Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Screening of Tokyo Journey in Moscow

The first public screening of  the film "Tokyo Journey" took place in Moscow on the 25th January 2017. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the screening partly because the film is not exactly standard fare and the audience was made up of mostly people involved in teaching and disseminating traditional Japanese culture and Japanese Culture in general.
Several experts and specialists were in the auditorium and I was very much aware of their presence. There is not much more guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of you than watching your own film at a public screening.
Still from the film "Tokyo Journey"


The film was included in an event which was part formal, part informal and included a number of other elements of which Tokyo Journey was a part. The most difficult thing was trying to explain and introduce the film and then comment afterwards to a Russian audience. Talking direct to the public in the Russian language is not something I have done before so it was definitely another first for me.

I needn't have worried too much as the film was very favourably received and the context in which it was presented turned out to be successful. What struck me most was that apart from the overall theme of the film how much more the audience got from the film. One person praised the film not just because they liked the film themselves but that they could show it to relatives and friends as a way to draw them into the world f Japanese art and culture as the film would make it more accessible to them. They cited the non traditional approach that Tokyo Journey takes.


Photograph by Regina Tukaeva
Photograph by Regina Tukaeva
Photograph by Regina Tukaeva

One of the  highlights of the presentation was at the end of the film. I cut a new version so that the music continued after the film was finished. The auditorium remained in complete darkness as the music continued. A shadowy figure was ushered onto the stage indistinguishable from the darkness. Within a few seconds I switched on the twin spotlights in the auditorium to reveal the figure in red as if it had stepped down from the screen onto the stage. It was a powerful moment which design electrified the audience as they had no expectation of what was about to happen. The scene was suddenly transformed from a film to a piece of performance art. On this occasion the costume and theatre designer and designer of this costume, Elena Basova, also on this occasion took on the role of the figure in red.  The photographs taken by Regina Tukaeva  gives an idea of the effect produced. 

The figure in red plays a special role in the film. How did it come about. Firstly it is worth explaining  some of the background to the decision to use the costumed figure. When I was I child I was taken to a children's theatre along with a group of other children. One of the acts was an actor dressed in a normal suit but also dressed in another costume on top of the suit like an octopus with tentacles and with lights attached to the ends of the tentacles. The actor danced around screeching something and if my memory serves me well, he was supposed to be some kind of alien from another planet. At six years old I did not understand the difference between real life and theatre. I was terrified by this apparition and sat in horror in the darkness while all the other children laughed and seemed to understand what was going on . Even when we left the theatre and sat in the cafe with our parents,  I could hardly speak with shock. 


Many, many years later I am sitting in a small dark theatre in Moscow. As part of the show several figures emerge into the auditorium passing among the spectators. A figure in a sweeping red costume and white pale mask - like a mask from Japanese Noh theatre approaches me, coming right up to my face, the empty eyes and sterile mask seem to look right through me and beyond as if I am transparent and I am gripped by the same fear as I once experienced in that theatre as a child so long ago, although this time I understand the difference between theatre and real life, or I think I do. The figure in red passes me by to haunt another spectator behind me but the fear and coldness remain, my emotions tingling with a indeterminate sensation.

Still from the film "Tokyo Journey"
I never forgot the experience and upon our return from long sojourn in Tokyo I resolved to use the image in a short film about Tokyo.

Tokyo is one of the most contemporary cities in the world - anybody who has spent time there can testify to this but it is more. The buildings are ultra modern like 3D ciphers. At night they glare like neon hieroglyphs glaring from the facades of the glass and LED screens, sending messages across the night sky turning night into day. 

