Skip to content

The Seen and The Unseen

Akira Tochigi


In the latest work, Kae, Act Like a Girl (1996), Idemitsu’s artistic ideas are brilliantly brought to fruition in both subject and technique.


The opening sequence of Kae has an especially strong impact. A group of art students, including Kae and Minoru, her husband to be, are having their work critiqued by a prominent teacher. The student works, which he inspects and criticizes harshly, are all represented by television sets. The teacher and students are looking at the tops of the monitors as they speak, but the screens, which we see but they do not, glow only with a uniform primary color, red, blue, etc. The actual works which are apparently under inspection are invisible. Whatever artistic expression has been created is invisible to a third party. The artists here are not capable of anything more than this. Kae, Act Like a Girl begins with this scene and follows Kae as she becomes an independent artist.

An interplay of the seen and the unseen, as shown in this example, gives a kind of skeletal structure to Idemitsu’s work. This has been the case since she first took up video and began using a television monitor within the picture, a technique uniquely suited to video.

anotherdayofahousewife_06The first such work was Another Day of a Housewife (1977), a video sketch of a housewife’s typical day in which a television set appeared in all the cuts. Throughout the work a large eye shown in close-up appears on the monitor. This device alone reveals the basic condition of the housewife, always watched by someone, living in the gaze of the other. One can imagine that this eye of the husband, children, parents, ultimately of society as a whole, but nothing other than the eye is shown, and the owner of the eye is unseen. It is impossible to tell whether it is the eye of a man or woman or what it is looking at. Furthermore, the heroine cannot see the eye and seems unaware of the existence of the monitor. There is a television set in the picture with an eye on the screen. That is all. A relationship between the seen and the unseen, the difference between actually seeing and imaging the unseen, is set up between the monitor and the scene outside it and between the overall video image and the viewer. As I see it, this sort of relationship and sense of difference was deliberately constructed by feminist films in the United States and Europe, beginning in the seventies, with the new visibility of women and sexuality. An American film scholar Teresa de Lauretis, in a discussion of a lesbian film. She Must be Seeing (1987) directed by McLaughlin, says that the director of this work, foregrounds, precisely, the question of what can be seen and the relations of seeing (and imaging) to “seeing” as imagining, the relations of spectatorship to fantasy, of subjectivity and desire to the imaginary — and in particular to the imaginary of cinema. “Film and the Visible” How Do I Look?: Queer Film and Video, edited by Bad Object-Choice (Bay Press, Seattle: 1991), p.228.

This viewpoint is indispensable in understanding Idemitsu’s work.
I saw Kae, Act Like a Girl on a video monitor using earphones rather than in an open theater, and I was especially struck by the use of sound. There is a variety of mechanical noise with little balance between right and left speakers. Idemitsu says that she designed the sound for this work to prevent the audience from identifying emotionally with events on the screen. When Kae and Minoru are painting, one can hear two separate noises like scraping on canvas. As Minoru’s canvas grows larger, the noise of his painting also goes up in volume. The balance between sounds changes as the story develops. Thus, there is a conflict between the “heard” and “unheard” as well as the “seen” and “unseen”. In Kae, Act Like a Girl,Idemitsu enters a new territory, the sexual politics of sound.

Akira Tochigi writes on film and is also a translator and interpreter who translates subtitles for films. At present he is translating a book on the production process of Roberto Rodrigues’s El Mariachi. He is also organizing a film festival introducing the work of a non-profit New York-based film distribution organization, Women Makes Movies, to be held in Japan next year.