Films by Mako Idemitsu: The Q&A

Q&A with Wakae Nakane, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts PhD candidate, and Toby Wu, graduate student in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard, following Prefiguring Immediacy: Video Art by Mako Idemitsu at the Logan Center for the Arts on April 3, 2022.

Toby Wu (TW): Thank you Michael. Okay, so I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts, yes. I really would like to encourage you to speak, but I think before that, to allow our thoughts about the films to cohere a little bit, I wanted to give some biographical information about who Idemitsu Mako is, and then invite Wakae to give also her reflections on Idemitsu’s significance within the larger history of experimental film in Japan, as well as feminist experimental practice. So it had mentioned Mako was born in the 1940s in Tokyo, after which she studied at Waseda University, graduated in 1963, went to Columbia University from 1964 to 1965, and then that’s when she moved to Santa Monica. She got married to expressionist painter Sam Francis. They had two children, after which she moved back to Tokyo with her sons, and shortly after separated from Sam Francis in 1972. And that’s when she began to have a formal practice, where she worked with people such as Michael Goldberg, as you might have seen in the credits, her DOP, cameraman, who was known to have brought video practice into Tokyo. There was a huge event called DIY Do it Yourself Kit at the Sony Building, in which a lot of local Tokyo filmmakers gathered to experiment with video. And then you see how she experimented all the way until 1989 in Kiyoko’s Situation

So what interested me, and the impetus of this program, really, is to show Idemitsu’s attention to the media aesthetics of television. I think usually when Idemitsu’s work is included in film programs, you can only see one, right? And a lot of times it’s situated within a film program about feminist practice. So I guess the narrative side of the work supersedes the formal aesthetics of it, as well as, as you can tell, you know, as much as from film to film you might see the variance of how she uses the television or the orientation of the television, she did not have the luxury, the male luxury, of pure formal abstraction or anything else, right, to really play with the aesthetics of television. But as you can see, there is a very keen attention to how it functions in different works. I would say that she uses it quite specifically. And I think when we extract the domestic narrative and context of a work in examining the formation of female protagonists, we don’t really see how she is thinking through it in terms of the usage of media.

And so watching it today, even though I’ve seen it so many times, I think what I was really struck by is just how varied her portrayal of the everyday is. And this is where I think it’s so serendipitous that this program is taking place now. As Wakae recently worked on a program with Professor Miryam Sas at UC Berkeley called Anarchic Visions of the Everyday, in which she examined five female filmmakers who use very differing modes of experimentation and animation – maybe you can explain it better later – to show what everyday looks like for Japanese females. And so, Wakae, I guess my first question for you is, how would you describe Idemitsu’s practice in relation to the filmmakers that you showed? And, sorry, it’s never a good idea to talk about things that you didn’t see, but I think it’s important to situate it in that context. And you can find more information about Wakae’s program online on collaborative cataloging in Japan.

Wakae Nakane (WN): Thank you so much. Let me first thank both Toby and Michael for the invitation to such a fascinating event. I’m so honored to be here, and I really appreciate the institutional support that made it possible. It’s a really fascinating collection of Idemitsu Mako’s films. In terms of thinking about feminist film practice, especially in the Japanese context, I think she is one of the pioneer figures in that context. And really one of the most interesting things to me is that the era, the time she started to make films coincided with the surge of the feminist liberation movement, not only in North America but globally. But one of the interesting things is her exposure to these feminist praxes was mainly happening in the American context, because she spent her time in the sixties and seventies mostly here in America, and she joined consciousness-raising feminist groups. And also she had some personal connections with these feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago. And she actually shot one of her first film works about Judy Chicago’s installation work Womanhouse in Southern California. So I think it is really interesting to see how this kind of feminist sensibility has been structured and cultured, not only in a Japanese-specific context, like where you can see a really stronger sense of patriarchal domination, but also her exposure to various feminist activities, mainly in the West Coast.

So I think in terms of that, I was struck by some of the shared elements with some feminist film practices, like conceptualization of these feminist works, such as Laura Mulvey’s “negative aesthetic,” which is trying to investigate the mechanism by which the ideology and norms of patriarchy operate within the modes of representation. So I can see the element of negation of pleasure in the film works, such as Another Day of A Housewife. It really reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. And although her work is not very abstract, expressionistic work, there is also a formalistic rigor trying to disrupt, trying to reveal the patriarchal structure using the specificity of film and video as a medium. So I think these are some of the general ideas. I thought it was really fascinating.

