Writers Abroad I
In Search of the Japanese in Me
I spent ten years of my childhood in Japan, but I grew up as a typical Kobe gaijin, a foreigner living in the international port city of Kobe, never learning Japanese in school, but only basic spoken Japanese, and spending much of my time in an international environment. Yet surrounding me was every aspect of Japanese culture from the ofuro bath and tatami floor in a Swiss-style mansion to the constant exchanges of gifts and ingrained sense of reciprocity in social relationships. These things were normal and natural, as were the plastic food replicas in the restaurants or the crowded trains, and never cause for alarm, categorization into Western or Japanese, or any sense of ‘otherness’.
I would sneak off to see American or French movies, and had a passion for drawing fashions and writing poetry and diaries, and in my Senior year in High School (Canadian Academy) discovered theatre, but we were doing inane British or American comedies. Then I had a nisei (second generation Japanese American) English teacher from New York who had come back to discover his roots. He took us to Kabuki for the first time and it blew my mind. He had us write haiku and poems on ‘belling deer’ and ‘morning glories’. Then fed up with our ignorance and puritanism, he ran away from school and found a music and dance teacher in Kyushu. I worshipped him. Before that my awareness of Japanese art had been confined to flower arrangement and Buddhist art in neighborhood temples, yet I was constantly surrounded by it in the everyday – packaging and presentation, architecture…
Last year I spent some time writing a partly autobiographical script and sorting out some of these early influences on my perception. This was partly prompted by comments I have often had that there is something very Japanese about my films, aside from the content.
There are two things in particular that struck me:
One was that I was constantly returning to a disjunction between sound and picture in the script, even though I had not thought consciously of using non-sync sound, as I had done in my six first films because I was filming entirely alone. And yet in scripting there was a split between the content of image and that of the diary voice-over, setting up a tension between the two. In the script it was an expression of dislocation, or incongruousness: the Norwegian family and American influenced school life reflected in the diary against the images of Japan or current events of the time on the other: a sense of being there but not there at all, and yet together they were an experience of post-war Japan of the fifties.
This disjunction between sound and image occurs in Effacement, a film about a Noh mask maker, where the sounds from each stage of the wood carving are heard at a different time from when seen in the picture, but every stage has been seen, thus creating an echoing effect.
I made an early film on Judith Wright and someone commented that it had something Japanese about it. I couldn’t work that out. A film about an Australian poet in her bush environment. Other than that Judith’s daughter who lives in Kyoto and is an expert on the poetry of Miyazawa Kenji, had said she had to have orange or saffron curtains because of being partly Buddhist, I couldn’t see it.
But there is in that film as in other documentaries a tendency to forego the linear narrative in documentary and search for poetry as a model for documentary, using repetitions of images, or ones that have an echoing effect, that give a sense of rhymes or rhythms. There are cross-references or ‘ghosting’ throughout the films. Some prefer to see them as circular in structure.
In the sometimes disconcerting shifts in time and space there may also be an influence of Japanese theatre. When I returned to Japan in 1969 as a graduate student to study theatre, for a while I had a passion for avant garde theatre: those were the early days of Terayama Shuji’s Tenjo sajiki, the tent theatre of Kara Juro, and others. My other passion was Noh theatre and masks, which focus on one single strong emotion, and generate a high level of tension, yet a sense of detachment.
Another tendency I am aware of in my work is to search for what I will call a ‘pillow image’ – similar in some respects to the concept of the ‘pillow shot’ in Noel Burch’s analysis of Ozu. It is an attempt to find the image that provides these echoings and ghosting, cross-references to other parts of the work, or even conjure up associations with something outside it, but images that say it all. In a recent film, Pre-occupied, which I directed for the Victorian Women’s Film Unit, it was a final close-up of a child’s hand putting yellow leaves into a woman’s red sandal. It had no logical explanation.
Excerpt from a speech on a panel of Australian and Japanese women artists,
“Continuum 1985”, Melbourne, on the impact of Japan on creative approaches.