Matsumoto Toshio, who died last year aged 85, was a pioneer of experimental film and video. Alongside four feature-length films (Funeral Parade of Roses / Bara no sōretsu, 1969; Shura / Pandemonium, 1971; War of the Sixteen Year Olds / Juroku-sai no sensō, ­­­­1973; Dogura Magura, 1988) he directed numerous short films, video pieces, documentary shorts, a TV programme and an experimental radio play as well as contributing greatly, in writing to the understanding of radical film and image theory in post-war Japan.

Due to the involvement of experimental film production company and distributor Art Theatre Guild (ATG) with his first two features and the short film For the Damaged Right Eye / Tsuburekakatta migime no tame ni (1968), Matsumoto’s work is often associated with the avant-garde filmmakers of the so-called Japanese New Wave coming to prominence in the 1960s and early ‘70s. However, whilst sharing some of the same concerns and initially something of the aesthetic approach, his oeuvre and interest in non-traditional forms of film projection and exhibition mark him as a kindred spirit to other avant-garde visual artists – like those of radical photography journal Provoke and the avant-garde art collective Gutai Group (Gutai bijutsu kyōkai). In fact, Matsumoto’s earliest film, Ginrin / Bicycle was a collaboration with experimental art collective Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop). The film’s almost abstract simplicity and use of repetitive imagery, recalling the impact of advertising, mirrored some of the collective’s most striking images: photographs of abstract, almost Miro-esque sculptures and the letters APN, lit and arranged to enhance the plasticity of the captured objects, made for Asahi Picture News in the late 1950s.

Matsumoto was also no stranger to advertising. In 1956, he shot a 40-minute documentary entitled Hahatachi / Mothers for a Japanese ham company. Featuring narration written by avant-garde poet, playwright, film director and boxing commentator Terayama Shuji, and shot in four countries (France, the US, Ghana and South Vietnam), the results are accessible by Matsumoto’s standards but are notable for how little the marketed product is featured. (This ties in with a fascinating history of the relationship between consumerism and the Japanese post-war avant-garde, which deserves an essay in itself.)


For the Damaged Right Eye (1968)

Matsumoto’s first collaboration with ATG, For the Damaged Right Eye, is a triple projection exploring the interplay between consumerism, TV, radical political unrest and the politicisation of ‘public’ space in late 1960s Japan. Featuring footage and scenes that would later end up in Funeral Parade, the film utilises its three reels to create a hypnotic, elliptical, repetitive dialectical masterwork. Despite the experimental format and the radical editing, much like its feature-length companion the films’ documentary-like mise-en-scène and firm grounding in everyday reality serves as both the culmination of the first period of Matsumoto’s work and a blueprint for how he would approach the next stage. Taking the documentary style he had established with Song of Stone / Ishi no uta (­­1963) –a film made entirely of re-framed still photographic images – and Mothers (1967), the utilisation of images of reality that are then processed, distorted and corrupted is reminiscent of the photographers and theorists of Provoke journal, established in 1968 by Taki Kōji, Takahira Nakuma, Takanashi Yutaka and Okada Takahiko (Moriyama Daidō, perhaps the most famous member, joined for issue no. 2). The magazine’s byline, ‘Provocative Material for Thought’ / ‘Shisō no tame no chōhatsuteki shiryō’, is a perfect description of Matsumoto’s work, and Damaged Eye in particular. As Philip Charrier pertinently argues, the guiding philosophy of Provoke, an attempt to ‘scientifically’ examine the structures and manifestations of power in consumerist Japan of the 1960s and ’70s, developed by Taki, was far less abstract than first assumed.

As demonstrated by the photographs of Takanashi Yutaka and Provoke associate Tōmatsu Shōmei, the documentary element of photography is played with, gently manipulated so that how we are seeing as well as what we are seeing play equally fundamental roles in the relationship between the viewer and the image. In Takanashi’s book Towards the City / Toshi e and Tōmatsu’s Oh! Shinjuku / Oo! Shinjuku, scenes of city life – cars on the highway, a lover’s tryst, a worker eating – are framed to maximise the voyeuristic element, decentering the subject to provoke questions of what exactly one is witnessing and why. Perhaps most striking are the scenes of political rebellion, blurred students throwing rocks in desolate streets, manning barricades beside banners purposefully reframed so many of the slogans are lost or half-seen. The vitality and political power of these images, and the scenes they witness, is palpable and is echoed in the sheer energy of Damaged Eye. Its succession of images, and the provocation to link them, often makes the film overwhelming. The 1968 Provoke manifesto refers to the developing gulf between language and the material, and the power of images to examine that divide. The intensity of the images in Matsumoto’s work is, if anything, an attempt to realise and play with such an approach. In an early essay on documentary style, Matsumoto argued for the active disruption of ‘objective’ images in favour of more surreal techniques in order to more effectively uncover the reality of a given image, scene or situation. In doing so explicitly anticipates the approach of the photographers of the 1960s and ’70s with their conscious use of everyday imagery and prosaic scenes imparted with new levels of political and philosophical meaning through the adoption and development of new, innovative visual styles. It is documentary, but not quite as we know it.

