animaru (Machine Animal). Many of the films from the Stray Cat Rock Series featured debut performances by talents like Akiko Wada, Tatsuya Fuji, Yoshio Harada. The location scenery in the films was great too, with these tracking scenes across the area from around Shinjuku station’s East to West exits.
I was in my 20s and influenced by these and other films like Toshiya Fujita’s Wet Sand in August (1971) and Kazuo Kuroki’s Preparation for the Festival (1975). These films responded to contemporaneous events of the time and had a clear political context, particularly with the student protests against the renewal of the US-Japan mutual cooperation and security treaty and the 1970 World Expo. Young people then felt empowered to express their disappointment with society.
There were a number of events that made national headlines and affected everybody in the country, like the Setouchi Sea-Jacking Incident, which also occurred in 1970. A 20-year-old youth named Nobuhisa Kawafuji stole a ship in Fukuoka along with two friends, but they were stopped by authorities on their way to Hiroshima and arrested. Kawafuji and one of the other youths managed to escape. A chase ensued across Western Japan, with the other youth being apprehended, and then on his own Kawafuji stole guns and ammunition from a store in Hiroshima and hijacked a passenger ferry, taking everyone aboard hostage. The chase resumed across the Seto Inland Sea and in the end Kawafuji was killed by a police marksman. I read that the casts and crews of the Stray Cat Rock productions were on edge while this was occurring, with everybody anxiously asking about the latest developments even as they were filming.
The Setouchi incident was followed in 1972 by the Asama-Sanso Incident, when five members of the United Red Army broke into a mountain lodge and took the wife of the lodge-keeper hostage, with the police standoff resulting in two fatalities.

Hasegawa, Kazuhiko. Seishun no satsujin sha (The Youth Killer, 1976).

Hitchcock, Alfred.
See also: Bungeiza, Ikebukuro.

Honda, Ishiro. Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), Sora no daikaiju Radon (Rodan, 1956).
See also: Wong, Kar-wai.

Ichikawa, Raizo VIII. There are many older Japanese films that I have yet to see, and recently I’ve been trying to see as many as I can that date from around the time of my birth. The other day I sat down to watch Daibosatsu toge: Kanketsu-hen (Satan’s Sword: The Final Chapter, 1961), the last in a trilogy of period films starring Raizo Ichikawa VIII, who had a prolific career in cinema and Kabuki before dying at the age of 37 in 1969.
Ishii, Katsuhito. Yama no anata (My Darling of the Mountains, 2008).
See also: Shimizu, Hiroshi.
Ishii, Teruo. Supa jaiantsu: Kaiseijin no majo (Super Giant: The Mysterious Spacemen’s Demonic Castle, 1957).
Abashiri bangaichi (Abashiri Prison, 1965) – tough-guy actor Ken Takakura’s breakout role, in a film produced by ATG.

Kaurismäki, Aki. I love Kaurismäki for his eccentric sensibility. He’s born in the same year as me. I heard that when he came to Japan it was an epic challenge taking him around to bars at night – apparently he’s an alcoholic. I recently found out that Samuel Fuller had a cameo in one of his films, La Vie de Bohème (1992), alongside Jean-Pierre Léaud and Louis Malle.

Kawashima, Yuzo. Suzaki paradise: Akashingo (Suzaki Paradise Red Light, 1956) – I’ve been interested in this film for a while and finally got around to buying it on DVD. It’s set in the former Edo-period red light district of Suzaki in Tokyo.

Keaton, Buster.
See also: Chaplin, Charlie.

Kiarostami, Abbas.
See also: Bergman, Ingmar.

Kitano, Takeshi.
See also: Oshima, Nagisa.

Kuroki, Kazuo. Matsuri no junbi (Preparation for the Festival, 1975) – set on the island of Shikoku, this film is about a 20-year-old youth who is employed at a rural credit union and dreams of becoming a script writer.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu.

