It’s a wonder that the avant-garde – the highly serious and self-important avant-garde – has survived the trivializing onslaughts of the Ironic Age, but if this collection of five short Japanese experimental films is any indication, it has. Or at least it has in Japan.
These days American experimental films tend to be narrative shuffling or animated fun (exceptions noted), subversive wit being placed at a high premium. But watching these Japanese films one is reminded of an earlier tone and texture, of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, of manipulations of the medium’s intrinsic qualities and fractured, dreamlike allegories – of artists who were not in collusion with their audience, but rather would-be members of a priestly caste who kept their deeper meanings to themselves.
So there’s a general opaqueness here – you can only go so far in describing what you’re seeing before you’re making up stuff. Mikio Yamazaki’s VM Drifting (1990, 9 minutes) settles into repeated images of a woman taking off an earring and seemingly offering it to someone off-camera, until an increasing intrusion of color, framing and editing obliterates the image.
Ippei Harada’s Escaping Lights (1992, 13 minutes) starts in a ritualistic mode with a held shot of shadowy people walking over a pavement of concentric stones, then becomes a blurry documentary, the neon lights of the city looking like time-lapse photos of distant stars (though the ubiquitous Coca Cola sign comes through clearly).
Less visually abstract is Masayuki Yonaha’s Streams (1997, 26 minutes), in which a nude young woman first seen encased in a cube of embryonic water later emerges from the sea to crawl over the sand with photogenic intensity.
Nagaru Miyake’s Corrosion Tone (1998, 30 minutes) devises an elaborate physical metaphor for "visual perception derived from touch" in what seems like an extended dance piece.
The tour-de-force here is Teruo Koike’s Ecosystem 9: A Quicksand Eclipse (1993, 13 minutes) which has thousands of overlaid photos flickering by, a frame at a time, accompanied by birdlike noises over a raspy drone. It’s more information than one can consciously absorb, but if you don’t flinch it’s effectively hypnotic and inexplicably sinister.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.