Article 01Scott MacDonald (Film Critic)
Essay for Kano Shiho
My admiration for the films and videos of Kano Shiho has been conditioned by two experiences: one of them a film historical experience; the other, my one visit to Japan. In 1980 the American Federation of Arts asked film scholar, Donald Richie, to create a film series focusing on the history of experimental film in Japan. Richie worked with Katsue Tomiyama, then director of Image Forum in Tokyo, to produce "Japanese Experimental Film 1960-1980," two programs of short films that toured the United States in the early 1980s. My memory of these programs has faded, but I do remember that the most pleasant surprise was Kiri (1971) by Hagiwara Sakumi, an eight-minute, single-shot film during which a misty landscape slowly clears, revealing a bit of a distant mountain. Kiri was a particular pleasure for me since I had recently begun to write about Fog Line (1970), by the American Larry Gottheim, an eleven-minute, single-shot film during which a foggy landscape begins to clear, revealing trees, bushes, and other details of a pasture. Certainly, there are differences between the two films-Kiri is black-and-white, Fog Line, in color; the landscape in Fog Line is more fully mediated by technology...and yet, I found it interesting, even poignant, that on opposite sides of the globe two filmmakers had had virtually the same idea at the same time and had produced two lovely, serene films. I have long regretted that Hagiwara's films are not in distribution in the United States.
I experienced something of the same pleasure at the 2003 Images Festival in Toronto, when I saw three films by Kano Shiho-Joukei (1998), Still (1999), and Rocking Chair (2000)-in a program of Japanese experimental film curated by Chris Gehman. I was particularly taken with Rocking Chair, a thirteen-minute, color, sound film that reminded me of some of the recent films and videos of Leighton Pierce, whose work I have been studying and writing about for some years. As was true of my experience with Kiri and Fog Line, I could see obvious differences between Pierce's work and Rocking Chair, but, once again, I was moved that these two artists, working on different continents, should be motivated to make beautiful work so obviously consonant in spirit and impact. Fortunately for Americans, Kano's work is finding its way into distribution here.
Of course, the fact that Kano's work is being presented on a program with Hagiwara's and the fact that Hagiwara's work has been an important influence on Kano's makes this set of connections all the more interesting for me (Kano, in my recent, as-yet-unpublished interview with her: "I doubt whether I really understood it at the time, but the power of Ito Takashi's Spacy , the serenity of Hagiwara Sakumi's Time , the stoic beauty of Matsumoto Toshio's Shiki Soku Ze Kū --all these diverse experiences deeply influenced and dazzled my high-school-student self. I had never seen films so free from convention.").
The second experience that has provided a context for my interest in Kano's work has nothing to do with film; it occurred when I traveled to Japan in January, 1997 to visit my son, who was teaching English in Okayama in Western Honshū. At the time of this trip, I was working on what was to become The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), which focuses on an American tradition of independent filmmaking and videomaking dedicated to providing audiences with meditative and/or contemplative experiences that function as Edenic respites (as "Gardens") within the pervasive hysteria of modern life ("The Machine"). As part of my research I had been studying various traditions and accomplishments related to my theme, including the history of landscape architecture and particularly the work of Frederic Law Olmsted, the nineteenth-century landscape architect and designer who built New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the "Emerald Necklace" of parks in Boston, and so many of the major public parks across the United States.
During the weeks before my trip, I was excited to learn that Okayama was home to the Kōraku-en Garden, widely considered one of the most remarkable gardens in Japan, and I made plans to spend time there during my visit-as well as to visit gardens in Kyoto and elsewhere. When I rode my son's bicycle through Okayama to the Kōraku-en Garden for the first time, I was surprised to discover that it was rather less extensive than I had imagined-though, of course, one of the accomplishments of the Kōraku-en Garden is the complexity of its beauty, its incorporation of a remarkably wide variety of environments and experiences within what might seem a limited space.
This first experience of the Kōraku-en Garden was confirmed a few days later when I journeyed with my son to Takahashi, a small town about fifty kilometers to the northwest of Okayama. While he spent the day teaching, I decided to visit the garden of the Raikyū-ji Temple, said to be the work of master garden designer, Enshū Kobori. For an hour I walked up and down the street where the garden was said to be located, unable to find it: no space seemed extensive enough for a garden that was considered a national treasure. Finally, I climbed an old stone staircase and discovered within the Raikyū-ji Temple, the entrance to the exquisite garden, which, like so many Japanese gardens, is simultaneously enclosed within the energy of modern life-a main road, invisible to the eye, but continuously audible, passes by the rear end of the garden-and offers an opportunity for transcending the conventional demands of modern experience. The incorporation of Mount Atago, some kilometers away, into the design of the Raikyū-ji Garden embodies this idea, allowing the small garden to seem to extend as far as the eye can see.