Kurosawa, Akira. What interests me about looking at art is that fundamentally there is no regulation on the distance you have to maintain between yourself and the work. If you wanted to look at a painting from a distance of one centimeter or if you wanted to look at a painting through a telescope from a distance of 50 meters, you could do it if that’s your thing. But invariably even though there are no limitations to how to look at paintings everybody gravitates to a consensus distance, probably related to an unconscious physical relationship of scale. This applies equally to making works as well. The length of their limbs in some ways determines a standard relationship between painters and the surface of their works.
About 10 years ago I was experimenting with making digital paintings on the computer. When you’re working on a screen you can zoom in to incredible detail. But as you do so, you somehow become detached from the “painting” you’re trying to make – there’s no sense of subjective physicality, no trace of the brush to remind you of what you are doing. This kind of objective viewpoint allowed me to see new possibilities from within a different relationship to my work.
Kurosawa’s Norainu (Stray Dog, 1949), which was made after the war, is set in the black-market underbelly of Shinjuku. The first scene has this extreme close-up of a stray dog panting with its tongue out, and you feel the griminess of the post-war city, and the griminess of the locations they were using in places like Shinjuku or Yoyogi, with all these miasmal ditches and puddles. Even though the film was shot in black-and-white it transmits an incredible amount of information. It makes you wonder how they were able to achieve such intricate detail given the fact that the quality of materials and stock was not as developed as it is now. In a way it’s not about the quality of the materials at all, it’s up to the artist find an approach that can make the most of what is at hand.
For example, if you want to visit a friend in Shinjuku, today you could take a taxi or the subway. But in the past the only way to get around Tokyo was to walk, so you wouldn’t go to meet friends unless you really wanted to. And that also affected the intensity of the time that you spent with people when you did met them, as well as the amount and speed of information that was circulating in society. The sense of conditionality was different. You wouldn’t just pop into an exhibition opening for a couple minutes. If you went some place you were making a commitment to going there. In that sense you couldn’t realize so much, but what you could realize took place on a deeper level than today. It’s interesting how the dimensions of social engagement have changed over time.
See also: Ozu, Yasujiro; Shimizu, Hiroshi.


Léaud, Jean-Pierre.
See also: Kaurismäki, Aki.

Lester, Richard. A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Help! (1965).
See also: The Beatles.

Lumière, Auguste & Louis. La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, 1895). L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1895).
See also: Wong, Kar-wai.


Maeda, Michiko.
See also: Wong, Kar-wai.

Malle, Louis. Elevator to the Gallows (1957) – I was impressed that Malle shot this film when he was only 25.
See also: Kaurismäki, Aki.

Masumura, Yasuzo. I’ve seen a couple of his films but I’m not so familiar with them. It seems like he’s a popular subject for retrospectives here in Japan.

Mori, Kazuo. Daibosatsu toge: Kanketsu-hen (Satan’s Sword: The Final Chapter, 1961).
See also: Ichikawa, Raizo VIII.


Naruse, Mikio. Sometimes I wonder why anybody thinks he’s interesting. But if one of his films happens to air on TV, I’ll watch it.

Nikkatsu Corporation. Nikkatsu Roman Porno.
See also: Araki, Nobuyoshi; Buñuel, Luis; Hasebe, Yasuharu.


Okada, Yoshiko.
See also: Ozu, Yasujiro.
Ono, Yoko. Among the programs that I saw at Athénée Français was a screening of Yoko Ono’s experimental films. For Film No. Five (Smile) (1968), Ono shot in super slow-motion a five-minute or so close-up take of John Lennon’s face as he smiled, with the resulting film stretched out over the course of about an hour. It was a very Warholian approach. What I actually wanted to see was all of Warhol’s films, but they weren’t screening in Japan then.
See also: Athénée Français, Ochanomizu.

Oi Musashinokan, Oi. No longer in operation.
See also: Pearl-za, Takadanobaba.

Oshida, Reiko.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu.
Oshima, Nagisa. Koshikei (Death by a Hanging, 1968).
Shinjuku dorobo nikki (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, 1969) – Tadanori Yokoo played the protagonist of this film set against the backdrop of contemporaneous student-led anti-US demonstrations.
Senjo no meri kurisumasu (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, 1983) – pop culture in the 1980s was off the charts. It’s amazing that Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano and David Bowie all acted in the same film. I had yet to meet Sakamoto at that time.
Ozu, Yasujiro. When I was at art school, around the age of 20, I had a friend who was a film maniac. One day he asked me whether I knew about Ozu. I had no idea who he was, so I asked, what’s he about? My friend replied that Ozu’s films were mesmerizing – nothing happens in them. He explained that the compositions were all based on vertical and horizontal lines and the stories addressed everyday themes such as a girl marrying into another family, but that everything came together in a very surreal way. I already had the idea of Buñuel floating around in my head and began to imagine Ozu as some kind of super experimental artistic underground filmmaker. Then when I went to see the films I was underwhelmed to find out that they were, in narrative terms, completely normal, and the opposite of what I had anticipated. That was around the time of the first big Ozu boom. Kurosawa was always very popular, but Ozu seemed to experience a sudden international resurgence at the start of the 1980s.
Despite this first experience, I eventually came to appreciate Ozu. Recently I caught one of his early silent films, Tokyo no yado (An Inn in Tokyo, 1935), on TV. The story is about an unemployed laborer who wanders Tokyo with his two sons in tow. It starred Takeshi Sakamoto, who appeared in a number of Ozu’s early films, and a young Yoshiko Okada, who was really beautiful then.
See also: Shimizu, Hiroshi.


