by Andrea Grunert
To Takahashi Tetsuya
The Lichtblick Cinema in Berlin was the location for a screening of films by the Japanese filmmaker Shichiri Kei. Once Upon a Dream (2007/2016, 80 min.), Necktie (2019, 15 min.) and Music as Film (2014, performance version with reality voice-over and remix) were shown on 3 March 2020 with the director himself present. My interest in his films was aroused a few years ago by the cinematographer Takahashi Tetsuya, one of Shichiri’s faithful collaborators. Unable to travel to Tokyo, the screening in Berlin was for me the first opportunity to finally discover a small sample of his work. I do not live in Berlin, but I seized the opportunity to attend the presentation of three films by Shichiri Kei, and my decision to do so turned out to be the best I could have taken.
Shichiri does not like genre categorizations and indeed, his films combine multiple elements, making a classification difficult. However, Once Upon a Dream and Music as Film in particular go beyond the conventional storytelling that most filmgoers are used to. Shichiri creates complex works relying on association and dissociation. The experimental character of his films requires considerable attention from us viewers, an attention which is, however, rewarded by deeply felt emotions, in the best case leading to understanding and insights. I have been in very high spirits since the evening at the Lichtblick Cinema, as if under the (very positive) spell of the films, and they continue to provoke new questions. Questions about the medium itself, about representation and perception and about the very essence of the images which continue to haunt us in a world that is flooded with images and sounds and in which digitalization offers new creative possibilities but also sets many traps. Shichiri’s work questions anew the very nature of the relationship between image and reality.
Once Upon a Dream
Once Upon a Dream is inspired by a manga in which the characters were represented. In Shichiri’s film, human bodies are almost totally absent. There are just a few shots in which actors are framed, and where they are framed, their bodies are fragmented or stylized. A young woman is filmed from behind, and in a series of more general shots, the woman appears in a view of a landscape as a miniature figure in a wide empty space. Or, we see parts of the human body such as hands. It is the human voice, detached from the body, which is at the very core of Once Upon a Dream, a film reminiscent of films by Marguerite Duras, a writer and filmmaker Shichiri is indebted to as he told me in a short improvised interviewii. However, in Shichiri’s work it is the voice that makes human presence strongly felt.
Once Upon a Dream is a cult film in Japan, where it receives annual revivals. On the 10th anniversary of the first screening, it was remastered in surround sound. The voice-over is not a commentary but an interior monologue, a stream of thoughts, memories, impressions. There are also dialogues between a man and a woman. And there is an inner confrontation with scary voices which haunt the woman and to which she refers in her monologues and in the dialogues. We listen to the sounds of the nature – the chirping of birds – or to a train passing by. In some sequences, the surrounding sounds of the natural or the urban environment are faded out, whereas the voice-over continues. Long stretches of landscape shots or street views are accompanied by music. Sometimes, a second soundtrack is audible in the background while we can still hear the voice-over. This complex approach to sound is mirrored by a similarly complex treatment of image: dissolution, fragmentation, subtle contrasts between light and shade. The blackness of the first shot is transformed by the light of a sunrise, with the branches of trees appearing as dark silhouettes set against the pale blue of the sky. The image of the tree emerges before our eyes while we listen to music and to the sound of a passing train – a reminder of the urban world, which is then revealed after a sudden cry by a female voice puts an abrupt end to idyllic feelings. The interior shots of a small flat – bedroom, tiny bathroom – suggest the everyday life of a woman, who is framed from behind while smoking a cigarette. The sounds and images of the most banal objects – a toilet, for example – are frequently used throughout the film. Spaces of daily life – the flat, empty streets, various rooms in a school in which the woman and the man work – are framed by the camera while the voices evoke memories, fears, dreams. The images of material objects collide with thoughts about love and work, insanity and death, revealing Shichiri’s interest in the subconscious. Our brain is not focused on a single object or space that is captured by the camera. Instead, thoughts and the spoken text drift away from the immediate environment, as if on a different track. Through dissociation of image and sound, new imaginary spaces are filled in us, the viewers, by our minds and emotions. There are also moments of light relief, such as the shots of the ashtray with the picture of a black cat and “le chat” (French for “the cat”) on it. This picture of a cat is an almost comic reference to the cat which lives in the woman’s flat and which appears frequently in the film and can even be seen in a photograph next to the toilet.
Once Upon a Dream is also a work on perception. Hands, the topic of the interior monologue and/or dialogue, are shown in close-up, revealing the way we perceive ourselves and our environment. Shichiri recalled during our short interview that he was reflecting here on human vision. Our field of vision is limited and our perception fragmented, which is one of the reasons why he avoids a representation of the human body in this film. However, Once Upon a Dream is not an abstract construct. Voices and images create strong feelings. The absent-present characters behind the voices express feelings which point to a descent into madness, for example the woman’s fear of waking up. Love, fear, madness, death are the topics of the spoken text, and they are conveyed by the emotions evoked by sound and image. Shichiri told me that his approach to reality is via the fantastic, and Once Upon a Dream shows that he does not need special effects to demonstrate that reality is a complex entanglement of images and sound, everyday impressions and poetry, material reality and the subconscious, the visible and the invisible.
