Made in Japan 

In Yuiko Matsuyama's six-minute film Flower, brilliant shards of light hover at the edges of a dark colorful frame, threatening to flood the field of vision at any moment. With macro photography, the artist films a small table containing flowing china ink and salts, and ends up creating a sublime pictorial tension. The film invokes a deep sense of calm. This idea of a mysterious work arising in apparent isolation could also characterize the state of Japanese avant-garde and experimental film.

Matsuyama, one of the key artists in that avant-garde who is making a rare trip to the United States, will personally present her 2004 film Flower and 16mm film and video works by her Tokyo-based contemporaries as part of Detroit Film Center's New Cinema series this Saturday. The program represents a trend reversal: Since the mid-1960s, Japanese audiences have been exposed to works by pioneer filmmakers of the Western avant-garde, such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, as well as those who followed their lead.

But comparatively few Japanese avant-garde films have ended up in North American or European exhibitions.

Of course, American audiences have the opportunity to see some aspects of Japanese cinema, be it anime, the current wave of Japanese horror films or art-house retrospectives of such venerated directors as Ozu, Kurosawa and Oshima. But it's still rare to view films by Japanese artists unrestrained by narrative convention.

The current Tokyo scene is largely centered around Image Forum, an institution located in the Shibuya district with four stories of classrooms, a video shop and a cinematheque. Formed in 1971 as the Underground Center, in 1977 it changed its name and soon after began publishing a monthly film magazine, organizing an annual film festival and offering production courses.

In 2001, Tokyo filmmaker Ichiro Sueoka founded the cooperative FMIC (Filmmakers Information Center) to serve as a distribution and information clearinghouse for the various Japanese underground films that were facing difficulties exhibiting within the country and abroad. Still, with a lack of DIY venues and domestic arts funding for nontraditional media, many contemporary filmmakers are in the position of having their works known by name but rarely seen.

Matsuyama is doing her part to find a solution. The artist worked for a few years with FMIC and has recently started a loose collective called ISLANDS, along with younger artists Shiho Kano, Takashi Ishida and Nagaru Miyake, who will each have a work in Saturday's program. To open the doors of communication, Ishida also joins Matsuyama at the screening to discuss their work.

Ishida is a celebrated animator best known for his 1999 film Gestalt and the 2001 film The Art of the Fugue, commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. In Gestalt, he captures the texture of light streaming through the space of an empty room over the course of a year. Filming a few seconds each day, he paints abstracted lines and shapes onto a wall that interplay with the muted light filtered by an opaque window. The result is both beautiful and somber. Ishida repeats this technique in The Art of the Fugue, as each painted gesture moves precisely in synchronicity with the score, reaching new ecstatic heights.

Shiho Kano's recent video Wave continues a body of work she's developed over the past eight years, elegantly exploring the mechanical and material nature of film and, more recently, digital video. Wave is a contemplative and ominous view of a seascape where the horizon line serves as a division between the two manipulated fields of sky and water. Kano's work is suffused with lyricism and emotional weight that's absent from the work of many of her predecessors who grappled with similar formal terrain beginning in the 1960s, proving there's still so much to say. At the Detroit Film Center, we have the opportunity to watch and listen.


7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 18, at Detroit Film Center, 1227 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-9936. $5 general admission; $3 students and DFC members. New films by Nagaru Miyake, Daisuke Nose and Tomomi Adachi round out the program.

David Dinnell writes about experimental film and video for Metro Times. Send comments to

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