TW: Thank you so much for introducing Mulvey’s notion of the negative aesthetic. I think it’s a useful tool to try to evaluate how she is actually forming the narratives in each film, right? Cause like you mentioned, it’s very strong in Another Day of A Housewife, and also similarly in Kiyoko’s Situation. But in Hideo, It’s Me, Mama that doesn’t necessarily take the shape or really influence the tenor of the film necessarily, even if it might have the same resonances or the same construct, even the same location of the domestic setting, because she’s mainly confined within the house space. Could you also share the significance of Idemitsu portraying women at different stages of their lives and the different kinds of relationships that they have, and help us get a clearer sense of what she’s really trying to argue for in this instance?

WN: I guess one of the concepts that this reminded me of was when you talk about a female subjectivity or a female subject, the term “female subject” is relational rather than individual. It is really kind of a clichéd term to describe female subjectivity. But I think she is trying to reveal oppressive mechanisms of that relational – especially seeing her thumbs portraying the specific kind of sociocultural context of Japanese households, and especially some of the works that were made in the 1980s are depicting a really strong presence of the gendered division of labor that actually enabled the economic growth, economic miracle of Japan, because the company required men to work, to devote their life to the company, but it was only enabled by this kind of rigorously gendered division of labor, because women have to take care of everything at the house. So it is, I think, really interesting. Although, as I mentioned, her feminist sensibility is somehow structured interculturally, her focus is always the culturally, temporally specific point of post-war Japan.

TW: Thank you. I really appreciate that historical context, as well as you pointing out how we really cannot see these works – as much as we want to appreciate the formal aspects, we cannot see these works without their specific Japanese context. And I think it also brings up a really interesting question of how, especially with female filmmakers, there’s this huge burden on them to try and be somewhat autobiographical or reflect their own experience as they try and portray different sides of female activity. So I think that’s one of the reasons why I also wanted to include the first film, Inner-man, as a first impression of what her practice is, and to reveal some aspect of her transnational artistic formation. And so I’m interested to know – you also coming from USC, which is very known for studying experimental film on the West Coast, and that’s the kind of environment that Idemitsu was really forming out of – with the two experimental films that we saw today, how do you see that in relation to the televisual works in terms of the difference in what they’re trying to show, as well as how they fit with other formal experimental films at the time?

WN: Actually I was really struck by the choice of the films and video works that were included in this program. I can see the development of her thematic interest and the development of formal experimentation. And I think Baby Variation is it one of the earliest works?

TW: It’s one of her earlier works. Sorry, so it’s not chronological. I think everything was chronological except Baby Variation.

WN: I was struck by the fact that, as Idemitsu mentions in her autobiography, her role as a mother made it really difficult to find time to concentrate on her artwork. So her strategy then was to shoot things whenever she was able to do so. And so later on she compiled these fragmented footages and edited it to make it somehow a coherent short work. But I can tell her initial strategy of artistic creation in a work such as Baby Variation. And then also, this is maybe adding some of the autobiographical information, but Idemitsu underwent Jungian psychoanalysis. Her dreams were analyzed for years, and she got a lot of inspiration and influence from the concepts of Jungian psychoanalysis. So it is really interesting to see a lot of specific Jungian terms such as archetype, shadowed, ominous, and things like that. And in Japan at the time, psychoanalysis was not really a major form of psychiatric treatment. It was not really accessible to everybody. So I think Idemitsu encountering Jungian psychoanalysis is really also something that happened because she was able to get exposed to these cultures on the West Coast. So in that sense, I think, her social and class status is really a deep contributing factor that provided her far greater exposure and accessibility to these intellectual and artistic communities in North America. To give you background, her father is a really famous –

TW: Petrochemical tycoon.

WN: Yes, billionaire.

TW: He also has an institution in Tokyo that still is open today. It’s called the Idemitsu Museum and it features mainly traditional Japanese art. And so, Idemitsu does not I mean, this shouldn’t be a main point of consideration, but she didn’t have a good relationship with her father, and her father did not approve of the kind of films that she was making. So there’s this, I think, deliberate rupture from her own lineage, and I guess what was expected of her artistic endeavors. Anyway, I think what we’re trying to do here is to tease out multiple things that we think are really inseparable from how we should view her work. And it’s very difficult to try and, again, reconcile all these things together and to understand how that forms a film product. But I really hope that these different elements help you see, I guess, to me, why her work is so challenging, especially in comparison to other experimental works of the period. And this is without us even showing other examples of what her peers were making, both on the West Coast as well as in Tokyo at that point in time. But I think now is a good time for us to open it up. And I’d just like to hear if you noticed other things that maybe we are not seeing in terms of the formal specificity of the work, or, you know, how it relates to other feminist film practice. 