In Once Upon a Dream the boundaries between reality and dream are blurred. Dream establishes a link between this film and Necktie, in which dream is an essential part of the narrative. This short film combines the search for a missing woman with the exploration of identity and desire. The search leads a man and a woman through the streets of Tokyo into a district which does not figure on any map, and the film becomes a journey into the subconscious. A young woman offers a necktie to a stranger whom she meets in a café, asking him to look for a friend of hers who has gone missing and who obsessively stole the ties of random drunk strangers. The physical object “tie” literally creates a tie between them, influencing the man’s behaviour and self-image. The theme of the film Necktie had a number of sources, as Shichiri explained to me. He did research on the origins of the garment in 17th century France, was inspired by the importance it had for Oscar Wilde, and was further motivated by an anecdote told to him by Takahashi Tetsuya concerning a love story in which ties played a crucial role. During the Thirty Years’ War, the knotted handkerchiefs worn by Croatian mercenaries aroused the interest of young Louis XIV. These cravats were presents given to the soldiers by their wives or lovers as protection, and they also served as a means to identify the dead on the battlefield. In these sources, ties have a dramatic function or are related to identity, and Shichiri explores both aspects in his short film, which is infused with mystery.
Music as Film
The key-figure in the third film is Salome. The voices revolve around the figures of a mother, a daughter and an absent father, whose identities remain as unclear as their relationship to each other. The relationship is as dreamlike as that between the man and the woman behind the voices in Once Upon a Dream and the relationship between the characters who appear in Necktie. “Cinema made from sound” is a project on which Shichiri has been working since 2014. At the Lichtblick Cinema, the composer Adachi Tomomi performed the live act that accompanies parts of the film.
One of the key questions Shichiri asks in this film is: How are images transformed under the impact of changing music and sound? On the soundtrack, a number of voices recite and sing, and during a live performance, a variety of sounds created by the human voice and by electronic devices are added to this soundtrack of recorded music, sounds and voices. Two stories are narrated separately but simultaneously, one in sound, the other in images. The recorded voices relate the story of Salome as interpreted by Shichiri, and images of landscapes and objects intersect with text. The written words of this text refer to the history of the cinema and its evolution towards the digital era. Shichiri told me that he started thinking about changes to the image as a result of digitalization, which for him represents the greatest change in film history. He compares the digital image with aliens taking on human form in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (USA, Donald Siegel, 1956), the digital image looking like the real thing but differing from the original in significant details. It is a fake image, shallow and devoid of essence.
To approach this topic and the questions it raises, Shichiri goes back to the very beginning of filmmaking, showing in a fascinating way that film was never silent, that there was always musical accompaniment or surrounding noises. He does not need to explain this in words, and instead demonstrates it by means of a polymorphic soundtrack and sound environment and the association of images with written text. Here again, he makes use of dissociative as well as associative elements. Image and sound seem separated but are also closely connected, as if allowing the viewer to “listen to the image” (a phrase that Marguerite Duras used). Shichiri explained that the idea of connecting the Salome motif with reflections on the infancy of the cinema was born when he learned about Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, premiered in Paris in 1896, a few months after the first film screening by Louis and Auguste Lumière.
In our conversation, Shichiri emphasized that Salome is a prominent figure in 19th century literature and art, inspiring Heinrich Heine and Oscar Wilde as well as painters such as the French symbolist Gustave Moreau, whose painting “Salome” (1876) was the inspiration for Wilde’s play. According to Shichiri, the figure of Salome is closely connected with the birth of the cinema, and this connection is illustrated in the film not only by historical facts but also by allusions. One of these is expressed by the idea of the cut, and there are several references to cuts. In one sequence a male head is displayed on a concrete block near the sea. During the screening, I could not help associating this image of Jokanaan’s head with the process of editing, or “Schnitt” (cut) in German. And Shichiri told me that he had indeed been toying with that idea. Editing is a very cinematic device which is omnipresent in the elaborate fragmentation operating at all levels in Shichiri’s films, and it extends well beyond the usual editing of the photographic and sound material to include sounds from the space in which the film is shown. Music as Film brings together the dramatic story of Salome, who seeks to possess Jokanaan with a different form of possession, which is discussed at a theoretical level and addresses the question of when music first came to film – a man (film) seeking to possess a woman (music). The ancient story of Salome, her desire, and the violence of the biblical tale confronts the written text on-screen referring to the emergence of cinema. The water – the ocean – is a reminder of birth and the womb. Shots of the roaring sea filmed from a cavern have an archaic quality and evoke the strange encounter between the ancient Salome story, which provided a topic for the arts – literature and painting – at the end of the 19th century, and the modern age with the emergence of the cinema, inventions such as the car, and the birth of psychoanalysis. And as we know, psychoanalysis relies on many images familiar from mythological sources and has given them new perspectives. Moreover, the symbol of waves on the surface of the sea reminds us that both sound and light are also waves, waves which are fundamental to cinema.
Music as Film presents a number of different layers of time which meet each other, fuse into each other or resist each other. Shichiri tells stories of creation in which film becomes the starting point to explore cinema and reality, image and sound. What we see – and the text points to this – are images. Shichiri’s work offers a concentrated, but necessary reflection on images and sound which requires intense sensitive and intellectual engagement but without ever forcing us, and we can nevertheless take pleasure in the harmonies and disharmonies of which all three films are made.
i)I would like to thank Professor Shibutani Tetsuya for his kind support. He not only suggested that I should present Shichiri Kei with a variety of questions but was also kind enough to act as translator.
ii)The interview which Shichiri Kei kindly agreed to give me took place on 4 March 2020 in Berlin and provided some important clues for this article, for which I am very grateful.