In the Realm of the Senses: Sampling Japan’s Avant-Garde


Despite a substantial history stretching back to the silent era, Japanese experimental cinema screens only sporadically in North America, which makes a well-programmed survey like Anthology’s JPEX a welcome treat. This thematic sampler of film and video from the post-war era weaves a few recurring themes through its five tightly stuffed programs: absurdist political critique, pop-inflected psychedelia, and eruptive eroticism. Some offer overt links to Western avant-gardists: Mako Idemitsu’s prog-rocking At Santa Monica (1974) includes computer-animated triangle graphics by John Whitney, while Ichiro Sueoka wittily tips his hat to both Peter Kubelka and George Landow with a clever video cutup entitled A flick film in which there appear Liz and Franky, is composed under the score of ARNULF RAINER by P. Kubelka on NTSC (2000). The video rapidly intercuts footage from the fiery climax of Elizabeth Taylor’s Elephant Walk with a coolly lit sequence from a Sinatra romance, retaining the fluttering edit-structure of Kubelka’s canonical work. Other optical delights are provided by Toshio Matsumoto’s Shiki Soku Ze Ku (1975), a stroboscopic montage of kanji characters and South Asian religious art set to a blend of sitar drones and electronic warbles, and Akio Okamoto’s marvelously ’70s-esque video Snarl-Up!!! (2001), in which rainbow-colored silhouettes time-lapse across images of roiling clouds, hypercolored landscapes, and artificial lens flares.

War memories pervade a few earlier works, including Seiichi Hayashi’s haunting animation Shadow (1969), which blends traditional Japanese illustration with Peter Max–ian trip-outs, and Eiko Hosoe’s naked beachside pantomime Navel and A-Bomb (1960). The series also includes two titles with cult recognition but rare availability. Lyrical and brutal, Shuji Terayama’s notorious Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1970) deserves recognition as one of the more powerful achievements of avant-garde cinema; the half-hour film portrays a violent world where children have staged a bloody revolution against adults. Matsumoto’s gritty feature Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) travels with its tragic drag-queen protagonist through a Tokyo underworld of reefer parties and go-go clubs, stopping for bits of new wave-style documentary interviews with everyday trannies. Both Emperor and Funeral Parade mix explosive cocktails of sex and death, rife with taboo-busting brio.

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