Noh dramas give a whiff of this other world and how it can creep up on you. Usually the waki, an itinerant monk, old man or traveler meets a local person whom he questions about the history of the area. As the conversation continues and the waki draws out the shite’s story it gradually becomes clear that the shite is the ghost of a historical figure who is still clinging to this world either through desire for revenge or anger,or a desire for love. The ghost often asks the waki to pray for them to be released so they can be reborn in the Amida Buddha’s western paradise.
The swirling neon dream world of Tokyo with its episodic visual context opposed to the spatial coordinates that we are normally used to in most cities, disrupt the senses which feast on the abundance of light which subvert structure and the visual plane. In fact such categories have no meaning in night time Tokyo. The city-scape of Tokyo is a text-scape an anti landscape. The city, a symbol which stands for something but also has its own intrinsic meaning- an hieroglyph.
We live in the age of light and nowhere is light, luminosity, a feature of the urban landscape as it is in Tokyo – it flows around and through the city like a liquid radiance. The Quintessential city of light its neon landscape casts a luminous dome across the night sky turning dark night into a phosphorescent panorama. This urban phenomena of the night is reminds us of the ancients of Japan who feared the darkness and longed for the dawn, for the comfort of clear light, for the sun goddess Amaterasu to remain.
The film Tokyo Journey  forms a journey through the streets and known regions of Tokyo revealing anomalies which occur at boundaries which separate the apparent from the real and the interface between the sentient world and a seemingly hidden non sentient world
Its a phenomenon which occurs everywhere in Japanese literature. Murakami in Kafka on the Shore explains that The Tale of the Genji is filled with living spirits which could sometimes travel through space often unbeknownst to themselves.
The world of the grotesque is the darkness inside us, what could be called our subconscious which was obvious to people at that time and gave a focus for their fears. Until the invention of electric light the world was in darkness, the physical darkness and the darkness of our souls were mixed together with no boundary between them. In their past living spirits of literature such as Ueda Akinari who wrote “Tales of Darkness and Moonlight” living spirits were both a grotesque phenomenon and a natural condition of the human heart and people of that time were unable to conceive of these two things as being separate. However the darkness in the outside world has vanished but the darkness in our heart remains just as before. It remains sunken in our subconscious and as Murakami points out that estrangement can create a deep contradiction or confusion inside us.
The literary and artistic context is what interests us here not whether spirits exist or don't exist. We have already touched on Noh drama and its use of a spirit to tell a story. The spirit is merely a device for taking the reader into  a spiritual realm which is neither the everyday world or the world of superstitions but is a realm of knowledge which might be related to some kind of archetypal substrata of human experience which might be termed aesthetic or poetic.
There are parallels in western literature: for instance Dante in the Inferno meets Virgil in the forest who seems to beckon to him. Dante asks whether Virgil is human or a shadow. Virgil answers that he was once human and from this point he takes Dante on his journey though the inferno and purgatory and finally to paradise. 
The ghost in Hamlet - Russian film version 1964
Hamlet confronts the ghost of his Father, the ghost in fact could be considered the main character in Hamlet as without him there is no play, Hamlet would never have been able to understand what was going on or what had happened if the ghost had not revealed it to him and changes everything including Hamlet's consciousness. Hamlet only confirms the secret knowledge through a piece of theatre in which, using the traveling players, he reveals that which cannot be seen or accessed by the senses, that about which he has only an hypothesis formed by a message from a spirit. This kind of knowledge cannot be confirmed with facts but through a theatrical device Hamlet reveals a truth which turns the world upside down for him and for us. Hamlet begins to explore the darker parameters of his own and others consciousness and at times gets lost in his own manipulations. It is the ghosts appearance at the beginning which holds things together and to which we return for reference and hovers always in the background, haunting the play. In fact we might think that the ghost is manipulating Hamlet. In the Russian film version this is hinted at when Hamlet stalks the ghost before confronting it. This stalking is repeated in the scene where the traveling players re-enact the murder of the King. Hamlet "stalks" the reactions of his uncle and Mother.

To further relate this idea to Tokyo Journey, the ghost in Hamlet appears in full armour,(certainly in the Russian film version of  1964) which contains a guise which is both familiar and distancing. Inside the armour we know is an actor a human being. The armour is a mask which draws us in but also distances. Similarly, the costume and mask in Tokyo Journey contains an actor but distances us from reality, so that the borders are blurred between reality and fantasy. The mask alerts us to the fact that the visual surface of what we see in Tokyo, or any other city, hides other layers - historical, cultural and social - that the beauty or ugliness of Tokyo is not the only question we should be asking ourselves.

Many thanks to Regina Tukaeva for permission to use photographs from the screening.

Information about Elena Basova's "Театр Потеряного Времена" (Theatre of Lost Time) can be found here

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