Stop Making Nonsense: Japanese Surrealism Q&A

This is the transcript of a conversation between South Side Projections programmer Harrison Sherrod and School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate student Kara Jefts following our June 4, 2015 screening “Stop Making Nonsense: Japanese Surrealist Films, 1960-1964” at the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Thanks to Logan Bay for recording the audio, which was broadcast live on Lumpen Radio, WLPN 105.5 FM.

Harrison Sherrod: Good evening, again. I think we’re going to go ahead and start the Q&A portion. Feel free to grab an adult beverage, but I’ve got a few questions that I want to ask Kara. I’ll preface this by saying that neither of us had seen any of the films. I curated this program based on reputation of the films and the filmmakers alone, so we’re both still digesting what we just saw.

There’s often a relationship between avant-garde works of art and periods of great catastrophe and socio-political upheaval. Much of your work is about Japanese art that followed World War I. How do you think these films are similarly influenced by a postwar zeitgeist?

Kara Jefts: Thanks again for inviting me also. Because this isn’t exactly my specialty, I’m trying to draw parallels between the interwar period and the post-1945 period while watching these. The interwar period was a post-disaster moment marked more so by a major earthquake that happened than by World War I itself. And I think that that earthquake, which totally devastated the Tokyo region—hundreds of thousands of people died, millions of people were homeless, the city erupted in flames—I think that catastrophe was most directly comparable to the post-1945 moment where they were dealing with the aftermath of fire bombings and the atomic bombs. So I think that that is the way that you can most directly compare the zeitgeist of the moment, but also I think it’s interesting the way that the experimental is treated through mass media in both periods. In the interwar period, I think it comes through mostly in publication: mass media in magazine format and radio format. And in the post-1945 moment, I think it comes through more in film. And I think that is kind of an interesting parallel that you might be able to draw between the two and the way that more marginalized activities were able to be shared with a larger audience though the films may have been produced in small communities in the same way that magazines were produced in small communities. They were able to be shared more broadly just because of the format.

Harrison Sherrod: “Erotic grotesque nonsense” is a term that was coined to describe a bizarre brand of mass culture made in the twenties and thirties. Could you describe what the style is and whether you think it’s present in these films?

Kara Jefts: “Erotic grotesque nonsense” is an idea that was kind of promoted through criticism in the thirties to describe counterculture movements that were in poor taste, essentially, according to mass media context. And in the same way I think there are parallels you could draw to the films we saw tonight, though I think there’s probably different language in the post-1945 moment. And one of the things that I read in prepping for what we might see was an interesting term daraku, which translates loosely as “falling away,” and it comes actually from a semi-fictional account by a popular critic and artist who wrote an account of watching the fire bombings from the top of a Tokyo film office. And so they watched the fire bombings and the story that resulted was his semi-fictional account of that, and it was widely read. The term daraku—the story was called Darakuran—kind of translates this idea of degeneracy, chaos, the overwhelming moment that’s polarized between what the perception of life was like on the surface level and what the nation wanted to project and what the daily life was actually like.

Harrison Sherrod: As a follow up, the theme of the body is really prevalent, or that’s a motif that runs throughout all four films. There’s the kinetic body, the erotic body, the dead body, and the edible body. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that as a theme. Did that resonate with you upon this first viewing?

Kara Jefts: Yeah, I thought a lot actually about the body as landscape in the various contexts. In the second film they’re actually putting clay, they’re putting the earth, on his body. In the third film we see very close-up shots of the body. We’re not able to really tell what’s going on. It’s really high contrast and grainy. And then in the third film I actually thought of the body more in a direct relationship to the female body. And I think the third film and the relationship to the cafe waitress is actually really important, and the position of the woman and the working woman. It was really humorous, but I think she was also humiliated in that film, and I think that she kind of has to endure. I think that those are the sort of things that I caught about the body.

Harrison Sherrod: These films exist as part of a wider art movement that was happening in 1960s Japan. You’re an art historian, so I want to ask how can we situate them in relation to developments in painting, sculpture, performance, or other mediums that were happening simultaneously?

Kara Jefts: Again, going back to thinking of film as a mass media context. We had talked about the fact that a lot of these filmmakers were both making these kind of art house, avant-garde films but also working in commercial art. And the same thing was happening in the 1920s, which I’m more familiar with, and a lot of the artists that were producing little magazines were also working in advertising. And I think that access to the materials is one thing, or to the equipment, and so I think that especially with the art-house films…in order to be able to have access to the equipments and to the studios, in order to produce these films, they were working in commercial contexts. And that doesn’t really necessarily answer your question, but it does in the kind of longer stretches. I think that a lot of the activity, the avant-garde activity that was happening was in smaller, tightly knit communities. I think there’s probably a lot of improv happening in the films we saw tonight. There certainly was a lot of performance happening in the sixties and seventies, so I think by filming it, it was a way of sharing things more broadly.

Harrison Sherrod: So last question before I open it up to the audience. I have perhaps irresponsibly labeled these films as surrealist works of art, and I wonder if you think that it’s appropriate to use that term elastically across decades and borders?

Kara Jefts: We talked about this a little, too. At first, I was like, “Yeah, you know, I’m not sure about labeling them blanketly surrealist,” but there definitely are a lot of surrealist influences. There’s a lot of crossover between European avant-gardes and Japanese avant-gardes, and that carried through from the early twentieth century to the post-1945 moment. And there were definitely artists and filmmakers who considered themselves surrealist. Kobo Abe is a pretty well-known author of that time. He worked with filmmakers, and so you can say that surrealism was an influence, but then secondarily things that are, for lack of a better word, ‘native,’ or brought from traditional cultural influences through theater and folklore, are also an influence. And I think there’s a particular interest in the dreamlike states and stream of consciousness as a way of accessing deeper feelings. They marry well together and I think it’s a mix. I think it does work.