Whilst taking on new forms relating to modern consumer capitalism in the post-war era, the artistic use of landscape to examine power has a precedent in Japan, being evident in many of the urban and rural images depicted in ukiyo-e of the Tokugawa period (1615–1868), in particular Hiroshige’s 53 Views of the Tōkaidō and Hakuin Ekaku’s Fuji daimyo gyoretsu. So Matsumoto’s and the Provoke-era photographers’ work is, to some extent, informed as much by tradition as a desire to engage with the present. From his work with Jikken kōbō onwards, Matsumoto continuously positioned himself both inside and on the fringes of Japanese artistic culture, utilising his knowledge of the past to comment so fruitfully on the present. It is in this manner that his commentary was so powerful, circumventing then dominant ways of seeing and being – taking an oppositional stance to consumerism that threw that systems structure and failings back at it.

Taking this examination of art and consumerism in the age of mechanical reproduction to its logical conclusion, 1974’s Andy Warhol Re-Reproduction repurposes footage of the titular artist in Japan, talking to the press and signing autographs whilst surrounded by reproductions of some of his most famous pieces. The images and sound are slowed down, distorted, refracted, edges blurred, until the whole piece becomes one solipsistic haze, Mao’s face becoming Monroe’s, Andy’s voice answering questions whilst stating nothing but abstract phrases. Viewing this, one is reminded of the war of words enveloping Japanese visual art of the post-war period, with many western art critics decrying the work of artists such as Gutai’s Yoshihara Jirō and Shimamoto Shōzō as merely an adoption of Dadaism and abstract expressionism, without imparting anything new. This can obviously be negated by the argument, made by several Japanese artists, that much of the western art they were accused of ripping off was itself the product of developments in occidental visual culture made possible by the explicit referencing and copying of pre-modern Japanese artistic techniques and ways of seeing. Warhol, the king of consumerist reproduction is, in Matsumoto’s film, positioned alongside ‘his’ invention, consumerist art. The joke being, of course, that such quasi-commodification has been a part of Japanese visual culture for centuries.

The move away from ‘documentary’ at the early ‘70s mirrored an increasing focus on the abstract and the human form. Funeral’s close-ups of writhing bodies foreshadowed this, but it took a more prominent turn that same year with Projection for Icon / Ikon no tame no purojekushon, in which images were projected onto giant balloons that moving around the exhibition space. Space Projection Ako, conceived for the 1970 Osaka Expo took these experiments even further. Utilising the interior of a specially constructed dome-like structure, with sculptures on the projection surface, and culminating in the projection of an image of a woman’s naked body across the whole dome, Ako signalled a major shift in Matsumoto’s work. The focus on movement recalls a psychedelic Muybridge, but is also a theme shared with another group of photographers from 1960s and ’70s Japan: Hosoe Eikō and Shinoyama Kishin, both of whom had garnered attention for collaborations with writer and political activist Mishima Yukio (the former in Ordeal by Roses, later reworked with input from Yokoo Tadanori; the latter in Mishima Yukio’s House, including the famous photo of the writer recreating the death of St Sebastian, a figure heavily eroticised in Mishima’s mythology). The fixation on bodily movements in Matsumoto’s Phantom (1975) and the ‘presence’ of the historical/theatrical in Ātman (1975) elicits similar responses as Hosoe’s collaboration with Butoh dancer Hijikata Tatsumi, Kamaitachi, a stunningly beautiful series of photographs documenting the relationship between body, folk history and the landscape of Japan’s Tohoku region, from which both Hosoe and Hijikata hailed.