Pasolini, Pier Paulo.
See also: Bungeiza, Ikebukuro; Buñuel, Luis.
Pearl-za, Takadanobaba. No longer in operation. One of the independent cinemas that I frequented, and quite famous. In those days, every cinema in Tokyo had its own specialty. In addition to places like Pearl-za, ATG and Bungeiza, others included Ginrei Hall in Iidabashi and the Ooi Musashinokan in Ooi.

Peckinpah, Sam. The Wild Bunch (1969).

Pia. When the listings guide Pia first came out in 1972 it had a tremendous impact on Tokyo’s cultural landscape, and was followed later that year by the rival publication City Road. Prior to that, there were no other comprehensive sources for events information and we learned about screenings mainly through friends and acquaintances.
When I was in high school I had a friend who was really into film and hoped to be a movie director. He told us where to go to see films, though I have no idea what he’s doing now – certainly he never became a movie director.

Polanski, Roman. Chinatown (1974).


Resnais, Alain. Last year at Marienbad (1961) – I was always completely absorbed by the stills from this film, but could never figure out the significance of the film itself.


Sakamoto, Ryuichi.
See also: Oshima, Nagisa.

Sakamoto, Takeshi.
See also: Ozu, Yasujiro.
Shimizu, Hiroshi. In terms of Japanese cinema, people like Ozu and Kurosawa are already widely appreciated, but I feel that there are even more great directors from the older generation still waiting to be rediscovered. Few people have any idea how fantastic these films can be. Recently, Shimizu’s Anma to onna (The Masseurs and a Woman, 1938) was remade almost shot-for-shot by the director Katsuhito Ishii, and retitled Yama no anata (My Darling of the Mountains, 2008). I didn’t bother seeing the new version but I tracked down the original and it was really interesting. Shimizu is contemporaneous to Ozu but comparatively unknown, despite his substantial output.

Shimura, Toshio. Ama no senritsu (Woman Diver’s Terror, 1957).
See also: Wong, Kar-wai.

Left: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Supa jaiantsu: Kaiseijin no majo (Super Giant: The Mysterious Spacemen’s Demonic Castle / Tai kong fei xia da zhan guai xing ren, 1957), directed by Teruo Ishii, distributed in Hong Kong by Shaw Brothers. Right: Vintage promotional pamphlet for the film Sora no daikaiju Radon (Rodan / Fei tian guai shou, 1956), directed by Ishiro Honda, distributed in Hong Kong by Shaw Brothers. © Shinro Ohtake/ART iT.

Takakura, Ken.
See also: Ishii, Teruo.
Tarantino, Quentin. Death Proof (2007) – this film reminded me of Buñuel, because midway through all the characters change, except for the anti-hero played by Kurt Russell. The film is based on American drive-in theater and Grindhouse cinema B-classics. What is different between Japan and America is the stance toward morals in culture. In America they don’t seem to take morals so seriously when they’re making films, they go ahead and do what they want, and if they cross the line there’s still the possibility of retribution. In Japan moral issues always come into play. It can be both a virtue and a failing, but in Japan I think there’s a lot of self-denial because people overly anticipate the social ramifications of what they are doing, and take responsibility for it in a preemptive way.
It’s interesting because Tarantino has been heavily influenced by Japanese film. It’s similar to what happened with ukiyo-e as well. When something is taken overseas the viewpoint changes. People comprehend things through their own presumptions, so what we take for granted can have different meanings for others. For an artist working across cultural references it’s probably more productive not to be constrained by an attempt to balance these different interpretations. I always found it amusing that in old American movies set in Japan the actors might step into tatami rooms while still wearing their shoes. I liked that such scenes went against all common sense.

