Interview with Takahiko Iimura

By Damien Sanville

Observer/Observed / Takahiko Iimura


Since the 1960s, Takahiko Iimura has been a leading figure of Japanese experimental cinema. His films and videos, which deal mainly with issues of identity and semiology, encompass many aspects of the phenomenology of perception in both Western and Eastern cultures. This interview was recorded January 2009 in New York City.


* * *

DS: To start off, I would like to ask you what the atmosphere of the 60s avant-garde scenes were like in both Japan and America?

TI: I started my experiments in filmmaking in the early-60s in Tokyo. At the time I was very interested in Dadaist and Surrealist films, which became really important in Japan much later then when these movements actually took place in Europe. It was only from the 50s onwards that we had more information about what was going on in America and Europe; the first impact was for us–and especially for me–the Neo Dadaism.

My first experiments were in poetry, when I was in high school. I used to write Dadaist poems. I was also influenced by the visual arts. At the time Junk Art, Action Painting and Happenings were flourishing.

DS: So your films were less a reaction against the conventional and established cinema than in the lineage of fine arts?

TI: That’s right. Most of my friends were artists not filmmakers…

DS: What are the differences between nowadays and the 60s?

TI: Now there are more venues, more people involved and more schools than in the 60s. Yet there are less debates and problematics are less obvious.


Junk / Takahiko Iimura

DS: How was Junk (1962) received in Tokyo? Did you show it in film festivals at the time?

TI: There were no film festivals at the time. I showed it in a gallery–where they used to show a lot of what you call “anti-art”–together with my friend Yasunao Tone, composer of avant-garde music, who wrote the score for this film. We called the piece a “Film Concert” for there wasn’t such a word as “Performance” yet.

DS: What made you come to New York?

TI: Yoko Ono and John Cage came to Tokyo to do a tour. So I asked Ono to come and see my film Ai ( Love) (1962-63) which consists of close-ups of body movements. I asked her to make the sound for it and she did by recording the noise outside her window. Then she brought the film to New York and showed it to Jonas Mekas who wrote a very nice review about it–no one in Japan appreciated it in such way at the time (Laughs). So I wanted to come to New York. I also met Donald Richie in Tokyo who was an experimental filmmaker and wrote a lot about Japanese cinema. Together we created a group called Japan Film Independent as well as organised the first experimental film festival.

DS: That was in Tokyo?

TI: Yes, in ‘64. I moved to NY in ‘66.

DS: How has New York influenced your approach to filmmaking?

TI: Quite a lot. I went to the [Filmmakers’] Cinematheque almost every day and watched lots of 60s American experimental films, by filmmakers like Stan Vanderbeek, Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, etc, whom I later on made film portraits of.[1]

DS: Your films have been shown in both galleries and cinemas. Do you have any preferences regarding the context in which they are shown?

TI: I like both of them. Even though I don’t make 16mm films anymore– I make videos – I still use film as material for installation and performance. Later in the 70s, I focused on the theme of Time, the temporality in film and I used both galleries and cinemas. 24 Frames Per Second (1975-78), for instance, works the best on screen; whereas a film-installation such as One Second and Infinity (1975), which is on a loop, works better in galleries .

DS: You have mentioned a relation between Observer/Observed (1975) with films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Can you tell us how these films relate to yours?

TI: There are parallels between Observer/Observed and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. We not only see what he shot but also himself with a camera, somehow combining the process of filmmaking and the production of it. I do feel closer to Vertov than Eisenstein, although Eisenstein’s idea of the montage refers to Chinese characters, which combine two elements to create another meaning.


Installation view of This is a Camera Which Shoots This / Takahiko Iimura

DS: Can you tell us a bit more about your “Video Semiology?”

TI: Video Semiology is related to a video trilogy Observer/Observed and more specifically to a video installation This Is a Camera Which Shoots This (1982-1995). In this piece there is an exchange between the two cameras facing each other, one shooting the other one, creating a feedback that is also in the sentence: “This is a camera which shoot this … is a camera which shoot this …”: an endless sentence in which the subject and the object become one another.

