Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 4, 2021
Go Hirasawa, Ann Adachi-Tasch, and Julian Ross, eds. Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s Trans. Yuzo Sakuramoto and Colin Smith. Berlin: Archive Books, 2020. 222 pp. Paper €15.00 (9783948212292)

In 2016 the Tate Modern and International Film Festival Rotterdam presented Throwing Shadows: Japanese Expanded Cinema in the Time of Pop, a series of screenings and events accompanied by a symposium. The program included restagings of live cinema performances by Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver, Rikuro Miyai, and Jun’ichi Okuyama decades after their original inception and, for the first time, for audiences in the UK. Unlike extant single-screen works of experimental film, expanded cinema and intermedia often involves multiple projection sources and multiple surfaces upon which images are projected, and typically includes live, performative elements that respond in real time to the visual material on display. This ephemeral quality has made historical work of this kind especially difficult to experience, and like its counterparts—happenings and guerilla theater—it can be challenging for scholars and researchers to study without thorough documentation. With this in mind, Throwing Shadows can be seen as a pivotal moment for the historical recovery of Japanese expanded cinema. Two of the program’s curators, Go Hirasawa and Julian Ross, have continued to explore the artists and communities that form this overlooked history of Japanese moving-image art, most recently with Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s. It is the first publishing endeavor of Collaborative Cataloging Japan, an organization that is “dedicated to preserving, documenting, and disseminating the legacy of Japanese experimental moving image made in [the] 1950s–1980s.” As a major step in furthering this mission, Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia is a thoroughly assembled overview of the printed legacy surrounding Japan’s vibrant experimental cinema scene, translated into English here for the first time.

The terms “expanded cinema” and “intermedia”—sometimes viewed as interchangeable—have their own fraught definitions, which have evolved throughout the decades, finding different uses and contexts in different parts of the world. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins is credited with originating the term intermedia in the mid-1960s, while Stan VanDerBeek and Jonas Mekas began using the term expanded cinema around the same time. Japanese avant-garde artists such as Takahiko Iimura, Kenji Kanesaka, and Tone Yasunao, who each spent considerable time in the United States during the 1960s, were involved with Fluxus and the American avant-garde and likely found the terms useful in describing what had been taking place in Japanese experimental film and contemporary art during the early part of the decade. The flexible terminology was well suited to the postwar Japanese art world, where the notion of sōgō geijutsu (total art) had been embraced by groups such as the Neo-Dadaists that worked across disciplines and mediums. Drawn from pamphlets, journals, artist manifestos, and the like, the material collected in this volume provides a firsthand account of the emerging field of expanded cinema and intermedia as it evolved in Japan throughout the 1960s.

Divided into four sections—“Intermedia,” “Precedents to Expanded Cinema,” “Case Studies,” and “Pop Cinema: Cinema as Art in the Age of Reproduction”—the writings convey a specific urgency and a call to action for the art form to activate the space beyond the movie screen, beyond the confines of cinema itself. For example, Takahiko Iimura in his program notes “A Two-Way Peep Window,” which accompanied the 1963 Sweet 16 screening at Sogetsu Art Center, insists that film is a “spatial art” and “the screen doubles as an eye that watches the viewer watching it” (117). By emphasizing the peripheral action as much as the action transpiring on the screen, venues for intermedia and expanded cinema became less medium specific, with universities, nightclubs, and art galleries emerging as sites where film screenings, light shows, installations, and performances took place. The book maps the key alternative spaces that formed the network of intermedia activity at the time. Tokyo’s Gallery Lunami, site of the five-day Intermedia event in 1967, became a regular venue for screenings. Intermedia organizer Koichiro Ishizaki’s introduction to the program firmly asserts the event’s intention to establish this new genre and “let nature take its course.” Concurrently Killer Joe’s discotheque in the Ginza district became another testing ground for moving-image art, hosting the Intermedia Arts Festival in early 1969. Though there are parallels to similar projects in the United States—Jordan Belson’s and Henry Jacob’s Vortex Concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, the activities of intermedia collective USCO—the texts collected here center the activities among Japan’s foremost exponents of underground film and art. In addition to the authors’ biographies, the book also contains a helpful index of events, groups, spaces, and journals and a chronology.

Moving beyond formalist concerns, the writers critically assess the social and political landscape within which these experiments were taking place: the rapid industrialization of Japan’s postwar years, the ensuing student protest movement of the late 1960s, and the growing influence of Western consumer culture. Tone Yasunao, who organized the Intermedia Arts Festival, considered art and society to be inextricably linked and saw intermedia as a means to enhance the social experience and provide a criticality that was lacking in some intermedia art in the United States and elsewhere. This criticality is exemplified in the works of Rikuro Miyai, whose film Phenomenology of the Zeitgeist documents street protests in a ghostlike double projection along with a psychedelic rock soundtrack. Miyai’s “The Phenomenological Documentary: Directions in Pop Cinema,” originally published in Eizo Geijutsu (Image arts) in 1968, further elaborates his unique approach to political documentary and Pop art while controversially citing Yukio Mishima as an influence. Of course, no collection of late-sixties artists’ writings would be complete without the requisite screed devoted to dropping out of society and “turning on” to psychedelic drugs. Masanori Oe’s “The Aesthetics of Ecstasy and the Yippie Revolution,” from a July 1969 issue of Eiga Hyorōn (Cinema criticism), is billed as a “dropout manifesto” and reads like the peyote-drenched marriage of Wilheim Reich and Timothy Leary. Like Rikuro Miyai’s, Oe’s own films are dazzling intersections of politics and Pop art.

An underlying theme that pervades the book is that the mid to late 1960s are considered the high watermark for Japanese expanded cinema and intermedia, culminating in the Expo ’70 world’s fair held in Osaka during 1970 and ushering in a less dynamic, sanitized version of what had come before. Writing in April 1969 for Eiga Hyoron, Junzo Ishiko reviewed the recently completed Cross Talk/Intermedia event that was sponsored by the American Culture Center, which brought together international contemporary music composers with artists working in expanded cinema from Japan and elsewhere. The review, titled “Does Art Exist for the Sake of Industrial Cooperation?,” reckons with what he saw as complicity on the part of many of the presenting artists in the industrialization of technology. It is interesting to note the similar criticisms lobbed at American intermedia artists at the time, some of whom had also participated in Cross Talk/Intermedia, for their eager embrace of new technologies that uncomfortably overlapped with the military-industrial complex. Electronic art has always struggled to balance itself as both a liberating force and as a tool of capitalism. With the conflict in Vietnam growing more dire throughout the 1960s, it became harder to escape the notion that artists working with technology were really corporate apologists, both in Japan and the United States.

In the book’s introduction, the editors note that this may be the first in a series of publications on the subject, given that some texts were omitted. It would be great to see future volumes include more voices of women artists and perhaps give space to artists still living, to reflect on this period, their work, and the work of their peers. As the first book in this series, Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia overwhelmingly succeeds as an essential guide for English-speaking audiences eager to connect with another facet of moving-image art history. The recent restaging of Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s 1969 installation Cinematic Illumination at the Museum of Modern Art in New York certainly shows that these works are ripe for rediscovery.

Jesse Pires
Director & Curator, Lightbox Film Center, University of the Arts