Myth of the Heart
The Film and Video World of Mako Idemitsu
by Norio Nishijima
There is no doubt of Mako Idemitsu’s position as a pioneering woman artist in the field of experimental film and video. She is also an important precursor of feminist art in Japan, and in recent years she has become internationally famous for her series of narrative videos examining the psychological friction caused by the Japanese structure. It is necessary, however, to see her earlier films (about twenty-five 16mm films) in order to understand her video work properly. Beginning in the early seventies, she has worked in both film and video. She used a soft, delicate, lyrical style in many of her films, and did the narration herself in the films where words are included. An abstract film, At Yukigaya 2 (1974), frequently shows the images of tree shadows or the sky in natural light with sharp contrasts.
It is impossible to forget the poetic formal qualities of Something Within Me (1975), the observation of time in everyday life in At Yukigaya 4 (1979), and the use of shadows to depict of the state of mind of a mother whose children have grown and left the home in Tawamure to Kimagure to (Play and Capriciousness, 1984). Chichi no Jokei (Emotional Volatility about My Father, 1981) and Zawameki no moto de (Whispering Light, 1985), which depicts a mother’s death, are also important to an understanding of this artist. Referring to her frequent use of shadows, Idemitsu has written, “Light and shadow reflect my inner condition.” <1>
There personal films, formally well-constructed with light and shadow and containing the subjective gaze and narration of “self as speaker,” are very fine films, but they show important differences in form and content from the video works incorporating fictional dramas which the artist began making in the eighties. Both films and videos share a basic concern with encouraging greater awareness of women’s everyday reality, and clearly, this concern separates Idemitsu’s work from that of many other artists (women as well as men). However, whereas most of the films quietly and stoically portray the mental images of an individual “I”, the videos depict the emotion of fictional characters. They are aggressive, expressing extreme irritation, and the performances are exaggerated and have an obsessive quality. It is necessary to understand that these two, seemingly opposing, sides of the Idemitsu, are complementary, like substance and shadow or real and mirror images.
The most unique and original method in Idemitsu’s videos, her signature technique, is the prominent use of a television set within the video picture. She began to use this device consciously in Another Day of a Housewife (1977-1978). The artist commented at the time that her purpose in video was to “record the everyday and non-everyday experience of women and use it to explore the conscious and unconscious life of women.” She wrote, “As a housewife performs the set actions of her everyday routine, her own eye observes her from a portable monitor. Whether an interpretation is given to this or not is up to the viewer. I was interested in observing.”<2> This observing eye stands in for the act of the artist observing shadows, “the inner condition,” with a movie camera.
Another Day of a Housewife is a fictional diary, but the artist herself plays the leading role of the housewife (a specific role, not woman in general), so there is a danger of confusing the video story with her personal reality. Later on, the artist was to write. “While raising two children I became sick and tired of being a housewife. The endless repetition of each day. There was another me in the background watching me as a housewife. Who am I? What does life mean? I wanted to share these questions with other people.”<3> Obviously, separate elements of personal reality and general social conditions are mixed together in the artist’s mind. Coincidentally, this video work was made at the same time as the film At Any Place 4 (1978), which combined images of sky and shadows (reflections of the artist’s inner state) with the mime Mamako Yoneyama’s “Housewife’s Tango.”
While making personal films which depicted the artist’s own world, she eventually began to confront more general social issues in the fictional dramas of her video works. Beginning with Shadow Part 2 (1982), the inclusion of a television monitor in the picture provided an extra dramatic narrative element. It became a device for showing the leading character’s state of mind (or unconscious mind) from a separate “observing eye.” It is helpful in understanding this development to know that Idemitsu became interested in Jungian psychology at an early point in her career, and that titles of her works like Shadow, Animus, and Great Mother are key concepts in Jungian psychology. This psychology holds that images, rather than words or logic, govern the unconscious depths of the mind. The television set within the picture is a means for making these images visible, bringing them into consciousness in a dramatic way. Jung understood the subconscious images appearing in dreams as manifestations of various “archetypes,” and it is possible to see Idemitsu’s employment of narrative and the emergence of the video screen within the picture as ways of presenting the kind of mental images explained by Jung. <4>
Idemitsu’s feminist dramas, from Hideo, It’s Me, Mama and the Great Mother series<5> of 1983 to Kae, Act Like a Girl (1996), appeared at a time when “new narrative” was focus of attention in the field of video art. Idemitsu’s narratives were designed to create awareness of universal, symbolic relationships and structures rather than merely to relate particular stories or express the troubles and frustrations of an individual housewife. Although they may reflect her personal experiences, these works deal with universal stories that have the qualities of myth or, more accurately, folk tales.