DS: Do you see parallels between your researches in Video Semiology and the work of Bruce Nauman, for instance Lip Sync (1969)?[2]

TI: The sync/out of sync is a very important element in video. I once did this performance:[3] I am sitting next to a video of me speaking and at the same time I dub it, so the two voices are superimposed. The live voice and the voice from the tape are mixed together and it becomes difficult to tell which one comes from which source.

DS: There are occurrences of the space in-between, or the interval, in most of your video pieces: the space in-between the self in a way.

TI: This is what I am dealing with in Seeing/Hearing (2001) using Jacques Derrida’s quote: “I hear myself at the same time that I speak.” When you read the sentence you can identify the “I” who speaks with the “I” who hears. But in reality the “I” who speaks and the “I” who hears are split. So when I say: “I hear myself at the same time that I speak to myself at the same time that I hear” there are two “I’s.” So when I hear, “I” is not the same as the one who is heard by “I” when I speak. Although the quote is “at the same time,” it is not exactly at the same time.


24 Frames Per Second / Takahiko Iimura

DS: Could you explain what the concept of “MA” is?

TI: It is a very common term in Japanese. MA means something “in-between”, not only in space but also in time. Time and space come together, they are inseparable, and in film you always have to deal with both of them. I have approached MA in different ways. I did shoot this garden in Ryoan-ji, the Zen-Buddhist rock garden in Kyoto, where you see a lot of the space in-between the stones. People walk or sit around it for meditation. There are only fifteen stones, big and small, and yet you cannot see them all at once. You have to move from one end to the other in order to count them all. The design of the garden invites you to walk around it, to have a space in time. In my film 24 Frames Per Second, the concept is like the Chinese Yin and Yang. It combines positive within negative, and negative within positive in a double structure: a white dot in black and a black dot in white. 24 Frames is made in this way, we see one black frame within one second of white, and one white frame within a second of black. The black frame moves every second, starting from the first frame and then reaching the 24th frame. And this is the same for a white frame until white becomes black and black becomes white. That is the way the ancient Chinese looked at the universe. It is this dialectic that I try to present in these works.

DS: Part of this series is a film called MA (Intervals) (1975-77). What was the material used for this one?

TI: I used black space and white space. Then a line crosses in the middle–a white line on black and black line on white so there are four kinds of images each of which lasts one second. I made the sound by scratching the soundtrack. Every second or 24 frames you hear two short beeps or a continuous beep, both sounds being one second long. But the duration of the two beeps sounds shorter than the continuous one.

DS: What about silence in traditional Japanese music?

TI: We use silence a lot, in the spoken language, Haiku, the Noh theatre... There is always silence, which sometimes dominates, and is sometimes hidden. Both silence and the empty space are important factors, for instance in landscape drawings, there is always a lot of white space.

DS: Time, s pace , the space in-between, rhythm: There are many echoes between the formal minimalism of your later videos and John Cage’s music.

TI: I once asked him how he made his famous “silent piece.”[4] In this concert the pianist just opened the lid of the piano, then closed it and timed the performance with a stopwatch. He is my predecessor, as he said: “Time is the most important factor in music,” and in response I would like to say that time is also the most important factor in film.



1. These film portraits are compiled in Filmmakers (1969).

2. Lip Sync is an upside-down close-up of the artist's mouth. Bruce Nauman repeats the words "lip sync" as the audio track shifts in and out of sync with the video.

3. Double Identity (1980).

4. John Cage, 4’33’’ (1952): “The pianist David Tudor opened the piano keyboard cover and set a stopwatch. Adjusting his stool, he sat there for the prescribed time and played nothing. The sounds of the street, the elevator, air-conditioning, squeaking chairs, coughing, giggling, yawning, etc. became deafening.” Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, edited by Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 138.




This interview was co-written by Niina Hartikainen.

Published February 1, 2010


Damien Sanville is a London-based filmmaker and founder of CLOSE-UP.



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