Audience Member #1: Yeah, so just to make sure I get this information correct, she began producing video after going back to Japan, right?

TW: Video specifically, yes. But she started working with 16mm film when she was in California, as early as 1965. And I think the whole time I’ve been resisting to say that she is a self-taught artist, because I hate these kinds of labels to try and – what does it matter, right? So she was not formally trained as an artist. At Columbia she mainly studied literature and politics. And in California she learned from, she gained access from her husband’s network. Again, very negative, not useful kinds of frameworks. And then when she went to Tokyo she also worked with a lot of video makers there. So she did gain technical expertise from other people. I would say that that’s not a main consideration in terms of understanding what her ambitions for art practice were.

Audience Member #1: I see. Yeah, fair. So I was just wondering, how were her videos received in that time?

WN: I think in terms of reception, the international reception and reception in the domestic context, like in Japan, are really significantly different. And I think some of the works which have very strong feminist aspirations were well received overseas. And I think it also maybe coincided – it also has to do with the situation in Japan. Actually, there are really very few female experimental artists. So I don’t think there is enough ground for people to receive or interpret her work. But internationally, I think especially in the 1980s, Japan’s growing economic presence contributed to attract people’s attention to Japan in general. But Idemitsu’s work presented different figures of Japan, different kinds of ideas about Japan. It’s not something Japan officially advertised overseas. So I think these works drew a lot of attention in the international context in terms of giving some deeper insight into what is happening in Japan, especially in the domestic sphere, that is invisible usually.

TW: Thank you. Yes, two anecdotes. The first being in 1974, Barbara London at the Museum of Modern Art, she’s the first new media curator at that point in time, she worked with Nakaya Fujiko, who was another female media artist who was then based in Tokyo. So they worked together to create this program called New York Tokyo Video Express, in which they showed both Japanese and American video. And Idemitsu was one of the two females that were on that program. But what was shown in that program was a video called What a Woman Made. And it’s a video of her flushing a tampon in a toilet bowl. So none of the narrative televisual stuff. 

Another anecdote is that Nakaya Fujiko and Michael Goldberg in the 1972 DIY Do It Yourself Kit workshop – the official narrative of video art at that point in time in Japan was that they were very interested in the communicative potential of video, in terms of live feedback, as you hear in American lineages of video art. And so they were characterized as being politically engaged on the street and doing life feedback loops in public spaces. And so Idemitsu is the exact opposite of that, right? She’s domestic and she’s narrative and all planned and everything like that. So it’s very difficult to try and see, even though she is well known at that point in time, and everyone knows who she is, and she’s working and producing a lot of work at that point in time. But, yes?

Audience Member #2: Thank you. Hi. I feel like there’s an echo. Yeah, so when I was watching these I was thinking about how her films, in terms of theoretical discourse about women, feminism, and construction of gender, how I see parallels with American and European feminism. So as far as like, the construction of woman as being what she does or what she’s supposed to be doing every day, from the kind of minute – and I actually thought it was quite moving, the one with the eye, because this is the kind of work that traditionally no one is watching, no one is paying attention to. But I was wondering, because I’m not at all familiar with Japanese or East Asian feminist theory, if she’s in dialogue or she’s been in dialogue with that as well. Yeah, a few words maybe about that. And thank you so much to both of you, by the way, for this excellent event.

WN: Thank you so much. Actually Idemitsu’s encounter with Japanese feminists is around the late 1970s. So mostly her initial encounters are kind of restricted to the circle in the West Coast feminist consciousness-raising group, and feminist artists such as Judy Chicago. And so it is really interesting, I think there are a lot of points that overlap because I consider the feminist women’s liberation movement in the late nineteen sixties and seventies kind of a global phenomena. So they share a lot of concerns and interests globally, like a kind of sisterhood. But I think in terms of the specificity of Japanese feminism, Japan’s imperial past and neo-colonial domination in post-war society made a lot of feminists really self-reflexive about the presence of violence in so many forms. And Japanese women as an ethnic majority had to think about the presence of Korean women, Chinese women, and the issue of comfort women. So there are a lot of agendas shared by Japanese feminists concerning post-colonial discourse. But I think Idemitsu’s feminism and feminist intervention is somehow a bit different from those kinds of dominant discourses in Japan, in terms of geographical distance and in terms of the circle of community she was mainly engaging in. But later she started to collaborate with Japanese feminist artists, and there is a work called – I forgot the title, but there was a Japanese feminist performer, Yoneyama [Mamako], and she is actually a dance performer. So she collaborated with her later, I think in the early eighties. But in terms of feminist concerns, I think Idemitsu’s concern has been mainly in the power dynamics in the domestic sphere and how the patriarchy operates, like in between tradition and modernity, and so forth. So I think there are some shared agendas, shared interests, but there are some divergences and differences. So I think that’s really interesting to think about also, like the global configuration of feminism, and different formations of feminisms.