Mona Lisa (1973)

Matsumoto’s preoccupation with bold, alien colours and the insertion of erroneous images into the frame is also reminiscent of the work of one of Japan’s most famous post-war visual artists, Yokoo Tadanori – whose illustrations appear in Damaged Eye. Both Matsumoto and Yokoo utilise the recognisable from contemporaneous Japan and history and legend – faces of actors, musical groups, female bodies, Nō masks – subverting them using cut and paste, off-kilter edits and juxtapositions to create a beautiful, mysteriously political, structuralist hyper-reality. Unlike the illustrations of contemporaries Tanaami Keiichi, Awazu Kiyoshi and Aquirax Uno, who dealt mainly in a psychedelic surrealism, even at their most abstracted Matsumoto and Yokoo evoke a playful hyper-realism to examine the profound material, cultural and psychological changes in post-war Japan. If films such as Metastasis, Extasis and Ātman initially appear devoid of political content, particularly compared with the work of someone like Oshima Nagisa (whose film Diary of a Shinjuku Thief / Shinjuku Dorobō Nikki Yokoo both designed posters for and acted in), it is their attempt to engage with a more subconscious politics that marks them as radical. Metastasis and Extasis, for example, utilise just three images between them, images which are then repeatedly reframed, decentred, with (unnatural) colours constantly mutating. If the use of single, striking images recalls the bold imagism of consumerism, the violent repetition of the films’ structures and the nauseous aesthetics create a feeling of decay, death and the erosion of the soul. This consumerism, Matsumoto’s films suggest, may initially be hypnotic, even beguiling, but innate in this is the exposition of the death drive, a peeling back of the layers to expose the cancerous sickness at the heart of western consumerism. Taking its title from the French for rapture, ecstasy, trance, terror and amazement, Extasis’ repeating images and industrial sounds are humorous, beguiling, hypnotic. Metastasis’ image of a toilet in morphing colours embodies all those feelings, evoking Georges Batailles’ contention that we are born from shit and we will return to it. In one sense, perhaps, this film is as much a treatise on the transiency of life as any Ozu film.

At the end of the 1970s and into the ’80s, Matsumoto’s films took another leap towards abstraction, with human forms being peripheral or absent completely. White Hole (1979) and Enigma (1978) are the most extreme examples of this shift, the former playing as a muted version of 2001’s ‘Star Gate’ sequence, evoking the metaphysical concerns of Matsumoto’s filmmaking during this period. None more so than in Ki = Breathing from 1980. Co-produced by Architect Isozaki Arata, with music by Takemitsu Tōru, its chapters marked by images projected onto traditional Japanese objects – washi (Japanese paper), a fan, a byōbu folding screen – the film’s three sections focus on ancient Japanese nature – mountains cloaked in mist, a cluster of Jizo statues, waves lapping at the shore – all inhabited by the same ghostly pale woman, her movements invoking Nō. In its own abstract way, the film contends with some of the same psychogeographic and ethnographic issues as earlier films by Imamura Shōhei (Insect Woman / Nippon konchu-ki, 1963, and Profound Desires of the Gods / Kamisama no fukaki yokubō, 1968) and Masahiro Shinoda (Himiko, 1974). This interest in mystical, folk aspects of Japan’s history is also evinced in Sway / Yuragi suei (1985). Concurrently, Matsumoto’s work was focusing more on the image manipulation of various prosaic spaces, in works such as Relation / rirēshon  kankei and Shift / Shifuto  dansou (both 1982) in which then-modern video techniques are used to play around with depictions of geographical and architectural space, evoking the early work of then emerging video artist Itō Takashi – in particular Spacy (1981) and Box (1982).[1]


Matsumoto Toshio

Matsumoto, who spent much of the last few decades of his life teaching at universities, will most likely always be remembered most fondly for Funeral Parade (who can blame people, it is, along with Damaged Eye, one of my all-time favourite films), but the fact that it was made at the outset of the most progressive and exciting period of Japanese film tends to draw attention from the fascinating links between Matsumoto and the wider visual avant-garde in Japan between the years 1950 and 1990, something I hope this essay has gone someway to address.

by Espen Bale

[1] Itō was himself influenced by Matsumoto, writing on his webpage that early film (1977) was a response to seeing Matsumoto’s Ātman.

One Comment on “Images as Poetry: The Experimental Short Films and Videos of Matsumoto Toshio

  1. Pingback: Episode 084 – Funeral Parade of Roses – The 25th Frame

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