The Will of the Independent Filmmaker
Film Critic #22 From the monthly magazine Video Salon p.141-142, August 2005
In this column, I reexamine the significance of and intent behind films produced by individuals, while discovering pleasure and value in the creative act, and determining the influence of the work. Join me as I reappraise the role of independent filmmaking.
By Tadao Sato
Mako Idemitsu is one of the most notable independent filmmakers. After getting a hold of an 8mm camera while living in the U.S., Idemitsu began making experimental films as a night school student at the University of California in 1969, and not long after, started working in 16mm. In Idemitsu’s 1972 work “Woman’s House,” the camera seems to be licking the overly pretty and seductively decorated walls and staircase inside a house. We see a group of objects that resemble breasts attached to the wall and instantly realize, via the slightly creepy image, that the maker of this film considers the conditions for being a woman to be horribly oppressive. The lack of freedom and stifling air in this rich yet closed space are hugely suggestive.
In many of her later works, Idemitsu Mako deals with how women are raised to be “womanlike,” how good housewives are expected only to tend to the housework, and how wives, having grown disappointed with their husbands, create so-called “mother-complex” men by treating their sons as if they are personal possessions. These themes, which came to be Idemitsu’s main focus, are portrayed in a comical manner.
Idemitsu’s films never simply gloss over the subject; they are unapologetic and spirited statements. Further, her work doesn’t merely assert a viewpoint, but is important for the tremendously inventive methods Idemitsu has developed since her debut as an experimental filmmaker.
One of the devices used in experimental film is various forms of double exposure. In Idemitsu’s 1972 film “Inner Man,” the black-and-white image of a naked white man performing modern dance is superimposed on a color image of a Japanese woman dressed in a kimono performing a traditional Japanese dance. This seems to have been influenced by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed that masculine elements also exist in a woman’s mind. The image is interesting simply for its surprising combination and contrast, but can also be seen as a direct expression of the contradiction between the outer and inner self that dwells within every human being.As the title suggests, the video work “Another Day of a Housewife” (1972) depicts a routine day in the life of a housewife. What makes the work interesting, however, is the TVs that appear in every scene in the work, and the large projection of an eyeball that is shown on them. Is the main character under surveillance? No, this seems instead to be the character’s own eye watching her daily life as if to ask, Is this really okay? The eye gazes objectively at the self, which is unsatisfied with its situation, and continues to question it.
In the work “At Any Place 4,” the dancer Yoneyama Mamako sings and dances to a recording of “Carmen” in a scene that is superimposed on a landscape. The lyrics of the song suggest an outright rebellion against the role of tending to the housework and raising the children that has been forced on women.
In the early phase of her work, when Idemitsu produced strongly experimental films containing elaborate and radical imagery, there is a tendency to create symbols for women’s feelings and moods using images such as unsettlingly red levers, groups of writhing snails and rose petals that are plucked off and grouped together with pins. When Idemitsu began to work in video, however, she started to make satirical works that included dramatic elements along with the suggestive and symbolic imagery, and criticize the suppression of women in a male-dominated society with more straightforward dialogue.
Despite the dramatic elements, by using the experimental technique of placing TV monitors within the frame, Idemitsu depicted the words and actions of the person within the character, and in each successive work tried to use an additional device of this kind. The technique functions as an inner dialogue and indicates contradictory feelings in a character’s mind.
For example, in the 27-minute, 1983 video work, “Hideo, It’ Me, Mama,” a housewife watches video tapes of her son’s life on a TV all day long, speaking to the screen image and serving him meals as if she were making offerings to the portrait of a deceased person. It is an intense and masterful portrait of a woman who is driven to the point that she has nothing in her mind except the desire to keep her son beside her like a pet.
In the three-part video, “Great Mother (Harumi)” (1983), “Great Mother (Yumiko)” (1983), and “Great Mother (Sachiko)” (1984), Idemitsu emphasizes the seemingly limitless violence of the words that the mothers use to force their daughters to fit inside the mold of “womanliness.” Phrases like “act like a girl” and “you’re a woman, so…” are widely used in daily conversation, but in Idemitsu’s work the terrible aggression and force these words contain is vividly expressed. The power of the words makes the daughters lose heart, but on the TVs that also appear in the frame, the same women are expressing a different sentiment. It isn’t only the mothers who are trying to suppress them; the teachers and critics are also involved. “Kae, Act Like a Girl!” (1996), which is considered to be Idemitsu’s most important 16mm work, trenchantly portrays how an aspiring painter is addressed in an utterly discriminatory way by teachers and critics simply because she is a woman.
There haven’t been many female directors in Japanese film history, particularly in the field of drama. There have been male directors who portrayed women sympathetically or made an effort to understand them, but films like Idemitsu Mako’s, which so nakedly and vividly depict how much suppression, discrimination and personality distortion are involved in being a woman, are simply not made. Though there are a fair number of female novelists and screenwriters, there is no precedent for a female artist such as Idemitsu Mako who has expressed sustained anger toward male-dominated society. The reason for Idemitsu’s singular standing is her attempt to use her own experiences as a housewife as a foundation for her work.
Idemitsu Mako’s work has received international acclaim, and has been shown as part of solo exhibitions and talk events at a host of venues including Image Forum in Japan and the Museum of Modern Art in the U.S. In this respect, Idemitsu is by no means an amateur, but that isn’t to say that she makes films which are commercially successful and shown in regular movie theatres or on TV. Yet, it is for this very reason that she has been able to make works that genuinely try to integrate the silent voices of many fulltime housewives, and freely develop the experimental device of simultaneously expressing stated reasons and real intentions by placing TVs within the frame.