TW: I believe the film that Wakae was referring to is At Any Place 4, or something like that.

WN: That’s right.

MP: I have a question. So if you look at the films chronologically – and Toby, I have to add, thank you for breaking the chronology to insert Baby Variation. That’s kind of a breather. If her name wasn’t attached, I would think that the early seventies 16mm films were by a different filmmaker. So it’s kind of a double question. Did she keep working in 16mm also, later once she encountered video? And if not, is there an explanation for this kind of radical shift in the way her films look and feel?

TW: So as far as I know, and Wakae, please jump in at any time, the specific aesthetic that she has in terms of the television monitor. She approached the television monitor within the depicted frame of the narrative. And in her autobiography she mentions that she just had this thought about what it would be like, in line with her Jungian interest in the subconscious, to have a television that represents the subconscious. Very simple, nothing too fancy. She just wanted it to be there, and she wanted it to be plain and simple, not like a typical surrealistic painting in which you are fully immersed in a lot of these distortions. She just wanted it to be unwavering. As you see the eye, right, that’s basically what it’s supposed to be like to her. And I think from there, it developed on and she developed those narratives. But, sorry, a more direct response to your question, Michael, like what Wakae mentioned just now, a lot of her film works were based on shots that she was taking based on where she lived. So she has films called At Santa Monica 1 to 4, and At Yukigaya 1 to 2, in which she assembles the material that she shot where she was.

And I think it’s also very crucial to note that these films are not diaristic in any way, even though they could be, and this would be expected of a female filmmaker. And she didn’t really shoot a lot of film afterwards. So she did make a few trips back to America after she moved to Tokyo, but it was really for her children. I don’t think she was really thinking about it in terms of practice. And then only later on when her work was being shown in America does she get to go back again. She does have one work called My America, Your America in which she collaborated with a Japanese photographer who was assigned by Magnum Photos to go around America. But yes, I would say that Wakae’s description of it is pretty accurate in the sense that the filmic works are based on vignettes that she had from different places. Does that answer the question? Okay. How about the ladies in the front? I would love to know what you guys thought, how you felt. I mean, were you just, like, frustrated, or? [Laughs]

Audience Member #3: I forgot my question. I was taking some notes though. Oh, sorry. It’s not even – I shouldn’t even say.

TW: You can just share whatever you’re thinking, it doesn’t have to be fully formed.

Audience Member #3: Well, there was a name that you had mentioned, and I just took a note. You kind of said it a little fast, and I’m sorry, maybe –

TW: Shigeko Kubota? Nikaya Fujiko?

Audience Member #3: That wouldn’t be in here?

TW: No, none of the names I just mentioned are in there. Shigeko Kubota just had two major retrospectives, one at MoMA last year in July, and the other one that toured in Japan. She’s known for her video sculptures in which she plays video television monitors within wooden sculptures, because she wanted to decentralize what video looks like. And she was affiliated with Fluxus, like her husband Nam June Paik. And she’s also known for video poems, and as a result of her being educated in Japan but then living on Canal Street in New York, she was able to build all these connections between Japan and New York. But yes, her work is much more for the gallery context, right, because she wants us to focus on her works as art objects.

And I mentioned that also because with Idemitsu’s work, in terms of thinking about aesthetics, there’s so much open possibility. We can speculate – I think it’s a fruitful speculation as to how her work reads in different contexts, because this is only the second time that I’ve seen her work on a large screen. And even though it was mainly circulated through the film festival circuit, like Wakae mentioned, she received acclaim in French film festivals. But I don’t know how you guys felt watching it today, and like how tight a lot of the shots were in that proportion. As far as I know she never was able to show these works on a television screen, but as of late there have been different galleries – there’s one in Berlin that has tried to sell her work as exhibited on a television screen. And so I think that that really adds to what we might consider the media specificity of artworks. 

MP: So that’s about all the time we have. Thank you Toby and Wakae.

TW: Thank you so much for coming.

WN: Thank you so much. 

Presented by South Side Projections, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago with generous support from a Title VI National Resource Center Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.