Terayama, Shuji. Den’en ni shisu (Pastoral: To Die in the Country, 1974) – I saw this film right when it came out in 1974. When I was in middle school my older brother was really into Terayama’s writing and had many of his books at home, which was how I came to know about him. Even then I could understand that the use of language in his poetry was unique, something that also came through in his movies. The composition of his films was always dark and gritty, but he found a form of expression that came through to young people. He was a genius with language, partly because he was a poet and understood how to combine words effectively. He knew how to draw out the visuality of the words he chose. He’s another filmmaker who died young, when he was still in his 40s.
The Beatles. In 1965, when I was still in elementary school, Fujifilm introduced Single-8 film to the Japanese mass market, making my generation essentially the first to grow up with the idea that anybody could make films at home. This coincided with the release of the first films featuring The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). This coincidence was a major event in my life. Help! was more of a fantastical story, but at least the quasi-documentary aspects of A Hard Day’s Night represented for me a convergence of cinema, music and daily life, and a break from the idea that films had to be conceived and realized by specialized professionals.
These films also helped to spur the emergence of Beatles copycat bands in Japan – known collectively as the Group Sounds – bands like The Jaguars and OX and The Spiders, who also starred in their own music-driven movies.
My friends and I decided that we should make our own movies as well. Maybe somebody had a camera at home or we borrowed one from an acquaintance. Using three-minute cartridges we put together two 20-minute films, once in middle school and again in high school. I’m not sure where they are now. These were collaborative productions, but we would do all these things to the film like ripping it and coloring it with magic marker, or punching holes into it with thumbtacks, and these sequences would go on for several seconds. Even though we were just a bunch of kids playing around with film at home and had no idea about it at the time, what we did in some ways parallels the work of 1960s American underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. We had Single-8 film at home, we couldn’t buy videotapes and we had plenty of time to spare.
This experience led to the short 8mm films that I shot while traveling in London and Hokkaido, and then I was taking my 8mm camera everywhere for a period of about four or five years in the 1980s. There was no particular meaning to the films. I was simply documenting things around me that caught my attention with the idea of making filmic “stills” and had no intention of showing them to other people. I would shoot a scene for a couple seconds, things like the surface of a pond or goldfish swimming. Because I was using cheap, silent three-minute cartridges, I think there was a kind of unconscious editing process taking place in my head as I calculated how to use that time, and perhaps I felt there was no need to actually go back and edit later. So I processed the film but never looked at it, because it was just too involved. I ended up with more than 100 reels.
Then in 2006 when I was preparing my “Zen-Kei” retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, I remembered the films and dug them out from my archives. That was when I finally saw them for the first time, 20 years after I shot them.
Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music (aka Geidai). There was a film-screening club at Geidai. That’s where I saw Toshiya Fujita’s Wet Sand in August (1971).

Toyoda, Shiro. Bokuto kitan (Twilight Story, 1960) – the first film adaptation of the eponymous novel by Kafu Nagai, made the year after the author died.

Truffaut, François.
See also: Bungeiza, Ikebukuro.


Warhol, Andy. I had always wanted to see Warhol’s films when I was in Japan but they weren’t being screened there at the time. Finally in the 1980s when I lived in London there was a Warhol retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and I saw films like Sleep (1963), Empire (1964) and Chelsea Girls (1966). When I saw Chelsea Girls I was stunned: it was the first time I realized that you could use more than one screen for a film. I had never even considered the possibility that you could make a composition for two, three, four screens, all with different footage projected on them. What is interesting, though, is that we all develop a conventional understanding of what cinema is and then the medium implicitly develops through this shared concept.
In my own work I feel that even though I realize I can make the rules as I go along, it can be difficult to actually do so. In both art and film there are two approaches: one values above all other concerns the radical revision of pre-established concepts; and the other values building upon the precedents and traditions of the past. I think in fact some of the most radical developments can be produced out of the latter approach. More than using untested materials or methods simply for the sake of novelty, an artist using ink and paper can sometimes produce a profoundly shocking effect. In this sense the purpose of art is defined quite diversely.
See also: Ono, Yoko.

Wada, Akiko.
See also: Hasebe, Yasuharu.

Waters, John. Before the time of home video distribution there were all these underground cinemas in Shinjuku and other neighborhoods that specialized in showing experimental and foreign films. I used to seek them out, and remember catching a John Waters series at one such venue that included Pink Flamingos (1972).

Wong, Kar-wai. There was a period around 10 years ago when Wong Kar-wai was really popular, but he’s too fashionable for me. This is true for some Korean filmmakers as well. Perhaps they have been influenced by recent Japanese cinema.
In the 1980s I made several trips to Hong Kong. I didn’t get to watch so many films there, but I did find all these vintage movie pamphlets from the 1950s, which I collected. I still have them. They were fantastic. Each pamphlet came in a small, rectangular format in news stock with faded two-tone printing that was overlaid with text of the movie titles and production companies’ or directors’ names, as well as images from the movies or representative illustrations. There were comedies, melodramas, musicals, mysteries, period films, ghost films, even imported Japanese films like Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (1956) and Toshio Shimura’s Woman Diver’s Terror (1957), which was among a string of titles by Shintoho that anticipated the rise of the Pink film and starred Michiko Maeda, the first actress to appear nude in a Japanese mainstream studio production.
Somehow these pamphlets strongly represent the relationship that films and stills have for me. I think of the Lumière brothers and the first movies, which were so straightforward – workers walking out of the factory, or the train pulling into the station – and yet so shocking at the same time, what with the story of how the audience ran away from the image of the train when it was first projected. Imagine what it was like the first time paintings gave way to photographs, and photographs were turned into films.


Yokoo, Tadanori.
See also: Oshima, Nagisa.

Yoshida, Yoshishige (aka Kiju). Yoshida’s films are too precious and intellectual. They would have been better had they been a little more crass.

Shinro Ohtake is an artist based between Tokyo and Uwajima, Ehime. His work will be included in the 8th Gwangju Biennale, “10,000 Lives,” on view at multiple venues in Gwangju from September 3 to November 7.

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