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Kochuu: Japanese Architecture/Influence & Origin

by Jesper Wachtmeister, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2006
VHS, 53 minutes, color
Sales, $390
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

MA: A Japanese Concept

by Takahiko iimura
Takahiko iimura Media Arts Institute, Tokyo, 2005
DVD, 60 minutes
ISBN 4-901181-21-1
Website: http://iimura@gol.com; http://www.takaiimura.com.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


One would expect the designers of any vehicle for extended outer space travel to consult Japanese architects and artists in the design process. That many of them make use of limitations of space and time is demonstrated in two recent videos.

Jesper Wachtmeister's documentary is Kochuu: Japanese Architecture/Influence & Origin. Kochuu means "in the jar", the small space that an architect in Japan is given to work with. These spaces may be urban residences, modular mini-offices, or garden teahouses, accessible only through a low, small entrance. Furniture is often minimal, and kneeling on tatami mats is the visitor's expected posture.

Recent buildings like the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum honor their relationship to the natural environment, offering a permeability of light and sightlines. Their sheltered indoors maintain sweeping garden views, an aesthetic handed down from earlier times. Many Scandinavian architects studied traditional Japanese forms and admit an influence of the Imperial Katsura Palace or the massive wooden Todai-Ji Buddhist temple. The movie demonstrates this influence through a series of buildings, interspersed with architects’ comments. Its argument and its examples jump around so between Japan and Scandinavia that the viewer is sometimes unsure of where the building currently onscreen exists. Yet the architects interviewed have thoughtful comments on aspects of Japanese architecture that are informative and thought-provoking to people who inhabit buildings anywhere.

And it is those thoughtful comments that pose a problem. This reviewer doesn't speak Japanese, nor does he speak any Scandinavian languages, and such a viewer is distracted from giving undivided attention to the fine buildings shown, provocative buildings attentively caressed outside and inside by the moving camera. The viewer is occupied reading little white subtitles at the bottom of the screen. This is one documentary video that would benefit from translation of the thoughts of all these worthy architects into English, and any other single language of the nation in which it is shown.

Architectural space is a concern of Takahiko iimura, especially in the first of his four films exploring Ma, a concept where "space and time are one." Ma: Space in the Garden of Ryon-ji, the major film of the disc, is a 1989 16mm color film shot in the sixteenth century Kyoto Buddhist temple, whose garden contains 15 stones arranged in a rectangle. The movie is made up of long and evenly paced dolly shots on a computer-controlled motorized dolly rolling past the stones. The view of the stones is given no more time than the bed of white crushed rock and stained back walls behind them, except when the camera briefly zooms in slowly on several of the large picturesque stones. The footage is punctuated with poetic intertitles by Arata Isozaki. The soundtrack evokes an echoing tap on a barrel, drip of water into a pool or puddle. I remember the frustration of a Japanese professor with a group of American university undergraduates and tourists who wouldn't sit still long enough to listen to "a very Japanese" sound of water dripping in the shed we sat. At the end of the film we hear a bit of chanting by monks at prayer. The Making of <MA> in Ryon-Ji, a 10 minute documentary showing the nuts and bolts of iimura's filmmaking, includes assistants setting up lighting with proper gels. It is definitely of use to its co-producer, the Osaka University of the Arts.

MA: the Stones Have Moved presents iimura's 2004 collaboration with the Kala Institute of Berkeley, California, creating a computer animation that alludes to a Japanese one-stroke drawing style. It assembles creeping sketches of the stones, sequenced in a jerky manner that lacks the fluidity of the original video in Ryon-ji. My wife compared it to a snail crawling across the screen. We are given an occasional glimpse of the source video's stones and at those moments appreciate the orchestration of color, light, and texture in the original designers of the Ryon-ji garden. The continuous chunky and clunky line is most interesting when it reduces the stain marks of the temple's garden wall to fugitive and fragmented, vine-like and almost figurative verticals. Lacking any soundtrack at all, I was imagining Jelly Roll Morton's ragtime orchestra providing one. Not until the cinemateques of the 1960s were silent films projected without musical and/or vocal accompaniment.

MA (Intervals), from 1977, is iimura's most conceptually reductive and sensually austere work here. The screen appears either black, black with a white scratched line, white, white with a black scratched line, for intervals of one, two or three seconds. The lines are reminiscent of Barnett Newman's "zip" on his paintings in the 1950s and 1960s. The soundtrack is made up of taps or intervals of white noise chatter. This reviewer felt sated long before the film's 10 (30 in some public showings) minutes had elapsed. iimura then continued inquiry into seriality in video projects through the late nineteen seventies and early eighties.




Updated 1st May 2006

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