Her methods, which include the intervention of a large foreign object – a television set – in the picture, show a Brechtian approach. She presents conditions which make the audience aware that they are watching a play rather than identifying emotionally with the drama. Some takes are quite long because two connected events are shown in parallel rather than in a linear narrative. A 20 minute work is often composed of 15 to 20 shots, a much smaller number than would be used in an ordinary movie. Another important feature of these works is the overtly critical stance taken by the artist. They are directly engaged in criticizing and fighting prejudice and conventional opinions as feel as recording and describing everyday events. They make viewers feel uncomfortable and angry, rather than encouraging them to sympathize, with the condition of women and the family structure in a male-dominated society. Idemitsu’s work is reminiscent of the video work of Goddard in its critical view of everyday life. Her aggressively critical video works show the reality behind the pathos of the business man, as performed by Issei Ogata taking feminist art in a new direction.<6>
In Kiyoko’s Situation (1989), arguably the best and most original of this series, the monitor occupies a large space in the picture like an intense obsession in the mind. It represents the great power that crushes the possibilities of the heroine as an artist, continually laying blame on her for not being a “good wife and wise mother.”
This is a story of a woman trying to become an artist but receiving no support from anyone around her, crying out in isolation. It is set at a time when all women were expected to marry and become full-time housewives. At one point during the story, the heroine reads a passage from a book: “I would like to vent the spite of others of my sex against arrogant men. The only area in which men are superior to gentle women is in violent power.” Her heart is mutilated, and the narrative of resistance ends with her suicide.
Idemitsu has been driven to continue making these critical dramas by a lengthy “battle with shadows” which includes many factors, the environment of her own home, the women’s liberation movement which she encountered while living in the United States during the sixties, her marriage, and identity conflicts as a housewife and artist and a Japanese living in the United States. To see her narratives in terms of simple realism would be to misunderstand her methods as explained here. Her themes, always set out against a background of reality, are mental images and myths of the heart (as seen by women). What is important about the story is not the development of the narrative, the suspense engendered by moving from cause to effect, but the larger relationships underlying the story, what is referred to as a “constellation” in Jungian psychology. At times, Idemitsu seems to be repeating similar stories with stereotypical characters because she wants to get back to the archetypal roles of women and of mothers and children in in Japanese society. This involves a difficult process of finding universal, archetypal stories (myths, folk tales, or children’s stories), and in this respect it is necessary to think of her approach in terms of Jungian psychology.
In her most recent work, Kae, Act Like a Girl (1996), the monitors in the picture show abstract images, single colors rather than images from the depths of Kae’s mind. The mental images shown on television set in previous works are projected onto other surfaces, the large canvas Kae is working on or the dishes she is washing in the kitchen sink, so they appear in an expanded format. The scene in which her husband’s canvas gradually takes over the space where the couples are working together is poignant but humorous. Unlike the tragic Kiyoko, Kae gets a divorce, makes a new start as an artist, and achieves a strong identity. This is new story with a more positive feeling than any of Idemitsu’s previous work.
<1.> Mako Idemitsu, comments on Zawameki no moto de (At the Source of the Disturbance), Fifth Experimental Film Festival, exhibition catalog, Image Forum Studio 2000, 1985.
<2.> “Sakuhin ni Tsuite (About My Work), U.S.-Japan Video Art Exhibition, exhibition catalog, Seibu Art Museum, 1980.
<3.> Mako Idemitsu, comments on Another Day of a Housewife, Video: A New World – Possibilities of the Medium, exhibition catalog, 1992, 0 Museum of Art, p.52.
<4.> The numerous books of Hayao Kawai provide an easily-understandable introduction to the psychology of Jung. For example, see Kage no Geshogakau (phenomenology of shadows), Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko, Mukashibanashi no Shinso (the truth behind old stories), Kodansha + a Bunko, Imeji no Shinrigaku (psychology of images). On the relationship of Mako Idemitsu’s art to Jungian psychology, see Aya Miki, “Naimen e no Tankyu” (Search for the Inner Side), Video Gallery Scan program, March-April, 1982. Idemitsu’s former partner, the American painter Sam Francis (1923-1994), often talked about the influence of Jungian psychology.
<5.> A three-part series: Harumi (1983, 13 minutes), Yumiko (1983, 23 minutes), and Sachiko (1984, 20 minutes).
<6.> While Idemitsu mainly depicts the tragedies of “good girls,” American feminist artists often present the self-expression of “bad girls.” Significantly, a retrospective exhibition of feminist art held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in the nineties was entitled “Bad Girls.”
Norio Nishijima is a film and video critic who teaches at Tama Art University and Tokyo Zokei University. He is especially interested in the use of photographic images as art in experimental films and video art. He is a regular Contributor to BT and Musashino Art and has published a book, Umaretsutstu Eizo (Emerging Film and Video), and translated a number of books including Film Workshop, Andy Warhol’s Films (Dagereo Shuppan), and Hidden Structures in Paining (Domeisha).