Harrison Sherrod: I want to open it up to the audience, in case anybody has any questions. I see a hand. Would you like the microphone?

Audience Member 1: So I don’t know much about art in Japan in the sixties, but I noticed that throughout the fourth film there’s a lot of Western influence in Japan, that was quickly becoming more Western, I suppose. I wanted to know your thoughts on whether you saw that as maybe a criticism of the Westernization, as sort of expressed through the female’s bodies sort of being consumed and being turned into what we normally see as Western-style dishes, especially the spaghetti motif.

Kara Jefts: Yeah, I definitely noticed that as well. It’s a Western-style cafe that they’re eating in. Well, there are a couple of things. One being that the Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, and I think that there was a big urge at that point to show Tokyo as a modern westernized city. And there was a lot of investment in infrastructure and technology at that time, as we see over and over when there’s Olympic games in a city. But also in the early sixties, Japan was occupied by U.S. military bases and there were a lot of protests and a lot of conflict between students and the idea of expansion of these military bases. So there was a lot of tension between the Japanese national heritage and the idea of Western influence. I don’t know that that’s necessarily new. I think that Western-style cafes, for instance, were popular in the 20s and 30s as well. I think that her having to endure her insides being picked out, taken out, and then serving them to the customer, maybe speaks more broadly to the economic disparity that was also happening at that time. I think it’s in part a result of the sudden urge to show themselves as a modern nation. But it’s kind of mixed, I think.

Audience Member 2: Going off on that similar topic of Japanese politics in the 1960s and how it’s reflected in these works, you already mentioned that you hadn’t watched these clips before. But I found the second film sort of different in style than the others because the second one was very much aware of its social context at the time. It reads out different historical points up until then. It also includes clips of the student protests as well. It’s not much of a question, but more asking for your opinion on how that one particular clip compares against the others, which are very much aesthetically oriented and almost willfully ignoring the uprising doubts that were basically consuming Japan in the 1960s.

Kara Jefts: I think that that’s a good observation. I think that the choice to not be overtly political is in part political also. If I were to watch each one five more times, I could have more direct things to point out. For instance, one thing that I’ve read a lot about in the context of the 1920s and 30s and “erotic grotesque nonsense” is the idle body as kind of a rejection of participation in national interest. The idle body isn’t producing anything, it’s not contributing to the rebuilding of a nation, and I think in some way you could read the other three films in that same context, where ideas of play and humor and goofing off are in a way political also, though not overtly expressing or rejecting something, or pointing a finger at something, but more subversively commenting on that.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. (in the audience): This one’s for Harrison actually. You just taught a course on Chicago surrealism and my question is where are the great Chicago-made surrealist films? You and I have been looking. We have not found them. Do you have any idea why?

Harrison Sherrod: That’s a really good question. I’m not prepared to say that there aren’t great Chicago surrealist films. I mean, the reason, Kara, why I asked you whether you thought it was appropriate to use this term “surrealist,” because I think it’s probably one of the most co-opted terms out there. I mean, it’s basically now used as something that’s kind of synonymous with weird or unusual or bizarre, but, in fact, it has very specific spatio-temporal coordinates. It’s a philosophy, it’s an ideology, kind of. But I mean, I think our friend Tom Palazzolo is probably the greatest Chicago surrealist filmmaker. We’ve shown several of his films here. But it interesting that there’s such a clear influence of surrealist painting on, say, the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who, and a few of them kind of dabbled in filmmaking. Ed Paschke most notably made a few short films before he kind of abandoned that for painting. But I reckon that there’s some great Chicago surrealist films that we just haven’t found yet, and rest assured when I find them, we’ll show them.

Any final questions?

Audience Member 4: Hi, I really enjoyed the program. Who’s distributing these films?

Harrison Sherrod: These films are from Film-Makers’ Coop in New York City, which has a phenomenal history. It’s a run by a filmmaker, MM Serra. They have a website and you can browse their entire catalogue. But what’s great is that they distribute a lot of stuff that’s not available on DVD or streaming services, and we’re really interested in excavating and mining that archive.

Audience Member 5: Would you say there’s any connection between these films from the 60s and early Japanese surreal films like Page of Madness?

Harrison Sherrod: I don’t know. I haven’t seen enough of the films that were made in the twenties. I forget the name of the production company that made Page of Madness, but it’s interesting that there is kind of a precedent for the films that we saw tonight. But I think that what we saw here kind of represents the burgeoning of Japanese New Wave filmmaking that would come to occur in the sixties. For me what’s resonating is some of the surrealist proper films that were made, like Un Chien Andalou by Buñuel and Dali. I think that there’s something going on, there’s a rhyming taking place between that film and An Eater, the last film that we saw.

Well thanks for coming everybody. I’d be happy to chat with people after the program. Please get a drink from Logan at the bar. Should we hype the radio station? What’s the frequency? WLPN 105.5 FM, on your dial. And this program, it’s gonna broadcast at some other time? It’s live right now. Okay, alright. It may play later, if you didn’t get enough of it. Check them out. Thanks so much to Kara for being here, and Joe and Mike and everybody.