These experiences are relevant to the work of Kano Shiho on several levels. Most obviously, Kano's sensibility is related to the sensibility embodied in the history of Japanese gardens. She is interested in using the two media usually seen as the epitome of modern, urban, obsessively commercial life in order to transform limited expanses of space and limited durations of time into audio-visual experiences that offer lovely, sustained moments for cinematic meditation/contemplation. Further, compared with the American tradition of films that offer viewers "gardens" within the "machine" of modern life-I'm referring in particular to the films of Larry Gottheim, Peter Hutton, James Benning . . .-Kano works not only within more rigid spatial limits, but without the idea of separating herself from modern urban/suburban experience. Her best works-Rocking Chair, White Tablecloth (2000), Incense (2002), and Rosecolored Flower (2002)-do not involve literal escapes from conventional life; rather, Kano chooses sections of rooms within conventional urban living spaces, engulfed by the sounds of commercial life outside (automobile traffic, trains, and the like) and discovers/creates extended moments within which a particular quality of light, the subtle movement of a breeze, the wafting of a bit of smoke, a shade of rose reflected in a glass vase allow us to reconnect with the moment-to-moment incarnation of the world around us and to remember how much pleasure is available in even the smallest, least exciting moments and places.
Kano's films and videos (she is equally at home in both mediums) often suggest the origins of cinema-not surprisingly, since she has great admiration for cinema's pioneers: "Personally, I think that all film stems from the primitive images that pioneers like Méliès and the Lumière Brothers left us. After film became somewhat established, avant-garde and experimental filmmakers self-consciously took on that same exploratory approach to film. Additionally, since we've come into contact with film, haven't we all experienced time and movement in a new way? What I am interested in is that most "primitive," basic quality that is a part of all film. I seek the same sort of experience and discovery in the present. I don't think that early film has become irrelevant and out of date; rather, I think we continually return there in order to come up with new discoveries."
The Lumière Brothers' matter-of-fact engagement with everyday life may seem particularly relevant to Kano's films and videos. But her work also suggests the trickfilms of Georges Mélès. Indeed, no sooner do we adjust to Kano's redirection of cinema away from plot, character, melodrama, montage, special effects-the usual components of commercial television and film experiences-and accept her meditative gaze, than we are surprised by one or another form of subtle trickery that forces us to rethink what we are experiencing and to recognize the artist's hand gently controlling our experience. Near the end of Rocking Chair, for example, as we watch the hem of a white curtain moved by air currents in the room, we notice that for the first time we are seeing several layers of curtain, subtly superimposed-and these layers of curtain remind us that the visual-auditory experience of Kano's film, as direct and matter-of-fact as it may seem, has been constructed during several "layers" of time. A similar effect is created in White Tablecloth, as we discover that the water mark around the bottom of the cruet seems to ebb and flow, like a miniature tide: the cruet may have been filmed in continual, real time, but what we experience is carefully, almost invisibly edited so that the resulting video is simultaneously serene and mysterious, simple and surprising. In Incense the incense smoke wafts through the room and is lovely to look at, though as we enjoy this simple experience, we suddenly notice that the smoke is moving in reverse, that the incense stick is "un-burning," just in time to discover that the smoke is moving normally again.
There is also a musical, even a theatrical dimension to Kano's work, especially in the way she choreographs her visuals and sounds. Doors open and close, allowing light into a portion of the space or removing some of the light; traffic sounds grow louder and soften; the light subtly modulates as a breeze moves through the space; Kano opens her aperture so fully that the image whites out, or she closes the aperture and the image fades to black; someone is seen, or heard, passing through the limited space revealed by the frame or somewhere close by . . . The resulting experiences are simultaneously open and in firm control, quiet and full of energy. They are reminiscent of various cultural traditions-the Japanese garden, the haiku, North American avant-garde film (the slow zoom in Rosecolored Flower is evocative of Michael Snow's Wavelength )-and aesthetically distinctive and particular to Kano's own place and moment.
This essay was written for "One shot film works of Sakumi Hagiwara and Shiho Kano". (Image Forum/Tokyo, Japan, 2003)
Article 02Chirs Gehman (Artistic Director, Images Festival of Independent Film and Video)
JAPAN FOCUS' (excerpt)
Shiho Kano's spare and elegant Landscape(1998), Still(1999), and Rocking Chair(2000) invest a similar minimal and temporal aesthetic with hints of personal relations and situations. Kano's use of stillness and extended duration is sophisticated, though not exceptional in itself. It is her elaboration of different aspects and views of a particular space or situation that is very particular to her making.